Relaxation & Suppleness
with a Classical Approach

By Kelly Fenstermaker

In an otherwise hot and humid day, a cool breeze blows through the large covered arena at the K Bar M Equestrian Center in the Texas Hill Country. Mary Rose, a slender woman with cropped salt and pepper hair, wearing a cordless microphone, holds the longe line to a tall bay Quarter Horse gelding as it circles around her. It’s rider, Karen Kott, a striking blonde and owner this facility, has dropped the reins and is cantering with her arms stretched out dramatically from her sides. “It’s the seat that stabilizes the horse,” says Mary into the microphone as Karen circles around her, looking like a circus performer in training. “You may think it’s the reins that slow the horse down,” she adds, “but it’s your seat.” Without the reins to hold on to, Karen must depend on her balance to ride the horse. By the end of the lesson, she is sitting deep in the saddle as her horse canters in a controlled, relaxed manner.

Studying with Mary Rose is beyond taking lessons from a good riding instructor. It is a transforming experience. She knows how to give the rider a “good seat,” the most important aspect of dressage or any other riding discipline. As a youth learning to ride in Oxford, England, she was required to spend her first five years of lessons on a longe line, without benefit of saddle or bridle. She doesn’t ask this of her students, thank goodness, but she does occasionally work with them on a line, often with outstanding results.

Although Mary is based at the Polo Club in Dripping Springs, Texas, where she trains horses and teaches, she drives to the K Bar M near Boerne every Monday to give lessons in dressage. This weekend, she is here to give a three-day clinic. Eight women, mostly her Monday students who call themselves the Saddle Pal Gals, have enrolled.
“Mary is a true classical rider and I appreciate that,” observers Karen Kott. “I don’t think there are many teaches like her in Texas. We’re lucky to have her.”

Indeed they are. Mary is a Fellow of the British Horse Society, the highest honor awarded to instructors in England. Only 50 Fellows exist in the world. Out of hundreds of applicants, the Society only tests four candidates every three years. Although the British Horse Society is virtually unknown in the United States, it controls all horse activities in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and enjoys a prestigious reputation throughout Europe. Before qualifying to test for the Fellowship, a rider must attain five progressive certifications: Horse Knowledge and Riding, B.H.S. Assistant Instructor, B.H.S. Intermediate Instructor, The Intermediate Teaching Examination, and British Horse Society Instructor. To become a Fellow, riders must excel in horsemanship, which includes jumping, cross county, dressage and driving, as well as horse care, stable management, teaching ability, training horses, first aid, and running a business.

“After I got the Fellowship, I really started learning,” Mary says, a staggering comment considering what she had already accomplished. Mostly she is referring to her experience studying classical dressage with renowned Mestro Nuno Oliveira in Portugal and at his subsequent clinics in Maryland. “There is no one like him today,” she says. “There are several of us who carry on his thoughts and teaching in our hearts as much as we can, and though I was influenced by him, I teach my own methods.”

To come to the United States, Mary left a successful career in competition as well as training professional and Olympic riders. She was initially hired to teach riding at Foxcroft College in Middleburg, Virginia. From there, she moved to establish an equestrian center in Denver, Colorado and in addition to training horses and teaching private students, she held nine month programs devoted to embellishing the skills of riding instructors. Eventually, she opened another equine center in Middletown, Virginia where she continued her work until she bought a farm, her home and place of business for the next 18 years. During her career in Colorado and Virginia, Mary helped to found the US Dressage Federation, founded the Iberian Warm Blood Registry, and was an AHSA, Dressage and Combined Training judge for ten years. Along the way, she managed to write four books. One of them, The Horsemaster’s Notebook, is available in most bookstores.

Now we have Mary in Texas. And for three whole days at the K Bar M. On Day One riders arrive early in the morning, pulling horse trailers. They will each have an individual lesson with Mary and will take turns videoing them for each other. Mary is in the ring aboard her handsome bay Trakehner mare, Bella, instructing Sharon, her first student of the day. Sharon rides Andy, a chestnut Quarter Horse who has never before experienced dressage. “Give him lots of praise with your voice as well as patting him,” advises Mary. They work on “shoulder in” which is good for rounding a horse’s back. “We want him to understand how to move from his rear,” Mary says, and has Sharon work on transitions and quarter turns. “We’ve got to do everything we can to get him to go forward from the back,” Mary is saying, all the while clucking softly to the horse, which seems to reassure him.

When the lessons are finished, we have a late lunch in the shaded pavilion that faces the arena. The facility has a fully equipped kitchen, which is now chock full of food we have brought for three days, but could easily last us a week. After watching the lesson videos, which elicit groans and laughs from the riders and constructive comments from our teacher, Mary shows videos she has brought of dressage horses. We watch them while stuffing ourselves with thick, gooey pizza. At this point everyone is too tired to do another thing, and we retire early to comfortable lodging at the K Bar M.
Day Two. We get out to the barn early to feed and water the horses and make breakfast. Two black horses and a bay graze nearby, accented against a green pasture dotted with trees. They add to the peaceful atmosphere at the K Bar M, deep in rolling, woody hills.

Today, the riders are divided into two groups. One chooses to concentrate on jumping; the other practices quadrille maneuvers, an excellent way to perfect riding skills. After another full day, the horses are washed down and either put in some of the 15 stalls at the center or turned out to pasture. Those outside shake their heads and gallop for the pure joy of being free.

This is Saturday night and we are going out. It’s dinner at Popo’s restaurant in the tiny town of Welfare, just a few minutes away, for a hearty home-style meal. We had talked about taking a moonlight trail ride after dinner, but when the time comes, bed sounds a lot more compelling.

Day Three and we are back to individual lessons. Mary is in the ring with Bianca, an exotic brunette, riding Pinto, her Quarter Horse with nice gaits and who is unflappable in nearly all situations. At age 18, Bianca was thrown from a horse and never came close to another one until two years ago when she began to study with Mary. Now she is doing amazingly well. “You must see with your seat,” Mary advises Bianca as she circles the arena at a trot. “You have eyes there. They’re called the seat bones.” Bianca appreciates the way Mary doesn’t give her too many directions, only what she can assimilate at one time. “I want riding to be fun,” she says, “and I want to ride Pinto to the best of my ability and his ability.”

In these final lessons, the improvements we are making are quite noticeable, and there are even some major breakthroughs. Jackie on Don Amante, her huge gray Lusitano, is among them. “Mary taught me how to ride a collected canter today,” she says breathlessly. Because of his size, Donnie tends to be heavy on his forehand and heavy to ride. To correct this, Mary has Jackie take Donnie through transitions from walk to canter, canter to walk, over and over again, telling her step by step how to do it. After a while Donnie begins to lighten up in his shoulders and have much more energy in his hind legs. “Yes, yes!” shouts Mary. “Well done.” Jackie said she could sense her horse becoming light in her hands and that “it felt like I was riding a cloud.”

My lesson is the last of the day. I ride Tree Top, a lovely, tall Thoroughbred mare who has been loaned to me. As a beginner in dressage, I am the least accomplished of the group, but have already become addicted to taking lessons with Mary. We begin on the longe line. Tree Top has smooth gaits with a long reach and is a delight to ride. As she has before, Mary gives me exercises to develop a balanced seat. One of them is to stand in the stirrups with hands outstretched in front, at a trot. To do it without toppling over requires perfect balance. When I get this down fairly well, Mary suggests moving into a canter. I feel stiff and uneasy in the gait. “Let yourself feel the canter,” she urges. I try, and Tree Top begins to relax with me. “Let go of the reins and hold your arms out to your sides,” Mary commands. I had watched Karen do this on the first day but never expected to be able to do it myself. Amazingly, I can. Mary unhooks the longe line; I take the reins and circle Tree Top at a canter on my own, relaxed and more in balance than I can ever remember.

I leave the K Bar M tired but on a high, a different person, stronger and more confident. My learning curve on horseback will no doubt have its ups and downs, but I’ll never lose what I got from Mary. And until her next clinic, I’ll keep practicing seeing with my seat bones.

For more information about Mary Rose’s dressage classes and clinics in the San Antonio area: Jackie Kelly, 830-981-9795; Austin area: Mary Rose, 512-589-3796; Houston area: Diane Matthews, 281-351-8368

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