Jec A. Ballou

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The longer I stay in this profession, the more I value experiences that facilitate what Zen teachers call “Beginner’s Mind,” which recently took the form of an early morning listening to Corazon chew his hay.

Jec Ballou, horse trainer, jec aristotle ballou, western dressage, jec ballou, dressage exercises for horse and rider, equine fitness

It took me longer than it should to respect the necessity of lightness when giving my horse a cue from the saddle. “If I can see your aids, you’re doing too much,” my mother barked at me, to which I usually replied by rolling my eyes. Granted, devotion to invisible, gentle aids ran deep in the company of classical dressage students and teachers we kept. My mother was not the only one pushing for more refinement. Still, though, I assumed it had to do with keeping a certain aesthetic ideal.

Jec Ballou, horse trainer, jec aristotle ballou, western dressage, jec ballou, dressage exercises for horse and rider, equine fitness

It sounded like one of those Zen riddles intended to puzzle my 13-year-old brain until it staggered upon some flicker of enlightenment. “Forward does not mean faster,” my dressage instructor annunciated, her exasperation rising. And then with the next breath she waggled her longe whip towards me to assist in creating a forward-but-not-faster movement.

Jec Ballou, horse trainer, jec aristotle ballou, western dressage, jec ballou, dressage exercises for horse and rider, equine fitness

What counts as calisthenics? And why do they matter? Luckily, someone interrupted my rhapsody during a clinic last week praising the value of calisthenics for developing equine athletes. What exactly did I mean by calisthenics? the student asked. She was probably not alone in wondering, lost as I was describing the power of these exercises.

Jec Ballou, horse trainer, jec aristotle ballou, western dressage, jec ballou, dressage, exercises for horse and rider, equine fitness

The more we learn about horses’ anatomy and body mechanics, the more it becomes clear how riding and training can alter their bodies, and not always in positive ways. As we observe just how fragile and delicate these animals are beneath the surface it can be tempting to question whether we should be riding them in the first place.

Jec Ballou, horse trainer, jec aristotle ballou, western dressage, jec ballou, dressage, exercises for horse and rider, equine fitness

When Western Dressage first established itself, we instructors struggled to describe the requirements of a “working lope” clearly enough for students. We wanted to be sure to differentiate it from the stilted gaits seen in the Western Pleasure discipline, and yet it was also not the animated jumping-across-the-ground canter of the traditional dressage world.

Jec Ballou, horse trainer, jec aristotle ballou, western dressage, jec ballou, dressage, exercises for horse and rider, equine fitness

Since I advocate strongly for dressage horses to also ride trails regularly, I found myself years ago implementing a rule or mantra that applied to any time spent in either of these experiences: on-the-buckle OR on-the-bit. Essentially, this boils down to riders keeping their horses in one of these states at any given time.

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