Stamina isn’t just for horses

Yesterday morning started out with icy roads and overturned cars. Fortunately I wasn’t among them, but I came close to it. My destination was a seminar on horse and rider biomechanics, presented by my trainer Karin Bielefeld. In spite of the road hazards the event hosted a full house (which may have given us the misleading impression that we weren’t as cold as we thought we were). The fact that for eight frigid hours we all paid attention, asked questions, followed instructions, and wanted even more attested to the interest and enthusiasm brought to the table by all involved. Consider this sufficient explanation for all of us looking like we are bundled up for an arctic excursion.


Did someone leave some giant jawbreakers out here?

This was the scene that greeted participants as they entered the riding arena. It doesn’t look like it has much to do with biomechanics, but those who were wondering were not left uninformed for long.


A campfire would have been nice in the middle of this circle.

This deck area is right next to the ring, and it’s the perfect place to set up whatever props you need to illustrate what you’re talking about. Every participant had a folder chock full of information to keep and study after each presentation and discussion. The special thing about this particular seminar is that it embraced two parts, one theory and one actual riding. Auditors got to experience everything the riders did in the preliminary presentations even though they would not be riding an actual horse later on in the day. So, back to those big rubber balls…


The rider sitting on the ball quickly discovers that the slightest movement affects the ball. In the same manner, the rider pushing his seat forward or backward, sitting to one side or the other, moving only one seat bone forward, sitting more heavily on one seat bone, or even tightening only one buttock will move the ball, even if only incrementally. By the same token, these incremental movements can also be felt by the horse. Which is why riders often get the “wrong”  results, or unintended results, when they are unaware that these small movements can have such a direct cause and effect.


Here everyone gets to see for themselves how easy it is to influence the movement of the horse underneath you. The direction the ball moves from your pressure on it is the direction of the pressure felt by the horse in accordance with your movement. By sitting across from one another each person could look at another’s movement and track the movement of the ball.

Now that everyone felt how many different ways they could move their seat it was time to see how core movements could also travel all the way up the reins to the horse’s mouth. Who knew?


Here we have a “horse”, on the left, and a “rider” on the right. The “horse” holds the bit in one hand and aims to detect any difference in the bit position or pressure generated by the fingers, arms, core, back, or chest of the “rider”.  The “horses” were astounded to discover how every tiny tweak, every smallest half-halt, causes a definitive movement of the bit. Even moving one seat bone forward or tightening the abs creates a feeling through the bit! Imagine how annoyed a horse must feel at a rider who is constantly fiddling with the bit or moving various parts of their body around! No wonder they often seem to tune us out!


Everybody got a chance to be both “horse” and “rider”. The hard chairs helped the “riders” feel where their seat bones were at any given point in time.

Having acquired some experience with body position and contact, participants next got to experience balance–both their own and that of the horse. Behold the balance beam–

beam front1WEB

This very low balance beam can be a difficult proposition if you aren’t allowed to look down. Some participants veered off after only a couple of steps. The solution becomes a matter of trust.

beam front2WEB

It’s quite simple if you can just rest your hands on a consistently level surface that you trust. These sidewalkers provide a consistent unchanging support, not holding the person up but providing a reference point she can have confidence in. This carries over to the idea of the horse accepting the bit and using it to create his own balance. When the horse knows that a consistent reliable contact will be there, he can rest comfortably on the bit without leaning on it and without the rider pulling on it. After experimenting with this phenomenon only once, the human participants could rest on their partners’ support and easily walk the beam without looking down.

Along the way scattered among these exercises and experiments were informational nuggets about what dressage really is and where it came from, what “aids” are and how a horse understands them, signs to look for that your horse is relaxed, cardiovascularly fit, and mentally ready to work with you. Also included in the information folder given to each participant was a series of drawings and explanatory text detailing the physical structure of the horse and how each part must develop to enable horse and rider to work together. On the last page we are consoled with this message: “In closing dressage is very simple and straightforward. It’s understanding why that’s hard!”

This got us up to lunch time. Home made hot crock pot meals provided by barn volunteers. Most welcome!

Next it was on to the lessons for the riders. In the interest of not making your eyes glaze over, I will present only three that illustrated specific points not usually seen in riding clinics.

The mare above had an unusually intense episode of distraction and unruliness upon entering the ring. The rider is an accomplished equestrian. Nevertheless, she was making little progress quieting the horse enough to have a productive ride. Karin’s solution was the exact opposite of what we usually see trainers and riders doing in such a case, which is, lunge or chase the horse until it’s had enough and gives up the behavior. The solution  related precisely to points made earlier in the morning about determining if your horse is mentally prepared to work with you. The horse was turned loose in the ring, and the rider was instructed to quiet her mind and body and concentrate only on the horse and her own quietness. She had a lunge whip which initially she held vertically between her body and the horse (the horse was quite pushy) but used it only to direct the horse occasionally, not incite it to action. The horse was allowed to go where it wished as long as it did not stop at any point to get distracted by the audience or perhaps investigate the muck bucket in a corner. Then it was gently prodded recognize the rider and to move along. Eventually it would occasionally stop and look at the rider, sometimes taking a few steps toward her. The rider was then instructed to walk away from the horse, which then followed her. When the horse had repeated its tactics of trotting off and returning to follow a few times, horse and rider eventually stopped and faced each other a few feet apart. The rider mentally invited the horse to enter her space, which after some consideration it did and was rewarded with some soft strokes. The rider was then able to mount with a vastly reduced level of fuss and Karin directed her how to use her body to keep the low-key spirit going. The mare was still a bit tense, but as the ride progressed she became increasingly relaxed and as you can see in the two photos above her body language went from stiff to flowing. The auditors could clearly see this progression, which is not often so obvious in clinics where the horses are for the most part obedient and cooperative.


Cute western horse shows dressage is good for everybody.

Our second example above is short and sweet. The rider was puzzled about her cute western horse’s tendency to always want to turn left away from the wall. This was a super easy fix once Karin helped her realize that she rode with her body tilted to the left!

robin trotWEB

Go along, get along.

This is a paint mare who is one of those incredible “all-purpose” horses–she jumps, she does barrel racing, she does dressage. She is sensitive, but here she is happily going along until…

In the left photo, she is getting very annoyed at her rider, who has become too active for her. Too many confusing and/or annoying signals. In the right photo, she is launching into her protest buck. Lesson for rider: keep it quiet! Just like we all experienced on the exercise balls and with the “horse and rider” bridle experiment!

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“I’m Lovin’ it” (not Mickey D’s)


sky pads 21WEB

Maybe 10 hours later, a finished product. Sky Pads 21.

This image is pretty close to reality. It always helps to be able to photograph in some good light.

I mentioned earlier that I would post Sky Pads 17 side by side with this one so you can see what I borrowed from the first one to create this one–since I have pretty much run out of source material until the lily pads reappear in spring.

I did relocate the center portion of 17, moving it down a bit to weight the lower portion of 21 and eliminating some reflections. The rest I skipped since 21 was a vertical and no more content was needed.

So now what? I really don’t want to wait at least 2 more months for wintry Michigan to decide it’s spring, so I may make one more slow trudge through my mountains of photos and see if I can come up with just one more idea. Don’t worry, you all will be the first to know!

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21 taking shape


sky pads 21 1pass

Sky Pad 21’s pads all blocked in

This is basically how the painting will look. It won’t change much from here except to enhance the values between lights and darks. No new colors, just a bit more drama. Probably one more pass. Oh wait, yesterday I was thinking maybe some blue in the darkest areas…we’ll see! I’ll also put the finished version of 21 and 17 side by side so you can figure out what I stole from 17 to make this one.

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21, but only drinking pond water


sky pads 21 wash

Sky Pads 21, background color wash and drawing

There was one warm-ish day a week or so ago, and I took advantage of it. Normally I pour paint washes on a really hot day, around 90F so that the pigment will pull together as the paint thinner rapidly dries and create nice striated patterns in the preliminary wash. 50F wasn’t exactly what I wished for, but it was what I had. So I decided to try the pour anyway and see what happened. Otherwise I would be waiting till summer for my next Sky Pads rendition.

It’s hard to see both on the canvas and in the photo, but I did get some delicate results. I’m glad I kept this layer thin so that I can put a really thin layer of lily pads over it like I did in Sky Pads 17. I cribbed the lily pads from #17 also, and when I have them blocked in I’ll let you know exactly what I did. It’s sort of an emergency measure when you’ve run out of source material until your lily pads pop up in the pond next spring…

PS: I just got word I’ve been accepted into three art fairs this summer–really nice big ones! Best of all is at the Chicago Botanical Garden, which wants only botanical artwork and has a special “members only” preview on Friday night before the Saturday and Sunday event. Hope the members like water lilies!

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Saga of a dog portrait

izzy final

Portrait of Izzy, watercolor on Aquabord™

Back in early December one of my barn friends had to put down her now aged, beloved dog, Izzy. She was absolutely crushed, and our barn manager asked me to do a portrait as a surprise for her to give to the owner. If you’ve read my last post, you will have devined that Portugal got quite in the way of that portrait, so I didn’t get started until mid-January.

Finding a suitable photo was also a bit of an obstacle. There were several on the owner’s Facebook page, but none that were either sharp enough or posed well enough to make a good portrait. It’s always somewhat of an iffy research project when you’re trying to locate a good photo without letting the recipient know about it! We finally got a black and white one from her sister, and fortunately the dog also happened to be black and white so color wasn’t an issue. Except for the collar. Back to Facebook to find a color photo with the collar visible!

So I delivered the finished painting yesterday and I already knew about the plot to present the surprise. It worked: Give the recipient a box of tissues. She will ask what’s that for? (she did ask). Wrapped painting is handed over. Recipient unwraps it, bursts into tears, exclaims “it looks just like her” and swipes several tissues from the box. Everyone laughs and hugs. Mission accomplished. Sweet!!

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Portugal, condensed, sort of

Greg (aka “the SO”) and I visited Portugal for a week and a half over the Christmas/New Years holidays. I have just uploaded 75 photos for this blog and have little sense of how to keep you interested in them. My initial thought is to just caption them and let the photos tell the rest, so here goes…

welcome wing

Meet my newest favorite international airline. Aer Lingus has great employees, on-time service, comfortable seats and…good food! Who knew? Oh yeah, and the price was so right!

All of the photos have explanatory notes. Hover over lower edge of the photo, then click on the text to start browsing and reading the captions.

The Lay of the Land



Sintra is a small town about 40 minutes by train from Lisbon. It features a couple of palaces and a castle, occupied over centuries dating back to the 1500’s–earlier if you want to count the Moors who held court there before the Crusaders arrived in 1147. The town itself is super-picturesque and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We only visited one palace, the Palacio Nacional da Pena, but that took up several hours!

Here’s a little video of the kitchen in the palace–L-O-V-E this kitchen, but would need a big staff to keep it going!


Museum Hopping

There are so many museums of all types in and around Lisbon that you could spend a lifetime and not see them all. We got totally “museum-ed”-out but here are a few of the highlights. First we had to get to Belem, a short bus ride from our Lisbon BnB.

The MAAT is a really new museum–it opened in 2016–designed pretty much without any right angles. I shot this video from underneath a huge net full of discarded ocean trash which was created by Tadashi Kawamata to draw attention to the proliferation of plastic debris in our oceans. This enormous round space holds various temporary exhibits but this one is especially impressive for the way it makes its statement.


Just for neon freaks

Since Greg is a neon artist, he took particular note of what seemed to us to be an unusual quantity of neon lighting on Lisbon streets and even in the museums. So here’s a smaller assortment of what we found and why we thought much of it was rather oddly constructed, at least by USA standards.

The neon below was the title of the China-Portugal contemporary art exhibit at the Berardo, some of which appeared in the museum section above. “Saudade” doesn’t have a direct translation from Portuguese, but it refers to a Portuguese state of mind or soul which generally conveys a desire for a past moment that may be forever unattainable. It is the central feature of Portugal’s famous fado music. More on that in a bit. Here’s the sign that introduced the Chinese/Portuguese art.


Odd & Ends

It’s probably a good idea after all this serious stuff to end on a somewhat light note. In that spirit, the rest of this blog will present a short mish-mash of stuff we found entertaining, worthy of a little spoofing, or just making fun of ourselves as tourists.


And Fado

We debated what seemed like forever before we finally accidentally came upon a Yelp! rating for a fado bar that seemed to be just right. There were so many complaints about it not having good food, or not having much space, or having surly staff, or shushing people who talked during a performance, that we immediately agreed that it probably was not a typical tourist joint and that we might actually get to hear something genuine. WE WERE RIGHT!!! The performers are not necessarily professional at this place, but they are real. They understand the “saudade” I mentioned earlier, and sing of their personal despair in a way only a genuine soul-seeker can. One of them was so extraordinary that I doubt we will ever find his equal again. We listened to a lot of recording by famous fado “stars” before we took the trip, and this guy was in a class all by himself. We were so lucky to experience this, and also so lucky to recognize it as truly extraordinary.


Posted in art, horses, museums, Portugal, random thoughts, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

Short things in winter

Since we’re only a few short days into January, I thought I would make a very short post about Sky Pads 20. It’s finished! That is all…

The significant other said, “It looks like a fantasy”. I agreed.

Coming soon, a new pet portrait. Oh yeah, and that Portugal post I haven’t found time to pull together yet.

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