Wednesday, 20 August 2008

A horse-owner's guilt!

Through various sources recently, I have started to feel awful about the rein contact I take when I school Echo. I know that comments weren't intended as criticism and it has been from reading other posts on the matter of 'light contact' that I have started to feel this as well, so none of the material has been specifically aimed at me, but I think contact is a real issue with most dressage riders.

I am, officially, my own biggest critic. When I was working for David Pincus, he used to get hold of the other end of the reins and make me take a contact on his hands, so he could feel what I was doing to the horse's mouth. He usually said that I was not taking enough of a consistent contact - that I was dropping the contact at the wrong moment, and that in fact, giving with the rein is definitely not the same as dropping the contact. You should always be able to feel the horse's mouth, even when you have given in your rein contact. My instructor, John, has reiterated this recently - I need to have a more consistent contact - not stronger or lighter, but just clearer to the horse.

I have started to really think about the type of contact I take on Echo. JME made a very interesting point in a comment on my post Needs Must, which brought to my attention whether my rein aid was behind or in front of the wither. Also, when I watched the demonstration by Emile Faurie, he said that you should only ever use your wrist when asking for bend, as any more than this will make the horse over bent and fall out. I think I was doing both of these things too much - I was using more than my wrist to ask for the bend, and the aid was in front of the wither, meaning that she reacted in the wrong way to it.

When I was thinking about all of this and reading about the ideal 'feather-light' contact that JME says is possible on most horses, I started to feel the horse-owner's guilt. That sinking, deep-down feeling that you have done something dreadful and are not worthy of riding your poor horse, as you make such a terrible job of it. When I got on Echo yesterday in order to school her, I rode for the first 10 minutes in walk on a loose rein, completely unsure of what I should do. Then I sorted myself out.

I rode as I usually do - albeit with a sharper focus on what I was doing with my hands - and I remembered that I am capable of riding my horse. She is a cob, who is very young and naturally on the forehand, so she is not going to be uphill and featherlight just yet. She needs to learn about balance and subtlety and carrying herself, so I have to show her at the moment what I want. When she trots around, she always has her ears either forwards or sideways, tuned into me - she doesn't come behind the bit and she tries her hardest to do what I ask of her. I don't think she is uncomfortable.

I don't ride with a strong contact - I sometimes have to take a stronger contact, in order to create the frame where she will carry me in the easiest way for her - but when she gives in her poll and her jaw, then I lighten it. Surely that is the point of schooling - lightness is the end product, with harmony and balance achieved by working at it - especially when your horse is not ideally built for it! Lightness is what I obviously want to have with my horse - in all respects, but that cannot be reached (at least in my experience - except with a horse that is built naturally 'on the bit') without establishing a clear contact first.

I sound like I am ranting, and I think I probably am but mainly at myself. I always doubt my own abilities and get the 'guilt' but I have a happy horse who is willing to work for me, which I think has got to say something to me. I have to remind myself every now and again that schooling is a process developed throughout the horse's life - I can't expect it to be perfect immediately - she's only four!


jme said...

i am so sorry if i have made you feel guilty with any of my comments! it was not my intention, but i have a bad way of being rather blunt when i'm talking about technical riding matters. please don't take it as personal criticism!

from what i can tell from what i've read, you seem a knowledgeable and sympathetic rider, and one who strives to do her very best for her horse, and it sounds as if your horse appreciates you (as she should!) so there is absolutely nothing i could criticize!

lightness, and particularly lightness in the hand, is an ideal to strive for; it IS possible, but not necessarily achievable 100% of the time in the real world on living, breathing animals, so you shouldn't judge yourself so harshly. and like you said, it’s a process of gradual stages and doesn’t happen overnight, but takes years of patient, persistent work. of course there is trial and error, but you're gaining valuable insight along the way. if i can give advice or maybe help you recognize potential issues, it's only because i've been through the same frustrations, complications and confusions it sounds like you're trying to work through now, and have lived to tell about it ;-)

so, time for my confession: want to talk about horse-owner's guilt? many years ago, at the instruction of my ex-trainer, i started jumping my horse in draw reins because he was too unbalanced and strong for me to handle otherwise - and these were not small jumps. could there be a more a more heinous crime in riding?

i didn't know this was wrong at the time. it was only later when i realized that the faults in my rein aids and positioning of the horse were the primary causes of our problems and began to understand the means of lightening a horse that i was able to ride that same horse in a plain snaffle on a light contact...

but i felt like a fraud and the most worthless rider in the world and was sure i must have ruined my poor horse completely. i literally wanted to quit riding and just feed him carrots for the rest of his life to make up for my mistakes. i used it as a learning opportunity instead. he 'recovered' and responded so positively to the changes i made that i felt i had at least partially made amends (btw, he's still with me, sound, and happily retired these days :-)

so trust me, whatever 'mistakes' you may have made in the past or might make in the future will probably NEVER be as bad as that one, but the horses do recover, and so do we ;-) maybe that ‘guilt’ makes us better riders because it makes us more observant, thoughtful and sympathetic...

i'm my own worst critic too, and sometimes it can be debilitating. there have been times when i wondered if i shouldn't just turn my horses out in a field and forget about riding altogether! but you have to just get on with it through the rough spots if you are to improve, even if it means taking a break from what you're working on and trying something completely different for a while... sometimes when i'm feeling especially useless i'll hack in the field or work from the ground, just to take the pressure off, clear my head, and get some perspective before returning to the issue at hand... most times our perceived ‘abuses’ are fairly minor and the horses are no worse off for it...

you're on the right track. because you keep asking yourself the right questions and are continually trying to improve - and particularly because it's clear you love your horse - you WILL get there! keep at it and please don't be discouraged :-)

Grey Horse Matters said...

I'm sure things will all come together for you someday, but anything worth doing well does take time. Guilt is in all of us and of course we are always second guessing ourselves about what we did or should have done. As long as you love your horse and have her best interests at heart you two will be fine. She is only four and has lots of training and learning ahead of her. Keep at it and you will get where you want to be.

Echo said...

jme - thank you for your very kind comments - I didn't mean to make you feel bad either!! It was a combination of things and the fact that I am very quick to doubt myself.
As for your mistake - as you said, you learn from them. Horses are so forgiving and never hold grudges - shown by the fact that you were able to ride the same horse so lightly later on.
Thank you for making me think about what I do.

Wiola said...

I have this favourite quote:
"No man really becomes a fool until he stops asking questions"...

There are so many methods of training and so many ways to Rome; trainers are searching and horses' brains are searching for comfort within what you offer. As long as you observe your horse and take notice of the feedback it gives you, making mistakes is just a natural way to learn.
You will both get there, that's for sure.

Gecko said...

I don't think you're ranting at all, and it's good that you are thinking about how you are coming across to Echo. I always think that if we don't assess what we are doing now, then we can't improve who we are, or what we do. I kept with all of that, even though I don't know what some of the terms mean, I think all riders have these moments where they doubt themselves...the key is to get up and push on to the good times.

Daily adventures while training my young horse.