Kate Chadderton was hosting Eric Smiley at her barn, but at first look, I thought it was over my head. When I reached out to her to see about auditing, she challenged me to ride. And I’m ever so glad I did!
For those of you unfamiliar with Eric, he’s an Irishman, who started as a cavalry officer. He has been a competitor in the Olympics, European Championships, World Equestrian Games, Burghley, and Badminton — to name a few. He is also a highly credentialed equestrian judge. His qualifications made him potentially intimidating, but he was actually warm and inviting, intuitive without being judgmental.
Charlie and I had our private lesson with Eric in the indoor arena at Kate’s barn. To begin with, he asked for a little history, including what I loved and what I wasn’t so fond of about Charlie. I love his “steady Eddie” quality, but I don’t like how I’m always working harder than he is. Eric chuckled. He said he could see that, and we would work on it.
The Importance of Your Words
We spent much of our lesson with Eric asking me questions. Some people hate that, but I loved it. He wasn’t out to trip me up with the answers, but rather, wanted to see how I understood a given concept. Then he could provide an alternate perspective, or a new way to think about an idea.
He took several of my terms, and relegated them to the dustbin — like “bend.” He also tweaked several of my terms. For instance, “forward” became the idea that “your horse carries you,” and that he does so until told to change that gait. He also shifted my “boss” term (when describing how Charlie sometimes doesn’t listen to my leg) to invite me to think more about a “partnership” where I set expectations, and then leave him alone to do his job. We also re-named the inside rein to be “direction,” the outside rein is “limit,” the leg as “energy,” and the hands being the limit to that energy.
Your Horse Carries You
We began at the walk. Instead of talking about rhythm, Eric focused on regularity. Charlie has good gaits. But when he isn’t moving energetically, his gaits have no regularity. So we started from a halt. I asked for a walk. It wasn’t regular, so I used my leg to ask him to move on, but got no response. Eric took us back to a halt. Then he had me take my leg off completely, and using only the dressage whip, get Charlie to move into a self-propelled, marching walk.
<tap> No response. <tap> No response. <tap> A half-hearted walk. <tap> A little more walk. <tap> Wait?! You want me to march?! Charlie was beginning to get it about seriously moving out. Eric reminded me to tap with the whip whenever I felt Charlie starting to slow down or tune out. We moved up to trot, and repeated the same carriage work. Then finally to canter. We had quite a few taps over the lesson — including one at the canter, to which Charlie responded by throwing a small buck in protest to the amount of work he was being asked to do. But by the end, Charlie was becoming more ambitious, and taking responsibility for his gait. Wohoo!
I have to keep my asks small and quiet in order to keep his drama down. In our case, that drama shows up in the form of Charlie sticking his head up in the air like a giraffe when transitioning up a gait, or kicking out in protest when asked to work at keeping the gait and the energy inherent in it. So the signs of victory are pretty apparent — head down, and smooth transitions without a decline in energy.
Pick a Shape and Ride It
The other revelation of the lesson was Eric’s obsession with shapes. He reminded me that riding is just a matter of picking a line, and riding the shape that line makes. It could be from B to H in the dressage ring, or from this dandelion to that cow paddie in the cross country field. They could be squares or circles or lines. And while there isn’t anything particularly magical about a circle by itself, there is an explosion of magic in having your horse carry you exactly where you want to go at the pace you set. And we get there by practicing shapes.
We rode circles and squares a lot. The circles were easier because there was no change in them. The squares were a different story because there is a change at each of the four corners where you make a turn. I missed plenty of turns because I neglected to give Charlie enough warning. Fortunately, we never stepped out of the arena, but sometimes we made some very un-square squares. Our last shape was a pair of 10m circles in the middle of a 20m circle in order to make a change of direction. We did well at the walk, getting our hoofprints on top of the mound of footing Eric arranged as a target. At trot, again, we were off. But the point was made.
My homework for the session was two fold:
- Stop trying to do Charlie’s job for him, and let him take responsibility for maintaining the requested gait. But absolutely, positively, do NOT let him off the hook either.
- Practice riding shapes. Any shape will do. But it has to be a shape of my choosing, not Charlie’s.
Yes, the lesson was somewhat basic. But by the end, I felt like I had a new and more complete command of what we were doing. Charlie seemed to have learned a few lessons too. Mastering these basics at a higher level will make us a better team.