When I was a working student in Ga, my favorite boarders was a wonderful older lady, Mary*, who taught chemistry at the local college. In Ga, one of the important things I learned was my dressage seat. Often, when the morning chores and riding were done, Mary would do me the invaluable favor of getting me off the farm to grab lunch. Our lunch conversations are some of my best GA memories.
Mary would patiently let me verbally process the volumes of information I was learning, and in return she’d give me the most wonderful life lessons. One of my favorite was about her leading a chemistry lecture, and doing a double-take at the chemical formula she had written on the board. She said she was struck with the thought, “Oh, so THAT’s how that really works.” Her point was sometimes you don’t really know something until you teach it.
My boss in GA understood this as well. When I got to GA, my seat needed a lot of work. I was so crooked I would wear holes in the left side of saddle pads. Before leaving to be a working student, as a money-hungry college kid, I had ridden pretty much any horse that was offered me, in pretty much any tack available, from western to saddle seat. My big talent was not my tact or sensitivity, it was my Velcro bottom. It wasn’t pretty, or terribly effective, but I stayed on.
I, of course, spent time on the lunge line. Additionally, she assigned me to teach seat lessons. Garland Farms had a strong vacation business – people would come for 2-10 days and ride twice a day, usually a combination of a morning seat/lunge lesson with me and an afternoon session on one of the schoolmasters with my boss. I spent many, many mornings helping vacationers learn to be balanced and independent with their aids. Then I’d go to lunch with Mary and talk about it.
Needless to say, this was pretty good formula for me.
Mary’s words come back to me regularly, especially this winter. This year has been unusually cold for us here in eastern PA, and trying to make dressage progress in these temps is tough. A few of our horses thrive in the cold, but most just get tight. I can’t blame them for what Mother Nature has done to their bodies, so my lesson plans have focused primarily on seat and correct reactions to the aids.
I spend a huge chunk of time sitting ringside, huddled in my electric blanket, or in the middle of the ring, holding the end of the lunge, analyzing how to help a student find the correct position, highlight how that feels in their bodies and in their mounts, then capture that feel to recreate it at will. Then, when everyone is warmer, we can use that feel to change their horse’s balance.
My ride list includes four horses at the dreaded 2nd/3rd level gap, where dressage horses have to take the step from being good, obedient horses, to changing their balance to create more uphill, engaged, expressive, collected paces. It’s a hard stage for both horse and rider—I have to sit as if they are already going like FEI horses, even though they aren’t really supporting my seat that way yet. The best analogy I have for this stage is a teeter-totter – the horse’s head is at one end, their tail is at the other, and I’m trying to stand in the middle, keeping both ends under control to prevent random crashing of one end down or the other. The fulcrum of this balancing act is, of course, my seat.
As I watch my students become more and more balanced and effective as the winter wears on, I plug what I see into my own rides. Sling, one of the horses at the 2nd/3rd gap, who (thankfully) doesn’t tighten in the winter, proves Mary’s principle every day.
*Mary is not her real name, but as is one of the horrible downsides of our mobile, fast-paced society, I have lost touch with her. Since I don’t have her permission to use her name, I borrowed the name of one of my favorite childhood Disney characters.