The Power Of Light

Nov 16, 2011 - 4:46 AM
Cadillac passaging into the light. Photo by Anna Jaffe.

Dear Rita,

This evening in Vechta the fog is so thick you could eat it with a spoon. I have heard fog described as a cloud that touches the ground. With all this moisture suspended in the air, I wonder if this cloud is formed by the tears we have all shed for Cadillac.

Thank you to everyone who has been so kind to contact me by email or Facebook and to those few of you who actually got through on the phone or came by to see me. I have guarded my privacy this week, but I am also thankful for all the good wishes from friends, family and fans.

I am awed by the tears that we have shared—not only my own and my husband’s, but from all the people who knew and loved Cadillac. We have had no choice really. The only way to properly honor such a horse is with tears of tribute.

Everyone wants to know why Cadillac died. He sustained a minor tendon injury in a front leg, which escalated to a full rupture during convalescence. The rupture could not be surgically repaired, his fetlock dropped, and when we tried to stabilize his leg in a cast he began to founder on the opposite foot.

I made the choice to let him go—as if I had a choice.

I miss Cadillac terribly, and my husband is devastated after putting my best horse down. Life is not so easy sometimes, Rita.

Cadillac had a way of touching people who got to know him. There was something so innocent and trusting about him, yet he could be afraid of his own shadow in one moment and fearless about imagined adventures in the next.

If Cadillac had been human, he would have never left the house without a cap made from aluminum foil on his head. He acted like aliens could read his thoughts and that they would take him away in a spaceship one day.  But with the right training, he started to believe in my world—the world of dressage—for an hour or so each day. The other hours were mostly spent eating (only from one specific red bucket at one point in his life), drinking, aqua training, hand walking, enjoying a good grooming and watching out the window for the space ship to come.

One spring day I heard him snorting and blowing in his box. His window was open, he was leaning out of it, his tail was over his back, his neck was arched to the limit with nostrils flared like a bull on the charge. I heard nothing out of the ordinary outside the stable. So I went into the next stall and peeked out the window. A large canvas carry bag from IKEA—bright yellow with the blue handles—had settled itself on the wooded path outside his stall.

The spaceship had landed.

I went outside and removed the bag, but he kept snorting all day, even when I rode him. I had put my left foot in the stirrup and swung my right leg over the saddle with him blowing like a whale. Funny thing, Rita, I was never afraid of him. Wherever he went in his head, Cadillac always took me with him in the real world.

Beam me up, Scottie, let’s go for a ride.

In recent years, this special horse learned to follow me in hand over blankets and plastic sheets laid upon the ground. He let me ride over those things too. He would do one-tempis calmly past my working students as they did jumping jacks or laid down making “snow angels” in the footing. I could ride him while twirling an open umbrella or carrying a blasting boom box on my shoulder. We had a pre-ride routine that involved lowering his head with a tap on the poll, Spanish walk with a tap on the leg and bending both right and left from pressure on the rein. 

When he accepted all of these things, our work together became the better for it. I used these exercises to bring him into my world before I threw my right leg over the saddle.  Our warm-ups became smoother, our workouts more productive. Most of the time. He still had days when his own world was far more fascinating than mine.

But intricate mentality aside, Cadillac piaffed and passaged his way into the hearts of the dressage world. The most difficult movements in dressage were the easiest for him to perform. He could piaffe while half asleep or turn pirouettes while staring at a hot air balloon in the distance.

My saddest and most exhilarating memories came from showing him at Saugerties last September. I got him to bend in the show ring, do proper half-pass, give full power in the extensions and balance in his pirouettes. He was supple and powerful, and we were on our way to a level of performance I had never experienced with him in the past.

Cadillac was high for the Grand Prix Special. The temperature had dropped from 80* F the night before to 45*F on the morning of our test. In Cadillac’s world, the aliens were landing on the backside of the berm at Saugerties. They had chopped the torsos off several helmeted riders and were bowling them along the top of the horizon. Their spaceships came sailing over the judge’s box at C in the form of golf carts, but we pressed on…

Rita, how many horses do you know who can turn down the centerline, shy, switch leads, change back and still execute a near perfect pirouette just past the letter D? I dare you to try this at home. The feeling was phenomenal despite the errors, and we won anyway. A fitting result for a final test.

Watch that test from Cadillac’s World:

I was high after this breathtaking ride because I had finally achieved a personal goal of riding him at the show like I did at home. Our powers of concentration were sorely tested that morning, but the things we did right, like the last centerline, were amazing!

In that way, Cadillac was a tough teacher without ever volunteering for the job. He taught me his language and agreed to learn some of mine, but we only communicated when he was relaxed enough to concentrate.

My hardest lessons came when he was distracted. My greatest achievements came when I learned to reduce his distraction to split seconds rather than whole minutes. Many a test was won or lost on my ability to stay in the zen zone and keep riding.

Cadillac came into this world a special being. He left this world unchanged, but he managed to train a whole lot of horsemen around him. He taught me as much about Buddhism as dressage.  While I read the lessons of the Dalai Lama, I experienced them in real life from a magnificent Cadillac.

Compassion. Acceptance. Courage. Detachment. Wisdom. These were the qualities required to ride such a horse.

I had to develop Compassion for his nature in order to understand him and Accept him for what he was. I had to have the Courage to love him and revere him in the face of criticism from less enlightened horsemen. I had to Detach myself from the outcome of every test and ride as if nobody was watching. I had to have the Wisdom to let him go when his welfare hung in the balance.

At the time of learning, all these lessons were difficult for me and I cannot claim to have mastered them. Looking back now, I believe that Cadillac gave me more than I ever deserved from a horse. Not only did I learn these lessons, but I also had a feeling on that horse that I am sure I will never have on another. Riding Cadillac felt like Totilas looks. It was a surreal experience, true dressage, every day.

The feeling of riding him was so powerful and so fragile at the same time that it created a reverence in me similar to the appearance of Raureif, a condition that occurs in the forest here in Germany every now and again.

Rau can mean “raw” as in cold, or as in simple/unrefined. Reif means “ripe” or reaching fruition as in the exact moment when a star burns out and shoots across the heavens for us to see.

Basically, Rita, if this heavy fog were to freeze tonight as it came into contact with the leaves, the trees, the spider webs between the weeds, it would create the splendid and awe inspiring apparition of a frosty, crystallized, fantasy forest—the condition known as Raureif. You would be fascinated by this scene at dawn’s first light when the sun rises high enough to bounce its reflective power off the frost. The frozen spider webs are made larger and more beautiful than in real life. They sparkle.

If you dare to capture such beauty through a lens, the picture you take might say 1000 words, but it still would not describe the iridescent beauty of Raureif.

Sadly, Raureif is so fragile that sunlight is too powerful for it. As the temperature rises, you watch this delightful world melt before your very eyes. It is so rare for Raureif to last longer than one morning, that one considers oneself lucky indeed to experience it just once in a lifetime.

Riding Cadillac was like that. Iridescent. Enchanting, thrilling, awesome, ethereal…transient. The last time that I rode this great horse was early one frosty morning in the Grand Prix Special at Saugerties. As the sun rose behind us, it cast its powerful light on the Catskills in front of us, and began to warm the air…

Each of the horses I have trained in this life have written another chapter in my book of experience. Except for Cadillac. He was not a writer. He is, and always will be, the raw paper upon which the rest of the stories are written. My quintessential dressage horse.

Namaste, Cadillac. Thank you for landing on my planet.

I’m Catherine Haddad Staller, and I’m sayin’ it like it is from Vechta, Germany.

Training Tip of the Day: Ride from your heart.


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