It’s Friday. It’s week five of a twelve week “intensive” program. I notice some droop, some lag, a little glaze in the eye now and then. I have witnessed a couple breakdowns over nothing. And this is what I would expect about now. There’s a crossing line for grit, gumption, and determination and we are approaching it, if not already staring it down with trembling uncertainty.
Joining anything named with the word “intensive” in it inherently suggests we should reach the edge of ourselves and try to go beyond. Maybe we pause for an assessment, ask some questions then give some honest answers. What changes am I being asked to make in hard set habits? How much more effort, focus, and submission am I required to give to cross this line towards improvement? How much more courage do I need to practice? But here’s the question I believe everyone forgets to ask: Is the pressure making me so serious that I have created disastrous tension? Uh, tension is transferred to the horse as he reads your body language the moment you approach him. Forget his ability relax once the reins are in your hands and your legs clamp on as your serious seat bears down and you make it clear: “There’s a show coming up buddy and you are going to be perfect all the time from now on.” I’d throw a few bucks to give an opinion to that message. No wonder they learn to evade us.
grateful guests at Jan Ebeling’s stables learning as he teaches
I never want to forget: our horse doesn’t have ambition for the show ring. He doesn’t know how much he cost. He doesn’t know what scores he produces. He doesn’t know what his performance might mean for the career of a trainer. He doesn’t understand he’s the answer to a parent’s dream for a kid. He doesn’t know he is in an intensive program. He needs to know he has a good, fair, clear leader to follow around. He likes to eat hay. He likes his horse friends to be nearby. He likes to feel safe. I think, he likes to play. I believe that if work is approached playfully with humor, guidance, fair limits, and reward no one realizes it is work. That’s true for humans and horses.
So, in response to the droop, as the fitness instructor at WIT, I took the group to the local playground. They jumped rope traveling forward around a paved circle for five minutes and then we had our second snowball fight. Afterwards I set them loose on the playground. The energy and the fun was several notches higher than usual, quite intense, but the physical output wasn’t any different than going for a jog or jumping rope back at the barn. It was fresh, it was playful and it was fun. They finished a little sweaty, rosy in the cheeks, energized and happy. I encouraged them to compare how they feel about exercise when it is fun and fresh with variety versus the same old thing every day. Now ask if your horse might have the same response.
I guess after I’ve ridden my horse I would like him to be a little sweaty, energized and happy. But how often do we drill? Do we get greedy and push for too much in one ride when really we should give that accomplishment a few weeks? We are also responsible for keeping up with developing soreness. A horse who is hurting is not lazy or naughty. It’s our job to know the difference. It’s also our responsibility to arrive emotionally neutral to the barn, and positive is a bonus. What if we approached our rides like the kids who go on the playground? What if the arena was a place our horse loved to play?
The Lendon Gray WIT group with Jan Ebeling
The few times I have shown Rudy have taught me what a monster of tension I become when a test is coming up. I get “serious” about our perfection in everything! The accuracy, the frame, the energy, the promptness. Oh poor Rudy. It’s no wonder he refuses to give himself to me in the show ring. All of this reveals to me terrible character flaws and it motivates me to stop, and change. Mica is helping me play with a new approach for him, trying to keep it fun, but still precise, prompt and excellent. I think about our ride as a series of questions and answers. When he gets the wrong answer my response doesn’t have to be emotional (frustrated), I just need to correct him in a way he understands so he can learn to give the right answer. Because he doesn’t like to get in trouble any more than I do. It’s my lack of clarity that’s at fault. Always. Mica tells me “don’t help him, let him make a mistake and that’s the training moment.” When we get tied up in knots we have to laugh and remember “serious” is not a good word. When he has the right answer, we reward and celebrate our harmony. If I haven’t laughed a lot during a dressage lesson, there’s a big problem.
Buttercup likes to watch us from under that gate rather than over it. Cuteness.
Why do I believe playfulness is so important? Because the two goals I have in riding are for him to be relaxed and forward. Horses who achieve this are fun to watch because it appears they like what they are doing. They float across the arena and we can’t help but wish to have a ride like that. Well, it takes perseverance and discipline but we can keep the word “work” out of it. Let’s call it play.
We had the privilege to observe Jan Ebeling teach two of his students and then ride three of his horses this week. He explained to us while he rode all he was trying to achieve with each horse. Set aside the fact that these are jaw dropping fancy movers. I was watching his riding style and behavior towards the horse. I’m so curious about how dressage Olympians work with their horses. Jan’s presence is disarming and relaxed but his riding standards are high and intense. He smiles more than he wears the serious concentration face. He goes over all the tack before mounting in concern for the horse’s comfort. He exudes a joy to be on a horse as he laughs, encourages them with his voice and pats them frequently to let them know he is happy with their effort. He gives them frequent walk breaks and they in turn work so hard for him. He demonstrated a playful approach to partnering with his dressage horses. It was inspiring.
In Kira’s new school here in Florida they never use the word “test”. They call them “celebrations” as they get to celebrate all they have learned. I can’t tell you how much I love this shift in thinking to make something serious become fun. I will also say I’ve never seen Kira as excited to go to school, or do homework, or learn something new, or approach a school “celebration”. Maybe we should think about our next dressage show as a celebration rather than a test. I’m very sure we can be intense and playful at the same time. I’m willing to bet our horses would thank us by being more relaxed and forward. At the very least, let’s make the arena a playground.