The Basics

Last night was one of *those* lessons. The ones you don’t want to have. One of those we’re you’re frustrated, the horse is frustrated, and even your unflappable trainer is frustrated.

We were working on turn on the forehand to the left and nothing felt right. Nothing felt good. I was flustered. Gus was threatening to cause problems. And even LT didn’t know what to do for me anymore. I think we had all reached a point where none of us wanted to be in that lesson anymore.

I don’t blame LT for being fed up with me. Dressage lessons have been hard recently. I used to enjoy dressage even if it was not quite as entertaining as my jumping lesson but lately they have felt like a chore. It felt like we had stalled out. LT felt it too and eventually last night she let me have it (in a totally deserved way of course). That brought me over the brink too and I felt the tears come as I tried to explain why I was frustrated.

All I could think of was “I don’t know how to do this.”

“Well of course you don’t know how to do this, that’s why I’m teaching you.”

But I realized that it wasn’t this exercise that I had meant. It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to do a turn on the forehand. It’s that I don’t know how to do dressage. I don’t have enough natural talent to feel when I’m doing something correct but have just enough to fake it through the lower levels. I’m a fraud.

For years I’ve been in dressage lessons and trainers will tell me to do this or do that, open the inside rein, move the shoulder out, spiral in, put his haunches on the inside track and I will shift my aids until they say “good!” And I will leave my lesson happy thinking how cool it is that we’re working on trot lengthening or some other fun thing. But then I will climb into the saddle to practice this and I can’t repeat the feeling. I can’t figure out when I’ve got my horse forward versus fast or if we’re riding a little shoulder in versus his shoulders just falling in. I don’t know what I did to get it the first time and, with no eyes on the ground to tell me I’m doing it correctly, I can’t feel it.

And even as LT was trying to not let her frustration with me show, I realized that I didn’t know how to even explain all of this to her. I didn’t know how to explain that no one ever taught me the basics of dressage. Yes I grew up riding the hunters but put me in the sandbox and everything feels very different. I almost never have a problem getting my correct lead in the jump field but ask me to do it on a 20 meter circle at B and it’s a 50/50 shot I’ll get the wrong one.

So when LT put me back on a 20 meter circle and asked me to spiral in, I swallowed my pride and said told her I didn’t know how. That seemed to surprise her.

Oh, I know what spiral ins and outs are. I know what they accomplish. And, I guess, I’ve been doing them (sort of) for years. But until last night, I never knew how to do them correctly. Meaning, I never knew what the right aids were. I didn’t know where to put my legs or how much pressure I needed on the inside versus the out. I didn’t know what to do with my reins or how to use my seat. Maybe I was doing some of the corrections naturally but I couldn’t have told you what I was doing.

We walked through the aids one by one and, as it turns out, I did know more about doing a spiral in than I thought. But there were also pieces that I was not doing or even knew to do, like bringing my outside hip to my outside rein  just as I was bringing my outside rein to my outside hip to form a wall around the outside shoulder. And when I put all of those aids together, they were the best spiral ins I’ve ever done. I was actually spiraling instead of feeling like I was dragging Gus into a smaller and smaller circle.

LT has always been great at explaining how to accomplish things but she didn’t know that I was missing some of the basic dressage fundamentals and she can’t fix what she doesn’t know is a problem. To be honest, I’m not even sure if I knew it was a problem myself. All I knew was that dressage was becoming more and more frustrating as LT was expecting more. It wasn’t fun. I had reached a point in my dressage journey where I could no longer fake it, even if it was happening subconsciously.

Knowing what the problem is now isn’t a magic fix, of course, but I do hope it’s the first step down the right path.

6 thoughts on “The Basics

  1. You are so very brave. And LT sounds like she knows how to listen. Both of these are such good things.

    My experience has always been that I get really frustrated right before I’m about to make a break through. I think it’s because I’m at the I don’t know and I know I don’t know (aka ‘Conscious incompetence’:

    I have had people here riding Irish and as I explain things to them they often say ‘no one ever helped me to understand that’. I have had many lessons where I essentially was the tool that the instructor used to ride the horse (not that they meant that). I don’t accept that anymore. I sometimes stop my ride to talk to Shanea to make sure I understand. And while it may make the lesson cover ‘less’ things I feel I have a more solid foundation.

  2. For me, as I “go up the levels” so to speak, I always find holes in my knowledge or training. It’s really frustrating, but once you figure it out and go back to basics to learn or fix something and return to the original exercise, it always falls right into place and it’s an amazing feeling!

    Keep sticking it out — you’ll get there! You’re such a dedicated rider ❤

  3. I took a dressage lesson on my old trainer’s 4th level horse when I went back home a few months ago. First actual dressage horse I’ve ever ridden and first legit dressage lesson. I felt like I had no idea how to ride. I evidently don’t know how to do a proper trot lengthening and I also could not get the horse to canter. My trainer finally got frustrated and told me that she didn’t know what else she could tell me and that I was just going to have to figure it out.

    So not the exact same application, but I understand being frustrated, feeling like you can ride and having a frustrated trainer.

  4. Girl, that’s a tough pill to swallow and you are brave for acknowledging it and writing about it! And it sounds like that beautiful spiral in was its own reward. Now, tell me how to make my own pony do this… 😉

  5. This is SUCH an important post and I wish all of my students could read it. It’s so awesome that you are this self aware. Knowing what you don’t know is half the battle! Being able to verbalize that is a big deal. I’m so glad you had this break through, even though you all had to get really frustrated first!

  6. Oh man do I know how you feel! This has happened to me SO MANY TIMES on this journey through the levels. Each time, back to basics. rebuild where there is a hole with either the horse or rider. You are not alone.

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