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It’s the end of March, and here, near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, Mother Nature is playing one of her seldom seen, much less heard, compositions: thunder-snow pelting flowering trees and blooming spring perennials. The horses have already shed much of their winter coats, so they are snugged into insulated rugs, windows open, and resigned to indoor games. We’ve had only two days of agreeable outdoor footing all month, which we celebrated, modestly. But today, as big dry flakes rapidly changed to heavy wet glop, accompanied by drum rolls, I thought better of trekking, tacked, from stable block to the disquiet indoor gym. Instead, I gave each of the boys a twenty minute hand walk straightway the 50 meter asphalt paved stable aisle, with  half-pirouettes at each end, and a few halt/step-back/walk exercises at about the 15 minute marker. Followed by grooming and strategic massages, before re-rugging.

Boring though this could be for me, the horses swing into it and lull themselves into stretching forward and down on a long cotton lead, encouraged by my voice. Therapized by the half-pirouettes, they voluntarily lengthen their walks into straight balanced over-strides, and seem to listen to the rhythms of their hoofbeats on the pavement.

To break the monotony for myself, I sing songs that synch with the rhythms of the hoofbeats, and let the horses play games with me. Today, the clown I fondly call “The Jack Russel Terrier model of the American Thoroughbred” nipped at me between songs, and also when my footfalls were out of synch with his front feet. And he nips like he means it, so I have to be fairly alert.

Walking, my mind wandered to the book with which I slept last night. I truly admire Charles deKunffy’s 1992 The Athletic Development of the Dressage Horse, Manege Patterns, refer to it often, and re-read it cyclically. I had reached for it to review deKunffy’s suggestions for canter development patterns, but decided to read again his first chapters, which so succinctly crystallize the essence of classical horsemanship.The first sentence of the first chapter is “Dressage goals, simply stated, include all training activities that prolong the working life and serviceability of the majority of horses”.

 Soon enough he states “…the logical goal of all classical equitation: to explore and unfold the nature-given potentialities of each horse to its fullest….our ideals are not fully attainable, only approachable. Horsemanship is not an art for those who wish to ‘arrive.’ It is rather an art in which the process of creating is fulfilling….one merely strives, never arrives.”

Every horse with whom I have had the long-term relationship has validated deK’s points, and such horses, my schoolmasters, heighten my awareness that for each horse, with whom I have a short-term relationship, I can only facilitate progress, rather than to achieve “the goal.”

Walking, currying, and massaging the ‘boys’ as the snow fell, I continued to reflect on dressage ethics.  I recalled that in one of deKunffy’s books he states that the priorities of dressage are rehabilitation, therapy and training.  In Athletic Development, deK  implies that the priorities of dressage are conservation of  natural abilities resulting from hereditary conformation and temperament,  rehabilitation of abilities and temperament when they have been compromised by injury or environment, therapy including exercises that promote ‘ambidexterity’ and ‘straightness’  and athletic training for the amplification of authentically natural equine motion.

So, I consoled myself, while hand walking and massaging the day away did not make progress, it did conserve the horses’ health and temperaments, and did promote their soundness (walking on pavement strengthens their tendons and ligaments, we know).

All things considered, I’d have rather gone for trail rides. Those days will come, and we will be ready to enjoy them. Meanwhile, during the puddlewonderful days of April, I’ll read deKunffy again, and resist practicing those oh-so sophisticated amplification exercises until the rehab and therapy processes are complete.

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