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Franklin Levinson's

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Riding vs bonding on the ground

Hello Franklin,

Spirit and I are doing well, considering the circumstances. I feel that we will be able to do much better once he is at Lakeside. I feel very sorry for Spirit, as he was outside full-time for the first five years of his life, and now he is in a stall most of the time. For some reason, at this barn they bring the horses in at noon! And I don't think they even get turned out every day. I saw Spirit while they were bringing him in one day, and he had such life and exuberance after being out in the pasture. I know that he loves it, and I find it cruel that they allow him so little time outside. I have talked with them about it, but I can't be there very often because of the distance and I can't change the way they run the barn. I must simply count down the days until the "big move."

I always imagined that if I ever got a horse the first months would be spent bonding, not with just exercising. The problem is that because Spirit is inside so much, he needs the exercise, and since I only see him 2 or 3 times a week, every time I come see him I have to ride him. I feel that this takes away from anything we do on the ground, because the reward of "putting him away" is lessened. He knows I'm just going to go and get the tack, take him out again, and work him. Because of the weather, we have to ride inside in an arena, which is not very fun. I am working with Spirit with a dressage trainer, and I have become a much better rider. I should feel proud of myself, but I don't. I read the poem submitted by Denise May entitled "The Tiger and the Horse" on your website, and I feel like a tiger. I feel guilty in two different respects: guilt toward Spirit because I am "using" him for my own purposes and am not currently able to give him what he deserves, and guilt towards my parents that I no longer have the same desire toward dressage that I once did. We looked for months for the perfect dressage horse, and they invested a lot of money into Spirit. It was not until after this purchase that I realized having a bond with my horse is a million times more important to me than dressage. I don't know anyone who does dressage and natural horsemanship, and what I wonder is..can you do both? A lot of dressage enthusiasts say dressage is "ballet for horses," an exhibition of perfect communication between horse and rider. A dressage book I read said that many people watch their horses run at liberty and wish they could achieve this elegance while on a horse, and that dressage is a way to do that. I used to see all of this, but now it doesn't make sense. Horses don't do piaffes and pirhouettes in the wild. And the "partnership" of horse and rider ends the moment the rider dismounts. If I choose the dance of dressage, I could make Spirit dance with spurs and whips, bits and reins. But if I choose the kind of dance you talk about, I could lead him with no aids to help me, with nothing to force him to want to be with me but the respect, trust, and compassion I have shown him. What I wonder is, would I have to choose? Is there a way to "alter" typical dressage so that Spirit wants to do that dance? Is there a way to do both?

I feel I am at a difficult point in my career with horses. Up until now, I accepted everything various trainers and horse owners told me, never questioning. Now, I am no longer assuming that just because someone is older than me and been around horses longer, that what they say is true. I realize now that my deepest desire and my reason for loving horses, the joy you can experience when you have a genuine bond with them, is the one thing none of these supposed "horse experts" have taught me. Now that I have a horse, I feel this as almost a burden more than a desire, for I don't want this bond just for me anymore, but for Spirit too. All of his previous human relationships have revolved around dressage, and I want to be the person to change that and show him empathy. It's harder than I thought it was.

I am sorry to say that as of late I have been mostly riding Spirit, with a short session of leading him around a bit and directing his movement before riding. One day I didn't ride, and lunged him instead. I had never lunged a horse and it did not go very well. He would halfway listen to what I was asking him to do, but he knew I didn't know what I was doing and didn't put in the effort. The problem is this: during our "sessions" he listens very well, but this doesn't really translate to outside of that. If I am standing in front of his stall he will not even acknowledge that I am there; it's almost as if he is saying "you haven't earned my attention yet." I suppose I just have to be patient. Once he is moved to Lakeside, my plan is not to ride him at all for a while and go out there every day and just 'be" with him. Perhaps that would make him see me in a different light. Then I would start again with lunging and directing movement, and then move on from there. The good thing is that Lakeside has small outdoor paddocks that I could use as round pens and a huge pasture that I could play with him in. The whole barn situation, unfortunately, is a hindrance to what I want to do. Me having to ride him every time I see him now makes him see me in completely the wrong light I want him to see me in.

It would be helpful if you could give me some more tips on longeing, as that is something I need a lot of help with, and also pose some kind of answer toward my earlier question. Also, I was wondering if it's true what everyone says that a horse in a stall that much needs exercise at least 3 times a week. Do exercise needs change if a horse is always pastured and is able to "stretch his legs" more? Is there a way to not ride him and do what you were talking about while giving him sufficient exercise, or could I ride him but make it more fun? (The weather is bad so I have to ride in an arena inside) I would like to have the next session we ordered sometime soon so that we could talk about all of this. You can email me back with a time you are available. Then, in the spring when I can be with him every day and have better means to dance and play with him, we will order some more sessions. Sorry about the lengthy email, and thank you!


Well Mary,

That was quite an email. First off, it certainly IS possible to 'have it all.' It is possible to ride dressage and have a fantastic relationship and bond with that same horse. It is actually possible to do dressage bridle-less and bareback with natural collection. The problem is that most riders (especially English) cannot relate to a horse other than being on its back and using aids. its all about them riding the horse and, unfortunately, really not as much about the horse. So, you need to stop feeling quilty about anything straight away and do all you can, given the current circumstances, to have as much balanced interaction as possible (time in the saddle and time on the ground). One does not have to exclude the other. If, in fact, you do develop a wonderful relationship on the ground, when you do ride it will be higher, better and more fun and more like ballroom dancing. Your abilities to communicate with your horse will be so advanced as to be in another relm altogether. You simply cannot see it right now as you have no role model for it where you are. I am providing the URL of a website of a German fellow who is doing exactly what you want (I think). Anyway, I like his work a lot from what I have seen on the website. is the website you should visit.

To accomplish what this guy is doing, or any really multi-facited, very high functioning horseman, requires years of dedication and practice without question. Also living on a ranch or farm, having the animals around all the time and working with them daily, bringing them up from babies, etc. doesn't hurt either. If your desire stays very strong and your will does too, you will gain what you need to do this. One needs to see this sort of relationship with equines in action to understand it is a real possibility. This is what I hope you will see in the German fellows website. But, it is so far beyond most folks imaginations that it never enters their minds. Or, if they can imagine it, it seems way too difficult, too time consuming and definately too advanced for them. Truth is, it can be done in a reasonable length of time with dedication and acquired skills. You do not have to turn away from dressage or riding. Simply look, somehow, for BALANCE in the relationship with Spirit. Even if you cannot do it all right now, every conscious little step helps. Make every step, even from the stall, to the saddle rack, to the arena and back, a consciously asked for step followed by an immediate reward for the horse even TRYING to comply. If someone is always polite to you, makes requests rather than demands and rewards your efforts, it would be natural for you to come to trust them and their intentions towards you. It is the same with your horse. Every little single good experience with Spirit is an opportunity to build on. Each step is a possibility for development. Learning to make the most good of everything that happens with you and Spirit is a good idea and will pay in huge rewards. Imagine doing dressage bridle- less....WOW...

Best wishes, Franklin

P.S. Don't ever feel guilty about changing your mind (growing from one thing to another). It is a normal function of being human and young. Young people are supposed to change a lot anyway and do so often it seems. I think your parents really want, above all else, your happiness. Speak from your heart to them as you have with me and all will work out fine...

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