Unexpected calm

Unexpected calm no. 1

Today I ought to have been competing 3 dressage tests, two locally created ones and one British Dressage prelim. Unfortunately there were too few entries for it to go ahead. It was cancelled on Thursday, leaving me feeling rather flat. Around the edges of my holiday I’d put a lot of effort into preparing for it. Even on holiday the crochet ear bonnet I worked on was a white one for the show, not one for everyday use. But on the other hand it was a relief not to have to fling myself into dressing up, plaiting and getting competitive.

So on Thursday when we knew it wasn’t going ahead, I booked a lesson for Sunday instead. With a different instructor.

To give some background, this instructor is a dressage specialist. Even when we were a riding school he was set apart somewhat from the other instructors. His pricing and lesson times worked differently from every other instructor. This gave me the impression that you needed to ride to have lessons with him. Recently I’ve discovered that he does accept low-level riders, but even so, I needed to feel like I was doing well before I could approach him about a lesson.

Additionally I felt bad taking money out of my previous regular instructor’s pocket. That’s not gone away, but I don’t think anyone could really blame me for spending my lesson money wherever I think will give us the best return on that investment.

Anyway, when I heard there was no show on Sunday, it encouraged me to book a lesson with him instead.

I was nervous. Everyone told me he was not a scary instructor, but all new things are scary, so I remained nervous.

So we got to our lesson. And it was

Unexpected calm no. 2

It’s not true to say that I’ve never had a riding lesson that calm. My early lessons with The-Original-Instructor-Who-Left were extremely calm. But I wasn’t really achieving much in those lesson besides learning to sit on a horse, stop, go and steer. Today I had a lesson where I learnt a lot, achieved plenty and learnt new ways of working and thinking about transitions, but there was pretty much no tension.

I don’t mean that D never set his head against my hand, because there were moments when he did; I don’t mean that everything was easy, because it wasn’t. But everything was calm. Even the cantering was calm. Mostly. 😉

This has set up a mental dissonance in me.

I am not used to being taught to ride with calmness. Much as I try to resist the phrases I overhear such as “Pull his back teeth out,” “Whack it,” or “Kick its ribs in,” from other riders and other instructors, the culture seeps into me until it feels like riding with force and an aggressive mindset is the only way to achieve goals. Today I was shown a way to ride that is much more in keeping with my philosophy of riding and horse care.

And I’m ashamed to say I missed the adrenaline rush. I missed the tension of an instructor yelling at me to do more. I missed the adrenaline covering the tiredness and I missed the feeling that D and I had been pushed to our limits.

But I missed it like you miss a bad habit you know needs to be broken. Have I ever ridden this horse calmly like that? Probably not.

So what did we do in the lesson?

I find it harder to remember because it wasn’t punctuated with exhaustion and stress.

I remember that we discussed warming up, and the arc of a schooling session and I said I could use some advice on structuring a session or a warmup. He suggested using the pattern of a large circle at one end of the school, then circle in the middle and at the other end before changing the rein and doing the three circles again.

I learnt that my weight is often too much to the right. Oh for goodness sake will I never be done with sitting too much to one side? I used to be always too much to the left. But it was useful and made sense and things worked better once I was conscious of it.

We worked on transitions, of course, but with a great deal more finesse than I’ve been shown before. Basically, D likes trot above all other gaits, so it’s hard to get him out of trot into walk. If he catches on that we’re doing walk/trot transitions he’ll resist the walk as long as he can, then rush a few steps of walk before trotting again if I so much as breathe. This leads to me hanging on the reins a lot, and to be honest although I’m not happy with this, no other instructor has objected or suggested a different approach.

Today hanging onto the reins was not permitted. I had to have soft hands that kept moving through the transition as well as keeping my leg on. As you would expect it mostly took me longer to get the walk, but we got there, and it was more pleasant. It is going to take work to get this happening faster and consistently, but it’s going to be worth it.

Of course we did some cantering. The instructor asked for canter when we were in quite a calm trot. It wasn’t the kind of rev-ed up trot we usually canter from, but I did as I was told and we got some pretty nice canters. I’m banned from cantering full circuits of the schools; it must be circles, circles, circles to encourage him to balance and slow down. Which is pretty much what we were doing anyway.

Throughout the lesson and particularly at the end he was great at explaining things. Here’s an example, reduced to the salient points I remember.

  • Cobs like D are built in such a way that it is natural to them to pull from their shoulders and front legs, but for dressage we need to convince a horse to push from the back legs
  • When a horse prepares for a transition by throwing up its head and hollowing its back that shows that it’s preparing to initiate the trot from the front of the body.
  • At that point if you are quick enough you can bring it back and wait, because that’s not the way you want the trot to start
  • When the transition comes from the back legs the neck and back will round, and that is what you want, so go ahead and trot.
  • Eventually what appears to be a single transition can be made up of many tiny almost-transitions to get the good one

Clearly this is not going to happen overnight, but I like lessons that give me plenty to work on on my own. 😀

The weekend’s riding has really not been what I expected. Instead of the stress of competition I’ve had a really calm lesson. It’s given me a lot to think about. Calm doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s a good few years since I found I couldn’t do a guided relaxation after a yoga class because I couldn’t allow the quiet calm into my head, but this lesson has reminded me of that time. I had no idea my riding-thoughts were so un-calm that this would feel like an issue.

I suppose I’m disappointed in myself for having let riding with tension become a part of my mindset. And also because I see now that a lot of the progress we’ve made lately has not been done in the best way. I look at the riders on the yard who use the most tension and conflict with their horses and I don’t want to ride like that, but I think it’s been creeping in without my realising.

We need a reduction in tension and an increase in calm. That way lies contentment for horse and rider. That way lies mental stability for horse and rider. That way lies a relationship and communication and the true spirit of dressage.

What of the “pull his teeth out” riders? Let King Lear have the last words:

O, that way madness lies; let me shun that;

No more of that.

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6 thoughts on “Unexpected calm

  1. Sounds like you had a really good lesson 🙂

  2. That sounds like a fab lesson! I know exactly what you mean about the horrible culture of corporal punishment to make horses do as they’re told. One of the many reasons I really look forward to the possibility of horse ownership in the distant future is that if I have a partner – rather than a bunch of friends and acquaintances I *might* get paired up with at any point – we can work on working together and moving away from all that. I am pleased to hear that you’ve found an instructor who is willing to support you in that, that’s wonderful news!

    • Sparrowgrass says:

      I wonder if some of that distasteful culture comes from the history of cavalry riding lessons and culture. If a cavalry horse doesn’t do what it’s told when it’s told men will die, so use whatever means on the horse to win the war, save the lives, etc. Not very relevant to modern leisure ponies though.

  3. The Dancing Rider says:

    What a great lesson. Valuable points made and sounded so beneficial, all the way around. 🙂

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