Believe what you will, but I like to think that the Universe is on our side. There have been way too many instances in my life for me to personally think otherwise. The week after the Hunter Pace with Bette and KC, I ran into a friend at Chipotle. I hadn’t seen Barbara in close to two years and we eat at Chipotle a lot. Anyway…we got to catching up and she asked me who I was riding with these days (after telling me a harrowing tale of her last event with a separated shoulder hanging useless against her side. Eventers are a tough breed) and I told her I was in between trainers at the moment. She got real excited and told me she knew of the perfect person for me. I contacted AB and had my first lesson with her last night.
It was AMAZING. But…you will have to wait until the next post for those details. Today I want to talk about the overall vibe and her training methods. I’ve been on the hunt for a trainer to call my own since returning to riding in 2009. I never could find what I was looking for and was beginning to think I never would. Maybe I was just being too picky. Until I met AB. Everything felt right. Everything clicked. I know training styles and methods vary greatly and this post is not a treatise on the correct way to go about learning how to event nor is it a backhanded dis on anyone’s methods because all roads lead to Rome and all that. But for me and for this horse and in this moment in time, this is the only method that has made sense to me and I am oh so thankful to Barbara for the recommendation. I owe her a burrito or something.
My riding instruction to date has been pretty negative overall. Everyone I’ve ridden with has always focused on what not to do. Don’t pull. Don’t brace your lower leg. Don’t go around so straight. Don’t post so fast. Which is fine. I did need to stop doing those things, but not only did it give the entire lesson a very negative feel it also didn’t provide me with what to do in place of those things. Great. I’ll stop pulling but now he is zooming off or cutting the corner or doing whatever and I obviously have no idea what else to do so now I’m back to pulling and getting scolded. There was no other options provided.
I read an article several years ago about the human brain. Apparently, according to this author, the brain doesn’t register the negative such as DON’T. When you think “don’t spook” all your brain registers is “spook” and so you do. If you change the internal conversation to “walk calmly past the tree” you will. Going around and around a 20 m circle for 30 straight minutes being told “don’t pull, don’t brace, don’t etc….” was a whole lot of don’t-ing.
You know what AB never did, not a single time in an hour even when I messed up? She never said a negative word. NOT ONE SINGLE TIME. She never said “don’t pull against him” Instead she said “act a little silly up there, be loose and get him confused so he refocuses on what it is you are up to”. Instead of “don’t brace your lower leg” she said “can you bend your knee a little more to bring the leg back?”. Everything was spun in not only a positive reinforcement type manner, but with an action I could perform to change the conversation. It felt empowering instead of degrading. The end result was similar – I stopped pulling – but instead of feeling bad about my ability to ride, I felt encouraged and like I could make a change.
She had a similar approach to training Eeyore. I’m a control freak wimp and my warm up is centered around walk-halt-walk transitions until I feel like he is dialed in and listening. She wasn’t really a fan of that approach. She explained, and I will probably get this a little wrong in my translation, that in her opinion everything we teach the horse has to be with cross country in mind as that is the riskiest phase. She doesn’t want to teach Eeyore something in the arena and then have to undo that out on course. This all boiled down to one simple fact: the answer should always and forever be forward. We want to teach him that his “yes maam” should always be seen as forward momentum, looking ahead, wanting to move.
In regards to warm up then, she would prefer if I didn’t spend so much time teaching him to anticipate me shutting him down and instead teach him that from the moment I mount, we are going some where. So let him canter instead of trot if he breaks. Who cares? I need to control the direction and the pace, but if I say walk and he trots? Ask myself this: is he moving forward, is he going where I want and is he in front of my leg? If the answer is yes to all those, then let him go and slowly bring him back after a lap or two. In so doing, he will expect a forward ride every time. Breaks to canter from the trot? Same thing. Is he moving forward, in front of my leg, where I want to go? Then let him canter a lap or two then bring him back to the trot no fuss.
This came up again when jumping. I told her that he gets a bit rushy and that I like to use circles and halting after a jump to settle him. She wasn’t a fan of that again saying that forward is the answer. She didn’t want me to teach him to get nervous in the air or shut down wondering if this time I’m going to make him halt on the backside. Instead, she wants him going over every jump thinking about moving forward away from it on the back side. She said this all teaches him to be brave and bold out on the cross country course which is what we want in the end.
I’m not saying this is the only method of training an event horse or that it is even the best, but I can tell you that by the end of that lesson I had a much happier, forward and easy going gelding than I had starting it and I was a much more relaxed rider as well. The entire vibe of the lesson was uplifting and building confidence and skills instead of past experiences where I would leave dejected and questioning whether I should just return to the trails and give this whole thing up. Which was pretty magical if you ask me.
I’m sure I’m leaving some stuff out but these were the main philosophies that really stuck with me. I think she will be an excellent fit for us and I can’t wait to lesson with her again. Stay tuned for the actual lesson recap which will be jam packed with info!