Sunday, June 27, 2010

Pay Attention

The arena where I ride has a magnificent view of Mt. Pilchuck. On days like today, when the sky is misty and a few clouds flirt with the summit, it looks enchanted. The forest between me and the mountain appears uninterrupted, inviting. It appeals to the romantic adventurer in my soul, despite the fact that to make a hike through the woods to the summit I know I'd have to hack through the underbrush, ford streams and rivers, and climb impossibly steep, rocky inclines. Dreaming about it is definitely better.

Closer by is Rocky, Eddie's friend, who enjoys being a horse and
has an active imagination. Apropos of nothing, he will scamper around, buck magnificently then look around to see who noticed. Eddie doesn't care. He sees him do that stuff every day for hours and hours. Besides, he's--not so secretly--more impressed with himself. I enjoy watching, though. Rocky is good for a laugh or two. He's such a happy horse.

And then there's the feather that's been lying in the arena for the past few days.

I think it came from a hawk, and I keep meaning to pick it up. Not sure why--it's just cool.

And, oh yes, riding. Which is why I'm sitting on Eddie's back. He'd probably rather
be eating treats over the fence, but we have a clinic to prepare for.

If I don't make an effort and come to the party, I'll not only fail to make progress, I'll regress. I know full well if one doesn't pay attention when one rides all sorts of little things creep in to sabotage one's efforts--a little "crooked" becomes a bigger "crooked," a little "on the forehand" becomes a sincere balance issue with the horse leaning on one's hands. Even when one is concentrating, small issues will slip under the radar until they grow into large, ugly problems.

It's no good beating myself up over it. Since I ride without constant supervision I have to expect it. No, that doesn't mean I get to stop trying. If I stopped trying, stopped paying attention, I'd miss the sheer bliss of those moments when it all comes together, the joy that rockets my attitude into the stratosphere, and makes every cell in my body understand why I ride dressage.

And I'd probably appreciate that view of Mt. Pilchuck, Rocky's antics, and random feathers a little less. What a shame that would be.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Small Expectations, Secret Handshakes, and Magic

Tell me it doesn't frost you to have your instructor, or clinician, or anyone else get on your "Old Pokey" and viola! He transforms into a heart-achingly stunning dressage horse. Tell me you don't long for that level of skill, talent, or whatever magic they possess. Tell me you won't lay awake nights fantasizing about it.

Why is it that without the expert seeming to do anything at all the very thing you thought impossible happens?


And training.

Well, duh. We all know in order to understand the nuances of horse body language, one needs training and experience. The horse has to understand what an aid means and the rider has to be able to be consistent in the application of that aid, as well as the ability to interpret the horse's response.

And, of course, know the secret handshake.

So does the expert know more aids than you? Is that the "secret handshake"? Probably not. What they know is what to expect when a small aid is applied. A really small aid. The kind of small aid that comes from thinking and breathing, from knowing the subtleties of "feel," from knowing the importance of knowing the expected answer to a small request. And that is hard. Really hard. That kind of awareness can only be born through diligent trying, enduring the frustration of failing, and trying again--staying ever-alert for each small flash of ah-ha.

If we try not to make it all happen at once, the horse can become the teacher. He will show us his understanding, and then we can proceed according to that specific understanding, without losing sight of what we want. To lead, to teach, we must look forward and back and inside--simultaneously.

Yeah, it seems ponderous, and there are times when it seems like it would be so much faster to force the issue. But learning to communicate is difficult, and happens in small steps when the parties involved listen to each other. Even if you're the one who has to start listening first. Even if you're the one who has to stay faithful to the small expectations.

That's the secret handshake. And at some point someone will tell you you're magic, and you'll smile and tell them not to give up. The magic takes a while to learn.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

You'll go where you're looking.

The first time I butted heads with this lesson was when I was a teenager and trail riding with a friend. Part of the trail ran alongside a road, and on the shoulder was a discarded pop can. I didn't want my horse to step on it, so I kept my eye on the thing, trying with all my might to move my horse away from it. Sure enough, we kicked the can. The incident dismayed me enough to stick with me these many years. At the time I couldn't understand what happened. I was a good rider, I used the right aids to move my horse to the side, yet the very thing I was hoping to avoid happened. What went wrong?

It was a little while before I really understood what is essentially a maxim for all riders. Hunter and jumper riders know well the saying, "throw your heart over the fence and the horse will follow." When I was jumping I kept that in mind, since I knew if I looked at the ground in front of the fence I would end up laying on it.

It's a physical thing. We've been balancing on our two feet for a number of years by now, and don't give it much conscious thought. We look in the direction we intend to go and shift our balance accordingly. When we ride, that shift affects the horse's balance far more dramatically due to our center of gravity being higher than the horse's.

Funny that an action as innocuous as looking at something can set your course with such certainty. And you know what? I've learned more magical things about direction of gaze, too. I've learned that if something is scary, you're far better off if you concentrate your vision on where you're intending on going than the terrifying object. I've learned if you stop looking, you lose track of what's happening to your horse, and that starts a snowball of frustration rolling down hill.

I've learned to apply this little technique to the aspects of my life that are separate from what I try to accomplish in the saddle. It goes hand in hand with having a goal--kind of like a support technique. You just have to be careful to look where you want to go, because you'll surely go where you look.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Micromanaging is counterproductive

I knew that. But the concept has real-time, instant-feedback, failure-rate statistics from the back of a horse.

How? Look at it from the horse's point of view. If there's somebody sitting on your back fiddling around all the time how the heck are you supposed to know when you're doing the right thing? The answer is, of course, you don't know. Count on two things happening: One, all the fiddling becomes meaningless noise and two, since you never know if what you're doing is right, you're not going to trust the monkey on your back as far as you can throw her.

Some horses will get really cranky in this situation, others get dull, and others become nervous wrecks...uh, sound like people?

Ever work for somebody who micromanages? Live with somebody who does it? Been somebody who does it? Yikes...haven't we all? So, what's the solution?

Do less.

"Do less"? Hey, there are mistakes going on here. I'm supposed to let all that wrong stuff go uncorrected? That doesn't make sense. If I just ignore what's going on how do I get that [fill in the blank] right?

"Doing less" means quit trying to do the job you set up for the horse. Quit holding the horse slow with the reins, quit kicking that inside hind-leg into engagement every stride, quit doing the horse's job. Let him make a mistake. Then correct the mistake, showing him what needs to be done--a "do it this way," correction. The punitive kind of correction only makes the horse afraid to try. Communication is clearer when you show what's expected, keep your expectations reasonable, and then back off. Let the horse do what you asked, and stay aware in case you're needed.

Just like real life with people.

Sure it takes practice...more practice to allow the mistake to happen than it does to stop making them, if truth be told. It's harder to learn not to micromanage than it is to learn a task. This is where the horse is the teacher. Where the student is the teacher. Where the teacher learns to teach.

There you have it. Problem solving, in instant feedback form, from the back of a horse.