By Erika N. Chen-Walsh
Marcos and I embarked on a new leg of our journey recently with our first trip down the center line at Second Level. And while we are struggling to become proficient at the components of Second Level, I am amazed that in his first show season, we have progressed from Training Level to here in three months under the expert tutelage of Yvonne Barteau.
Learning to ride is a complicated task when you consider all of the variables. You must understand the concept of what you are learning and you must also learn to know what success is. Concepts like “connection” and “engagement” and “working over the topline” are used liberally by riders, but achieving each of those necessary elements is an exquisitely nuanced dance which neither we nor our horses are born knowing. Weanlings in the pasture do not say to one another, “Let’s work on engaging our hindquarters more so that we can build the strength to do really great piaffe one day.”
The concepts that we strive to achieve in dressage are earned in a thousand tiny increments, a thousand tiny moments of clear understanding between horse and rider, that we eventually tie together to execute a shoulder in, a half pass, a piaffe, a Grand Prix test.
And while dressage is the consummate team sport, it is the horse and not the rider, who does the lion’s share of the work. After all, we come to the barn full of expectations. We expect the horse to learn our signals, our messages, our goals.
When the horse begins his training, he has never watched Edward Gal and Totilas on YouTube. He has not read a USDF dressage test. He does not know where X is. Everything he learns, he must learn from his rider, who happens to also teach in a language that he does not yet know. The horse is magnificent in every possible way.
Marcos does not know what my goals are unless I am able to communicate them to him in a very clear way that is clear from interference and in a way that allows him to understand when he has done something correctly. For an amateur, this is extremely difficult because often, I do not know what the correct work will feel like. What is a proper collected trot? And what is the best collected trot Marcos can do today? And what will his collected trot feel like next year when he has built more muscle in order to properly carry himself? I rely on Yvonne to teach me these things, but my epiphany from this show season so far is that Marcos is trying to teach me these things too.
Marcos is whispering to me. The beauty of this season is that now I can hear him. He is still a much better student and partner than I am and he still tries, and tries hard, in every ride. When we do not get things right, it’s not because he is stubborn, or he wants to be “bad.” Sometimes he is saying, “I don’t understand what you’re asking.” Sometimes he is saying, “That’s difficult for me.” Sometimes he is saying, “You’re giving me mixed signals. I don’t get it.”
It is upon this epiphany that I am pushing through the current training plateau. Progressing in riding is more about the rider learning to communicate properly with the horse than it is about the horse learning his share of the work. Aids must be sequential. Yvonne told me recently, “If I said five words to you at the same time, it would make not sense. If I put them together in sequence, it is a sentence.”
And here is what I think is perhaps the most important point: making sure Marcos understands when
he has done it right. Remove the aid and be quiet, tell him he’s good, stroke his neck, let him have a walk break, or know that it is time to end the ride. He is paying very close attention to what makes me remove the pressure (aid) from him. And now I let him know. Clearly.
When you are working toward a goal with a partner, you are in a relationship. Marcos can’t leave our relationship if it’s not fulfilling for him, so it’s my job to do the lion’s share of making sure he feels happy that I am his partner, and a lot of that happens when I am not in the saddle. And that is the other component of our success. Our relationship exists outside of the arena, too, and it exists in ways that make him happy when I come to his stall and that make him come to me in the pasture.
Well, I am off to Silverwood Farms now to go ride a Second Level Test and a freestyle on my wonderful, beautiful, outstanding stallion. We’ll check back in soon and let you know how it goes.