Sunday, August 21, 2011

Ugly Riding

I used to have my horses at a place with both dressage and jumpers.  I was talking with one of the young ladies in training with the jumper instructor one day when the subject of different riding styles came up.  She said something to the effect of "dressage riders are all so 'handsy'".  I found this statement to be terribly amusing, because she was riding in a pelham with a martingale.  I wouldn't be 'handsy' in that getup, either.  You'd get yourself killed! 

Dressage riders do have a reputation of being 'handsy'.  Some of it's deserved, some misunderstood.  My hands move quite a bit when I ride.  I move them up and down my horse's neck, I shift them from side to side, slide them up and down the reins, I lower them and raise them and squeeze my fists on the reins, all to get a desired response from my horse.  It isn't pretty and you'll never see a Grand Prix rider in a show doing it, but it is a part of training.  And that's the difference:  "show" versus "training"...

Dressage is about the pursuit of beauty and harmony.  The goal of training a horse, as many Classicists have stated, is to make him more beautiful in his movements and carriage.  This does not, however, mean that the in-between stages are beautiful.  But, that's something most people don't see.  It's normal practice to have a horse training at least one level higher than you're showing, so the "ugly" stays at home.  That's really a shame.  There is so much to be learned from the "ugly riding".

  I learned that it was OK to be temporarily "ugly" by being in professional training barns.  I saw many of the Big Name Trainers working many horses at many different levels on a daily basis.  I saw some seriously ugly riding, but at the end of every ride the beauty came through and the rides ended in harmony.  There are many people out there who don't have exposure to training barns.  They only see the show work.  The shows are nice, and they are something to aspire to, but they don't show the whole picture.  I have the same problem with many of the "Classical" works of literature: they are illustrating the ideal, but not necessarily the reality.   I aspire to be like the Classicists, but I know it is a long, hard, ugly road to get there.  Most of us are not riding horses we have bred and started ourselves, nor do we have the benefit of many years of correct classical training.  We are re-training horses or struggling to learn in less than perfect scenarios.  We will be ugly, and that's OK.

I've been thinking about this subject a lot lately, because right now my situation is ugly.  It is familiar to me, because I've been through physical therapy before.  That is the way these things go, my muscles need to learn a new way to be and that makes things painful and ugly.  My back feels worse than it has in years, and I'd love to give up now... but I know that once I've pushed through this I will feel better.  My muscles will learn how to support my spine and I will eventually feel better.

Because I am a horseman at heart, I can't help but apply these things to my relationship with horses.  Sometimes our horses balk at what we ask them to do.  Sometimes they refuse.  I am sure it's because the work is hard and they hurt.  But, I have educated myself in their training, their behavior, their physiology and their biomechanics and I know that what I'm asking is in their best interest.  It is with that knowledge that I can ask my horse to push through his pain.  He doesn't understand why I'm asking for these things now, but I have cultivated his trust.  He trusts in me, and I know that on the other side of his hesitation and pain there is good, correct work.  It is with this knowledge and confidence that I move forward, both with my horse's training and with my own physical therapy.  No matter how "ugly" things get.


  1. I totally agree. Sometimes training is ugly and tough and not really pretty. You have to push through those moments to get results. Well said.

  2. What do you mean when you say push through his pain. Why is he in pain?

  3. Lori- Thanks for asking! I shoud have been more clear.

    By "pain" I simply mean the normal muscle fatigue and soreness that goes along with training. Just like we feel tired and wrung out after a particularly difficult lesson, our horses feel the same. Sometimes, when the work is difficult and the horse is a bit sore, we need to push through that resistance to get the correct movement.

    By using the phrase "pushing through the pain", I was drawing a paralell between my own physical therapy and the correct training of the horse. I have allowed myself to use my body incorrectly. My incorrect movement was easier and caused less pain in the short term, but is now causing my spine to break down and I am once again in pain. And I have to fix it, which is also painful. It is the same with training a horse. While correct training is tiring and causes discomfort (pain) in the short term, that short term discomfort will result in a horse that stays sound and comfortable in the long run.

  4. D'oh! I spelled "parallel" wrong.

  5. Shannon--I don't mean to sound cheesy, but you really are an inspiration to me, a blogger in another state you've never even seen in person. I'm incredibly impressed by your ability to push through the pain and obstacles and keep doing what you love. Keep it up!

  6. Well put. A revelation was seeing the Spanish Riding School in a special demo training session in Philadelphia. Master rider riding a green horse with his hands spread wide to get the horse to reach for the bit. Decidedly not the classical approach, but one I have often used...that day seen in the hands of a master.

  7. I like your comparison. That's one of the things I love about dressage because I think it's the only sport (I may be wrong) that teaches the horse to use him/herself correctly. Yes they will get sore and some of it will be hard, but it's all worth it in the end. And the fact that they trust us enough to do it is what I love about horses. :D


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