Let’s Review

Inconsistency in my riding schedule has paved the way for me to let all of my old bad habits creep back in. I had a make-up lesson over the weekend which was the first time I’d ridden in two and a half weeks. For the most part, I was pleased with my ability to retain some of the finer points we’d been working on before the end of the year. There was, however, one glaring exception: I’m still a giant pushover.

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The worst part about this particular flaw when it comes to riding, is that it masquerades as a positive quality. I give myself a pass knowing that I’m never going to be the one people are worried about being rough with their horses or hauling on a horse’s mouth. Nope. My flaws damage in a different way. I will let your horse get away with way too much shit. I am a poor match with clever, opinionated horses. I think I’m being nice, instead I am untraining them. I am working on it. (But apparently need reminders to work on it)

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During my lesson we did an exercise working on getting some true bend to complete 10m circles- easy enough, right? We were doing okay, Lou was putting in some effort and I had a handle on most of his evasions. Then he started bracing a little and bending his neck in without bending the rest of his body. I recognized the problem and started trying to put him back in a more correct left bend. Two laps later, he finally gave a little and stood up straight enough to make the turn. “Well, he finally got there- you basically let him decide to offer that bend, but it took two laps- that’s not good enough. It’s not like you are asking him to try something difficult or new.” She was right, of course. The second I raised the expectations, asked first, then insisted, he was all johnny-on-the-spot. She also reminded me that while he is totally capable of easily honoring my request, he isn’t prepared to stay that way without reminders. I can give when he gives but then I need to re-ask before he loses it completely.

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In summary: basically this post from this summer. How soon we forget… hilarious because he was pulling the same crap on me this weekend as he was in that lesson.

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Things I learned from watching my trainer ride for 5 min:space

  • Her aids are much more decisive than mine. Sometimes my aids have question marks attached to the end… sponging the right rein? Like I’m still not sure it is going to have the desired response so I pose it to Louie as a question. Obviously I am not going to have all the right answers now and I will make mistakes but I realized that I need to be more decisive with my aids if I am going to improve. Maybe it will even help eliminate some of those times when things go well but I have no idea what made the difference.
  • Her aids are sharper and it makes him sharper. Don’t misread this- I realize “sharp” tends to carry a certain connotation. I don’t mean to say that she is overly forceful. I just realized that there is a difference between how she communicates with him and how I do, and she helps him be more sensitive and sometimes the way I communicate with him makes him dull. It is a little bit of an art to use as much (leg, rein, pressure) as needed and to apply it in the correct manner. You can tighten your calf muscle, you can brush the horse’s side with your leg, you can squeeze, you can tap, you can pony kick- and these all can create a different response. My lessons help me decide which combinations are the most effective. But I still find myself squeezing where there should have been a tap and pulling and leaning where it would have been much more effective and maybe even kinder to have used more initial force and then immediately release. I think I’m being nice and instead I am just muddying the message and giving him an out.
  • She repeats things often. She corrects and asks quickly and then releases the second he complies. If the quality changes or he even considers changing it, she repeats the same steps. It was very obviously more effective this way than asking sooooo quietly and timidly for an extended length of time and then finally getting some semblance of the correct response and then holding your breath and hoping it doesn’t change and then not realizing it changed until it’s too late and you have to start all over from the beginning… I mean, I have no idea who would ride this way but they should really cut it out ;-). So, if you repeat the question early and often, eventually, you may only have to repeat half the question or you may not even have to repeat it. No one ever really explained that it might require repeating every few steps- and that’s actually just fine.
  • That sweet release. This is straight up muscle memory for her. Releasing the pressure is like not an active thought for her but a trained, automatic response. I am getting better and better with this but it still isn’t automatic. It probably has more to do with how I ask in the first place- if my aids start to get long, drawn-out, too wishy-washy, and naggy, then it’s really hard to feel that moment where a release is needed. If I can make the whole process quicker and every “ask” comes with a “release” then I think it will become easier to sort out the timing of the release and, of course, not forget about the release.
  • It’s not personal. He is not getting crooked, or swapping the bend just on you- he does that with her too (or tries to). So, it’s not necessarily because you are doing something wrong- could be, but not necessarily. She doesn’t make an issue out of it, she just fixes it or doesn’t allow it.

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It was a good reminder and I am going to put these BACK to good use in my upcoming rides. What is the most glaring thing you forget after a long break from riding?

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Food for the Soul

I was chatting with a friend and fellow rider the other day about how technical riding is an interesting hobby and an odd form of therapy. We were both having stressful weeks at work and were discussing how much of a bright spot our dressage lessons were in our week. I commented how strange it is that an hour of intense, focused, detailed, physical study was so completely relaxing and therapeutic. Sometimes my head is aching from stress at work but maybe switching gears to being more physically technical instead of just mentally technical makes all the difference.

Some days I drift in and out of being truly present in my lessons. I wholly trust my trainer and I feel like there are times when I am just a conduit letting her instruction and intuition just flow through me to the horse. This will build some muscle memory for me in the long run so I am not going to beat myself up too much for not being the initiator 100% of the time. This is the part that is relaxing. The opposite side of the coin is the mental learning aspect. The part when I am fully present, and owning the decisions I make. These moments have the potential of being frustrating as I don’t always make the right decisions but the accountability forces the growth. Of course sometimes the frustration comes not from the decision itself but rather in a “missed translation” from mind to body which is why I think both of these stages are essential and beneficial in the right balance.

I’m sure some of the relaxation has to do with the reduction in pressure. At work there are people counting on me to do my job and do it well. It is a healthy source of pressure most of the time and sometimes actually helps me perform at my best. What’s different about riding is that no one is counting on me to become a better rider (okay, except maybe the horse!) The “pressure” to perform and improve is 100% self-initiated. I suppose you could say in this way that it is all carrot and no stick, which is mostly true! I don’t rely on my riding skills for my livelihood and since no one pays me to perform I also don’t have the inherent feeling of obligation. But there is also a little bit of personal pride which comes with improving for the sake of improving- yet another motivator.

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I’m so lucky to have a healthy outlet for stress and a hobby that sure keeps me on my toes!

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Back to School

As a good student of horsemanship (trying to be) I sometimes think riding lessons ought to include a classroom element. Now, if that truly were the case in most lesson programs I would grow to loathe that portion of my studies and probably be doodling horses in my notebook and failing to pay enough attention. Hey! just like REAL school!

Maybe it is because I am more of a visual learner or maybe it is because it is just really hard to understand vague concepts but sometimes those aha! moments hit me when the concept is illustrated and explained more thoroughly. During a riding lesson there is rarely enough time to give a full explanation of the “concepts”. Instructors tend to favor guiding you into (hopefully) correct positions/actions to start you building some muscle memory. Obviously this is also super valuable but sometimes I need a little more than “see how Horse did what you asked there? good job!” as explanation/validation of those actions.

Here’s an example:

Bending. I work on it quite often in my lessons and it is a huge part of what every rider must focus on at some point during every ride. I know that my past instructors have vocally guided me into better positioning that, in turn, allows the horse to bend. But I never really understood the mechanics behind it. Until I read this blog post by Bonnie Walker on Dressage Different. The way she explains what the rider’s body must look like and why, tugged on a spiderweb-covered chain and FINALLY lit up that light bulb for me. Because honestly, if no one breaks this one down for you… it’s a little counterintuitive. It would not be my natural inclination to allow my hips to be separate from my shoulders during a turn and allow my hips to point away from the direction of travel. Humans are vertically oriented so my shoulders stack on top of my hips preventing me from having to “account” for a back-end when turning but, as Bonnie explained, any four-legged critter (even a crawling human) does! It was hugely illuminating to me to think of myself in the position of the “four-legger” while riding and mirror hips for hips and shoulders for shoulders with the horse.

Okay go ahead and sneak in a big old eye-roll and, for all you 90s kids, a great big DUH!!

Maybe Equinovice has been living under a rock but I’m telling you I didn’t understand this concept until mere moments ago and I have been taking riding lessons for over 6 years now with 6 different instructors and multiple disciplines. Now you might be thinking well, your instructors were not very good then. This is simply untrue. I have actually been quite lucky in that respect and have had the privilege of learning under some fabulous instructors. I am just acknowledging that there are some instances where “in the saddle” experience alone may fall short of truly teaching. My call to action is really to the STUDENTS here: Actively seek fuller explanations of riding concepts. If something is unclear in the saddle, remember to ask your instructor about it later and do your own research.

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Transitions

My transitions suck. I know this elusive beast will haunt me for many years to come and maybe I’m still too novice to really be fretting about it, but the fact of the matter is, I am having a hard time grasping the concept. I have been slowly gaining on concepts like “forwardness”, “rhythm”, and even my “seat” but “transition” remains a word I can’t yet translate. Admittedly, it may have something to do with the fact that I don’t understand “collection” or “roundness” either. I mean seriously…what is it? I read about it in books. Dressage clinicians harp on it. Rumor has it it’s something you should have. I don’t know what it looks like, what it feels like, if I’ve ever done it, if I’ve never done it…and I have no idea how to get it. But, first things first, right? I am pleased about the progress I can see I have made to date, but know it is a life sport governed by adaptation rather than mastery.

The whole thing makes me laugh a little bit, especially when my coworkers and friends ask with confused expressions on their faces, “don’t you know how to ride already? Why do you take lessons?” I shrug it off, after all, I was a rower in college, something very few people know anything about. Can’t even tell you how many times I told people I was in crew and they said “oh, yeah, crew!” and  made a chicken-winged rowboat motion with their arms–and these were the ones that didn’t just respond with a blank look. Ask any rower what rowing is and it will be an eight-hour discussion including many words you’ve probably never heard or at best never actually say and a detailed explanation of many different theoretical techniques. But hey, welcome to the world of any non-mainstream sport. I am still adjusting. I used to play soccer, basketball, volleyball, as well as doing track and field. Most people I encounter have more than a vague idea of what these sports entail. Almost every reason I excelled at those sports has little value in my current sport. I used to get by, quite admirably, on pure strength, heart, and game smarts. Riding is a little bit different, it favors skills like finesse, precision, listening, and relaxation. Sometimes it feels like a 180 degree change from the methods I am accustomed to using to succeed in sports.

Now if only that 180 degree turn could be manifested in a flawless turn on the haunches on the rail.

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Pre-Holiday Lesson

After being forced to take a week off from riding due to work I was feeling extremely discouraged come Wednesday night last week. The weather was crummy (sleet then snow) and I wasn’t sure I should really be driving my compact car all the way to the barn at night. I was itching to ride and really would have done anything short of life-endangerment so I was weighing my options up until the very last-minute when I decided I was going to my lesson come hell or high water…er….snowdrift. Thank goodness I did. The drive wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be and I arrived with plenty of time to groom and tack Spratty. I even got to use the brand new WEG saddle pad I gifted to my barn owners for schooling use. Very Nice! Sprat was a complete gentleman and nicely forward for the most part during our lesson. We did plenty of lateral work and I got some really excellent steps leg yielding at the trot. We did some haunches in at the walk which went ok, and then we did some at the trot. It took me a couple tries to get my body in the right spot and good old Sprat looked like a limber 10-year-old again! Ultimately, I think  I connected a lot of dots in my own head about how much my hips mean compared to leg and reins. It felt really “on”, very rhythmic at certain points. I love it when I can taste a little progress.

When we were untacking and grooming the horses I spent some time loving on Spratty, more for me but I hope it felt good to him too. He was warm but not sweaty so I did some very gentle stretches and a bit of massage- certainly nothing invasive, I just wanted to be close to him. I had this overwhelming feeling of “gosh, I want one of these”. Sprat is just such a gentleman and he always tries- a truly wonderful schoolmaster. I suppose it could have been momentary intoxication from the sweet, earthy smell rising from Sprat’s warm body- this might actually be my favorite scent in the whole world. There is nothing that puts me in a better mood than burying my face into the neck of a clean, warm horse. It was just the night I needed to start off my holiday weekend right!

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