…from the outside in:
I began taking piano lessons at five years of age. It satisfied an urge to keep up with my older sisters who had already been playing for some time. My family placed a high value on such accomplishments. My teacher named the black and white keys and explained the corresponding dots printed on the page. I was taught how my fingers should press on the smooth ivory surfaces and move up and down the keyboard. Time passed and my assignments began to be more difficult. Feeling pressured to come up with a perfectly played piece for my lesson every week in order to receive praise from my teacher and my family made me fearful, and then frustrated when I did not. Practicing for 1/2 an hour every other day became a drudgery and I dreaded that time after school when I would have to sit down on the polished wood bench and try to figure out how in the world I was ever going to be as good as everyone else.
One afternoon my older sister sat next to me and patiently showed me how to take one hand and one note at a time and train my fingers to memorize one measure, and then another. She then stayed and practiced with me. Her presence bolstered my confidence and in an instant my frustration evaporated. She had given me a formula that I could repeat over and over again and, in the years following, I learned how to manipulate my fingers rather adeptly. But in the end I did not feel that I had learned to play the piano, nor have any idea what it would take to become a good musician. Instead, I quit lessons at the ripe old age of 13 — not because I lost interest exactly, but because I did not feel capable. In my family, that was a shame too great to bear.
I learned to ride in a similar way. At 4-years-old I was told how to climb on the horse, how to keep my feet in the stirrups, how to hold the reins, and how to turn and to stop. They were specific formulas that I could memorize and repeat. Because I had an innate passion for riding, I took lessons every chance I got, began dressage when I was close to 20, continued to be a good student, and ever looking for praise, memorized and reproduced everything I was told.
Fast forward ten years. I was returning to the U.S. from a year in Germany, showing and training abroad. My competition horse had ended up more nervous and frenzied than when he arrived. Yes, I knew the training had been severe. But other horses had managed it. Why couldn’t he? And after all those years of training with the top trainers from around the world, why hadn’t any one of them been able to teach me to train my horse in a way that he could have handled?
I was about to give up dressage when I met Tom Dorrance. I remember the first time I heard him say that he couldn’t teach anyone anything, but if they were willing, he might be able to help them learn something. It didn’t make sense to me. Hadn’t I been taught pretty much everything I knew about riding and training horses?
But what had I learned?
I had learned to be the good student and “do the right thing.” If I could just follow instruction, I wouldn’t have to be wrong. And so, like my former years at the piano, I had learned how to be a good technician. I could sit astride in good form and perform movements with precision, but I had no idea how to help my troubled horse, or how to ease his angst and the tension he carried.
To be continued next week! Stay tuned…