A Lifelong Process: Learning How to Ride
“Denn Reiten ist nicht weiter schwierig, solange man nichts davon versteht. Wenn man es aber einige Jahre versucht hat, dann liegt der Fall ganz anders. “ (Udo Bürger, 1959)
“Riding is not so difficult as long as one does not know anything about it. Once a rider has tried to learn for a number of years, it’s a different story.”
Udo Bürger knew what he was talking about. I’ve been learning how to ride for the past 40 years, but still feel like I know very little most of the time.
When I was seven years old, I started taking riding lessons. I’ve continued to take lessons ever since. As a teenager, I mucked stalls in exchange for more time on horseback. I rode as many horses as I could, whenever the lucky people who owned them would let me. I read the classic books about dressage, which made little sense.
A rare photo from my cowgirl years
When I was 19, I knew I wanted to train horse for a living. I also knew I wanted to ride Western horses. I moved to the US and worked for successful Quarter Horse trainers for years, long after my tourist visa had run out. I spent a lot of time in round pens, starting youngsters. I rode all day, every day. I saw a lot of bad horsemanship, and a lot of good horsemanship. I thought I knew what kind of trainer I wanted to be.
Little mare with a huge heart: Lady Jana Command
When I was 26, I hung out my shingle as a professional. I still spent a lot of time starting youngsters, and even more time riding all types of horses that their owners considered problem horses. I rode all day, every day. I won some blue ribbons at Arabian shows, Morgan shows, Appaloosa shows, Quarter Horse shows. There were times when I thought I knew a lot. There were many other times when I reached the limits of what I knew. I did know, beyond a doubt, that I needed to learn a lot more.
Winning the Training Level Dressage Championship with MDs Jasmine at the Morgan World Show, 1999
When I was 28, I came back to dressage because it added essential pieces to the puzzle of good horsemanship I was trying to complete. I rode all day, every day, still mostly youngsters and horses with various issues. I took lessons from local instructors. I audited clinics because could not afford to ride in them. I read books. I watched videos. I watched other riders. I went to dressage shows. I read the comments on my dressage tests, which made me cringe. I felt like a failure.
When I was 31, I quit riding. Three months later, I started riding again because not riding made me feel like an even bigger failure. I won some ribbons in lower-level dressage tests on Arabians, Quarter Horses, and other horses that were not, strictly speaking, dressage horses. I took a lot of lessons. I wanted to move up the levels but did not know how to get there.
When I was 37, I finally had the chance to ride some talented young warmbloods. I won some ribbons at regional shows and got some decent scores. I rode in more expensive clinics. I started the USDF L-judge program. I took tons of lessons. I watched videos of myself riding, which made me cringe. I re-read some of the books I had first read as a teenager. They made a little more sense by now. I watched other riders and wanted to ride like they did. I felt envious. I wanted to make it to FEI nirvana. I took more lessons. I had anxiety attacks before clinics. I had anxiety attacks before lessons. I sometimes had anxiety attacks during clinics. I took yet more lessons. I rode more than ever. I rode past the mirrors in the indoor arena hundreds of times, thousands of times, obsessed with the horse’s outline and my position in the saddle. I felt exhausted. I felt jealous of more successful riders. I felt like I had wasted all the years I spent training western horses and horses without much natural talent for dressage. I trained several horses to 4th level and got two of the four scores for my USDF silver medal. I felt like the worst rider in history because I had not made it to Prix St. Georges by age 40. I wanted to learn more, but did not know what else I could do do reach my goals.
When I was 42, I quit horses like lifelong smokers quit cigarettes. I did not ride at all for six months, which felt really strange. I went back to grad school, got a teaching job, and tried to forget about horses. It didn’t work. I started riding again, part time at first, then quit the teaching job.
A year ago, when I was 46, I went back to full-time horse training. There was no other way. Horses are a part of me. Without them, there is a horse-shaped empty space inside me. I never want to quit again. I want to keep learning, but I also want to keep enjoying horses. I think it’s possible to do both.
Some things haven’t changed: I am re-reading some of the classic books about dressage that I first read at age 12. They make a lot more sense now. I still ride a lot of horses, but not ten or twelve a day - more like six or seven. And I still haven’t made it to Prix St. Georges, much less Grand Prix. And yes, before I die, I still would love to get there.
My new goal: to feel at home in any saddle, or no saddle at all. Bareback time brings joy back to riding.
Other things did change. Instead of trying to forget my time as a cowgirl and colt starter, I now feel as proud of my Western background as of my dressage background. It gives me an added perspective, another set of tools, another way of approaching training issues. I especially enjoy exploring what both styles of riding have in common, and I love that Western Dressage is now a recognized discipline.
I now appreciate all the horses I’ve trained over the years - the talented ones, and the not so talented ones, the easy ones and the difficult ones. Especially the difficult ones. They have been my greatest teachers.
Zumaya, a mare with talent and tons of attitude. Yes, we learned a lot from each other.
I now take criticism from instructors and judges seriously, but not too seriously. I want to make progress, but not at the expense of joy. Maybe this is the most important lesson I’ve learned so far. It's one I want to teach all my students. It's one I never want to forget again.
What was/is your learning process? A straightshot, or a long and winding road like mine? Please let me know!
May you ride with joy,