2 Dec




To every season,

Turn turn turn…

And a few times a year, it is the season for clinics in the horse world.

No matter who the clinician, no matter who gets to ride—someone is usually unhappy. (This is especially true in the dressage world—a sport where every gesture, every nuance, every twitch of an ear or eyelid can engender paragraphs of doubt or ecstasy, depending on who is  doing the watching).

Over and over, I hear the cry that spectators want to watch people like themselves— ‘ordinary’ riders on ‘ordinary’ horses—be taught by the most knowledgeable clinicians in the world.

And I ask—to what end?

What does anyone think is going to happen out there?

Do they really think the horse is some kind of bionic golf club or tennis racket? That the pro will stand close behind, move your body into the timing and swing and a miracle will now occur and the racket or club will connect with the ball and sail it far  away to the specific and desired target?

And that—more important—their own body will magically remember every nuance of the complex movement and timing and reproduce it—even when a different set of signals are  actually called for the next time because the horse has set up differently?


Here’s the deal: whether you choose to watch Mark Todd or Fox-Pitt, Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum or Roger Yves Bost, Carl Hester or Helen Langenhanenberg  –or your best friend—you can only see what you ALREADY understand.

What your body/mind has already incorporated through knowledge/experience and made sense of. Because that is how human beings are programmed. You cannot see the subtle half halt, the slight re-adjustment of the body weight when Kyra Kyrklund or Andrew Nicholson or Ludger Beerbaum does it because it all has to happen too quickly to be actually seen. It is FELT, not seen.

And in order to feel it, there is the matter of the pesky 10,000 hours, 10,000 CORRECT repetitions, that are necessary. It is not enough to practice, it must be perfect practice. It must translate into reflex that is on ‘auto-pilot’; i.e., it must be the response the body makes before the mind even really processes what the horse has ‘said’. Because that is what training means, as opposed to riding.

Riding is, basically, sitting on the horse and following the movement and getting one’s hips to swing and keep the body in balance.

Training is having a conversation with the horse, and is basically, what comes after learning to ride well.

It is not enough to know how to swing the golf club–it is a requirement that one can influence the club during the swing.

And the problem is—the horse is a sentient being. We ride because it is not exciting enough to try to control a ball. If the ball does not go to the desired target, we know  the fault is within us. Better focus, better biomechanics, better trajectory— et voilà

If a horse does not get to the desired target, there are countless possibilities, especially the ‘mis-communication’ card.  (control and controlling the uncontrollable—ie the horse)

So how can any clinician really ‘fix’ any equestrian problem within the space of a lesson or three, UNLESS the rider already has the tools to adjust/change/commit to inner muscle memory, the increments required to produce the desired result?

Equestrian, no matter which discipline, is about TWO athletes.

Everyone wants active hind legs, whether to jump or turn or sit. But activity without connection is useless—you see it all the time when the rider’s head starts bobbing because the horse has locked/dropped its back and there is no way to swing the hips as the back is no longer swinging.

Doing fifty zillion half passes will indeed make the hind legs more active—but at a great cost to the hocks and other joints.. The rein connection will only get heavier and less elastic. The horse athlete will only get either more unhappy or more tuned out in order to accommodate the riding.

And so on and so on, clinic after clinic.


So — what is the solution?

In Europe, the top equestrian countries are creating better educational tools, better ways to make that education available to interested parties, despite the fact that horses are an expensive sport. Germany has days set aside for barns to open their doors to the public–and receive help from local government agencies to publicize the events and even make suggestions for more turnout. Holland has an entire sport program that never stops looking for ways to publicize equestrian. England, as everyone knows, has committed lottery funding,etc., to ensure that the interest in horses reaches city kids and more.

In the U.S., two organizations are trying to find a way: US.Eventing Association and Pony Club are helping individual riders establish little schools, where  school horses are available and anyone in that community can learn to ride. This is happening because Brian Sabo, the current president of USEA, is committed to the big picture and has convinced the board of U.S. Pony Club.

I really hope that whoever takes over at US Equestrian Federation, after John Long retires, considers horse sport on this most necessary level–and then does something about it.


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