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.
How to Deliver the News
You know that old line that proper mothers used to preach to us: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all?” Heeding that advice when asked about the techniques of fellow professionals is a good way to maintain the slender threads of civility which tie our ego-driven equestrian community together.
For the most part a neutral answer is relatively safe. “Well, it works for him…” is nominally negative but not apt to spark someone’s ire. Is that failing to stand up for your principles? Not precisely, but if someone asks you (as a professional) to evaluate a colleague’s work, to whom do you owe the truth? A close confidante—surely. A valued long-time student—hopefully. But not everyone. It isn’t so much (in Colonel Jessup’s words) that they “can’t handle the truth.” More that they might share it with someone who cannot.
Rather than a flat out evisceration of the individual, some general observations can do the trick assuming that the listener is smart enough to connect the dots.
A few examples:
Making your horse more adjustable is certainly an important goal. However, keeping the big picture in mind you have to intermingle loosening and suppling him behind saddle or you impair the gaits.
Generally speaking, when a horse is anticipating, punishing him is not a viable solution. It just makes it worse. I would go back and deprogram him, extinguishing his misconception with other exercises.
I am not a fan of drilling the same thing over and over, even more so if the horse is having trouble. If you can pinpoint the root cause of the problem and choose exercises to solve that, you can go back to the primary exercise and find more success.
There is a line in the old FEI rulebook which cautions that Submission does not imply “truckling subservience.” That is worth thinking about.
This way I avoid the confrontation which arises if I tell someone they are wrong. Better to simply point out alternative ways to help your horse understand without him becoming a victim of unintended consequences.
“I can’t ride on Tuesday morning till after the trash man comes. His truck makes such a racket.”
“My horse has to take the day off. Our neighbor is mowing with the tractor.”
“Those darn kids on their bicycles! They keep riding by and distracting my horse.” Have you heard this sort of comment from a friend or perhaps even uttered such a complaint yourself? If so, you are missing out on schooling opportunities.
I am not suggesting that you should enroll your horse in a mounted patrol desensitization course. Most dressage horses need not be willing to stand in circles of flames or leg yield into crowds of protesters. And I admit that here and there you’ll find a horse so hair triggered that he needs to be kept wrapped in his private cocoon.
But let’s be real. Incremental, non-threatening exposure to lots of situations promotes familiarity and over time extinguishes your horse’s fear response. Take the word of Mr. Pollyanna here: “Turn an inconvenience into an opportunity.”
A thunderstorm overnight should not be an excuse not to ride. It’s a chance for your horse to learn that puddles won’t bite him. Chain sawing happening next-door? He doesn’t have to go face-to-face with the scary workers, but how about working him a few hundred meters away or even walking him around the field nearby until he gets bored. If your horse is too wired or you are really cautious, take him out on the lunge line or lead him in-hand with a pocketful of treats and the chain over his nose.
So much of horse behavior stems from their prior experience. I know horses off the track who wouldn’t bat an eye at a rumbling tractor or a crackling loudspeaker but were scared to death the first time they saw a toddler walking towards them. At the racetrack tiny humans (and I don’t mean jockeys) aren’t something they would have run into.
In a similar vein I knew a horse who was comfortable on the trail and in the fields but had never encountered a yellow line down the center of a paved road. It took a lot longer then you’d expect for him to decide it was safe to step over.
You may say to yourself, “I just want to ride and not bother with this stuff,” but if you invest the time in acclimating him to your surroundings—even peculiar ones—life will be much easier for both of you.
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