Giddy’up, Bon Voyage

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Fellow equestrians often question my commitment to overseas riding holidays. Since my first riding trip to Portugal in 1999—and then subsequent travels to Brazil, Germany, Holland, Hawaii, and Italy—I have encouraged dozens of students to adopt the habit as their budgets allow. Yet, even allowing for the obvious indulgences of foreign travel, the idea of traveling far from home to ride still puzzles many of my colleagues. Why choose a “vacation” that does not differ from our regular horse routines, they ask. Why not go sit on a beach in Cancun and sip fruity libations instead?

Let me answer that (and I should probably point out that I am writing this as the buttery afternoon light slants across Tuscany’s trellised hillsides in front of me at Italy’s Il Paretaio classical riding school). Here are my top reasons why anyone who loves to ride should consider taking that love on vacation.

First of all, for anyone whose profession involves horses, riding holidays bring the surest means of re-kindling the raw joy that first attracted us to this lifestyle long before burnout and poverty claimed us. By taking yourself far away from your ordinary routines, you are able to immerse yourself fully for a week in a simple, un-complicated way of being with horses. Without your home life’s stresses and responsibilities, you are able to get on a nice horse and just ride. When you’re finished, you’re finished. There is no dirty work or chores to follow, no errands to the feed store, no problems to fix. You get to entertain that child-like pleasure of riding without any other drains on your enjoyment or energy.

Second, riding holidays allow you to ride horses other than your own, which is necessary for refining your skills. Many students ride only the same one or two horses for years, and their skills and timing become rusty. I always encourage students to ride different horses when they’re able. The caveat to this, however, is to ride horses that are going to improve you. Your friend’s bucking youngster, or sister’s crazy former racehorse, probably won’t sharpen your dressage skills. A riding school like the ones I take students to in Europe, allow you to ride not only different horses but also ones that are well schooled, mannerly, and rewarding of your efforts.

Next, these kinds of riding vacations typically bring some challenges along the way. And, while maybe not blissful in the moment, these are productive. These hiccups might include a difference of opinion with your instructor, a philosophical divergence, a confusion of language, or struggle with a particular horse’s temperament. These challenges force each of us to get outside our own box, or way of seeing horses. They cause us to take a wider lens, perhaps re-think our own ideals. In the end, we might choose to stick with our own ideals, or we might edit them a bit. But having them shaken up a little helps us stay fresh rather than just pedantic in our approach to riding and training.

You may not depart from your stay at a riding school having adopted every single slice of new information; you might choose to leave a fair bit behind. This is entirely your prerogative. Love it or leave it, I guarantee that assessing whether you agree or disagree or are inspired by the instruction makes you a finer horsewoman or horseman. Think of this open-minded reflection as a cleaning out of old ideals or perhaps a dusting off of forgotten ones.

I have ridden in numerous countries, and I can tell you that I have yet to encounter two trainers or programs that approach horses exactly the same way. Some are closer to my personal ideals than others, but regardless there is always, always something to learn from each. And to that, I say bon voyage.

 

Oh. NOW I get it.

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His frustration towards me bordered on rabid. He wrung his hands and hurled instructions at me in less and less gentle manners. And unfortunately, the more peeved he got, the worse I rode. Honestly, I WAS trying to execute the 15-meter counter canter circle he wanted, and to understand its purpose, but in that moment I flailed. My instructor’s annoyance grew to a level I recognized, being a coach myself. Instructing students of any kind involves numerous encounters of this difficult equation: a coach trying to convey a relatively simple skill that, for whatever reason, the student finds nearly impossible. It leads to ample brow-furrowing for both parties.

I finally did conquer the nuances and purpose of that counter canter exercise, although it was many moons after the fact. My poor trainer never got to witness my fledgling competence. Too bad, too, because I imagine he might have slated me as an impossible learner by then. Similar accomplishments have come sometimes years after a trainer tried in vain to help me with an exercise. Occasionally, a coach has honed in on a particular concept in our sessions while I missed the point entirely, only to awaken to its profundity years down the road. After any of these later-than-hoped for revelations, I think about running home to call a coach from months or years previous and announce “Guess what?!—it turns out I’m NOT hopeless!”

Anyone who has been a student of a complex sport like dressage can relate to this. It’s probably sheepishness that prevents us from actually calling those former coaches. After all, who wants to admit that her learning curve is so steep? Now that I’m in the shoes as coach, though, I’ll admit these calls would be pretty great to receive. As a teacher, I often believe that if I explain exercises clearly enough, then voila, results happen. When I feel like I have said something exactly right, complete with illustrative imagery, but the results remain absent I get distressed. Especially when working on relatively simple concepts with students, I’ll panic: what on earth am I not explaining right? I try a dozen other ways to explain it. Still nothing. I explain it louder, and maybe get a little rabid. And then, it’s true, I start to consider if the student might be hopeless.

But then, wait! A phone call comes years later to say the problem was not in the instruction. It was the individual learning timeline of the student. I explained things clearly enough. The student just needed to go simmer on it at a cellular level. Look at that—neither of us is hopeless!