There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered. ~Nelson Mandela
Exactly one and a half years ago I wrote a blog entry about my feelings towards riding (On Riding 26th of May, 2009). Time has passed between then and now and has helped me refine my thoughts. I realize that after a slow and tender process, I have finally let go of the dressage rider within. To reach this point is monumental, as I have ridden horses for over thirty years and once swore I would be a dressage rider until I was a doddery old woman nearing her death bed.
I am now riding approximately 95% less than I was two years ago and, and until about three weeks ago when a student asked me to ride her horse, it had been months since I worked a horse in the arena. It felt strange to sit on a horse other than Little Love and even stranger to start working the horse into some sort of frame. He was bitless, of course, but nevertheless I felt oddly out of place on his back. Due to my sore tailbone I took it easy, but ended up riding for over forty minutes at walk and rising trot.
The horse I was riding was one of the biggest horses I have ever ridden, and I have ridden some pretty massive ones in the past, having been a vaulting trainer. I have known this horse for a few years now and have ridden him a few times before, so I knew going into the ride how much power and focus I would need. Due to the fact that I hadn’t truly ridden dressage for months, I felt slightly intimidated by the situation.
Before getting on, I sent the horse a mental message of what we would be doing together. I also explained that I would not ask for anything he could not physically do. I hoped for two way communication and promised to listen to what the horse had to say. I got into the saddle with a “one step at a time” attitude, trying to let go of any previous experiences, any set goals or plans for the ride, all possible premonitions.
I had nothing to worry about. What had previously been strenuous and perhaps a challenge with this particular horse now came easily and without a second thought. With relatively light effort and by making adjustments in my own seat I was able to guide the horse towards straightness. This resulted in him relaxing and starting to use his muscles correctly. In the end we had beautiful collection, something this young horse did not offer on a daily basis.
I was stumped. How could it be possible that after not riding for months, I seemed to be a better rider than before? Wasn’t it practice that made you perfect?
Ask any dressage rider what their ultimate goal is, and the word "connection" will pop up in the conversation. They are talking about the kind of connection that leads to harmony with the horse, another concept that so often seems out of reach. To reach this ultimate goal, most dressage riders spend their whole life taking lessons and perfecting their riding skills. And I, too, can recall being that person, diligently striving for that missing piece that would lead to bliss under saddle.
I drove home thinking about the ride on my student's horse. All these years I had believed that riding was a technical and physical task based on the laws of biomechanics - something it undoubtedly also is. But perhaps I hadn’t given enough credit to the emotional and psychological side of it. Something had happened in that arena with that horse that I had never truly understood before. Was this what connection and harmony could feel like? Was this the dream under saddle everyone was chasing? How ironic that I had had to first let go of riding, to feel this.
But how appropriate.
It was not the first time I had experienced something I thought was connection and harmony. At several occasions during my dressage "career" (if you can call it that) there had been times where I had felt that "Eureka!" moment. Those moments had always been a product of hard work, a result of struggle and hours of sweating in the saddle. I now realize that perhaps some of them had been contrived, based on a physical feeling rather than a holistic feeling. In all the training and practicing and honing of skill, I had lacked the connection that came from within. In fact, was it possible that by focusing solely on the physical aspect of riding, I had prevented myself from finding what I was looking for?
What is true connection? Is it the ability to go together in physical movement without hindering each other? Or is it something more, something invisible and unattainable by force? You can force a horse into movement and you can will yourself to follow that movement with your body, but can harmony be present in such an act? The American Heritage Dictionary says that harmony is "agreement in feeling or opinion". When we bridle and saddle a horse, is it even possible for him to feel harmonious? Is the harmony we seek just a subjective dream created by human?
The experience with my student's horse had been exceptional, yet it didn’t make me want to ride more. Actually, quite the contrary. I am no longer able to turn back and return where I once was, the dressage rider within is gone forever.
This fall one of my blog readers sent me some interesting information about the damage riding causes to horses’ backs. This extensive study talks about the sinking of the back (and thus pressure on the vertebrae); the tissue damage caused by excessive pressure; the fact that horses grow until up to the age 5 and even beyond, but yet are trained under saddle starting at 3 and even younger. Not to mention the harmful effects of the riders hands and bad body posture (seat). But even under the best rider in the world, harmful pressure is applied to the horse’s back. After the investigation of 443 horses, the findings concluded that only 7% of the horses had NO damage to their backs.
These are sobering details. Many people will like to argue that this was just one study and it is true, it is just one study. I wonder why this subject has not been studied more. Perhaps because we are afraid of what we will find?
Under the current circumstances I still trail ride Little Love, but I can't help but wonder: If she was given free choice, would she ever let me on her back again? I'm not sure. Does any horse want to be ridden? Perhaps not. They did not evolve over millions of years just to carry us on their backs.
My friend Sam tells me that when children and adults interact with his horses in liberty, some horses occasionally invite people on their backs. I believe this does not happen because the horse wants to be ridden in the traditional sense, but because he wants to give the human the gift of riding. After all, love and friendship are about giving and allowing. The key factor in these situations is to respect the wishes of the gift giver.
One day, when Little Love's and my situation is different, I hope to be able to offer her that choice and let her decide for herself. In the meanwhile, I try to stay off her back as much as possible. The abovementioned study concludes that we should not ride horses for more than 15 minutes at a time and always in free collection. I am keeping this in mind and helping Little Love discover free collection during our liberty work. I make a point of dismounting and walking on the trails when possible. I cannot control how others ride this horse, but I can make these choices for myself.
Letting go of riding is not always easy. For some people it happens overnight and for some, like me, it is a slow and winding road. Then there are those who don't ever want to take that journey. We all must evolve in our own time, with our own horses.
It is only when we silent the blaring sounds of our daily existence that we can finally hear the whispers of truth that life reveals to us, as it stands knocking on the doorsteps of our hearts. ~K.T. Jong