Monday, April 18, 2011

Mouthy Monday

This comes from FD CR - I have learned to love, love, love finding holes.Sometimes how we learn to find them can be a lttle unsettling.

Worth Every Penny

Having come back to horses after going cold turkey in my thirties, it’s been a slow process regaining something of the skill I possessed as a heedless twentysomething.

There’s been riding school horses, catch rides, short loans, holiday cover, a bit of backing and schooling and manners instalment, with a summer helping with project ponies for flipping and the occasional happy hack when I can cadge a ride.

Rather hit and miss really. So I was thrilled when an old acquaintance asked if I’d like to ride her horse, Socks, for a while. Just to keep him fit and have a bit of fun.

He’s had something of a chequered history – went GP before he was eight, and then a cycle of injury and recovery and competition, rinse and repeat, and finally a bit of a nervous breakdown followed by a long spell in the field and a short, decidedly inglorious career as a schoolmaster for a riding stables.

In his teens now, but he’s still not a novice ride: somewhat stiff, resentful of inexpert riding, a bit of a termagant and inclined to the occasional air above ground when he feels like it.

Loosened up though, he’s powerful, supple, responsive and sharp; a bouncing rubber ball of energy who throws in changes and passage for the love of it and requires his rider to be a movement ahead always. Of course I said yes.

And mostly we’ve had fun, albeit with a few explosions while we got used to each other. It probably doesn’t help that his owner is 5’10 and all leg and I’m 5’2 (ish) and…not leggy. I had to relearn to sit again; it’s quite horrifying how out of shape I was considering I wasn’t outwardly out of shape.

Mostly, it was working out well. However, he just wasn’t quite as through and swingy and carrying me as he was for his owner. It was all good, nice, obedient, energetic, coherent, even almost elegant (a serious achievement for me, even at my best I was better described as workmanlike!); but not as good as it was for her.

She came and watched, and we agreed that it was so. We ruled out physical causes. I varied his varied routine a bit more, thinking maybe he was bored. (Bear in mind I wasn’t training him; he’s plenty trained. Also bear in mind he’s not a horse to suffer in silence; if I was doing something egregiously wrong, he’d definitely let me know about it.) It did not make an appreciable difference.

I asked the trainer at the barn to give us some lessons; she had us a bit more collected, but again it was all very… nice. I don’t know if it’s the same for others, but I personally am not looking for nice in my dressage (although it’s a start of course). I associate correct dressage more with words like uplifting, thrilling, edge of exploding, riding the crest of a wave feeling. Admitted some horses more so than others, but this is a more so horse.

So, money was laid out on a session with a (very expensive and booked months in advance) trainer. We drove over, with a somewhat excited horse – I think initially he thought we were competing, I’d polished him to such a high gloss. I got on, and went into the arena and he told the owner that he wasn’t interested in hearing about the horse or the problem – I was just to ride as I usually did. Not that he used those words – it was more of a grunt and a shut up gesture and a point and circle gesture at me.

So I warmed up and after about fifteen minutes, he waved me over and wordlessly indicated that I should take my feet out of the stirrups.

I did so. Silence ensued. After a minute or so, (and one minor reprimand to the horse to not paw please) he grunted, then walked around us, still in silence. I must admit I was having second thoughts at this point – I’m not keen on trainers who play head games. Still, not refundable so I kept my gob shut and waited.

He came back over and had me remove my stirrups altogether, and gestured us out onto the track. After a half a circuit, he (still in silence) had us halt again, and he came and repositioned my leg. He sent us off again, and we continued walking. He asked for more walk; we gave it and he said “No!” in tones of great irritation. Halted again, repositioned again – not so much of a movement of the leg, just a twist from the thigh, and said: and “Leg off!” We walked again; again he reminded me, “Off!”

It transpired he wanted me to carry my heel further from the horse. Variations of this repeated through trot sitting and rising and canter. He had us shift from working to medium and to extended and back again, mostly via gesture and “More!” The only movement we carried out was an eternal twenty metre circle. Every now and then: Off! Or occasionally: “Sit!”

It was disturbing how much that minor change in position destabilized my position. It was even more disturbing and humiliating how much of a change that minor change produced in Socks.

Light became lighter, and sharper and more responsive; he was keyed in and listening and anticipating my every breath. Supple became swinging and he lifted so much through his back in the trot I was unable to sit it again and had to keep rebalancing myself. The less I did the more I got; it was a case of getting out of his way.

After a bare forty minutes I was exhausted and Socks was getting sweaty, but we were finally moving between the paces without that nagging stickyness that had been present between us from the start. We called it a day, and went out and washed down a perky, pleased with himself horse and left him tucked up on the lorry with a hay net. We walked, (well, Sock’s Mum walked, I wobbled) over to pay at the office and say thank you. His groom offered us a coffee and we watched him working with one of his students. I was relieved to see he was wordless with them too!

He came over – I am not sure but I suspect I was rather woebegone – I’ve rarely had such a crushing object lesson delivered in so few words, and he said: “Not to worry – a clever horse – he’d rather you try than him.” He nodded, took his coffee and walked off.

So I have had a salutary reminder about how easy it is for my body to lie to me and how the real proof of my correctness is always in the way the horse goes. I have another lesson in three months time and something to work on with Socks in earnest and a new (old) mantra to remember: Less is more. And also a new desire to work on my abdominal and thigh muscles, because I seriously couldn’t walk the day after.


  1. Ah, the eye of a true master. I suppose it makes dealing with their egos worthwhile. I'm glad for you that you had this experience and would love to hear how you are progressing now, and if you went back to him again, what transpired?

  2. Loved this blog as all the others...I am finding the same in a way and also learning I have to do more but more quietly? My mare isn't schooled but we are getting there.
    I want to get on a good school master but know it would break my heart or would it be my ego.

  3. Sigh. I never understood why one would chose dressage, it is good for the horse in theory, but in practice I have thought it was boring."Riding the crest of a wave"? Sounds awesome. Now if they would change the clothing for the humans...
    Enjoyed your story. British? I had to look up "termagant" (bully).

  4. Oh how these posts can be so appropriate! My new gelding is a "less is more" type...I barely touch him with my leg, and he goes. He's super sensitive as I also switched him out of a western saddle (which he was "broke" in and ridden his entire life - probably 6 years) to my dressage saddle. The first group of rides were more teaching him it's okay to feel my seat bones and my legs on his side centering him without bolting into a gallop.

    My thoughts are this is how a horse *should* be. And how to get my mare, spur-prodded, framed too fast and resistant, to be this light again. I know she can be that way...we've had lots of great rides once she realized we were going *fast*, but I'd like to have it all the time, not just when she's excited.

    And it's time for another lesson for me!

  5. Shoot. I forgot my login and password. I lurk and learn (lots).

    Just wanted to say I take dressage lessons in armitas and the rest of my gear. Plus I use a bosal on my horse. I need to take my gelding into the two rein and maybe I will test then. Would be fun to test in the intro levels and training levels in the bosal....

    Now, wouldn't that be interesting? Or would I be automatically disqualified?

  6. ^ You would get disqualified under FEI rules but you can also compete horse concours.

    Great post!

  7. "The less I did the more I got; it was a case of getting out of his way." I love that statement. It's funny how much work it takes to do that.

    I took lessons in classical dressage for many years, although I never competed. I did it because I thought it made me a better rider, and it made my horses better. I love the logic of dressage, you must be able to do this before you can move on to that. The horse must learn this and this and this, and must develop his muscles and mind before he moves on to more advanced moves. You don't just jump from training level to Prix St. George. And yes, when you get it right, it's like riding a wave.

  8. It is the idiot who can not remember her login name again. Thank you for letting me know about the hors concours. I will have to do that, much to the chagrin of my instructor who wishes for me to compete. My gelding is more likely to be ready than I. He does have a nice way of going, that is for sure.

    On lesson day, I do throw on an english that is a something to see: armitas, bosal, an english saddle, with a baseball cap, and paddock boots. Hybrid anyone?

  9. No more than me...english bridles, western split reins :) Love 'em, especially on the trails!!

  10. Anon,

    Chuckle. I got my WTD pride going on when I rode my big ex-hunter, English bridle, western saddle, baseball cap and english boots as I smartly tranter down the trails. I knew I was doing WTD when someone asked if my TB was a Tennessee Walker. Once, the gaitor on my easy boots failed and I used duct tape to keep it on. I was sylin' that day.

  11. Mugs - Loved this story.

    Tally, Tally, Tally Tally Tally Tally

    And did Pete find a good home or is he still your?
    Dicovered an entry on Equestrian ink by you from a few years ago.

  12. Fiddle, I've tried to reply three times now and every time blogger's eaten the comment. Fingers crossed.

    DarC - I've only got Socks in total (hopefully) nine months ish - we've another lesson in another month or so and hopefully it won't be quite so embarrassing. I think I have sorted the position, although as I know to my cost, sometimes what you think you are doing is not what you are actually doing!

    Swiftly - hey, maybe you'd be inspired? I find it a high personally, gives me something to work toward.

    nagonmom - Yes, I am british! I used to feel intimidated by DQ's with their bright white saddlepads, gloves and bandages, flash passier saddles and flashier warmbloods, but I would remind myself that dressage is merely french for schooling. ;) And really truly, the first time you ride a seriously well trained and fit dressage horse is like driving a veyron when all you've driven before is a fiat 500.

    deedee, I've always ridden in jeans and muck boots a lot. And most of the dressage people I've ridden with tend to live in old jeans / jods and nanky old chaps. Funnily enough, white doesn't wear so well and tall boots are too expensive to not polish and polishing takes too much time to do every day!

    HorseAndTurbos - isn't it aggravating how retraining is so much harder than training?

    redhorse - I just like riding, even if all I do is hack along the road, or ride figures in the school. I totally understand the quest for perfect being enough in of itself. The golden moments when everything comes together are the cherry on the top as it were.

    mugs - hole is the right word - that lesson definitely had that slightly down-the-rabbit-hole-feeling: when right is wrong and straight is crooked and off is actually one. Ugh. It's like cognitive dissonance - my body and memory insisting that this is the correct feeling in myself and then being proven to be wrong.

  13. I love the new pics of your "yellow Mare". She has a split mane like ny APHA mare. The attitude is equally schizo LOL

  14. OHHH, pretty pictures!!! Nice!

  15. Your golden girl is beautiful!

  16. Great post, loved this "he’d rather you try than him".