The Battlefield

Sometimes, riding isn’t pretty. While the life of being an equestrian is glamourous at its core (har har), this glamour doesn’t always leak into the 45 minute sessions of the battlefield  arena.

This week, Kelso and I had a ride. We all know them. We have all had them. We try to avoid them, but they can sneak into our training despite our best efforts. They often have a focal point of one issue that leaks into everything. Maybe your horse won’t half-pass to the left just because it’s windy/it’s not windy/he doesn’t want to, even though that’s his easier side. This can then turn into a melt down and now you can’t even turn left. Or maybe your hot rod won’t even go forward when you usually can’t stop him until you canter for 15 minutes straight. These rides can make us question when/if it was ever good, make us feel like maybe we should quit altogether and take up a profession/hobby where your coworker won’t flip you off in the form of a buck when you touch them with your right leg. (I have never held a job outside of a barn, but I feel it would be ill advised to touch your coworker in any way with your leg in normal work environments.)

I would love to say that all rides I have are great, I always know when to push my horse and when to stop, and Kelso always yields to whatever aids I give him. If this were the case, sign us up for the next Olympics. It’s a tough post to write, but it’s important for me to stand in solidarity with all the riders who have had tough rides. So, all riders.

The theme of this ride was that Kelso decided my right leg didn’t mean anything. It started out calm and yielding in our lateral work. That’s the thing about these rides; you never see them coming, then all of the sudden you’re in the middle of convincing your horse that your right leg does indeed work and does indeed still mean move over. After getting up to the canter on the circle, he continued to switch his left lead to the right in his hind end when I asked him to shorten his canter and add weight to his hindquarters. This would happen even if he were on a mini travers on the circle, despite this being his easier and favored side. Once he remembered he couldn’t blow through the outside leg, we moved on to our lateral work on the canter.

It seemed innocuous at first. He was once again yielding and cantering like his normal self. We did a nice demi-volt to the right and he was a rock star, and on his weaker side, too! Then our world fell apart in the left lead. We, again, didn’t want to keep our hind lead when we came off the wall for the demi-volt. I began with the full demi-volts to try to work through it. When it was evident this was not going to work, I tried to simply come off the wall without switching the hind lead. No luck. I went back to lateral work to fix it and then tried to return to a baby demi-volt and it was the same problem.

At this point, Kelso was tense and I was sick of getting after him for blowing through my leg which resulted in his leads switching. We fed into each other and it just kept getting worse. At one point I looked at Paul and I said “Learning how to get along with a horse and yourself while moving up the dressage levels can teach you to get along with anyone.” Kelso and I have been together for almost 8 years, and we act like an old married couple, in both good and bad ways.

Paul was thankfully and sadly in the arena to see our meltdown. Sadly because he saw us at our ugliest, but thankfully because he was there to give some of his sage advice. Paul reminded me that him switching leads was a sign of tension and to return to something that he knew. This led to discussing the fine line of working through it or letting it go. This ride was a battle because Kelso would be fine in other moves like shoulder-in and travers in canter, but then fall apart in the demi volt, no matter how simple I tried to make it. There seemed to be no middle ground.

Sometimes, on a particular day, a particular movement isn’t going to happen, even though it has been happening for the last two weeks. Other times, you do have to go to battle and do it 30 times to help them lose the tension and anxiety around it. We have to remember that while the horse has to be obedient, these moves are still tough. There will be days where they take everything new and old in stride, and other days where they mentally, physically or emotionally cannot understand or execute the simplest request. [We can be the same way!] Half the battle is deciding whether pushing the nerves will lead to a break through or a break down.  Nuno Oliveira said “a lot of riders know inside rein, outside rein, but they do not know how to work all those degrees between nerves and relaxation.”

That ride ended with me hanging up the demi-volt chaps, asking Kelso for forgiveness even more than I usually do (my poor sacrificial lamb), and practicing a simple travers on the circle at the walk. We weren’t on the same page that day, and the line of nerves and relaxation was too blurry for us to decipher. But sometimes the rides that seem to go nowhere, or even backwards, teach you more than the rides that are nearly perfect. This ride gave me a lot to lick and chew on, and more tools than I would have gotten from smooth sailing.

This ride was thankfully after our weekly lesson, and our weekly lesson was on a completely different planet. The biggest thing we focused on was our in-hand work. Kelso and I have been playing with half-steps, and I think we both “got it” this week. He is understanding the idea of loading his haunches even more, and I am better at toying with his boundaries of nerves and relaxation. At least in that.

Off to go practice things we know like half-steps and think about maybe, possibly practicing demi-volts,

Erin and the one and only Wonder Pony

Week Four Trivia Question: On a tour of the United States, The Spanish Riding School of Vienna Lipizzaners visited Madison Square Garden in 1950. On this historic visit, Colonel Podhajsky gifted something to General Patton’s widow. Can you guess what it was and why?

Week Three Trivia Answer: Francois Baucher is credited for inventing one-tempi changes. He was a French riding master who worked as a circus horse trainer, and is also credited for the phrase of “hand without leg, leg without hand.”




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