Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Another lesson!

The guy with whom I'll usually be training was off this weekend, and possibly next weekend - family in town. So last Sunday I had a lesson with the barn owner. It was interesting. I didn't really enjoy it, but it was worthwhile.

She's big on natural horsemanship (Dennis Reis). I'm big on practical but kind horsemanship. She's a dressage rider, I'm a trail rider. We had a very polite argument running the entire time about semantics and the philosophy of horsemanship. And I worked on some really basic things, which were surprisingly hard for me.

Mainly, I discovered, it's an ego thing for me.

First, she wanted me to drop the reins. Like completely. Apparently, "on the buckle" means "put your hands on that goofy little buckle at the end of the reins." But if your hands are on the goofy little buckle, there's a half acre of reins dangling loose between your hands and the bit, and I had a HUGE problem with that. It's my second ride in a treacherous* English saddle on an Ay-rab** and you want me to basically drop the reins? Lady, are you crazy? If he spooks at a deer, it's going to take me an extra two seconds to get the reins sorted and get some contact and keep us from dying. The instructor was a little nervous about me at that point. I explained that it's really just that I don't trust the horse, that I would be ok with dropping the reins if I were on Champ. She managed to talk me into dropping the reins and ... nothing happened.

*Ok, it's a very comfortable suede dressage saddle.
**The sane, kind, old Arab fell asleep while we were arguing about reins and deer.

Then we talked a while about being a passenger versus riding, and letting the horse decide what to do versus... I dunno, then it got into semantics so I'll probably say this wrong, but "being a leader and asking the horse to do stuff."

I unexpectedly felt extremely defensive. Yes, on a good trail ride to a certain extent you are "just" a passenger, because if you try to micromanage the horse you won't have any fun. Point horse down trail, set speed, let horse pick best route. Yes, you have to let the horse decide what to do, but it's not like he's out there all alone. It's more cooperative than that.

But then I kinda took a step back and thought about the big picture. I am a perfectly good trail rider. I can take a horse out and keep him safe and have a great time and come back alive, every time. (I even come back with the horse 99% of the time, haha.) So why the hell am I even taking lessons? It's not to be a better trail rider - it's to learn something new. Dressage is to me, and it's the opposite of what I've been doing, and it all feels completely wrong. But learning this new crazy stuff does not mean that everything I already know how to do is wrong. Once I realized that, I tried really hard to put aside my ego and listen to what she was saying and experience what was going on with me, my horse, and her.

I am getting the hang of pointing my toes straight ahead. I am getting the hang of keeping my heels in the right spot. I can turn a horse with my legs just fine (at least basic turns, I still don't really understand crazy language like "keep his shoulder from popping out.") I'm close to understanding how to "bring up my energy" / "activate my core" / get the horse to speed up without using my calves. And I'm trying really really hard to learn how to do the elusive halt. It's something more than just sitting back, and it's more than just holding my breath and tensing up all over. Sometimes I can do it (at least a half-halt) and sometimes, nothing.

Uhh, ok, confession time. My first major (lasted half a semester) was biology. But then I realized chemistry was hard, so I switched to history. Got bored with history after a couple years and went all-out philosophy for two years. You know what?

Philosophy sucks. It's mental wanking. It's really really fun when you're a starry eyed 20 year old, and you're exploring all the -isms of the world, and it's just, like, about arguing and thinking deep thoughts while you're high, MAN. But then you hit a difficult concept (Kierkegaard's Knight of Infinite Resignation, I'm looking at you), and you have to write a paper on it, so you just churn out 10 pages of total bullshit and you get an A. Then you start to realize that the entire field is just playing with words, really. If you're really a philosopher, you love it; if you're me, you get very disillusioned, drop out of college again, and eventually go back and finish up in history.

Anyway. Apparently there's some huge difference between "making" the horse do something and "asking" the horse to do something and "being a leader and the horse to do something." I dunno. I have no patience for discussions like this anymore. Like, I know that you cannot make a living creature do anything, it's always got the option of doing something other than what you want... but OTOH, if you give me a round pen and a lunge whip / stick / scary plastic bag, I will damn well show you how to MAKE a horse w/t/c in both directions. But that's not the right way to think about it. Apparently I should be a leader and encourage the horse to lunge / stand still / let me ride / whatever.

I still think it's just semantics. I can ... cruelly, callously, ineffectively (try to) make the horse do what I need. Or I can calmly, sensitively, elegantly, effectively make the horse do what I need. I strive for the latter, no matter what verb you choose to use.

We agreed that all roads lead to Rome. It all comes down to timing, reinforcement, and making the right thing easy to do. I think we both enjoyed the lesson - I know I did, and I suspect I'm an interesting challenge for her to work with.

I don't know who will be teaching me this Sunday. If my usual instructor is still off, it'll be the owner again. I'm not even sure who I'd prefer! I feel like a kid kicking rocks when I think about spending another hour with the owner - "I don't wanna. This is stupid. I wanna trot in circles with the other guy!" but I realize that I probably AM getting quite a bit out of dealing with her. And I *like* her! I'm pretty sure that I "don't wanna" strictly because she challenges my ego.

But this whole thing is not about my ego. It's about me learning something new, and of course I suck at it because it's new. Honestly, I'd be madder 'n hell if I was paying a lot to learn something that I had already figured out how to do.


  1. An interesting post, thank you.

    You're right that it is easy to become defensive, especially when one has a way that works and is being asked to do something different, leading to a new learning curve and the risk of making mistakes.

    I agree that, yes, the aim has to be riding elegantly and communicating effectively and kindly with a well trained horse. That can work on the trail and in dressage, though a trail is horse is making small decisions all along the way whilst his rider provides the tactics and strategy.

    It is good for the horse to have to make his own decions for part of the time at least: where to put his feet, how to navigate an obstacle, etc. Some recent accidents in eventing may well have resulted from a horse who was used to micro-management being unleashed on a cross-country course where he has to make decions.

    Hmm, philosophy. The mental anguish and confusion that existentialism and all the rest caused when we were younger. At the time, it seemed to explain deeper meanings in life. But, as you say, one could churn out a whole lot of BS and get a good mark. This just delayed accepting oneself as one is, life as a naturally confusing labyrinth to be navigated, and people as emotional, spiritual creatures who are not quite as readily explicable as the shrinks would like.

    I hope that the next lesson is as thought provoking as the previous, and look forward to your next post.

  2. I thought this was an interesting post too. Ego or not it's still cool that you can be one of those people that is open to taking lessons and learning new and different stuff.

  3. Thanks guys! I had a good lesson again yesterday - a few minor breakthroughs about this mystery of "contact." And a different horse to boot. Too tired to post today though!

  4. This WAS an interesting post. Food for thought, definitely. I think the argument between "asking" and "making" can be broadened into a discussion of expectations. Back in de day when i schooled dressage, i remember reading a VERY good article about how top-level dressage riders get more out of the horse because they have high standards, and they EXPECT more out of the horse. That's why a clinician can get on ol' Dobbin the Lesson Plug and all of a sudden he is doing Prix St. George moves--because that's what the clinician expects from him. I try to keep that in mind whenever i am schooling. And yes, if i ever have a gelding again, I'm going to name him ol' Dobbin. :-)


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