Thursday, November 6, 2014

Don't you know how to ride? Why are you taking lessons?

Somebody on the Equinesite Bulletin Board was wondering what the value was in becoming a Massachusetts licensed instructor. The exam is notoriously simple and you need a licensed instructor to sign off that you have done a certain number of "apprentice hours" that nobody from the state ever verifies. Nor is the instructor who signs off on your "apprenticeship" responsible for you in any way once you become an instructor. You know those signs you see in EVERY barn in Massachusetts?
You can order these for any state. They hang prominently in every barn I've ever walked into. Passing that test makes you a majikal "Equine Professional."

When I was 20 and life was so simple, I did a British Horse Society course in England for my Junior Semester Abroad. Here I am during that time with the fancy horse I took care of. His name was Colby.

I actually never rode Colby, but I did get to ride a lot of other nice horses and jump some big jumps. But in spite of the years long British Horse Society certification process for riding instructors, I never had a decent riding lesson during the three months I was there. I took two lessons a day with probably about six or seven different "I" certified instructors and not a single one of them knew how to communicate any of the thousand complex nuances you need to know to go from being an "OK" rider to a "Good" or even a "Great" rider. These women could Not Teach At All. They babysat. Or they tried to actually tell you what to do, were so autocratic in their style that questions were beneath them. If you did not understand, you were a worm and beneath their contempt. It was YOUR fault because YOU were stupid and ignorant. It was not because they were vague and incoherent. I was 20 years old and being a great rider was my dearest ambition. I was finally in a position to "catch up" and make up for the fact that I stopped riding in high school and my lessons were being with the empathy and tact of  Edwina and Patsy.

Typical Group Lesson: Form  a "Ride" (All horses 1 horse length apart. A mini parade in the Indoor Arena!!) Ride in figures around half the arena. Trot, walk, change direction. Spiral in, leg yield out (which I had NO idea how to do. The answer? "Use your legs!") Horse in front, canter to the end of the ride. Repeat. Absolutely no individual feedback from the instructor.

Or, they would demand you do things you didn't know how to do and SCREAM at you when you couldn't do them. (Because you weren't "using your legs.")

Halfway through the program the house burned down.

I'd had enough by then. They put us in 'port-o-cabins' -- usually meant to be offices on construction sites. Flimsy portable structures that bent in the breeze with even flimsier Ikea furniture that broke when you sat on it. I went into London for the weekend to stay with a friend in theater program and never went back.

I know and knew then what good teaching looks and feels like and this wasn't it. Great teachers can keep breaking things down and simplifying them until you get them. I did need to "use my legs" back then. I remember squeezing the horse so hard, it's a wonder he didn't keel over. I just didn't know WTF she was talking about. I was using my legs! It was causing me and probably the horse a good deal of pain and was yielding literally no result. What I didn't know was where or when to use them, or how to time where and when I used them with how I used my hands. And they were utterly useless at explaining the nuance of these things.

Great teachers don't lose their shit at you for asking questions. I know some very respected clinicians don't like client backtalk. When they ask you to do something very specific, they don't want to hear "Well I do it this way because...." I can see it both ways there. A clinic is usually a one time shot. A different perspective on what you're doing. Just TRY it their way and quit your yapping. That's what you're paying the (usually) big bucks for. Whereas you really should be able to ask your regular teacher all the questions you want when you don't get WTF she's saying.

When I went to England I had always jumped like an eq rider. Which is a bit more up the neck than the Brits do. NOW I know what they were trying to teach me and why, but at the time we were like "Why are you putting me in this weird chair seat behind the motion?" (Because that's what it felt like). It made no sense because we had no context for it. It's a much more defensive seat than what I was used to. But I didn't even know that. There was no Denny Emerson's Facebook page to explain about correct leg position back in 1990. I'd never seen a video of me jumping up my horse's neck. I had no freaking idea I had been doing it "wrong" or that it might be unsafe when I got to bigger jumps. This is something I struggle with to this day.

When I asked the instructor to explain the difference between what I was doing and what she wanted me to do she literally lost her shit at my impertinence. She stamped her feet and her slab of a ruddy face turned beet red. The American style was irrelevant. Nothing I knew mattered. Now get in the damned chair seat whether you understand the mechanics of it or not.

I don't put up with that crap now. I took a lesson with a Big Name Dressage Trainer through NEDA's flextime program and I learned something. But she was mean. She was sarcastic and rudeand she's the only trainer I've worked with that didn't love Cassel on the spot. I don't expect people to love me. But he is absolutely the sweetest, most trying horse in the world. Everybody loves him. I left the lesson fairly elated because I had learned something. I felt something that I hadn't felt before. But as time went on, I got more and more annoyed. I'm too old to put up with that crap. I have no great competition ambitions. I still want to be a great rider someday. But there are so many great dressage instructors like Leslie Kornfeld that can break down what you're doing with your body inch by inch, almost millimeter by millimeter. And if you listen and keep trying you can affect such positive changes without feeling like a sack o' crap at the end of the day. And that folks is what we should be paying for.

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