Perfect is the enemy of good
Christa Dillon reminds us that sometimes what we really need to do is just RIDE!
When we learn to ride, we are taught how to hold the reins, how to stop, go, turn left and right. We are told to keep our shoulders back, our heels down and our thumbs on top of the reins. All of the early lessons centre around basic control and, staying on board the horse. As time goes by, we learn to master rising to the trot, how to canter and how to at least stay on board when going over jumps; still we are regularly reminded to sit up, to not grip with the knees and to not look down. Of course, all of these things are both important and necessary; the basic template of learning to ride is similar worldwide. Pretty much anyone can learn some, most or, all of these skills, and they can go on to enjoy trail rides, training and competitions in whatever discipline they aspire most towards. Anyone willing to learn and apply can become a rider of some sort.
As a coach, I have encountered very many people who have learned to ride along this quite typical format. However, at some stage, problems can and do often begin to arise. While the majority of riders at the early stages of their journey are capable of many things, they are also frequently rather robotic in their communications when in the saddle. School horses give us such a great grounding as we learn-they don’t punish us for an inexperienced and overtly heavy rein aid or, an unnecessarily industrial kick in the ribs. They generally try to decipher what it is that we want from them, and in direct contrast to our fumbling and over-zealous aids, they provide an adequate bare minimum in response. These horses are the true heroes of the industry, giving everyone a chance to hone their skills, without too much fear of repercussion.
The difficulty we sometimes face with horses (other than those patient souls in the riding schools, or the wonderful but rare ‘schoolmaster’ types) is that they are not mechanical beings. They are sensitive, subtle creatures for whom so often, less is more. At some point, people who have learned to ride and who are now equal parts equine infused and enthused, may decide to take things a step further. The confidence gained on the school horse can bolster the desire to own your own horse and, fuel the dream of galloping around Badminton or jumping at Hickstead……and herein lies the first potential cavernous realisation. Knowing the basic aids is a great start, but stepping off the school horse and onto a different, more usual type of horse can be akin to getting out of your grandmother’s Nissan Micra, and into a Maserati. Basic driving skills are adequate when operating a Micra but, a high powered, more finely tuned Maserati requires a far greater amount of sensitivity-or ‘feel’, to drive.
When the brain is challenged, it refers back to what it already knows in an attempt to find a solution. When no solution is forthcoming, uncertainty and insecurity flood in. We begin to guess, to hope and, to feel anxious. We are afraid to give firm, clear instructions to the horse, because our inexperience leaves us unsure as to whether what we are asking, – or how we are asking it, is correct. Without a passive yet decisive ‘leader’, the horse will begin to make choices for himself, which are rarely aligned with our own. Very quickly, things can and do, deteriorate. Relying on our learned, mechanical skills proves to be of limited assistance but, we resort back to them in desperation – if I bend my elbows a little more, put my heels down further and look up instead of down, perhaps the horse will canter when I ask, and not try to buck me off…….we tie ourselves up in so many theories and principles that it can become mentally paralysing. The one thing that many riders have never done or have not been encouraged to try, is to JUST, RIDE.
The glue that binds a horse-human partnership together is a combination of learned mechanical skills and, a sense of ‘feel’. Feel is more easily described as an awareness of the responses the horse offers, in direct response to the things that is asked of him. Within this is included the sensitivity (developed over time, through trial and error) to lessen, increase or refine the method and the timing of that which is asked. Feel can only be developed through considered experimentation and, it is a life long learning process. Every horse is different; they all have much to teach us if, we are open to listen and learn from them.
Stepping away from the traditional template of focussing on rider position and correct, text book riding has left me open for some criticism as a coach. However, I believe strongly that when helping a rider to develop a sense of feel, it is of little use to be particularly fussy about heel and elbow positioning. It is easy to ‘tidy up’ again once the rider has been given the opportunity to find their own particular sense of feel, and to develop their skills as an effective, passively assertive leader. Eureka moments can come thick and fast as a rider begins to see that they can work together with their horse for a greater degree of clarity and understanding. Over time, horse and rider begin to get onto the same page and, their confidence in one another grows exponentially. Human beings are each the sum of their component parts, their lived experiences, their mishaps and accidents, their learning type and capacity. Horses are no different. Developing a better sense of feel for the horse, can often lead to having a better sense of feel for ourselves-both mentally AND physically. We must understand that there is no such thing as perfect. We must be willing to move away from the confines of perceived perfection, to give ourselves the time and space to learn and to grow towards the fullness of who we truly are.
Many years ago, I was asked to teach a boy, who was around fourteen years old. When he rode in to the arena, his pony had no saddle. The boy explained that he didn’t have a saddle, and that when he had tried one on his pony, he hated it and had immediately removed it. He had grown up beside a field of horses, and he had come to love spending time with them. Eventually, his curiosity got the better off him, and he began to hop up on whichever horse stood still for long enough. He fell off plenty of times, but he kept going undeterred. He had never had a formal lesson, other than those given to him from the horses in that field. I said that no saddle was quite alright, and we got started. What I saw in front of me was incredible-the boy was the most beautiful rider. He was perfectly in balance with his pony, and had the greatest sense of timing and feel. He trotted, cantered and jumped with ease, and he gave barely imperceivable aids to his very willing and confident pony. The boy had no idea about the textbook position, correct diagonals or canter leads-but yet he looked an example of perfection to me. He wasn’t hung up on the things he didn’t know nor, on the things that he didn’t find easy. There was nothing muddying the waters for him at all, he communicated with his pony in the softest, easiest and most pure way of all, and it was a privilege to observe.
In contrast, I worked with a rider who was experiencing some problems with his horse. The horse was willing, but confused-and had begun stopping or running out. The rider blamed himself, and struggled to accept the concept that his lack of perfection was NOT the cause of the problems he was having with his horse. His belief was that if he was perfectly perfect with his mechanical cues and his position – learned earlier on his horse riding journey, then his horse would perform. I explained that ‘perfect’ doesn’t really exist in the limbic brained animal kingdom and, is an entirely man made concept, which is far more disabling than it is helpful. I asked the rider if he believed that his horse was the definition of perfect and, if he felt that the horse had been perfectly trained by the perfect horse trainer? He seemed to struggle a little to wrap his mind around this but, things did begin to improve. For a while, the rider would achieve something progressive and positive with his horse, only to immediately begin critiquing his position or, how he had technically performed whatever exercise he had just ridden. Over time though, the rider began to let go of the previous vitally important quest for perfection. He started to pay attention to how he asked things of the horse and, to the horse’s responses. He began to enjoy learning with and from his horse and, their confidence in one another started to develop-and then flourish.
Perfect truly is the enemy of good.