Kidding around

This blog originated with a question from a mother concerning the dressage rides of her young daughter:

So the large majority of Ashley’s comments from the show on Sunday were about lacking impulsion. What should Ashley be doing to improve this? How much of it is Ashley and how much is Whiskey?
Danielle, Brooksville FL

To understand my answer to Danielle, you should know that at the time her daughter was a fairly tiny 9 year old and Whiskey was in his 20s.

BILL– While there are some limits as to how much impulsion an older pony can generate, it is also a rider issue.

Partly because of her own size and limited strength, Ashley rides in a very pleasant but still somewhat passive manner. Impulsion is distinctly different from speed, but it involves drawing much more energy out of the pony and connecting that power over his top line into a much livelier, more elastic package. This also requires a more active, sophisticated kind of acceptance that Ashley is just beginning to find out about.

This is kind of where the real stuff begins and where it all gets a lot more interesting and fun. There are occasional exceptions, but in my experience this strength and awareness starts to bud when kids are in the 12-14 age range. Dressage when a rider is nine years old isn’t very meaningful. For my money, while I like to see young kids getting organized, learning figures, and so on, it matters to me more that they’re out having fun, learning to gallop and jump and feel confident and at home on their ponies.

I know this doesn’t exactly answer your question, but that’s probably because you may not realize how BIG a question it is!

To elaborate on this theme beyond my specific answer to the mom, there are a number of issues in play here.

Foremost is whose idea is this dressage business anyway? Let’s hope it’s not the child’s burden to carry out her parent’s own unrealized dream!

Now and then I have run into a very young child, often whose own parents are professionals, who possesses the aptitude and the will to be successful at an unusually early age. The risk, of course, is whether this interest dissipates equally early. There’s no particular proof, unlike in figure skating for instance, that fast tracking a pre-adolescent in dressage gets her any closer to the Olympics that someone who starts a little later. Since the odds of getting there at all are one in the tens of thousands, it’s probably more relevant to wonder if the child will still be interested in riding when she’s 14 or 19 or 24.

There will be the rare young child who really, truly loves dressage. Pardon me, but I have to wonder “why?” Ultra OCD? Imagining her princesshood? On a horse that gives her ribbons and the attendant self-worth? Some reasons are better than others.

Getting less dressage-specific for a moment, what kind of horse/pony the parent provides goes a long way to determining the child’s future in riding. Like dogs and like horses, there are “hard” kids and “soft” kids. A hard kid gets dumped and dumped and dumped and keeps getting on like “what the hey?” It doesn’t make her better or worse than the sensitive one who gets overmounted, rocked around, and scared to death by some miserable beast that makes her want to take up field hockey or chess. They’re just different kids.

I know a “hard” former kid (an older babe now) who grew up on a Texas ranch. When very young, she pestered her father for a pony. He succumbed and took her to the reservation to pick one out. The result was a delightful pony who was cursed, unfortunately, with despicable ground manners. As Marty told me, they would tack him up and load her six year old bones onto the pony at first light. He was great to ride around on, but dastardly if she dismounted. Her solution—when she had to pee or eat, she’d ride the pony under a tree, tie him by the reins to an overhead branch onto which she would then climb, haul herself onto the branch and back to the trunk, and shinny down. Having accomplished whatever business, she would make her way out the branch, lower herself onto the wretched creature, and go about her day. It worked for her. Another child under the same conditions would have sued for mercy. I can cite many too hot or too bratty ponies whose behavior marked the death knell of their owner’s riding career.

If there’s a bottom line, it is this: we’re not re-enacting Darwinism here—with young kids, find them a fun pony and let them explore (wearing their hard hats) the realms of riding possibility. Dressage can happen when it’s ready to. Confidence and the ability to create a working relationship with their ponies (and riding itself) is enough of a goal until the teen years at the earliest.

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