Great equestrians, like great artists, work carefully to bring out the spirit within
By Kathy Connelly
Michelangelo said that the sculpture was already contained in the marble. You just had to know what pieces of marble to take away. So it is with horses. Their talent, grace and beauty are already contained in their bodies and are expressed through their soul and spirit. We just have to learn how to bring out each horse’s talent while keeping intact the individuality of his soul and the sparkle of his spirit.
That is why Xenophon, in his writings on training, spoke of “gentling” the horses. To me the words of Michelangelo and Xenophon evoke feelings of softness and kindness guided by having a purpose and expressing it with clarity. If you wield clumsily a dull-bladed ax rather than deftly employ a finely crafted artisan’s chisel to a piece of marble, the result is vastly different. One result looks like an instrument of torture was used, and the other piece of marble looks like a magic wand touched it. Michelangelo saw the marble and listened to it, and the marble told him what to do.
Horses are like children. They cannot defend themselves, nor should they ever have to. It is our responsibility as trainers to be clear enough and firm enough but kind; to leave each horse with his dignity at the end of each session so that we can develop in him the desire to still try tomorrow. The late artist and equestrian Heather St. Clair Davis summed it up beautifully once when she said, “How can I expect my friend to give me his poetry to read if all I do is correct his spelling?”
This is what we must do for the horse. Watch him and really see him, and then listen and he will show us how to train him. Most “resistance” as we term it comes because the horse does not understand and we need to be clearer. I have learned so much from all of my horses. The generosity of the horse’s spirit is infinite, and the courage in his heart is awe-inspiring.
As a US Pony Clubs “A” rider, I competed in a three-day event in Australia when I was nineteen. It was a very exciting experience, as the Australians are fearless and their cross-country courses test the superlative rider’s and horse’s mettle. I have been fortunate to event some very courageous horses, and at nineteen was the US three-day eventing champion for the USPC.
I thought I knew what courage was in a horse from those experiences until, years later, I felt the most moving feeling of courage in two horses that I had ever experienced. These horses were Gabrielle and Enterprise.
Gabrielle was an elegant and beautiful FEI mare that I competed. She was truly claustrophobic about entering dressage arena stadiums and with crowds would panic, freeze, rear, and run backward. She would even try to jump over or run into the other horses if they were in her way to avoid entering that stadium atmosphere. From her I learned patience because inside of her was a horse that really did want to go in, but she didn’t know how and she didn’t know that she would be all right in there. I had to learn what she was thinking and not only be her psychologist but her cheerleader! I spent much time with her to teach her that she could do it and be okay. I took her to the United States Dressage Championships. I was warned not to take her because she would not enter the stadium. I sat in the saddle and felt her go into her blind panic. I had done a lot of psychological “arena entry” work with her, and somewhere in her heart she found the courage to go into the arena. She learned to overcome her fear and became the US Intermediaire I Freestyle Champion and US reserve champion, Prix St. Georges and Intermediaire I. I don’t know the words to describe the feeling of a horse trusting you that much and loving you back the way that they have to love.
When I first saw my horse Enterprise, he was thin, with long hair, and he looked sad. There was no light in his eyes. He would hover in the back of his stall with his hind end to the door. It was dangerous to go into his stall because he would attack you, trying to kick and bite. He was about Fourth Level when I tried him. When I tried him he was difficult but powerful, and I felt that underneath there was brilliance in his spirit that needed to find a way out. He had something special.
Years later, I found out that he had been thought so difficult and bad at home that he had never been shown. Many a rider apparently had hit the dirt as a result of his lightning-quick, twisting bucks. Sadly the result was that often at night his rider would go in his stall and beat him, several times severely. Then Enterprise was sent on his way to a dealer’s barn.
He taught me a great deal again about what great courage lies in a horse’s heart. He was a very exuberant horse with tremendous energy. He just needed help channeling it the right way. I spent much time with him and much thought on how to help him overcome his fears. I learned so much from him. Through his courage, he learned to trust me. In 2½ years he was US Grand Prix Freestyle Champion, and in 3½ years he was US Grand Prix World Cup Champion and then went on to train in Europe.
What I personally did was not special. Many people have done with their horses what I have done. What is special is what lies in the heart of a horse.
I have found the magnitude of their spirits to be inspirational and humbling beyond measure. When you are riding a horse in this kind of drama and partnership, there is a magic that happens that changes and reshapes your soul. I have to say that the courage and generosity that I have experienced from my horses have changed my horizons forever.
Adapted from the anthology Along the Way: Our Unique Relationship with Horses (Golden Hills Press, 1999). Used by permission of the author.
Kathy Connelly is an international dressage coach, trainer, and rider who has represented the US at the FEI World Cup Dressage Final. She is a USEF “S” dressage judge, co-chair of the USEF Dressage Sport Committee, a US dressage-team selector, and a frequent commentator at the US Dressage Finals and other major competitions. She divides her time between Massachusetts and Florida.