Friday, January 13, 2012

Memoirs: A Horse Girl Learns Her Lesson

My love affair with dressage has not always been an easy one.  This will come as no surprise to most who have dabbled in the sport.  I guess what I mean to say is that dressage has not always been so easy to love as it is with Harley and my own riding space.  We have our own agenda and most of the time I direct our focus and objectives.  I am not easy on myself.  I analyze my own riding videos (sometimes in slow motion) and target areas where I can improve myself or my horse.  I try to always look to fix my position and technique first, addressing my horse's mistakes second.  Usually fixing myself solves both sides of the equation and serves to keep me humble.  I could not ask for a better partner than Harley.  What he may lack in consistency or steadiness, he makes up for in intelligence and work ethic.  His gaits will not turn heads or high scores, but his spirit and charisma consistently do.  And he is athletic!

I have already written a memoir about how I fell in love with dressage, but I have not written anything about how that love was tested.  One particular story always stands out in my mind, although there are many.  The story also has a lot to do with the role of the trainer.  A good trainer can build up confidence, but can sending it crashing down just as easily.  I often look back on this story with feelings of anger.  I did not deserve to be treated so harshly.  I always gave 100% as a dressage student.  It wasn't fair.  Or was I unable to see past my own perspective?  Things did work out and have worked out for me very well.  I still love dressage.  I am a confident rider and horseperson.  I am a very different rider and horseperson now, than I was then, but I am not sure that I can really wish any event erased from history.  I am a product of all my experiences.

Maybe, I should just leave it at that.


I was riding dear Blue in the show and I was in high school.  This was not our first show together, but we were still in our maiden year.  He was the first horse that I had shown besides Pony and we were already at First Level.  I did not really understand the significance of the level designations, because "first" sounded like beginners and was followed by things like "Second through Fourth Level", "Prix St. George", and the rest of the FEI parade of ridiculously difficult tests.  I wanted to ride those some day, so First Level just seemed like a stepping stone.  For some reason, my trainer (my original dressage instructor with the gorgeous mare) wanted me to enter the Training Level test before my First Level test.  I thought this sounded kind of silly, because if First Level was beginner stuff, Training Level was "baby stuff".  My impressions were not totally ill-founded.  My trainer did not encourage me to practice the Training Level Test 4 before entering the show ring.  She said that I didn't need to practice, because it was my "throw-away" test.  So we only ever worked on the First Level test in my lessons on Blue, a tall Quarter Horse/Thoroughbred cross who resembled more the latter with his 16.1 hand, gray frame and reliable yet somewhat nervous demeanor.  I also had the invaluable opportunities of watching my trainer practice things like tempi changes, half-pass zigzags, and half-steps on her big mare, so rein-back and cantering 15 meter circles did not seem even remotely impressive.  Looking back, I was exceptionally lucky to have, quite literally, stumbled onto that farm.  I would not even have the resources now to duplicate the experiences which I gleaned in high school and college.

When test day rolled around, I went through the usual preparations.  I did not show very often (a couples times a summer), but I knew how to get myself and my horse ready.  I memorized Training Level Test 4 and First Level Test 1.  We were on time for our Training Level test and I marched into the show ring with a smile on my face, because I was coached that "it helps" and I really wanted to impress.  The reader read the call for me to halt at X.  I performed my salute and the rest... a blank.

I have absolutely no memory of the test.  Somehow I completed every movement without going off course, but my brain was totally shut off.  And shut down.  I choked in every sense of the word.  My autopilot was good enough to keep the test going and cue poor, abandoned Blue to walk, trot, and canter in the appropriate places, but the test was a total bust.  Another rider from our farm told me that he thought at some point that I might just stop and excuse myself from the remainder of the test.  I respected his opinion and he was not a negative person, so I am sure that he was being honest.  It must have been bad.  And Blue was not a confident show horse, so he was, no doubt, a rigid, inverted mess.  Maybe even scared.

I left the arena in a daze.  I cannot remember if the judge spoke to me or just smiled and waved good-bye.  My trainer was waiting for me at the gate.  Since I was a teenager and basically naive, I thought to try and lighten the impact of the inevitable poor score and readied a comment to the effect of "Oh well, you win some, you lose some", but I do not think that the words left my mouth.  My trainer was glaring at me.  I halted Blue next to her and she leaned closer to speak to me.  I leaned toward  her out of courtesy, even though my instincts were telling me to run.  Her ice-blue eyes locked on mine and she whispered with measured words,

"You. did. not. ride. even. one. step."

Then she turned and walked away. 

Stunned and embarrassed, I tried to smile and pat my horse as I walked away from the group of riders, trainers, and bystanders waiting at the gate.  I pleaded with myself not to cry.  I bit my lip.  I fumbled with my helmet.  I coughed and cleared my throat, which was tightening by the second.  I tried not to think the words "hate", "unfair", and "mean".  I focused on Blue and told him he was a "Good Boy".  He didn't answer me back.

Once at the trailer, I was desperate to get away.  I wanted to find a place to hide and cry, literally.  This was before I learned about tying horses to trailers, so I could not leave Blue.  I needed someone to hold him, so I could retreat and refortify myself before the next test.  The important one.  I was not about to ask my trainer to hold him, so I asked her husband.  He coolly remarked that he was too busy at the moment.  They were working together.  I was being taught a lesson, but I felt set up.  I managed to bite back my tears and focused on the next test, but first I would have to get through the warm up...

My trainer accompanied me to the warm up arena.  She was all business.  My problem was that I was not sitting up and sticking my butt in the saddle.  She coached me from the center of the ring, with a fence line of spectators.  Other riders were there with their trainers, but mine was the only one who was yelling.  She threatened to pull me from the dressage test and make me ride a jumper round if I didn't sit up tall.

I felt resentment creeping in.  Why is she doing this to me?

Then, I was angry.  I'm going to show her.

I gritted my teeth and finished the warm up.  Blue did his best, despite the ball of tension on his back, and, thankfully, he was more than willing to listen after watching his rider get schooled.  Blue was not a stupid horse.  He knew the trainer too, and he was not about to be a part of the problem. 

By my second ride time, I was worlds more nervous than I had been for the Training Level test even though I was much more practiced and prepared.  As I entered at the gate and walked my horse around the show ring, I started to unravel in my head.

"I do not ride like a dressage rider at all."
"I cannot sit up like I am supposed to."
"Maybe I am just not good enough."
"I am better at jumping and I am not even that good at that, so where does this leave me?"
"Blue feels tight and unhappy."
"I am unhappy."
"Why am I even doing this?"

My feelings must not have been well hidden as I wallowed in self-pity.  I did not see the previous competitor passing me as she walked her horse to leave the arena, but I looked up as I heard a very sincere, "Have a good ride".  An elegant rider with a short, professional haircut, gazed down at me from her dark mount.  Her smile had that knowing look, which could not be mistaken.  Did she see my last test?  Was she present in the warm up?  Did she hear me get yelled at?  Or maybe she just read my mind.  I think any of those are likely.  Her presence at that moment made all the difference.

I went out there and I rode my First Level test.  Blue and I were a respectable team.  We didn't make any major mistakes, we rode accurate figures, and I kept my head on for the entire test.  I was proud of our effort and my trainer gave us an approving nod.  The need to cry had subsided until I saw my score.  We broke sixty percent for the first time!  This time my eyes filled with tears of joy.  The throw-away test was thrown away, but the lesson not soon forgotten.

Our first show together in 1999:  Blue was 13 and somewhere in the world, Harley was a yearling.  Looking back, Blue was one of the best horses in my life.  He was honest, kind, and willing.  It was a privilege to learn from his back.


  1. That was a really great story, Val. Thank you so much for sharing. Well written and spoken from the heart.


  2. Wow, Val, that is some story. I'm impressed that you shared this -- the humbling experiences are good teachers but not easy to retell. I think all of us dressage riders have similar stories; stories of fear and nerves and finding that reserve somewhere deep inside.
    Your header picture of Harley is gorgeous. He looks very WB-ish -- all uphill and muscle.

  3. Thanks, Karen and Annette.

    There is no room for the ego in riding, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't hurt every time it is handed to us after a righteous fileting. I wrote that I was a dedicated student and I was/am, but I do not think that I was always an easy student. I definitely questioned and tested. My trainer's husband told me later that I was the kind of student that needed a push once in a while. I think that was a nice way of saying something else. ;)

  4. Annette- Thanks for noticing the header!

  5. My heart goes out to you. I am proud you gritted your teeth and bore through it all. Yes, a valuable lesson indeed. I wonder, did your instructor do the right thing? Seems a bit harsh to me, but is that what needed to be done or do you think she could have reached you effectively using a kinder, gentler approach?

  6. Hi Margaret- I definitely would not duplicate her tactic. Since I still feel somewhat wounded by the event, my perspective is that it was unfairly harsh, but I still thought it was a worthwhile story to tell. I learned a lot from my trainer, but she was a tough one!

  7. I think that you are brave and wise to understand the importance of momments like these - thanks for sharing the story with us.

  8. Sorry - I'll just say it. There is no room for that kind of instruction, in dressage or anything else for that matter.

    There is a fine line between pushing someone out of their comfort zone - which is often needed for growth to happen - and being mean. Your instructor crossed it.

    When you say there is no room for ego in dressage, in horsemanship at all I believe, that applies to the instruction as well. It sure sounds to me like your instructor was acting out of her feelings about how your performance reflected on her, rather than concern for you and your mount.

    That's not to say that we cannot learn from negative experiences, but why should we have to? When an instructor is creative enough, they do not have to resort to demeaning their student. Period. It's not like you were riding in the Olympic Qualifiers or something.

    Good for you taking the good out of the situation. And very well written. Thanks for sharing. :)

  9. No need to apologize. I appreciate your candid response.

    Since this is my memoir, I am trying to be honest about the event as I remember it, but it is my perspective alone that is shared. However, I am still inclined to agree with your comment and do not condone this type of treatment for any student.

  10. All of our riding/showing experiences influence us in one way or another. Her negativity was unwarranted in my opinion. It made you doubt your abilities until the other rider gave you a boost on the way into the ring.

    I've had many trainers and many different personalities to deal with. My first trainer was a screamer and would always have something negative to say. That doesn't help anyone learn it just makes us defensive. After many years of this I left and went on to other trainers. My experience with the first trainer made me have a talk with myself to the tune of something that went like this: "you are paying for these lessons, you want to learn the correct way of riding, you don't need to be yelled at because you are an adult who doesn't need to be disrespected. It all comes down to "you can only be treated the way you allow someone to treat you." From then on I just wouldn't put up with being screamed at and would let the trainer know it wasn't acceptable. I'm not a witch but a person who doesn't learn from negative screaming and a negative attitude.

    I'm glad you shared this and even though it still rankles you did learn something from the experience.

  11. Grey Horse Matters- I like your pep talk. That is a talk that all students should consider whether they are paying for lessons or not. Sometimes really talented people do not make the best teachers. I take the selection of my teachers very seriously now. I will not clinic or lesson with someone who is not respectful of the students. I have tolerated quite a few "tough" lessons at this point, but I am also tougher, because of them. It hardened my skin a bit, which I did need, and has helped me in other areas of life.

    In my first lesson with my current teacher, she made me smile for half the lesson. I still worked hard, but she was funny and creative and knew so much about biomechanics. She made riding even more enjoyable and rewarding. My perspective now is that life it too short to ride any other way!

    Thank you for contributing your experiences to the discussion.

  12. I thought it was a bit harsh, she took that test WAY too personally, I think a "what happened in there?" would have been better. Then you could have had a frank discussion about show nerves and how to deal with them. But I also understand why you don't want to put her in a negative light, after all she did teach you a lot and she started you on the path that got you to your current trainer.

  13. Thanks for the insightful comment, smaz. I did benefit greatly from my experiences with my original trainer, despite the fact that they were not always easy. I would not be the rider I am now without her or her horses.

    I think that my trainer felt that "I could handle it". She did not sugar coat, but when I did something well, getting a word of praise from her was like winning diamonds. As a teen and early twenty-something, I was hooked. That was my perspective at that time in my life.

  14. Wow, what a cruel, but important lesson. It sounds like she was a good trainer and Blue was a good boy too. Thanks for sharing your story. :)

    Also in regards to my last post, I completely agree with what you wrote in your comment. I don't know why I took him out in the flat halter. I was just tired and not thinking straight I guess. I have no doubt I could have gotten him to move if I had yielded his hindquarters, but I got smacked in the face before I got that far. I will definitely use the rope halter from now on when we go walking. I just forgot that he hasn't been in a flat halter since he was a foal, so he needs work in it. The only reason I've used a rope halter his whole life is because it's so adjustable while he was growing. So my question is when I start working with him at home in his flat halter do I just practice what he already knows (leading, halts, yields, backing) and he'll learn to respond to it or is there something specific I need to do to get him responsive from it? I am definitely going to get a whip for carrying with us. I had a short bat with a leather popper on the end, but I have no idea where it is. I need a new leash for the dogs anyway, so I'll just go to the feed store after work and get both. Thank you for your comment!

  15. achieve1dream- Thanks for your comment. Blue was a great horse.

    Relax. You are doing a great job with Chrome. I will write back on your blog about the flat halter. :)

  16. Thanks Val! That makes sense. I actually didn't teach him to lead. He already knew how when I bought him at five months old. The clicker training was done with a target for teaching him to trot in hand. Now he responds off of my jogging and clucking without the target. In fact I rarely ever take contact with his head while leading (in fact a friend of mine who has a habit of dragging on her horses can't even lead him because he balks when she starts pulling on his head for no reason; he does tie really well in both halters though and immediately steps up off of pressure if he steps back too far). He's really good at keeping slack in the rope, so maybe he doesn't know how to move off of pressure in the rope halter either . . . in fact I just realized this may be why he was so confused when we tried ground driving . . . If he ignores me while grazing again I'll definitely use a whip or the rope to get him moving forward instead of trying to pull on his head. Now I'm off to research teaching a horse to respond to halter pressure, because he does his lateral flexes perfectly so for all intents and purposes he does seem to understand it. It may just be that the grass was too much temptation. Anyway, thanks for answering my question!


Leave a comment or add to my memoirs with some of your own.