Each year, from May 1 until June 30, I offer what I refer to as ‘Dressage Boot Camps,’ which incorporate 3 lessons over a long weekend, beginning Friday through Sunday. Students haul in locally or from out of town, sometimes bringing a barn chum, or perhaps a husband/wife, and turn the long weekend into a holiday of sorts.
Before we go any further, here’s what you need to know about my teaching style: I’m not for everybody. Yes, I’m a stand-up comic, but woe be upon those who think it’ll be a fun, jokey weekend. I tend to channel Tom Hanks from ‘A League of Their Own.’ (“Why are you crying? There’s no crying in dressage!! Well, then you should have worn a sports bra, Steve!!”) I’m a drill sergeant with rider position being paramount—for the good of the horse. And I do tend to bark relentlessly because, quite honestly, I want that breakthrough to happen for a student. Sometimes maybe even more than a student. I ride every stride with them, yell enthusiasm when they’re successful and just plain yell if their idea of a leg yield is to let a horse fall sideways through its shoulder for the third time in a row.
Recently, Susan Hughes and her most obliging husband, Mel (Ladies: He not only held horses, but stripped tack and bathed them and videoed each lesson!), hauled in from Tennessee Thursday evening so that both her Welsh Cobs could relax and rest well before their respective lessons in the morning.
Susan, like many others, generally has to ride on her own and freely admits she’s picked up some bad habits over the years. Petite and in her early 60s, she impressed me as someone who was going to a lot of trouble to improve. During our camp, she intended to ride both of her horses back-to-back. In a clinic situation, that requires both mental and physical stamina—which is why I yelled at her for having nothing more than a banana at breakfast. “Woman!!”
But here’s what really impressed me about Susan: She never quit trying. She never fell apart and she never once asked to take a break. I could have told her to sit backwards in her saddle and use the tail as a rudder and she would have complied. What we focused on the most was pushing her hands forward so as not to impede her horses’ ability to go forward, and I might have casually mentioned a few times, “TURN YOUR THUMBS UP! DO NOT PAY ME MONEY AND HAUL FOUR HOURS TO HAVE ME TELL YOU TO TURN YOUR THUMBS UP!!!” or something like that.
Her North Forks Cardi-bred Cobs couldn’t have been more different. Teddy, the slightly phlegmatic fellow who would plod about amenably if allowed, simply lacked a motor because he was overloading his right shoulder. Atticus, the pocket rocket, was tense, hot and tended to barge through the aids. But just like Teddy, he was simply crooked. Honestly, pretty much every horse that’s come into my barn and has been deemed ‘hot,’ has just been plain old crooked. When I popped on Atticus to have a feel, he was like a little kid with ADHD who desperately wanted structure and was more than happy to oblige when given it.
Then Susan got on and had a nice taste of it as well as breaking out of her comfort zone, by giving Teddy the warm up of his life, red-lining his RPMs and developing a dynamic trot full of cadence.
Maybe it’s because I’m a middle-aged broad, but I really admire the gutsiness of “women of a certain age” (and men!) who could so easily just give in, cancel lessons and not go out of their way to become better riders to keep their horses straight and sound. I also think of the 73-year- old woman in this week’s Horse and Hound who is eventing her homebred, or the 81-year-old German gent we’ve seen circulating on Facebook as he finishes his Grand Prix Freestyle.
For these students of mine, like Susan, it’s frankly offensive to think, “Oh, isn’t it great that she’s still riding at her age!” It’s about continuing to grow and improve with each ride with no expiration date in sight.
And I guess for me, ignoring younger voices that express alarm for my continuing to climb on anything and remain a gutsy, effective rider is my way of yelling, ‘Hey! Get off my lawn!’
To read more from Pam Stone, see her blogs here.