Monday, February 18, 2019

In search of perfection

One thing that I always got frustrated with during my years working on conventional dressage with Nimo is that it seemed like there was this expectation that the first time you asked for a movement, you were supposed to get something really good.  That is, of course, quite illogical.  I think it is a rare thing that the first time any human or animal tries to do something, whether it is walking or reading or climbing or skipping, that it is perfect or at least close to it.  Instead, we must try over and over again and some may spend years or even their whole lives trying to perfect a skill.  Yet, in dressage instruction, it is hard to find images of something less than really good.  There are probably thousands of books and videos that show how to do something right (and occasionally how to do something wrong), but it is unusual to find instructions that show the process of going from something that is a first effort to something that is perfect.  I can only remember ever seeing something that showed a first effort once.  It was a Sylvia Loch video where she showed what looked like an 8-year-old kid on a pony attempting half-pass at the walk for the first time.  It was barely recognizable as half-pass, but it may well be the single most defining instructional video I ever watched because it showed a first attempt.  And Ms. Loch's voiceover talked about how you have to start from something and improve it instead of expecting perfection from the beginning.  After I saw that video, I started working on half-pass with Nimo.  This was years ago, so I didn't really know what I was doing, but I remember it was so empowering to think that if some 8-year old on a pony could try half-pass, so could we!

But with all the expensive horses bred exclusively for their beautiful, dressage-worthy gaits shown over and over on Facebook and Instagram and the internet, it can be hard for the average person with the average horse to visualize the process of dressage training.  I spent years stuck in a place where I thought Nimo could never do anything beyond a basic walk, trot, and canter.  He is a Friesian and not bred for dressage, so there is a limit to what he can do, right?  Even after I started Science of Motion, I really didn't hold out much hope that we would be able to do much beyond improving the basics.  One thing that kept me going, though, was all the videos people posted on the In-Hand Therapy Course Facebook forum.  Here I was seeing the true process, from first steps to small successes to true lightness.  I would watch these videos and sometimes see my own struggles and other times see things I aspired to create on my own.  But the most valuable thing is that the videos show the process.  The first steps of anything, whether it is piaffe or canter half-pass, don't look like the end goal, and seeing those first steps on a regular basis reminds me that achieving perfection is a process.

You may remember that at the beginning of this year, I set a goal for us to learn how to piaffe.  I made that goal from about the same place that I made my goal of doing endurance riding with Nimo.  I had read some books, watched some videos, and had a general idea of what the end point was supposed to look like without a lot of knowledge about the intermediate steps.  So it was all well and good for me to set the goal, but when it came to coming up with a plan for getting there, I was kind of at a loss beyond continuing our work at the collected trot.  Thankfully, I have a great instructor, who has a whole lot of patience and problem-solving skills:)

So I thought I would take some time today to write about the progress Nimo and I have been making in our Science of Motion work.  A couple of weeks ago, we had a really amazing lesson and our collected trot had improved enough that my instructor asked if we wanted to work on piaffe because she thought were ready.  Of course!  I was so excited to try, but I had no clue how we would approach it.  The traditional approach to teaching piaffe (in the US, at least) seems to be for a ground person to use a whip to tap the horse's hind legs while the rider does something else (I've never figured out exactly what - maybe ask for some movement?).  My sense is that tapping with the whip is supposed to somehow help the horse figure out to lift his legs and stay in place, but I will admit that I really don't understand that process and I've never had any instruction on it.  So if it is something you are familiar with, I hope you'll forgive my ignorance on the topic.

Science of Motion does not use a ground person with a whip.  In fact, I'm not sure that there is a standard approach to teaching piaffe.  During my lesson, my instructor said she used a walk pirouette to really collect her horse to help set him up for piaffe and then asked for basically a trot in place coming out of the pirouette.  He had been taught using the traditional US approach first, though, so she had a bit of a challenge to help him understand what she was looking for.

Nimo has never had any formal training in piaffe, so figuring out how to communicate the concept of trotting in place would be a series of educated guesses that would be refined given his feedback.  First, we did try walk pirouettes, but I wasn't able to get him collected enough to try piaffe.  So then we just worked on really collecting the walk while on a circle.  That was a lot more effective and I was able to ask for piaffe from a super collected walk.  Probably not surprisingly, Nimo was pretty confused about the idea of trotting in place and gave me his version of passage instead.  For those unfamiliar with dressage, the passage is considered an advanced form of trotting, much like piaffe.  It is a very elevated, collected trot, with a lot of suspension.

When it happened, I remember saying to my instructor, "It feels like piaffe, but there is still forward movement.  Are we on the right track?"  And she laughed and said, "That's passage!"  And all I could think was, "Wow!"  (In fact, I pretty much spent the next day wanting to shout at random people that we passaged!  It's possible that my husband got a bit tired of me talking about it...)  I'm sure that Nimo didn't look like the horses you might see at international competitions performing passage, but it was a pretty cool feeling.  And it really wasn't that hard to get, likely because Nimo and I have been developing a system of communication that isn't based on specific rules or aids.  I didn't do something special with my legs or my arms or a whip or spurs (in fact I don't wear spurs and while I do carry a whip and use it occasionally, I didn't feel any need to use it during this process).  Instead, we are learning to communicate using the tone of my body.  So when I need him to collect, I try to really firm up my abs and the whole front of my upper body.  I have no idea which muscles I'm using, so I couldn't give you a scientific explanation of what I'm doing.  It is more of a feeling (I get that that probably sounds a bit woo-woo from someone who is trying to use science to ride better, but I don't have a better way of explaining it).

And the feeling didn't come from me just getting on the horse and thinking, "OK, I have to collect him now."  Because it isn't that simple.  The feeling came from what is now years worth of effort on my part to try to figure out how the changes in my body affect him.  Essentially Nimo is my textbook.  I expect that if I got on another horse and tried the same thing with my body, it would either be less effective or not work at all because I wouldn't have put in the time to work with that horse.  The principles of how I use my body apply generally to other horses, but each horse is going to have a specific way of responding and might require more or less tone or other shifts in my position based on its training history, conformation, physical asymmetries, and preferences.  Identifying the specific way to communicate with any horse requires a certain base of knowledge and experience, but it also requires trial and error and a willingness to experiment a bit to figure out what works best for the individual horse.  This concept is so opposite from what is typically taught in lessons that I probably spent more time working on letting go of the formulas for aids then I did on figuring out how to use my body to communicate with Nimo.

I've started to think of riding a bit more like pairs figure skating or ballroom dancing.  There are technical things to know, like what a half-pass is and what cantering looks like, as well as a certain familiarity with my own body.  But there is this back-and-forth communication that can't be defined very well and that is the result of day after day of practicing and really paying attention how Nimo responds to things that I do.  I've never skated with anyone and my dancing skills are limited, but I remember from a few dance classes and lessons I've taken that the technical information can only get you so far before the two dancers have to figure out a way to work together to execute the movements.

So the passage Nimo and I got during the lesson was the result of a lot of things coming together.  My understanding of what we were trying to do (the piaffe), my instructor giving me some ideas and feedback about how to approach the problem (how to tell Nimo I wanted him to trot in place), and Nimo and I communicating with each other.  If I had to write out our dialogue, it might look something like this:

Me: OK, so you need to walk a lot slower.

Nimo: Is this slow enough?

Me: No, even slower.

Nimo: You're kidding me.  This is the slowest I can go.

Me: Well, I think you can go slower.  Try elevating your withers a bit.

Nimo: OK, how about this?

Me: Better!  Yes, that is the idea.  Now try trotting.

Nimo: You are insane!  That is impossible!  I can't do that!

Me: Yes, you can.  Just try it.

Nimo: I don't know how to go forward.

Me: Move your legs like you are trotting.

Nimo: Ga! This is so hard!

Me: I know, but you're doing it!  Keep trotting, but try to slow down.

Nimo: Grunt, grunt, grunt.

Me: Yay! You can take a break.

Nimo: I'm totally awesome!

Me: Yes, yes, you are:)

I think some people would have been tempted to keep working at getting the piaffe, but we didn't do any more that day.  For one thing, Nimo didn't really know the end goal.  He responded to my body absolutely correctly, given his base of knowledge.  He gave me more collection than he'd ever given and he basically performed a new movement and has a new understanding of how his own body can move.  I'll use that new understanding to help bridge the gap between passage and piaffe over the next days, weeks, and months to help him figure out what I want him to do.  (Teachers might use words like bridging or scaffolding to describe this kind of process.)

Over the next week, I continued work on explaining the concept of piaffe to Nimo.  I still wasn't completely successful, but the idea of passage did seem to be taking hold.  Unfortunately, I hit a week-long stretch where I wasn't able to ride, either because of the weather or my schedule, and with that much time off, it seems like it takes us a couple of rides to get back in sync with each other again.

We had another lesson yesterday, and I was really hoping to be able to get a video of us attempting piaffe, but we ended up working on a couple of other things instead.  My instructor really wants to get us focused on collected canter.  Collected canter is our nemesis, which my instructor knows very well, and she has, I think, decided that we might need a bit of pushing, which is OK, and probably necessary for our advancement.  I admit that the idea of piaffe is much easier for us than collected canter and I possibly don't work on collected canter as much as I should.

But before we could do anything, we had to address Nimo's use of his left hind leg.  He typically has a tendency to leave it on the ground a bit too long.  Some people might be tempted to think he has a stifle issue, but in reality, it is the coordination of his back that is the root of the problem.  If he coordinates his back and bends through his thoracic area, the stifle "problem" miraculously goes away.  For whatever reason, he was struggling a bit more than usual (perhaps the time off he'd had), so we spent the better part of half an hour working on shoulder-in and walk pirouettes to help him achieve better coordination.  We also sprinkled in a little collected trot.  When we finally had him moving well, we tackled the collected canter.

It was brutal.  Nimo is too dramatic.  I'm too dramatic.  But my instructor is nothing if not patient and determined, so she kept working with us.  And pointed out that we were giving up too soon.  (At least we were giving up as a team?)  So I worked on keeping myself together so Nimo would learn from me, hopefully.  And after what seemed like about 8 hours, we finally got what was 7-8 strides of really decent canter.

Part of my problem is that I have trouble recognizing Nimo's collected canter when it happens because it feels flat to me.  His canter has been so dramatic and full of upward movement for so long, that to feel practically nothing confuses me.

However, we made a little more progress on Nimo's collected trot in this same lesson, and I realized that his collected trot feels like nothing too.  In fact, at one point, I stopped him because I couldn't even tell what he was doing.  I had to ask my instructor if he was trotting because I could tell he was moving forward, but I had no idea at what gait.  It didn't feel like anything I'd ever felt before and I thought he might have suddenly turned into a pacer.  It was so smooth and effortless.

I had always assumed that there was a lot of work involved in collected gaits, and I guess there is in the sense that you have to do all this preparation to get the horse to the point where his body is ready to handle the collection and the rider is knowledgeable enough to ask for it.  But the actual collection itself feels almost effortless.  My brain is having some trouble with this concept.  And so is my body.  If I'm not struggling to balance and sit the trot, I feel like something is wrong because I spent so many years riding the equine equivalent of a jackhammer and being told that I simply needed to figure out how to control my body to handle all that movement.  (My favorite is when the instructor I had at the time told me that I had to keep sitting the trot for long enough that my body became exhausted and relaxed enough to handle the movement.  If your instructor gives you advice like this, you may want to get a new one.  It apparently never occurred to her that Nimo's movement didn't have to be reminiscent of a jackhammer.  That if it felt like that, we needed to work on changing it.  How awful that so many horses and riders are going through this when they don't have to!)  So when there is no movement, my body is at a loss about what to do.  As I discovered (and you can see for yourself in a bit), my body will try to bounce anyway because it doesn't know what else to do.

After we finished our work on collected canter, we went back to collected trot and worked on improving it.  I asked my instructor to take a short video so I could see what we looked like because I was honestly having trouble imagining what we looked like based on what I was feeling.

When I saw the video, I was really surprised by two things: how fast we were going (I would have sworn that we were going half the speed we really were) and how much I was still moving in the saddle.  I have spent a considerable amount of time training my body to be still at the walk, and although I spotted a few bobbles in the video, I think I'm well on my way to getting the hang of it.  For the trotting, though, I can see that I have some work to do convincing my body that it doesn't need to be moving around so much.

If you watch the video, you'll see 3 or 4 canter transitions.  Those are all Nimo.  I didn't ask him for them.  I think he still wanted to work on canter, so he added in a few transitions on his own when he felt like he could handle them.  That is fine, and you'll see that I don't correct him.  I simply let him do his thing and then we go back to collected trot work.

Our search for perfection is still very much underway, but I hope sharing part of our process is helpful or at least interesting.  There are times when he is overbent or going too fast or not coordinated enough.  All those moments are part of our search for perfection, and without going through them, we won't ever get better.  Mistakes are simply part of the process and we use them as feedback for what we can improve.


  1. I keep trying to comment and it will not work, probably cuz of my new computer who is quirky. I LOVE this video. It is thoroughly relaxing to watch. Your horse is willing, your body is ready, and you guys dance.

    1. Oh thank you so much, lytha! I have a tendency to see all the flaws, so getting some independent feedback is lovely:) I really do feel like we are starting to move together much of the time now, and it is such a wonderful feeling!