Chapter 18: Revealing Anne Kursinski's Secrets

Nov 9, 2010 - 12:38 PM
Anne Kursinski wants her students and her horses to be aware of their bodies—thus the tensor bandages around the horse. Photo by Sue Kyllonen.

There are days when, like a butler, I just follow Anne around.

I fade into the background. I am quiet, but ready to leap forward and hold a horse or raise a jump in a second. I learn to know how Anne wants her saddle set, how tight the noseband should be, how she expects to be given a leg up. (Not on 1, 2, 3, but now!)

I also see how she rides, whom she coaches. I observe her making deals, and I see who the players are. It’s a small circle at the top of the sport. Everybody knows everybody; everybody has something to say about somebody. Horses worth hundreds of thousands of dollars are bought and sold every day. Sometimes, I get to ride these horses. Sometimes I get to ride these horses!

On my 12th day of working for Anne I stood a canter stride away from her as she ran into an old friend at the horse show. We were at the in-gate, ready to walk her course (sometimes I get to walk her courses with her!), when a curly-haired lady touched Anne’s arm, “Anne? Is that you?”

It took Anne a second. “Milly?” at first, then “Milly! How are you?”

I don’t remember what they talked about. Vacations I think. I was watching McLain Ward walk the course. He looked much smaller than I expected, the way all celebrities do when stripped of their catwalks and upward angled cameras. I watched him walk a line away from me, a short four strides. Fifty-seven feet. He has a confident walk, his shoulder blades pushed together, but he will never be the man on the ground that he is on the horse.

“..and how’s your horse?” I heard Anne ask Milly.

Ooh Anne, ohhh,” she squealed, drawing the oh out, but speaking fast as well, each word tripping over the next, “he is doing sooo well.”

Anne put her hand on the back of her arm, inviting her to say more.

“It’s ever since we talked to our animal communicator. You have one don’t you? They’re the best! She told me my gelding is Hawaiian. Can you believe it? And she said we have to change his name. So we did. And now he’s called Ki-Ki.”

Anne nodded from beneath her helmet, “A sweet name.”

“And now he is soooo well behaved,” she took Anne’s hand in hers, “I just can’t believe it.”

“I know Milly. Marlene has helped us so much with our horses.”

I looked at the two of them, both wearing fitted navy jackets, discussing seriously how a lady, whom they talk to on the phone, who doesn’t even see the horses, will tell them what their horse is thinking or feeling. “Wow!” I remember thinking, “I’m working for a crazy person.”

Sometimes a groom is invited to join the conversation. When that happens I’ll step forward and introduce myself, shake hands, look the guest in the eye, (a quick look), then step back again. Sometimes I’ll be asked to answer a question or give my opinion on something. (To be brief and neutral is the best bet.)

It’s All About Feeling

When Anne jumps or teaches a lesson we always try and have at least one person on hand to jump crew. Two is better and speeds up the process quite a bit. But it was just me later that day when Anne was helping an older rider with his young warmblood. Three times in a row he held the horse back and then rushed to the fence, squeezing and kicking, trying to throw the horse over.

“Relax,” Anne kept saying. “Don’t rush at it!”

Finally, Anne stopped him and called him over. She looked at me, “Tik,” she said, “when you saw me ride this morning, how did I ride this course?”

Well, she sure didn’t ride like that.

“Relaxed,” I guessed.

“I rode it loose,” she told me, nodding. Then she looked at her student, “Loosen up! Ride it with a little feeling!”

Anne believes she can teach feeling. Sometimes it must feel as though she is teaching the unteachable. And sometimes she does get frustrated, but she never gives up.

In her book— Anne Kursinski’s Riding and Jumping Clinic: A Step-by-Step Course for Winning in the Hunter and Jumper Rings— there are 38 pages that are referenced for feeling. Bending and feeling. Hands and feeling. Life and feeling.

Some people say you cannot teach feeling: “How can you tell somebody what a strawberry tastes like?”

“Do I have feeling?” one might ask. Try this exercise: Go down the centerline and alternate between shoulder-in and half-pass.

The aids (inside leg on the girth, outside leg back, riding into the outside rein) are the same for both movements. The only thing that changes is the relative pressure of the aids. It is only the feeling that changes. 

I disagree with Anne. One can learn feeling, but it cannot be taught. I believe an instructor can teach craft, but can only hope to inspire art. And make no mistake, great riders transform riding into an art. A great rider will show off her horses in much the same way a sculptor will mount an exhibition. The artist created, molded and coached the piece into being, but in the final analysis, the final test, it is the horse that matters.

Watching a great ride, in dressage, or jumping, or even cutting, the viewer is left full and sated but unable to judge or criticize. The viewer will find he has been brought into the performance, and instead of a critique or comment on her lips, she is left with only the welling up of emotion, of feeling.

Anne will sometimes ask her students, “Do you feel that?” when they do something right. And Anne will also talk to her horses and ask them how they feel. And the more she likes the horse the more she talks to him.

A Modern Horse

It is a certain kind of horse that Anne appreciates.

When Spitfire arrived at the barn we were excited; we watched, unseen, from the dark windows of the barn as Anne rode. Afterwards Anne slipped off the gelding and bounced back into the barn. “A nice horse,” she said to me as she went by.

The horse that Anne likes is a confident, cooperative forward-going horse. Light, relaxed and athletic in mind and body. “The modern horse,” she calls it.

It used to be that rails were wide and heavy, cups were deep, turns were wide, and jump-offs were decided by analog stopwatches rather than 1000ths of a second. Today, horses need to be light on their feet and supple in the back. Anne jumps her horses in a perpetual half-seat, always allowing the horses the freedom to use their body and go forward. “Sitting down shouldn’t be needed to collect a horse. Instead, sitting down should be a driving aid and used rarely,” according to Anne.

The modern horse goes with the modern way of riding and the modern athlete: forward and fast and confident. No heavy horses and no heavy hands. 

“I like his type,” Anne will often say, nodding at a light warmblood, or Thoroughbred, “a nice type.”

The other day while riding with Anne I asked if she still feels, every season, as though she knows a lot more than the previous year. “I’m embarrassed to think of how I rode a year ago. The amount I’ve learned, to be honest, is spectacular. When I left for Germany I thought I knew how to ride, but I didn’t. Still don’t, I guess,” I admitted.

“Of course!” She gave her horse a rub on the neck. “It will always be like that.”

We walked on in silence. I saw a Snowy Egret land in the canal. Wellington Village used to be all swamp land, and now the displaced birds make do with a series of heavily managed canals.

“You know,” Anne said finally, looking at me, “these eyes I have. They are the same eyes I had when I was 20, but they sure see things differently now.”

She made to trot off but then changed her mind. “There are so many things I learn every year. And you’ll see some things if you stay with us. Like Marlene, our animal communicator. It’s taken my relationship with my horses to another level.”

I look at her.

“Maybe you think we’re crazy,” she says.

“No!” I say. “No. Of course not.”

Revealing Anne’s Secrets

When I left to work for Anne I wondered what secrets she might share, what alchemy she might reveal. What I found might be broken into two categories.

First: She just does what everybody else does—except she does it better. She works with the best vets, the best farriers, the best animal communicators. She has no secrets in her tack trunk or in her feed room. All her methods can be bought for $20 at the book store. But you have to wake up pretty early to do it better than Anne. 

Second: She develops feeling in herself, and with her horse, to an almost unbelievable extent. If a horse has a sore back, she will have a sore back. If her stomach hurts, one of her horses probably has an ulcer. She wants to know what they feel in their body. She wants them to know what they feel in their body.

One trick she uses is to tie two tensor bandages in a figure eight around the horse’s body. The idea is to make the horse more aware of how he moves. Imagine if you are walking down the street when suddenly someone ties a string around your thigh. Suddenly you are aware of your leg. You can feel the string tighten against the muscles as you lift and extend your foot. Then, as you put your foot down, it goes loose and flaps once against your knee. Suddenly you are aware of how your leg is moving.

She also wants to know what they are feeling in their mind. Are they nervous? Maybe they are excited or scared? How can she fix it or use it to her advantage?

In her book Anne wrote: “I have learned that your horse will teach you almost all you need to know, if you will only listen to him and allow him to educate you.”

So, no, I don’t think Anne is crazy. I think anybody that is not willing to listen, to learn, to try new things, every day, is the crazy one.

She picked up the reins smoothly, like a dancer, preparing to trot off again.

“You are definitely not insane,” I said, watching her.

“Thanks,” she said, looking back at me with a bit of a glint in her eye, not unlike that of a crazy person.

In the summer of 2008 Tik Maynard came up with a grand plan. He decided to spend a year working for some of the greatest horsemen he could find in different disciplines and writing about his experiences. So far, he has worked for Johann Hinnemann, Ingrid Klimke, David and Karen O’Connor, Bruce Logan and Anne Kursinski. For more information on Tik, visit www.tik.ca/.

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