The Search for Understanding

This summer I embarked on a personal journey. It started with one of those regrettable experiences that ends up being life changing in a way that makes up for the earlier regret. Now I look back and think thank goodness for that experience, because it was essential for growth. It started me on a journey, and since then, I have very consciously taken apart my seat and put it back together again while keeping close tabs on exactly what I am doing and what effect it has. I am trying to solve, once and for all, the “how” of riding. And I think I almost have it…

It started when I took a lesson on Remy. I got some great feedback, but much of it was more confirmation of what I knew rather than new and interesting stuff I’d never thought of. And, much to my despair, I was told WHAT to do, but not HOW to do it! Unfortunately, I already knew what changes I wanted to see in my horse, that was why I took the lesson in the first place, but after the lesson I was no closer to the solution. I have come across this time and again, from my earliest lessons on Liam (“Slow him down!!” “How?” “Just slow him down!”), and now as a trainer, I am determined to do better for my students. I want to be able to put the “how” into words in a way that is easy for someone else to understand and put into action.

A trainer and two judges all separately advised that Remy needed better connection and balance (which he did), and all three instructed to shorten the reins. The judges didn’t have the chance to give further instruction on my test, but the trainer did insist that changing Remy’s entire balance was as simple as shortening the reins. Trying to be a good student, I did as I was told, and as I added pressure to the reins, he did as he’d been trained as a young horse at the track and leaned heavily into my hand, falling on the forehand and speeding up. The trainer told me to keep ahold of my end, that he’d give eventually. She later subtly suggested that he wasn’t well suited to dressage, and that his gaits were lacking.  Well, I was determined to make a dressage horse of him, and I kept ahold of my end of the reins for three whole rides, and he never did give. He did start taking off with me though, which he’d never done previously. And with his tense, hollow back his gaits became hell to ride, his neck was so stiff I began to wonder if it would ever bend again, and his soft trusting eyes turned to confusion, hurt, betrayal.  I knew I was wrong, and I abandoned ship, determined to find another way.

I thought long and hard, and came to realize that in most cases it was not that the highly qualified people I took lessons from didn’t know how to do the things they wanted me to do, it’s that they would have done it without thinking, and therefore couldn’t put into words exactly how to do it, so they simplified the instruction to the most obvious pieces. They were also trainers who trained fancy warmbloods, to which dressage came more easily, and maybe for those horses it didn’t take quite as much conscious thought or effort, or a carefully thought out fitness and strengthening program. Those horses also didn’t come with previous (conflicting) training and a body built and conditioned for a very different sport. I really couldn’t blame the trainers… but that still left me feeling a bit on my own to figure it all out.

So I, having realized my predicament, set out to do exactly what needed to be done… figure it out on my own. And I vowed to keep notes of the process, and thoroughly research every step of the process, and get as many expert opinions from as many different backgrounds as possible. I wanted to try techniques, and see what worked and what didn’t. Fortunately for my two very forgiving horses, I started this journey with a pretty decent riding ability and an excellent body awareness from years of not just riding, but also tae kwon do. When I read about a particular style, I was able to very quickly adapt my body to use muscles in a different way, consciously releasing some while activating others. I also discovered that through my hours of careful observation, I have developed the ability to watch a rider perform in a particular way, and feel in my body exactly what they are doing, so I am able to reproduce the movement. This is related to mental rehearsal techniques, which allow a person to develop muscle memory by thinking about doing something rather than actually doing it, something I want to learn more about so I can incorporate it into how I teach my students.

My big goal was to figure out how to progress through the levels with a horse not particularly suited to dressage, in a way that lived up to my “ideals” of dressage… that the training should improve the horse, strengthen him, and make him more balanced and beautiful. The training should improve and prolong his sound and healthy body, and create a partnership with his rider that he enjoyed. The horse should look forward to his work and feel better about himself for it, rather than be forced into it and be made to submit to the rider’s will. Furthermore, I had this feeling that dressage really shouldn’t be as hard as it seems to be for many riders. Many riders never make it past training level, and the only reason we are ever given for this seems to come down to most horses not being suitable. As I looked back at dressage horses from generations past, they looked more like the “average” horses of today than the amazing warmbloods that are dominating the show scene. Maybe the average types won’t beat the purpose-bred types, and I’m fine with that, but if a riders loves her horse and wants to embark on a journey of learning, there should be no reason for the rider not to progress to a reasonable level. Except that it is awfully hard to find a dressage trainer who can work with an average horse and tell an average rider just exactly how to ride!

I hear this feeling echoed on dressage bulletin boards so I know I’m not alone here, and I’m not here to chime in the whining, rather what I’ve come to realize is that it’s a real blessing for me. I needed to get to the point where I was determined enough to figure out exactly how everything worked, so that I would do it, and from that gain the understanding of the process in a way that I could pass it on. I wanted to understand even the most minute details (which will probably be a lifelong journey, I sure hope I never stop learning!), and I wanted to understand with a passion and urgency that spurred me into action. I felt my calling, and with an intensity that I could not deny.


5 thoughts on “The Search for Understanding

  1. What a great and insightful post. Not being a dressage rider, but LOVE watching it and learning about none the less, I think you are right on point. Creating the positive learning environment for you and your partner surely is key to both wanting to learn and enjoying. I don’t know if you will find this helpful, but this website is about dressage, proper gaits, teaching the horse how to use their bodies, etc. The trainer Jean Luc is working with an OTTB currently (the massive gray-Chazot) and it’s quite interesting at the very least. Maybe you could find some elements to apply while you self teach?

  2. It’s been a complete privilege watching you break down and rebuild your seat, balance and position – and wow, the results are clear – Remy has transformed in the last month. I’m so fortunate that I get to tag along on your journey, and benefit from what you learn.

  3. I look forward to reading more about your journey!

    I have just reached the “now shorten the reins” point of my journey with my horse. I’ve had him a year and a half, and he started off a curler. So we stretched out as much as I could get him, on a loose rein, so I could teach him to reach forward. Everything was forward, all the time. Then we started very, super, feather light contact. Eventually we’ve been able to come up a bit in front, bending more in the hind legs, as a result of lateral work. He’s an OTTB, but for him dressage work is natural. The one thing that has mattered a lot, especially at the canter, has been my seat. I learned more about how to use my seat from one excerpt of an article by a western pleasure trainer in the 80s than any instruction I’ve had. This trainer said she taught her horse to go slowly by slowing her own rhythm and expecting him to match. In order to get a slow western gait which is a true gait, you must still stay soft in the seat while controlling your own body. And that same feeling is what it took to change my horse’s rhythm while asking him to come under himself and collect.

    But he has it easier than Remy! And there are a lot of specifics I’m still weak on. And so I look forward to continuing to learn from your blog. 🙂

  4. I have been in your position. Training OTTB and being told to use more and more rein for control. I felt is was wrong but never having done dressage myself I didn’t know what else to do. I even told my trainer I felt like I was pulling WAY too hard on my reins when doing what she asked and she replied, “just do it anyways, that is just where you are at in your training”. I still was not comfortable with the whole thing and until dropping that trainer and training under much better riders and trainers I finally saw that it is NOT the right way to do things and there is WAY more to it than just a death grip on the reins until the horse reluctantly give to the pain.

  5. I love all of your blog posts and no exactly where your coming from. Most trainers these days expect you to have a Warmblood that is already well trained. When anything else is thrown at them they panic.

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