It looks likes it’s going to be another blogging year. My first attempt at blogging brought many unexpected results and events. Some of the changes brought about feelings of pride and a sense of self-worth. Other changes, while still enlightening, forced reflection on aspects of dressage, or organized horse-sport in general, that I had never before contemplated. While I feel overloaded with ideas to blog about, my less naive side now worries that every story will read as either self-aggrandizing, cynical or sales pitchy. When these feelings start making me avoid the vulnerability of writing this blog my new inspiration is to go back to the relationship between the rider and the horse, a relationship without angles or agendas. Following is a letter from a student that I received about a year ago. When the distractions of competition, politics and profits get me down, letters like this one, and others from students past bring me back to that concept of what “success” in the “horse industry” means to me.
This is published with permission from the author. Thanks Jess, your unabashed sincerity humbles me.
“I hate writing, I love to have written.” Dorothy Parker
Writing this blog, originally a writing exercise imposed upon me by my roommate, an avid birder that blogs daily at thebirdhousechick.com, has brought about many unexpected benefits and pleasures to my life. While it sometimes seems like a chore to sit down and torture myself with self-doubt and criticism just to get three paragraphs completed, once it is finished I feel a sense of relief and am usually inspired for my next topic.
In addition to the cathartic experience of sharing issues that are dear to me I have met so many other bloggers, and many other riders that stumble across the writings and share their comments and insights. Some of them are professional trainers and many of them amateur riders that are passionate about their journey with riding. Without the global reach of the world-wide web I would never have met these kindred souls that share my love of dressage or horses in general. The comments and e-mail I receive as a result of my small blog have inspired me and made me feel part of a community in which I have never felt included.
It was a great surprise and admittedly a source of confusion when I received an e-mail from Frances Keller, an organizer from the historic and distinguished Dressage at Devon horse show. The correspondence was an invitation to attend Devon as an “expert commentator” for the Prix St. George class held in the famous “Dixon Oval”. My first response was that the e-mail must have been sent to me inadvertently so I replied to Ms. Keller to inquire why I had been included in the group of experts that featured top judges and top competitors from across the United States. It seems she came across my website and blog while looking for Scott Peterson, a great trainer I have listed on my resume’. After reading the site Ms. Keller invited me to be a commentator as she felt that some of the listeners may relate to my point of view as a contrast to the great judges they have scheduled to speak. I am very humbled by the invitation and hope that her instincts prove correct.
Although I am nervous about the prospect of speaking to such a large audience without the time to edit and rewrite that I am afforded by writing a blog, I am more afraid of “flinching out” on an opportunity to be included in such an esteemed panel at such a dignified event. So Thursday I board the plane to face my fears and hopefully offer a perspective that remains true to myself and resounds with others.
If any of my fellow blogging friends, or others that follow the blog are going to be in attendance at Devon please let me know so we can finally meet. I consider you all part of my journey and wouldn’t be included if it weren’t for your kind words and inspiration.
I could write about….no, that’s stupid. Oh, I could explain how……no, everybody knows that already. Oh, I know, I could write…..no, that idea sucks. That has been my inner dialogue every time I sit down to blog for the past six months. I wish I could blame my absence on the weather or my busy schedule, but why lie? I have fallen victim to the same enemy of progress that I try to discourage my clients from entertaining, perfectionism.
Don’t get me wrong, anyone who knows me knows I’m far from perfect! When it comes to writing, whether it’s a college paper or my little blog I become paralyzed with fear that my work will not measure up. I see this same self-destructive behavior become problematic in many of my client’s riding. For fear of not doing an exercise properly the first time, they never attempt it at all.
En route to lessons this same self-doubt creeps up on me if I let it. What if I can’t live up to my client’s expectations? What if my instruction falls flat or fails to inspire? Perhaps somebody else could explain things more creatively or clearly. This almost always alleviates itself as soon as the lesson begins and the dialogue between instructor, horse and rider begins to flow, The details work themselves out and it becomes clear that it is not the over complicated, esoteric explanations or the grandiosity of the upper level movements that make a good lesson. It’s the quiet, subtle exchanges that occur only between the rider and the horse that matter.
As frequently happens when self-doubt becomes overwhelming to me my students unknowingly become my teachers. Last week while driving to teach a dedicated adult amateur rider I found myself fretting about what I would present as a lesson. We have been chipping away at the lateral exercises and because she is so dedicated to her riding and her horse I desperately wanted to help her feel confident and confirmed in her lateral work, exercises that are complex in nature and require a patient communication between the horse and rider.
I arrived at the barn after spending the drive over mentally preparing for my lesson with Lynn. I was determined to dazzle her with lofty explanations of the communication needed for her to properly execute jaw dropping shoulder-in and breathtaking renvers. My perfectionism was in overdrive and my anxiety about presenting the perfect lesson was building. When I determinedly walked into the barn I noticed that Lynn was wearing a radiant smile. She explained that for the first time ever her sometimes aloof mare, Luna, had cantered up to greet her in the pasture. Her excitement from that one interaction from her horse was nearly palpable. My anxieties melted away as I realized that riding, like life, is defined by the small things. Sure, great lateral work is nice to have but no lofty speech or complicated footwork can offer the undefinable joy experienced during the quiet moments understood only between the horse and rider.
With luck my writing self can learn something from my riding self. Tell the perfectionism to back off and just keep writing. Every ride isn’t perfect and every blog post won’t be awe-inspiring, but hopefully, if I keep moving towards the big things the small things will make it all worthwhile.
One of the challenges in teaching dressage lies in formulating analogies and phrases to evoke the proper “feeling” between the horse and rider. On the technical side this includes teaching the mechanics of the movements, the relationship of the aids between the rider and horse, and the systematic use of the training scale. More imagination is required on the abstract side, as one must describe feelings. Elasticity, forwardness, throughness and many other dressage terms have either different definitions in the real world, or no application whatsoever.
Many times word selection is pivotal in eliciting the right response from the rider, both physically and emotionally. This obsession with word choice causes some clients annoyance as I use their questions and interpretations of their rides as indicators of their understanding of the training concepts and of their relationship with the horse. An example that comes readily to mind is the common malady, “he keeps throwing his head up!” Although visually this is true, the rider’s choice to focus on the horse’s head leads me to conclude that the rider does not understand that the horse’s head is not the problem, the problem is losing engagement and dropping the back, the head tossing is merely a symptom of this problem. When focusing on the horse’s head position the rider will usually correct the head tossing with the reins. This correction is temporary however, as the problem itself has been left unaddressed. By asking the rider to think and speak in terms of the horse’s back, as opposed the head, it increases the likelihood that he will take the steps necessary to correct the source of the problem, and not patch it up for a few strides with force.
“He keeps drifting out!” Another clue to a misunderstanding. If the horse is drifting, breaking stride, speeding up, slowing down or any other deviance from the rider’s intent it is not “his” fault. If he is doing it, it is likely that the rider is inadvertently asking him to do it. Pointing out this word choice problem is not one of my more popular speeches. It almost always merits an exasperated sigh and “you know what I mean”. The problem here is that, yes, I know the rider is trying to convey the nature of the error, however the words selected indicate that the rider believes the horse is responsible for the failure of the exercise. The same observation worded “I’m doing something that keeps allowing him to break or asking him to break” is more indicative that the rider is taking responsibility for the error, thus making correcting it a possibility.
A client of mine, a young rider that rehabilitates traumatized horses, used to describe resistance by the horse as “fighting”. Although I know that she is not using the word literally, or in any way being unkind to the horse, I stop her explanation every time the word fighting is included. It is important to me, as the trainer, that the relationship between the rider and the horse is one of teaching and understanding. If the rider feels that the horse is malevolent as opposed to confused then the course of action will be disciplinary instead of instructive. The word fighting indicates a combative stance with the horse that is not helpful in the training process. It is the responsibility of the instructor to ascertain the rider’s understanding of the training relationship. To assume an understanding, in spite of terminology to the contrary, can be a mistake the horse must pay for.
After each lesson use your own words to convey your understanding of the concepts addressed by your trainer. Your explanation may illuminate misunderstandings that prevent you from being the partner your horse deserves.
It’s no coincidence, the spring weather appeared and the blog posts disappeared! Break’s over now and I’m back with enthusiasm! Much of my enthusiasm has been influenced by two, yes two! awards bestowed upon me by my blogging friend, Bree Nicole at Cavalli Connections. I couldn’t be more pleased with my awards, The Beautiful Blogger award, and The Classical Riding Awareness Award, an honor that Bree will be granting to one blogger every few months that she feels demonstrates compassion for horses, a thirst for equine kowledge and dedication to the classical principles of training and riding. I hope I can live up to these admirable standards. I certainly aspire to.
When I began Tango Dressage Blog in December ’09 I’m not sure I even knew what a blog was. It seemed like a good way to overcome anxieties about writing, a problem I have sufferred from since childhood. I didn’t realize that I would grow to enjoy the process and the people associated with it. I have come to believe that the blog format will bring about a sense of honesty and sincerity in journalism. The blogs I enjoy are not only as informative and well written as any magazine articles I read, they are generally less wordy, and less biased by advertisers (since there usually are none!).
If you haven’t already, please check out Bree’s blog, Cavalli Connections and the others I have listed on the right margin of this page under Blogroll. They are all excellent blogs written by people that are so passionate about horses they are willing to put the evidence up for the world to read. You may even want to start one of your own. As a condition of my Beautiful Blogger award I must pick some beautiful blogs to bestow the award upon. I don’t think this will be a problem, there are so many I have grown to love. There will be a post listing them shortly.
Before I sign off to rest up for the horse show tomorrow I want to thank Bree once again for her kind words and thoughtful consideration. I greatly admire her writing and passion for horses and consider her recognition of my blog a real honor.
Ok, ok…It’s hard to think of a catchy title that rhymes with Smeets! That’s what I have to work with however, as it was the second day of another great clinic with international rider and trainer Ron Smeets from The Netherlands. Anyone that has visited my website, Tango Dressage, knows I am a big fan of Mr. Smeets. He travels to the U.S. on a regular basis in order to maintain a consistent training program. I try to ride with Ron every opportunity I get, however, unable to ride this weekend I observed from the sidelines as several of my students took advantage of his expertise.
This is the forty-fifth post I have published on this blog and several times leading up to the weekend of the clinic I felt it would boost rider entries to post an article about Ron and previous clinics, however, these attempts remain unpublished as I have come to realize that if the intentions of my posts are anything other than my sincere feelings or opinions at the time of writing than they are nothing but advertisements and advertisements are always biased to favor the advertised.
Sincerity is the trait that I admire most in Ron’s professional dealings. When you ride with Ron it is evident that he cares if you understand what he is trying to convey in the lesson. This is not just true of upper-level or potential horse purchasing clients. Ron routinely spends as much time and energy as is necessary to make sure even more novice riders understand and benefit from their ride, even if his lunch break or rest breaks are depleted by doing so.
The same sincerity that conveys concern for the rider’s education also puts the rider in the hot seat at times. Don’t expect phony compliments or platitudes from Smeets. His concern is with the education of the rider and the welfare of the horse and if a mistake is made and repeated, expect to hear about it until it is corrected! He is never unkind or condescending but instead determines what a rider is capable of and pushes them to meet that mark. It is a quality in a clinician that I greatly admire as so many clinicians I see under-challenge or placate riders, as they wish to maintain a loyal following, but platitudes do not make a Grand Prix rider.
This is the last day of Ron’s clinic and I look forward to riding with him when he returns in June. His dressage knowledge and teaching style make him an excellent trainer. His sincerity and candor make him an exceptional person.
“Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim.” Jane Austen
Understandably there has been a lot of controversy lately over the possibility of mandatory helmet rules for dressage competition. Although personal safety should be an individual’s choice it is difficult to defend the decision of not protecting one’s own head.
The main concern for not mandating helmets seems to lie in the fact that helmets are not as visually appealing when worn with the customary dressage attire, particularly the shadbelly jacket. A top hat, which offers little to no protection at all, is far more appealing when wearing such an outfit. Recently, as a possible alternative to helmets, companies have been designing “hard-hat” type top hats as they have for cowboy hats for western rider’s safety. These hats, while safer to ride in, are bulky and clumsy, thus negating the point of having a visually appealing hat.
Although this suggestion may upset some classicists I believe it may be time to consider embracing the helmet and updating the attire. Yes, that means quit competing in tuxedos. Tuxedos are certainly classy outfits for weddings or the opera but not necessarily clothes that inspire athleticism. Many other athletic events require helmets and maintain a dignified but athletic turnout. In addition to being visually compatible with safety gear, more athletic attire can be manufactured with fabrics that are more conducive to sports functionality. Wearing a blazer and an Ascot with leather boots while participating in an athletic event in the deep South in September seems somehow non-sporty.
While I have a deep respect for tradition and believe that the principles of riding and training should be passed from generation to generation, the time may have come to consider updating the attire of the modern equestrian. Athletes in every sport benefit from advances in fabrics and modern technological design for comfort and performance, why not us? If we want the rest of the world to respect our sport as an Olympic discipline we may have to suit up looking like the athletes that we are.