Winterlight and Dressage Lessons

“Winterlight” is the title of a fiction novel I’m currently reading — the most recent in the ‘Green Rider’ book series, and well worth a read for anyone who likes horses and fantasy (and books that are thick enough to double as doorstops). But as it turns out, I absolutely love the phrase “winter light” as a descriptor. It’s perfect for this time of year here. In the summer, everything is bleached out, and the light is harsh and glaring. But in the fall and as we move into winter? The light is softer, more colors can be seen, and we have some truly spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

The Superstitions in particular tend to look rather spectacular this time of year, and I end up taking so many photos to try to capture the interesting light. (Thank goodness for digital pictures and cloud storage.) I’ve spent the last couple of weekends playing out in the Superstitions, so I’m getting my fill of beautiful mountain scenery.

Two weekends ago saw Liberty and I taking our first actual formal riding lesson together. I was given the chance to take a lesson with Tessa Nicolet of Cohesive Horsemanship, and I am so glad I jumped on the opportunity. Tessa blends natural horsemanship principles with principles of Classical French dressage, building a relationship with your horse based on trust, confidence, and mutual respect. She has a teaching style that resonates well with me, and I was surprised at how much ground we covered in a one-hour session. I think this will be really helpful in cross-training, and building a more solid framework for Liberty in how to most effectively use her body. It’s also really valuable insight and know-to for me, teaching me the actual mechanics and how-to’s behind ideas and principles that I’ve grasped in theory but didn’t know how to go about putting into practice.

Sorry, for the “pics or it didn’t happen” crowd, I don’t happen to have any media of our lesson. Maybe not a bad thing while the Hot Mess Express is still coming together. I will definitely be signing up for future lessons to keep successfully building on this foundation. The “eyes on the ground” formal lessons are also super-helpful for me — not just for the immediate feedback and instruction element, but because I have gotten so out of the habit of doing arena stuff, and so bored/undisciplined about it when I do. (This is so ironic. I used to never want to leave the arena.) It also helps to have another set of eyes to work on my position, which has also greatly suffered from the lack of formal schooling in the last number of years.

I hadn’t realized how much I had actually missed taking some kind of formal lesson, and it makes me really excited for future lessons and unearthing a whole bunch of new things to keep learning.

"Good" Riding

What makes a “good” rider?

Is it the ability to stay on the horse, no matter what?  Is it the ability to sit quietly with perfect form and look pretty?  Is it the ability to get your horse to do what you want? 

Everyone probably has their own idea of what makes a “good” rider.

I had one of those defining moments today, in which I realized I don’t know if I would fit into my own definition of a “good” rider.

I’d like to put forth the idea that I’ve never truly learned to ride well on a consistent basis. 

I’m a competent rider, most certainly.  Pony antics have taught me to always be prepared for the unexpected.  Beamer has taught me how to (mostly) ride out a buck.  Others have taught me how to stay on through spooks, spins, and general naughtiness.

I have the ability to be a “pretty” equitation rider.  Seven years in the show ring raught me how to pose in the saddle.  Certainly not functional, and I ditched this style of riding pretty fast once I figured out how fast it would land me in the dirt out of the safe confines of the arena.

I’m a functional rider.  I’ve figured out what works and what doesn’t to get me through a 50-mile ride.  Is it proper?  Probably not.  Could it be better?  Most definitely.  My riding style right now can best be describes as, “I know how to get my horse to do what I want, even if it’s not technically correct.”

But my consistent formal riding instruction took place, most recently, about 10 years ago.  A lot has changed in the world of instruction and riding since that time.  There is more of an emphasis on functional partnership of both horse and rider, instead of posed mannequins on merry-go-round ponies.  (Keep in mind I’ve been out of the show ring for eight years now…my perspective is skewed.)

I trained Mimi by myself, with the input of my trainer/instructor.  She came to me as a green three year old with 30 days on her.  I had never ridden a green horse.  We grew up together, and figured each other out along the way.  But today was one of those days that made me realize how much I didn’t know at the time, and how many subsequent holes we both have in terms of “proper” training.  She was being a true pony today — it was warm and humid, and she really didn’t want to work in the arena — and showing me how much of a snot she can be if she tries.

The plus side of all of her shenanigans?  The Skito pad I bought from Mel got a very thorough test, and I’m thrilled with how it performed.  Didn’t budge from under the saddle, and seemed to be even more stable than my Skito Dryback.  And she’s obviously comfortable — she wouldn’t have been offering up flying lead changes if it bothered her.  :)

But today was a good example of  how our show-ring specific training is now come back to bite us.  Mimi is smart.  Very smart.  And she picks up on patterns really fast.  The end result of this?  She anticipates.  Big time.  From all of our years of showing flat classes, she assumes that the routine must go “walk-trot-canter-reverse-walk-trot-canter-stop.”  And thanks to reining patterns, cutting across the arena at the midway point means do a flying lead change in the center. 

She also has a “headset,” but doesn’t truly know what it means to be naturally collected and move with impulsion.  Emphasis was on artificial means of creating a “perfect” show horse and rider — a horse that moved along the rail with its head down, reins loose, and the rider posed perfectly on top.  Ultimately, we never reached that point — Mimi never saw the use for traveling along the rail in perfect pleasure pony style, and I was always fighting with her to “get her head down.”  I fared better in my equitation classes because emphasis was on me, not her.  She’s much happier moving out down the trail.  That said, she still has room for improvement on moving most efficiently from the rear and not hollowing out.

Today, show-ring training and functional riding directly clashed, and that was when I came to the conclusion that I’m not really a “good” rider.  When the pony shenanigans came out, my (self-taught) attempts at pseudo-dressage and centered riding went right out the window, and I reverted to my rather haphazard old-school upbringing.  It ain’t pretty or really proper.  It probably wouldn’t work on a lot of horses.  But it’s how Mimi and I are both trained. 

Which brings me to my point (“Finally!” the crowd cheers): I need to learn to ride by the time I get another horse.  I would eventually like to find a centered riding instructor, or a dressage instructor who understands cross-training, not just showing (I don’t want to show, I just want to learn the principles for teaching a hrose to move functionally and optimally).  I can tell you all of my problems as a rider: I tend to lean forward (the downside of riding hunseat from age seven), I’m crooked and wriggly, and mostly, I can’t get everything to function together properly at the same time.  I’ll get my legs right, but I know my upper body is a wreck.  Or the arms and shoulder will be great, and the legs are wriggling all over the place.  So I know what’s wrong, I just don’t know how to fix it.

If I’m not going to be doing a ton of competing at the moment, maybe now is the time to look into some lessons again.  Because while I know how to ride, I don’t feel that I necessarily know how to ride well.  And I think it’s time to learn.