Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Point of No Return

One of the reasons that I hadn't been posting on the blog, especially over the last few months, is because I wasn't sure how my renewed commitment to using Science of Motion principles would be received.  The people commenting on my posts have always been so thoughtful and respectful, even if they disagreed with me.  But I know that the SOM work is probably not that accessible if you are an endurance rider reading these posts or if you train using classical or conventional dressage techniques.  I've seen some pretty vehement arguments occur between SOM and other types of dressage trainers/riders, and I have no interest in being part of that debate through this blog.  I also have no interest in putting other people down or making fun of them because they don't use SOM techniques.  There are a couple of "show-ring" dressage techniques/movements that I am highly critical of, but I think I was critical of those long before I started learning about Science of Motion.

I have always believed and still believe that there is no one Right Answer when it comes to working with your horse.  We are all individuals and so are our horses.  That humans and horses can communicate at all, much less engage in working and competitive partnerships, is truly astonishing.  So if you have found something that works for you, that's awesome.  I'm not here to tell you that you are wrong or that you should change.

Instead, I'm trying to write about what works for me and Nimo and what doesn't.  Right now, Science of Motion is working for us.  I'm planning to start posting about some specific rides/lessons where we've had some break-throughs to help explain why it is working for us now.  But I also want to be clear that I'm not some kind of SOM disciple.  SOM is not for everyone.  It can be a long and tedious process.  It can be hard to think about things in a different way than the way you've thought about them before.  I don't know any SOM students who just leapt into the class and 3 months later had a horse that was winning lots of shows or was performing piaffe and passage.  The SOM journey is years at best and more likely a lifetime commitment.  Students typically come to SOM because they are having some kind of serious problem with their horses that conventional instruction or even medicine isn't helping.  It is sometimes even a last desperate stop for horses whose only other choice is euthanasia.  And I have seen enough footage of the improvement that many of these horses have made to convince me that the techniques are very effective on all but the worst cases.

People who are happy with the way their horses are working probably don't need SOM.  They probably ride well already and their horses don't have any special needs that need to be addressed.  And that's great.  But I wasn't happy with conventional dressage instruction.  It wasn't working for Nimo or me.  It was exhausting and confusing and not helping Nimo be stronger.  Whether that is because I had the misfortune to choose 4 different trainers who were really awful, I don't know, but I had to make a change.

That is not to say that I have never wondered if I made the right change.  I have.  Sometimes on almost a daily basis as I struggled with the complex issues that I'm learning about.  And I think that is OK.  I should be constantly questioning the way I'm working with Nimo and be ready to make changes if something isn't working for him or us.

But there came a time when I knew that SOM was right for us at that time.  It was right around the time I had the difficult conversation with my instructor, so the end of July, probably.  I had hauled to the covered arena that we have our lessons at, and I told my instructor that I really wanted to work more on achieving the collected trot.  We'd been making progress toward it, especially since our clinic with Jean Luc Cornille at the end of April, but the actual, true collection had been frustratingly elusive.

One thing that would help me on that search for collection was the discovery of how to get off my gluts.  It was probably a few weeks before this particular lesson when I had asked if we could work on Pignot jog.  I'll try to do a more comprehensive post about it later, but Pignot jog is basically a slow, controlled jog trot that is used for conditioning purposes.  It is balanced, but not collected.  And it is likely the main gait I would use out on the trails for endurance riding.  I wanted to check to make sure our work in that area was correct so we did a few laps in the arena for my instructor to watch.  Somehow through that process, my instructor and I realized there was a solution for the way I was sitting during regular work.

You see, when I was doing Pignot jog, I was using my half seat position because that is the best way I've found to efficiently get down the trail riding the crazy, Friesian trot that Nimo often produces.  Posting is exhausting and sitting is impossible.  It turns out that the half seat I was using was a bridge to the type of seat I needed to adopt for regular work.  My instructor saw that during the lesson, and I experimented with shifting my balance a bit before finally settling on something that seemed to give me good balance.  It was definitely a eureka moment that allowed me to resume forward progress.

With my seat in better shape, I was able to work more on achieving collected trot.  And so it was at the end of July, toward the end of our lesson, that Nimo and I got our first steps of true collection at the trot.  We'd been working on very slowly walking to make sure Nimo was in good balance before moving into the trot.  It's always a bit of a challenge to slow him down once he knows what we are working on.  He has a tendency to anticipate and get right to the more advanced work.  So my instructor was asking me to do full, large pirouettes off the rail to help Nimo slow and balance himself without me having to pull on the reins (something we try to avoid at all costs and is incredibly hard to do!)  Each time as we approached the rail from the pirouette, I would ask for a trot.  The trot steps got better and better and then it just happened.  Lightness.

I don't think I'll ever forget that moment because it was the first time I ever experienced true lightness while riding a horse (except possibly the one time Nimo did a levade when he was 4-years-old because a herd of polo ponies was galloping toward us - I was too scared to appreciate it, though!).  I don't know that I even have the right words to describe it.  Nothing really changed in the way I was sitting.  My reins didn't all of sudden go slack.  Nimo's weight didn't dramatically shift to his hind end.  None of the things happened that I thought might happen if I imagined how Nimo might collect himself.  It was just as if, in a nano-second, Nimo was carrying himself in a new way.  My rein contact was still the same as it was a second before in terms of the way it looked, but the weight was just...gone.  It felt like we could do anything.  It was effortless.  Sitting was effortless.  Steering was effortless.  It was, without a doubt, the most amazing experience I've ever had on a horse.

We worked on just a few steps at a time and were able to reproduce our effort maybe 3 more times before it was clear that Nimo was tired, so we ended the lesson.  Ever since that day, that feeling of lightness is what keeps me going when I'm not sure what I'm doing or can't figure out the solution to a problem that I'm working on with Nimo.  (It turns out that reproducing the collection was not as easy as I'd hoped!).  For me, those few steps of collected trot really were a point of no return.  I can never go back to working on dressage the way I used to because the way I was working on dressage didn't offer a path to get where we got that day.  Everything was about speed without a thought for balance, and I can see now that Nimo needs balance more than anything else to be able to perform more advanced movements.  Yes, he can rocket down the trail at a 12 mph trot, but it isn't doing anything for his balance.

Now I can never think of riding Nimo like I used to.  That feeling of lightness is addictive.  That it is difficult to achieve and requires effort from me like nothing else is not a deterrent because I know how valuable it is for Nimo.  If he is balanced and strong, there is less likelihood that he will experience injury or if it does, it will be easier for him to recover.  And the ease of communication!  Wow!  My goal is for us to be able to communicate like that all the time.  I fantasize about just trotting down the trail with Nimo in that state of lightness.  I don't think anything could be more fulfilling (except possibly doing that while completing an endurance ride!).

So I am committed to continuing to work with my instructor, who is really more of a mentor now.  Over the summer, I was able to improve enough that our lessons really are a partnership as we try to figure out how to help Nimo and me be the best partners that we can be.  It isn't easy at all.  In fact, I've had some moments where I wondered if I should be riding a horse at all.  But I've also had moments where I knew that everything I'd struggled with had been worth it.

My journey with Nimo is definitely taking an unexpected direction, and it is one that I'm not sure will resonate with everyone.  If it doesn't resonate with you, that's OK.  You do you.  But if something that I write helps motivate someone or help someone overcome a problem, that's great too.  From here on out, the waters ahead are murky.  I wrote about my plan for going forward a couple of days ago, and it probably sounded like I had something more concrete in my head.  But I really don't.  I am the kind of person who must have a plan to proceed or I feel lost, but I know that the substeps are unknown in some cases.  Like how do I get a horse fit enough to do a jog trot for 25 miles?  And if I do, how will I finish the 25 miles at a 5 mph pace or faster?  I don't know the answers to those questions, and there isn't anyone who can answer them for me.  I just have to try.  If you decide to stay here with me for my journey or even check in from time to time, I would love nothing more.  But if you decide that it looks like my path doesn't make sense to you, that's OK too.  I think the best any of us can do is to try to find a way to work with our horses that keeps us and them sane and healthy.


  1. I'm glad you've found a method that works for you and Nimo. Your excitement is almost tangible and it makes me really happy for you. =)

  2. Can you talk about your feelings about the dressage training pyramid? Here in Germany they don't call it the dressage pyramid, it's just the training pyramid. I've often wondered why rhythm comes before relaxation.

    1. Hi lytha, I would be happy to talk about my feelings:) It turns out that I have so many of them, I created a whole post just about the training pyramid that I will post shortly:)

  3. Dude. I think this is SO COOL and you should totally write about it more (when you have time! :) I know that it's at a premium for you.) Precisely because it's different: it might not resonate with everyone in the sense that it's something that they might to try because a lot of people prefer to stay with what's mainstream and comfortable (which is fine too.) But sometimes the mainstream stuff doesn't work for everyone and it's good to know there are other choices! :D

    This *did* resonate with me *lots.* When we lived in FL I took a Lightness Foundation clinic with Manuel Trigo and it was very, very similar to SOM. He taught it as his own version of French classical dressage, with a focus on collection by establishing what almost felt like a telepathic connection with the horse. In the shades of gray between SOM and French classical dressage, it was maybe a shade or two closer to French classical than SOM, but close enough to SOM that I could understand what you're describing. I loved your video from the SOM post because it was SO much like what I learned at that Lightness clinic! I pursued it for a long time with Lily because it was the riding style that she responded best to, and it was what made me turn away from competitive dressage. I eventually switched to endurance because I wanted to be able to compete in an equestrian sport again. I would have stuck with the Lightness Foundation principles longer if I'd had access to trainers local to me. (Manuel is established way out west so East coast clinics were very few and far between.) It's wonderful that you are able to pursue this with your instructor!!!

    1. Thanks for sharing, Nicole! I thought I recognized some of the things in your position that I've been learning about (particularly in that last set of photos you posted of Gracie). I'm really glad to hear that there are other trainers out there in the same realm as SOM. The more I learn about the French philosophy of dressage, the more I think that it is very valuable. Jean Luc Cornille was part of the Cadre Noir, so he definitely has that French background. And I occasionally ride with a lady who had the opportunity to ride at a French riding academy while she was growing up. While what she learned isn't identical to SOM, there are a lot of similarities. It makes me sad sometimes to think of all this knowledge out there that most Americans never have access to because apparently anyone can be a riding instructor. It's not so much that I think everything in the French way is right, but there is a lot of good stuff that I wish I had learned more about before the last couple of years.