During my four-week course at Fundacion Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Ecuestre, I had many different instructors, and their style of teaching varied greatly. Some were kind and encouraging, others a bit more demanding, and some downright tough. They changed their style depending on the situation, the horse, and what I needed to get done. Watching all my instructors ride their horses on my free time gave me a clear idea of what I hoped to some day look like – they seemed to ride with almost a serenity about them, like it was the easiest thing in the world. My attempts were obviously not always breezy, but I made some huge changes in a short time. I believe their idea of what I needed, when and how, was a huge key to my learning.
I knew right off the bat it would not be easy, and that there was a lot expected of me. Some of them encouraged, praised, and explained slowly. There were others that seemed to throw out a huge list of commands and expected me to get it all done fluidly. At times I had some real heat on me, going from one movement to the other, dodging horse-drawn carriages, other instructors, and fellow riders in the indoor arena all the while. When I came through and got it done, I always felt relief and pride, and while my instructors didn’t make a huge deal about my small successes vocally, I knew they were working toward giving me a peaceful place to be on the other side.
There were times I knew what I needed to do but just couldn’t get it done. Tom Dorrance compares this feeling to “pounding a hammer with your left hand. You know what…to do but it takes a while to coordinate yourself” (True Unity). Sometimes my instructors put heat on me to get something done that I might not have tried for fear of failure or self doubt. Some of the things they asked me to do I never thought I could get done! They didn’t ask me if I wanted to do it, they told me to do it, and fast, and I didn’t have time for self doubt, so I took a crack at it. I know in my heart they weren’t looking for me to fail; they asked me to do it because they believed I could, and often I was amazed to find that I could!
An example of this: In my second week, I was getting pretty good at flying changes and could do several on a diagonal line or circle, usually every 4 strides if the stars were all aligned. My instructor that day was particularly harsh. He shouted directions one after the other with absolutely no time for thinking. Then he asked me to do one-tempis (a flying change every stride: *gulp*). I must have looked like a chicken flopping around up there, manically switching my leg aids as fast as I possibly could, and always late, always sloppy – it just was not happening. I didn’t have time, I thought. How can I change flexion, keep my horse straight, and switch my leg aids each stride, in literally the blink of an eye? He shouted and shouted: SIT! LEGS! FLEXION!! NO! STRAIGHT!!!! I was exhausted, and must have looked pitiful. He looked up at me as I panted and said, “You act like you’ve never done this before!” Alarmed, I answered, “well, I haven’t!” Without even blinking he answered, “well you’d better figure it out quick then!”
That was that. I didn’t have time to feel bad about myself, to think it was unjust he should ask something from me I couldn’t do, or anything along those lines. So I set off into the canter again while he shouted “Change! Change! Change!” at me, and there it happened….I was doing one-tempis! It wasn’t perfect, but it was straight and rhythmic. I’m not sure but I think I saw a little smile from my instructor, and after that it was quiet…and peaceful.
Other times in a lesson my instructor would have me do something, and I knew it was not good. I felt awkward or sloppy or late, and there were times when I was not corrected. I believe they were helping me to set it up and find it for myself, while staying out of my way. Without someone picking me apart in those moments, I was able to settle in and feel the whole horse, influencing them by being stable myself.
I truly believe my teachers were feeling for what I needed each day and in each moment. At times I needed some heat put on me, and other times I needed a little space to figure it out on my own. I felt from all my teachers, whether they yelled or not, that they liked me, they wanted me to do well, and they were rooting for my success. I could feel that my success was their success, and they were invested. I knew that they knew I would make it because I wanted to make it, and this caused me to try hard for them, and for myself.
The horse needs to feel from us the same; not only leadership, but he needs to know that we like him, understand him, and that we are rooting for him. The horse also has to have a clear picture of what we want, like I had from watching my instructors ride. It is essential for the rider to differentiate when the horse is “loafing around” or when they are struggling or trying. Only then can we know when to lay on a little heat, and when to get out of his way and wait. And when they do come through, to go along with them and give them a peaceful place to be!