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Pressing Onward

gustafson_-_jack_and_the_beanstalk-726768A 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.

Judged or Prejudged?

(posted 10-10-17)

OK, so I look at Facebook too much. I know everything there is to know about Truthers, Flat Earthers, Chemtrailers, and deniers of most everything that we would think of as normal. And of course I read about riders’ reactions to their being judged. They get even more wound up than usual when the Regionals roll around.

Names are unimportant, but I was drawn to a post by one competitor who was very unhappy with how one judge on the panel (of two) had scored her. Apparently Judge A had placed her sixth out of 40 but Judge B had placed her 29th. She accused the second judge of being prejudiced against her horse’s breed–a Friesian.

I am not discounting this as a possibility, but that was the case more so in the past when judges’ training was more simplistic and less codified. Arabs used to take the brunt of it before Friesians gained popularity.

Pardon me from falling into stereotypes or from choosing sides, but this breed does provide a certain conundrum for judges to deal with. Characteristically (but not always) they tend to be animated and cadenced especially in the trot. Often (but not always) their presence and rhythm are more evident than their ability to cover ground. Often (but not always) they are ridden with relatively high and short necks. And often (but not always) while their canters are well forward, they are not as balanced and in self carriage as one might wish.

These qualities may be differentially weighted from one judge to another. Sabine Schut-Kery, a prominent and successful trainer of Friesians, has written of the importance of doing real dressage with them, not just trick, crowd pleasing dressage. Having not witnessed the ride in question, I am making no judgment here. However, looking beyond the feathers and the flowing mane, the judge must visualize what the horse is doing anatomically. He must be out over the top line, ridden from back to front, using his back, carrying himself, and tracking up (and going beyond his prints in lengthenings and mediums).

If the judge scores all Friesians low, you might accuse him of a breed prejudice. If he scores yours (or one of any other particular breed that way), it might–just might–be that he is the correct one!

If you’re timing, use a sun dial!

Each year at the national instructors’ seminar circa 1980s Colonel Aage Sommer would conclude a lecture with a Scandinavian rhyme called the Three T’s:

Mind these three: T – T – T.  Hear their chime: Things take time.

Many people learning Dressage don’t at first realize the magnitude of the task they are committing to, to wit: to develop your own physical coordination, to learn the horse’s language, to state your case persuasively – this stuff takes a long time to figure out! Oh, and then there’s the part about your horse as an individual and discovering what works best with his personality.

There is a counterpoint to this. In my book I reminded people that in some ways putting your horse on the bit is like solving a Rubik’s cube – too many people in their riding sessions do the equivalent of wandering around the house for the first 45 minutes looking for where they left the cube (as opposed to just picking it up in their hand and trying to solve it!)

As you might guess, there’s a middle ground. The problem, especially if you’re working on your own, is where to draw the lines – which things do you just go ahead and “make happen” and which things are supposed to take (what seems like) forever? Allow me to offer some words of reassurance. Having observed them for more than 50 years, I am still fascinated by how horses learn. Progress is rarely linear!

Let’s take flying changes for instance — not hunter or western “swaps” but real dressage changes. Even with riders who have done a zillion changes and put them on horse after horse, any given horse can still be quite a project! Some will be dense and indifferent to the aids. Others will worry, anticipate, and get themselves in quite a frazzle. And then there will be horses who manage to do both! There’s a long list of exercises and figures you can use to help a horse see the light.

Occasionally you’ll find a horse who will pick up the idea in nothing flat. More often you’ll try and fail, try and fail, try and fail… and you’ll get to the point where you might wonder if this dang horse will ever get it. But when you persist – and that means to take as long as the horse needs – eventually they come!

And just when you think you’re in clover, he forgets. And acts like he’s never heard of a flying change. [See comment above re:  taking as long as he needs] And when he does finally figure it out for good, don’t be surprised if you go through the same thing with the tempis.

As I am sure you have heard, dressage is all about the journey. If you have journeyed very much, you know that that includes a lot of sitting around in airports waiting for the relief crew to show up.

Sinking… Sunk!

Two hurricanes later–Harvey for whose victims we could only feel sadness and empathy and Irma who scared the bejeezus out of us in Florida –-those of us who escaped devastation are grateful and even feeling a trifle guilty. When you’re talking 50 inches of rain or 130 mph winds, “sinking” sounds like a terrible calamity. I spoke to a guy in Seattle who was on his way to Key West to see how his sailboat had fared. He said he thought he had seen it on the TV news in a tangle of other boats blown up on the shore.

My neighbor on the other hand took advantage of a sinking. She put all her porch furniture in the swimming pool so Irma wouldn’t blow it all into the next county.

Riding has been on many people’s back burner these last days as we all try to clean up the mess. And mindless busy work with the chainsaw and the rake allows for more introspection than usual.

Which leads me to “that sinking feeling” which instructors and trainers experience more often than they would wish. It can happen when we get on a new student’s horse for the first time and discover – oh, dear – holes in it that are dismayingly deep and should have been remedied years before. Like not just a little slow to the aids but incredibly behind the leg. Like not just unfinished in the connection but deeply suspicious or resentful. Like not just “lacking suppleness” but the proverbial “feels like he swallowed the cavaletti pole intact.”

This sinking feeling comes when you acknowledge how hard it will be to make things feel right especially for a horse or rider with structural or psychological limitations. This is probably the greatest cause of burn out among instructors – that realization of how incredibly messed up a horse might be and how unlikely his rider may be able to maintain the fix even if you can make things right in the first place.

As a professional it’s a tricky business managing your own expectations. Of course you want to be positive and upbeat. But you also have to be realistic, taking into account people’s goals and abilities and not for ego-driven reasons trying to shape riders into an image that’s unachievable and only opens the door to disappointment.

We all ride (or teach) for those moments or for those horses where we hear the music of the spheres. Here and there a trainer may have a whole barn full of those. That would be rare unless the trainer has an inaccurate perception of the horses he works with. Ignorance is bliss.

In real life we often can’t have it be as good as we want it to be. Situationally we must sometimes temper our expectations for the peace of mind of those students and for our own sanity.


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