Friday, September 23, 2011

Harley, The Music Teacher

Harley had an unusual experience this week.  He taught a lesson.  Well, actually I taught the lesson, but he was a critical player.  His rider was an exceptional young lady with lots of talent.  She has been riding for a handful of years, a couple of which were under my tutelage.  We have not ridden together for several months, but the opportunity arose for me to be her substitute teacher.  The list of people who have ridden Harley is very short.  I can count them on one hand, but this opportunity just felt right.

The lesson started out extraordinarily well.  They walked around, getting used to one another.  We discussed the importance of the horse maintaining his forwardness without the rider's legs squeezing all the time and she began to gingerly encourage him forward with the whip.  It is weird giving someone else permission to use a whip on your own horse, but I had to reassure her, because she must have felt equally weird using a whip on a friend's beloved horse.  She was very tactful.  Before long, they were leg yielding across the ring in walk.  The steps were really even and pleasing to the eye, especially going to the left.  His shoulders got a little ahead of his quarters going to the right, but it was so good that I still could not resist a little humor,

"Who trained this nice horse?"

Now, it was time to trot.  Harley's first trot transition is always a little rough.  Okay, sometimes it is a lot rough.  He pops off the front end into a hollow, stiff trot.  It is not pretty, but the good news is that it is usually only the first trot off.  Once he warms up, his transitions are from behind and he reaches for the bit into the transition for the most part.  I have been trying to improve our preparation so that he is softer and better able to move off by the first trot, but I did not expect our student to worry about such things, so I just told her to tap him forward with the whip until he was trotting.  As expected, the initial transition was choppy.  I encouraged her to focus only on forwardness. 

"Do not worry about his head or bending, just tap him forward and get a feel for his tempo and rhythm."

They had a couple stalls and false starts.  Harley was lurching into trot, stalling back to walk or even halt, and lurching forward again.  I encouraged her to keep her leg muscles relaxed and rely solely on taps of the whip to send him forward.  I told her to take her knees away from the saddle and make her posting smaller.  And then, something beautiful happened. 

She relaxed her leg muscles.

Her knees softened against the saddle.

She started breathing (!).

And Harley lifted his back, rounded his frame, and dropped his nose in classic dressage-horse fashion.  The change was so immediate that I could not cheer and applaud fast enough.  His posture swapped between the hollow-man and dressage horse a couple times and then she got it!  Harley traveled around the ring in a lovely springing trot, sporting his best dressage horse impersonation.  I was dumbfounded for a second.  Wow.  I did not expect that to work as quickly as it did.  She told me later that she was focusing on keeping her knees away from the saddle.  Harley's instantaneous feedback was more meaningful than anything that I could have relayed in spoken language and time.  An eager student is, of course, the other necessary ingredient.  She was awesome!

Harley's teaching style is very honest.  Excruciatingly so.  All riders who have ridden a number of horses will eventually meet a horse who exposes their imperfections.  He has certainly done this for me over the years, but he was not the first.  When I was riding Harry the Haflinger, I had an extremely difficult time cantering him on a circle.  By the time we got to the last quarter of the circle, he would bulge his outside shoulder and lean his way out of the circle.  No amount of pulling on the inside rein could rectify the situation; in fact, the inside rein made things worse.  Letting go of the inside rein did not work either.  My instructor would yell at me to drop the inside and use the outside rein.  I tried.  Oh, did I try.  I kicked with my outside leg.  I pressed my outside rein against his neck.  I (over)turned my body to the inside.  I flexed every muscle in my core and then some.  On top of all that, I probably held my breath.  I also tried giving up, and just letting him burst out of the circle.  Now, that really got me yelled at.  I remember feeling so frustrated.  Harry was not the first horse, nor would he be the last horse, to make me feel that way.

"Why can't I turn this (ignorant, annoying, stupid, lazy, poorly-trained) horse.  I can turn other horses, even that young thoroughbred we had.  There must be something wrong with this horse."

And then my instructor would get on and Harry would canter around the circle like he had no idea how to do anything else. 

Take a hike ego; this is a rider problem.

Eventually, I realized that it was not so much an aiding problem as it was a lack of connection among all the aids.  Harry was not connected through the outside of his body.  This was something that had to start at his hind end and flow, uninterrupted, to the bridle.  My aids had to provide clear yet flexible boundaries to guide his energy in the direction that I wanted to go.  All my aids had to work together.  In dressage, there is a great deal of talk about independent aids, but I feel that the more independent my aids become, the more they are able to work together properly.  The aids must work in concert.  A dozen independent aids are no good to the horse if they are executed in a vacuum.  Some horses will go on autopilot and forgive a couple missing notes in the song, but there is always that horse who is a stickler for perfect pitch.  Those are the horses that can frustrate a rider tremendously, but there is much to be gained if one is willing to listen and persevere. 

First, there is melody. 

And then, there is harmony.

My husband can sing and play guitar.  He can play many songs just by hearing them.  He can also sing impromptu harmony.  He just hears the complementary notes as another person sings the melody.  I cannot hear the harmony, but I can often sing harmony if he teaches me the notes.  I have to repeat them over and over again.  I memorize what they sound like, but he never memorizes them.  He can improvise and change how he sings the song every time.  After he teaches me the harmony, he can sing a second harmony, and if we record and play back the music, he can usually find a third part.  I say that he hears them, but he describes it as "feel".  Sound familiar, riders?  He feels the harmony.  My father-in-law and I just stare at him.  We are both envious of his rare, natural ability.  The funny thing is, after he has taught me a harmony, I can sort of start to feel it, too.  On the super-rare occasion, I can find a line of harmony on my own.  I would never approach his fantastic ability, but I think that I could improve my ear if I dedicated lots of time.

Kind of like the lots of time that I dedicate to riding horses.  I do not think that I am one of those riders who just hears harmony.  A natural.  But I do think that I have started to understand what that feeling is.  Perhaps, it is all the mistakes I have made.  All the times that I did things the wrong way.  Like trying to turn Harry on a thousand cantering circles before I found any success.  I saw Harley starting to show our student some of those things in her own riding.  I was surprised that I was not sure how to explain how to ride through them.  I could not give one directive or tell her to use a pair of aids.  The solution was much more abstract than position, aiding, or a cute metaphor.  I hope that does not sound discouraging, but I think that some of it really does come down to miles in the saddle.  And the miles that are spent in the saddle of a "particular" horse, whomever that horse may be for each rider, tend to be very informative, very humbling, and very rewarding.  If there is an instructor or horse in one's life who can train us to hear harmony, then we are better for it.  However, true success lies in the rider's ability to begin to feel the harmony on her own. 

Only by listening to the horse,
can we learn to play the music.

My "particular" horse, November 2010


  1. I can just "hear" the harmony between you and Harley. There is no doubt that riding is a team sport, between you and the horse. It has to be. Terrific post!

  2. I love your header by the way, very clever. I've noticed it before, I keep forgetting to tell you.

  3. Thanks, Karen!

    Double thanks, Mary! Riding is a team sport for sure and this was definitely a team-teaching experience, only I could not speak fast enough to keep up with Harley's input. He would literally go between tight and round as soon as his rider held or let go a muscle. He made it like a puzzle and she found the solution. It was fun to see two friends learning how to work together.

  4. A symphony of the aids... with the rider conducting :)

  5. Welcome back Calm, Forward, Straight! I was glad to see your latest post, as well.


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