Week 2 has been fun.
Notable things that happened during the week:
- I climbed on top of Champagne for the first time
- He’s getting much stronger faster than I expected: he’s starting to really stretch into the side reins and really carry himself well over the poles (except for when he gets bored with lunging over poles and chooses to knock the poles flying instead).
- He was so absolutely unimpressed with his birthday cake that rather than look at it or smell it in the feed bucket, he covered it with alfalfa so that he could eat his grain without having anything to do with the cake (I ended up feeding the whole mess to Einstein).
- We went to a Centered Riding Clinic in Lake Charles this weekend, and Champagne came along for the ride and experience.
The clinic was wonderful. The Clinician was Mimi Pantelides, who was lucky enough to study Centered Riding directly under Sally Swift. Of course, she didn’t stop just with learning from Sally, but has continued learning everything she can, like natural horsemanship (not my favorite, but whatever), tai chi, yoga, Feldenkrais and Alexander Technique, and in the biography she gave us, she lists another 14 horse riding instructors she has studied under! In addition, she also was a professional dancer, studying in college and performing in New York, so she obviously had a lot of different techniques and experiences to draw on.
Now, a lot of what we learned was stuff that Amanda and I already study and teach- well, sort of. I’m afraid we often get caught up in the theory and anatomy and biomechanics of riding and training, because a) it’s cool, b) to us it’s very important that our students understand the absolute core of why we ride the way we do c) I think sometimes when we have students whose parents are paying us to teach their children, we feel very obligated to put out a ton of information so that we feel like we’re really teaching a lesson, not just giving the child an expensive pony ride. So this was a wonderful opportunity for us to go back and toss out all of the technicalities of riding theory, slow down our goal oriented brains, and simply return to feeling how our horses move.
While I’m sure that I should spend more time talking about the technical aspects of the clinic-the exercises that we did and so forth- there are plenty of books that have been written on the subject already. Honestly, the main thing that we worked on was the Four Basics from Centered Riding, which are:
- Soft Eyes
- Building Blocks
For more information, you can either a) Buy a copy of Centered Riding and Centered Riding 2, or b) go to a Centered Riding Clinic. There is no possible way for me to explain all of it in one blog post. We only got a bit of an introduction in a full weekend, and I think an in depth study would last years, if not a lifetime.
Amanda and I both faced our own challenges during this clinic. In many ways, I had a great head start because I am naturally a pretty right-brained individual. The right hemisphere of the brain thinks in pictures and feelings and connects us to the rest of the world. It is responsible for art and music and dance and poetry and all of these incredible, very human things. With my history of singing and music and dance, I was already fairly well set up to understand and sink readily into this sort of Zen feeling of connecting with my horse and with other people through this undefinable language of centering and touch and feeling. It’s a feeling and an experience that I was used to chasing as I studied things like music and literature: to feel everything that the creator had wanted me to feel, rather than to analyze everything the author had written. My challenges were a little more left brained in nature, and I had a new one basically every day.
The first challenge was the hotel room. I had made a reservation for a semi-cheap room, thinking that I would be able to stay down there and feed our three clinic horses in the morning, cutting down on how early we all had to get up. That seemed like a good plan, until I discovered that the hotel tax in Lake Charles is 14.5%! My hotel bill, which I had expected to be maybe $160, ended up being over $200 for two nights. No more hotels in Lake Charles for me. Next time I’ll either just commute or I’ll bring a sleeping bag and sleep in the trailer or in the car.
The first night we all got to know each other and fill out paperwork and do some fun exercises (which is not something I say lightly about “getting to know you” exercises- I pretty much hate “getting to know you” games). Then afterwards we went out to collect our horses and ride for about an hour. Thinking that this would be a good time to take Champagne out and work with him so that I could ride Tidbit through the harder parts of the clinic, I saddled him up and walked him into the arena, thinking that I was going to hop into the saddle and just walk nicely on the rail.
He wouldn’t let me on. His racehorse training had kicked in. We were in a new place with lots of unknown horses and people, and what do racehorses do when they’re taken to new places with new horses? They race. I weigh a good fifty pounds more than most jockeys now, and as strong and athletic as I still am in my overweightness (I’m surprised that spell check accepts “overweightness” as a word), I am not in any condition to leap onto a galloping horse. So we just ended up doing ground work all night long.
Silver lining? Now Amanda and I know what Champagne’s biggest flaw is, and we can do something about it. We’re going to have to trailer to a lot of new places in the next few months.
The second day things were going pretty well. I was enjoying our exercises on the ground, learning a lot, I was planning to ride Tidbit through that day so that I could get as much out of the day’s exercises as possible, and then…
My half chaps broke. The left one had broken a while ago, and I had replaced the zipper. This time it was the right half chap, and by the time Miss Kelly and her brother had wrestled the darn thing off of my leg, I was frustrated enough that I wanted to take a knife to it and just chop it off, and it turned out some of the zipper teeth had ripped. So I ran to the English clothing store (fortunately there was one ten minutes away rather than the usual 2 or 3 hours that I would have dealt with at home), and I went in to try to buy a new pair of half chaps. All of their half chaps were Ariats or Tuffriders, and both are made for tall, skinny people with lovely, shapely legs. I am short and stocky and thirty pounds overweight, and so none of those were going to fit me. So I returned to the clinic, resigned to just riding in my paddock boots.
That evening though, once the clinic was done, I brought Champagne into the arena and lunged him for a few minutes. After that, he actually did let me climb on, and while he did take off around the arena, I was happy that he had actually stood still long enough for me to climb into the saddle.
The third day I decided to try riding Champagne again. Now, we were able to coax him into letting me on, and he walked somewhat quietly for about five minutes, and then the obvious happened: he took off. Fortunately we were only in the arena with adults at that point, and they were all good enough to stop their horses and let me dodge them while I coped with Champagne. They were all very sweet about it, and later told me that they were impressed with how well I handled it and that I looked very calm and relaxed. One lady told me that if her horse had done that, she would have cried. I was mostly just embarrassed and glad that nobody had given me that look that said “Why is she bringing a horse to a clinic that she can’t even control? Doesn’t she know better?” They all took it in stride and accepted that this was a training horse and only my fourth ride on him to boot.
And actually, when everything was said and done, I was glad that I did ride him that day. He was willing to walk after that, and since a lot of what we were working on was breathing and relaxing and making things easier for our horses, the way he moved was a very good indicator of how I was doing. Also, while his motion is pretty flat (I’m comparing him to Luke), it still had this kind of funky, sloppy, big motion to it, so I could feel everything that was going on in his body. For the first time, I could feel his hind legs and haunches working: something that I hadn’t ever felt so clearly before. I could feel that the motion wasn’t a perfect forward, but a sort of swinging motion that picked up his back and my own weight from his hind foot to the opposite foreleg. I had never felt that before, and It. Was. Cool.
Amanda had an entirely different set of challenges ahead of her. The first was obviously that she had to commute back and forth every day to feed the horses at home. The second was that she had some family problems come up, and so she had to work through that and fight off a migraine at the same time. I didn’t envy her that at all. But probably the most difficult challenge that I saw her overcome this weekend was this whole “feeling” and “centering” thing.
Amanda is an absolutely left-brained creature. I don’t think that she likes math or anything like that, but show her a line and she will let you know if it is straight or not. She has to have everything laid out in a logical sequence, and she has to know the WHY of everything we do. Dancing and singing are not her fortes. It’s only been recently that she’s been starting to learn to feel what do while on a horse instead of thinking about what to do. She came in wanting to learn more theory and exercises and biomechanics, and she had to learn to throw all of that away in favor of sitting quietly and feeling what was going on in her own body, rather than having something that she was supposed to do. I think not having a “right answer” laid out in front of her kind of killed her. Which is why I absolutely HAD to snap this picture in order to prove that this had happened.
This is particularly amazing because of all of the turmoil that was going on in her life this weekend. She managed to put all of it aside, and just FEEL. At the end, when we were wrapping up and being asked what we would take with us, she said something along the lines of how she needed to take more time to stop trying to do things perfectly, to just close her eyes, and to feel what was going on in the horse’s body.
Which is why from here on out, I think I may be forcing her into what I call “Feeling Friday,” where I put her on the lunge line or lead her around and make her practice centering herself and practice self awareness. She’s probably going to hate me for interfering with her goal oriented riding time, but too bad. I’m pretty much okay with being mean and making her do something that’s good for her.
You know, we did all of this great stuff and learned new exercises and met new people, and I really loved it. But I think my favorite thing from that Clinic can be summed up in one word: John.
John was the only man at the clinic- completely surrounded by women and girls and all of the estrogen they represented, riding a horse that he bought from the sale barn for a few hundred dollars, got into riding relatively late (age 21, and he basically had to figure most of it out on his own because most horse riding instructors wouldn’t teach him), and because he tends to ride horses that are cheap and that he is usually taking a chance on, he’s usually pretty tense; always waiting for the next buck. But as he came in to this touchy-feely clinic with all of these crazy horse women, he managed to be secure in himself and eager and willing to learn. Basically, he was the best kind of student any teacher could hope for (and yes, I did feel compelled to sneak a picture of him leading one of the girls on her little white pony. Because it was adorable and awesome).
The change that John made was incredible. He started out tense, a little bit stuck in his seat, and about as goal oriented and driven as Amanda. By the end of the clinic, with all of these exercises and an instructor who was willing to take the time with him to adjust his body and help him find a good position and a comfortable feeling, just about everything about him had changed. He still wasn’t super flexible and limber like the 12 year old girls (because no 40 year old man is ever going to be as flexible and limber as a 12 year old girl, and no one in their right mind would expect them to be), but he was no longer stiff. His seat and aids had softened, he was allowing his joints to do their job, he no longer needed to manhandle his horse, and it all showed in how his horse moved. The horse no longer needed to have his head in the air, his gaits lengthened, he became more willing, and they both just looked a little more comfortable and a little more happy.
By the end, when all of these horses and riders were soft and listening to each other and focused completely on what the other one had to say, it was really beautiful to watch. There was no anger, no expectations, no frustrations: just pure horsemanship. This was Equine Zen. I guess if that’s not worth the $250 Clinic Fee, not much is.