Saturday, December 12, 2015

The First Time

Today during our lesson, we did quite a bit of canter work, including attempting counter-canter.  I mentioned a few days ago that I hope we can achieve the counter-canter within a couple of months, and we're actively working toward that goal.  For those unfamiliar with dressage, counter-canter first appears in First Level, Test 3 as part of a shallow loop serpentine.

I had worked with Nimo on counter-canter when we last rode on Thursday night and he did a very passable counter-canter on his left lead on a very shallow loop (we probably came 2-3 meters off of the long side for our loop).  I didn't even attempt it on his right lead - instead, we did something more like a canter drift from the quarter line to the long side.  I just didn't feel like his balance was quite there yet.  But I was really pleased with his work in general, and we ended our session a bit earlier than usual because I could tell he was working really hard.

I mentioned our positive experience in our lesson, and my instructor decided to see if we could reproduce it.  We spent the majority of our 45 minute lesson doing other things, including alternating 10 and 20 meter circles, working on better accuracy with canter-to-trot and trot-to-canter transitions, sitting the trot, asking for canter from sitting trot, serpentines, and a few leg yields.  As we neared the end of the lesson, we started our work on counter-canter. 

Counter-canter is typically introduced on a very shallow loop on the long side of the arena, and that is what we did.  Our first attempt was a disaster.  I completely lost connection with Nimo and after we had moved in toward the center of the arena, Nimo just kept going and cut across the arena in cow horse fashion.  Gaaaa!

So we did a few rebalancing 10 meter circles and I asked for canter again, this time trying to avoid the very forward canter that left Nimo strung out and unbalanced.  We did better.  We probably got 2 strides of something remotely resembling counter-canter.

Then, we switched direction and tried again.  We got slightly better results with maybe 3 strides of something that kind of seemed like it could have been counter-canter.  It wasn't as good as what I'd gotten on Thursday, but it was definitely a decent effort and we're well on our way to achieving my goal (I'm pretty sure Nimo does not consider counter-canter to be on his top 100 goals list).

After we wrapped up our lesson, I got to thinking about what it takes to teach a horse anything.  In my experience, some things seem to come so easy, like the first time I got on Nimo when he was a three-year old.  There was no drama.  He patiently stood still while I climbed on his back, sat for a minute, and then got off.  In fact, there was really no "breaking" process with him.  He accepted a rider from the very first minute and aside from one bucking incident that I have come to believe was the result of my trainer pushing him too much on the lunge line (I was sitting in the saddle), Nimo was pretty easy to get started under saddle.

However, getting him to trot consistently was challenging.  Getting him to canter consistently was so hard, I almost gave up more than once.

Over the years, though, things that once seemed almost insurmountable are becoming old hat.  But there have been new challenges, like riding Nimo for the first time by himself out on the trail (not too big of a deal) and learning half-pass (very much a work in progress).

And it was when I thought of the half-pass that I was reminded of a DVD I watched a few years ago.  It's been long enough that I don't quite remember which one, but I think it was probably either Sensitive Schooling or The Classical Seat by Sylvia Loch.  In it, she's got a rider (I think maybe even a child) on this unimpressive horse/pony.  I think I might have zoned out for a bit, but when she got to the part about teaching half-pass, I perked up.  At the time, learning to do half-pass was a huge goal of mine, and I was curious to see what Loch had to say. 

I think she went over the aids and then said something like, "The first time you ask your horse to do a half-pass, the half-pass will be really awful.  But you have to do it the first time or you're never going to get better."  Then the video claimed to be showing the very first time this horse did a half-pass (at the walk), and you know what?  It was awful.  It was only marginally recognizable as a half-pass.  And I had this huge Ah, Ah! moment.  Of course, the first time was going to be terrible.  The poor horse has never done it before, so how was he supposed to know what was expected?  It's not like half-pass is a simple movement.  Half-pass requires an incredible degree of balance for the horse and connection to the rider to perform well, and there's no way a rider should expect brilliance for the first effort (or even the 10th effort).

So I went out the very next day and asked Nimo to do a half-pass at the walk.  It was probably even more horrible than what the DVD showed, but it was in fact, his first effort at half-pass.  Since then, I intermittently work on it in the walk, and very occasionally, I ask for half-pass in the trot.  Nimo can do a very recognizable half-pass at the walk.  In the trot, we've had limited success a handful of times on really good days.  It honestly isn't as important of a goal for me anymore, although I admit it would be pretty neat to achieve.  So, it's in the back of my mind and we work on it occasionally, and I do believe that we'll get there eventually.

What does this have to do with our counter-canter work?  Well, a lot of times I feel unsure of how to even start dressage movements.  And I've spent years not doing them because I was worried I would really mess things up without professional supervision.  But after I saw that video, I consciously started working on not being so anxious about trying new things under saddle.  Much like I mentioned yesterday when I talked about doing a serpentine in counter-bend, I have no idea what the aids are for counter-canter (poor Ms. Loch would be rolling over in her grave if she were dead about now), but I do know what a counter-canter looks like and feels like, and the first time I ever tried it, I was on my own, just schooling Nimo in the arena.  If my memory is correct, it was a complete fail, but it turned out that I didn't ruin anything.  My horse wasn't broken, I wasn't broken, and the earth continued to turn.  We're still working on the goal of doing the counter-canter correctly and consistently, and I have faith that we'll be able to do it soon.  But we would have never gotten where we are now without doing it that first time.  And when we are someday able to do a beautiful half-pass at the trot (or maybe even the canter!), I have Ms. Loch to thank for pointing out that you have to something that first time or you'll never be able to do it all.


  1. I think there's a message here for other stuff in life. often are we reluctant to try new things because we know the start is going to be "awful?" Maybe Im just speaking for myself. .. Anyway this just goes to prove my general notion that most all things in horsemanship are a metaphor for life. P.S. Ranger and I aspire to do half the awesome things you have been describing this week about your dressage work!

    1. You're absolutely right, Jo. I have a touch of the perfectionism gene, which makes it hard for me to do anything if I think it won't turn out well. But I'm working on loosening up a bit and learning to accept that sometimes things can't be perfect:) Good luck to you and Ranger on your dressage work!