Monday, January 30, 2012

Dressage instruction is hard because...

I'm learning a few hard truths about myself these days -- I'm not much of a student, apparently.

Maybe I'm just not a good listener. Maybe I can't multitask.  Maybe it's hard to hear over the buzz of the arena lights. Maybe I'm just not a quick study.

Maybe all of those things are true. In a recent instruction session, I got the impression that the instructor felt I was not engaged in the process. I dunno, maybe I wasn't. Here's how I see it.
  1. There are always two conversations going on -- the instructor, and the horse.  
  2. I am certain that instructors want riders to think for themselves -- they don't want to have to tell you to do every little half halt.
  3. Given that you have to listen to your horse. You're sitting on 1200 lbs of muscle, how can we not give them priority? Their conversation seems much more immediate than the distant voice in the background.
  4. As a result, my fastest response is about 3-5 seconds behind in responding to the instructor. Or all too often, I miss the instructor comment entirely. 
Am I alone in this?

 How many times have you felt exasperation when an instructor says "circle at E" -- and by the time you've processed it, you're passing E? I feel dense as a post, and I can only imagine how much my instructor would like to throttle me by the neck. 

I rode in a clinic over the weekend. It was useful, and I received a clear message about what I need to work on as a rider. I failed to deliver on the goods when the clinician asked for things, though -- IMHO it was partly nerves and partly the problem of dueling conversations (described above).

The clinician is not at fault; other people manage. My only defense is that failing  to deliver the goods is not the same as not trying. The spirit may be willing, but the flesh is weak!


  1. I guess I focus on the clinician/instructor solely, because I am paying for their expertise during that small amount of time. I can converse with my horse during the other 98% of the time. (And because I want to look good, and prove myself...some vanity involved, of course.)

  2. I haven't had too many problems with instructors/clinicians on that account, but do remember, I started taking really good lessons with a top dressage/event trainer back in 1972 or so and learned to tune in 'way back then.

    I have, however, had some clinicians whose explanations or directions made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. One time, after the lesson, I asked my friend who was taping, if she understood what the trainer wanted. She was confused as I and when we both looked at the tape later, we were no more enlightened.

    I have also been known to argue with a trainer if I don't agree with his/her approach--even walked out of a lesson one time. My favorite was when an exasperated clinician got on my horse to "show me how it's done" and got even less far along that I'd gotten. Needless to say, we found a different training method at that point.

    As far as being behind the trainer's directions, one of my favorite lines was, "Go up the center line and turn left (as I proceeded to turn right...the trainer went on) No, no, your OTHER LEFT!" *G*

    Rode recently with a trainer who kept insisting I fix Tucker's crookedness at the canter with one exercise that simply was not working. I proceeded to go down the next long side doing exactly the opposite (an outside bend instead of a shoulder in) and he was fixed right away. Trainer said, "Yes, yes, that works. Counterbend. Do that." At least we both ended up on the same page. *sigh*

    My best trainers rarely got too exasperated with me, but usually made a joke of it, and the laughing made everyone, including me, feel a lot better.

    Give yourself some time. You are feeling a lot of things already with Riley, but the more you ride him the more you will be able to feel and listen at the same time. It just takes practice.

  3. I have a bit of a theory here (and no idea whether science would back it up or not!):

    Every lesson your instructor will point out several things that need attention, e.g. more inside bend, rider's right shoulder back, more impulsion.

    You're already busy doing your best schooling riding because its a lesson so that takes up, say, 70% of your attention. Each extra 'note' from your instructor requires an extra 10-15% of attention to impliment it consistently because its new so has to be consciously implemented rather than instinctivly ridden.

    So once you've been given 2 or 3 new (or nearly new) things to work on, 100% of your attention is on the riding and there isn't any space left for 'turn at E' type instructions to be processed in real time.

    The instructors I've clicked with have kept their suggested improvments to a couple of points per lesson - perhaps yours simply overloaded you on this occasion?

  4. That's why I prefer old-fashioned military-style instructors even though everybody tells me how much they despise this type of instructor and consider me crazy for actually liking them. At times, I simply need to be yelled at to get the point across. Just because that's the easiest way to get my attention.

  5. To me, that sounds like a failure on the part of the clinician to adjust to your learning style.

    I multitask REALLY well, so have fewer problems with this. It sounds like you don't, and therefore instruction and moments when you need to focus on the feel of your horse need to be properly spaced so you can both hear and feel at the same time.

    I recently had two rides with Jeremy Steinberg, and he would tell me to play with lengthening and shortening within the gait plus various lateral movement, then as I did that he would start lecturing on different aspects of my horse's personality and reactions and things to work on. He immediately assessed that I could handle both at once, if I missed a cue from my horse to do something he'd point that out so I corrected it, then go back to his lecture. He'd throw in different things I needed to do and tell me when I did something really well, too. For other riders he spoke much less and gave more direction on specific things to do with hands, legs, etc. For some he required they give more vocal feedback to ensure they heard/knew what was happening. It all just depended on us and our learning style - and to me, that's what a really great teacher does.

    You ARE NOT a bad student. You just aren't necessarily riding with someone who gets your style! I fully believe riding with someone who teaches in an incompatible or less than ideal style is one of the top reasons some folks progress more slowly than others when riding the same amount with the same person - rather than the normally attributed "talent" which I believe is overrated.

  6. I agree with Net, adding only that everyone has different "speeds" of taking in and processing things. It is the instructor's job to match your processing pace, and the best ones adjust quickly and invisibly.

    Not saying that your clinician isn't a good one--just agreeing that your slower response time doesn't make you a poor student.

    I also need a little time. When I ride with a "fast-talker" the best I can do is try to ride on auto-pilot more and wait until I'm at home to fully process. That creates additional tension--so my rides aren't my best effort. Much nicer when I can comfortably "be in the moment AT the clinic".

  7. What is so hard is that the instructor is trying to tell you how to do something in words that you can only learn by feel. I often think what an entertaining video could be made of instructors teaching dressage. They (or mine anyway) canter and side step and bend around and prance and do everything they can to show how the horse is supposed to move and/or how you are supposed to move. That doesn't translate into your own muscle memory though. I, as an experienced and adept book learning student, I can KNOW a fact in my brain but sometimes(well, OK, many times)that actually gets in the way of my body learning what to do.

  8. I haven't taken a clinic in ages, but I used to second guess what they said to me because I certainly knew my horse better than they did. I'm not saying that's what you did - mainly what I'm referring to is jumping new things that I didn't think he could do, etc.

    I don't know if I was too tired by the end of it or just gave up, but once I started numbly following all the instructions the clinician gave me my horse did do what I didn't think he could.

    There's a happy medium though, and that's hard to find.

  9. I have a certification as an instructor for students with special needs and then started my certification for "regular" riding. The greatest skill I picked up from my therapeutic training was grilling into my head to say "prepare to ." PAUSE for a second, THEN ask the rider to perform the task. Works great on any student, delayed-processing or not! It gives you a chance to prep asking the horse to do something (which I've found crucial for communicating with my dumblood - mentally, he's a bit of a freight train).

  10. These comments are wonderful to read. I have one thing to add and it's a book I recently came across. Mindset by Carol Dweck. It explained so much about abilities and talent and how we learn. There is a chapter on how the mindset of a coach is crucial to understand.
    And, hey, if it was easy everybody would be doing it!

  11. I can think of a couple of possible explanations for the delays. One is that you have a little trouble swapping sides of your brain. I have this happen when I create art - after a long day painting, I can barely form words when I try to talk to people. It takes time for my brain to switch modes. Maybe you're the same way and your riding mode is at odds with your listening to language mode. Apparently this is literally a matter of which side of your brain is active, and some people are better at swapping than others.

    Another possibility is that in order to learn any new thing, you have to have the old stuff on automatic. It really sounds like this is what's happening to you, you still have to think about what you're doing to the point that it takes up most of your processing power. The only cure is time and hours in the saddle, which is hard for an adult with a job.

    Regardless it's not your fault - epona woman is right, if this was easy everyone would be an Olympian!

  12. I couldn't help but think about the horse in these situations also. New surroundings, balancing w/ a saddle and rider on their back, being asked to do new things.....They probably have different learning styles also.

  13. An interesting discussion...

    I definitely feel this at times, when a coach is asking that you execute (insert something here), and you just aren't feeling it at the moment, or are busy trying to address something else that you DO feel

    For this reason, I consider myself to be hopeless as a coach. I always feel like a fraud - how can *I* decide for someone what will work for them? They are riding the horse, afterall...

  14. Some rides I feel like Im not quite there trainer will say the same thing over and over and finally at the tenth time its like it finally processed in my head. Its not just you, but for me it isnt all the time that I feel that way. Just like every ride I might not be mentally or physically "there" for my horse either. Its a process, with give and take.

  15. Hi, I thought it was great and used it as a daily bit on my blog. I hope you don't mind. it is on


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