Meet a real-life Rita! She is a young filly that I bred in Germany a few years ago. Coming 3 years old now, she is out of a lovely Damon Hill mare and by my ex-stallion, Romanesque.
Rita will be bred this spring and broken in over the summer. After her foal is weaned next year, her life as a sport horse will begin! I’m thinking of young Rita and her future in our world as I write this blog.
Let’s go back 5,500 years to an era when horses had not yet been bred as sport animals. Let’s assume that an ancestor of Rita’s is a 3-year-old mare with her first foal still at foot. She lives in a wild herd of horses that occasionally makes contact with Botai humanoids on the Steppes of today’s Kazakhstan.
Prehistoric Rita is curious young mare, getting tired and bored with motherhood. She contemplates the feisty colt that frolics over to her for a tug on her udder After quenching his thirst, he kicks her on her belly as he sprints off to join his young friends in the herd. He is self-confident and has grown a bit rude. It’s time to send him packing.
The next time he wanders over to her, she fends him off with a not so gentle cow-kick to the chest and turns her gaze toward the encampment of Botai herdsmen just at the edge of the horizon. I’m going to wander over there and check out those humans. What’s the worst that can happen?
Horses were domesticated by human beings over 5,500 years ago. They were a food source first and later became more valuable as a mode of transportation and an enabler of the hunt. I am speculating now, but early horses had to have had some level of the “power of association”—the characteristic that allows them to associate a stimulus with a response. Their language. The thing that makes them trainable.
I can imagine that on the Kazakhstani Steppes, a whistle or a cluck meant “come” and was associated with food and, possibly, meaningful work. The beginning of a very simple language between horse and man.
(Think about this, Rita. WHY would a horse agree to be domesticated by man? What did he get out of it? Did he somehow make contact with humans in order to be of service?)
Today, our language has become much more intricate: Tip of the right spur placed on the 10th rib in the proper balance means “canter left.”
I’m skipping a lot of history, but as horses became domesticated and humans set about breeding them for service animals, this power of association became known as trainability or rideability. Breeders of horses have coveted and selectively bred for this characteristic for 5,000 years.
Which causes me often in the quieter moments of a day to reflect: If we have spent 5,000 years breeding horses to do dressage, why is it so difficult? The answer being, of course, that humans have bred ever greater rideability into horses, but we have not bred ever greater language skills into riders.
Yes, WE are learning the language of the horse. Horses already know how to do dressage.
This is why I still have a job, Rita. It is my mission in this lifetime to teach as many people as I can the Language of the Horse.
How does one teach the Language of the Horse? Three ways: oral instruction, visual instruction and feel.
Oral instruction is given to you by an instructor. The more articulate their language skills, the better the instruction becomes. If the instructor truly understands the subject, the more he learns, the more he is able to pass on.
Visual instruction is what you get when you steal with your eyes. This way of learning was always my greatest strength (possibly due to the lack of articulate instructors in my life) and the two decades I spent in Europe fed my hunger for knowledge like no other time in my life. I watched everyone around me and they me. People who learn by watching are often the best in the world at their skill set.
Feel is passed along by the horse himself. And if a horse has already mastered communication with another rider (been well trained), it’s a whole lot easier for him to teach the language to the next rider. Thus, the value of the properly trained horse becomes priceless.
For the young professional, the best trained horses in the world will teach you how to train the most talented horses in the world, and these horses will provide the impetus for other riders to learn from you. They will show careful observers how the language LOOKS, and from that look, riders, trainers and instructors can develop their own language and the feel. Dressage training is, in other words, self-sustaining. But only when it is shared.
I had the great luck to meet three people early in my career who cared enough about the Language of the Horse to encourage and perpetuate its legacy by helping me advance my career. My good friend Albrecht Ayecke, my most influential trainer Willi Schultheis and my original sponsor Janet Schneider invested in me and in the future of dressage by sharing knowledge, skill and financial backing. They all knew that I would pass on what I learned to the next generation of dressage riders and trainers. They knew I would perpetuate the language.
With their help and also with the help of other people that they influenced, I have been able to sustain my own business, buy good horses who taught me how to ride, train with some of the world’s best trainers, and pass along my knowledge to many others in my field. These things may seem secondary to my competitive career as a top international rider, but in fact they have always been the launchpad for my success.
Every rider learns differently, and every rider has different goals in learning to ride. Some of us will develop enough language skills to ride and train Grand Prix horses. Others will only be able to steer their way through the most rudimentary levels of riding. Some will become great teachers of students. But what everyone has in common is a love for the FEELING of riding.
Sitting astride a horse enables us, empowers us and gives a feeling of control and eventually I hope, a window to freedom. I have often said that the best riders reach the pinnacle of their skill when they can give up control of a powerful horse and simply direct his energy toward a moment of expression. But most of us have to gain control before we can let go. And the majority of dressage riders never really learn to set their horses free.
The one thing that we can all say for sure, is that the journey is fine. It enriches our lives, no matter the outcome. I’m looking forward to continuing that journey with my Rita next summer.
I’m Catherine Haddad Staller and I’m saying it like it is from Ludlum Farms in Palm City, Florida.
Training Tip of the Day: Put yourself on the best educated horses your money can buy. It will pay off for you in the long run.
Catherine Haddad Staller lived in Germany for almost 20 years and accumulated more than 120 top-10 placings and wins at Grand Prix during that time. In 2006, she was the team alternate for the FEI World Equestrian Games in Aachen, Germany, and the following year, she finished seventh at the FEI World Cup Finals in Las Vegas with Maximus JSS. She was reserve for the WEG once again in 2010 and rode in the Leipzig FEI World Cup Final (Germany) in 2011. She returned to the USA in 2012 and runs training facilities in New Jersey and Florida. She’s continued to compete internationally at Grand Prix and has also coached many riders at the FEI levels. An avid breeder, Haddad’s foals have taken “best in class” honors at four Hanoverian foal shows in recent years. catherinehaddadstaller.com