Why Ride?

IMG_9962[1]Call us what you like– gluttons for struggle or eternal seekers or insatiably curious. But the fact is that some of us like to hook ourselves to journeys that never end. Heck, we more than just like it; we love it, we thrive on it. And for those of us who enjoy learning something that is infinite in content and breadth, horseback riding feeds our souls. Riding, or more specifically the urge to become a better rider, continues to challenge us daily while reminding us that full mastery will likely never be ours. In this way, its frustrations are both thrilling and humbling, its successes taken within the meditative perspective that there is always more to learn.

I don’t remember the exact point at which I recognized that this was why I still ride after all these years. After a good dose of reflection about my unflagging commitment to riding and training, though, I have arrived at my nature as an inveterate student as the deepest root. I am, in all things, a chronic learner. Perhaps I was born with a wary regard for completions or a brain that cannot settle down and conclude endeavors once started. But whatever the cause, the soul-clenching contentment I find from improving myself as both a person and horsewoman by seeking more and more knowledge is why I ride.

I can assure you I will still be riding years from now.

Set your Standard High… and Then Aim for it!

IMG_7477Back then it seemed like the least helpful instruction my mother ever gave me, but she frequently stood in the center of the arena saying something like “wait it out” as I rode around trying to cue my pony to do something she was not at that moment doing. For all I knew, we were a long way from ever doing the thing I wanted, and I needed someone to tell me something more specific than just to wait around.

Of course in those pre-teen years, I missed the importance of that instruction. I had to discover it much later on my own. I also had to discover the hidden profundity that, in those words, my mother was planting a seed that involved holding my horses to high expectations. This is a point I have thought about a lot lately when co-teaching with a colleague who uses a different phrase to convey the same instruction I found so dubious all those years ago. When a student is giving an aid but not achieving the immediate desired result, my colleague will say “hang in there” to prevent her student from giving up or trying a new or stronger aid.

This kind of instruction can get lost in the background noise of our busy minds. But trust me on this, it is one of the most important things to learn as a rider. Seeing an aid through to its desired result means having complete confidence in it. If you begin to question your request part-way through, your horse will question not only that one but also the next one you give. Admittedly, this involves treading outside our comfort zones as riders. And this is where the part about holding our horses to higher standards comes in.

If we never ask too much of our horses beyond our normal comfortable routine, we can kid ourselves in to believing they are pretty responsive. When we increase our requests, however, we often discover just the opposite. Many of us have forged an agreement where we ask our horses for a comfortable amount of work or attention and he in turn delivers an acceptable enough effort. Occasionally if we drift outside this arrangement to ask for more, we quickly doubt our game plan if the horse responds incorrectly at first. Caught by surprise, confusion, or worry, the horse might lock up through his body, raise his neck, and try to feel his way through– or against– your aids. If we quit our aids right then, we do not lead the horse to something he is very capable of achieving.

Somewhere along the way, perhaps owing to a blurry interpretation of natural horsemanship techniques, or a desire to be kinder in their training, many students have grown dependent on being in a comfortable zone 100 percent of the time with their horses. This usually translates to a lowering of expectations. I have witnessed– and likely been guilty myself– students decrease their standards in moments that are becoming uncomfortable rather than work through them.

Let me give you an example. Last week, I watched a rider who wanted to ask her horse to back up through a pair of ground poles, which was the kind of exercise well outside what she normally does during a session. Initially, the horse stepped backwards fine. Once he was aligned between the two poles on the ground, though, he got confused. So, he stopped backing up, raised his neck in the air,and braced his body like a piece of timber. Instead of “hanging in there,” his rider froze up, released the reins, and abandoned her idea to back him up through the poles.

She convinced herself that she had asked for way too much, her horse had lost his composure, and so on. Rather than attempt to break the exercise down in to step-by-step pieces so that she could in the end achieve her goal, she left it alone and returned to her normal comfy routine. In so doing, she decided that her smart and athletic young Arabian was not capable of that simple task. I would argue that this abandonment of her aids led to lowering her expectations for her horse. As unhelpful as it probably sounded, I encouraged her to “wait it out.”

I believe we can hold our horses to high expectations and still treat them fairly and calmly. And by doing so, we can create an even more fulfilling relationship with them. Remember this: many times you have to give your aid and just wait. Do not abandon it just because the situation might get a little untidy at first. Hang in there.

Dressage Books Worthy of Your Shelf

It is a question I encounter a lot this time of year when winter-bound riders hope to supplement meager riding hours with extra learning: what books might they find helpful to read? Where amidst the hundreds of dressage books available should they start?

sally-dressageAs an avid reader and student myself (not to mention author, as well), I enjoy offering my opinion on this subject. Over the past 10 years it seems like a plethora of dressage books has hit the market. While exciting that our sport supports so much written attention, the sheer number and heft of all that published material can overwhelm students. How do they pick just one or two books? Is it okay to gravitate to the books with the best pictures? Should they buy only ones written by the most famous trainer?

Several factors contribute to a book’s quality beyond its depth of information. What makes an educational book worth reading is its ability to present useful material in a clear way that leaves the rider-student with lasting knowledge. It eliminates confusion, the language is accessible and supported by illustrations, it provides broadly supported information rather than a single author’s personal rant. It should be the type of book you want to share with someone of common interest.

So, on that note, I offer you three dressage books that are worth adding to your shelf.

The Elements of Dressage by Kurd Albrecht von Ziegner. At 120 pages, this slender non-intimidating book by a respected German trainer is, hands-down, one of the clearest books on the progression of training from elementary rides up to advanced work. His descriptions of concepts and movements are simple and factual, never digressing to preachy or overly philosophical. von Ziegner popularized the term “Hangbahn,” or dressage schooling on cross-country terrain, which you can read about in the book’s final chapter.

Dressage: a Guideline for Riders and Judges by Wolfgang Niggli. At first sight, this hefty hardcover book seems meant for the coffee table more than for devouring. But, trust me, if you’re at all curious about the movements of dressage– how they have evolved over time, how they are scored, what makes them good– you will love this book. It even includes copies of old dressage competition tests from the early days of our sport, which are downright fascinating. Niggli is an international dressage judge; his perspective on dressage is invaluable and his tone is never stuffy.

Tug of War: Classical versus “Modern” Dressage by Dr. Gerd Heuschmann. This book, and its follow-up DVD, has helped changed the way a lot of dressage riders see and approach their riding. Even while being written by a veterinarian, its vital information is delivered in easy to understand language with exceptional photographs. It provides dressage students with the understanding of the horse’s muscular and skeletal system that must guide and conscientious rider’s training. To quote Dr. Heuschmann from chapter two: “Why is an anatomy lesson worth your time– time you perhaps feel is better spent actually riding your horse? It is my feeling that in order to truly consider oneself a rider, one must be educated in the horse’s basic physiology, conformation and behavior. If you know how the horse is built; how its skeletal, muscular and ligament systems work together; and also how its actions are controlled in part by instinct along with the other aspects of mind, then it only follows that you know better how to ride it.”

The Downside of Good Training

Well, shoot. My previous argument might have lost its weight, literally. I used to spend a lot of time convincing my sporty but non-riding friends that horseback riding was indeed an athletic endeavor. They assured me otherwise, that my horse was doing all the effort and I was just along for the not-so-aerobic ride. It was a pleasant pastime, they debated. A worthwhile hobby, but definitely not a workout.

IMG_0077My other pleasant pastimes, however, did not leave me red-faced and wrung out. Many times I peeled myself off an obstinate youngster, sweaty and over-worked, and wondered why so many people kept gym memberships when they could just ride a couple ornery Warmbloods. In fact, many of my days as a young trainer were spent on the higher end of the aerobic zone. Quadriceps and hip flexors throbbed as I shoved horses away from my leg cues, back muscles clenched to balance myself during some topsy turvy movements in trot-canter transitions. By day’s end I was purely exhausted sitting over a plate of dinner with droopy eyelids pondering the likelihood of staying awake past 8pm.

And then my mentors’ teachings took firmer hold. Finally as a not-young-anymore trainer I became a lot pickier about my horses’ responsiveness. No excused accepted, I insisted they respond to my aids well beyond a kinda, sorta way. And they did. And then I started to lose the debate with my non-rider friends. Riding was no longer such punishing exercise. In fact, I dismounted after most riders feeling pretty fresh, no sweating or aching. After several months of this consistent state, it occurred to me that all this had a down-side: I now needed a gym membership. I now had another activity (working out) to add to my schedule and budget. Shoot.

One time while auditing a clinic with the late– and very frail– Hans von Blixen- Finecke (The Art of Riding) I heard him say of a rider using forceful effort: “If it took strength, I could not do it.” He urged the student to not accept that she was putting in such intense effort with such little response from her horse. To make his point, the old riding master asked for some assistance up from his chair so that he could mount the student’s horse and demonstrate. My breath caught in my throat. If he could not even lift himself from his chair without help, how was this weak octogenarian planning to ride this woman’s Warmblood mare? A tense silence fell over the auditors around me who were obviously worrying over the same question.

Two assistants helped settle Mr. Blixen-Finecke in the saddle and threaded the double bridle reins through his clawed fingers. The old master wobbled around in the saddle as though he had no bones inside to hold him up. Nonetheless, he urged the mare forward past those of us still holding our breath, clasping the reins the best he could in his arthritic hands. Then with an expert timing of his frail leg and very weak hands, he aided the big horse sideways in a nicely angled and marching half-pass. Given that he was incapable of shoving of working too hard, the mare moved from appeared to be totally effortless guidance, just correct and insistently timed cues.

That episode obviously left a lasting impression on me, a standard for myself as a trainer. If a nearly crippled guy could get so much responsiveness from a horse, why was I using all my youthful vigor to get less results? Why not join my non-riding friends at the gym and adopt their view that horseback riding is a pleasant pastime rather than a dose of exhaustion? Of course this paradigm is one that requires constant honing, one that comes in to sharper focus each week. But in memory of the late Hans von Blixen-Finecke, I would like to say thank you for inspiring me to get my horses to do all the effort and sweating.