This article won the 2022 GMO Newsletter Award for a first person article for GMOs with 500 or more members. It originally appeared in the New England Dressage Association newsletter, A tip of the Hat, 2022.
The USDF Group Member Organization (GMO) Newsletter Awards are designed to recognize outstanding efforts by GMOs that produce newsletters. Awards in two categories will be presented for exemplary articles. Nominations are due by August 31st. Only an official representative of a GMO may submit the nomination. For a nomination form follow this link.
BY IRIS BERDROW
What is an immersive training program?
Typically, when we think of folks going to Florida for winter riding, we think of them moving their normal riding program from New England to Florida or shipping their horse to Florida to be trained. Being in an immersive training program means moving both horse and rider to Florida and riding with a trainer every day. Thanks to NEDA grants and a conducive work arrangement, I had the opportunity to spend three months this winter in an immersive training program with Jaralyn Gibson of Finesse Dressage. I received four lessons a week, with a fifth day for hacking. In the beginning, the lessons were structured such that my trainer rode Bolero first to get him in the correct mental and physical frame, then I would get on. Eventually, I could start him but with very clear instructions on how to warm him up. Most days focused on a specific issue that needed to be resolved holding the reins, creating a soft chewy connection, proper foot position, disconnecting my hips from my core for fluidity.
How is the learning different?
Because the learning was repetitive and in close sequence, I did not have the opportunity to spend a week between lessons in my own delusional state of (in)effective riding. Because I was videoing each ride and taking notes, I was able to review and reflect. And, because I was watching my trainer ride my horse, I could create a mental model of best practice. As a side note, I had an interesting opportunity to model best practice in London Heathrow airport recently. I noticed a tall, elegant woman who clearly had modeling training and looked stunningly graceful as she walked through the airport. Keeping a safe distance so as not to be arrested for stalking, I mimicked her stride, self-carriage, and swing. It felt empowering. I did the same while sitting in the observation chair at the side of the ring. With my arms in an opening rein position, sitting on my seat bones, my feet under me, I could move as I saw my trainer move. For example, when she was cantering, my pelvis was swinging up and back and up and back. This helped develop my muscle memory of the correct way to move without having the “noise” of my horse under me.
Breaking old habits
In my effort to move forward, I often felt like I first had to cast off much of what I had learned, then learn new techniques or reexamine old ones but in a new context. My riding objective was to progress from first to second level. This means sitting the trot something that had always eluded me. It was possible, but it never felt comfortable or effective. I got moments but only when I could keep my horse through and forward. In this process, I learned that, despite daily Pilates, losing a lot of weight, and walking miles, I was still braced, sitting heavy in the saddle, and unable to disconnect my core from my pelvis from my arms. Everything worked like one solid mechanism rather than independent parts. I had always heard things such as:
You need self-carriage just as much as your horse.
Your arms and hands belong to your horse and have to move with him, the rest are yours.
Sit tall, as though the top of your head is held up by a string.
Each would work a little, for a time, if I was reminded in real time, but very little translated into consistently effective riding aids. Why not? Most of us have the luxury of one riding lesson a week and maybe three/four clinics a year. We hear something for a few minutes, we rewatch the video, and next week are struggling with a different issue, so we hear something else for a few minutes. And on goes the cycle throughout the year. In an intense training program, I was in lessons almost every day. I was being drilled on movements such as riding the corners, extend on the short diagonal picking up the sitting trot halfway across. Because of this intensity, I heard things in new ways. An example is the aha moment about self-carriage. Your core, upper body holds itself still and lifted, allowing your pelvis to sit in but not crush the horse’s back. On the day I practiced this, I came home to watch the video over and over and then found Charlotte Dujardin’s Ridely video on self-carriage. Next time I got on, I remembered. This isn’t to say that it’s a linear path. There were days I would watch myself get the self-carriage while regressing into stiff arms. I had that down last week. What happened? The next day, I managed self-carriage and soft, giving hands with CLOSED fingers.
It is like an immersive language training program-intense, all consuming, and challenging. You feel lost, inadequate, unable to function in the most basic ways. And then one day you find yourself negotiating a complicated discussion and achieving the desired outcome. The same with your riding-one day, several things come together, and you realize your aids just slipped into a new reality of effectiveness. You nailed it and held on to it!
The psychological process
The most difficult part of an intense training program is unlearning old and ineffective behaviors. This often made me feel like a kindergartner. I am a career professional, I am successful, and I am not comfortable with being bad at anything. I was (and still am) bad-or at least ineffective- at a lot of riding technique. I remember one particularly challenging lesson in which I spent 40 minutes learning how to position my left foot and leg in order to break the habit of leaning to the right. That 40 minutes did not lead to a complete erasure of the bad habit, but it did give me a vivid memory of how to fix it when I paid attention to my imbalance. However, I did not get there easily. About 10 minutes into the lesson, I could feel my frustration level rising. And my trainer noticed. I had slipped into that mental space of pushing back against her instructions, letting the voice in my head argue that I was trying the best I could, and getting more than a little angry about what I perceived as a relentless pressure to get it right. And then I lifted my head and looked in the mirror; she was right! My leg was not where I thought it was. When I put it where she suggested, it now felt wrong, but my balance was better. She was seeing reality; I was feeling a delusion.
One particularly memorable lesson amused the working students who had joined my trainer ringside. We were all encouraged to watch as many lessons and training rides as we could. This lesson was focused on dropping my legs, which led to my trainer telling me to drop my stirrups in a sitting trot. I was managing fairly well, getting the rhythm and relaxing my thighs. Then came the instruction. “Now canter.” I took the bold move of voicing my first reaction which was to say NO. I can hear you all laughing, and I got the appropriate response from my trainer. I did pick up a canter without stirrups but decided I was going to channel one of my favorite characters in Louise Penny’s mystery series about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, Rosa the Duck. I found my courage by chanting out loud Rosa’s favorite word which rhymes with duck. The girls were completely amused, and I felt vindicated-if at my tender age of 60ish I was made to canter without stirrups, I would darn well do it my way! Ironically, I actually found it fun; the cantering, not the chanting.
All this is to say that you are going to have rough days. Allow yourself to get through them in whatever way works for you.
Foremost was the fact that weather did not get in the way of training. With nothing but an occasional rain event or a particularly hot day, I was able to focus entirely on the riding. This made an incredible difference.
Another advantage in Florida is mirrors. I am one of those riders who loves to either look at mother earth (muscle memory encourages me to consider that I may land there if things go south; all pun intended) or turn my head in the direction I want my horse to go. Neither helps with uphill riding or straightness. Now, I had a mirror that I could stare at for at least 11 O degrees of every circle. Yes, it required turning my head, but it helped me see things such as my leg position that I’d miss if staring at the ground. To see your right leg bent back on a right lead circle, fix it and feel the difference in your horse’s forwardness as it’s happening, is so helpful. When I did leg yields heading toward the mirror, I could see the difference between my favored trot-on-a-diagonal line versus a true leg yield, allowing me to make corrections in the moment.
Using all your tools
Take every opportunity to learn what you can. When your trainer rides, ask her to explain what she is feeling and doing. And then there are the nuggets like “stretch is a destination, not a layover;” or another favorite, “be light and quick-fluffy even!” The Ridely App with its notes and videos feature is another extremely handy tool. You can either type or dictate, both work with Ridely. You can even create an indexed library for yourself. Now that I am back in New England, I can repeat those lessons. I can pick a video and set of notes to review, create a plan for my own ride, video it, and then compare. For me, visuals have always worked best. For instance, on one noteworthy day of competition a few years ago, I went from my absolute worst (and embarrassing) morning score to winning my afternoon class by watching my video in between. I was horrified and determined not to look like that in my next test!
Of course, Florida offers wonderful opportunities to watch the best riders just down the road at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival. I also went to competitions in Wellington and Ocala. I watched others ride the levels I am working to achieve and saw their live scores come up on my phone. I could see immediately how their movements were being scored.
As with all good things, an end must come. I have returned home, and Bolero is on his way. My home trainer Lainey Johnson gets me back, with my new and improved skills. My biggest concern is whether I can maintain this level of focus once back in my home environment. Clearly, work and life won’t allow the same intensity of lessons, but that doesn’t mean my commitment to our path of improvement should change.
For an aspiring rider, an adult amateur in, I hope, the third quarter of her life, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It taught me a lot about riding but also about myself. Thank you, NEDA, for the grant awards, Jaralyn for your patience, Liza and Liz for your endless loving care of Bo Bo, and Lainey for supporting me and welcoming us back.