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Friday, October 30, 2009

Therapeutic Riding and Driving

My Grandpa told me a horse would cure all that ails a person. Golly, that man was a sage. I have been cured by horses of so many otherwise incurable maladies: childish pride, broken hearts, loneliness, and PMS, to name but a few. So discovering that there was an equine curriculum for treating individuals with disabilities was no surprise to me. If you have been reading about Jennifer in the last two blogs, you know what a deeply personal journey therapeutic riding has been for me.

I have witnesses individuals achieving goals with the aid of horses none other thought possible: greater balance and coordination, improved cognitive functioning, enhanced speech skills and so many others. I could fill a book with stories about these things, but this is a blog. Blog. Blog. Blog.

So, I will describe why therapeutic riding is so important to the individual with disabilities. The horse moves in a three dimensions: side to side, back and forth and up and down. As a treatment modality, it is unmatched. The rhythmic, cyclical motion normalizes arousal states for improved cognitive function, at the same time stimulating muscles for improved physical functioning. It has been documented that there is no system in the human body that is not impacted positively by the movement of a horse.

Therapeutic driving is an equally impressive anecdote to aid in functioning for some of the same and other reasons. Driving a horse can enable an individual with, say, spina bifida to be just like everyone else. It levels the playing field. Learning to judge speed and distance is an important activity of daily life [ADL in occupational therapy-speak]. Driving provides multiple step directives for developing memory. Plus, it is a blast.

But, by far the most important, in my mind, is the spotlight on the emotional functioning of these individuals. Anyone who loves a horse needs no further explanation. Anyone who has ever cuddled with Ace or looked into Don Pecos' eyes, or been body hugged by Kitten, will understand this. The very first positive impact I witness is an immediate increase in self esteem. When I see those eyes sparkling, I know the client can do almost anything I ask. And if they can't, they try and try and try.

Almost every spectacular goal accomplished in my therapeutic riding career can be directed to the beginning of self esteem. If an individual is challenged either physically or cognitively, they find an alternate route toward discovering their potential through a belief in themselves. Therapeutic riding can not make the blind see. But that doesn't stop me saying to a blind rider, "Do you see?", nor belie their response, "Yes. Yes, I do."

Therapeutic Riding or Driving is important for my own functioning. I have learned to 'see' things from multiple levels: the client with an IQ of 19, the client with autism, the client with paraplegia and that has made me a more effective teacher, trainer, coach and friend. I have learned many things from my therapeutic clients, not all have been easy, some have been hilarious. All of them have been received with gratitude.

It always comes back to the horses. The cure for whate'er ails ya.

Kind Regards,
Michelle Blackler
Serendipity is an Accidental Sagacity Corporation company.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Jennifer's Legacy, Part II

Throughout the summer of 1997, Jennifer rode weekly and made astonishing improvements. She learned to use the swinging gait of the horse to help right herself in the saddle. Her head, neck and trunk control improved while she was astride the horse. She even learned to sit the trot, which was her favorite thing to do. Panting volunteers reported that she sat up without much support from them at all. We were once again spellbound.

As summer drew to a close, I organized a demonstration for Jennifer and her riding abilities during the local 4-H show at the county fair. The crowd went through the usual cornucopia of emotions: gasping, incredulity, speechlessness, tears and finally wild applause for the little girl with cerebral palsy riding the beautiful Morgan horse.

The days of autumn finally turned too cold to ride and we all reluctantly retired until spring. Winter lingered on relentlessly that year. At every sign of thaw, I wanted to be on the phone to Jennifer’s mother, like a persistent playmate, asking if Jennifer could come to ride. One day, I couldn’t resist any longer. There was a long pause on the telephone. Jennifer’s scoliosis was no longer to be ignored and she was scheduled for surgery to fuse her spine. The procedure might mean Jennifer could not ride again. Winter might never end.

“But,” her mother reminded me, sensing my feelings of woe, “we’ve beaten the odds before.”

As the date for her surgery neared, so did foaling time. One week before her surgery, Jennifer came out to meet our newest arrivals. As with everyone and everything, the new born foals were mesmerized by her and we had to physically restrain a day old filly from climbing into the wheelchair with Jennifer. Jennifer's head fell back and her laughter filled the old barn.

I took some photos and dropped off a particularly adorable one of Jennifer and the filly to her house on Thursday before her surgery. She asked to take it to the hospital by spelling out the words on her talking tablet. I hugged her and told her I would see her in a couple of weeks. She sparkled back at me and I left to return to my chores.

The phone rang on Saturday night. It was my aunt, who had been engaged as part of a phoning tree. She was crying. “Oh, Michelle,” she said through her tears, “I’m so sorry, Jennifer is gone.” She had arrested during surgery and died.

It was dark outside. In the barn, the horses were breathing very quietly and were surprised to find me among them so late at night. I sat down on a feeder and began to cry. Topaz came up to me, put her muzzle to my cheek and inhaled my tears. The other horses gathered around respectfully and voluntarily attended to me, sharing my grief.

Jennifer’s hometown was made up of a population of about 2,000 people. Her wake was held in the high school auditorium, to accommodate a crowd of over 500. She was buried with a statue of a Morgan stallion and a lock from Topaz’s mane. Blue Bunny donated ice cream for everyone, which was Jennifer’s favorite, and we all, including the Blue Bunny executive, ate it without joy.

A very special stone memorial was chosen for her grave and Jennifer’s mother asked if it be possible to have it custom engraved with a picture of Jennifer and Topaz. At the unveiling, we released yellow [Jennifer’s favorite color] balloons and gazed in wonder at the likeness of the girl and the horse. “So long lives this, and this gives life to thee”, I thought with tears streaming down my face.

Spring passed, summer came, and still I was living in the darkness. The light had gone out of the world. I was still in the depths of grief and nothing, it seemed could move me. Just when I was feeling really sorry for myself, sitting on the back step of the house, watching the horses graze in the soft early evening light, the voice came into my head.

“Walk on.” The pronunciation and the voice were unmistakable, they belonged to Jennifer.

I jumped up and ran inside to call Jennifer’s mother. “I want to start a therapeutic riding program in Jennifer’s name, as a living memorial to her, so that other children could have the same chance Jennifer had to ride a horse. Will you help me?”

“When do we start?” she replied.

The next four years were filled with much laughter and a few tears. Starting a non-profit organization was a tremendous undertaking. Without the benefit of Jennifer’s immense charisma, it was sometimes hard to convince donors of its merit. But it was never difficult to convince the children and adults that came to learn to ride a horse for recreation and therapy that the program was worthwhile.

My own life took on greater meaning. I had lived so long without a fulfilling occupation that I had become disillusioned and somewhat bitter. When I found myself in a position to help other people, the entire process became therapeutic to me. I was ill less often. I had abundant energy. I worked seven days a week, often for 18 hours. Each morning I would bound out of bed and start all over again. It was a calling.

The stories of personal growth from clients and volunteers could fill pages, even chapters. The program that bore Jennifer’s name seemed to have a life of its own, a mission to inspire everyone to achieve their own personal potential. Most times, these changes would occur spontaneously, out of nowhere the realization would take hold. Sometimes, it would be as a result of months of coaxing, prodding and pushing. And other times, it would come quietly, serenely with a glow. The self realization saw many volunteers suddenly change jobs, leave bad marriages or go back to college. It was a whirlwind of the possible.

Life moves on in unexpected ways. The non- profit organization multiplied and divided and now there are several programs where once their was only Jennifer's. Her legacy still provides saddles and driving equipment to those with disabilities; other programs are staffed by former volunteers. I still work with the horses and teach children and adults with disabilities and without. I still hear, in the rustle of corn that surrounds the paddocks, the ethereal laughter of a little girl who altered my life by showing me how easy it is to make dreams come true.

Neither death nor change can deter the memories or the cognizance that all things are possible and it is within our power to realize them. That is Jennifer’s legacy. Walk on.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Jennifer’s Legacy, Part I

Jennifer and Topaz, 1997

The first time I met Jennifer, she was just a baby. My mother and I had gone to see her and her adopted parents, who had served as my own surrogate family during my last year of high school. Jennifer’s parents had taken me in when my family moved from our home to the city and I refused to go. They were a young couple, in their late twenties, and my life with them was a joy, my love for them was immeasurable. So, it was with great delight that I received the news of Jennifer’s adoption. I knew how badly they had wanted a child and their joy was tangible.

Jennifer was eight months old and just at the really adorable baby phase. Her proud parents gleamed. Jennifer was special. It was apparent that she had brought the joy her new parents had longed for and which I had longed for on their behalf. The visit made the world seem right, until my mother and I were in the car on the way home.

“There is something wrong with that baby,” my mother said.

“What on earth are you talking about?” I asked her impatiently. My mother had a gift for the macabre and her statement wounded my good spirit.

“I don’t know,” she said apologetically, “I just think something is wrong.”

We spoke no further of it, and I returned to my home in London. Several months later, she called me with the news that Jennifer had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Her prognosis was grim and the doctors had recommended to her parents that she be institutionalized. “Which, of course, you know, without me telling you, that they refused,” my mother added.

“Well, thank god she has the parents she does,” I concluded.

I heard only the worst of Jennifer’s progress over the next six years. She was confined to a wheelchair, was spastic in all her limbs, had voluntary use of only two fingers on her left hand and was non-verbal. Her parents became tireless advocates for the disabled, tried every new therapy and treatment known to man. Jennifer lived at home, and for all her disabilities, I knew that she was happy.

I returned for a vacation about the time Jennifer was seven. I spoke to her mother on the phone and she told me of Jennifer’s distinct love of horses. I don’t know what made me say it, but I immediately suggested that she bring Jennifer out to my parent’s acreage for a ride. My family had been breeding Morgan horses for some years and we had a beautiful bay mare with the soul of an angel. I guess I figured she and Jennifer would be a good fit.

My mother was shocked and horrified that I would even consider putting so frail a child, who could not sit up unaided, on a horse, least of all her favorite mare. “I’ll ride with her and hold her up,” I retorted. We battled it out, neither one giving in, until Jennifer and her family arrived for their visit the next day.

I had saddled up the mare, Topaz, and was working at the futile business of ‘wearing her down’. So intent on this was I that I had failed entirely to note the arrival of my friends, who stood along the fence watching me ride a mare with the indefinable spirit of a show horse. Suddenly, my idea didn’t seem so clever; how could I put a child on this mare, so full of fire and razzmatazz?

My awareness returned to the present and I saw a little child in a wheelchair, looking at me with a gaze I immediately recognized-that of a horse crazy kid. Her eyes sparkled and her mouth was wide open and a steady stream of saliva was trickling down her chin. Her head tipped back and a squeal of delight rose up into the branches of the old mulberry tree.

Whatever discomfort I felt at the sight of Jennifer and the reality of her disabilities was quickly overshadowed by Topaz’s fascination with her. When I rode the mare over to their group, she dropped her head and looked Jennifer in the eye. Jennifer reached out to touch her, awkwardly, with those two fingers of hers and Topaz moved towards the caress, only to find the child’s fingers up her nostril. The mare never moved her head and all the introductions were completed with Jennifer’s fingers up Topaz’s nose.

All of my concerns at that moment, dispersed. I instructed Jennifer’s mother to slowly raise Jennifer up to the saddle, where we arranged her in front of me. It soon became apparent that I was not going to be able to use the reins and hold Jennifer at the same time, so I renewed my faith and prayed to every god I could imagine and some that I made up, to watch over us. My prayers were answered.

Topaz lowered her head and walked, careful to support the awkwardness of both her riders. She took slow steps and made wide, gentle turns when I asked her with only my legs to guide her. I could not see Jennifer’s face, but I could feel her smile in my arms. Her mother and my mother were standing along the fence watching, both smiling, both with tears streaming down their faces. It was perfect, beautiful and profound.

It was so easy, so simple to make this child’s dream come true. The sheer impossibility of it, just vanished with the breeze, and so did Jennifer’s disabilities. What became increasingly clear to me was that the emphasis should be placed on what was possible. A seven year old child gave me a vision of what life could be, without a single word, but with peels of laughter.

It took me six more years to hear the call to action. Looking back, it was the first of several epiphanies directly involving Jennifer. I decided to take control of my life, moved back to America and started working full time with the horses. Jennifer was not far behind. I immersed myself in research about riding for the disabled and developed a pilot program for Jennifer, involving Topaz and several volunteers.

Again, it was easy. People got hooked. Their astonishment always gave way first to tears and then to abject joy in Jennifer’s presence. She had charisma that radiated off her in waves. One volunteer said, “When I leave here [after helping Jennifer ride] I feel like I can do anything!” We were all under the impression that we were helping Jennifer, when, in fact, I believe the opposite was true: Jennifer was helping us.

[To be continued...]

Monday, October 26, 2009

Chester Weber:Carriage Driving-Indoor Driving Trial

Indoor Driving Trials

This is something I have brewing in the back of my mind... The winter months in Iowa seem to go on a very long time and breaking them up with a spiffy trial like Chester Weber demonstrates in the above video would be quite exciting. Note: he traveled to Toronto from Florida. Iowa isn't that far away in those terms. With that new indoor facility at the Iowa State Fairgrounds...Winter is coming...

Kind Regards,
Michelle Blackler
Serendipity is an Accidental Sagacity Corporation Company.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What a Pony Taught Me

With Grandpa, Mimi and Taffy, 1966

When I was little, I had a pony named Flicka. I once went storming up to my Grandpa and told him I couldn't catch that stupid pony. He assured me the problem was there was no such thing as a stupid pony. He walked right up to her and put the halter on. Flicka was Grandpa's pony and she let everyone know this.

Flicka was designed to deter me from horses or to concrete my resolve. Isn't this what all ponies do? All little girls want a pony, until they get one and realize that most ponies consider the price of domestication a little too high and draw the line at hauling little children around on their backs. Who doesn't know the pony trick of the disappearing head with sudden stop. Or trotting along in a straight line and next being wrapped around a tree? Or the simple sidestep involuntary dismount?

In fact, most Flicka dismounts were involuntary. She did not discriminate: young, old, short, tall, she dumped them all. Even practised horsemen, especially the ones who bragged that they could ride that pony. Flicka loved dumping the braggards, usually in the first ten seconds. It was a sport to her. Grandpa was the only human being she never even tried to throw.

She came very close to killing me several times. But I got back on every time, because Grandpa made me. Somewhere along the line I got as stubborn as Flicka and I think by the time I was 10, I could stay on for as much as five or ten minutes at a time. But I could never catch her without chasing her all over the farm for half an hour. Every time she dumped me she ran off to find Grandpa, and shortly after, he would come leading her back down the lane, chuckling to himself.

I would inevitably be mad as a wet hen, stomping up the lane, ready to kill that pony. He would tell me if I could learn to ride this pony, I would be able to ride anything. So I got back on, got dumped, got back on, got dumped...I was going to ride that pony. Grandpa never told me the secret to riding the pony. He let me figure that out for myself.

After five years of spending more time on the ground than on Flicka, someone decided it was just too embarrassing watching me get dumped all the time and I got a horse, who was as sweet as Flicka was ornery. I loved Gypsy with my whole heart and soul and she never once tried to dump me. I spent many happy hours on her back, often with Grandpa riding Flicka next to me. I once asked him why Flicka didn't try to dump him. He just laughed and told me I'd figure it out someday.

When I was sixteen, I decided to take Flicka to the county fair and show her in halter. I had two other horses going and Grandpa told me I had no business taking Flicka because I hadn't been working with her enough. "Oh, Grandpa," I said. "It'll be fine." The evil pony, who never let me ride her, who hadn't been off the farm in 10 years, who hadn't been worked with enough won Grand Champion Pony. Grandpa threw his hat in the air and leaped up and down clapping and dancing around at the in-gate.

I never saw him be happier. It was a defining moment. I didn't know who he was more proud of: me or Flicka. But as I was handed a giant purple ribbon and an even bigger trophy, I looked at the pony and for the first time in our lives we agreed on something. Grandpa loved us both, it was something we shared. From that moment on, I never had trouble catching Flicka. I even rode her a few times without incident.

Working with horses requires a certain amount of determination and stubbornness, but those traits have no business on their backs, or while trying to catch them. The best tools for training horses are love and respect. Flicka taught me this. I didn't learn it easily, but she never gave up on me. I still have the trophy to prove it.

Bless the ponies. And the grandpas who love them.

Kind Regards,
Michelle Blackler
Serendipity is an Accidental Sagacity Corporation company.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Learning by Teaching: Carriage Drivng Aha Moments

I have always maintained that teaching carriage driving lessons helps me be a better whip. This weekend was another illustration of this concept. Micheal Scott, a fellow carriage driving competitor, came to Serendipity for a lesson. This was a wonderful opportunity to evaluate my teaching. Having a whip of Micheal's excellence as a student really challenged me.

We focused on body awareness and its relationship to bending in the horse. The first exercise involved snapping two lead ropes together, which I held pretending to be the horse while Micheal held the ends of the ropes as reins and pretended to drive me. With my back to him, I asked him to turn to the right or left and then I interpreted the turns by telling Micheal what my 'horse's' body would do.

We talked about how some cues of the inside rein made my shoulder come into my hip, which is the desired effect of bending the horse around a turn. We also discussed how much support was needed on the outside rein to support the bend, and I did my best to 'be the horse' and respond to each cue of each rein. This, of course was not a news flash to Micheal. But, when I asked him to participate in the turn by using his own body on the box seat to mirror the horse's through the turn, he said, "I never thought about that!"

Using only the whip's upper body [shoulders, arms and hands] to turn the horse will do the job. The horse will turn, and depending on the athleticism of the horse, they will turn ok, good or well. But adding a slight shift in the whip's hips and legs to the upper body, will allow the horse to turn better. Instead of making the horse bring its shoulder back to its hip on the inside of the turn with the former, with extra participation by the whip, the horse is allowed to bring its shoulder back to its hip.

This is something on which I base my entire philosophy of carriage driving and training. Don't make the horse do what you want it to do, allow the horse to do what you want it to do. Just make sure you are doing as much work from the box seat as you are requiring the horse to do. It is a partnership. Participate.

As I watched Micheal drive Don Pecos, I was able to further hone my teaching skills. I hope he got as much out of the experience as I did. Saying that, I might rue the day. It is hard enough to place above Micheal in the show ring. I might just have made that impossible. Oh, well. A big thank you to Micheal Scott for his belief in me as a teacher. That is what I'd like to be remembered as, after all.

Kind Regards,
Michelle Blackler
Serendipity is an Accidental Sagacity Corporation company.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Multiples: Carriage Driving Adrenaline

Bob and I hitched Don Pecos and Ace as a pair yesterday. It was overcast and cool, really cool and when Ace came leaping and jigging into the barn, I wondered if it was such a sage idea. When Pecos nearly flipped over backwards in the cross ties because Bob handed me a magazine [that had unknown to me, been possessed by a horse eating demon] and I walked up to him reading it, with a brush in my hand, Bob began to wonder about the sanity of the lesson.

But my boys are good boys and we had a blast. Because it was cool and the boys hadn't been hooked as a pair in a while, they were cranked. Bob has become enamored by high stepping horses and said they looked beautiful, despite the harness- a cut down draft harness circa 1937 and put to a John Deere green and yellow Amish forecart with a bus seat as the box seat. Hence, no photos of the event. The only way to go in regards to turnout is up!

The dynamic of this pair goes like this: Don Pecos does all the work. He pulls the whole shebang. Ace hangs back just short of draft, so if you aren't paying attention, you don't realized he is doing none of the pulling. He puts so much effort into not pulling, that you feel sorry for him. He paces, he racks, he does passage, he does piaffe, he canters in slow, slow motion. If you tell him to 'get up there' he does whatever gait he's doing higher- straight up and down. Then you laugh. While Don Pecos does all the real work.

Afterwards, I threatened Bob with a tandem lesson, but I think we'll wait until spring for that. Driving multiples is so much fun: twice the power, twice the rush of adrenaline. It was great. Bob did mention, however, that he had "got very attached to the view from the gig", and I assured him I'd get us a proper carriage pair vehicle in the spring. That's Accidental Sagacity Corporation- client driven business model, literally! First it was the gig, then it was driving the Pecos Ferrari, next thing ya know, the only thing good enough for Bob will be a coach and four. Bob, Martins are having a carriage sale this weekend...see wish list [roof seat break] on yesterday's blog...

Tomorrow, I go to Harold's to help him winterize his carriage barns. My colleague, Michael Scott is coming down from Minneapolis for a Body Awareness lesson on Saturday and I have some schmoozing to do at a party on Sunday. I will be staying in town on Sunday, so won't be back to the blog until Tuesday, but I should have some good fodder then. Have a super weekend, everyone.

Kind Regards,
Michelle Blackler
Serendipity is an Accidental Sagacity Corporation company.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

If I Had A Million Dollars

These are my Martin Auction "buys"...

If I had a million dollars

I'd buy a bunch of carriages at Martin's Auction this weekend. My friends Todd Frey and Mike Rider are going, lucky sods. But thankfully Harold Ault is not. You have enough carriages, Harold- and I will remind you of that again on Friday, when I'm on the carriage barn roof fixing it in the rain.

But still it is fun to talk about which ones we'd buy because we are not Todd Frey. Here is what I would buy, based just on the photos: one of the Breaks, the Spider [despite the condition of that top], one of the Kuhnles, and the yellow road cart next to the gigs. "But Michelle! What about the gigs?" I hear you exclaim. I have a gig, I'm not greedy. I do like the look of the first, dark Stanhope in the snow for those who want my opinion. I considered the T Cart, but Harold has one that is prettier and I don't want it if it isn't as pretty as Harold's.

Sleighs, sleighs, sleighs, I just can't get excited about sleighs. Harold's fault again, my first sleigh ride was in a Panel Boot Victoria sleigh put to Don Pecos and Ace, and I can't think anything could top that, so I am done with sleighs, unless I someday move to Wisconsin where I understand they plan to use them this weekend.

Road coaches and park drags- must be a man thing. I like them, but prefer a Break, don't need a coach, I'll leave it to the guys.

Go to: http://www.auctionzip.com/cgi-bin/photopanel.cgi?listingid=539225&feed=1 and tell me which ones you'd buy, if you had a million dollars.

Kind Regards,
Michelle Blackler
Serendipity is an Accidental Sagacity Corporation company.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Dancing around a Gig?

So many people come up to me and say, "I just love your carriage, I want one just like it!"

Hold on a minute, folks. Yes, my gig is great. It is not expensive, but it looks good. However, a gig is not for the faint of heart. It sits high, with a very low seat rail. Driving the gig is like riding saddle seat. You better be able to hold on. You better not take a hard turn on a hillside. You better hit a long bump with both wheels at the same time. Ask Harold Ault. His gorgeous Kimball Stanhope Gig ejected him in a water hazard. A gig is a fantastic vehicle and I love mine, but it is not a beginner's vehicle, nor a CDE ride.

Choosing a vehicle is a very important decision for a carriage driver. You can change horses much easier than you can change vehicles. It affects the type of harness you must purchase and the type of driving you do. I have hitched many horses to my gig and it has worked out nicely for me because I had a list of criteria before I decided on a vehicle. I like fancy horses, 14- 15 hands. I like slow, tight and precise. I am not faint of heart. I am a show off. So the gig fit.

I drove other vehicles before purchasing the gig. I hitched Major and Don Pecos to a top buggy and then a road cart. It was all wrong. It was like wearing Chanel to the State Fair: wrong. It was like driving a vintage John Deere tractor to Bike Night: wrong. I hitched Ace to the road cart and I know he resented it. I have seen other horses with the same look on their faces. They seem to be saying: It's Wrong!

So, determine what type of person you are, what type of horses you like and then talk to other people who have horses and vehicles you like. Remember also that the size and weight of the vehicle are of great importance and should be addressed in your wish list. My gig is much, much lighter than Harold's and only one of my driving horses knows how to really pull it.

If you've ever seen a horse that is too big for the vehicle, you'll know how silly it looks to out-horse the vehicle. I once saw a Friesian put to a drop front phaeton. The vehicle was too small and delicate and the horse, who was a great mover, looked clunky. Friesians are big horses with big personalities, they need a big vehicle to show them to their best advantage, not a girlie vehicle.

Mary Jo Stockman comes to mind as a wonderful example. She has two fabulous girlie vehicles: a wicker phaeton and a George IV, which she puts to her very feminine Morgan mare. She has a Friesian, too, that she puts to a dog cart. It wouldn't work the other way around. [I can hear Heart, her Morgan, now: "Don't you dare hitch me to that DOG cart."] Both turnouts are head turners and if Mary Jo could, she would show them in the same class and the judge would tie her with herself for first place.

I have been told that I have it easy with my Morgan horses, they are versatile and can go sporty and formal. Yep, it's true. I am spoiled. I like it that way! But, I am not going to say that you shouldn't hitch sport ponies to a gig, because I've seen it done very well [Ingrid Krause's Haflinger tandem to a lovely cherry wood country gig comes to mind]. I've seen Morgans who did not have the brilliance to horse a Spider phaeton, too. It depends on how you do it, but choose a vehicle that fits you and your horse's style, size and weight. Remember, a Fjord put to a nicely turned out natural wood vehicle is a lovely picture, and I've been beaten in turnout by them.

Plus, they have way more fun in cross country than I do.

Kind Regards,
Michelle Blackler
Serendipity is an Accidental Sagacity Corporation company.

Feeling Sentimental Accidental Sagacity

The seemingly random youtube posts are in fact an allegory. I have been in the Morgan horse world for over 30 years and all three videos are a sentimental sigh for me this morning.

When I was a teenager, I poured through copies of The Morgan Horse Magazine with the kind of vigor my classmates were giving Teen Beat. My pin ups were Fred and Jeanne Herrick, Elm Hill Charter Oak, Saddleback Supreme, Applevale Donalect, Lord Appleton. The Herricks ushered in a new phase of the Morgan horse, a push toward the refinement that was just in its infancy in the late fifties and sixties when the 1959 Morgan National footage was shot.

Fleetwing is now legendary for producing the kind of Morgans who stretched the breed into the show horses of today. His progeny had longer necks, higher action and exotic movement. Black River Major burst on the scene and stole top honors at every show on the east coast, as a two year old. You can see his attitude on the Fleetwing and Progeny video. Fred Herrick told me the Morgan horse adjective 'stretchy' was coined to describe Black River Major.

John Bulmer and his wife Angela Connor established the foundation Morgan Horse farm in England, on the banks of the River Wye in Herefordshire, where I have spent many an unforgettable sojourn. The natural, breathtaking beauty of this place is indescribable- no one ever believes me when I describe it, so I will just say, I am drifting off in my memories. It was here I first met Jeanne Herrick. It was John who took me for my first carriage drive, careening around the Anglo-Welsh countryside. I could sit and listen to John for endless hours.

I hope you enjoy these reflections and justify my sentimentality.

Kind Regards,

Michelle Blackler
Serendipity is an Accidental Sagacity Corporation company.

My friend, Johm Bulmer

The Major General's grandsire, Fleetwing and sire, Black River Major

Morgan National Archives

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Autumn at Serendipity

Time to concede that summer is over. I have started on a few interesting autumn and winter projects including a series of talks on carriage driving and some concrete plans with Harold for the T Cart. Many of these ideas and projects have been in the works for some time and I am excited to be moving forward on them. Expanding the carriage driving market in central Iowa is top priority of the big picture. If any of you have any ideas to help accomplish this, please let me know.

Those of you who participate in carriage driving know it is a balance of living history, art and sport. I was reading about the Lexington Combined Driving Event and would love to have representation in the future with a Serendipity team.

Dream big.

Kind Regards,

Michelle Blackler



Serendipity is an Accidental Sagacity Corporation company.

My All Time Favorite Fiddler

rock on autumn...

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Creating a Show Horse

As a trainer of carriage driving show horses, I am often asked, "How do you get that horse's coat so shiny?" "How do you get that horse to extend like that?" "How do you get that horse to bend like that?" I have a stock of answers, mostly involving variations of "Hard work." Usually the long answer is accidental sagacity.

Show horses are born that way. You can take the most beautifully bred horse with near perfect confirmation and put them in a show ring, but if they don't want to be a show horse, they won't. Conversely, a horse that falls a little short of perfection can be an unusually good show horse. It is a state of mind. Saying that, the trainer must be able to recognize the horse's potential and predisposition and then work to polish it.

Whitmorr Topaz is an excellent example. The dam of my finest show horses: The Major General, Don Pecos du Cheval and Chevals Topp Mentor [Ace], she was a very reluctant beauty queen. She did the job I prepared her to do, she did it well. But she didn't like it. She liked working with little kids, especially working on their self esteem. She didn't care to demonstrate her own in a show ring.

Major and Don Pecos are true examples of horses that were born to show. They thrive on it. They work hard at home to prepare. They never say, "Not Today." Their coats shed off all extra hair and they shine like burnished ebony and bronze. They walk with an air of superiority. The minute they get off the trailer, they are 'on'.

Ace is the created show horse. Like his half brothers, he works very hard. Unlike them, he doesn't believe it's all about him. He is a team player. As a horse trainer and not a soccer coach, this is a challenge for me. I have to make him believe it is all about him. I have to help him discover the superiority complex of the show horse.

"How do I do that?" Hard work. The accidental sagacity answer is: I tell him. Everything I do to train and condition him must revolve around convincing him he is a show horse, that he was born for this, too. When I start to see the elasticity show in his gait, I cheer. When he begins to float, I stand in awe and make sure he knows: "That's my Boy!"

Ace needs to know that he can be a 'good boy' in lessons and 'that's my boy' in the show ring. It is a different attitude, and not every horse can do both. Don Pecos struggles with this: But I am a Show Horse, not a Lesson Horse, he pouts at me, with the exception of his therapy role. Ace is looking at me saying: I am a lesson horse, do you really think I can be a show horse, too? All my skills as a trainer must respond, "Yes, Precious."

That is how I create a show horse.

Kind Regards,

Michelle Blackler
Serendipity is an Accidental Sagacity Corporation company.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Horse That Chooses You

Julie Dickie of The Morgan Horse magazine asked me to submit a short essay to support the breed magazine's new by line: The Horse That Chooses You. This is the submission that will appear in the October issue. Thanks to Jackie and the staff at The Morgan Horse and the American Morgan Horse Association.

The Major General [Black River Major x Whitmorr Topaz] Black Morgan stallion and his human, Michelle Blackler

The first time I saw The Major General, he stuck his neck [which at times seems to be retractable] out of his stall and stopped me in my tracks. He looked at me with a deeply penetrating sentience that said, “You are mine.” From that moment, I have belonged to him. Major is one part Medici, one part Mick Jagger, one part Charlie Chaplin, one part Edward Cullen. His beauty is defined by his sense of humor, his dorkiness, his athletic prowess, his creativity. Defying gravity with his frolicking or expressing his perfectly timed comic genius, I often believe my only purpose in life is to witness his virtuosity. To watch him play games [complete with structure and rules] with his first born foal or stand sentinel over his goats is like living alongside a legend. Thank you for choosing me, Major. You have made my life much less ordinary.

Michelle Blackler driving The Major General at the Harvest Moon Carriage Classic, Living History Farms, Urbandale, IA.

Kind Regards,

Michelle Blackler
Serendipity is an Accidental Sagacity Corporation Company