The Very Boring Dirty Secret to Fantastic Riding is...
I was walking a student through the aids to ask for a walk-canter transition. It was her very first. She was so intent on every word that I said. She had watched me do several on my horses and also several on her horse, and I could see her as she watched moving her leg and hands, trying to get the feel of it in her body by imitating what I was saying. Now it was her turn. Her horse knew the basics of it, but I wouldn't say he was confirmed 100%. I asked her to bend the horse slightly going into the corner, shorten the walk stride, and then use her inside leg to scoop up the horse while gently sweeping her outside leg back a bit behind the girth and 'strike a match' with her inside seat bone. All simultaneously while giving the verbal canter aid we had taught her horse – “canter” – and a kissing sound. It worked flawlessly and she got a bonus that her horse didn't climb on the outside rein as he was intently focusing on her as she was on him. That was perfect! She was so excited!
“Now,” I said, “you just have to practice your walk-canter transitions just that way about 10,000 more times and it will become barely a thought!” She stopped her horse and faced me with her eyes big and mouth open. “Only 10,000 times more? Just like that?” “Yes,” I said. Consistency—that’s the key. The same application of aids, the same focus, and suddenly it will be as easy as breathing to do the transition. “See,” I said to her, “dressage is easy!” And that's really the dirty little secret of great riding – consistency in yourself first and also in your horse.
Think about it—if you ask for a transition with same intensity and focus as the first one all 10,000 times, how easy it will be for your horse to understand that, in any and all conditions, this is the sequence of aids that will get us from the walk to the canter. Also, apply that same consistency to all your other transitions and your riding will improve greatly, as well as your horse's understanding. The trick is, can you be that consistent with yourself while your ride? When the walk to canter doesn't happen, can you immediately not dissolve into thoughts of failure, but rather do a review of what you did in the focus and timing of the aids? If you are 99% certain you did it just the same, then you can move on from berating yourself and simply ask again before negative thought implosion starts and you convince yourself that the horse cannot do these transitions, you cannot do them, or maybe your horse is lame. Perhaps the horse just didn't understand. Perhaps they were looking at the cat jumping off the fence and didn't really hear your aids. This is an opportunity for the horse to learn that when I do these aids that this has to happen, thank you very much. It's an expectation that both of you begin to agree on, no matter whatever is going on.
This is why I like to have a plan for my rides—even if the plan falls apart. I have the exercise to at least give me clues as to what's going on. I've planned for a ride in the pastures and it turns out the wind is whipping and this horse is so high and hot that we'll end up in the next county. Maybe it's a good day to work on these walk canters; with all this energy my horse will want to canter more than anything. For this week, select something you've been working on in your riding and make it your 'consistency' exercise. You're going to really focus on asking the same way every time, no matter what's going on with you and how you feel or what's going on with the horse. Make it something are already doing easily and now all you want to do is create whisper-invisible aids and it's always the same. It could be from walk to trot, or trot-to-halt, or trot-to-walk. It doesn't have to be anything fancy or a new skill. Write down each day in your training plan how consistent with yourself you were in the x amount of times you asked for the response to your aids. Did the horse get it 50% of the time? Were you consistent 50% of the time, or did you get lucky 25% of the time? See how your mindfulness of consistency improves as you go through the week on this one exercise you chose. Forget any negative thoughts about it. Simply evaluate it on whether you were consistent or not. Did you drop your rein at the precise moment so you got an inverted transition? Did you forget about your outside aid so the haunches were straight? Focusing on how consistent were you from one try to the next is a great way to make the things you do well become effortless, and translate into a learning process as you work on a new skill rather than getting frustrating or taking the fun out of learning it. Be inspired to ride more consistently!