The foundation for all further training

For almost two decades now, I have been exposed to various styles of dressage training: The French system, the Spanish system, the German system. Currently, I am studying historical techniques of each of the schools for a better understanding of the evolution of dressage into today’s competitive sport in America. What is that they say about studying history? The past causes the present and so the future. There is no need to reinvent the wheel when we look back on classical dressage training. We know what works (slow, steady progression within a system of sound training ideals) and what doesn’t work (the modern twist on dressage displaying instant gratification and quick fixes). To really become successful in riding up the levels we need to study the written classical texts and devote our time to understanding and interpreting them. Working under the eye of a skilled coach who knows the progression in depth is also paramount to developing riding skills. This seems to be the theme of my revelations this year when I started working under a coach who thoroughly understands and implements the classical German system. I am in awe of how well she adheres to the strict classical principles. I am equally in awe of the lack of comparable dressage trainers. Why am I just now finding a qualified coach, after over twenty years of riding dressage?

In my experience as a rider in America, the majority of dressage trainers have no understanding of a complete, whole system, and rely on “quick fixes” or unsustainable remedies. Their education is incomplete. They are using what skills they have picked up from a few rides at a local clinic, a video clip they had seen once, or by the latest fad in the competition arena. The training is often rushed in the beginning, leading to consistent problems down the road. Without a proper foundation, none of the advanced work is correct even if the horse is appearing to perform the upper level movements. I cannot begin to write about how many upper level trainers have taught me with their “quick fix” remedies. None of their fixes flowed into a steady, natural progression of a complete training system. It was more of like, hey let’s see what problems arise and we will treat them as they come up. For example, if, on a particular day, the horse didn’t “have his head down”, the draw reins went on. Horses learned to be ridden in a double bridle very early in their training (training level) if the trainer found the horse difficult to half halt and wanted the extra effect of the curb bit. Now more than ever, I have a better understanding of just how detrimental rushing through the training or improper use of artificial aids such as draw reins, curb bits, and double bridles are to the horse’s long term physical and mental well-being and the beauty of the dressage art itself.

Training a horse takes a basic understanding of fitness. The horse is comprised of complex muscle groups, fascia, skeleton, skin, and emotion. The fact that a horse may or may not be in correct posture at a particular moment in time usually has almost everything to do with fitness and the lack of correct muscling to do the job. (Correct muscling is not going to be built with draw reins OR the early use of the curb bit by the way.) The importance of fitness became very obvious to me when I ended up in a stable with my green horses. They weren’t fit yet and I had come to a trainer that I had hoped would give me guidance up the levels. A green horse doesn’t have the correct muscling right away to do their job and as a result, they become fatigued quickly. They will frequently lose their balance, fall on the forehand, come behind the bit, and then above the bit as they as trying to learn how to carry our weight, travel the way we are asking, all the while they are getting more and more fatigued. They will have short bouts of successful posture, but the majority of the first months will not be aesthetically pleasing as he gets used to using his body differently and building his fitness. Just think how much fun it is for us when we try to get back into shape? We get winded, have to take rests, lose our balance, and become fatigued just as the horse does. The problem is a lack of understanding that the horse needs the same compassion and consideration that we give ourselves when we are trying to get fit. When it hurts too much, we can stop and take a break. We build our muscles up slowly because we are in control of how long we work out each time. Often, I witnessed many trainers start right in at hour long sessions with a young horse.

Instead, so much emphasis was placed on making the horse appear to be trained to a higher level without actually training or conditioning the horse! For example, trainers would ride the horses in draw reins in an effort to give the appearance of a round frame, meanwhile chasing them forward to bigger gaits. It “looked” right to them. The horse was “round” and had big, flashy movement to the untrained eye. They were probably imitating what they had heard or seen other trainers doing. And riding in draw reins seems somewhat logical if you don’t have the education to inform you otherwise. The long term effects of riding a horse in draw reins, over flexed in the poll, running onto the forehand will ruin his future dressage training forever.  This post isn’t meant to criticize anyone but simply to point out the obvious education holes that we have here in the United States when it comes to training horses and hopefully instill some inspiration and hope into any amateurs seeking a complete dressage education, keep looking, it is out there! But no, you’re not crazy if you’re thinking you haven’t found it yet. Keep educating yourself. If I had decided to quit at any point on my journey and settle for whatever trainer was conveniently located to me at the time, I would not have sought out correct methods and I would not be sitting here writing this post today. I would be going along with the majority and my horses would be unsound and unhappy (other sights I have witnessed through the years).

Before all of my exposure to different methods, schools of thought, theories etc. I never would have thought I would be writing about this. I never imagined I would have to. But this has been a big part of the journey, the years I spent seeking correct and time-tested dressage principles. For so long, I felt like I was learning by trial and error until I found a complete training system that is working for me. As I continue forward through my journey (starting not only as an amateur, but also as a horse crazy 10 year old kid), I know I will undercover more truths, more epiphanies. I am sharing my journey to give hope to everyone that you can start from nothing and face the complicated, confusing, overload of information of all that is dressage. There will be many turns, reverses, and hurdles along the way, but that’s the romance of it all.

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Originality and trail blazing

I believe we are all born with original ideas. At least I know that I was. From a very young age, I knew I wanted to be a dressage trainer and I had very specific standards that I wanted to train by. Maybe it was all of the times I read Black Beauty or just the inherent love of animals I possessed, but I knew I wanted to find correct, classical, artistic and timeless ways to train and ride dressage. At a young age, I had a vast imagination of the possible places that dressage could take me. I dared to dream. I saw dressage as art, a creative outlet. Growing up, some of that imagination became limited as I learned about inhumane and incorrect methods of training the horse. Some people didn’t view dressage as art, but as a means to make money. It was and still is, baffling to me how anyone would want to train a horse in such a way. I loved the horses first, and dressage second. It could never be the other way around for me.

Over time it became apparent to me that I had to be a voice for the horses I came into contact with. But, I also had to advocate for and educate the riders. Dressage, when done with compassion and understanding for the horse, can be a vehicle for self development and confidence building. I wanted my riders to get the full benefit of this experience, while I also focused on the health and well-being of my equine friends. So many times I felt frustrated, at a loss to get people to view and love dressage training the way that I did. Too often, I found myself in barns using draw reins and running martingales to force the horses’ heads down, meanwhile spurring them forward at an excessive speed, causing them to travel around on the forehand. I am living in an era where rollkur is a trend in the equestrian world, despite innumerable amounts of evidence on how detrimental it is to the horse’s well being. Dressage is gaining in popularity as a spectator sport, producing flashier looking horses in an attempt to attract more people, and thus, more money in the sport. In a world that focuses on quick results, blue ribbons, and financial gain, the well being of the horse is too often left behind. I have come to realize that only a small few are interested putting their ego aside and investing the necessary time to steadily progress up the levels. 

A lot of these revelations I worked to discover on my own, although much of my discoveries are already known by many in the equestrian world. Despite my outside influences, I have always stuck to my beliefs and sought the best training that I could. Whenever I couldn’t find the answers I was looking for, I started to experiment and find them myself. A lot of professionals couldn’t answer my questions. I felt alone in a forest with no path to follow. With no groomed path in sight, I was faced early on with a lot of failures. Those first several years were turbulent. I felt like I was looking for the holy grail of dressage. Trainer after trainer, clinic after clinic, I searched for the dressage formula.

When I think of how difficult the first part of this journey has been, I laugh inwardly as I envision myself with scars, arrows, and wounds on my body as I travel through an untamed land. No doubt I have faced my share of critics and trainers with big egos telling me I would never be successful at what I was setting out to do. They are nothing more than another obstacle in the woods, trolls hiding in caves or under bridges. I’m still standing, I’m still cutting down trees, I’m still pulling up weeds and rolling away stones. Slathered in war paint, I’m still fighting the good fight. Through another deep river of shoulder-in techniques and counter-canter problems I go! Until a fork in the geography leaves me wondering which way to turn while I solve half pass problems.  I ride forward, I follow my intuition, the direction of the stars and the feedback from my horse. I quiet the negativity of the world.  My flesh may be bruised, my ego might be torn, but my spirit looks back in blissful satisfaction at the masterpiece I am leaving behind, a perfectly groomed trail that is only clear when I turn around and look behind me. 

 

Remembering a simpler life

When I reminisce about a simpler way of life, I think back to a life without the Internet, without cell phones, without social media, without fast food. I think of living out in the endless countryside, the rolling hills lush with green grass and bordered by trees. I think of being in the barn, smelling the fresh hay, fly spray, and liniment. I think of dirt roads and gardens and closeness of family and neighbors. I think of endless, winding trail rides through shaded paths and shallow brooks. I remember basking in the sun-filled summer days with my horse by my side, blissfully unaware of the time or date. I think of riding the horse with less resources, less artificial aids, and less of an agenda and more for pure enjoyment.

The smell of a sweaty horse and dirty leather after a great ride is a joy I have experienced since childhood. Back then, I saddled up my horse and I went for a ride, ignorant of the pressures and politics of the world or the latest Facebook status. I was left to experiment as a curious child would. I learned an unspoken communication from all of those solitary hours I spent with my horse. I learned how to get her to listen to me, to steer, to bend, to cross water and go over trees that we found in the forest.  And I learned it all on my own. What would my horses be like today if I just rode them through the countryside like that love-struck little girl I once was? I bet they would look more like partners and less like show animals, the goal of my training to develop a fit, obedient and happy horse with long whiskers and a wild mane that can navigate any terrain willingly and eagerly. We wouldn’t be schooling the perfect flying change, just riding for the sake of riding.

As I am morphing out of my “amateur” cloak and daring to dream of calling myself a professional one day, I am learning that I need to come up with more of my own solutions through analysis and revelation the way I once did as a child. I have had the great benefit of being able to study under one of the best classical dressage coaches I have ever had the pleasure of working with, and I am soaking it all up. But I am consistently reminded of the balance between studying from a master and interpreting results gained during self practice.  When I wait for my trainer to lead me down the coming path rather than looking for the next question myself, I leave the progression of the training up to her instead of me and my horse. Sometimes as adults, I think we have a tendency to stay within the comfort zone of what we know in an attempt to not  “screw up” the horse’s training should we make a mistake and do something wrong.  We find ourselves in unchartered territory, but won’t we always? Dressage is never exactly the same for each horse. The progression always varies. The great masters in simpler times used their arenas as laboratories. They didn’t always have access to higher teachers, books, DVDs or the Internet like we have today. They came to solutions by trial and error, the quintessence of life as we know it! That is how they became masters. So in an effort to be brave, to venture outside the comfort of what I know and attempt to discover something new, I vow to return to those simpler days, to keep the inquisitive, open mind of a child, and continue to train my own horses until I, myself, become a master.

 

 

Follow your struggles

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It’s just too hard, I thought as I drove away from the barn feeling defeated after my discouraging dressage lesson. I picked an almost impossible discipline and here I am feeling like I’m hopelessly chasing perfection. I drive through the country roads to go home. My brain feels like a wet, heavy mass in my skull. I turn the radio off and rub my eyes.  Its a cool fall day and I am decked out in long underwear under my riding clothes. Its my fault, I thought again. I need to do better, practice more. There’s no one to blame here but myself. My mind rushes into a whirlwind of self doubt and criticism. Before I know it, I’m analyzing the details of my entire life and looking back at each decision and mistake I have ever made with intense scrutiny. I sigh and look out the windshield, momentarily distracted by the rainbow of fall leaves still clinging to the trees. Such beauty in the deep reds, oranges, and yellows causes me to contemplate the most commonly asked questions of life. Then my mind jumps ahead to the future and I find myself instantly believing that there is hardly any time left to live the life I want. The life I had always envisioned for myself, it should be closer, I should have accomplished more already. Will I ever get to where I am going? I laugh to myself when I realize the little voice in my head has gone off on an unsupervised tangent. I quickly reign it in. Ah, the internal mental struggle, the conflicting banter back and forth in my own mind. Sigh. These after-effects of a bad ride will sadly plague me for a few days.

It’s inevitable, a bad ride happens to every equestrian. And it can happen anywhere, anytime. I have come to realize that I cannot avoid such rides, so I must learn to at least tolerate them. I put on my blinker and roll into the gas station, lining my truck up perfectly to the pump. In all of my haste to get to the barn, I forgot to get gas and now I am dangerously low. As I stand and pump gas, the wind is light on my face and I lean back against the truck, lifting my face to the warm sun. Well, this should mean I won’t have another bad ride for awhile, I just need to weather this storm. The pump switches off and I replace the nozzle and screw the gas cap on. I saunter into the store and scan it for something to eat. I am well aware that most people will not realize that what I am wearing is an outfit to ride horses in and that I probably look ridiculous to them. I’m also covered in sweat, dirt, and hair. After a few seconds of scanning the store,  I settle for a cup of hot coffee, pay the cashier, and hurry back outside.

Time passes as I follow the road that weaves in and out of the color-splashed trees. My drives have always been my time for reflection. I think about life, work, friends, and, most usually, horses and riding. My mind meanders through its usual passive thoughts and suddenly, I am struck with the epiphany that perhaps struggles are a sign that we are not only trying, but achieving. I think back to former obstacles I have faced, remembering how hard and long and seemingly impossible they were. After each difficulty, came a period of new insight, understanding, and …success, the dawn after a dark night. Things always tend to get hard when we enter a new layer of understanding something or when we push ourselves out of our comfort zones or skill sets. Struggle is a good thing! Well, if that’s the case, I thought, I should look forward to these bad rides and think of them as an indicator of good rides to come. 

By the time I make it home, I conclude that sometimes it’s hard to know when to push through the struggle, when to know it is a time to quit, and when to learn the simple art of doing nothing about it and simply saddling up for another ride.  Dressage is a balance of all of these things and the more you train, the more you realize what action needs to be taken at which time for which situation. There have been times I have had to dig deeper, times I have had to quit or find a new way, and times I had to not let any thoughts into my head and simply..do nothing.

Today, I choose to dig in. When riding days are tough, when I’m down on myself, I must always dig in. The feeling of failure from a bad ride can crush us for days, leading us to self doubt or, worse, inaction.  But not every ride can be a good ride. In fact, those really good rides are kind of well, rare. That’s what makes them so victorious.  I’m learning to follow the struggle. The struggle is showing me where I need to grow. The horse is our mirror, dressage his tool of alchemy. Dressage reveals our weaknesses, our errors, and it shows us where to focus our energy. If you want to grow, you find the struggle and you work there. You seek out the struggle for the infinite wisdom it offers and you grapple with it until you find the dawn. 🐴

Happy riding!

I’m slowing down

For me, a typical day consists of an early morning meditation, followed by a thirty minute workout, a planned meal, and a consistent stream of podcasts or audio books while I clean stalls, do errands, and drive to work. I am constantly taking in information from a variety of sources. It has become a habit for me. All of the studying I have been doing for the past several years has come from podcasts, audio books, interviews, etc. And it has all had a profound impact on who I am, how I think, and how I plan for the future. But lately, all of the “noise” has become quite distracting for me. I’m slowing down.

I’m slowing down and I am quieting the noise. I am searching for answers within myself. I get up in the morning and I start doing what I love. Sometimes, I go right to working out. Sometimes, I start with riding. My feet take me where I want to go before the noise in my mind takes me elsewhere. When I groom my horses, the process has become unhurried and deliberate. I find that the extra time and attention spent with my horses relaxes them and gets their focus on me. When I get into the arena, I listen to my them. When I give an aid, I seek a willing response. No response? What can I change? A simple shift of weight, more leg, or a stronger half halt will do the trick. I experiment with my equitation while I connect with my horse and make him my dance partner. We dance through touch, feel, and an unspoken communication. Heartfelt feedback from my horse is the only noise I hear when I ride.

I’m slowing down. As I take my time to create my own thoughts and ponder the methodology of dressage, solutions and ideas naturally flow to me. I have had many epiphanies while allowing my own thoughts to come into my mind. The ironic thing about slowing down is that I am getting more done. I have a renewed sense of purpose, of worth, of creativity.

 

PSA Changes on the Horizon

This blog has been a wonderful outlet for me to share my personal trials and dressage epiphanies. I want to do something more with the blog. I want to be able to share more of my experiences with more people. In an effort to grow this blog and turn these posts into a book, I decided to take some writing courses. Up until now, these posts have merely been written off the top of my head. This was something I had done on purpose as a way to track what I was thinking/learning during a particular time in my life. But now, my blog must grow up! As I’m studying writing techniques and having my posts critiqued, I hope you will notice a difference in my entries. I also want to hone in more on my personal story. I woul love to hear feedback! The new style starts with the next post. Happy riding! 🐴

Surrender to the process

As long as I can remember, I’ve been a very goal oriented person. Give me a large goal and I can work hard, wrestle with it, and accomplish anything I put my mind to. I have been treating dressage in the same way: setting unrealistic goals, forcing, end-gaining, controlling. My bible lesson today told me to surrender my life to God. How would my riding change if I surrendered myself to it in much the same way? Instead of planning a goal “I’m going to compete at third level in 2018”, I am feeling that it will be more beneficial to hold the idea of third level in mind while I show up every day and work with my horse, allow the process of dressage training to work for us and through us, and debut at third level when we are ready. So what if it’s 2019? Or 2020? Or…never? What if I could relinquish that expectation and surrender myself to enjoying the process every day? After all, which part of dressage is most beneficial? Which part do we fall in love with? The never ending self improvement, the progress, the intimate time spent between you and a living creature working to serve and please you… We love it for the art it is, the science it is, the mirror it is to our lives and our souls. In my opinion, we get the most out of this spiritual journey of dressage when we surrender our egos, our goals, our expectations, our pride and just let dressage do it’s job: training the horse and rider. ✌🏻

Authenticity in the dressage horse

Luckily for me, I have the opportunity to ride and train a variety of horses. Each one is different in conformation, personality, trainability, and movement. Each has had his or her own good and bad experiences, memories, and training. I don’t always get them as babies, sometimes I have a lot of retraining to do.

I have learned to respect the individuality of each horse as I train up the levels. There is no “cookie cutter” recipe for dressage. Even the riding books depict a skewed perception of training. While they instill correct equitation, theory, and progression through the training scale, they don’t take into account and explain what to do with the horse who is hollow to the right, stiff in the poll, weak on the left hind, all while battling Lyme disease, for example. It also doesn’t map out the plan for a nervous horse who spooks every time at the same corner, a hot horse who likes to show off, or a stubborn horse in need of fine tuning. No, the books just give us a picture of the perfection we are aiming for : the horse bends equally to the left and right, moves off each leg willingly and responsively, half halts on command. There is so much more to each horse as an individual and you must protect and bring out their authentic selves as you train them to the highest level. I think that true self expression of the horse makes the beautiful picture, a horse who is using his body – long necked, short backed, croup high or what have you – to the best of his personal ability. This will look very different between a Fjord pony, an off the track Thoroughbred, and a talented warmblood.

Getting through the hard times

As life evolves, we are faced with highs and lows. As we train ourselves and our horses, we run into obstacles along the way. Over the past few years, since founding my business and beginning to become “awakened” to self reflection and self improvement, I’ve been on quite the journey of personal development. Specifically, the last two years have been the most difficult of my life. Having felt like I had failed, made too many mistakes, wasted too much time, or overall missed out on discovering the purpose of my life, I struggled to get through each day. I felt defeated and drained emotionally, spiritually, and physically. I had felt used, misunderstood, and disapproved of. I met some pretty lost and tormented souls during these years. Having been a bit lost and tormented myself, naturally I would attract people in the same condition. My mind played tricks on me, battled me, fed me lies, fed me fears, and betrayed me. It was during this time I had fallen to my knees, that I found God. I supposed it was His plan for me to go through my trials and tribulations, and enough of them to learn my lesson, end my bad habits, and move forward to a life of purpose.

My riding has proved to come through the same trials and tribulations as well as a similar breakthrough. I faced limiting mindsets and an unwillingness to surge forward, be courageous, and try something new. In the presence of a coach urging me out of my comfort zone, I would lock up, stop trying, and withdrawal into my shell. Finding God allowed the other areas of my life to improve so much that my mindset toward riding improved. I was more willing to take risks, I had more confidence in my abilities, and I had more purpose moving forward in dressage riding and training.

As I am coming to the other side of a long stretch of trying circumstances, I feel refreshed, renewed, and rebuilt. Maybe I should say I’m rebuilding. I’m rebuilding myself stronger than before, I have a more focused purpose, and am more driven toward my destiny : to achieve my goals, fulfill my purpose, and to show people what is possible despite hurt, fear, disappointment, and limiting beliefs. Always, always keep pressing on.

Thinking equitation

Recently, I’ve been pondering the use of equitation in riding. Instead of thinking of our form in terms of what we should do or what we should look like, we ought to practice good form in an effort to best influence our horses. If our position can first be effective, then it will become beautiful as the horse uses itself more and more correctly over time.