My teacher came out to the farm on Thursday. I was so happy to see her, since she has not been here since the end of April. She owns a farm in Pennsylvania, but makes trips to New Jersey about once a month to train and give lessons. I started riding with her about three years ago.
My first lesson with her was almost entirely on the posting trot. After more than two decades in the saddle, I never would have dreamed that I would need a lesson on rising to the trot, let alone enjoy one. She adjusted my seat in the saddle and drew my legs forward by tugging my knees towards my horse's shoulders. Then, she had me rotating my torso to the outside of the circle and "collapsing" at the waist while my horse walked.
I found it nearly impossible to collapse at first; my lower back was so hollow from years of instructions to "sit up".
When we got to trot there was even more rotating and "collapsing" at the waist. I felt like my back was curved in a "C", but I was actually sitting straight, with a soft lower back, perhaps, for the first time in my life. It was very challenging to steer my horse, while I was looking to the outside of the circle, but, before long, he was traveling on the circle all by himself. The rotated-out position places the rider's legs in the correct places to guide the horse onto a circle. This position also makes it easier for the horse to move, because the rider cannot collapse to the inside. She told me that the saddle was not a trampoline and that I should post forward with barely any height to my rise. I was supposed to rise just above the pommel and then my horse would move forward to catch me as I returned to the saddle. She told me to open my thighs as I rose from the saddle. Try it. It is very difficult if you have learned to post onto your knees. I caught myself laughing at my attempts to go against my hard-wiring. I did not know that I was pinching my horse until I tried not to! There was supposed to be almost no rise to my rising trot. When I got it right, I found that posting involved my thighs rolling against the saddle, rather than leaving the saddle altogether. And here was the real kicker. My tight, sensitive horse was taking large, flowing strides. His neck was long and he was reaching to the bit even though I was not actively trying to put him there. Best of all, Harley was relaxed! I was floored. I just could not argue with my horse's response to the whole thing.
My teacher's philosophy is to work with the horse, not on the horse.
If you are in this sport long enough, this art-form, if you really love riding and horses, you must get used to feeling humble. Once again, I found myself realizing that I would have to relearn a great many things. This relearning would require focus and concentration as well as retraining my muscles and reprogramming my muscle memory. And let's not forget the emotional turmoil that accompanies relearning. I had to accept that I did not know as much as I thought I did, despite my years of lessons and riding lots of different horses. My ego quickly mended though, because my body felt so much more comfortable as muscles which I had learned to hold very tightly, finally released. This release usually left me with a ridiculous grin on my face as I tooled around the circle on Harley, round and relaxed. I thought back over the years.
When was the last time that I smiled during a riding lesson?
Even though I loved riding, smiling did not seem to come naturally during dressage instruction. The significance of this change in my experience was not lost on me.
Three years later, I am still excited and eager to see what my teacher has in store for us at our next lesson. She usually asks me what I would like to do. This time I was torn between riding and ground work, so she told me to bring out the groundwork halter and my saddle. The groundwork halter is Harley's everyday halter with a fuzzy over the nose and a long, braided line crossed over the noseband. The line is threaded through the noseband rings of the halter like reins. I was supposed to walk next to Harley, holding both "reins" with bent elbows and released shoulders so that he could reach for contact with the halter. Finding a muscular release in my shoulders has been one of the most difficult changes in my riding. I am not always where I should be, so this is something that I try to keep in the front of my thinking. As I walked next to Harley, my teacher helped us by asking him for more impulsion with the dressage whip (the "wand"). Harley stepped forward into the reins and lengthened his neck. She showed me how to ask him to release his shoulders by asking him to step sideways, shifting his weight between both shoulders. This shifting between his shoulders allowed him to discover how to keep his shoulders light. Shoulders are not for supporting your weight, Harley! Let your posture support you as you carry yourself from behind.
I was surprised by how much impulsion was needed to allow him to lift his shoulders. If we did not have enough impulsion, he dropped onto his forehand and became difficult to direct onto a circle or straight line. Once he had enough impulsion and was reaching into both reins evenly, we could go anywhere! All I had to do was turn my bellybutton in the direction that I wanted to go and Harley would follow. This exercise really hit home, when we tried the leg yield. Harley knows how to leg yield quite easily, so I touched him with my hand to nudge him over. My teacher stopped me. She told me not to touch him, to just use my energy. I politely asked, "Why? He understands what I am asking."
She told me that she wanted me to use my energy and my intent to direct him.
If we had enough impulsion and he was truly with me, than I should not need to touch him to move over. This was yet another lesson asking me to change my habits.
So I gave it a try. I asked Harley to walk on and started walking towards his shoulder, as if I wanted a leg yield. Harley just kept walking straight ahead. I literally walked into his shoulder and then I complained a little to my teacher, "I do not know how to do this." She explained that I needed even more impulsion, so that he was light on his feet and saw me as his dance partner, not just a person walking with him. I tapped him with the whip. He went to the reins a little more, but the outside was still floppy. I tapped him a couple more times, on top of his rump and next to his shoulder. Suddenly, he awakened. His neck lengthened yet again as his energy became palpable. I marched next to him with a soft lower back and flexed joints, like when we lunge. I turned my belly button and we circled. I pointed my belly button straight ahead and we went straight. I kept my energy up and turned my belly button to his shoulder, but not completely. I kept some angle in my body and stepped across like I was leg yielding. Harley stepped over. My teacher reminded me to keep a feel on the outside rein by bouncing my elbow back. I was holding the outside rein just behind his wither and this kept Harley's neck straight. With this support he was able to maintain his balance as he stepped sideways and I was not touching him!
My teacher cheered me on as I found the connection more. I tapped Harley's rump again and he sprung into a collected trot. At the trot, we circled, we went straight. I jogged beside him. We turned and leg yielded in trot, using my belly button and my energy. We came around the turn and my teacher directed my attention to my inside rein. It was softly draped. I gave it forward an inch and Harley's balance did not change. We trotted into another turn and my inside rein remained slack. I could feel all the balance in the outside rein.
The rein felt like the draw string on a satchel of pearls. Harley's body was a package held together by that little string and my energy.
I lowered my energy and we transitioned to walk. I halted and my horse halted next to me, stretching his neck as I allowed the reins to slide through my fingers.
"With that energy, he would follow you anywhere," my teacher exclaimed with a smile of approval. Then she asked me if I felt that I would be able to transfer some of this work into the saddle. Now I smiled, because during the course of the lesson I had forgotten that I was not riding.