I had also originally been hoping that we would be able to do impressive things like piaffe and passage, but our struggle with Nimo's left hind leg meant that we weren't as prepared to engage in that level of collection. And I was kind of bummed about that. In fact, I was kind of bummed about my riding in general. Something didn't feel right and I couldn't put my finger on it.
But, I'd signed up for the clinic, and I'd told my instructor I would be happy to take the first session of the day on both days of the clinic. Apparently, it is hard to find people willing to ride in that spot, probably because it means they have to get up early in the morning. But I decided that the sacrifice of sleep was worth the ability to warm up without another rider in the ring (I always worry that I will get in the way of the lesson). And I would have most of the day left after my ride, so I could audit the remaining clinic or get other stuff done. (As it turned out, I would need to get other stuff done, but more about that later.)
I hadn't really thought through exactly how early I would need to get up, though, until the day before the clinic, when I realized I would need to be up at 4:15 am. I mentally kicked myself a few times and then resigned myself to my fate.
I don't really have a clear memories of that morning because I was in a bit of a fog, but apparently I managed to get up on time, get out to the barn on time, and even get Nimo properly groomed and braided. I had spent the better part of the previous week body clipping him, because the amount of filth in his remaining winter coat was becoming too much for me to bear. He was shedding out, but it wasn't fast enough, and extremely warm evenings were predicted for the foreseeable future, so I decided to shave off all his hair except on his lower legs. I even gave him a full bath and detangled his mane and tail, which had begun to resemble rats' nests. Filthy, uninhabitable rats' nests...
I made it to the clinic location with plenty of time to spare. That meant I could take my time getting Nimo saddled and hopefully reduce the nervousness that I always seem to develop before clinics. I'm not sure why I get nervous. I've ridden with Jean Luc before and he is a very easy man to work with. The venue is easy to get around and very quiet. But I guess I worry that I won't represent myself or my horse or my instructor very well.
Anyway, I headed over to the arena to warm up for a few minutes before my ride time and I realized that the extreme wind that we were experiencing that morning was making enough noise that Nimo was pretty distracted and even worse, tense. I tried to keep him as calm as I could, but there was no doubt that we would have to spend a significant time working with him just on focusing on the ride instead of the wind.
Jean Luc watched us walk around for a few minutes and I also asked Nimo to trot a little. (I didn't even try for canter because I'm not suicidal...) Then he came over and talked to me for a bit. I don't remember everything he said, but one of the things he did was raise his index finger and ask me to place one of my fingers against it, applying just enough pressure to keep the fingers connected. Then he proceeded to increase and decrease the tone in various parts of his body, and he asked me what I felt.
It was kind of an amazing little exercise. I could absolutely tell just with my finger when his body was toned and balanced versus when it wasn't, even though someone just watching us would not have seen any obvious changes in his body. The point of the exercise was to illustrate just how nuanced the connection between a horse and rider can be. If I could feel Jean Luc's body changing through a single finger, then imagine what my horse was feeling through my hands, seat, and legs! It was a pretty meaningful exercise for me, and it reminded me a bit of some of the work that Mark Rashid does with his clinics. Horses are incredibly sensitive and have the ability to perceive far more than we give them credit for.
Nimo was having a tough time bending through his thoracic area (not uncommon for Nimo or most horses, really), so Jean Luc asked me to start by putting Nimo on a small circle (probably a 10 m diameter or even a bit smaller) and asking for counter bend. I'm really not sure why it is referred to as counter bend, because the focus is really on the flexing the horse's poll slightly to the outside of the circle rather than trying to create a bend through the body, but it has always been an effective tool for Nimo, even before I started working on Science of Motion techniques.
Essentially, the counter bend creates a problem (i.e., the horse is not bending on the circle) that needs a solution (i.e. the horse needs to bend on the circle). It's kind of a circular logic (pun intended! ha,ha!), but it definitely seems to help Nimo. We worked on the counter bend for a while, maybe 10 minutes, and once I had gained more influence over Nimo's body and he was really tuned in to me, Jean Luc asked me to switch to the correct bend on the circle. Once we had correct bend on the circle, Jean Luc asked me to use a large pirouette (basically a half-pass on this small circle that we were working on). The pirouette was intended to give Nimo the opportunity to really bend through his thoracic area, which would allow him to create the correct coordination and balance for his body.
When Jean Luc thought we'd achieved good results, he asked me to trot Nimo. We struggled with that part a bit because Nimo kept wanting to canter. He would trot a few strides then canter a couple of strides, then trot, then canter, etc. I knew exactly why we were having that issue, though. I have been trying to retrain Nimo that his cue for canter is my inside leg instead of my outside leg going back because moving my outside leg affects my balance in the saddle. But for this exercise, I was using my inside leg a lot as a point of reference for Nimo to use for where he needed to bend. He was probably a bit confused.
We did get some nice trot work, though, and then switched to going in the other direction. I was kind of worried about that, because we'd started going to the right, which is definitely an easier direction for Nimo. And while I thought I'd resolved the issue Nimo had been having with his left hind, I kind of wondered if it might manifest itself again. But Nimo actually picked up the exercises to the left much more quickly to the left than he had the right. Our 45 minute session ended too soon, though, and I was glad I had signed up for a second session.
I ended up only staying for a few minutes after our ride. Late one night about 3 weeks before the clinic, I got the brilliant idea that planting an Osage orange tree hedge out at our acreage would be a great idea, and I was enabled by the ease of ordering 300 bare root trees online at about 11 pm. I hadn't been sure when the trees would arrive from the nursery, but it turned out that they came the day before the clinic and both the box and the instructions proclaimed in bold letters that the trees "must be planted IMMEDIATELY!!!" So, I had my work cut out for me to try to get to the clinic and figure out how to get 300 trees planted quickly. (I'll probably write another post about how that worked out, because it isn't as easy as it sounds...)
The next day, I slept in until 4:30 am (oh, the luxury!) and still managed to get Nimo groomed and braided and tacked up well before our ride time of 8:30.
|I still identify as an endurance rider and I love that we can use an English-style saddle with a western bridle:)|
We went straight to working on the pirouette without first going through the counter bend and circle exercises. I spent my time trying to make subtle adjustments in my body based on the feedback Jean Luc was giving me. Which was mostly letting me know when each leg was connecting with the ground and when I lost the bend.
After a few minutes of working, Jean Luc had me take a break. (That is kind of normal for him, I think. He likes to observe and provide some feedback and then he gives what I think of as a mini-lecture related to what he sees.) I can't remember exactly what he said, because he said one thing that sort of took my breath away, like he could see into my head. It was something along the lines of, "You have to ride with your heart."
You may remember that I have been struggling a bit with a feeling of "something just isn't right." well, when I heard the word "heart," I realized the thing that wasn't right was that my heart wasn't in my riding. I was trying to address problems. I was analyzing my position and Nimo's movement. But I wasn't feeling anything except negative feelings like frustration and irritation and aggravation and sadness and regret and even anger. I wasn't enjoying my rides. I was just going through the motions.
Jean Luc followed up his little bombshell with a pretty technical discussion of how the pirouette works as a tool to help horses with their balance and coordination. I really don't remember the specifics because he was throwing a lot of numbers and theory at me, but what I understood is that the pirouette is an incredibly complex exercise. It requires a whole bunch of body parts to basically work together perfectly, both for the horse and the rider. And the horse and the rider have to match each other's movement too. By the time he was done explaining how everything could go wrong, I was feeling ready to throw myself and Nimo a party for still being upright, much less accomplishing a few steps of correct pirouette.
And then he pointed out how it can take a really long time to achieve consistently correct balance and coordination. It isn't something that can be accomplished in days or weeks or months. It takes years and years. In our culture in the U.S., I think immediate gratification has become so common in the horse world. I mean, if you have enough money, you can buy a "made" horse. Or you can pay a trainer to make the horse for you, and all you have to do is get on and ride and show and collect your ribbons. Very few people really put in the sweat and blood and tears to go from a beginner horse to a finished one (assuming a horse is ever really finished). And we expect horses to just know things. We expect even beginner level horses to be able to change leads over fences. We expect 3-year-old horses to go to horse shows with lots of noise and distractions and perform at their best. We expect young horses to go out on rugged trails and trot and canter over hills and rocks and streams.
I know very few riders who really put in the effort to educate themselves or their horses. In fact, just a few days ago, I was just talking to a rider whose horse is jumping 3-foot fences. She was wondering if maybe she should try to do some flat work with him instead of jumping all the time, but she found the flatwork unpleasant because the horse is "lazy" and she doesn't enjoy constantly kicking him around the arena. I tried to gently point out that doing the flatwork on a regular basis with a good instructor might actually help the horse to not feel lazy and help the work feel more pleasant, but I suspect the rider will continue to simply jump her horse. After all, why would she do the flat work when her horse is athletic enough on his own to jump 3-foot fences and win blue ribbons for her?
I'm not sure if Jean Luc knew how much his talk with me had affected me, but hearing the idea about riding with my heart as well as the much-needed reminder that I am not in this for immediate gratification took up a huge part of my brain not just for the remainder of our lesson, but for weeks afterward.
We went back to working on the pirouette and Jean Luc said he would tell me when he thought I was "in the zone." That meant that Nimo was moving really well and it would be appropriate for me to ask for trot. However, the decision to ask for trot would be mine. He explained that I could feel far better than he could see if Nimo was ready for trot. So he would let me know when the conditions looked right, but I needed to use my own feelings (my heart, if you will) to decide if we should keep walking or move into trot.
|Nimo and I are working on bend|
We worked on that exercise for awhile, and Nimo's trot really improved and we both started working well together. Jean Luc then told me to just keep trotting straight (in shoulder-in) until I felt the movement start to deteriorate. At that point, I should do a quick turn to rebalance and then continue in shoulder-in straight until Nimo needed rebalancing.
The more we did the exercise, the better we got. We were able to trot for longer stretches without needing a turn for rebalancing and our hexagon turned into a square and then a triangle and then mostly straight lines. We changed directions and got similar results.
I was putting in a pretty good effort at that point and was getting out-of-breath, so I was kind of thankful when our time was up. But it was a good stopping point, too. Nimo and I were working well together and the quality of his trot was really nice. Jean Luc complimented me at the end of my lesson and said I was doing really well. I don't think he would have said that if he didn't think it was true, and it was nice to hear. It's also a credit to my instructor, who has been working with me and guiding me. And it is especially a credit to Nimo, who is the poor soul who is having to work so hard to figure out how to change his movement and listen to me, even when I'm probably less than clear and he has no idea what the objective is.
So my lesson ended on a really great note. I took Nimo back to the trailer and got him untacked and set up with a snack, while I headed back to the arena to watch the next rider. I had to work on planting those dratted Osage orange trees later in the day, but I at least wanted to watch one other rider before I left.
The rider after me was a fellow In-Hand Therapy Course student, but newer to the program. She was riding my instructor's horse, who is quite lovely and very experienced with SOM. What was interesting to me was watching this rider's position. She was still holding herself quite stiff and lacking in confidence, and the horse's movement reflected that. I very much remember being in that phase myself, and it was a reminder about how far we've come in the past couple of years. I also caught a glimpse of the rider after her (not an IHTC student), who was still following the methodology of using your body and hands to "follow the horse's movement." I used to do that too. I was struck by how obscene it looks to me know. There is absolutely no reason to engage in that much movement on the back of your horse. Good riders should look still and in harmony with their horses, not like they are taking an aerobics class. But having been there myself, I understand that once you get used to riding like that, you don't even notice what you are doing and you may even think that you are being still. Another reminder of how far we've come.
When I reflect on the clinic, I'm so glad that I rode in two sessions. It was wonderful to have the time to work through the exercises at a pace that was right for us. We never felt rushed, and I had enough time to repeat the process of getting it wrong and then getting it right over and over, which helped to develop muscle memory for both Nimo and me. It was well worth my early mornings.
But I was still struggling with something. After the clinic, I hardly rode, even though I couldn't stop thinking about the concept of "riding with my heart." When I rode, nothing felt right to me. The saddle felt wrong, my stirrups felt wrong, Nimo felt wrong. There was no connection and I felt constantly out of balance. I couldn't understand why I felt like that. After all, I was riding in the same saddle and stirrup length as in the clinic. Nimo was the same horse. Why the disconnect? I tried changing the saddle from the old Wintec endurance saddle back to my old dressage saddle, but it didn't help. And I was faced with this overriding feeling that I didn't even want to ride.
Apparently one more thing needed to happen before I could figure out what was going on. Stay tuned for what I eventually discovered...