I am a typical adult amateur dressage rider. This means that I have a full-time job and a family to make time for. I don't own a fancy warmblood, and instead lease Sonny, a 15-year-old, slightly-too-short-for-me Quarter Horse gelding. I also have very little natural talent for the sport but a whole lot of determination.
Although I consider myself lucky that my horse knows a lot more than I do, I am sometimes left feeling frustrated, thinking that if he can do it why can't I get it. I'm talking about the basics, just a forward and rhythmical walk, trot and canter. I've read articles and books and understood the concepts but could never put them into practice. It had all sounded so easy: If he drops his shoulder, pick it up; if he twists his hips in, push them out. It took a long time but I now know why I had so many problems. I lacked feel, which is something that none of those authors, or even my instructor, could concretely teach me. I could never feel when he dropped his shoulder or twisted his hips, or even when he sped up or slowed down. If I couldn't feel when he did these things, how could I possible fix them? It's not like I didn't ride every day and get a lesson once a week. And at shows, I made it a point to watch the upper level riders to see how they achieved such a complete connection with their mounts. To boil it down, I tried very hard.
However, this month I had a breakthrough in my riding. While I have had eureka moments before, this was not one of them. It took a long time and a lot of patience (perhaps more so on my horse's part), but I finally developed that seemingly elusive feel. I hope that by sharing my transformation with you it will provide you with the encouragement no to give up.
What motivated me to change my program was the last horse show of the season, which happened to be my GMO's championships. To my amazement I had qualified at Training Level and eagerly anticipated competing. I practiced extra in preparation and really believed we were doing well enough to have a chance at winning. I was wrong. It wasn't just that we didn't place. I couldn't understand why my score was so low because I thought it had been a decent ride. This was the first step to realizing I didn't know what I wanted from my horse.
The next day I had a long talk with my trainer, who is the best instructor I've ever met, not only because she is a good rider, but because she respects her students and understands their individuality. With her guidance I made the decision to only ride when she was around to give me a lesson. This way I couldn't ride badly, and thus, couldn't continue to be comfortable with the wrong way of going. I knew it would be expensive and time consuming but hoped it would be only be temporary. For two months I had three, sometimes four, lessons a week. I only rode on my own one day a week and often we only walked. Thus, every time I rode I had someone telling me if he was right or wrong and how to fix it. At first, I could only feel the difference between the good and bad gait immediately surrounding a correction. It was only after two weeks of constant instruction that I began to feel when he was wrong at the walk without being told. The trot was still a mess, and I couldn't create a good walk on my own.
During this time I rushed through my preride and postride grooming rituals so I could get home at a reasonable hour so my husband remained happy. I took a vacation day from my regular job to spend it mucking stalls so I could get an extra lesson and watch my trainer ride different horses. She helped a lot by showing me what her horse did when she made the same mistakes as I, and then showing me what happened to his gaits when she did it correctly.
I took many more lessons and slowly began to feel the difference between right and wrong at the trot. I could also now create a walk with little coaching. Progress at last. The real breakthrough came at a recent lesson. I had begun to trot a little on my own but had been disappointed with my ride the day before. One of my biggest problems since I was a kid had always been using too much rein and not enough leg. So I was surprised that throughout this lesson my trainer was telling me to half halt more, and she didn't have to say anything about how much leg I was using. By the time the lesson was over, it had all clicked into place; I had gained at least a rudimentary feeling of correct balance. I knew the next day that I had "gotten it" because I was riding on my own while she was giving a lesson to someone else and her only comments to me were "a little more inside leg around the turn" and "he looks great!"
To come to this level of understanding I employed a method of only riding when someone qualified to help was available to watch me, but this is not possible for many people. One method that several others in my barn use involves being videotaped as they ride and then self-critiquing the footage immediately after to they can see the difference between what they felt and what the horse actually looked like. My trainer, on the other hand, uses the many mirrors we have surrounding our indoor, refining her aids and watching the results on her horse.
Needless to say, my horse was much happier with me. I've cut my lessons back to two times a week but still do not do a lot when my trainer is not watching. I anticipate staying at Training Level a little while longer because I haven't quite learned how to canter, but I am confident that I eventually will.
To read more about the learning experiences and the ups and downs of dressage riders, turn to "Transitions" in every issue of Dressage Today magazine.