“Then comes a revelation, finally feeling that a horse behaves gymnastically correctly, and the new convert displays a fervor the likeness of which has not been known since the conversion of Paul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus.”
Charles De Kunffy, The Ethics and Passions of Dressage (pg. 36)
Have you had that moment? Have you suddenly felt all of the things you’d dreamed and read about becoming reality in the flash of an instant? Or are you still striving? It is not something that comes overnight; and if you lack the luxury of a very well trained horse with a masterful teacher to guide you, it can take a very long time indeed. You will never forget that moment, when it happens – but it is possible to believe that moment will never come again.
My revelation moment came in my first lesson on Dani. I’d been working with my instructor for many years, riding my horses and his. Theoretically I understood it all, but with most of the horses I rode being either green or retraining projects, I had not yet realized the “dance”. Dani was my first homebred horse, and I was determined to do things right from the beginning. I moved slowly in my training, making sure each step was clear before moving to the next. In particular, I focused on turning and stopping from my seat, rather than the reins.
When I took Dani for my first lesson, she had very solid basic responses. I had introduced sideways response to the leg, but had not moved into lateral work yet. Mostly we’d worked on circles, loops, and other figures, trying to get some consistency in tempo and better balance.
One of the first things my instructor wanted to introduce was shoulder-in. I’d ridden it many times, but it had always felt like a “pat your head and rub your tummy” effort. So, we talked through the approach we’d take, and reviewed the aids. He sent us off to the rail with the assurance that it could take up to 25 repetitions before we got anything that was actually shoulder-in, so not to worry if it was awkward for a while.
The first pass I could feel Dani trying to sort out what I was asking of her. My instructor was encouraging, and again was reminding me it could take 25 repetitions, when suddenly he shouted out, “Or not!” In that moment, I realized all the pieces had come together. I looked up to the mirror to see Dani in a correct shoulder-in. The best part was that all it had taken from me was a shift in my seat, slight weight aids, and the slightest of leg aids – then just waiting for her to sort out what it all meant. The next long side it came right away, and going the other direction was a near repeat. At last! I’d finally felt the engagement that results from shoulder-in, because my physical effort was so light that I could focus on refinement and feel.
From there we moved on to canter. Dani had a rather flat, lazy canter – so the goal was to increase engagement and lift. To that end, my instructor wanted me to “ride toward pirouette”. Again, we talked through the goal, the aids, etc. The exercise was to bring the circle in with a feel toward asking for pirouette, then riding out again. I started riding the circle, thinking about the aids I would give for the increased collection and movement of the shoulders around the haunches. Again, I could feel Dani tuned in to me, trying to sort out what I was asking for.
As I focused in on the aids for pirouette, I could hear my instructor again reminding me that I wouldn’t actually get pirouette. Suddenly he shouted out, “Or maybe you will!” and started laughing heartily. In that same moment, I’d suddenly realized that my generous mare had figured it out and had given me three strides of pirouette. I don’t know if I would have gotten more, because I threw away the reins and gave her a huge hug! Probably not the best way to end the exercise – but it was one of the most magical moments I’d ever ridden. The pirouette had come out of literally a turn of my seat and application of weight aids – no hauling or struggling. I had never experienced something so light and easy in the saddle!
That single lesson taught me more than any other, before or since. First, I learned that my mare had a real talent for all things lateral. Second, it proved my theory that if I could start a horse with “no mistakes” in the basics, then the more complex work would come with hardly any resistance. Third, it proved that every movement is simply created out of a combination of those basic aids and responses – so if you build those solid ABCs, you can turn them into full sentences. Finally, and most importantly, it was my revelation moment on just how light the aids could be – my first experience in the dance!
As the quote at the top says, I became a complete convert to riding in lightness. Dani and I went on to many years of dancing together. I have even managed to create other converts along the way. There was the day that I talked my mother through a pirouette on Dani, without telling her that’s what I was doing. Hers ended much that same way as my first one on Dani. Then there was a student who became such an ardent convert to lightness that she walked up to another trainer and tried to talk her into riding lighter!
But, even converts can have a crisis of faith.
With Nash now retired for several years, my limited riding opportunities have been on Coffee and Roxie – both retraining projects with definite issues. Though I’ve enjoyed the process, progress has been slow with my time limited, so I began to wonder if it would ever get beyond the basics. Maybe I could no longer put theory into practice. And then …
I was schooling Coffee. He’s still inconsistent, although the best moments keep getting better, and the worst are never as bad as before. But, I was beginning to feel a bit lost as to where to go next. So, on this day, I decided to play around with tuning up our lateral responses at walk. That seemed low key but productive, which fit my mood. It turns out that Coffee has been paying attention. We’d worked on moving him around from seat and legs, but on this day I pushed it a little further and he rose to the occasion. Have you ever felt the magic of being able to put a horse anywhere you want, simply through a shift in your seat? For me it doesn’t get any better than that!
I was having quite a bit of fun working around the cones I’d set up, feeling how I could change the trajectory of a turn with slight shifts. We did some leg yield, then a little shoulder-in, which I’d introduced earlier this year. On a whim, just to see what the response would be, I decided to ask for haunches-in (travers). It is one of the more challenging movements, when you first introduce it. Nash had been sure that I was insane to ask him to move in that way. So, I didn’t expect much from Coffee, but I wanted to see what his reaction would be.
I set up the movement, shifted my seat and legs – and got haunches-in the first try! I felt as giddy as that day Dani did her first pirouette steps! After all, there is no better proof that you have created understanding of your aids than to get a new movement the very first time! And there was no greater gift Coffee could have given me – to show that I could still build the right foundation.
For me, working with horses is a series of revelations – large and small. It can be as small as the effect on your balance when you bring your arms back to your side; or it can be the type of perspective changing revelation I had in my lesson with Dani. It is important to hang on to the memories of those revelations and how they made you feel, especially in those times when things may not be coming together as they did before. Those revelation moments help to keep you striving, and to remind you of how far you’ve come in your journey. I am still grateful to Dani for that moment of revelation – and the many more she gave me – and now to Coffee for helping this convert to regain her fervor!
Be good to your horses!