Saturday 10 November 2012

Read - Execute - Totally fuck up. Welcome to self taught dressage

So what were these things that a 3 year old horse was so eager to perform that I was able to label her as an "overachiever" even at this young age?

Go. Stop. Turn.

Really, what else do you do with a 3 year old?

Well, actually - I should be more specific.  Because being horseless, I have been riding an assorted mixed bag of loaner horses these days and during this process, have been reminded that really these things can only be easily defined on a "macro" level (i.e. if horse is no longer moving = stop.  Horse moves = go). 

Once you get a little more granular in your evaluation (throwing that buzz word in there just for the office dwellers... don't you hate when your boss says "granular"?  It always makes me think of sugar, then I get hungry.  Or I start dreaming of being on a sandy beach) you quickly realize that there are fifty shades of go and stop.  And maybe 150 shades of turn. And people out there who think none of these 250 shades of anything are required to execute a course of fences, which amazes the living hell out of me, and is the main reason that I always tell people "I LOVE perfecting flatwork!" when they suggest I try jumping their horses. 

(They probably think it is because I am old and frightened.  I am good with that). 

What I was deathly afraid of back in the day was screwing up GO with Ms. V- since this was the fundemental issue with the Platypus (who on very good days still gave the equine equivalent of sigh/eyeroll before GOing), and also with most horses I had observed at clinics etc .  Right from the first time I climbed aboard, I was very commited to this idea of - put your leg on, horse goes forward immediately.  If they don't - rain of hellfire until they do, followed by petting and other niceties to cement the correct reaction in the noggin.

I also really wanted my horse to have that kicksled / skateboard quality that Kyra talks about in her book - i.e. once the horse does GO, you back off and let them cruise along, you don't keep nag-jab-kicking just for the hell of it.  When horse is not going forward enough for your liking - leg on and GO again, then ease off on the aids.

And, with these two ideas in my head - instantaneous go, followed by release of the aids - I proceeded to merrily instill an incredibly irriating habit in Ms. V, that somewhere down the road would require much work to undo. What was not entirely clear to me when reading about how to teach this kick-sled phenomenon was the fact that YES, you stop kicking.  NO you do not remove all traces of the aid from the horse and leave your leg sort of hovering on her side , such that once you do touch her again with your calf you surprise the hell out of her and she blasts forward as if shot out of a cannon.  Especially if she is an overachiever.

This happens all the time in life - people really and truly think they are doing the right thing, but instead, they are driving off on some crazy tangent and just making life more difficult for themselves.  The brain is always willing to fool us. It is the reason I still sing the lyrics "I'm hot, chicken feet, from my head to my feet" to myself when I hear the song Pour Some Sugar on Me. No matter how hard I try to stop. It seemed to make sense at the time, however in retrospect, is so totally ridiculous. How could I have thought this was correct?  Why would someone have rhymed "feet" with "feet".  Or sang a hard rockin' tune about Dim Sum?  Come on, Curmudgeon.

Yaaah!  Sing it, Joe Elliot!
And nowhere is this more true than in self-taught dressage.  The slogan for self-taught dressage should be ...Read it in a book - execute incorrectly on your horse - fuck up totally. 

As I am sure you can imagine, this same approach of - apply aid and back off when horse responds - can also make a real mess of a horse's steady contact.  There is a fine line between "softening" the contact and "dumping" the contact all together.  And when you are riding an overachiever, it takes only a very few corrections to create a horse that shoots forward like a rocket when you put the leg on, and assumes what feels like a nice light contact in the mouth when you even touch the reins, creating a lovely eye pleasing picture of a big forward trot and a lovely headset...without actually being "on the aids" at all. We were superstars in my mind.  Was that easy, or what?

I did get some glimpses of issues still to come, but of course at this point, when the "big stuff" seems to be going so well, the small things don't seem particularly relevant. 

The first one was - riding Ms. V was a bit like learning to drive standard. (Please don't say "hmm, I never learned to drive standard, I can't relate to that one at all". Women who can't drive standard are an embarrasment to the species. Do me a favour and humour me...just lie and pretend you can, and hope no one ever calls you on it like George Costanza on the Marine Biologist episode). 

The Curmudgeon family learner vehicle.  Three kids - three clutches

Remember how you would give the car too much gas and let go of the clutch and the car would jettison forward and burn rubber?  Or, not quite enough and it would do a stuttering jerk-jerk-jerk stall? Yah, that was kind of the feel  you got when riding Ms. V. Aids were all or nothing - you were going, or you were stopping.  And both things happened as suddenly as back when you were learning to drive that car, and getting yelled at by whoever was crazy enough to try to teach you. 

But much like learning to drive standard, once you were in the groove and rolling along- ahhh, it all seemed so easy.  It was just the application of the aids part that was as bit... uh... abrupt.  That will all smooth itself out. Right? 

She was also incapable of standing still - because every twitch / shift / nudge of any part of my body was interpreted to mean GO by the overacheiver.  An actual halt required me to sit absolutely immobile which really is not as easy as it seems to be when you are vegging on the couch.  Of course in that day and age, the absence of a halt was easy to ignore - it didn't stop people from winning Olympic medals, so why would I fret about it here doing walk-trot on my greenie. 

The other thing that was not developing quite like it should was... anyone... anyone... yesss, that's right kids. Two marks for stretchy trot.  But actually, I think the subject of stretchy trot is worthy of an entire rant post all of it's own, so I think I will save it for later.  Suffice it to say - when you can't put your leg steadily on your horse, or take a feel of their mouth - stretchy trot can be a bit of a challenge. However, being a kick-ass master of stretchy trot in and of itself doesn't mean you are doing things right either, smug reader (yah, I know you are out there, acing that double coefficient at training level), so don't get all proud of your peanut rolling downhill horse tripping around on the forehand.

I guess in retrospect, it still was a better place to be in than having a balky 3 year old that had a hissy fit and kicked out at the leg when asked to go forward - Or one with a mouth of iron that yanked me around the arena like the time machine schoolmaster from way back when.  I generally didn't get any negative attitude at all, unless I rode for too long or drilled something more than I should have based on our stage of training, which did sometimes happen. 

We all need to have something to fuck up when starting our first dressage horses. On the grand scheme of things, I think issues that stem from excessive willingness to please were pretty good problems to have. 


  1. First off, please do rant about that dreaded trot stretch that they insist on including in all *real* (coming from the mouth of an eventer) dressage tests. It took me 1.5 YEARS to convince my mare that she probably shouldn't take advantage of the fact I was lengthening my reins in the trot, and that she probably shouldn't canter through that portion of the dressage test. When we finally did manage to ace the stretchy trot, it came during a time when she (we) moved up 3 (eventer) levels in just 2 months... but I was far happier about the fact we could stretch in the trot than any paltry competition stuff. In fact, our trot stretch is still a highlight of my ride. Sad, I know.

    Also, on an riding and standard-driving related side note, when I was learning to drive a standard, I opted out of having my parents teach me and instead had a friend (who'd just finished teaching both her sons) teach me, & in exchange I taught her mare to bend and canter.
    Poor mare was never too fond of me... her and the idea of the idea of expending energy disagreed. he was easy to train though, because though not an over-achiever, she was quite uninterested in anything even mildly unpleasant. When introducing new concepts like bend, her thought process went "Why are you jiggling my bit? That's kind of irritating you know... and you don't seem to be stopping. Okay, I'm just going to bend like this... oh look! It stopped. Neat." Which was a nice change from "why are you jiggling the bit? I think I'll rear and try to bolt away from you so you can't do it any more" which was more in line with the thought process of one of the other horses I was riding at the time.

  2. And why would you jiggle the bit?

    1. Alas, the differences between taking things literally and deriving what was implied in a statement leads to miscommunications. I was merely referencing the minute contractions and releases of extrinsic (and possibly intrinsic)muscles and flexor tendons in one's forearm/wrist/hand that occurs when a rider is teaching a young horse to yield to the pressure of the bit, or bend. However, I'm guessing that to a horse, the gentle pressure and release created when we do this probably feels like a 'jiggle' and thus the word was employed. However, with a rather vague word like jiggle, I can see how a misconception or miscommunication could arise... though what I meant by jiggled isn't really the point of all this. Though this did prove to me that my knowledge of the anatomy of the hand is lacking. So if someone wants to correct me on my anatomy, please do! My memory failed me on this one.

    2. Almost as awesome as the post :)

  3. For the record, the marine biologist episode is my all time favorite!!