When I competed in horse judging at Texas A&M, my horse judging instructor would always say "don't miss the forest for the trees". In other words, do not get so hung up on every tiny detail that you forget to take in the entire picture. I think this quote works beautifully when we think about our own dressage training.
Dressage by it's very nature teaches us to be exquisitely obsessed with small details. When we look at a competitive dressage test, it is broken down into individual movements which are they broken down into the components of the training scale. In a single transition, our horses must be in front of the leg, soft over the back, softly chewing on the bit, the poll the highest point, straight through the body, actively engaged and uphill. Then there is the rider, that must be sitting tall with correct alignment from shoulder to hip to heal, riding with soft hands and a strong but not too strong seat, eyes up, shoulders back and the seat adhesive. They must ride the transition accurately at the letter...not too early or too late. The transition must stay engaged, connected, straight and collected. And that is all for one single transition!
When riders are first starting out, it's so important for an instructor not to overwhelm the students. Eventually, the student will become a master of multitasking but in the beginning, it's best just to work on their body control before they work to control the horse at all. This is why lunge lessons are so valuable!
Once the rider is fairly well educated and working more and more on the small details, it can become so easy to get hung up on the one little thing that maybe isn't going so well. For example, the flying change, which in my experience can be one of the most difficult movements for the horse to learn. (Some are prodigies with changes but so many others really struggle and it takes a good bit of time to get them confirmed) So, what do we do?? WE OBSESS over the change! That becomes our sole focus. We focus so hard on the damn tree that we miss the entire forest (or the entire picture about what is happening with the horse).
Boy, have I been guilty of this before. Years ago one of my horses had a chronically late flying change one direction. I would work a little bit on some different exercises but then I would just try so hard to fix the change IN the change. I would ride the canter a little bigger, then a little smaller, then coming from a half pass and then coming from a counter leg yield and on and on and on. I would drill the bejesus out of those flying changes and guess what, they never got any better!! However, when I calmly stepped back to really assess the entire picture, I could see that in my walk to canter transitions, my horse would stiffen his back or be a little behind my aids. By taking the focus off the actual problem and looking at the whole picture with a wider field of view, I was able to figure out a way to get at the change without attacking the change directly. By shifting the focus to the overall canter quality, the change was finally made to come clean.
It's also so important to look at the whole picture and see what is going well. This is a tough one for most riders. We try so hard to chip away at the difficult things that sometimes we just brush past the things that the horse finds very easy. It's ok to feel a little pride in the things that your horse does really well. For example, if you are working to collect your horses canter and they are struggling due to a lack of strength, it's ok to acknowledge that even though collection is still difficult, you are indeed very happy with how the horse feels in the connection or how they feel laterally. Then analyze the problem and see if you can find the root cause of the issue.
My mare, Jypsy is in this phase right now. Before she makes the jump to the FEI level, she needs much more strength and balance in her canter. Yes, some of that will come with time but some of it is that I need her more in front of my leg in the canter. I can then look to my tool box and pull out some different exercises...maybe some quick transitions and maybe some rein back to canter to work both on the reaction to the leg and the tilting under of the pelvis.
So, I encourage you to take a look at your own riding. Are you missing the forest for the trees? Try to get a video of you riding your horse and evaluate it from a place of acceptance and non judgement. Analyze what you like and what you think could be improved. Then come up with a plan, keeping the entire picture in mind.
Hello my beautiful friends,
We had a wonderfully inspiring clinic with Charles de Kunffy in the middle of April. Charles is a mentor to both Martin and I and has been the biggest influence on our riding. I think it's really because of Charles that we feel passionate about our mission to carry on the art of classical riding. It is a dying art and the art will only survive if we stay true to the traditions that have been in place for centuries. In this day and age and in this society in particular, we crave instant gratification. We literally have all the knowledge in the world at our fingertips. We waste countless hours on social media "connecting" to other people but in fact we are more disconnected than ever.
I feel so honored to be a part of an artistic and athletic endeavor that has such an incredibly rich history. Classical dressage riding can be dated back as far as 400BC when the Greek general, Xenophon, wrote The Art of Horsemanship. Obviously during the time of Xenophon all the way up through World War One, horses were trained for warfare. It has really been over the last 70 years or so that they have been exclusively trained for sport and for art.
In Charles de Kunffy's book, The Ethics and Passions of Dressage, he describes "The art of riding is a Baroque art. The ideology is based on the Baroque view that the potential of random nature remains unfulfilled until man elevates it by cultivated design to the level of art. The ultimate equestrian goal of developing every horse's genetic potential to the fullest extent is in absolute agreement with the Baroque commitment to elevate nature's creatures to be living monuments of art. Therefore, the "modern rebirth" of the equestrian arts, as well as its last major innovations, rest in the Baroque Age.". He goes on to explain that "We remember that the "finished horse" is born of daily attention to minutia in schooling. Careful consistency, repetition and elaboration are part of that daily work which produce the supple horse....The rider, the "human genius" that refines random nature into an edifice, is the ultimate beneficiary of this art. Provided he understands his horses well, the rider will have created beauty that is the physical aesthetic manifestation of his intellectual understanding and spiritual depth. So can man be elevated by the taming of his horse, through a partnership with him, to become himself the object and subject of his art."
I just love how Charles speaks of the rider becoming the primary beneficiary of his art. By one's communion with the horse, we can grow in character and spirit. Horses become our greatest teachers by allowing us to grow in wisdom, in patience, in empathy and compassion and in perseverance. I believe as spiritual beings, we all have the innate desire to create. Whether you create paintings, poems, sculptures or if your horse is your canvas in which you express yourself, I believe that it is through these creative endeavors that we can connect most to Source/Universe/God. Through love and understanding of the horse, we elevate him to art but during that process we ourselves become the object of edification.
Next time you go out to ride your horse, take a moment and think of all the riders that have come before you over thousands of years. As a rider you have the privilege to participate in this wondrous and majestic art form. It is our responsibility to be custodians to our art. In order for it to survive, we must not be tempted by shortcuts that gain us the instant gratification we desire. We must not sacrifice our compassion and empathy for the horse in order to succeed in competition. We must allow our riding and training to be guided by a deep love of the horse and stay rooted in our classical foundations. This is the only way that riding, as an art, will survive.
Enjoy the ride,