It’s been a week since my last post which seems like forever even though it’s not. Val has been a super star for me this past week, working really hard in both the double and the snaffle bridles. Change in gaits and transitions has been the focus of the last week’s training and I have been making progress which will hopefully reflect in our scores come spring. The half-passes are still our weakness, although the bend and the crossing over of the legs is improving. I am definitely going to pick Jason’s brain about improving their quality in our next ride together. Other than that however I have been overall really pleased with my horse. Well, until yesterday that is.
Now riding is not an easy sport, even if some bone-headed people think that “All you have to do is sit there…”. Well let me assure you that there is more to it than that. Come try it sometime; I’ll even put you on my horse! If you have ever been asked what the hardest part of riding is however I will guarantee that you will get different answers from different people. For jumpers perhaps it is that elusive ‘spot’; for barrel racers perhaps it is managing the turns vs. speed. Dressage people will come up with a multitude of different answers from specific movements to training concepts and beyond. However, the hardest thing about riding is training.
I can here you all rolling your eyes now asking yourself, “That’s your answer?” Well yes, actually, it is and I have a healthy respect for the idea of training. I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the NAJYRC Clinic last year. George Williams was a really awesome clinician who gave me some great intricate things to work on. But two of the big ideas that were brought to my attention were that A) training is a back and forth process and B) many people expect riding to come first and then training second. The first idea was brought home to me at the end of my ride the first day with Mr. Williams. I ride a young horse and always have – I am not one of the cliché young riders who sit on nice, made horse and learn from a school master. Everyday of my life is a training ride with Val. I was the only rider in the clinic on a young horse and this presents both greater challenges and greater successes.
(Now as a side note I would like to go on record saying that “green horse, green rider” is never something I recommend – everyday I wish that I was fortunate enough to have ‘ridden’ before I trained. Training a young horse as a young, inexperienced rider has been the most heartbreaking, toughest experience of my life. Somehow we survived and made it to the other side but young horses are not for the average rider. It takes an extraordinary person who has the patience of a saint and the guidance of angels around them to know when that patience is gone; it takes a person who is willing to sacrifice everything they want and feel heartbreak on a regular basis. It takes someone who knows when they are in way over their head and still wants to keep going for the good of the horse. Everything you are, everything you do, is in that horse. It is not something I, or anyone, should take lightly.)
Back to the clinic. We talked about Val’s overall work at the end of the ride on the first day and how we both agreed that he was a good guy who works really hard once you get him focused and you both ‘pick up the telephone’. I went on to describe that as a young horse he likes to work very hard and just when I think everything is perfect we have a horrible ride where we go back to basic walk/trot/canter. Mr. Williams assured me that this was completely normal and that it was good as both his rider and everyday trainer that I was willing to let this back-and-forth happen in the training. You take a leap forward to take three steps back – it’s the nature of training a horse. It’s both frustrating and rewarding at the same time and I think many people get discouraged when this happens. Training is about consistency and the ability to accept the rides when it’s all you can do not to scream or cry and the inability to do what you did yesterday.
Which leads me to my second revelation of both that clinic and training as a whole. During lunch we had theory sessions each day – probably my favorite part of the clinic. All of we Junior/Young Riders sat down with this wonderful teacher and could ask just about anything we wanted while he went over some wonderful theory of biomechanics and riding. One of the things brought up by the group is that you must learn how to ride first and train later. I was more than a little taken aback by this idea, especially because this rings to the fact that you have to be able to afford the schoolmaster to be able to learn how to ride. It is just not possible for the overall dressage community to proceed in this way – in fact to me the very definition of the french word dressage as training seems to make this idea ludicrous. Training is something that the rider does every time they get on their animal. In our community of imperfect riders on untrained horses this sometimes results in the blind leading the blind. We talked about the training scale at the clinic as well, and Mr. Williams was quick to ask, “Who can name the first element of the training scale?” and so forth. My jaw dropped, metaphorically speaking, as there were crickets and blank stares from the girls at the table. This should have been an easy question, one that I had known since the first time I had sat on my three-year-old. It’s a concept addressed in every good peice of training literature I have ever read or that I own.
The training scale is the most important tool any rider can have when getting on the back of a horse. We have both the responsibility to understand our goals and the progression of how to meet them. The training scale is a huge part of the young horse training programs in this country but sometimes I think it gets overlooked by the rest of the riding community. The training scale is not only a dressage tool – it is how to train any horse for any discipline. In Europe they don’t think about specializing a horse right off the bat – they introduce the horse to a multitude of activities following the same training program for all the english disciplines (albeit their training scale is slightly different then our USDF one). Only by the ‘classical’ principles of rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, straightness, and then collection can a rider truly say they have trained a horse. It is your biggest tool, so don’t hurt yourself by not knowing the roadmap of how to get what you want and how to use it.
Needless to say, Saturday was not a great ride for either me or Val. We had the energy needed for rhythm but not the regularity. Relaxation was in sporadic bursts where I would find him light in one moment and pulling me around the next. Our connection was there, but neither he nor I could ‘pick up the phone’ at the same time for very long. Impulsion was lacking for our energy was not of the productive proclivity at all. Straightness – a tier that includes bend in my mind – was inconsistent. And so you can imagine with holes all along the pyramid that the top most tier of collection never stood a chance. Sometimes we forget that unwritten objective at the base of the pyramid which is obedience, the root of all problems in my mind. Obedience was a problem and without that our ride never stood a chance. Still, I got off gave him a big pat and loved on him when we got into the barn. Not everyone is 100% all the time. And falling back down the pyramid isn’t a problem – training is circular after all, you get one thing perfect only to find another thing is broken.
So the moral of the story is don’t be discouraged when you come to ride your horse and you find a different one than the one you left. If you are consistent and you set yourself up for success using tools that every rider should know then just give the training time. Your horse will come around – I am sure of it! :] Someday maybe we will get good weather for more than three to five days, too!