Dressage Shall Overcome

(“’But we promised everybody you’d show videos,’ they said.”)

In dressage, adversity takes many forms.

The most preposterous lesson I ever taught was in Costa Rica in a huge building made up of four separate large-arena-plus-sized structures which were wedded side by side making the whole thing something like 75 by 120 meters. During shows one or two of the segments had been filled with portable stalls. When I arrived to teach my student, a 40-ish woman on her sensitive mare, half of the building had been remodeled by her teenage son to accommodate his go-karts.

Shortly after our lesson began, he and his buddies arrived to test out some engine modifications. Now these carts weren’t the kind you find kids and oldsters with goofy grins tooling around on at the Fun Arcade. These were hopped-up jobs that careened through each hairpin turn kicking up clouds of dirt in a four wheel drift, scraping by the stacked-tire barriers, and pounding out more decibels of racket than a Deff Leppard concert, the drivers’ faces indiscernible within their full-visored helmets.

The mare was surprising unruffled—she lived with this carnage after all, but the noise was so overwhelming that even when I called my student to ring-center and shouted at the top of my lungs, we could barely communicate. Some nuance and sophistication of technique, I observed, was lost in the process.

Circumstances intervene despite our best-laid plans. Back in the pre-video days, I was giving an early spring dressage seminar in Lolo, Montana. It was pretty darn cold, but the arena was heated by a pair of home-made iron wood stoves—eight feet square and four feet tall—that were continually stoked with fat logs that took two people to carry. An evening program was planned where I would lecture, illustrating it with some reels of Super-8 movies I’d assembled. Lolo, at the time was less than a budding metropolis, so our soiree was to be held at the local truckstop. We had a separate room for our gathering, but as we were having dinner (I recommend the liver and onions if you go), I noticed that the room partitions didn’t go all the way to the ceiling. In other words, we wouldn’t be able to make it dark enough to see the film projection on the wall. Fortunately, my organizer was a Strong Woman and was able to persuade the management to turn off all the overhead lights in the whole place. Picture a row of long haul truckers sitting at the counter, eating their chicken-fried steaks by flashlight as some eastern dude (that would be me) on the other side of the wall drones on about getting a horse to come through from behind.

The arrival of the video revolution didn’t always make everything flow smoothly. I was doing a clinic for a club in Louisiana when during lunch, someone made mention of all the people who had RSVP-ed for my evening presentation. The dinner and lecture had been well advertised. Unfortunately, they had neglected to tell me about it!

“But we promised everybody you’d show videos,” they said.

I had not brought any.

Several participants came to the rescue. They offered to bring a bunch of the USDF Symposium tapes which I knew intimately, having edited them in the first place. They would bring me the stack of tapes I requested, and in the break between clinic’s end and dinner, I would go back to the motel and pre-cue each cassette to show a particular segment that I wanted to talk about.

So far, so good. Until we got to the restaurant. The organizer had, indeed, reserved a private room for our group and had specified that we needed to be able to look at a video in it. She, however, had only spoken to them on the phone and, like most civilized, childless women, had never been to a Chuck E. Cheese. She didn’t know what she’d gotten us into.

Aside from the screaming kids and the animatronic rodent, the other problem was that the VCR resided in the manager’s office off the kitchen, and we were not allowed direct access to it. He told us that he’d run it for us, not knowing that each of the ten cassettes would need to be played at a particular point in my lecture and exactly for specified times—like two minutes and 21seconds, for instance. A clinic rider had to be stationed in the doorway to the kitchen to cue him when to start and stop each tape. And, of course, what I wanted to be shown had to be viewed by everyone else on all the TVs throughout the restaurant, whether they wanted to see it or not.

Moral of the story: Dressage Will Prevail!

In a mildly related aside, I must mention flying home from Houston to Boston years ago having just spent a slew of 20-hour days in studio completing The USDF’s Introduction to Dressage video. I was extremely excited about finishing the project, and I was carrying a brand new VHS copy of it with me. After the flight attendants showed the safety video, I had to restrain myself from holding all the passengers hostage and proudly making them watch my dressage video with me. Upon reflection, the sky marshalls would most likely have been unsympathetic.