The nice thing about dressage is that there’s LOTS you can do without needing to sit the trot; so if that happens to be a problem, you can still do a ton without dealing with it. . . . your comfort will also probably vary a lot from horse to horse since different horses’ gaits feel so different.
There’s pretty much always something you can do with dressage, given that you have a good trainer, a sound horse, and can get yourself into the saddle. One of the ironies in this skill as in so many is that sometimes what you need is precisely the skill you haven’t got yet: I know I’ve told this blog before that my great breakthrough about sitting the trot was when I realised it was my stomach muscles, not my back or my seat, that were crucial—at which point my back stopped bothering me. But I don’t think it would have done me much good to be told that I would sit the trot with my stomach when I was first starting to learn; I had to be mostly there already and needing only the final thud over the line.* The really counterintuitive thing for me was the way then that those frelling gigantic warmblood trots** became if not precisely easy, then comprehensible . . . and thrilling.
My trainer says jumping is pretty much just dressage where someone left some jumps in the way. . . . That makes some sense to me, but I’m sure it will feel VERY different at least sometimes if I do try some jumping eventually. . . .
But the bottom line about dressage is that it’s about making you and your horse and particularly you-and-your-horse happier, more supple, better balanced and more flexible about anything and everything . . . so jumping is dressage where someone left fences in the way: dressage is the bottom line, whether you call it ‘dressage’ or not. This was really making some good sense with Connie . . . siiiiiiiiigh. . . . and Jenny was a show jumper.*** Jumping was her first love and the years she had suitable horses she even earned money at it. But she absolutely believed that dressage was the necessary basis, for show jumping or anything else. Although she was funny about some of dressage’s little foibles. The point of show dressage is that the horse does exactly what you tell it to† when you tell it to. The last thing I want, Jenny would say, is some animal that waits for me to tell it to perform a flying change. And of course a good show jumper is figuring out the next fence as soon as the rider has settled on their line so it knows where it’s going—which may be about half a stride to spare, depending on the course, so it needs to be able to make some of its own decisions. Connie had lovely flying changes—not that I was necessarily in the right place at the right time, riding her, either to ask her or to let her do them.
. . . I am SO spoiled! I would never in my wildest dreams have thought I could have a guy as great as him! . . . . It does mean, however, that the kind of horse I’ll be wanting for my next one (when Amore can’t be ridden any more — hopefully many years from now) is going to be much different than if my first horse had been a back-yard mutt (so to speak)
Well, add me to the forum chorus of JEEEEAAAAAAAAALOUS. But back-yard mutts can surprise you. The woman who first taught me dressage—and totally did my head in by proving I could learn to ride††—and who had no money, did wonders with a series of back-yard mutts. I learnt the extended trot on her first success story, one of those ‘Quarter Horses’ that has about as much QH bloodline as I do, but they arrive on the East Coast in gigantic truckloads for auction, and the paperwork says ‘QH’ I suppose because they’re from Out West Somewhere and the paperwork has to say something. He had a back as long as a city block and his shoulders and his pasterns were perfectly upright (speaking of the comfort/discomfort of sitting to certain horses’ trots) and he had no business ever so much as coming on the bit and getting his hocks under him . . . but he did it, with Grace training him. It was pretty funny really: his back accordioned about six feet as he came on the bit. Suddenly he was (almost) a normal-looking horse. And his extended trot was amazing.
She had another horse, a mare, she’d (also) got cheap, because she’d broken a foreleg as a yearling and it hadn’t set quite right, and the foot turned out. Eh, she’ll never amount to anything with that leg; and furthermore, as she grew up, her rear end grew more than her front, so she was that disastrous creature, a horse who is ‘higher behind than before’ and will spend its life running downhill. And of course never ever be capable of coming on the bit and getting her hocks under her.
You can see where this is going. The mare loved working and couldn’t wait for Grace to ask her to do something.††† Grace competed her in the New England finals at third or fourth level . . . and I swear every last judge Grace rode for, from her first training show, hissed through his/her teeth and said that the mare would never go any farther because of her conformation and she’d never stay sound on that leg. She retired sound at, I think, sixteen; she had her third and last foal two years later. ‡
And of course my hellhounds are back-yard mutts. . . .
* * *
* Your mileage may vary. I was a very slow learner about riding as about so many things, although some of that was my going into it with the conviction that I was clumsy and stupid and wouldn’t be able to learn. Self confidence? What would that be exactly?
** I don’t know if this is true across the warmblood spectrum—and I’m not going to spend the next frelling hour googling my way through a lot of horse sites, I want to sing tonight—but a lot of warmblood breeding was to produce carriage horses where gigantic sit-at-your-pelvis’-peril trots were a total plus^. The dressage thing under saddle came later.
^ Although I don’t know what the postilions may have thought. In my admittedly limited experience posting to an eighteen-hand warmblood powering over the landscape is even less possible than sitting.
*** Connie was the last horse I rode regularly, before the ME objected. And Jenny was her owner and my teacher.
† Because you and your horse are a PARTNERSHIP. A good horse is never a thousand-pound machine that does the same precise thing every time you flip a lever. I’ve never ridden a true ‘push button’ horse but I’ve ridden several excellent schoolmasters, and they have their ways of getting their point across by doing what you told them, not what you wanted. While your human teacher, standing in the middle of the ring, tries not to laugh.
†† I’d been mostly taught by riders with natural talent who had no idea what to do with someone like me. Grace was herself not naturally talented in that way; she’d worked for her horse skills and had gazillions of approaches to any given horse/rider situation . . . and endless patience. We’ve lost touch, but I hope she’s healthy and thriving, wherever she is.
††† That mare was one of my schoolmasters. And she was . . . a character. Her desire to do stuff was genuine, and she’d try till she exploded—but she loved working because she had a fantastic trainer. She could have been a serious handful for the wrong person—for someone who didn’t allow her to be herself. She didn’t suffer fools gladly, and it was a pretty great compliment that Grace let me ride her.
‡ The downside of this story is that she wasn’t going to get any farther, not because she couldn’t but because she was a back-yard mutt, half thoroughbred, half Heinz 57 and in show dressage, it matters. If a Shetland pony can heave itself over the fences clean in an open jumping class when nobody else has, it’s won. If a Shetland pony does every figure in a Prix St Georges dressage test perfectly, it’s still going to lose to the eighteen-hand warmblood who is perhaps only 98% perfect but is so beautiful you could cry. And Grace’s lovely mare looked like exactly what she was—TB/mutt—and this was also happening right when the dressage fashion was turning away from TBs to warmbloods.
Peter and I went out to dinner tonight. Just because. To the Bard and Orpharion which tends to be our default. And they were out of half bottles of champagne and weren’t offering it by the glass.* We didn’t quite get up and stamp out the door but we thought about it. Peter, in best loyal-husband mode, suggested this drastic course of action. We could go back to the Bulgy Loaf, which was our great find a fortnight ago when the electricity went phut at Peter’s end of town: they had teeny-weeny individual bottles of Freixenet** available, thank you very much, and they’re probably not heaving on a Monday evening in early March. But one doesn’t really want to burn one’s bridges too spectacularly in a small town***. So we stayed. There may have been muttering.
And then I thought, well, okay, I have a minor thing for killer dessert wines—the kind you might mistake for treacle if you weren’t paying close attention, till the alcohol aftershock makes your hair stand on end and your socks pop off†—I’ll have a glass of dessert wine with my brownie. THEY DON’T DO DESSERT WINE BY THE GLASS EITHER.
But at least the brownie was serious.
. . . And yes, we’d been playing bridge, where Peter fiddles the cards first so we have (a) more fun (b) a better Teaching Experience and I actually sort of almost understood what was happening some of the time. I can’t decide if this is a good thing or not.
So we came home and Peter got one of our emergency quarter bottles of champagne out of the cupboard and put it in the freezer for twenty minutes AND I’M DRINKING IT NOW.
* * *
*Their pathetically feeble excuse is that they’d had a wedding which had drunk it all. A wedding that drank all the HALF BOTTLES? What kind of a cheap cheezy wedding is that? With only three people at the reception and two of them are teetotallers?^ We’ll have more in on Wednesday, said the lightly sweating waiter. WEDNESDAY? WHAT GOOD IS WEDNESDAY? IT’S MONDAY AND I WANT CHAMPAGNE.^^
. . . and maybe the Bulgy Loaf had a wedding last week too where teetotalism was rampant and they’re all out of little bottles too.
^ I mean, not cheap. Half bottles are ridiculously expensive per glass—you only do it because You. Must. Have. Champagne and there’s only one of you, or maybe two, you’re both nearly teetotallers and one of you doesn’t like champagne much.+
+ There’s no accounting. Maybe it’s that Y chromosome.
^^ Peter, who can sometimes be noble beyond all measure+, offered to buy a REAL bottle of champagne. Even I quailed at the magnificence of this sacrifice.++
+ Which helps to balance out the times THAT HE’S SPILT MARMALADE IN THE SILVERWARE DRAWER AGAIN AND I WANT TO KILL HIM.
++ I’ll try to remember this moment the next time he spills marmalade in the silverware drawer. Or unloads the dishwasher and puts everything tidily away having not run it first. AAAAAAUUUUUGH.
** I’ve said this before, haven’t I? That Freixenet has come a long way in the last thirty years or so? There was a time when I wouldn’t drink it because it was nasty. It’s still not the Widow, but it doesn’t cost like the Widow either.
. . . I was just looking it up on line so I could spell it correctly and . . . you have to be of legal drinking age in the country you’re in to look at their site? What? Why? Is looking at virtual bottles of B-list fizz really going to tip you over the edge into picking the lock on your parents’ liquor cabinet and getting pootered on Harvey’s?^ I did not, in fact, penetrate past the are you of legal drinking age click here pop up because the site background is all dark and creepy and there is ominous icky music like one of those computer games where stuff starts jumping out at you before I’ve got my finger off the ‘start’ button and I never live long enough to get out of the first level.
^ I feel that a hangover from Harvey’s Bristol Cream would probably cure you of drinking alcohol for life, but maybe that’s just me.
*** Besides, one possibly has a habit of doing it inadvertently and had better mind one’s ps and qs when one notices before it’s too late that they’re milling around in a dangerous manner^ and really need minding.^^
^ like bull terrier puppies. All smiles and little evil eyes . . . and remarkably fast on those little short legs.
^^ Sit! Sit! That’s not sitting!+
+ I’m not sure what it is, but it’s not sitting.
† In my early drinking days I’ve even been known to enjoy a glass of Harvey’s. But I wouldn’t want to make a habit of it.
At the beginning of Dec. 2012, Rachel called me. One of her clients (I’ll call the client Gloria) had an offer to make. Rachel had been training and showing Gloria’s horse (whom I’ll call Amore) for about a year; but things were changing in Gloria’s life, and she had decided she couldn’t keep Amore any more. Rachel knew my long-term plan to get a horse of my own, so she told Gloria about me. That resulted in an offer for me to ride Amore to see if he would suit me. I had admired him all along but never even thought about yearning for him, because I knew he wasn’t on the market and I probably wouldn’t be able to afford him even if he was. However, given the details of the offer that Rachel passed along, I jumped at the chance to try him out during my next lesson. He had been trained far beyond my level* at that point, so it was a blast to ride him and feel some of the possibilities of what I could learn with him.
I thoroughly enjoyed riding him and told Rachel I would love to take Gloria up on her offer, if Gloria was sure she would be satisfied. I then waited on tenterhooks to hear from Rachel. Fortunately, she was kind enough to call me the moment she got Gloria’s answer, which was yes. And that is when my miracle occurred, because Gloria’s full offer** was to GIVE me Amore and all his tack and gear! It was so important to her that he go to a good home that she was willing to give him away to ensure he went to the “right” place. Her first choice would have been to give him to Rachel, but Rachel already had two horses (one of whom was in foal at the time) and didn’t have room for a third. So, Gloria’s next choice was to give him to someone who was training with Rachel and would be a good fit for Amore. I was beyond delighted that Rachel thought highly enough of me to recommend me to Gloria and that Gloria agreed to it!
I rode him for the first time on a Monday, and on Thursday my family^ went to meet Gloria and get Amore’s paperwork from her. It seemed almost too good to be true until I had his papers in hand and had thanked her effusively and finally had my very own horse.
So, let me introduce my horse. He is a grey^^ 19-yr old Andalusian^^^ gelding+ who was born in Spain – but who wants words when we can have pictures?!
I have had him for a bit over a year now. He knows so much more than I do about dressage, and I am having a blast learning from him! I’m also getting spoiled by all the compliments I get about him when I take him to a show or encounter people on trail rides. He’s a very handsome guy, a lovely mover (as long as I don’t let his basically lazy nature take over), and laid-back enough for my family to hang out with. I continue to be blown away by the blessing I’ve been given and hope to enjoy him for a long time to come.
* For anyone who knows dressage, I did some schooling shows at training level our first summer together (2013) and Rachel had been showing him at Second Level.
** Which I knew from Rachel’s first phone call but withheld until now to give the story its full impact.
^ My (ecstatic) self, two horse-mad girls (who take lessons at my first stable) and a patient, very supportive husband.
^^ He looks white (when he’s clean), but the color designation in the horse world is grey, since he started life as a dark foal and gradually faded to white.
+ The stallion part of the title only applies to the movie…I wouldn’t ever want to own a stallion.
If you would rather not read about my (Christian) faith, please stop here. For anyone who does read on, there is another facet of this story that I only alluded to in the main portion. My relationship with God has been a part of this whole horse journey for many years now, since I have been praying (in a rather tentative way) for a long time about getting my own horse some day and thanking God for giving me access to horses at the stables where I’ve been riding. I know some people would count all this (barn horses & Amore) as luck or coincidence; but I see it as provision, because I have a lifetime’s worth (43 years and counting) of seeing how God provides for me. There were times in college and as a young professional musician where I only had pennies to my name; but at that point, those pennies were enough to meet my needs, and more pennies came when the next needs arose. It definitely wasn’t always easy to trust (not worry) about how my needs would be met; and even after all these years, I still have to remind myself to trust instead of worrying.
Now, I would NEVER say that I “need” a horse — want yes, need no. So, I never assumed that I was “guaranteed” a horse someday. I hoped and did some long-range planning, but no more than that. As a separate thing from all this horse stuff (or so I thought at the time!), I had been learning new things about my relationship with God in the past year and a half. I have been an active Christian my whole life, and it is fascinating to me to look back over my life and see how my knowledge of and relationship with God have grown and changed. Much like my other life-long endeavors (being a musician, a wife, a rider, a mom), progress comes in bursts & plateaus and obvious & creeping-up-on-me pieces. So, part of what I was learning in the latest burst was that God’s love for me (and everyone else!) is more passionate and daily and detailed than I knew before. I had learned as a kid to do my best to not want very much and to be hesitant about asking for “unimportant” things. Hence my hesitation to be bold about asking God for a horse of my own. However, God has been teaching me that it is completely okay to tell Him about my desires. That doesn’t mean, of course, that I will always get whatever I’m asking for; but the asking itself is a good thing for me to be doing, partly because that means I am talking to Him about what is going on in my life.
So, here I am, getting to know God and myself better, and all of a sudden (after 12 years, but still all of a sudden) here comes this big ‘ol white horse to show me that God can sometimes be really extravagant about taking care of me. I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking God for a horse as fabulous as Amore, and I really think God knew that and gave me something I couldn’t have dared ask for to be a daily (eating, breathing, pooping) reminder of God’s love. Amore’s registered name is actually “Beloved” (in another language), which is a fabulous bit of icing on this amazing cake of a story.
ONE HUNDRED TWENTY
Oh good. Thanks so much. That was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to hear. Especially while sitting on an elephant-sized horse in my nightgown surrounded by grim, weary, beat-up looking mercenaries well furnished with the paraphernalia of hacking and hewing. Living next door to an orc farm was beginning to sound bland and tranquil. And compared to the black thing Yog-Sothoth was a small-time gremlin. The sort of gremlin that makes a spot appear as if by magic on your only clean businesslike-ish shirt on the day you’re having lunch with your new editor, or inspires your printer to print only gibberish in sixty decorator colors and nine hundred and twelve ever-more-dazzling fonts. Which is only life-threatening when you’re a writer under deadline who needs hard copy to mark up for draft revisions: but then it’s very life-threatening. As well as hard on the eyes. I blinked.
I hadn’t realised before this moment how much I liked that kind of life-threatening. I knew what to do about spots on my only clean shirt: I had an assortment of rhinestone pins for all occasions. And in my experience editors meeting authors of supernatural-bashing heroines, the sword-wielding leather-cuirass and/or the modern urban leather-miniskirt varieties, tend to be grateful when it turns out you speak in complete sentences and use the restaurant tableware in the usual manner instead of demonstrating your throwing skills at the wall opposite, and that the most bizarre aspect of your appearance is the strange location and arrangement of rhinestone pins. I mostly enjoy lunches with my editors. I also knew what to do, at home, with my printer panting from renewed effort, on my knees on the floor surrounded by piles of fresh manuscript pages rapidly becoming studded with cryptic notes scribbled on the second sides of ripped up manuscript pages of previous attempts to tell a story. And the bleeding involved, barring stabbing yourself with the spot-disguising-pin backs or stapling your fingers together, tended to be metaphorical.
‘Out of my depth’ didn’t begin to describe it. Monster’s long thick mane brushing my hands as he nodded his head seemed at least as strange as aliens landing their flying Airstreams in your back yard. Or large black forsoothly guys waving swords in your kitchen.
I blinked again. I waited for Monster and the mercenaries to dwindle back into my imagination where they belonged. They didn’t. I was going to blink once more, positively and with intention, and when I opened my eyes, I would be kneeling on the floor in my old penthouse office . . . Flowerhair and Aldetruda and the others had variously been known to go into battle significantly underprepared and inappropriately dressed but I’d never been so unkind as to send anyone out to meet a ghastly destiny wearing a flimsy cotton nightgown covered in little pink roses. There was a lump in my throat and my bruises were doing a sort of choral fantasy of pain. The bass notes were especially impressive. It was harder to pretend I was making all of this up with all the throbbing going on.
My heroines also usually had some skills applicable to their situation. Aldetruda had excellent aim with a variety of hurling weapons, including crossbows and holy water. Doomblade hadn’t got Flowerhair killed yet partly because it bore her some grudging respect, and she’d pulled off a few jobs that should have killed her because it decided to pretend that she was its master. An enchanted sword is an excellent ally, so long as it is an ally. Although unless it had more sorcery hammered into its steel than Flowerhair or I had discovered, I was pretty sure even Doomblade wouldn’t be able to take on the black thing. Supposing, you know, I had Flowerhair’s cell number and could ask her to come along and help me out. Bring some friends, I could say.
The black thing. I hadn’t survived that encounter through any virtue of my own; Silverheart and Glosinda had done what they could, but what had saved me was one of those Mr-Spock-develops-another-mysterious-skill-just-before/after-the-commercial-break scenes. Some door between worlds had opened at just the wrong moment and shoved me into that situation; some other door between worlds had opened at just the right moment and let me escape.
It was still out there, the black thing. I had no idea what it was, or where it was, or why it had wanted to kill me. Because I was there? Because I was—however inadvertently and totally uselessly—this Defender person? And I had no idea if I might get sent or thrown or dropped back to face it again. My bruises thundered in counterpoint. I wouldn’t survive the next confrontation. If there was one.
For a moment this murky and dangerous place—wherever it was—paled and flickered, and that geographic-feature-length black sword was about to smash me into the dirt again. Involuntarily I raised the arm with the rose wristlet on it while my other hand groped for the hilt of my sword: that awful little dusty wind was in my face again, and a smothering silence fell. . . .
I’m usually late to the party with big books, even big books that interest me; generally speaking I’m ploughing a furrow in some literary field no one’s ever heard of and probably lost besides. But I noticed this book because it’s about netsuke (sort of), and netsuke is/are one of the things I came back from five years in Japan as an American military brat loving—and missing. I can’t even remember where I saw them in Japan*; my memory cuts in with seeing them in American museums and longing to pick them up. They’re tactile. They’re meant to be handled. But museums of necessity keep them locked up in glass cases.
So I clocked the HARE, and I also clocked that it became a Very Big Deal, a best seller, winner of the 2010 Costa Biography Award. When it came out in paperback I bought it. And put it on a shelf. And . . .
It turned up on Audible; I bought it and put it on another shelf. . . .
Two suggestions: Read it.** And don’t read any of the reviews first. I cannot BELIEVE the spoilers reviewers throw out there—I think it may be worse with nonfiction?? Because it’s, you know, facts?*** I think I did read a few of the reviews when the book was new and for once I am proud of my terrible memory because I didn’t remember a single salient story-harming fact.
I loved the beginning, when the young (English) de Waal is given a grant to go to Japan for two years, and while he is there he takes the opportunity to get to know his great-uncle Iggy, raised in Vienna, who now lives in Tokyo—with his impressive collection of netsuke (including the hare of the title). When he dies, the netsuke comes to de Waal, who decides to research its history; it has been in his family for several generations.
Now Pollyanna is tapping her foot at me here, because I want to warn you that I personally found this first section, after the introduction about how de Waal came to have the netsuke, heavy going. The branch of the family it belonged to were very, very, very wealthy Jewish bankers and there is rather a lot of description of clothing and furniture and the way the aesthetes of the family spent their time (and money)†. There’s an uncomfortable thread of anti-Semitism through all of it††; but the Ephrussi clan can afford to ignore it—or to insulate themselves from it.
And then the First World War.
And then the Second World War.
It is with de Waal’s great-uncle’s generation and their parents that the story comes horrifyingly, unbelievably, appallingly to life. I’ve read about the fate of the European Jews before, of course—my father fought in WWII, my best friend is Jewish, I can’t not be interested in that history—but somehow my very lack of empathy with these beyond-the-dreams-of-avarice wealthy people makes their ruin and despair more shocking because ruin and despair I can understand. They’re human at last, human like the rest of us are human, poor things. I cried kind of a lot during these chapters.††† And when Iggy’s sister Elizabeth‡ goes back to Vienna after the war and meets her mother’s Gentile maid, Anna, who by Hitler’s government hadn’t been allowed to go on working for the family she’d been with since she was fourteen . . . I cried most of all.
I recommend it very highly. Slog through the first section, if you find it needs slogging. Keep going. And don’t read the reviews.
* * *
* I thought old people are supposed to remember their childhoods vividly. Hmmph.
** Or listen to it. Michael Maloney does a great job. I tend to listen and reread, listen and reread.
*** Like cheap genre tricks like suspense and empathy have no place in nonfiction????
† De Waal is a very stylish and elegant writer; I’m not sure but what this does him a disservice in this section when everyone is so frelling exquisite. But the grace and refinement totally come into their own later on when he’s describing things that are the antithesis of grace and refinement.
†† Which ironically is the only time the—for me—rather crazy-making preciousness of this section comes alive. With the reminder that all is not perfection in silk and satin and furbelows.
††† Mostly while pruning rose-bushes at one-quarter speed because I was too absorbed in what I was listening to.
‡ Elizabeth, by the way, Edmund’s grandmother, is a heroine to conjure with. He doesn’t make a big issue of her, any more than she made a big issue of herself, but she shines.