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The Gift of Time and Space
"Dressage is stupid!"
Dressage is complicated.
Most people only see it at the Olympics where it may look like the horses are doing fancy steps while the rider just sits there. But the truth is, they are both elite athletes who have trained for years to master the sport. They are so proficient that you can’t see the hundreds of tiny cues the rider is giving to the horse with their feet, their thighs, their hands, and their seat. The fact that it looks so effortless is a testament to the skill of both rider and horse.
Dressage training begins with fundamentals and layers on more complex moves over time. It requires focus, balance, and a surprising amount of strength. It requires practice. Hours and hours of practice. Repeating the same things over and over again while your trainer is in your ear repeating the same instructions she’s given a million times to countless riders over the span of many years.
I like watching my barn friends ride and listening in on their lessons. They are more experienced and more skilled than I am, as someone who is just beginning to get the hang of the basics. I learn a lot from watching them and asking questions about what they are working on. It helps to hear them getting the same instructions and corrections that I do. It’s comforting to know that we are all on the same journey even if we are at different stages.
And each of us – including the trainer – on any given day, when struggling with a particular skill may declare, “Dressage is stupid!”
Of course, we’re kidding. Mostly.
There are a lot of things about learning to ride a sport horse that can seem dumb but are important parts of training. When I was a little kid riding jumpers I’d sometimes have to spend an entire lesson in jumping position, rump lifted off the saddle. Usually I’d have no stirrups, sometimes no saddle, relying only on my legs and core muscles to hold me up. The kind of lesson where I’d get off my horse and fall to the ground because my exhausted noodle legs were no longer functional. The fact that I still have solid thighs, even after all these decades, can probably be traced back to those early days of torture. But it made me stronger which made more balanced and secure in the saddle.
Back then, getting on horses to canter around an arena and jump higher and higher obstacles, seemed pretty straightforward. Mind you, I was a kid. Everything seemed easy and the horses knew what they were doing anyway so I didn’t really have to be very skilled. It was kind of a point and shoot situation. And I had no fear, so just hold on and fire away!
However, when I returned to riding as an older adult, I was well acquainted with fear and had some reservations about sailing a 1200-pound living rocket over jumps as I tried to not fall off. That’s why when I first sat on a lesson horse after nearly forty years of not riding, dressage, with its focus on technical precision – not to mention its proximity to the ground – seemed more sensible.
But when I moved from lesson horses to my own Trudy, the goal of dressage, certainly the idea of competing, got a little muddled. It wasn’t clear what the training objectives should be. After all, Trudy is a Tennessee Walking Horse, a breed of horse bred for its smooth gaits which makes it comfortable for riders to spend hours in the saddle, touring around or riding on trails. More of a pleasure horse than a sport horse.
A dressage horse needs a solid trot and canter. Though Trudy likes to trot and has a lovely canter, she can’t hold either for a very long time yet. Also, there are occasions when she trips, so we have to spend time investigating what may be impacting her stability.
She is still young and it’s fair to say that she never really had the focused training that she is getting now. She is learning and doing well but our real priority is building fitness and stamina. Working on her ability to hold a trot and canter for longer periods. She is smart and willing to learn and is really such a nice horse. We want her to get stronger and more secure in her footing before we ask too much of her.
It is not outside the realm of possibilities that Trudy could learn dressage and compete at lower levels, just not soon. It is a gradual process. She needs time.
I have a friend who is truly dear to me. My best friend. Someone I have known since we were young hotties in our early twenties, out on the town in short skirts and big hair, stirring up trouble. We’ve been through marriages and divorces, births and celebrations, losses and grief. There is no question of our abiding love for each other. I trust her completely and she knows that I am there for her whenever she needs me. We are as close as any family could be.
What we don’t expect of each other is to be each other’s everything. She has a husband and growing children who dominate her world and I have pets and horses and a barn family who are central to mine. We both have demanding jobs and creative interests. We may not talk for days. Weeks or even months could go by without us seeing each other in person. But our love for each other is not diminished by this.
We accept each other for who we are and where we are on our life journey. All the relationships we have apart from each other are necessary as we take care of ourselves and those who rely on us. And the diversity of relationships makes us more complete as people. Not to mention all the new experiences, stories, and lessons we get to share with each other that make our friendship that much richer. When you love someone you give them space and time to grow and be who they need to be.
Trudy may never be a competitive dressage horse. I may never be a truly accomplished dressage rider. We are works in progress. But right now, I can only go as far as Trudy can and the truth is I’d like to go further.
I need more progress. Trudy needs more time. I accept her for who she is and where she is in her training. Trudy and I will always be a team. Always.
It was suggested to me that I consider a second horse who is more advanced than Trudy to help me build my skills and confidence. My improvement as a rider will also help Trudy when we train together.
But a second horse. So much to consider.
Life and relationships, like dressage, are complicated.
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