I love my group lessons. But sometimes, things just don’t work well: somebody gets the pattern wrong and goes against the flow of traffic, or changes direction oddly causing a bottleneck, or doesn’t fold back into the flow following a circle and nearly crashes into someone else. We’ve all experienced it. And it’s annoying.
It’s even harder when you’re on a big horse with a stride that covers a lot of ground. And it’s gasoline on a fire when you put big horses and small horses or ponies in the same group. No one moves at the same pace. Being on a bigger horse, I feel like I’m constantly vying for space.
These days, I’m admittedly hypersensitive about things like spacing and passing protocols. For instance, my dressage instructor has drilled it into our heads that that when you do a change of direction, you should get in the habit of changing across the diagonal between K and M, or H and F, just like you’re doing a dressage test. So now that’s the way I change direction all the time, unless the instructor or the exercise specifically calls for something different.
This week, in one of my group lessons, we did a serpentine. It was just three loops at a well-paced trot, a focus on bending at the top of each loop, and a canter back on the long side return. But it became nearly like the third circle of Dante’s Hell.
We had six horses in the lesson, which is usually fine. But tonight, we kept getting bunched at the same end of the arena. In a way it was funny. We seemed to be magnetically attracted — all six horses clumped together, like a team of 3-year olds playing soccer who seem to ignore field position and glue themselves to the ball.
In another way it was maddening. I was so busy circling to get out from someone else’s tail that I was left wondering about the value of this particular lesson to either Charlie or me because we weren’t able to get through the exercise completely. So our intended work on straightness and bending and timing and listening and light aids and transitions — well, it just wasn’t happening.
I tried to keep it together, but I’m sure a few choice comments exited my lips at more than a stage whisper. And the traffic jam continued, only worse. At one point, I looked ahead to the upcoming serpentine gate, only to see another horse coming straight at me in the opposite direction than what I expected. All I could do was halt.
Perceptively, my trainer changed the traffic flow, inviting smaller horses to come off the pattern to an inside track, and having the bigger horses like Charlie take a go at it. She reminded me that I’m only responsible for what’s in front of me. I stopped, took a deep breath, and set out again, keeping in my own mental bubble.
With just three out of the six of us now in the flow, and all of us moving at similar speed, we each had the space to do the pattern completely a couple of times. Charlie had a chance to finally get his pent up canters out. I got an opportunity to see where we were doing well and where we had flaws in our execution.
But moving through the exercise was no mental challenge. I wasn’t thinking about riding, I was just riding, not second-guessing myself or Charlie, or anticipating some pending disaster. We were both unhappy about the crowds for sure, but I was riding without over-analyzing everything. We transitioned between gaits relatively easily. I stayed respectably tall and balanced. We didn’t struggle like the week before.
So as frustrating as the lesson was, it occurred to me that I’m getting back to my old self. Because I was comfortable enough with things to take the riding in stride, and be just mad about the traffic.