By Debbie Berry
The sun has long since dropped behind the mountains and rain drums a rhythm on the roof of the arena as Tilly and I start our evening ride. Joints pop in the still air as we stretch out stiffness from a day of standing in the pasture and sitting at a desk…we are two maturing ladies beginning a conversation. Tilly steps out briskly hoping to fool me into thinking she’s completely on board with the coming work. And I am fooled for a bit, but eventually I catch on. Tilly sighs and the conversation begins.
Slowly, slowly we engage. I work on correcting my position in the saddle. I have put on my big girl show boots tonight and dropped my stirrups a hole. I think about pushing away from my seatbones, and I stretch taller in the saddle. My legs get longer and the soles of my feet feel like they are standing on the ground. I start to feel better balanced.
Through the warm up, Tilly waits for me to settle into my position and relax a bit, waits for me to find her center of gravity and plug into it, waits for me to ask the questions exactly the right way.
Humidity gradually spreads clouds across the arena mirrors. When I look over to check our progress, Tilly and I are a dark blur moving through the mistiness. So, it is to be all by feel tonight.
I think about the learning process and how everything in dressage is so hard won. Such little bits of progress and breakthroughs. I wonder if I had started dressage at an earlier stage in life if I would be further along in my understanding and capability. I don’t completely lack in athletic ability, but gaining any measure of aptitude in truly riding in harmony with the horse is so elusive.
Tilly interrupts and tells me to focus. She tells me our trot is falling apart. I’m not allowed to be a passenger. She’s right.
Everything is so hard won.
Tonight, she’s grouchy about the canter departs, and I have to pick up a whip and flick her a few times. In my head, I hear her grumbling as she rolls into the canter. But her rhythm is good and her back is lifting. We work on adjustability at the canter. I ask for forward a little more, not with my legs but from my core. Then back a little bit, also asking from the core. Forward and back. Forward and back. With all this core work, I wonder why I don’t look like Twiggy and briefly consider rethinking the peanut butter pretzels at work. Forward and back. Forward and back. I must be doing something right or Tilly would have given me her opinion by now. She’s quick with her opinions.
The birds in the rafters have settled for the night and the rain has eased. We are walking on a long rein now, and I think we can be done. Tilly has been very good. But something is niggling in the back of my mind. I know it’s Tilly and she is saying, “Ask me for the sitting trot again. Go ahead. Ask me.” So I do.
Once again, I push away from my seatbones and almost immediately connect to Tilly’s center of gravity. My seatbones feel like a plug settling gently but firmly into an outlet. We connect and it’s electric! Tilly steps way underneath herself, pushing up through the back. The base of her neck drops and she feels like putty in my hands, soft and pliable. She has lifted into an athletic collected trot around the arena, in perfect balance, and I am right there with her. We are talking and listening to each other at the same time. Our conversation is in full flow. I try a little influence with my seatbones — to leg yield her out to the rail, to turn through the corner, to change direction. She is so light and responsive! I feel like we could go on this way forever. But Tilly huffs and tells me not to get greedy. So we drop back to a walk and call it a night.
In the crossties, I lay my forehead against hers and thank her. She is smug. I can tell she is pleased with herself…and maybe a little bit with me, too. Tilly reminds me not to make tonight’s conversation too “precious”. It’s just a conversation, one of so many. I will try to hold the thought of this ride in my mind without obsessing about it. Tomorrow’s ride will be a different conversation. But tonight I allow myself a smile and that feeling of peace as I drive home. Once again, I feel, for this moment in time, all is right with the world.