Dressage for me? Maybe!
Patxi and I have a lot in common…
When we met, we both had had turbulent pasts with our riding partners (his humans must have been some kind of rough, and I had always ridden/fallen off polo ponies and trail horses that were not their owners’ best-behaved specimens to say the least)…
We had a hard time trusting, feeling safe, controlling our fears, relaxing our bodies, and going with the flow. Our technical training was rudimentary, rough, and not very enlightened, but our innate kindness, athleticism, optimism, health, strength, and joy for life always made us willing and nice partners regardless of our flaws.
Patxi’s way of moving was: fast, forward, straight-necked, stiff-backed, stiff-shouldered, dull-mouthed, nose in the air, and feet heavy and clompy. He was nervous, insecure, herdbound to the extreme, but always respectful as possible to his humans, kind, and (honestly?) fun! His heart was big, his body soft and comfy.
My way of riding was: in a field or a trail only, fast, forward, upright, light (if a bit high) with my hands, heavy with my turned-in knees, squeezing with my thighs for balance, and confidently ignorant of equine anatomy, dressage anything, and use of riding aids other than seat and hands (a little leg, but not much). Horses liked me, though, because they sensed how much I loved them and wanted to partner up and I never hurt their mouths or backs;
I just didn’t have all the tools and timing of proper equitation training or a deep understanding of their way of being and moving to do better.
After a few years of trail riding in my herd, which boasted a spectacular dominant Palomino mare and a tiny, but clever as heck older bay pony, Patxi became a true gentleman and equine teddy bear and I a quiet, confident, happy and respected herd leader.
Patxi still was fast, forward, straight, and oft heavy-footed, but gone was the spookiness, distrust, and dullness to my seat and hands. He would carry babies we’d encounter on the trail, and let anyone have a first ride on him safely and sweetly.
I became a great communicator with my horses—I could control the two mares next to me off of Patxi with just a glance. On the trail, we’d dismount, take off their bridles, and the herd was free to graze while we pick-nicked. When it was time to go, I’d call them, they’d pretend to ignore me or threaten to run off, only to come right in and get bridled up for our ride home.
I knew nothing of “training”—I just used my instincts to get what I wanted and needed: safe, responsible, happy, obedient horses for me and my children.
We created unforgettable memories on thousands of trail rides from California to Maryland.
Patxi and I would have been happy in our trail-riding, fun life forever. But, nothing lasts forever.
We moved to the East Coast in 2013, trails were sparse and short, my kids got older, and the mares grew cranky and tired of daily exertions. At the end of 2015, I was about to turn 50 and felt it was my last chance to to take on the challenge of training a young, unbroke horse (up until then I had only re-trained five older ones). I retired the mares to a nearby farm, bought two young unbroke horses, and, in the process, unwittingly created a whole new world of chaos for Patxi and me.
Without the lead mares, he had to step into a leadership position and lost his world of safety, clear boundaries, and peace, and I gained a huge responsibility for which I had no real experience.
I knew it was up to me to re-create the conditions for a calm, unified herd, but it took time. During that time, I had to re-train and truly educate myself in the way of the horse and the techniques of proper riding.
It was one thing to be a good, soft, clear trail rider, and another to have the skills and know-how to develop the minds and bodies of young, untrained horses.
What I didn’t know was that I would use all that I was learning to not only re-train Patxi back to a place of confidence and calm, but also transform him into a horse that could do well in obstacles and dressage!
Two years later during which I engaged in thousands of hours of study (online with my mentors’ courses, taking notes at horse expos, getting a few private lessons a year, and reading—lots of reading), daily practice in arenas (heretofore alien structures to the polo player/trail rider that I was), and occasional jaunts to obstacle challenges, I think we are finally getting somewhere. Somewhere EXCITING!
In this new place we are learning what it is to be soft, supple, bending, light, lifted, slow, technical, focused, humble, patient, trusting, curious, rhythmical, and calm.
I am developing a feel for every part of the horse’s body under or near me; we begin to understand each other’s body language and emotional state. I am retraining my legs to be further back, my knees straight, my thighs relaxed. I can actually understand what a shoulder-in is, even if I cannot yet execute it to perfection. Without a budget for monthly professional guidance in person, I watch and re-watch videos of my groundwork and riding work to critique myself and notice my horse’s reactions, and then plan on how I can improve both.
My horses and I now take the time to think about all the different parts of our body and how to engage and align them to work with each other; we ask questions, give answers, absorb lessons. In wanting to give my horses a voice, I found that I have a talent for playing and communicating with them at liberty!
My creativity has blossomed as I continue to search for and devise fun games for my horses and I to play in order to connect more deeply to each other. I have felt mutual love and compassion with my horses, and love that they understand and appreciate my sense of humor as I do theirs.
Without our backstory, the video at the end of this blog of Patxi and I might seem amateurish, dumb, even…“meh.” But, now that you know our story, I hope you can understand why it makes me so happy! I don’t think that either Patxi or I would have ever dreamt up the mere thought of such ridden maneuvers, not to mention be able to execute them without lots of wrangling and nervous, uncomfortable bodily exertion! (counter-circle? turn on the haunches? whaat?)
With more practice and continued effort and focus, I hope we will continue to move towards a time when we will dance together, effortlessly, joyously, gracefully…
And, even if we are never show-worthy or visually awe-worthy, every step will have been worth it. Just watching him lick and chew, get soft eyes, and sigh every time he sees me, is thanks enough. And seeing him try for amateur me in this video makes me feel like I already won the Olympics.
Yes, the way he and I feel today, is so very different from when we met—only our good hearts and intentions remain the same.
Enjoy the clip...thanks for listening...