When I’m there, he’s there

Within the last month or so, I feel like I’ve finally started to really, truly, legitimately have moments in which I’m riding a connected horse, back to front, in good balance – for the first time, ever. While still fleeting, I can recreate these moments fairly consistently on my own, without Christy micromanaging my every move which is what it took to get me to this point.

Well, that and a lot of riding – five to six days a week, for four years.  Along the way, I also read a variety of books, educated myself going to clinics and shows, and (most importantly) am getting myself into better, stronger physical shape.   Despite these efforts, I am still schooling training level, meaning that I’m probably lacking in the natural talent department (though Christy does note that I’ve started over three times, twice with horses that were very green to dressage, so I guess I feel marginally better.)

That said, I have progressed from simply godawful (no steering, no seat and no clue) to being able to put together a correct Intro level test, and over the last year (with Maddie) starting to delve into some more interesting things, like trot lengthenings and leg yields. I’ve also developed better feel, timing and a certain degree of instinctive responsiveness.

However, that work on Maddie – despite the fact it represents what was technically my most “advanced” work – pales in comparison to the awakening I’ve had over the last month.  And after attending the Dressage Through the Levels symposium with Steffen Peters and Janet Foy this weekend, I think I can finally elucidate what I’ve experienced.

Simply put, generating correct gaits and (at my level at least) movements is easy – dead easy – when the rider is the correct, balanced position, and the horse is connected.

Mind you, getting to that point of correct balance is a bitch, at least for me.  But during those fleeting moments when I’ve been properly aligned, I’ve felt some amazing things.  I’ve felt Derby’s walk transform from a pokey shuffle into a fluid, rolling, swingy walk with overstep.  It feels unlike any walk I experienced on Jag or Mads, and Maddie was a much fancier horse.  I’ve felt him pushing from his hind, over his back, and into my hands at the trot, and I’ve felt that trot come uphill.  I’ve had the odd lovely, quiet, prompt, balanced canter depart, and a couple days ago I felt his back come up when we were cantering, and almost fell off from surprise.  I’ve done a leg yield that felt like floating, with the horse moving away from a quiet aid.

When I’m in that sweet spot, I don’t have to even think about muscling the horse into a movement.  I don’t need to kick kick kick to get the work done – I can whisper, and he hears me. When I’m there, he’s there.   Once I’m there, it’s easy.

When I’m not there, it’s hard.  I struggle to keep the horse going and bending, and invariably, as I’m trying to muscle him into one thing, something else goes wrong – a haunch drifts in, a shoulder pops out.  I’m getting better at recognizing those moments and responding correctly by fixing what’s wrong with me, rather than trying to correct the horse.  Because when I’m out of whack, I can’t blame the horse when impulsion slows or a haunch drifts.  What he does is in response to the ride I’m giving him at the moment.

At the Foy/Peters symposium, the second day started with a session on rider biomechanics. It wasn’t quite what I expected, but was marvelously illustrative nonetheless.  Two lovely riders on lovely, well trained horses were the “victims” for this session.  I say ‘victims’ because Janet Foy instructed the riders to adopt a variety of poor postures, enabling us to see the effect unsteady hands or uneven weights in the stirrups or posting with all your weight on your toes had on their horses.   She emphasized the point that in most cases, the problem with the movement in the test was the direct result of a rider inadequacy – not the willful behavior of the horse.

So now I’m doubly aware of those easy moments that signal I’ve found the sweet spot. Challenge is to figure out how to live there, not visit infrequently.