A couple of years ago I started assembling some thoughts for a blog, but, oops, it became DRESSAGE Unscrambled. Other than The Godfather, Part II, I can’t name very many sequels that measured up to the original. So, now it’s back to Plan A. I ended D.U. for the same reason that you stop eating potato chips—at the time I was full and, presumably, so were you. But like an old dictator haranguing the crowd, I’ve got my second wind now. You probably join me in observing that many, many riders get in their own way—by over-analysis, by under-analysis, or sometimes because they just ought to be in analysis. Dressage is full of Truths. You are bombarded by them in books and articles, during lessons and lectures and even over a glass of chardonnay at your dressage club meeting. Unfortunately, those truths are not all equally applicable across the board in all circumstances. Some obfuscate; others downright confuse. Navigating the whole shell shocking world of dressage is as fraught with pitfalls and booby traps as the task of Buying Your First Horse is to an unwary and unaccompanied novice. I certainly don’t claim to have a monopoly on dressage wisdom, but the same rules that apply to the human condition are equally valid as applied to our sport—exercise some common sense and avoid the mistakes that everyone before you has made. And, for heaven’s sake, don’t take it all so seriously. It won’t make you ride any better. As before, the tales which follow are not arranged chronologically but in studied disorder. Some are meant to illuminate. Others to distract. Some just can’t stand to hide in the dark any longer. Light and Truth R Us. And, oh, by the way, feedback is GOOD! I’m afraid that within me there’s an element of Alexander Haig after the Reagan shooting or Riff in Rocky Horror–“I’VE GOT TO KEEP CONTROL!” Consequently, this isn’t an open contribution blog. Tell me what you think. If it fits in, I’ll post it. If not, at least I’ll have learned something. CLICK to comment on anything below.
Bluto did it!
As the story goes, late in the afternoon of November 9, 1965, a young boy in the Bronx was goofing off throwing rocks. Just as he bounced one off an electrical transformer on a power pole— at 5:27 to be exact—everything went black around him— his street, his neighborhood, the whole city, the entire Northeast. Purely by coincidence at the same moment that his stone clanked off that box, a relay switch failed at a power generating station in Queenstown, Ontario, near Niagara Falls, plunging more than 30 million people into a long night of darkness. Despite endless reassurances from his family and his teachers, he could never be convinced that it was not all his fault.
This is called concurrence without causation. It happens in the minds of many inexperienced riders too. “Is this my fault?” “Am I making him do that?” I hear it a lot. Occasionally the answer is “yes.” Or the cause of the horse’s behavior is a sin of omission— something you DIDN’T do. But lots of times it is neither. The horse came off the track. They tried him as a jumper and he failed. They thought he might be a polo pony, but he was afraid of the other horses. So some kid ran barrels with him for a while, and after he was good and fried, he was rescued to become a dressage horse. Now the horse is tight and anxious. He won’t take the contact properly and sometimes he tosses his head. As a rider you are slightly collapsed in your left hip and you tip a bit forward in your upper body. You are very concerned that you are causing your horse’s problems.
Here’s another one. Once again a horse with baggage, and this time your job keeps you from riding him every day. You last worked with him on the weekend, and now it’s Thursday. You put him on the lunge line, and his first few canter departs are explosive. What are you doing wrong? Nothing more than expecting that somehow he wouldn’t be as he is.
There are so many examples, one as simple as “When I bring my horse out he doesn’t bend very well to the left.” “Does it get better?” I ask. “Yes, after he warms up for five or 10 minutes.” To which my answer is, “And do you suppose that is why we have warm-ups and don’t just take them out of the stall and into the show ring cold?”
As I said in the beginning, the rider may be the cause of the behavior whether from action or inaction. One reason you have an instructor is for guidance on these issues. But some riders obsess, obsess, obsess about things beyond their control, and it’s also your instructor’s job to nip those ideas and keep your head screwed on straight. Over cluttering your mind with true but irrelevant information does not improve your riding.
Of course, it’s about perspective. It’s about knowing “when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.” It’s about boldly voicing a “Ce ne fait rien” because you know when it really doesn’t. And especially it’s about patience. In chemistry class you may have learned that water is the “universal solvent.” With horses often it is time.
So when do you start wearing them? Remember, they are supposed to be a tool of refinement, not a force multiplier. In the World of Horse there are bigly unclassical exceptions. But for the moment we will leave out the cleverly recalcitrant pony who has discovered it’s less work to gravitate towards the out gate than to keep going around the arena or giant hairy exotics ridden by diminutive ladies whose legs barely come past the saddle flap. Feel free to add to this list.
To be serious for a moment, two things to remember: In Dressage Life you shouldn’t wear spurs until your legs are stable enough that you can use them selectively, and as Steffen Peters reminds us, you must never use your spurs to sustain a movement–no nagging!
That said, we move on …
On the subject of spurs, Colonel Sommer told the story of a rider who only ever wore one. He figured if he could make one side of the horse go where he wanted, the other side would come along.
I tested that premise once in real life. I had been asked to show a combined driving horse in a ridden dressage test—something he had never done. He had also never gone in public without blinkers, and he was very leery of his surroundings including the white boards and the letters. He was not afraid of the whip per se, but he was terrified of seeing it switch from one side to the other behind his head. On the warm-up day I had accidentally started a spur mark on his left flank as I tried to get him somewhere near C. Bad! The solution was not to wear the left spur in the test and to carry the whip on that side. The complication was that since he would not allow me to switch the whip, I had to carry it the whole time in that hand and reinforce my right leg when needed with a spur only on that boot. I can hear purists saying, “This horse clearly did not belong in the show ring yet,” and I wouldn’t begin to disagree. But there we were.
One final item—As I have probably related more times than you’ve wished to hear, I started riding as a young adult during the summer between high school and college. I took the deep immersion approach, had lessons every alternate day, rode like crazy, and after nine weeks went fox hunting for the first time right before I left for school. During those weeks I was first exposed to a whole different world—totally unlike my suburban upbringing—and I had developed an unexpected but deep emotional affinity for the people and the land itself as well as for the horses.
In my homesick, freshman-like way, I thought of them often as I tried to adjust to life as a flea in an overwhelming Ivy League environment. I thought considerably less of the other part of my summer which was working on an 18,000 hen egg farm.(after which I didn’t want to look at an egg for years!) One afternoon a roommate brought me a cryptic postcard from my friends on the farm which alluded to a package waiting for me and the comment, “You’ve finally earned your spurs!” I was thrilled both to be remembered and to get some positive indication of my prowess as a rider. Eagerly I tore the brown paper open expecting to find gleaming metal spurs. Instead the box contained two disembodied lower legs from a chicken—one who like a certain percentage of her sisters had developed rooster-like heels. Yes, these were to be my new spurs!
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