Jennie Loriston-Clarke and a Sour Horse at the Royal Windsor Horse Show, 2003

So, to the Royal Windsor Horse Show.  Beth Ann and I were wide-eyed tourists for sure, no real clue what we were getting into–not like any US horse show in SO many fascinating ways. We didn’t have nearly the time we wanted at the show but enjoyed every minute. The last class we saw was the Horse and Hound British Isles Riding Horse Championship, in the Castle Arena, judged by Mrs. AG Loriston-Clarke. THAT Jennie Loriston-Clarke. 4-times rode for Great Britain in the Olympics. I had read about her, though US TV Olympic coverage in 1984 & ’88 did not show any but US riders’ dressage rounds and not much of that. Grr. Anyway, I wanted to see her ride the entries, which I knew British judges did, and got to railside early.

There were twelve entries. They came in looking glossy and perfectly groomed, of course, and began their first circuit of the ring. Eleven were moving smoothly, fluidly, necks arched, obviously perfectly trained and behaving exactly as you’d hope if you were the owner or rider. One, despite being equally beautiful…was not a happy horse and was resisting its rider. Above the bit, fighting the bit, the rider getting redder in the face as the horse did not settle down once in the ring but kept on with the argument. It looked almost as if a half-trained horse of no great quality had somehow been substituted for the kind of horse the others were, given a polish-up grooming and a rider who was supposed to “make him behave.” (My own suspicion even then was that this was a catch-rider and the horse’s usual rider/trainer was injured or sick.)  The horses were in double-bridles, and all the riders but one were finding their horses perfectly happy with that, but not this one. I felt sorry for the horse, and rider, though I did wonder why the rider thought jerking the horse’s mouth would make things better. The horse was tying its neck in knots, and with that hollow back gave the rider a rough ride so I forgave (having ridden such horses) the bumping in trot and the rather awkward look of the pair. It broke into canter on the wrong lead, fought being brought back to trot, went on the correct lead roughly and the rider was bumping like an anvil, which didn’t help. In the hand gallop it lunged and pulled and veered, and when asked to come back to a canter and then trot, that nose was up again, and the rider was clearly having a very hard time. My first horse, when I started leasing him, had a very rough trot like that, always fighting to break to a run, and a canter that was like trying to ride a washing machine spinning and unbalanced load.  Eight or so months later I could ride his trot and canter bareback, but it took all of those months, 5-6-7 days a week riding, a less severe bit, time bitless in halter and shank, a lot of time just walking around in the ring and outside, getting his confidence, and even then if he got excited or if his then owner rode him, he’d brace his neck above the bit and pull like a tractor.

Of the other 11, I tried putting them in order, best down to fourth, as I watched them all walk, trot, canter, and hand gallop then come down to walk and line up in two rows to await the judge’s ride. Loriston-Clarke made slightly less than a full round of the ring with each one, and with the well-mannered ones there was nothing particular to see other than very good horses under a very good rider, like the ones who’d shown them. She rode quietly, with quiet hands and quiet legs; they weren’t dressage horses, so she did only what any good rider on a well-trained horse would do: test the gaits and willingness and feel. But the unhappy horse..shifting about in the line, snatching at the bits, switching its tail…that one looked like it would be a handful. Loriston-Clarke is not a very tall woman and this was a horse well over 16 hands, to my recollection. An assistant had brought out a mounting step for her and carried it from horse to horse, then held the horse still.

I was standing between the grandstand and the pavilion at the far end of the ring from the entrance gate…a members-only pavilion…so the horse in question was turned away from me to reach the other end of the ring, so I couldn’t see much right then…the other horses helped block my view,though I saw the head toss up when it reached the end and was asked move on the rail. Once, twice, the head toss showing above the others, nose high…and then it was completely blocked by the intervening horses until it had turned that corner and was coming down the far side. No more head toss. The horse that reappeared was moving better: not perfectly, but the nose was where it should be, head steady, correct curve in the neck, the back not as hollow. As I watched, in awe and wonder, the stride lengthened, the back came up, the neck softened, showing no resistance in the muscle at the front of the neck.  She had used maybe a quarter of the distance around the ring to achieve this.

What was she *doing*?? I strained to see, wishing I had binoculars. The horse looked, for the first time, like it belonged in that ring, in a championship ring. When she asked for a canter, the horse responded smoothly, correctly.  They were closer now and I was trying to see what she did with her hands, her legs (seat is invisible; you have to know what it should be but the horse defines if it’s right.) What I saw was quietness. Quiet hands, a firm upright body, quiet legs.  Any movements, any aids, were minimal.   It was all that horse needed.  I saw the slight movement of her inside calf on the canter depart–only because I was looking for it. They approached the end of the ring, and on the turn back she asked for hand gallop…and got it without any tossing of the horse’s head. When she asked the horse to slow again, they were close enough I could just see the slight movement of her outside leg and outside hand…hardly more than a touch on the curb rein with her little finger, and a slight closing of the other fingers. The horse ‘picked itself up’  into more collection to slow from hand gallop to a pleasant, elegant canter, nothing fussy, nothing “loud” just a perfect downshift, and then into trot, and then a return to its place in the line. And it was a happy horse, expressing pride in itself and its performance with its big springy walk and a square halt for her to dismount.

In terms of quality of movement and apparent rideability, that horse had gone from “Why is it even in this class?” to equal or almost equal to the horse I’d thought would win the class (and that horse did.) I remember looking at Beth and saying “THAT is what I want to be, to some horse someday.  THAT is what dressage should be about, too.” And with Loriston-Clarke, it was. What she did with that horse became my gold standard for how to interact with horses, how to ride, what to strive for–-to be the rider that an upset, unhappy horse can be eased by, calmed by, and then show its potential to. To be the rider that lets a horse sigh with pleasure, saying “At last, someone who understands me.” Because the horse’s expression across the ring, when it was opening up for her was a sigh of relief, an “At last…” relaxation of all resistance.

I hadn’t previously thought of upper-level dressage riders (not even my friend Kathleen, who was a more sensitive rider than most) as having that kind of effect, though Podhajsky, in his books on riding and training, had talked about it. But the dressage I’d seen always seemed forced, less responsive to the horse than forcing the horse’s response to the person by simply grinding down resistance with the hours and hours and hours of repetitive practice, boring the horse into compliance. This was completely different–she had maybe 3/4 of the ring to make a difference in that horse by conveying to it that she could give it what it needed to show itself at its best.

So when I get annoyed with a horse, a horse that (like Rags) sometimes throws his head around, gapes his mouth open when I’m just asking for a minimal bend at the poll, doesn’t want to stop on the way home (for instances we’ve had), I remember Jennie Loriston-Clarke on that horse and remind myself what I *really* want to be as a rider. That. And when I get annoyed with dressage riders online or on TV, and am grumping about overbent horses, excess force,  upset horses,  I remember her and remind myself that she has an Olympic medal but could still be that subtle, that sympathetic, that helpful, to a non-dressage horse. Can I sit that quietly? Are my hands that calm and responsive? Can I figure out why Rags is stiffening up and resisting, and instead of pushing or pulling more, figure out what *he* needs to carry me around more comfortably?  I will never be as good a rider as she is…but I can try to grasp the spirit of that lesson she gave everyone watching.

5 thoughts on “Jennie Loriston-Clarke and a Sour Horse at the Royal Windsor Horse Show, 2003

  1. WOW. So much in there that can apply to all life’s social interactions. Parenting, teaching, effective NCO. I don’t know why l flashed back to Paks as l read this. Must be past time to reread the series. Refinished Serrano last fall. Redoing Bujold now.

  2. I remember you mentioning this at the time. It made an impression, that a great person allows the other to look good, or at least that’s what I took away from it.

    Lucky Rags, to have you.

  3. Thank you! Horses always know when their rider is – shall we say less than comfortable – aboard them, and are apt to play up. I know that’s one reason why I never learnt to ride properly; I simply wasn’t comfortable and the horse – pony, in this case – knew it. Loriston-Clarke is amazing (as, indeed, is Charlotee Dujardin, the current British champion, who taught my niece at one stage). One of the things I love about watching the Spanish Riding School horses in Vienna (not that I’ve been lucky enough to see them live, alas) is the way they ask their horses to do whatever it is, almost without moving a finger.

  4. In the White Stallion of Lipizza I seem to recall that M. Henry had Hans looking at a picture of himself and Maestoso Borina and finally understanding that his riding was eclipsed by the horse and that was as it should be. I think a lot of people (including myself) have trouble being subtle enough in their aids and in being prompt enough in reaction to the horse (give a small squeeze and the split second the horse moves release). I love that we can all make steps towards that goal and hope that all remember that goal.

    1. That’s another one of Henry’s books that I didn’t get for Christmas, I guess because I was thought too old for it. Grrr. But yes, as a rider (and a trainer in general) I am NOT good enough at reacting instantly to a horse’s reaction when it’s offered a bit shyly, but all too likely to tighten up when a horse tenses…which is good for neither of us. With a horse like Rags, whose reactions are not particularly fast, for a horse, I can…but with a “hot” horse not so much. Though the only time I’ve actually been on Tigger, when I went up to check him out, I did, but the trainer there didn’t want me to give him more rein (they had him forced into a park-horse type shape and I was told he would “take off” if given any leeway at all. What I felt in my seat, though, was his relaxation for an instant before they badgered me into shortening rein again. And then I found out later he had that scar across his tongue, which was why he had the tongue over the bit. ARGH!) Anyway, at least until I’m riding a lot better, a horse with duller reactions is safer for both me and the horse. If I stiffen when Rags stiffens, he slows down and wants reassurance, so I breathe and relax my seat enough and then he’s fine.

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