Over at this blog (the subtitle for which rather confusingly defines it as being about “politics, men, Detroit, horses, and prayer” — um, okay), author Nancy Kotting has written a post defining the “Ten Habits of Highly Effective Dressage Riders”. Being an inveterate Facebook-link-follower, I read through it. It’s a pretty good list. There’s a lot I like about it. But in the usual manner of those devoted to dress-AHHHGGE (soft g, please, peasants), it’s … well, a little stuffy. An eensy bit wordy and idealistic and brimming with the supposed nobility of the Classical Art of Dressage Which Is Always Capitalized. All of which can get a smidge tiresome when you are a no-bullshit, “Give It Some Wellie” A-type eventer who’s aware that the vast majority of people calling themselves dress-AHHHGGE riders are total wannabes on an unending Quest For the Perfect Twenty Metre Circle.
(Is that harsh? It’s probably harsh. But then again this is a snarky blog. Here be dragons. Sorry.)
Because I’m forever and ever an editor at heart, regardless of my current shortage of employment in this area, I decided to re-write the post for the real world (and all riders as opposed to just those OCD and flatwork-obsessed), make it all a little more succinct and practical and easy to remember. So without further ado, here’s the For Dummies version:
10. There are no failures, only Teachable Moments. AKA: Every horse will teach you something.
9. Leave your baggage in the car. Your job blows? Your boyfriend is bumping uglies with your yoga instructor? Your parents won the lottery and absconded for Argentina, leaving you a diabetic Himalayan cat and 43 Murder, She Wrote VHS tapes? Your horse is supposed to be your escape from all things wretched. Don’t take it out on him. Nothing productive is going to come of broadcasting your frustration, your rage, or your fear while in the saddle. Admittedly, it’s a tall order, but one of the most valuable skills a rider can learn is the ability to let it go (or at least stuff it all into a remote broom-closet in a back corner of your medulla oblongata and slam the door). When you put a foot in a stirrup, you have to Live in the Now, at least until you dismount. (Or as an instructor of mine once told me, “The Pope has just come by in his Popemobile? Doesn’t matter; carry on.”) Essentially: leave the tension in your skull and don’t let it reach your muscles.
8. Be the boss mare. Horses like a nice, clear hierarchical structure. They like having a calm, confident leader to follow. Be that leader, be firm but kind and not a pyschopath, and your horse will trust you to the ends of the earth.
7. Corollary: Don’t be a pussy. It’s oft observed that the trouble with parents today is that they want to be a friend to their kids instead of a leader and a role model. Similarly, an animal who outweighs you by 1100 lbs or so can easily lean towards taking advantage of that little disparity if you prove to have the constitution of last week’s Yorkshire pudding. I do not confuse horse ownership with parenting, and I hate the “fur kids” mindset, but the Boss Mare job description is accurate. It means that you don’t let your horse use you as his personal scratching post, you don’t let him run all over you because he doesn’t like those horrid, restricting cross-ties, and you don’t let him abuse your farrier or your vet, either. By all means, spoil your beastie within reason (I do not subscribe, for example, to the notion that hand-feeding treats is an appalling breach of discipline — horses are enormously food-motivated and I, for one, am not going to give up that powerful a training tool), but set firm boundaries on safe behaviour and be consistent about those rules. As my own critters hear repeatedly, well-mannered horses live long and happy lives. Nasty, dangerous ones, not so much.
6. End each ride on a positive note. Some days, that might mean you settle for a half-way obedient halt. It’s good to have a plan for every ride — otherwise many people tend to just putter aimlessly around the arena for 15 minutes and then give up when ennui sets in — but when you’re dealing with horses, you can’t be rigid about said plan. Maybe you began your ride hoping to work on your canter transitions, but your horse is being such a space cadet that you realize you’re going to be lucky just to keep the shiny side up. So throttle back, adjust your expectations, accept what your horse is able to offer mentally and physically on that day, and finish up with something you know he can do well, no matter how basic that might be. Horses are short on rational thought, but aches and pains, opinions, and emotions, they have in abundance, and any of those plus whatever’s going on in the environment can influence your ride. It’s okay. Tomorrow is another day.
5. There are no short-cuts. It takes work to produce a horse properly, regardless of discipline. Skimp on the basics and it will come back to bite you in the ass somewhere down the line. Try not to get ahead of yourself and expect things from your horse that he has neither the strength nor the understanding to offer you yet. Stop bitching and get your tender tush out the door every single day and do the work. It’s amazing how horses respond to consistency.
4. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. It’s true that the basic principles of riding are the basic principles of riding because, by and large, they work. They’ve done so for hundreds of years. But horses are individuals, and not every critter responds to the old Training Pyramid exactly according to the equitation manuals of old. Avoid the cliched definition of insanity, and be prepared to change it up if something’s not working. Horse just isn’t getting it when you ask for leg-yield down the long side of the arena? Try asking on a circle instead. Be flexible enough to approach some problems by the back door. If it’s true that the brilliant horses are always a little quirky, then why do we expect them all to be conformists? You just have to keep your eyes on the prize (in other words, the end result has to be somewhere in the vicinity of correct).
3. Don’t be your horse’s biggest handicap. Be fit enough to do the work. Gawd knows I’m nobody’s poster child for fitness, but I make an effort, on the theory that you really can’t ask your horse to give his athletic best if you are his biggest impediment. See #5, No Short-Cuts. If you can’t sit a trot, if your energy level fizzles before you ride that good downward transition, if your hands aren’t steady enough to allow your horse to trust that he’s not going to get whacked in the molars — in short, if you don’t spend enough time in the saddle to be solid and confident and have a truly independent seat, you really can’t expect Trigger to pick up the slack. And the reality is, riding one horse once a day doesn’t cut it for most people. Either find more horses to ride, or do some cross-training of your choice, both cardio and strength work. (Oh, and it’s “No Stirrups November” — remember all that stuff you used to do in Pony Club, and don’t make yourself do anymore?)
2. The cure for everything is forward. I subscribe to this to the point where it’s on my business cards (the riding instructor ones, not the editing/writing ones). When in doubt, close your leg and kick on! If your horse is truly, truly working from your leg into your hand then his options for being naughty are minimized and productive things will likely start to happen.
1. The horse comes first. I was taught this from an early age: feed your horse before you feed yourself, ensure his well-being before your own. It’s not enough to be a competent rider. You need to be a knowledgeable horseperson too. Understand that your horse’s welfare trumps all other considerations — like, say, ribbons, convenience, expense, and having a life. If you didn’t sign up for that, I hear ATVs are sorta fun.
Well. That really wasn’t any more succinct than the original post. Thanks for the inspiration anyway, Nancy.