Monday, February 15, 2016

don't drink the kool-aid

Readers who have been following along for a while might be surprised at my recent (and slightly rabid) excitement for dressage.

Considering just last January, I bemoaned how dressage was our #1 weakness at intro level events. And later in March, I wrote about what a struggle it was to find regular dressage instruction (clearly needed).

So actually, maybe it isn't surprising to see my excitement grow. We *did* find regular instruction with trainer C, and her program has been the single biggest change in our riding in the past year. Jumping bigger (for us) fences was just a matter of rehabilitating my confidence, but this flat work is an entirely new skill set for me.

But how is it that such fundamentals can remain so vague after 20+ years of riding?!? Well, honestly, I avoided anything approaching the idea of "dressage" - it seemed like an enigma, some unattainable mystical mysterious unicorn that was somehow perpetually beyond my reach.

And perhaps the one thing that had me the most backed off from the discipline was the perceived attitude that the work must always be totally correct or else there is no value in doing it.

Does anyone else ever get that vibe from the discipline? Because I do, all the time. And up until very recently, I took it extremely literally.

I mean, I understand the idea that correct muscles are only built through correct work. And that some bad habits are harder to fix down the road than others... But I wonder how one goes about being correct all the time without having ever been incorrect? Because personally, I make a LOT of mistakes, repeatedly, for a long time, while learning and developing new skills.

And presumably horses also make mistakes? Or struggle to understand garbled aids from a learning rider?

But for a long time, I was honest to god too scared to try new exercises lest I do them wrong (and ruin the horse, the horror!). What would happen if I tried to take a contact incorrectly? Let my horse run around on the forehand or go hollow/inverted through a transition?? Or, god forbid, miscued for the leg yield?!? Best not to try, the risks are too great!

does it still count as hollow/inverted if it's simultaneously fierce AF?

Seriously, guys. I felt this way for a lonnnng time. Actually maybe until only just this summer, when Austen rode Isabel and said "Fuck that, just go try stuff. You won't ruin the horse."

This may sound stupid, but that was honestly a watershed moment for me. I realized that I was somehow mentally coddling the idea of dressage, that I was treating it like this sacred cow - rather than treating it with my typical "what the hell, why not" attitude.

Do I believe that there is no value in doing a flat work exercise if it's not done correctly? No. I do not believe that.

If I practice a leg yield and we lead with the shoulders, that's ok. Maybe the next one we will better understand how to get straighter. If we try for stretchy trot and Izzy dives and runs fast on her forehand, that's ok too. That's probably the natural step between high-headed arab mode and actually stretching to the contact.

Should we not do a thing unless we know we can do it correctly? Nah, no way. Try to do the thing. Maybe fail. Keep trying. Fail harder. Ya know. The usual.

we fail a lot. but not always :)

Because, at least with my horse (who is as green to dressage as I am), we're working on training the brain as well as the body (for both horse and rider). And typically that doesn't happen simultaneously (your mileage may vary), and sometimes the body and/or mechanics can get lost while the brain figures shit out.

So I'm making a definitive change to my attitude: I'm ok with mistakes in dressage. They are fine. Really. They are how I (and my horse!) learn. The pursuit of perfection is admirable, and so much of dressage is the never ending goal of improving quality quality quality. But first, we kinda just have to get it done.

And the next time I read about an exercise that includes an imperative disclaimer on how it must be ridden (straight! slow! not over bent! off forehand! whatever), I'm going to approach that disclaimer as what you'd call "guidelines" rather than an actual rule. Because probably it'll be ok if we don't get it right the first (or fiftieth!) try.

Have you felt similarly stymied by feeling a need for perfection above all else? Or perhaps you've never gotten that impression from the general discipline of dressage at all? Has your attitude about how you approach learning new skills with your horse changed over time?

48 comments:

  1. I got incredibly lucky because I just happened to get mixed up with D early on when I didn't know anything. I quickly got addicted to how a tweak here and there can totally change the way a horse feels. I am much more hesitant about jumping than I am flat work. I've been jumping for almost a year now and I am competent but I have jumped maybe 2-3 times outside of lessons.

    I am trying to not worry about ruining my horse, but it is a struggle. I get stuck in my head too much and quit riding.

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    1. ha see i'm the opposite - have been jumping for long enough that i am not fazed by our mistakes. and i know exactly what you mean about 'getting into your head and quitting' - that's been the biggest struggle with dressage for me, but we're working on it!

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  2. Yes!! I think this is such an important post! You're never going to progress if you never try!

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    1. thanks! and i couldn't agree more - half the battle is just showing up, right?

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  3. Love this! You just have to get out there and do it... someone once told me that the only way you learn is by making, and then correcting, mistakes.

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    1. yess!! and you also have to feel ok with mistakes - they're really not the end of the world

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  4. Oh man, this is really important on so many levels. I was/am so guilty of this - where you don't do things at all for fear of doing them incorrectly/wrong. It kept me from riding for (literally) YEARS. Now that I have Nibbles back, I'm battling it again but now that I have an incredible trainer, I know we are on the right path and she will smack me when I need it (ahem almost daily). No one was born an expert and you don't become a better rider by NOT riding. There is no such thing as a perfect ride and, as long as you aren't an abusive idiot, you're not going to "ruin" your horse. Sure, your progress may be slower but you know what, you're still moving faster than someone who doesn't try. You go get it, girl. You and Izzy rock!!!
    Rebecca (backinthetack.wordpress.com)

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    1. i'm really really ok with slow progress. there will *always* be someone who can do it faster or better or whatever, but that's fine. i'm mostly here to enjoy the journey anyway ;) you and Nibbles are gonna do great too - i definitely know what you mean about being a little backed off with a "new" horse (even tho i know she's not new) but that'll go away as you settle into a routine

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  5. My riding progression in dressage has basically looked like this.

    1. Try a new movement.
    2. Fail miserably and wonder if maybe I am actually really terrible at this riding thing.
    3. Try again.
    4. 99% fail again, but less spectacularly.
    5. Try again.
    6. Start to get it.
    7. Try again.
    8. Feel like I understand it.
    9. Try again.
    10. Start to work on making it correct and good and appropriate for others to witness.

    ;) Get to trying...

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    1. ha yup, pretty much! (tho if we're being honest, i worry a little less about step 10 haha.... #noshame)

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  6. My brain is still in full "unattainable mystical mysterious unicorn", not because of fear of doing it wrong but simply overwhelmed at what are all the things and why and how. Without a coach telling me what to do, I wouldn't go anywhere near this discipline. Having my coach means I can stay in blissful ignorance about what is next and just do whatever she says in the moment. :)

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    1. yea i definitely know what you mean - we definitely needed a trainer to help get the ball actually rolling, and i am definitely not confident enough in my feel to go any long period of time without a lesson...

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  7. I love this post! I think it's easy to fall into a mindset of not wanting to try something for fear of doing it wrong, or teaching the horse incorrectly etc. But a dressage instructor can't teach you how to FEEL various movements and so for that you have to try and try again until you get that light bulb moment.

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    1. that is so true! i've heard or read so many times about how we're supposed to apply our aids etc, and really none of it matters if i can't actually physically *feel* it.

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  8. Yeeeeep. I think dressage (and maybe non-obstacle sports in general? but this is the only one I've done) is really prone to this because there's no really clear concrete external objective feedback. If I got to a jump right or wrong, it felt really right or wrong. And there was no taking an extra stride or two (or halfway around the ring) to fiddle; the jump was where it was and I could circle, but that was big information in its own right. Whereas with dressage, it was all feel and increment and no reality-check intrinsic to the task at hand. That is, no reeeaaal pressing need to just get on with it, at least while schooling. So perfectionism was a waaaay easier trap to fall into. Not insurmountable! But easier.

    CUTE horse you got there!

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    1. excellent point - i didn't think of it from that angle, but i think you're right on the money by saying jumping is inherently more 'objective.' did you make if over the fence without knocking it all down? and without dying or feeling like death was imminent? nice job, hang on to that feeling. lol. and also the immobility of jumps - that definitely forces the issue in a way that 'canter at K' doesn't, ya know? good food for thought...

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  9. Such a relatable post! This is a problem for me in general. I am a total perfectionist, and I approach anything new in my life with some level of anxiety, because I feel like I always need to be perfect. I have to constantly remind myself that learning requires doing something incorrectly first, and that failing is absolutely, 100% OK. I'm fortunate in that I have a pretty good "feel" with horses, but that also means that when I'm not getting something right away, or I make mistake after mistake, I really beat myself up. But Riding has also been good for helping me with this issue. Because we are very rarely going to be perfect in every single task. And if you don't remember to breathe and move past mistakes, you'll never get anywhere.

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    1. i'm allllll about moving forward past mistakes, even tho it's usually not that easy... just gotta keep going! that feeling of always needing to be perfect is really not my favorite at all, i just try to remind myself not to let perfection be the enemy of good

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  10. And when you do get it right, it feels SO GOOD.

    Of course, I haven't taken that move to a show yet. SCARY.

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    1. oh man, i live for that feeling of satisfaction when we finally get it right. it's what keeps driving me through all the failsauce lol

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  11. I don't feel that way about most flat work but over fences I do sometimes have stress moments where I feel like I'm going to ruin my nice baby horse and feel like since I can't do it perfect I shouldn't do it at all. Luckily those are mostly fleeting moments.

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    1. ugh yea i don't blame you for feeling that way at all. i *hate* thinking that i might mess up a horse... they're so resilient tho. and Annie is obvi blossoming in your program so you know it can't be all bad ;)

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  12. I felt this way about dressage for a long time; what's the point in practicing canter transitions if your horse is just throwing his head up and flailing into them? You'll just train him to do it that way all the time!!

    I think what changed for me was thinking, "Well, who cares? My horse is old af, he certainly can't get any WORSE" That, and realizing that if I NEVER practice anything, it definitely won't get any better! We're still flailing our way into the canter, but I'm way less worried about it!

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    1. yessssss i love your attitude! that's exactly how i want to think about it too - just keep trying and take it as it comes

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  13. We just talked about this the other day so you know that I agree! There is a need to try and fail before you can try and get it right...just a fine line between that and drilling it when its wrong. BUT you arent doing that and have great instruction to guide you and a pretty amazing pony that gets the answer right pretty quickly.

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    1. true - drilling is usually not the answer haha. but trying almost always *is*. so we keep trying and trying :)

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  14. You have to make mistakes to learn!

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  15. Oh boy. Exactly why I avoided dressage for so many years - it scared me! I seriously did have a coach that taught that you would ruin your horse if you let them do anything imperfectly. I was perpetually confused as to how we were going to bridge the gap between "perfect" and my comfort zone of riding/training fail. Add in that I read too much and I quickly discovered each clinician's idea of perfect varies from the next and I was like 'Nope, even the pros can't figure this one out. This is way too hard for me!"

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    1. ugh i am right there with ya - there was just no way i felt like i could even scratch the surface.... tho actually when i learned that there were so many people doing things so differently, that actually helped me figure out that probably doing things my incorrect ways wouldn't be the end of the world lol

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  16. I Agree!! The language of dressage is so uninformative: On the bit?!? What does that actually mean? I also was terrified of ruining my horse for.ev.er. I found the book by Michael Schaffer (Riding in the Moment) to be incredible helpful in outlining all the little incremental steps required, and inching towards perfection, rather than expecting it to magically happen (good for greenies or greenies to dressage ;)

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    1. oooh that book sounds interesting. i'm all about those small incremental steps otherwise it just gets overwhelming haha

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  17. This is such a great post! You're totally approaching dressage with a great attitude.

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    1. thanks, i hope so! sometimes i feel like a fraud or a total hack - bc i do really want to learn the fundamentals and not just ride to the test... but i also kinda want to enjoy it too and not want to kill myself when we don't get it right

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  18. I've had a similar but less drastic mentality to dressage. I'm not afraid to try new things, but I don't try ENOUGH. The 'perfect' and 'quiet' and 'subtle' mentality of dressage totally gets in my head, so I'm always trying to do things super softly, but since my horse and I are both green she's not nesicarily going to understand the soft and subtle aid yet. So essentially were doing things wrong be I'm not asking clearly or strongly enough yet. Even though I know better now, but trainer still has to get after me sometimes to ask more strongly! I just unconsciously stuck in that soft mentality.

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    1. oooooh yes i do this too!! i want to be all of those things that you say - the soft and subtle etc, yada yada yada... one of my trainers more or less shook it out of me tho, saying not to confuse softness with effectiveness. so now i just try to be effective and hope that it can eventually be refined into something a little more elegant haha

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  19. I hated dressage as a kid. I thought it was cruel and the worst thing ever. Silly naive Mic

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  20. It took me a while of hearing my trainer say repeatedly "if you don't get a response, try something else" before I finally got it. I think I was afraid of "ruining the pony" as you said. But truly, there is nothing I can do in a ride that cannot be resolved in the next one. So I spent last spring and summer on my own trying. And we figured some stuff out. It's a good feeling.

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    1. definitely a good feeling. and one of those feelings that can create a positive upward spiral - we trying something and it works and we feel good, so we feel empowered to try for more and suddenly: progress.

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  21. I regularly struggle with this and shy away from attempting lateral work with my horses because i don't know how to ask - but they know how to do it! I need to get out of my head and expand what i work on with the little darlings so i don't bore us all to tears!

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    1. that was exactly my issue - i was too worried of trying lateral work bc i didn't know how to ask either, and felt like i wasn't coordinated. i still am not the best at asking for it (i tend to sit too far to the outside instead of weighting my inside leg, plus i pull with the inside rein...) but we're getting better with practice!

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  22. I 110% agree with all of this. And this especially hit home: Well, honestly, I avoided anything approaching the idea of "dressage" - it seemed like an enigma, some unattainable mystical mysterious unicorn that was somehow perpetually beyond my reach.

    YES. So much. Couldn't have possibly said it better. And my mindset is much more like yours of late. I totally get your excitement now, too, especially with a trainer like you have! What a great situation and how fun to find a new passion in something you never thought you'd get into.

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    1. it's definitely easy to get excited when someone is helping you make progress lol! i think sometimes that's honestly half the battle - having encouraging / supportive / empowering / whatever peers and trainers that help us believe in ourselves.

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  23. ALL the loves for this post! Yes! Being brave and trying something new is the only way you will learn it, and the more you do it the better you will get at it! You will not ruin your horse by trying to better yourself! You go girl!! ;)

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