Bringing the lightness and laughter of liberty into my riding

A recent conversation with a friend has had a profound impact on my perspective on lessons and what I use the lesson time for. Barbara and I have taken a few lessons together in recent months and in a post-lesson conversation, Barbara mentioned that she felt like things hadn’t gone as well as usual — her horse wasn’t responsive and was bracing about everything — and therefore she learned a lot in the lesson. “But it was not a ‘look how I’m impressing the teacher’ kind of lesson.”

Barbara and Regina

I don’t think she intended that phrase to become such a touchstone for me, but it’s had a huge impact on how I think about lessons and use my lesson time. For me, lessons have been an opportunity to bring the things I’m struggling with, or haven’t tried yet, or that seem complicated and challenging, and have expert help in coaching me through them. It had not occurred to me to show the instructor anything I’m doing well. But if I don’t, how will she have a full picture of where I am, and what I want to do next?

If every piano lesson were about what you’re not good at yet, and you never get to just sit down and play some music that you love, you’re going to burn out. Musicians practice, rehearse  and perform — and sometimes they get together and jam. It’s the jamming that brings out the most creativity, the relaxation, the connection and responsiveness. There’s a lot of laughing and not a lot of judging, in a good jam session.

And yesterday, my private lesson with Erin did turn into something of a jam session. I took about 30 minutes to show Erin what I’ve been doing with Rocky and explained what I’m reading from him and what my plans are, and pretty much got the 100% YES in response. I’m reading him well, I’m seeing in his body where the pain is, and I’m providing what he needs physically, emotionally, and mentally.

Then I got River out and without really thinking about the ticking clock of the lesson time, I just started playing with her at Liberty. I wasn’t really asking Erin questions or showing things I was just starting with. I just… played. At liberty. With my girl.

Regina and River

At some point I became aware that Erin had gone to sit quietly on the mounting block and I got excited and started to talk about what I was doing. And the feedback I got was all “yes, I think you’re right” and “that looks good” and “your connection is perfect” and “she’s never abandoned by you, even when she’s out on the big circle” and even an “oh wow!” when River did teensy circles around me with perfect bend and flexion and total connection between the two of us.

Barefeet Physio Bareback PadWhen I tacked up — buckled on a Barefoot Physio Bareback Pad and clipped some rope reins to the halter — and got on, I was able to bring the lightness and laughter of liberty to my riding in a way I’m just learning to do. Something about having just played with her without making it A Lesson, and hearing Erin’s “wow!” and “that’s so great!” and “perfect correction, that’s the exact amount of pressure and release she needed” all unasked for…

In the riding, I asked some detailed questions, and we decided that Erin should hop on River and feel it for herself and show me what she meant. She played with some patterns and narrated in her out-loud voice what she was sharing with River through her body. And I think River could tell, when I got back on, that I was trying to do the things Erin had been doing.

One of Barbara’s goals in our joint lessons has been to rekindle the fun and rebuild some confidence in the saddle. And part of doing that is remembering all the things that you already can do with skill and confidence, and allow yourself and your horse the chance to celebrate and play with all the progress you’ve made together. Doing that in the context of a lesson allows us to get creative and confirm that we’re doing the right things.

Erin on River

Categories: Feel, Freestyle, Lessons | 2 Comments

I want a rider with a slow hand

I’m practicing slowing everything down and doing less, and allowing everything else to just wait until I’ve developed this happier habit. By this I mean not worry that I wanted to stop at the barrel but we’ve gone a few strides beyond, or that I wanted to back up immediately but River hesitated or braced first. I’m practicing:

  • Pick up the reins much, much slower than I’ve been doing.
  • Hold instead of pull.
  • Lighten the !@#$%^ hold because if there’s holding, I was too fast. Lightening up is not the same as releasing.
  • If I’ve had to hold for more than 1 second, Do Something Else: Deploy the carrot stick, wiggle a saddle string. But do not squeeze my legs or increase the hold.
  • Release when River is responding on lightness. So if I had to use the carrot stick to get a backup, stop the stick and keep the rein to allow her to back at the lighter phase and then release.

Today was my fourth ride of trying this — the first ride was during a lesson when Erin taught me some techniques, and I’ve had one other lesson and two rides since. I am already so much better about the reins. And I know it’s working because River has become softer and — hrm, how interesting! — more responsive.

I got the best compliment today when sharing the arena with another rider. She commented on River’s relaxation as we did the weave pattern and said “she always looks like she’s smiling when she’s with you.”


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