My friend Kim and her marvelous horse Frank
I owe a debt of gratitude to my friend Kim, who allowed me to climb aboard her gelding Frankie last night. My confidence has been wavering of late, and doubts have been creeping in which is never a good situation for a rider. Horses are telepathic creatures and mirror their riders’ mental states. A confidence building ride was needed. Frank was just what the doctor ordered.
I’ve ridden him numerous times, and he’s a good, steady character who I trust. As a second level horse, he has lots of training. However, he’s also a former school horse. He’s crafty and has all sorts of tricks in his bag for evading something he doesn’t want to do.
One thing I know Christy has in mind for our lessons is teaching me to be more assertive. We both know that I can “bring it,” really sitting up, taking control and riding assertively when I’m goaded into it by a horse that’s feeling hot, fresh or spooky. Some of my best riding has been when I’ve been seriously annoyed by my mount’s behavior, and I decide that I’m just not taking b.s. from a lower-order mammal any more. Switching into survival mode when things get too scary for my tastes will also bring out my inner ass-kicker. Which is good. These are healthy responses to equine goofiness.
But that’s not the way I usually roll. My default mode is much less demanding. Horses can steal rein length on me easily. I tend not to absolutely require them to be on the bit and round at all times. I allow them to ignore my aids, instead of responding promptly. These are but a few of my milquetoast habits. The challenge that Christy has outlined for me is to elevate my riding on an ongoing basis.
So, last night, on the relative safety of Frankie, Christy started to demand more of me, which started with requiring me to actually get (not just demand) more from the horse.
After Frank stretched and we started to go to work, the commentary from the middle of the ring was rapid-fire. “Stretch him, make him round,” Christy told me. “I’m trying!” I said, while Frank mentally tallied my number.
“DO IT NOW.” Christy commanded.
For some reason, at that moment, “balancing rein” popped into my head. I closed my fingers on the outside rein and took hold, softening the inside rein while asking for some bend unequivocally with my leg. Frank rounded, stretching into the bit.
“There it is! Nice!” Christy purred. Well, not exactly purred, but you know what I mean.
“Keep him there!”
My subconscious must have been playing Trivial Pursuit with my long term memory files, because at that moment, a favorite quote bubbled up into my thoughts: “Do, or do not. There is no try.”
That’s what Jedi-master Yoda told a young Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars movie, as he attempted to harness the Force and I watched, goggle-eyed, from the back of a station wagon at the drive in. She’s a lot prettier than Yoda, and she doesn’t wriggle her ears when speaking to you, but I suspect Christy has a more than a modicum of wise old Yoda in her. I internalized ‘do’ rather than “try” at that moment. It’s an important difference in mindset, and it produces a different outcome.
It turns out that Jane Savoie agrees with Yoda (and Christy) on the subject of trying versus doing. In her book That Winning Feeling! Jane tells readers to eliminate “try” from their vocabularies, saying that “try” sounds like a half-hearted effort. Don’t try to do your best, she says. Do your best.
So, resolving to do rather than to merely try, we moved into a trot, and Frank popped through his shoulder, flopping his ears at me and saying “gotcha.” Christy noted that he wasn’t expending much effort and was behind my leg. “Use the whip!” she said.
It never takes too much with a Thoroughbred, and Christy isn’t advocating a beating. But using artificial aids like a whip or spurs effectively trains the horse to respond crisply when asked nicely and quietly. Those Grand Prix horses you see executing complex movements to the barely discernable aids of their riders are uuber responsive. At the higher levels, you don’t see riders kicking their horses into a gait. And the time to start thinking about developing and reinforcing responsiveness is now.
I didn’t reach back and give Frank a crack. Instead, I more or less tapped his flank, but that’s all it took. He decided that I was serious, and stepped out into a nicer trot. From there I was able to get him rounder. More purring came from the middle of the arena.
A few minutes later, I needed to grab a quick walk break. Before I could even half-halt him, Frank stopped as I was mid-post, butt out of the saddle. Why? Had he read my mind? No. I had taken my legs off when I mentally decided to take a break, and that was all Frank needed.
It didn’t feel good and I was told that particular transition was, in fact, all kinds of ugly. Christy reminded me that a good transition needs to be ridden forward into the bridle. I asked for an upward transition, kicking and clucking, and got it three or four strides after I started asking. Groaning came from the middle of the arena. I performed a crappy transition down, and earned myself a lecture on ye olde half halt.
“You know how to do this,” Christy said. “And get him in front of your leg! Get the upward transition!”
I collected my thoughts and asked Frank to round, and then walk more energetically. As I asked for the upward transition, I tapped him with the whip and got a good response.
“That’s better,” was the assessment from the middle of the ring.
We did a few more transitions. I was keeping the trot quality decent and the upward transitions became very prompt, but wasn’t getting the half halts, and my downward transitions were pretty sloppy. I knew I needed to mentally and physically ride forward into the halt. I resolved to ride forward, even with the halt in mind. We did another walk/trot upward transition, and Frank was Johnny on the spot, earning us a compliment from Christy. I posted a few strides, sat softly while keeping leg on, then half halted from my core and he walked, finally garnering Christy’s approval.
“Okay, now I want to see a canter transition,” Christy said. “Errr,” I thought, and then told myself to shut up. “Yes, Boss,” I replied out loud, mentally saluting and snapping my heels together.
We did a nice upward transition and I asked Frank for some energy at the trot. I had to get him in front of my leg. Things felt pretty good, so I held my outside rein, sat gently and asked for the canter by raising my inside seat bone, which (I’m told) invites the canter by making space for a larger stride. Frank stepped neatly into his gorgeous, uphill canter. Within a few seconds I could feel myself grinning as Frank rolled along. I was somewhat aware of Christy saying something about swinging my hips and following the motion. I did, and I felt great – balanced, soft and secure leg, responsive and willing horse. In short, I felt like a million bucks. Lots of horsemen say there’s little that a good canter can’t cure, and they’re right.
We transitioned down to the trot on my terms, and I was still grinning, and Christy was too. “That was my goal for you tonight,” she said. “Good job.”
We wound up the lesson, talking about getting me on to some different horses, in order to hone my ability to think, feel and respond to various things different mounts throw at me. Christy also thinks that this will help me realize that I’m a better rider than I think I am. Maybe she’s right – and I like her holistic approach of dealing with the bats in my belfry as well as the tactical ride I give the horse I’m riding. I’m going to make a point of pursuing rides on a variety of mounts – a few of my friends at the barn have offered me a ride on their horses, and I’m going to take them up on their generous offers for which I’m very grateful.