I had a riding lesson a couple weeks ago. Lessons are really
expensive where I live, so I don’t have many. The last two have been with a
different trainer than the one I worked with for most of Midas’s retraining.
Her approach is really different, and I’ve been trying to
put my finger on exactly what’s different.
My other trainer, Susu, considers herself a horse trainer,
not a person trainer.
This trainer, I think, sees herself as both.
Growing up, the lesson horses I rode could be relied upon to
trot in the direction you pointed them until you told them to stop. They might
speed up, slow down, cut a corner or two, but that’s about it. You could focus
on learning how to ride.
Midas isn’t like that. If he smells weakness or fresh meat,
he leaves. Just, charges away.
He’s a horse, I can’t brute force him in a pulling match.
When I started training him so that my in laws and I could
ride him, my goal was to change his mindset. I didn’t know why his policy was
shoot first and ask questions later, but I had to convince him not to shoot
first. And, shooting first myself wasn’t going to do that.
Lessons with Susu and our work with the Clinton Anderson
exercises can best be described as a sort of sneaky mindset shift. Instead of
going straight to the explosive issue, you start somewhere else entirely, that
doesn’t look related, and say “hey, I’d like you to move your rear end and
cross one foot in front of the other. I’m not going to hurt you, but I’m also
not going to go away, and I can be pretty annoying. Why not do this tiny little
thing for me?”
The tiny little things become bigger, more complicated,
until you’re back in the saddle and daring to do exercises like cruising:
Cruising is when you put the reins on the buckle and issue the walk command—And
Don’t Steer. At all. The horse may walk wherever he chooses, the only time you
intervene and give any command at all is when he stops walking. Or if he’s about
to take your knee off because you don’t really have a totally safe place to do
The goal there is to instill a lesson: If You Go the Pace I
Ask, Until I Ask For Something Else, I Won’t Nag You. The horse gets it into
his head that doing what you ask isn’t so bad.
You are supposed to practice cruising at walk, trot, and
canter. We didn’t have a safe place to try I at canter, but we had some fun at
The next exercise was also fun, but hard in our setting, it
was called Follow The Fence. Like cruising, you ask for a speed, starting at
walk, and point them along the fence (or rail) and don’t bother them unless
they leave the rail. You let them sort out their own balance and turn, just
steering enough to keep them on the rail, asking for nothing else.
What results is a horse who knows that you ask for things in
good faith, you try not to be a pest, and your boundary lines lie in pleasant
places. Also. There are boundaries, and it’s worth it to abide by them. They
also learn to self-regulate, taking it upon themselves to be in charge of
staying the pace you gave and the direction you
For Midas, there were also occasional kicks in the shoulder
to stop him when he thought about leaving. But when he didn’t leave, there was
no other fanfare.
It was a training focused primarily on the horse, on
retraining his mind. When I controlled all of his training and every rider who
sat on his back (there were several), we were making progress toward Being Nice
I was trying to teach him to do the right thing without
having to be asked.
To have Good be his default setting.
Turns out, that doesn’t really stick when he’s offered fresh
meat on a platter. Or, someone who doesn’t have really any confidence and not
much experience, and me not there to catch his eye.
The interesting thing is that with that training method,
even though I didn’t focus on dressage concepts, I only needed the barest
twitch of the reins to ask for things, and we had some pretty great turn on the
haunches and turn on the forehand, and a horse who went pretty straight, just
because he’d learned how to do it. I relied on seat and leg as much as I could
and was trying to teach myself an independent seat.
A lot of that was lost last summer, most notably the
straightness and the keeping of the pace.
So, enter lessons with a new trainer who doesn’t know my
history with Midas, and only saw me ride him once before everything changed.
She’s a dressage instructor, and very good.
And I find her mindset fascinating.
I have alarming moments, like when she suggests getting off
somewhere other than the gate to help with his gate issues—having no knowledge
of the fact that I have literally never gotten off at the gate with Midas. That
was something I learned not to do when I was 11 years old. It’s hard not to be
insulted—not that she had ever seen me work with this horse beyond one ride the
spring prior, which I’m sure she forgot because I wasn’t there for a lesson. I
was just around.
Her focus is on correct riding. Through correct riding, you
can teach the horse to do the correct thing. Eventually, some horses figure out
that the correct thing actually feels better, and will even carry themselves
collected in the field. (This was particularly important for one of the horses
at the barn whose front feet aren’t good enough for him to not be
collected, if he doesn’t collect himself, he pounds his feet into oblivion and
is lame. So they rode him collected for short periods of time, gradually
lengthening as he built up strength. He is so much better off now because he
knows how to carry himself).
Now, I’m a good rider.
But, I almost always ride alone, or with people who wouldn’t
know if I was riding right or not.
I’m very good at self-regulation, and work hard to remember
how things felt in those few riding lessons I’ve had with this horse.
I’m used to sorting issues out on my own, changing gait when
I need to, throwing in turns and halts…ridings lessons have become exercises in
having my hands tied because I must wait for the instructor to give instruction.
It’s not all bad, I’m learning the instructor’s way of doing things, which is
sort of the point? But it makes me feel….hamstrung and underestimated.
And what I’ve learned in these lessons, though, are little
gems about the independent seat. So, despite my overall frustrations with the
lessons and philosophy, I know I’m still getting valuable instruction.
The lesson last August included some tips on posting height
and speed, and practicing controlling them, even to the point of bouncing
on purpose to encourage the horse to regulate himself to come back into sync. (two
bounces, three bounces, between rises, weee!)
The lesson a couple weeks ago involved becoming aware of
when he pops his shoulder/ribs, and slides me to the outside to allow him to go
anywhere he wants (out). Learning to feel it, and control my own hips, thus
foiling his motion and encouraging him to come back in compliance with me.
I had been able to feel his stunt, but my correction wasn’t
quite correct—and not in line what she’s been teaching the teenager to do.
(This has been my other struggle since the teen started taking lessons on him,
every interaction with a horse trains the horse, the horse goes to the next
person expecting the world to operate one way, and quickly learns that isn’t
I probably should have done Cruising and then Follow the
Fence again, rather than try to dressage my way through—but, regardless, I
heard the surprise in her voice that I could feel what he was doing. I knew it
was off and wrong, but was inefficient with my rein and leg because what MOST
needed to happen was in my hips. This triggers a memory from four years ago, a
lesson with Wendy Murdoch and a follow up with Susu about weight shifting, and
the horse moving under you.
What this new trainer might not see is that I’ve already
done all this other work that makes him not try harder. That makes him not try
to dart out even if he now auto-shifts his shoulders when he hasn’t done that
in years. That most of my rides are spent feeling him out, looking for the
things that came undone and putting them back. I don’t tend to work on fancy dressage
concepts in their dressage context anymore. It was a short lived period.
Maybe it’s time for cruising and follow the fence again,
even with this hip trick.
I did get to ask her my question about how to stop a horse
with my seat only, which is something I’ve been on the hunt for. I’ve experimented,
and was surprised at what worked and what didn’t. She was able to quickly and
easily tell me why, and how to practice the ideal way (which, gosh golly, works
I did some experimentation bareback in the weeks after my
lesson that confirmed that if I can keep my hips precisely where I want
them, and not let them get shifted out, he maintains his pace. Even at trot.
Even bareback. Even around the circle and crossing the line where he usually
Even if it’s a stretch in humility. And I never know how
much to try to explain about our history and just how disrupted his progress
has been, it never feels worth trying to explain in the moment.
Though, I did get to explain that the reason he’s an
absolute doll about trotting in to that crossrail in the corner is because of
years of hard work with me and my in-laws teaching him not to charge fences. We
worked that systematically, carefully…and he learned it. Even with the teenager.
We can do bounces, in and outs, and were working on a funky 3 fence exercise
which was a ton of fun when the owner got rid of most of the jumps and shortly
after my in-laws got jobs and college and stuff. (So, lost ground crew for dropped poles).
OK, so I only got through the first part of that and wished I’d had time and brain to cover the rest. I do like this trainer, and find her insightful, and wonder what would be different if I had started riding with her before the teenager. I think her approach is really interesting…and just have a lot of emotions that need sorting 😛 Such a drag.
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