In the 80’s, I marched with the Ladies Against Women. Do you know the organization? They were a national group and there were two ways to join: You needed a permission note from your father, or a permission note from your husband. We marched in the Denver Do-Dah Parade, somewhere between the Lawn Chair Drill Team and the Basset Hound Rescue who had a dozen Bassets marginally harnessed and somewhat pulling an Iditarod dog sled. The Ladies Against Women carried signs with slogans like I’d rather be ironing. and 59¢ is too much. One of us was pregnant and barefoot, and we all seemed a bit shocked being out of our kitchens.
Things were going well until someone took us seriously and threw their soda. My pink sponge rollers got all sticky. And to think that feminists have a reputation for having no sense of humor… Pashaw.
Now here I am a few decades later, again affiliated with a group rumored to have no sense of humor. I’m not sure where Dressage got it’s stodgy reputation. Is it our age? We have been around for a very long time, being the mother of so many other riding disciplines. Is it that silly shadbelly coat and white breeches? It’s just tradition. I think you western riders understand that, taking so much pride in your hats the way you do. Besides, any rider who wears white obviously has a sense of humor.
In a way, a sense of humor is in our bylaws. The foundation of our Dressage Training Pyramid requires the horse has to be working through it’s back freely, relaxed and forward. Some riders read the small print differently, but we begin horses with the premise that a horse must be physically and mentally free from tension or constraint in order to use itself to the fullest. Give me a minute, I’m getting to the funny part.
Relaxed + forward = Happy horse. It’s a result you can’t get by fighting or intimidating your partner. If the horse needs relaxation, then the rider has to display it first. We carry all of our emotions in our bodies; in a sense we cue with our emotions. The horse hears the rider’s feelings louder than the actual cue most of the time. The best riding position in the world can’t make up for negative emotions in the saddle.
Are you in a perfection death spiral? The harder you try, the worse it gets, the more you want it, the harder you push, the harder you push, the more he resists. By now your sit bones are driving into your horses back like a cinder block and no kind of expensive saddle pad will lessen the pain. Your horse thinks you are a humorless Asshat. (Doesn’t that word make you smile?)
Be deadly serious about your riding. There is no denying how much it matters to all of us. But discipline yourself to laugh it off; find a way to ride with a light heart. If you want to control something, start with your emotions. Don’t do it for the judge or your trainer. Do it for your horse because a happy seat in the saddle feels better to him. Period. There is no better reason.
Riding appears effortless when we relax and ride like we don’t care. Yes, it is a lie, we all care too much. That’s the point. Spare your horse your elite riding dreams and play instead. Laugh your way to advanced movements. Yes, it’s counter intuitive, but riding is fun, remember?
The reason that we need to be serious about having a sense of humor should be obvious by now. You can’t force a horse to relax. Trying to force anything around a horse doesn’t work and makes you look like a jerk. Then the doorway to good work shrinks to the size of an eye of a needle. You can’t kick your way through that. You are on a very slippery slope here and it’s your job to lead your horse to a better place. Yes, it takes patience and time to train a horse. But a sense of humor does make time pass more quickly.
Let your horse volunteer his best work, lightly and freely. Asked for by a light, happy seat and rewarded with a genuine smile and praise from the heart. Good Boy. Even if it’s not perfect, it’s a step in the right direction. Show your horse some praise and see what he returns to you.
While we are training them, our horses are training us right back. They teach us about humility first, humor makes that lesson easier to swallow.
The truth is to succeed at anything involving a horse you need a lightness of heart. Our passion for riding is deadly cruel without it. But serious isn’t the same as stodgy. Focused isn’t the same as dull. Most of all, forced isn’t the same as volunteered. Be deadly serious about riding, but do it with a chuckle and a guffaw. If nothing else, people will think you’re crazy and you’ll get more private arena time.
Crank up the music. None of the stodgy classical stuff, let your horse pick something out of your comfort zone on the AM dial. Find that saddle pad with the ducks on it and get out the rainbow leg wraps. Let out a howling whoop when you get that extended trot or cackle like a chicken at the canter. Wear a happy face on your full seat breeches and be a member of the Laughing Seat Riding Society. Your horse will write the permission note.
Lighten up, this is Dressage!
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.