Dare I say it? I think I have discovered somewhere deep in my psyche the undeniable excitement of training my horse to do specific movements through the discipline of dressage. I know! WTF!
Three years ago, I decided, after watching N ride Cali, that Ashke and I needed some dressage lessons in our life. That did not go as expected and I ended too many rides in tears from battling my horse. There were several issues I needed to address, from learning a different method to train my horse that did not involve "pulling to frame", to figuring out how to install brakes on my horse, to training him to do something other than stick his nose straight up in the air. At that point in our journey, I was kind of winging it, since the trainer I had been working with was contributing to our struggles rather than helping in the analysis/change/resolution to fix the obstacles standing between us and our goal.
My first goal was to find a bit we could ride in, that Ashke liked, that did not cause the reactions of head straight up in the air or mouth wide open. I think we tried as many bits as I did saddles. I recognized after trying a plethora of snaffle bits that they were not for us and that if I wanted any small bit of success, we needed to try a bit that didn't bulge up into his palette. We switched from a variety of snaffle bits (his palette is so narrow that any snaffle causes intense pain) to trying several grazing or curb bits. The grazing bits are a solid one-piece bit that have no flexibility on the sides to help cue the horse and he had a tendency to be stiff when working in them. I tried a couple of myler bits, but despite their claim to "no pinch" we ended up with a lacerated tongue twice and so myler ended up elsewhere. After the Rebecca Algar clinic and show, I borrowed a simple Spanish curb bit from a friend and I will never ride in another bit again. I tried, for a short time, to ride in another bit on trail, but honestly, Ashke prefers the Spanish bit.
Somewhere along the way, we also figured out some control. It's no longer a fight. It certainly helps to have Amanda's voice in my ear saying "don't fight with him up front" when we are riding, but overall, Ashke and I have found a way to get along. He tries. I try not to mess up. I don't get angry when something goes awry. I have found humor when he gets spooky, laughing out loud instead of getting scared. Of being soft and persistent when riding out on trail, of calming him with my voice and allowing him the space to come back to me.
A while ago, I came to the realization that Ashke's not ever going to try and hurt me, to dump me or do something that could disrupt our relationship. He wants me to trust in him as much as he wants to trust in me. We want to be soft and open and forgiving with each other. It's a lot like a marriage. You meet and fall in love, move in together and then spend time trying to figure out how to exist together without crushing the life out of each other. I don't want to crush who he is: I love it when he's snorty and jigs, or snorty and a bit spooky. That is his personality and one of the abiding reasons I wanted an Arabian. I don't want that to disappear. I don't want to break that part of him. Just like I love my son's sense of humor (biting sarcasm mixed with intuitive wit), I wouldn't change Ashke's sense of humor for the world. And he has figured out that if he listens to me, I will also listen to him. The energy that spins between us is unique and fulfilling, speaking of safety and trust and intimate knowledge of the other. It's a relationship. Co-Being.
That step into a new level of intimacy has also allowed Ashke the freedom to relax and trust that I will not hurt him or demand anything from him that he can't do during our dressage lessons. That has given him the space to learn that he can carry himself in a frame, he can collect and lengthen, that he can move his body in all sorts of ways that neither of us thought possible, with the end result of finding joy in our lessons. I think it is why he now reaches for contact, even when on trail: he wants to hold my hand. I swear to you he loves learning this stuff. He'll do something well that has been difficult and then blow afterwards in absolute delight that we managed to do it correctly. After an especially difficult section, he walks up to Amanda for reassurance and love, wanting to know that he is a good boy. He tries so hard and I never get upset if what we are trying doesn't work, because I know it has to do with my not asking correctly. I apologize to him verbally if I mess up and I am working on being consistent in my aides so as to not confuse him. It also means that I can carry a dressage whip during my arena rides without him completely freaking out and panicking. That is an awesome change, since using the hip to reinforce aides meant to move him from side to side is very helpful.
We have also discovered a canter to die for. He is no longer rushing, and I can see us starting at some point in the future, to slow the canter more, then lengthen and then slow again. We can tell when he is getting tired and are careful to change what we are doing to something less physically taxing. Even on the trail, his canter is more careful, controlled, controllable. Not rushy. He still pins his ears, but I really think that is his version of sticking out his tongue when he tries.
I can see how dressage training for specific movements could become an obsession. For me, it certainly has helped increase our communication and we have achieved some milestones I did not think were possible. It's also restored Ashke's faith in his body. His muscles are strong and flexible. His feet are no longer bothering him. He has the strength and energy to move in all of the ways a horse carrying a rider can be asked to move. It is making him stronger and more capable. His muscles are no longer sore and the work is helping him straighten out how he moves.
I am humbled and inspired by him, by the changes in his physical well-being, his overcoming adversity, and by his faith in our relationship. I am in awe of his huge heart and the soul shining out of his luminous eyes. I am challenged to meet him with integrity, to accept his offering, and to strive to be a better rider every time I have the joy and privilege of swinging my leg over his back.