What you want for Christmas

My last post was about my lesson with Ellen Eckstein.  Years ago, I went to a dressage show in Pebble Beach with her.  It was fourth of July weekend, and one of Ellen’s local clients had invited Ellen’s whole group to her home for a Fourth  of July barbeque.  That client turned out to be Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, Jane Smiley.

July 4 at Pebble Beach Equestrian Center.  A damp affair.

When we arrived at her home, Jane greated each of us warmly.  She took me by the shoulders, looked me in the eye, and said something like, “wonderful, you are tall too!” She told me to follow her to her office where she showed me a book she was writing a forward to entitled, “The  Tall Book: A Celebration of Life on High“.  I was unable to provide any unique perspective on being tall, after all I’m only 5’11”, but I was very flattered that Jane took the time to show me something she was working on.

At dinner Jane talked about the new project she was working on, a series of young adult novels about the daughter of a horse trader.  She was calling the first one, “The Georges and the Jewels.”  In it, the horse trader father and his daughter buy cheap horses, train them to be kids horses, and sell them for a profit.  Dad didn’t want daughter getting attached to the horses, so each gelding was named George, and each mare was named Jewel. I’ve had a few Jewels in training, but no Georges yet.  Closest I came was Jorge/Giorgio.

We sat at the table and Jane told us about the formula for writing a strong going adult book.  “You gotta make the kiddies cry” she said.  We also talked about our shared fondness for illustrators of young adult horse books that we read as kids, Sam Savitt and Wesley Dennis.

This is the Sam Savitt poster I had in my room as a kid

Anyway, after a wonderful time at Jane’s house, I decided I should probably read some of her books.  I started with the novel that won her the Pulitzer Prize, “A Thousand Acres.”very well written, but what a downer!

Next, I switched to audio books.  I shared (mooched) an audible account with a friend and was excited to listen to “Horse Heaven.” It is a fantastic story centered around thoroughbreds.  I rode some training horses while listening to it, and I remember the sluggish Arabian pony I was on never moved so fast as she did when I was listening to one of the racing scenes!  I definitely recommend the book, however the audio version has some jarring pronouncing errors.

After several years, “The Georges and the Jewels” was finally on Audible along with the rest of the Horses of Oak Valley Ranch series. 

Wow.  WOW.  I’ve read a lot of horse novels, especially young adult horse novels, but never ones like these.  These books are special because not only do they have compelling stories and character development, but there’s some really great horse training instruction in there too.  I learned some horse training techniques from listening to these novels, and I still practice them today.  

My experience with the ex-racehorses I’m working with has reminded me of these books.  There is a chestnut thoroughbred in many of them, and even a thoroughbred named Blue!

So if you are a young adult, or a horse lover of any age, I highly recommend you add the books in this series to your Christmas list.  

The Horses of Oak Valley Ranch series, by Jane Smiley

A session with the guru

No one has made a greater influence on my horsemanship in the last ten years than Ellen Eckstein.  While most riders go to Ellen for her expertise in dressage lessons, I get giddy at the anticipation of a ground work lesson with her.

If you don’t know who Ellen is, read her biography here.

I brought Blue to my lesson with Ellen because he has been more committed to bracing against me than Corny.  Happilly, the previous day’s session with Blue had given us a break through.  I could now turn Blue’s neck without his body turning.  I could also now have an influence over the direction his ribs roll.  I was excited to build on this in our lesson with Ellen.

First we worked on yielding Blue’s haunches while he was at the end of the line.  I had been striving to do this over the last month and made some progress.  In my session with Ellen, she made some minor changes, that made a huge impact on blue.  She told me to step backwards and towards Blue’s haunches when asking him to yield.  It went so much better!  We even got him to step away from his body laterally with his outside hind a few times!

Here’s a clip of that work https://youtu.be/23H8dN0U1A

Of course, none of this would have been possible without all our hard work on longing on a circle.  This was the first day that I’ve worked Blue that he didn’t make an unsolicited direction change, and didn’t pull hard on me every time I asked him to turn his head.

After we longed and yielded haunches for a while, we put on Blue’s bridle.  She  took Blue and did some rein yields.  A rein yield is where you ask your horse to move his head to the side and he responds by moving his hind feet laterally away.  I didn’t recognize it at first because it looked different when a shorter person does it (Ellen) than a towering monster does it (me).

The rein yield from the ground is something I have been doing with all my horses.  In this session Ellen made me aware of the precise feel on the bridle that I needed to have from Blue before I give my release.  Blue’s habit when asked to yield to anything is to brace  against it.  This exercise was no exception.  Blue tended to brace his outside hind, and just before picking it up and unbracing it he would lift his nose and pull on the bit.  It was reminiscant of a racehorse leaning down into the bit to move his legs faster, a habit that had previously brought Blue much success.  By the end of the session we got him to softly turn his head and move his hind feet without this additional tug.

Ellen coaching me through a rein yield while Blue’s owners look on.

Standing on stuff

I’m not into 100% arena work.  With two months of groundwork for the brothers, it’s got to be more interesting than circle after circle.

Luckily, we have some good stuff to practice standing on.  I like to have the horses stand on things for a few reasons:

  1. Get accustomed to doing things for seemingly no reason, just because I asked it of them
  2. Get enough control of their feet to place them exactly where I want, even if it isn’t convenient or natural for the horse.
  3. See how they respond to pressure of placing their feet in a very specific place.
  4. Gain some skills to help them load into my trailer, an inconvenient, not natural, unsensical, place for a horse to go (according to the horse).

  I tend to stand on things first as an example to the horse that they are acceptable to stand on.  It will also give the horse an idea of the sound the object will make when their hoof hits it. In future sessions, I will try to get the horse to step on something novel before I do.

Here we have a mock bridge for the horses to stand on.  I like starting with this obstacle because I can ask the horse to crosd the broad side of the bridge first.  That way it is easier for me to make it clear that the horse is to go over the bridge.

After Blue went over the broadside of the bridge, we approached it from a narrow side.  Blue didn’t mind the hollow sound the bridge made under his feet.  He also had little resistance to stopping on top of the bridge.  
Next, we went over a tarp.  So easy for Blue!  He obviously had tarp training before.  We did it both on the line, and off the line in the round pen.  I’m glad we did it though, even though he was pretty good at the tarp, he still hesitated a little before it and sped up going away from it at the beginning of our session.  

If you want to see video of that, look here https://youtu.be/4h4aybZPZPU

Blue on the tarp

Finally, Blue stood on the low pedestal.  This was the most challenging because it was the easiest to go around, or over without touching.

Nope, that’s not it.
Blue and I had some struggle about wether he should stand on its or not.  During the session, I stopped to reach in my pocket for my phone so that I could take a picture of Blur straddling the pedestal with his front legs.  This is the photo I ended up getting:


I had been putting too much pressure on Blue bell!  I guess it was clear what I was asking him to do.  He just needed a chance to take a breath and step up on his own.  In keeping constant pressure on him, whether it be moving his feet, or having clear intent that I wanted him on the pedestal, I was providing him with opportunities to resist.  When the pressure was off, he was no longer resistant, and he stepped right up!

What fun it is to work with this horse. Like any horse, he’s going to make me a better horse trainer.

TPR: Temperature, Pulse, Respiration

A couple years ago I was at my in laws house for Thanksgiving.  My baby was about 6 months old, and I was nursing her when I noticed my phone was blowing up.  Seemed like one of my clients was having a veterinary crisis with her horse.  I excused myself and called her back.  She told me that her horse was behaving oddly, and doing something funny with her leg.  She was getting ready to call the vet.

I really like my vets, I consider them friends and I don’t want them to have to leave their families on a holiday for no reason.  I also really like my clients, many of them are friends too.  I don’t want them to have to needlessly pay a huge emergency call fee.

So I asked some questions to determine if the horse needed to see the vet right away.  Is she breathing normally? Does she have a fever?  What’s her pulse?  The answer to all of these questions was “I don’t know.” I was able to walk her through the procedures on how to collect this information.  With the assistance of a more knowledgeable boarder who happened upon the scene, I was able to determine that there was no real emergency taking place. 

This incident got me thinking, how was this client supposed to learn to do these tests to determine if her horse is ok?  If she were in pony club, or horse masters, it probably would have come up in preparation for a testing.  Even the D1, the most basic test that the walk/trot kids take, includes a portion where the kids had to know their mounts’ temperature, pulse and respiration (TPR). Many riding lesson students don’t want to pay for lessons in horsemanship, they want lessons in how to jump higher and dressage better.

So I started requiring everyone who leased a horse from me to take a lesson to learn how to take the following measurements:


Have a digital thermometer on hand as well as some lube.  If no lube, use spit.  Many years ago I was in a class at UC Davis where we examined a mare’s cervix.  The instructor told us the motto at the horse barn was “when you think you have enough lube, put some more on.” Pretty good life advice, if you ask me.

To take your horses temperature, stand to the side of his haunches, lift his tail, and slide your well-lubed digital thermometer into the rectum until only the screen is visible.   A horse’s normal body temperature can range from 99-101·F. Elevated temperatures can be signs of infection or illness. 

Last month Mark learned to pick his horses’ hooves, this month he learns to take a temperature.  This should be a basic skill for every horse owner.


Watch your horse’s sides, not his nose, to determine breaths per minute. 8-15 breaths per minute is considered normal for a horse at rest.  Some horses breathe faster than that so it’s important to know what is normal for your horse.

Ann watches Blue’s flanks and counts his breaths per minute.


The”P” in TPR is the most difficult for most horse owners to assess.  Practice finding a pulse by pushing a vein under the horses jaw into the inside of his cheek.  For shy pulses, it’s often easier to find a vein around the eye to push gently on.  

The average adult horse’s pulse is 30-40 beats per minute when at rest.  Higher than that is an indicator for pain or other physical distress.

Ann finds Corny’s pulse near his eye.

The brothers both had very difficult pulses to find.  If the horse was in pain, it would probably be easier to find if it was throbbing.  The difficulty finding a pulse might be a sign of well being!


It’s important to know your horse’s baseline metrics for two reasons.  The first is so you will know what is normal for them.  The second is so you will have experience finding TPR when you are freaked out about your horse’s health.

I keep track of all the horses in my program with an ap on my iPhone.  The one I use is called Equi Sketch Records.  Blue’s record looks like this 

Compare his medical normals with Poni’s:

You can see the difference in what is normal for each equine. Poni’s resting  respiration is way out of what is considered normal.  If Blue was breathing 42 times per minute at rest, I would be very concerned.  For Poni, it’s just how she is.

If you don’t know your horse’s healthy TPR, please make a point of checking it the next time you visit him.  Write them down, and keep it in your tack box just in case.

Meet the thoroughbreds

My big goal for 2017 is to take two horses to the 2017 thoroughbred makeover competition in Kentucky.  I’m going to be blogging about the process as a fun way to document the kinds of things I like doing with the horses I have in training.

So who are these two horses I want to take to Kentucky?  Meet full brothers Olympic Blue (b. 2010) and Olympic Maize (b. 2012). 

Aren’t they adorable?  They belong to Mark and Ann Janlois.  The couple purchased Blue as their first horse and raced him for three years.  They liked him so much that they purchased his full brother in hopes that he would be just as fast.

Olympic Blue had a solid career on the track, and while I don’t know much about racing yet, his owners have been educating me.  Some stats I’ve heard are that he won 9 times in 38 starts, making about $200,000.  He was a grade two stakes horse ranked 22nd in the nation out of 28,000 horses.  I might have said some of that wrong, but you get the idea.  Olympic Blue was a serious racehorse.

Little brother, Olympic Maize, wasn’t  so fast.  He raced once or twice, but would give up after four furlongs.  He didn’t win anything.

When their racing careers ended, the brothers headed back to the farm where they were born.  Mark and Ann had decided to keep them as pets.  Some of the gals at the farm played with them a little bit while they were there, maybe doing some Parelli training.  They didn’t get ridden much at all, which is good for me.  In order to be eligible for the thoroughbred makeover, candidate horses need to have 15 or fewer post tack rides before January 1, 2017.

Mark and Ann enjoyed visiting their pets, but they were struggling with the 70 miles commute to see them.  They started looking for a place to board the brothers closer to their home.  One of the gals who had been playing with the brothers at the farm had met the Parelli trainer at the barn I work out of, and sent them this way.  Mark and Ann loved Indian Hills, but found that my program was more what they were looking for.

Mark and Ann want their retired racers to be happy.  They understand that for horses, that means having a job.  They were attracted  to my varied program as an opportunity for the brothers to pick their own discipline.  As Santa Clara University alumni, they were excited that their horses might get to be part of the dressage team I coach one day.

So that’s how the brothers got from the track to my barn.  

Summer Guest Instructor, Ellen Eckstein

HC Equestrian student Michelle talks about her first lesson with Ellen…

Michelle and her Anglo Arab, Firefly
Michelle and her Anglo Arab, Firefly

As a horse-loving and horse-owning adult who is always trying to better her riding for the benefit of the challenge and the workout, I jumped at the chance to take a lesson with guest instructor, Ellen Eckstein.  Everything I’d ever heard about Ellen encouraged me to take the chance if it ever came – “She will change your riding” was the sentiment I’d heard from all my fellow HC Equestrians who had ever trained with Ellen.  I had initially signed up to take a lesson on another horse I’ve been riding in lessons for the last 6 months or so with HCE – a big moving, 7-year-old Hanoverian with fabulous training and beautiful gaits.  When I found out that he may be unavailable during the week that Ellen would be doing her HCE lessons, I regretfully emailed Ali to cancel.  Her reply was one that I had not expected … Do my lesson with Ellen on Firefly.  “Firefly!?” I said to myself.  “But he will only have about 30-45 days of under saddle work!  How can I do that!?”

Firefly is my 4-year-old Anglo Arab that I purchased as a long 2-year-old during my search for a eventing prospect.  I knew I wanted a horse I could bring along myself with the help of some fantastic trainers.  Our training has been going well but I never thought I’d be taking a lesson on him after less than 60 days under saddle.  Ali encouraged me to use my own horse for the lesson and I can’t thank her enough.  He is not the first horse I’ve started under saddle but is the first I’ve started using dressage principles and the first I’ve personally brought along this far.

Ellen’s lesson expanded my toolbox in ways that I could not have expected.  I honestly had no idea what to expect going in.  She focused on teaching him what the bit truly means and refining my cues to get the response that I’m looking for.  Ellen was in the arena with us during the lesson, helping from the ground – a strategy that I really value when starting a young horse.  Coupling my rein aids with her encouragement from the ground to augment my aids, Firefly quickly picked up on what I was asking for.  After just 15 minutes, he was traveling forward better even without doing a lot of work on the actual act of going forward.

Ellen’s philosophy, particularly with a young horse, is to teach more of a “come with me” approach, giving a young horse direction, instead of “we’re going forward now”, using body language and cues.  I’ve had a few more rides on Firefly since our lesson and I really feel like our lesson with Ellen led us to a breakthrough.  Firefly, being part Arab, loves a good puzzle and seems to be enjoying the challenges I’ve put before him.  Every ride yields better balance and movement.  Ellen is due back to HCE at the end of August and I can’t wait to ride with her again!    I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to get some insight on my young horse from her.  It’s a long road ahead for Firefly and I (we have big dreams!), but I know that Ellen has made it at least little bit easier.


HC Equestian hosts clinics with Ellen Eckstein in addition to the summer guest instructor sessons.  Go here to learn more about Ellen.

Summer Guest Instructor Sarah Vernlund

Sarah was Ali’s eventing trainer for 8 years, and her employer for 4 years. She took Ali from her very first jump, all the way to preliminary level eventing. She has competed internationally in eventing and was long listed for the Olympics in 1984…on a 15.2h Quarter Horse. She has brought several of her home-bred horses from foals to Intermediate level eventing, and she has coached riders from beginners to advanced level competitors, B level pony clubbers, and 4′ A circuit jumping champions. Sarah is a USEA certified instructor through preliminary level.

Ali credits Sarah for being responsible for her affinity for crossbreds, as she works well with all breeds and combinations there of!

Check our calendar for lesson dates with Sarah.

While Ali is on maternity leave, Sarah Vernlund is stepping in to keep the jumping riders sharp. Thanks, Sarah!
While Ali is on maternity leave, Sarah Vernlund is stepping in to keep the jumping riders sharp. Thanks, Sarah!



Dressage Camp at The Monkey Tail Ranch

Getting ready to embark on an orchard trail ride at HC Equestrian's dressage camp at Monkey Tail Ranch
Getting ready to embark on an orchard trail ride.

This year’s HC Equestrian camp deviated from the usual eventing format to focus on dressage.  The Monkey Tail Ranch in Hollister graciously hosted our campers for 3 days of riding, including private lessons with Ellen Eckstein, obstacle course training, trail rides, and an introduction to equine bodywork.

Carla and Feety practice lateral cervical flexion.
Carla and Feety practice lateral cervical flexion.

Campers also were able to enjoy puppy socialization with Monkey Tail’s young service dog hopefuls. A continental breakfast was provided each morning, and teams of campers worked together in the kitchen to provide some scrumptious home-cooked meals.

We asked our campers to share some of their favorite parts of dressage camp:

Having three lessons in a row with Ellen; stuff was really staring to click. Hanging out with a really nice and nonjudgmental group of Horse People.”  –Kathie

Getting to see Elise, finally taking a lesson with the amazing Ellen, getting to ride Boo, and of course the puppies!”  — Annalisa

Everything! Horses, puppies, spending time with great people! Can’t wait to do it again!”  –Erica


Erica tacking up Blackberry
Erica tacking up Blackberry
Carla and Feety taking a lesson from Ellen Eckstein
Carla and Feety taking a lesson from Ellen Eckstein







Belle's tarp training goes easily
Belle’s tarp training goes easily







Ellen gives Shayanna some pointers
Ellen gives Shayanna some pointers