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.
Without Even Trying!
I admire optimists. It’s so refreshing to see an otherwise sane person climb out on a limb with her saw in hand. I only wish she knew how the odds were stacked up against her. That’s my take on buying a horse off an online video without going to try it in person.
To me there are only two circumstances where it might be appropriate to take that chance: if the horse is young enough that he is unbroke and all you’re going to do is look at him run around anyway or if he is incredibly cheap, and if he doesn’t work out you won’t mind having lost the money you paid.
Otherwise, I think it’s generally a terrible idea. If you really trust a very knowledgeable friend or trainer who can get on the horse and try it for you and make a valid judgment on how appropriate the horse is, then maybe. Maybe!
But particularly if you are an adult amateur rider, I think the most important quality a prospective horse must have is a personality that’s compatible with yours. By that I don’t mean does he like to kiss you on the nose or have his withers scratched. I mean is he “hard” or “soft?” Is he pushy? Opinionated? Easily offended? Is he hot to the aids or dull? These are all things which are independent of how well he performs dressage movements, and they are generally not things you can determine from a video.
With enough talent and experience a rider can either reshape some of these inherent qualities or at least adjust to live with them. That’s easier if someone is paying you to ride the horse. If you are a typical amateur, no matter how talented the horse is, he must be of a sort that you can deal with successfully and have a good time.
You really need to go try him, ideally more than once. And I mean TRY HIM. If he is an upper level horse, you don’t necessarily have to try every single movement on him, although it would be wise to at least see his trainer perform them. But do see how he moves off the leg, how heavy or light he is, what he feels like in every gait, and what he’s like outside. It’s also a good idea on your second visit to see what he’s like if you get on him cold – right out of the stall, not lunged, not warmed up for you.
Yes, I know it can be expensive and time consuming, but ending up with the wrong horse is worse. The plane ticket now will be cheaper than a pack of “shoulda woulda”s that will follow you for years.
Be Not Undone!
When you fly commercial now and then you encounter turbulence. The wings may rock a little. You may get a washboard effect for a minute or two. Rarely your Bloody Mary may slosh over the rim of its cup. Not to worry. When they have to scrape the flight attendant and the contents of the beverage cart off the cabin ceiling, THAT’S the time to worry!
Think of random horse behaviors the same way. Normal horses will sometimes do “a this or a that.” A little stumble, a small spook, a shy, a bounce, maybe even a kick out at your leg. The more experienced you are, the more you can judge whether to pay it no mind (usually), to make a small correction, or—when really necessary—to make a big deal about it and make it clear that certain improprieties will not be tolerated.
Recognize that these are simply natural behaviors. Much of the time they are done reflexively and without guile. If your horse is inattentive or daydreaming and the world suddenly intrudes, should you be shocked if he reacts? Sometimes horses surprise even themselves. When your bombproof (or not) creature of flight resorts to his natural defense, don’t get all in a dither. As long as it’s not of a life threatening magnitude and it doesn’t persist, cut your horse some slack. Ignore it and just keep riding the way you mean to. The more fuss you make, the more he’s likely to believe he really did have something to worry about.
Here are two strategies which can help. The more exposure your horse has, the more over time he is desensitized to changes in his surroundings and accepts them as of no consequence, the easier he will be to ride. You will do him no favor by wrapping him in a cocoon and sheltering him from every conceivable distraction. Pay your dues and put up with his antics in the short run. Trying to avoid them will always catch up with you in the long run!
At the same time the more you are able without coercion to seriously focus him on his job and put him 100% on the aids, the more he’ll expect to trust you. His confidence in you and its growth in himself will go hand-in-hand. I have found that if your horse is wanting to shy, the more you try to physically restrain him the worse it usually gets. Unless he is very green or the situation is off-the-charts weird, I don’t usually let a horse stop to sniff and explore, but I do let him “peek.” I counter position him letting him look and ride by with an assertive leg on the side of the distraction. Usually after a few times by it, his reaction is “ho hum. What was I worried about?” Try not to hold against him. Resist, soften slightly to give him space, and resist again.
A non-horse person observing a shy asked me, “Why did he do that?” I could have shrugged dismissively and said, “Because he’s a horse.” Instead I patiently explained that horses are capable of seeing things in an extra dimension, and while these objects remain invisible to us,” they are perfectly reasonable concerns to them. Whether you believe that or not, the bottom line is to develop yours and your horse’s coping skills. Keep your own focus, and stay suave and blasé throughout. (Pronounce them SWAVE to rhyme with “save” and BLAZE. It will help.)
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