This is written by Maddy Mangan, SFD's Assistant trainer. I started teaching Maddy when she was in junior high, and after a break from riding while she was in college, I happily accepted her back as a working student two years ago. Her work ethic and commitment to her education impressed me enough that after her time as working student was over, I offered her the title of Assistant trainer. I asked her to write a blog about the difficult process of learning to ride in such a way to improve a horse's overall balance. I hope reading about her learning process helps you with yours. ~ Ange
About a year ago, when I was offered the assistant position at SFD, I decided to take the plunge and go full time in horses. As a young professional, I knew I was sorely lacking in show miles. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a horse to compete on. So Ange so graciously offered to let me bring her big, black mare,Silhouette, back into competition after time off as a broodmare. I was thrilled except that there as another problem. I could not for the life of me figure out how to ride the black mare with a big engine and big attitude.
So the struggle began.
Ange warned me when this started that Silhouette is a tricky ride. She has a sensitive mouth and hates to go on the forehand, so riding her uphill from the seat and leg is really important. When the rider gets it right on Silhouette, she locks into a wonderful, uphill floaty gait. But if the rider doesn’t get it right, Silhouette tells on the rider by nodding her head like a bobble-head doll and squealing in the canter departs.
Ange’s goal, besides giving me a show mount, was to take my riding from the “steady-keep-you-head-down-horse stage” to learning to ride my horses with lowered hips and a more uphill balance. Which, of course, takes that elusive dressage thing we call “feel.” In short, Ange’s goal was for Silhouette to teach me how to ride.
I took lesson after lesson trying to get the “feel.” This is one of the most difficult parts of dressage. Learning and teaching “feel” is tough because “feel” is a bit different for each rider. Ange had to translate how “feel” felt to her into words, and hope those words translated to something my body could lock into. So much of dressage is figuring out the right balance and feel for each individual horse at each moment of the workout, so sorting this out at this stage of my riding career is pretty important.
Ange was trying so hard to help me. “Ride her hind end, don’t worry about her head,” “Don’t fight with her mouth.” And the list continues. I just could not figure out the balance of my aids to help Silhouette understand that I wanted her to carry herself more uphill.
It is not that I did not understand how Ange was trying to get me to ride this horse, but Silhouette and I just could not find the right place where we clicked. We just kept fighting with each other. There were some very good rides and I would think “yes I finally got it!” but the next ride I would just not be able to recreate the feel from the day before. I was getting very discouraged.
So Ange put me on Venus for a few rides. She is quite a different mare then Silhouette, more tolerant and very kind (no head bobbing or squealing or anything), so I felt a little more at ease on her. During a lesson on Venus, Ange had me working on transitions. We started with halt to walk, focusing on keeping Venus’ shoulders up-which is really easy to feel on Venus as the pommel of the saddle practically drops if she isn’t keeping her shoulders up. If she dropped her shoulders, I had to make her halt again. By the end of the ride, Venus was taller and more connected. It was like the front of the saddle not only lifted, it became connected right into my seat.
I took this back to Silhouette, hoping it was the missing piece. It certainly helped, but Silhouette seemed to still be getting trapped somewhere. I just could not carry it through like I could on Venus.
One day, Ange called me into the arena. She was riding one of the training horses and asked if I wanted to hop on a get a feel of her. I never turn down a ride. Ange told me that she had been working on the half halt, very similar to what I had been working on with Venus and attempting with Silhouette--half halting with my back and lower leg, asking her to carry on her hind end, and then release up and out. It was the same feeling of keeping the withers and shoulders up like on Venus, but for some reason on the training horse, the feeling was a light bulb moment for me. I had to hold her on my seat with shoulders and core but let it out in a controlled way. I had to own every step. I had to own the balance. Could this be the missing link for Silhouette? Was I just letting the energy spill out over the front of the saddle, instead of lifting the shoulders up, and letting her fall more on the forehand?
So again I brought this new light bulb moment to Silhouette. Half halt the balance onto her hind end, then own the motion and allow it through, controlling the out. I focused on keeping her shoulders more up and not letting the front of the saddle drop at all. And it finally clicked! Six months of struggling and I finally had found the key to the uphill balance that Silhouette needed to be through and connected.
Of course I was worried I would not be able to carry it to the next ride, but I got on telling myself that I could. And I did.
Silhouette and I still have a lot of work to do but I am happy to say that we are now working together and not fighting. And I certainly know that I have a horse to show this summer.
So Miss Silhouette, you are teaching me to ride!