I had an epiphany this week while working out. As I was sweating and struggling to draw my five pound dumbbell up with my aching upper back in this horrid rendition of the push up to renegade row I suddenly realized that working out will never get easier. And, in a more broad sense, neither will life. I mean this in the most positive way possible. I’ve been working out steadily for almost a month now and I’ve progressed from simple baby crunches to more advanced (and painful) plank combinations. As I master one aspect of the exercise, there is always a new challenge around the corner. If working out isn’t sweaty and uncomfortable, then I figure I’m probably not doing it right. As the great William Blake wrote, “without contraries there is no progression.” In other words, as we go out of our nice little “advance beginner rider” comfort zones, the previously unfamiliar and frightening becomes the new normal. I don’t want to be the rider that stays in first level forever because I was too afraid of looking stupid learning the turn on the haunches. So today I expanded my horizons at my first serious dressage clinic.
If my thoughts seem scattered, it’s because I’m attempting to parse out all the information that I archived throughout the clinic. All of my prepping and primping finally came to an end and I took my lovely Show Sheen smothered horse out to strut our stuff. I was nervous and excited all day, but once we pulled up to the facility all my nerves (well, most of them) melted away as I was greeted by the enthusiastic staff and fellow clinic goers. I entered a microcosm of all things equine and met dressage enthusiasts of all ages. I am in love with the feeling of being at home when you meet like-minded people devoted to excellence in your discipline.
As it turned out, I was indeed the only arabian rider at the clinic. Everyone else had warmbloods, draft crosses, and thoroughbreds. Lesson Horse Lena was one of the smallest horses participating in the clinic, but our novelty made us famous. Nearly everyone we passed commented on how cute she was. My purple-stained cuticles were all worth it.
I was so excited to use all my new stuff. I am obsessed with my Devon-Aire All Pro Full Seats! They were very true to size and I couldn’t be happier with the way they look on me. The Espresso Cinnamon color is a little darker in real life than it was on the website but I actually really liked the richness of the color and the brown tones complemented Lena’s maroon saddle pad and polo wraps. We looked legit. This is my first pair of ribbed breeches and I love the way they naturally make your legs look slimmer and more contoured. The full seat was just the right amount of grippyness to make a difference, but not enough to completely lock me in. Also, the waist line is incredibly flattering. I like that they don’t come up almost all the way to my bra, but they aren’t low enough to make me second guess squatting down to get something. I think I will definitely be buying another pair, maybe in the navy blue tones. The synthetic dress boots were actually okay to ride in. They were pretty stiff so they didn’t have the weird floppy ankle bend that some other synthetic boots have and they are really easy to clean. The Spanish tops are elegant and I feel like they beat my rustic half chaps in the professionalism department. I doubt they would hold up for daily schooling but I think they will be great for a few more public appearances until I find the right pair of real leather dress boots. They do scuff very easily, so I had to be careful not to take them off with the toe of the other boot.
Lena was more ready to go than I was. She practically dragged me over to the warm up arena and stood there and stared at me until I got on. It was a real Disney moment. The warm up arena was indoors and well ventilated. It had this heavenly footing that consisted of ground up tires and sand. If I ever have money for my own arena, I think I will try to get that kind of footing. It was springy and light and oh-so-easy on old Lena’s joints. You could tell that she had more spring in her step and was more willing to go forward. Plus, the arena was outfitted with MIRRORS. It was almost surreal to be able to watch myself come down the quarter line in a shoulder in. I was mesmerized by our awesome turn out. I felt like an Olympian!
I was sad to leave our bouncy house footing for the packed down sand in the outdoor arena where we were to ride in the lesson. Lena didn’t like it as much either and I could tell instantly that she was walking with shorter and jerkier strides. But, the show went on.
The clinician, Aaron Wilson, was even better than I imagined he would be. He was knowledgeable, kind, and easy to understand. He noticed Lena’s soreness and instead of kicking us out as some clinicians do with lame horses he decided to work with us in the parameters that Lena was capable of performing in her condition. I am getting to the point in my riding that my coach is expecting me to start articulating how I am applying my aids and be able to specify how I feel a horse is responding and how I am influencing their movement. My lesson with Aaron Wilson was no different. I had to be thinking on my feet (thinking in my stirrups?) at every moment and riding with my mind, not just my body. Aaron kept a running dialogue of what I should be feeling while riding and which aid needed to chime in at what moment, then a few minutes later he would quiz me on what he just described to me earlier in the lesson. He would ask me to describe the sequence of aids I was applying and then worked with me to make my description more concrete and specific. I felt like I was learning a whole new vocabulary along with a new repertoire of movements in my body.
We worked mainly on bend and lateral movements. Leg yields and shoulder-ins have been my mainstay as far as lateral movement, but Aaron started working with me on turns on the hind quarters, half passes, and travers (haunches in). I had no idea how intricately bend plays into lateral movement. I used to think “yeah, I’m bending towards the rail while I start this leg yield,” but in the lesson I had to think about the direction of bend in terms of “into” or “away from” our direction of movement.
Turn on the Forehand = Bend away from the direction of movement
Leg Yield = Bend away from the direction of movement
Turn on the Hind Quarters = Bend into the direction of movement
Half Pass = Bend into the direction of movement
Shoulder In = Bend away from direction of movement
Travers = Bend into the direction of movement
As I rode, I tried to absorb each delicious morsel of riding lore as Lena and I waded through the tsunami of information coming at us on all sides. Simply cocking her neck to the side was no longer enough to qualify as bend. He showed me where my hands should be when I start out with a bend.
Over the years I’ve realized that here are a lot of stupid easy things that you can do with your reins that I never thought were “allowed.” For example, as a beginning rider I didn’t know that when I needed to shorten my reins I could just use my other hand to slide the reins through my hands. Instead I thought you had to somehow wriggle it through your fingers on both sides until it was at the desired length. This nonsense resulted in years of ugly and obvious “piano fingers” and it was a difficult habit to break. Similarly, today I realized that it is okay to let your reins be slightly different lengths when necessary. So when I needed to bend her, Aaron kept making me pick up my inside rein while half halting my outside rein. It felt so weird to have one rein be one or two notches shorter than the other, but I really noticed the difference on circles and in my lateral work.
Of course, the all-powerful and elusive bend does not only come from the inside rein. That would be far too easy. We talked a lot about how to separate aids so they are all working independently towards the same goal. I had to work on coordinating both my legs to support Lena in the direction we were bending. Also, Aaron had me work with a whip, which was a struggle since I’ve always found it difficult to focus on how to hold the whip and where and when to apply it effectively. As the lesson went on, I got more adept at figuring out which side to use my whip on and how to differentiate how firmly I should apply it for the desired effect.
In our final few minutes of the lesson, we talked about how each movement could be used in response to certain problems with straightness or impulsion. He would ask me questions like what lateral exercise would most suit a horse that cross cantered, and I had to come up with possible answers (for example, travers could be used to help correct the problem). It was kind of fun getting so deeply theoretical about riding.
Thanks for sticking with me! I hope that you share the same overwhelming, incredible prospect of new skills and achievements on your riding horizon.