I am giving a lesson. We are working on the flying changes of lead. We are building toward the changes that the horse already knows, but as we progress in the lesson, the horse not only acts like he has no idea what his rider wants, but he is starting to act irritated. I hop on to evaluate what the problem may be. Is the horse being naughty; is his back sore? What is going on? I start the canter work, balance the horse and perform the changes without much problem. We trade places and the student asks:
So, what did you do to get him to do that?”
Welcome to the opening line of many a conversation with my adult amateur owners. The adult owner is working all day, earning money to support her horse, pay for training, lessons, clinics, and shows (and ALL the other expenses involved in owning a horse). She comes out on her evenings and/or weekends to ride. She has goals. She tries hard. But during this journey we call Dressage, she meets seeming insurmountable obstacles. She struggles and just can’t seem to master a task. Inevitably, the trainer changes places and mounts up. The horse suddenly acts trained and performs flawlessly. I call this job security. Amateur owners tend to call it annoying.
What is going on?
Everyone wants to get to the sexy stuff when riding Dressage. Everyone wants to Half Pass and do Tempi changes. But lesson after lesson seems to focus on activating your core, with not using your hands instead of your seat, with sitting straight, with keeping consistent connection, with riding from the inside leg to the outside rein. Basics, Basics, Basics. When will we get to the sexy moves? These ARE the sexy moves. At training level, you learn to sit straight, to use your seat, to connect from the hind legs over the back to the hand. Why, because Half Pass and Pirouette are connecting the inside leg to the outside rein. Sitting straight so you don’t throw the horse out of balance. Flying changes are about balance and straightness. EVERYTHING is built on the basics. If you don’t have mastery of the basics, the sexy stuff will not happen. The holes in your beginning work will come back and bite you in the butt. Every time.
So, be patient with yourself and your horse. When I start a youngster, I spend months teaching them security in the basics. The training pyramid, of course. By the time we play with lateral work, the horse is thinking, “Oh, shoulder-in? Oh, that’s just inside leg to outside rein. I can do that” Allow yourself the same patience. Spend the time learning and reinforcing the basics, ride after ride, until you are secure in them. Then, as you start the sexy stuff, you always have the foundation to give you security and lead to success.
Basics are the foundation to success
And this philosophy of focusing on the basics applies to all aspects of horse care. You may be tempted to buy a new brush or other gadget that promises to make grooming quicker and easier, but that road only leads to disappointment. Good grooming just requires a few simple tools, a lot of elbow grease, and some time. Trying to cut corners or to rush though it just makes more work for the future. For example, you miss a minor skin irritation that becomes infected, or don’t notice that your horse has tenderness in one leg which develops into tendinitis because you didn’t know to take things easy next session.
Grooming is your opportunity to bond with your horse and to establish a routine, so that, if in the future his behaviors changes or your just get a feeling that he is “off” today, you can take this as a signal from the horse that you need to look into something.
Likewise the grooming products you use should be basic and natural too. Many store bought products have artificial additives such as preservatives which extend their shelf life (which means more profits for the manufacture/store), or synthetic colors and fragrances designed to appeal to the human putting on the product, and not the animal having it put on their skin.
We are becoming more and more conscious abut the products we are introducing into our homes and food – who here buys organic when possible? And I believe we should be doing the same for our horses too.