By Bethany Larsen
Picture, if you will, the smooth, wet sand on the beach as the wave gently retracts after rolling ashore. Having successfully erased any signs of former footprints, the undisturbed sand beckons you to trod upon its smooth granules. Spotting a distant rock, you serenely walk along the shore listening to the gentle roaring of the ocean, and breathing in the salty air. Once you have reached the rock the sun sinks lower and you turn to head back for the day. You observe the path you have left in the soggy footing. That straight line of footprints is evidence of the determination you possessed to reach your destination.
As a horse rider, there is no sight more beautiful, yet beckoning, as a freshly drug sand arena: the lines left by the drag perfectly parallel to the perimeter; the footing soft and inviting. We love being the first rider in such an arena as this. As a dressage rider, I eat up this opportunity to work on the straightness of my lines. Centerlines, diagonals, halts–everything in dressage is scored for the technical aspect of straightness. The hind legs should be following on the exact same line as the front legs. Sure, we ride lateral movements which involve sideways motion and the curved lines of circles, but even those have an element of straightness to them: the haunches follow in the path of the shoulders. Have you ever casually walked a horse on a loose rein out to the buckle in such an arena? Or maybe handwalked? Look behind you, or notice the hoof prints when you come back around. Not straight, eh? Didn’t think so. They rarely are.
Horses are constantly looking from left to right, from here to there, in front, and even behind them. As the head swings to look and the ears swivel to listen, the path they walk is as squiggly as a river on a map. As animals of prey, they are always on the lookout for a potential danger. Without the solid guidance of a rider, giving them specific directions toward a certain destination, they would fail the “walk the line” portion of an intoxication test every time. Daily, I work on keeping my transitions and halts straight, practicing them several times, until we finally achieve a straight one. It’s hard. The rider can be telling the shoulders to stay left in front of the haunches, and still the horse leans incessantly upon the right one. This is the joy of riding an animal with a mind and body of its own; to harness every aspect of this half-ton creature takes years of training, strengthening, and trust building. When it all comes together, the ride becomes as breathtaking as a gymnast flipping and twirling on a balance beam. The most complicated of movements demanding incredible strength are performed with apparent ease. Yet none of this is possible without confidence and determination. Could you imagine attempting a flip on a 4 inch beam without fully committing? I’m going to bet that by the end of it, you are no longer on the beam.
The years that it takes to train a horse to achieve such high levels in dressage is determined by the time it takes to build strength, confidence, and trust on the part of the horse. Once the rider feels the security and consistence of a certain movement to a certain degree, it’s time to push the envelope and ask for a little more: a little more connection, a little more engagement, a little more collection. Oftentimes, this new challenge from the rider puts the horse back into a sense of confusion and worry as he no longer entirely understands what it is the rider wants. His sense to take over and do it the way he wants and knows takes precedence. With encouragement and persistence from the rider, his level of strength, confidence, and trust rises to meet the new standard set for him. This cycle goes on and on as the years progress, the culmination of which can be plainly seen while watching the top horses and riders in the world.
I was reflecting on these things the other day as I was turning horses out in the morning. They always seem very eager to leave the confinement of their stalls and go outside where we have just thrown them flakes of hay in their paddocks. The banging, teeth swiping on the stall bars or walls, nickering, and stall pacing can be heard from miles away. When it is finally time for Horse X to go out, he’s pawing incessantly as I open his stall door, halter in hand. “Okay,” I say, holding out the halter to him, “it’s your turn. Let’s go!” He immediately turns his head to the right, successfully inserting it into the corner of his stall, so I can’t even slip the halter over his nose. Well this seems counterproductive, I think as I loop my hand around his neck and gently straighten it so I can put his halter on. “I thought you wanted to go out.” Horse Y is another one with contradictory actions: “Let me out! Can it be my turn? Oh, goody, there you are. I’m ready!…Gah! What are you doing? Why are you trying to put that thing on my head! I don’t like it! Go away! I’m going to put my head up as high as possible to avoid that thing!…Hey, where did you go? I want to go out! I said I was ready! Come back!” And then there are Horses A-Z who, once en-route to the paddock, bob and weave from left to right, putting me into a game of avoid-being-stepped-on-or-hit-in-the head-by-a-half-ton-animal, while others are overcome with such excitement as to throw in trotting steps to get too far in front and are forced to turn circles all the way out to the paddock. Either way, I’m at the other end of a rope doing my best to keep said horse walking a straight and steady pace safely toward our destination.
There are many things to learn from horses. One observation is recognizing the triviality of these creatures that are seemingly only driven by fear, food, and comfort. Any rational being would see that if one has a specific destination or goal he is after that he should march straight and definitely toward that end, turning aside neither to pursue a rabbit trail that does not lead forward nor a path that turns him completely around. If you are passionate about achieving a goal or success in a certain area, do it! Do not turn aside to follow some trivial pursuit which aims to distract you from the path you were on. If you want the hay in the paddock, follow the criteria set down to get you there. Stick to the path and you will achieve that perfect line, that straight flying change, that balanced canter pirouette. The path may be full of challenges; overcome them to build strength and confidence. Stride forward with determination and you will stick the landing after the backflip on the balance beam, seamlessly flowing into a pivot turn.
Bethany Larsen is co-owner and head trainer at Topline Dressage in Powhatan, VA accepting horses for boarding and training and students for lessons. She is a USDF Bronze and Silver Medalist and holds national breed titles at varying levels in the sport.