I had a riding lesson a couple weeks ago. Lessons are really expensive where I live, so I don’t have many. The last two have been with a different trainer than the one I worked with for most of Midas’s retraining.
Her approach is really different, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on exactly what’s different.
My other trainer, Susu, considers herself a horse trainer, not a person trainer.
This trainer, I think, sees herself as both.
Growing up, the lesson horses I rode could be relied upon to trot in the direction you pointed them until you told them to stop. They might speed up, slow down, cut a corner or two, but that’s about it. You could focus on learning how to ride.
Midas isn’t like that. If he smells weakness or fresh meat, he leaves. Just, charges away.
He’s a horse, I can’t brute force him in a pulling match.
When I started training him so that my in laws and I could ride him, my goal was to change his mindset. I didn’t know why his policy was shoot first and ask questions later, but I had to convince him not to shoot first. And, shooting first myself wasn’t going to do that.
Lessons with Susu and our work with the Clinton Anderson exercises can best be described as a sort of sneaky mindset shift. Instead of going straight to the explosive issue, you start somewhere else entirely, that doesn’t look related, and say “hey, I’d like you to move your rear end and cross one foot in front of the other. I’m not going to hurt you, but I’m also not going to go away, and I can be pretty annoying. Why not do this tiny little thing for me?”
The tiny little things become bigger, more complicated, until you’re back in the saddle and daring to do exercises like cruising: Cruising is when you put the reins on the buckle and issue the walk command—And Don’t Steer. At all. The horse may walk wherever he chooses, the only time you intervene and give any command at all is when he stops walking. Or if he’s about to take your knee off because you don’t really have a totally safe place to do this.
The goal there is to instill a lesson: If You Go the Pace I Ask, Until I Ask For Something Else, I Won’t Nag You. The horse gets it into his head that doing what you ask isn’t so bad.
You are supposed to practice cruising at walk, trot, and canter. We didn’t have a safe place to try I at canter, but we had some fun at trot.
The next exercise was also fun, but hard in our setting, it was called Follow The Fence. Like cruising, you ask for a speed, starting at walk, and point them along the fence (or rail) and don’t bother them unless they leave the rail. You let them sort out their own balance and turn, just steering enough to keep them on the rail, asking for nothing else.
What results is a horse who knows that you ask for things in good faith, you try not to be a pest, and your boundary lines lie in pleasant places. Also. There are boundaries, and it’s worth it to abide by them. They also learn to self-regulate, taking it upon themselves to be in charge of staying the pace you gave and the direction you gave.
For Midas, there were also occasional kicks in the shoulder to stop him when he thought about leaving. But when he didn’t leave, there was no other fanfare.
It was a training focused primarily on the horse, on retraining his mind. When I controlled all of his training and every rider who sat on his back (there were several), we were making progress toward Being Nice To Everyone.
I was trying to teach him to do the right thing without having to be asked.
To have Good be his default setting.
Turns out, that doesn’t really stick when he’s offered fresh meat on a platter. Or, someone who doesn’t have really any confidence and not much experience, and me not there to catch his eye.
The interesting thing is that with that training method, even though I didn’t focus on dressage concepts, I only needed the barest twitch of the reins to ask for things, and we had some pretty great turn on the haunches and turn on the forehand, and a horse who went pretty straight, just because he’d learned how to do it. I relied on seat and leg as much as I could and was trying to teach myself an independent seat.
A lot of that was lost last summer, most notably the straightness and the keeping of the pace.
So, enter lessons with a new trainer who doesn’t know my history with Midas, and only saw me ride him once before everything changed. She’s a dressage instructor, and very good.
And I find her mindset fascinating.
I have alarming moments, like when she suggests getting off somewhere other than the gate to help with his gate issues—having no knowledge of the fact that I have literally never gotten off at the gate with Midas. That was something I learned not to do when I was 11 years old. It’s hard not to be insulted—not that she had ever seen me work with this horse beyond one ride the spring prior, which I’m sure she forgot because I wasn’t there for a lesson. I was just around.
Her focus is on correct riding. Through correct riding, you can teach the horse to do the correct thing. Eventually, some horses figure out that the correct thing actually feels better, and will even carry themselves collected in the field. (This was particularly important for one of the horses at the barn whose front feet aren’t good enough for him to not be collected, if he doesn’t collect himself, he pounds his feet into oblivion and is lame. So they rode him collected for short periods of time, gradually lengthening as he built up strength. He is so much better off now because he knows how to carry himself).
Now, I’m a good rider.
But, I almost always ride alone, or with people who wouldn’t know if I was riding right or not.
I’m very good at self-regulation, and work hard to remember how things felt in those few riding lessons I’ve had with this horse.
I’m used to sorting issues out on my own, changing gait when I need to, throwing in turns and halts…ridings lessons have become exercises in having my hands tied because I must wait for the instructor to give instruction. It’s not all bad, I’m learning the instructor’s way of doing things, which is sort of the point? But it makes me feel….hamstrung and underestimated.
And what I’ve learned in these lessons, though, are little gems about the independent seat. So, despite my overall frustrations with the lessons and philosophy, I know I’m still getting valuable instruction.
The lesson last August included some tips on posting height and speed, and practicing controlling them, even to the point of bouncing on purpose to encourage the horse to regulate himself to come back into sync. (two bounces, three bounces, between rises, weee!)
The lesson a couple weeks ago involved becoming aware of when he pops his shoulder/ribs, and slides me to the outside to allow him to go anywhere he wants (out). Learning to feel it, and control my own hips, thus foiling his motion and encouraging him to come back in compliance with me.
I had been able to feel his stunt, but my correction wasn’t quite correct—and not in line what she’s been teaching the teenager to do. (This has been my other struggle since the teen started taking lessons on him, every interaction with a horse trains the horse, the horse goes to the next person expecting the world to operate one way, and quickly learns that isn’t the case).
I probably should have done Cruising and then Follow the Fence again, rather than try to dressage my way through—but, regardless, I heard the surprise in her voice that I could feel what he was doing. I knew it was off and wrong, but was inefficient with my rein and leg because what MOST needed to happen was in my hips. This triggers a memory from four years ago, a lesson with Wendy Murdoch and a follow up with Susu about weight shifting, and the horse moving under you.
What this new trainer might not see is that I’ve already done all this other work that makes him not try harder. That makes him not try to dart out even if he now auto-shifts his shoulders when he hasn’t done that in years. That most of my rides are spent feeling him out, looking for the things that came undone and putting them back. I don’t tend to work on fancy dressage concepts in their dressage context anymore. It was a short lived period.
Maybe it’s time for cruising and follow the fence again, even with this hip trick.
I did get to ask her my question about how to stop a horse with my seat only, which is something I’ve been on the hunt for. I’ve experimented, and was surprised at what worked and what didn’t. She was able to quickly and easily tell me why, and how to practice the ideal way (which, gosh golly, works fantastic!).
I did some experimentation bareback in the weeks after my lesson that confirmed that if I can keep my hips precisely where I want them, and not let them get shifted out, he maintains his pace. Even at trot. Even bareback. Even around the circle and crossing the line where he usually guns it.
Even if it’s a stretch in humility. And I never know how much to try to explain about our history and just how disrupted his progress has been, it never feels worth trying to explain in the moment.
Though, I did get to explain that the reason he’s an absolute doll about trotting in to that crossrail in the corner is because of years of hard work with me and my in-laws teaching him not to charge fences. We worked that systematically, carefully…and he learned it. Even with the teenager. We can do bounces, in and outs, and were working on a funky 3 fence exercise which was a ton of fun when the owner got rid of most of the jumps and shortly after my in-laws got jobs and college and stuff. (So, lost ground crew for dropped poles).
OK, so I only got through the first part of that and wished I’d had time and brain to cover the rest. I do like this trainer, and find her insightful, and wonder what would be different if I had started riding with her before the teenager. I think her approach is really interesting…and just have a lot of emotions that need sorting 😛 Such a drag.