In Part One we looked at horse and rider misunderstandings, lapses in communication and ultimately a break down in the relationship due to lack of clarity on the rider’s part.
So, let’s explore strategies to help you and your horse form a strong partnership.
Pay attention to you and your horse
Spend the first moments in the saddle focusing on yourself. This is an awareness that you are going to want to return to repeatedly during your ride. Forever. How are you sitting? Hopefully you’ve been doing some out of the saddle exercises in your spare time. If you can’t get to or can’t afford (all your money is going to the horse) yoga classes, check out the internet. Free yoga classes are abundant. Search and find one offered by a knowledgeable practitioner who can meet you at your level of fitness. You can find yoga workout on YouTube or on your smartphone and can even download classes to take on the road when traveling to horses shows.
Yoga has improved my attitude, balance and core strength in the saddle. ‘Refer to the Rider’s Pyramid and ask yourself the tough questions. Are you sitting up? Are you balanced? When you use your left leg, do you pull on your left hand? Ask your trainer to help you refine your riding so you can guide the horse with clear aids.
Tame the Monkey
Didn’t know you have a pet monkey? Well you do, and he’s a noisy thing; he talks and chatters all the time. He evaluates your riding; he distracts you by pointing out things that do not matter at the present moment. Don’t believe me? Have you ever been riding, decided to introduce something a little new to you and your horse, like possibly some lateral movement? As you ask for, let’s say, the leg yield, instead of being present in your position, instead of recognizing if the horse even attempted to answer the question correctly (the question being, “Will you move sideways and forward form my inside leg to my outside rein?”) You think, “Well that’s not good enough. The judge is going to tell me his haunches are trailing and I’m going to get a 5.”
When you are taking a lesson and your trainer is focused on helping you perform a task, do you interrupt her with your own evaluation of what you are doing wrong? At a recent show, I told my student that she needed to perform transitions to help the horse’s engagement for the level she was showing. She promptly walked away from me and started an endless series of Turns on the Haunches. Your monkey offers helpful words like, “I’ll never get this.” “What is wrong with me?” or, my favorite, “Are they looking at me?”
I know I sound like I’ve lost my clarity, nagging at you about your inner chatter, but it matters! Every time you get in your head and lost in your thoughts; you are no longer present. You are no longer listening to the horse. You are no longer aware of how or if he is responding to your aids. You are no longer focused on clear, simple communication with your equine partner. Like fitness, if you want to give your monkey something to do instead of torture you while you are riding, I advise more out of the saddle exercises.
Technology to the rescue. After I fell off a horse three years ago due to my mindlessness, I downloaded a popular meditation app onto my phone. I started daily mindfulness training. Again, you can pick any length from 3 minutes to an hour, whatever works for you. I do a minimum of 15 minutes each day. The app I use has the option to use the same guided meditation for free, or you can become a member for more options. Mindfulness training outside of the barn has made me a saner trainer, a more patient coach and a hell of a lot more focused competitor. It has also trained me to be mindful of both the present moment, and the clarity of my communication with my equine partner. I can focus on what I am doing instead of what I am thinking. Not only clearly communicating with my horse, but also clearly listening to his feedback.
You can only hunt one rabbit at a time
I don’t know who first said this, but it’s amazing. Plus, if you keep this motto in mind, it will help tame the crazy dressage overthinker inside you. I know this will shock you, but horses are animals. They respond. They think, but not in long chain, linear, critical thinking patterns like we do. You confuse him if you give him too much information. If you want to teach him to go forward on a light aid, and every time you aid him to “go”, and then pull back because he is not round, you are trying to hunt two rabbits.
Do one thing at a time. Teach “Go”, and when he knows “Go”, you can add another layer to your task. When working on trot, halt, trot transitions, he must trot, halt and trot. If you start adding straightness, roundness, not twitching his ear, or whatever is bugging you before he understands trot, halt, trot. You have muddied the waters and confused your horse with your lack of clarity. Clarity in Dressage is about adding layers, one at a time, one step at a time until a complex task is achieved.
Clarity is an invisible strength. As an instructor, being clear helps riders accomplish their goals. With horses, it provides the security they need to understand what you want them to do. Just adding this awareness to your riding will help create the magic.