Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Essence of Passion

"Forward" isn't just a direction. As a concept, it has a very specific meaning in dressage. When Eddie is properly forward he lowers his croup and his hind legs power him toward our line of travel with rhythmic strides, lifting his shoulders and freeing his front legs to express an elegant gesture. At the same time he is balanced exactly right so the smallest shift of my weight will cause him to do something else—something that came to life in my mind first. Movement is easy, cadenced and relaxed. He blows big long breaths and holds the bit lightly in his mouth.

It is in those moments I feel we can do anything—turn the smallest circle, sweep sideways, change gaits, and all because I thought of it. If you could see Eddie's expression you'd see how soft his eyes are and the way his ears flop sideways, occasionally flicking back as he acknowledges as aid from me. Being correctly forward causes him to be intensely focused, relaxed, and satisfied.

From the very first time a foal wears a halter and learns to lead, he is learning the concept of "forward." Each stage of training adds a layer of understanding for both the horse and rider. Not only does the concept grow with each achievement, but it also grows with the failures. Both horse and rider learn what "forward" is, as well as what it is not. Although it is possible to define the exact mechanics of achieving "forward", each horse has his own distinct feel when he is there, and his own best route to it. Riding more than one horse deepens our understanding of the concept of "forward" through each animal's unique nuances. But even my familiar Eddie is slightly different from day to day. For me, each ride is like opening little presents, and that joy of discovery keeps me coming back for more.

I think much the same can be said for anything one is passionate about—small distinctions and sparks of understanding are the tempting promises whispered in our ear.

Slightly off topic, but...

Okay, so I didn't learn this from my horse, but I had to share. This is the cover art for Death By A Dark Horse the first book of my mystery series that is coming out in February! I love the way artist & writer Tracy Hayes has interpreted my story. Pop on over to my website to find out more about my cozy-with-an-edge mystery and if you want to see more of Tracy's fabulous artwork visit her website Pastiche Studios. She's an amazing artist with a wide range and a delightful sense of humor!

Monday, September 20, 2010

How can I work under all this pressure?

Horses move into pressure. It's instinct. Sure they shift their bodies away when the rider applies the leg aid, but we trainers teach that response. What you may not realize is the training still permits the instinctive reaction--we've just redirected it. The horse is now stepping toward the rider's leg with the hind leg on the same side--more acceptable than moving their barrel into leg pressure. Oh, and as for the line of travel—that has more to do with where your weight is directed than what you just did with your leg.

But what I really want to talk about is the absence of pressure.

Horses will, if you pay close attention, actually respond to an aid (pressure) when that aid is removed. One of the basic tenets of dressage is that relaxation is required for the horse to move with grace, beauty and optimal athletic results. That means all muscular tension not required for remaining upright and mobile must go. Mental tension produces physical tension, so that has to go too. An aid that doesn't let up—that sustains pressure—is going to make the horse wonder what the heck it is the rider wants. Wondering produces worry, which in turn produces frustration and will cause the trained horse to revert to his instinctive reaction and push back.

Wouldn't you?

Have you ever tried to produce good work while under pressure? It's exhausting, not invigorating. I produce enough of my own internal pressure so my tolerance threshold for external pressure is pretty low. It becomes counter productive. I may not push back in the obvious manner my horse would, but my quality of work suffers. And I get pretty crabby.

Like horses, people have their own optimal pressure tolerance levels. When working with someone (equine or human) it's essential to discover what that level is, and then only use it when necessary. Nobody can tolerate sustained pressure. We all do our best work when it's applied intermittently from the one directing our efforts.

It's a rare thing to have that gift of assessment—the ability to know how much and what kind of pressure is required and then have the guts to release it. Perhaps we can learn if we think, observe, and test our bravery.

Have you ever worked with someone who seems capable of helping you achieve your personal best? Maybe they had to learn how.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Call To Adventure

Often when I school Eddie (see white horse in the picture) I'll take a little break and ride out of the arena. We'll hike up and down the gentle slopes around the barn where he lives, or if the dressage-deer are around (they're the ones who stroll through the arena daily) we'll stop and watch them for a little while. Admittedly, I find them more interesting than Eddie. He doesn't care if they go into the woodshed or look like they're planning on walking through the barn. He does, however, think it's noteworthy if they stand on their hind legs to eat leaves off the trees. I'm not sure why. Nevertheless, if we take time out for a little adventure we can return to work with a little better attitude and a renewed effort. Concentration seems to come more readily and the little issues that were plaguing us recede into the background.

This morning my long-time student and friend was talking about having some fun and going to a schooling show. Not the dressage shows we normally go to, but a regular horse show where a group of horses are shown in the arena at the same time at the walk, trot and canter. Neither one of us have done that type of show for ages. Since Eddie and Spirrit, my friend's horse, are good buddies we figured they'd have a good time together. It's something different, something to turn the same old stuff into an adventure.

Evidently the call to adventure was in the air today. When I got home my husband and I swiped our kids' inline skates and drove over to a local walking/biking trail. To appreciate this you should know that neither one of us have skated for (mutter, mutter) years. My recurring thought was along the lines of how much it was going to hurt to break a bone, and how much it would slow my typing down to have a cast on my arm. I'm happy to report that while we both very probably looked ridiculous, and will be very sore tomorrow, we avoided injury. Best of all it gave us a chance to laugh together and enjoy the scenery.

The horse show is in October. I'll let you know how much of an adventure it turns out to be. With any luck we'll laugh, but won't look too ridiculous.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Have a Snack and Forget It

On most days when I crawl out of bed in the morning I refrain from making any predictions about how the day is going to go until I've had a reasonable amount of caffeine and a good, hard look at my to-do list. If I then click over to my e-mail and stare with little comprehension at the subject lines it's a fairly good bet I'll be having one of "those" days.

You know what I mean—one of those days where you have to flog yourself to actually accomplish anything at all. For me, there's usually a direct correlation between motivation and the amount of sleep I didn't get. You'd think I'd plan for that by now.

Horses experience the same thing, except we're their to-do list and e-mail all wrapped up into one, and if we didn't bring it all to them, they wouldn't waste time worry about it. Some days Eddie (my horse) will meet me at the gate, ears up, practically wagging his tail. Other days he'll stand at the far end of his paddock and look at me with complete indifference, if he bothers to look at all. I know exactly how the ride is going to go before I even get a halter on him.

It boils down to this: I care and he doesn't. I want every day to be my best effort. I take it as a personal insult when my body or mind can't seem to get it together enough to cooperate.

Eddie seems to accept the day to day variations. He always makes an effort to do what I ask, bless his heart, but when he's less than sterling he still expects his treats and is just as pleased with himself when we're done as he is on the days when he's wonderful.

It is what it is. Don't waste energy worrying about what it should have been. Make sure you get a treat for your effort because, after all, you did try. And, for heaven's sake, relax. You can't change what's already happened and, who knows, tomorrow might be better…but don't let that interfere with the moment.

If horses had a philosophy that would probably be it. We might do well to try it out once in a while.