…from the inside out
In May/June 2013 I gave a clinic at the site of Denise Lesnik’s Inside Out Horse Training in Elgin, Illinois. As an instructor and coach, I am always trying to discern what the student needs in order to be able to find their way to “feel,” or to an experience of what I’m saying rather than merely an intellectual understanding of my words. Most people who ride with me have already learned basic horsemanship skills, and so I have more leeway to delve beyond their initial technical response — a response that is perfectly necessary at first, but innately superficial.
During one of the group sessions at the clinic, I presented some general themes and specific assignments for the riders. Stuart, in western saddle, had to translate what I was saying into what he had learned from other clinicians who used different terms to communicate similar ideas. He was particularly good at stopping for clarification, then working on his own to see what he could put into practice before coming back for feedback on his progress. He knew that principles of dressage could help him develop better horsemanship skills, but he needed to work out what that meant to him before he would be able to apply it to his particular discipline.
This kind of approach takes a willingness from the student to be responsible for their own learning, even as I am taking responsibility for imparting what I know in a patient and supportive manner in as many ways as necessary until essential points are grasped. But after the clinic, I will board a plane, or get in my car, and go home. I want to know that everyone has had enough “application time” to begin to trust their own ability to problem-solve.
But, you might still be asking, what exactly does it look like to go from relying on information fed from the outside, to having a “feel” for it it from the inside?
Here is one example of riding from the outside-in: You are taking a dressage lesson and asked by your instructor to track right at sitting trot, turn right at E (a 90 degree turn) and head toward the opposite side of the court. You are trying to become a better rider and it’s important
to do well for your upcoming show. You make a transition to the sitting trot and your focus is immediately taken up by your effort to stay with your horse’s movement. But when you get to the turn at E, he leans in like a motorcycle. His stride quickens and he becomes stiff. You feel a flush of anger and the need to correct him, so you “half-halt” with your reins and punch him in the side with your inside leg for weighting his inside shoulder — the reason he leaned into the turn. You assumed your horse was at fault because “he should have known better,” so you gave him a “what for.” Your actions are rewarded by your instructor and you move on to the next task.
An example of riding from the inside-out might look more like this: You are taking a dressage lesson and asked by your instructor to track right at sitting trot, turn right at E (a 90 degree turn) and head toward the opposite side of the court. You are trying to become a better rider and so it’s important for you to learn. You make a transition to the sitting trot and your focus is immediately taken up by your effort to stay with your horse’s movement. But when you get to the turn at E, he leans in like a motorcycle. His stride quickens and he becomes stiff. You feel a flush of anger and the need to correct him, so you “half-halt” with your reins and punch him in the side with your inside leg for weighting his inside shoulder — the reason he leaned into the turn. You assumed your horse was at fault because “he should have known better,” so you gave him a “what for.” Your “try” was rewarded, but you do not move on. Your instructor reminds you that by the time you felt your horse lean into the turn, your response was already too late.
Remembering that your horse only does what you ask or unknowingly allow him to do, you accept the mistake as a learning opportunity. You can do this because you’ve already sorted out in your mind that there is no shame in not having all the answers, and that learning does not always appear neat and tidy. Rescinding the blame you laid on him for your lack of know-how, you think of what would help you be better at communicating with him to maneuver the turn the way you’d like him to the next time — good enough for a show, even.
You make a circle at the walk in order to review leg-yields. It’s one of several options you have. A leg-yield in a circle allows you to practice repeatedly how you want your horse to respond to your aids in a single 90 degree turn. You’ll be able to ensure that a light touch of your inside and outside leg is all that is needed for a response forward, but also a step sideways to keep weight off the inside shoulder, preventing a lean into the turn. You’ll clarify the various meanings of your inside and outside reins, i.e. whether you’re using them to create a flexion in your horse’s neck, to help create a bend through his body, to direct him into a turn, to soften him onto the bit, to help balance him off the inside shoulder, to align his body, or to achieve some combination of those aids. You will also practice initiating your half-halt through your body, not your reins, making sure your legs and torso work interdependently of each other. In this way your horse will be better able to distinguish your many nuanced intentions expressed through a finite number of aids.
As you break down these complex set of aids into bite-sized pieces, your horse is able to sort their meaning and begin to respond better. You contrast this with how things went the first time you rode the 90 degree turn and now you can feel the difference. What you thought you had “shouted” plainly to your horse had actually come across in a jumble because you hadn’t yet developed sufficient awareness of your aids nor the coordination of your body parts to apply them adequately for that particular task. You also now realize that your horse had told you ahead of time that he was going to lean into that 90 degree arc when he hollowed and braced in the transition from walk to trot — long before the turn itself.
As you mentally trace your steps back to the point before things did not feel right, you acknowledge your mistake without beating yourself up (making mistakes is the whole point, remember?). And after all, you have met your most important goal: to learn.
It’s a much more lengthy process — or so it would seem, unless you have gone down the other road, like I did, and have to undo everything years later and only then realize how much faster it would have been to do it right the first time. Still, deep learning is not for the faint of heart. It requires continual self-review and an acceptance of our imperfections, for any harboring of shame will not allow us to admit them. But abandoning that critical voice and it’s corresponding need for controlling everything and everyone else means that we enable ourselves to the wonder of discovery. Like children before the onset of self-doubt, we can renew our inherent sense of curiosity and take comfort (rather than dread) in the fact that there will always be more to learn.