Till We Have Faces

 

shanghai snow

Her jaw dropped when I answered her question that I’ve been working for Courtney just over five years now. I know, it’s starting to sound like a big number – at least in comparison to the years I’ve been trotting around this world. I mean, that’s like being well into grad school. All she said was, “Wow, I’m really surprised. It’s just that you’re both still so excited!”

I had to smile. I love that our excitedness abounds and surprises! It makes sense expecting things to dry up, but maybe we’re just like wine baby, getting better with time. Ooph. Yea, it hurts to leave that cliché written. Ha. It’s true that we’ve spent a whole lot of time together. We’ve been around long enough to learn a lot of weird little details about each other. But to me that’s when things start to get really good. I don’t like just scratching the surface. I like to stay. I want to know all about you so that I can love you more fully. I want to stick around long enough that my walls start to let down and I’m fully me. Deeper is richer. I’m guessing it’s fairly rare to have such a gem of a person as a trainer and mentor… I feel really lucky to have someone who really cares, who’s really invested both professionally and personally. That in and of itself should be enough to stay excited!

Courtney is great at keeping the communication lines open as a trainer, as a friend, and as a public figure. I think that’s one of her super powers. Me on the other hand… I’m hungry for openness, honesty is royalty in the land of my priorities, but I’m more afraid to be seen. Keeping a lot of thoughts to myself hinders a lot of things including learning… both in and out of the saddle. I’m discovering that I simply need to say exactly what I’m thinking out loud in order to open the door for growth. Complete authenticity brings clarity to thoughts that are muddled when kept inside. It reminds me of a quote that I love from one of my favorite books Till We Have Faces.

 “‘Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.’ … I saw well why the gods do not speak openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

I climb the unnecessarily tall mounting block and swing my leg over to settle into Shanghai’s saddle. The coffee hasn’t quite kicked in. My back is a little stiff and sore from the combination of the cold and my last string of lessons, but my first thought is, This seat feels like home. Shanghai, you feel like home. I start to think about our last conversation about his training in a lesson with Courtney.

For far too long Shanghai has had an unreliable right lead canter transition. I can’t guarantee that he’s going to stay round in either the transition from walk or from trot. It’s not even subtle enough that I would be able to hold him together in a test if I needed to. He either decides to be good or he decides to fight it. Basically, he’s the boss.

It’s not for lack of trying to fix it. Trust me, it’s an embarrassing little hole that I’ve spent a lot of time trying to fill in, but all I’ve done is make the ratio of good transitions to bad transitions a bit more in my favor. I kept coming up with new theories of where he needs to be more supple, where he needs to be straighter, how I need to set him up so that it’s completely natural and easy for him to make the right choice to stay round. With all that babble I made more good transitions, but I still couldn’t count on it. I couldn’t count on conditions being perfect enough every time.

I was determined to solve the problem by the time Courtney got back from New Zealand. But alas, in our first lesson back I hung my head saying I still haven’t fixed that transition and it’s driving me crazy! Why is this still an issue? We’re bigger than this. He’ll be showing Second Level this year. We’re grown up enough not to have this problem!

I finally poured out all of my thinking… I explained my suppleness and straightness theories that have helped adjust the ratio… but that it just isn’t reliable. She told me that I just need to tell him NO. He has to understand that it is a mistake. I’ll have to be a little tough telling him to stay round and that he’s simply not allowed to come above the bit. I understand the concept, but for some reason this little turkey with the hold on my heart has me convinced that I’m not allowed to push the issue in that way.

I’m realizing I might be loving him to a fault. I think sometimes the big red hearts in my eyes (I know you know the emoji!) keep me from seeing straight when I’m on him. I question whether I would have the same thought process on any other horse? It’s perfectly natural to make him sensitive to my leg to go forward or sideways, but when I tell him to respect the bit in that transition he gets really offended and sort of says, You yelled at my mouth, so I don’t like you and I’m not going to try anymore – not this time OR the next time! Courtney listens to my reason for hesitation but looked at me a little funny as if that’s really not something she can picture being a reality with this horse.

She said for us to just try the N-O word, and that we’ll see what happens. He has a more subtle evasion in the transitions within the canter going to the right, so we start there. When I push him forward, he braces a little instead of suppley pushing into the bit. So when I told him to go forward I was proactive with my hands instead of passive saying, you WILL be round enough and you will go INTO the bit NOT above it as we transition from normal to bigger canter. It’s the same rule he needs to know in the transitions between the gaits. Courtney and I regrouped after the canter work… “So that worked, right?” she asks.

Now is when I have to lay out all of my concerns. Just spit out whatever is clouding my instincts. It’s the only way I can clear up my brain to believe in the solution when I’m working on my own. I explained, “Yes, that worked well, but sometimes when I’ve tried making that correction on my own he will get mad and start to back up as an evasion. Flashes of screwing up his future take over and I back off and change my approach. I’m afraid of making this horse ever think backwards.” Even just saying things out loud make them clearer. Courtney pointed out that by avoiding the problem, giving in when he goes backwards is exactly what teaches him to use that as an evasion. Whereas if I just calmly hold my ground and insist that he needs to be round even if he’s backing up, he realizes that backing up doesn’t change anything. Obviously his rider doesn’t care about where he’s going, he just needs to be round in the process, so he scratches that evasion off the list. Duh. Big red hearts getting in the way much??

Since I’ve changed from too often saying, “It’s ok Honey Pie Sugar Cookie, I know you didn’t understand that, let’s try again and do better this time!” to saying, “Hey, that was a mistake. This is where you went wrong. Do it right this time.” He has complied with the rule and has stopped making the mistake. Simple.

I don’t need a life full of cheerleaders and neither does my horse. This is where it’s so valuable to trust someone to listen to my babble. Listen to exactly the thoughts that are swirling around in my brain, and then go ahead and slap my cheek if it needs it. Be direct. Be literal. Instruct. Show me where I’m wrong. Help me see my ridiculousness so that I can see past it and fix it. Encouragement is important, knowing when you’ve done it right is essential, but a storm of pom-poms doesn’t get us anywhere.

No more hiding. No sugar coating. No editing to sound like someone else. Just my thoughts or lack thereof. What do I have to lose? I can’t build on what I know unless I lay out the bricks that I already own… there for me to see and there on the ground for others to see and help me stack. No guessing games. No invisible bricks. We have never had to be alone in building our houses.

Heart Hugs and Suppleness

RiveredgeI think my heart has just almost recovered from the last week and a half packed so full of love and life and lessons that I felt like it might just melt from all the bright red give and take. But who can complain about a heart exhausted from love?! It was a week of stringing together the high’s and subsequent low’s of favorites – amazing clinics in OR and MD, visits with long distance friends, great Courtney lessons, and to top it off meeting my three new adopted sisters from Latvia! Holy mush!

I mostly just want to share a bit of my experience during the Courtney King-Dye Horse Mastership week at Riveredge Farm. Boy, what an incredibly generous group of people putting their talents into that program. Many thanks to Lendon, Courtney, the Hasslers, Michael Barisone, the whole team at Riveredge, and all the others involved for making such a cool clinic happen. Courtney went down to teach a couple of the riding days, and somehow I was allowed to bring down a horse to play. I’m too old to officially be in the program now, but I can help Courtney a little bit, be there, soak in the atmosphere, and was very generously given a couple of lessons myself. How cool is that?

Scott Hassler was amazingly generous and squeezed me in for a lesson on Friday morning. All feels right in the world while I’m sitting on Bimi – and in that magical indoor arena at Riveredge nonetheless. The Bleachers were even streaming through the sound system. Awesome. When I wrapped up my warm up, Scott described the way Bimi’s body and brain works better than I would be able to sum up myself, and he had only watched him work for about 5 minutes.

I wasn’t completely sure what I wanted help with, but I explained one thing that is I tend to work too hard and end up with a million different trots. He’s sensitive and rideable now, but we can be inconsistent. Also, when an exercise feels hard, Bimi gets tight in his neck and poll, rather, his back and body, but it‘s apparent in the neck; therefore, he sometimes get a little behind me, will get long and push in front of me, or have inconsistencies in the bridle. Scott explained how suppleness is key for honest connection.

“He’s a good hider.” Scott said. I can put him in a particular position, but he’s not always adjustable in it – especially as the collection/difficulty increases because he’s not completely supple and through there. He looks nice, but it’s not reliable that I can keep that nice spot. He’s sensitive and powerful, so it’s easy to affect his gaits, but that’s not easy to manage because without consistent suppleness his body is not always available to give me exactly what I ask for. We need to find a place where it feels supple and natural for him to offer the flashy movement.

In Courtney’s wise words, “Ride the movements to make the horse better rather than the horse to make the movements better.”

Scott had me ride shoulder in, haunches in, renvers… whatever floats my boat and to keep the chosen position until it felt soft. He reminds me not to let the angle change while I’m riding the sideways movement forward and back. That every stride needs to be right under my seat and not too much angle so that we get his hind leg pushing through and underneath of him. Then, to school the collection, ask for shorter trot and bigger trot within the sideways suppleness exercise. Bending the back makes it softer and more comfortable. It gets him thinking about using his body to shorten, lengthen, and come through rather than just his neck. To build his confidence and encourage simplicity he would then have me just ride straight ahead doing nothing but sitting and following. “Let him feel good in the straight.”

It felt so easy. It felt so right. It felt like I was and had a happy, comfortable partner. I remember riding through a corner after finding that solid throughness and feeling my heart grow exponentially. It leapt in my chest. My brain was not thinking too much about being in charge of making everything perfect. I was just riding in tune with my horse and my only thought was, “It feels like falling in love. Yea.” That moment was such a gift.

Another thing Scott pointed out was that my seat was changing as Bimi was changing. I would ask for pirouette canter, he would come back a little too far and my seat would get a little behind the motion as well. I would drive him forward and then as he took over going forward my seat would back off a bit. It reminds me of the way Courtney says, “Don’t’ react to his reactions.” I just need to be stable – consistently think forward and be there with my seat so that he has something to count on.

“He listens, but he’s not comfortable. He’s the king of reactions.” When schooling the pirouette canter, Scott said to bring him back just as far as he’s comfortable. If he reaches a point where he has lost his suppleness and strength then it’s no longer good schooling. So if I start to feel a hint of tension or resistance, to take a little bit of inside bend and supple him before coming back more. I pointed out that usually when I take more bend when his neck starts to be tight, it really sets him off and everything just gets tenser. Scott explained that happens when my timing is too late. In that circumstance the suppleness was long gone (long gone could even be a half a stride or stride ago) and I would be asking for a soft bend suppleness in his back and neck that he couldn’t give. Access denied. I need to play the bend the very moment or the moment before he’s sticky.

It’s similar for his left lead canter transitions. They’ve been tricky for us. Lately I’ve had the most luck with sort of leaving him alone and just letting him simply canter. It’s positioned well enough, but I’m kind of just rolling the dice. Once again hiding my lack of suppleness by not asking for adjustability. If I try to push him very sideways or take a lot of bend it often feels like too much and we get a bit of a fight. He’s not comfortable having his neck taken away when he’s using that for balance in place of a supple back.

At the end of our canter half passes he had me change the bend early and very slowly – using the sideways to help me and giving plenty of time to “cover every inch” of bend. “It’s the little things with this horse.” Going slow and stretching all the positions in between is much harder than being at Point A and Point B. We just spent some time until it felt smooth. “This is stretching the poll. This is your canter transition,” he says. Ah, Duh!

After the canter half passes and changing of bend, he called out for me to ride my change when I’m ready. As if that’s not a big deal at all. The word change triggers my brain to worry with this horse, but I shut it down. He feels supple. His canter is right underneath of my seat. He feels comfortable. I can change the bend. I know that this change is going to work. It’s going to work because he’s through. His back is right there with me and I can comfortably half halt and align his body into my new outside rein. Yep. The change was right there – exactly the timing that I wanted without me trying to control it. Ready for me. Easily offered. Love.

I was having so much fun and was so inspired that I almost straight up professed my love to Scott. “I love you,” I wanted to say. Ah, another time perhaps. Let’s not make this weird Koryn. Be cool. These things can be taken the wrong way. Ha. So I just voiced how great it was and how much I appreciate it.

Then, Saturday morning Courtney did a Q & A with the EDAP girls. I think about how she’s so beautiful sitting up there and what a cool program this is… what a great experience to have. She talked about the importance of choosing the right person to work for. How it’s not necessarily where you train, but who you choose to let guide you. That it’s important to choose the trainer you want to be like not only as a rider but as a professional. My heart was just swelling, feeling so lucky and thankful to be able to be around her, learning from her, and also allowed to bring a horse here to experience this atmosphere… The whole program, the whole magical farm and leaders creating the program feel so normal. It feels normal because it feels good and right and true, but really, what an incredibly special opportunity and group of leaders to behold.

When the girls wrapped up the questions, I went up to Courtney to help her from the table. Once again my heart was pounding in my throat as I told her, “I think I need to hug you right now. Is that ok?” She cutely replied that only if I gave her a reason why… “I’m just feeling really extra thankful for you right now.” I explained. Courtney’s one of the best huggers I know, and she’s never in any rush to let go. “Can I just keep hugging you???” I ask. “Do you need to breathe?” Giggles. Dramatic deep breath. More hugging.

I get to keep this one. This one who’s right here in front of me. I get to hold on to and learn from this incredible person who for some reason has chosen to look out for me. That’s an epic hug.

Red

writingred

 

It’s story time! My best friend challenged me to blog about red lipstick. I was hoping to satisfy that by just slipping it in somewhere as a quick and silly metaphor, but now I’m thinking that might be going against the whole point. It’s funny how much weight a simple little act of Taylor Swifting your lips can carry.

For years now I’ve wanted to be able to rock bright red lips. What girl doesn’t go through this phase or at least of judging those who do? It seems like a fairly petty mind battle! It’s not really about the color. Sure, it can be fun and sexy if it’s done right, but it’s really about telling myself that I’m not the girl for whom that product was put in this world – being daring and loud and experimental is not something I am supposed to do. I’m the horse girl. I’m the get down and dirty, sweat and blood kind of a human being. So that means I need to play by those “rules” of that predetermined, assumed persona all the time, right? Wrong! What’s with the boxes??

Someone once asked me if I didn’t like getting really dressed up or if I didn’t like to often. I responded around about, “It’s not that I don’t like it, but I just don’t like looking like I’m trying too hard… or something.” (If it’s guaranteed that people around me will be all dolled up too, then great!) But really, I think I’m just afraid to stand out and of any attention that may bring. I’m incredibly afraid of someone assigning me to a box that’s the wrong shape for my heart.

I’m going to go a little bit deep here for a minute. Another dearly dearly beloved friend of mine sent this text to me the other night. “I think realizing that you need no one’s permission is the key to grace… and that includes permission from yourself. Permission giving is still being in control… grace is about recognizing that you can’t be in control.” Boy that summed up so many of the thoughts swirling in my brain with clarity I had not quite put my finger on. How did I get so lucky to have such brilliant friends? Read one of my favorite blog posts of hers here.

So instead of waiting for permission, why don’t we just accept that if we keep waiting, if we keep trying to have control, if we never let go of our insecurities, or let down our guard and peer out of our safety box, we never let grace in… and without grace, let’s face it, we’re toast. So why not drop all this talk of permission and boundaries and boxes? I don’t want to be the one to tell grace that she is not invited into my home. So what if she forces me to reveal and accept who I am or what I don’t understand about myself. She’s probably going to help me to teach my head not to always overrule my feel.

When I was a very little girl, I was completely obsessed with the “Pony Pals” book series. I was in a club that would send me two new books every month or so. I couldn’t wait until that day when a package addressed to me would come in the mailbox. I would spend the whole day buried in the little adventures of three horse-obsessed friends: Carol, Stevie, and Lisa. One part has stuck with me through all these years – I think it was Stevie who on once noticed a girl in the barn or at a show wearing fingernail polish. She saw it and thought to herself something judgmental along the lines of not wanting paint to be on HER fingers. I think it was YEARS after I read that before I let polish touch my fingernails again. Stevie was a fictional character, but she was my kind of girl. I wanted her to like me. I wanted her to be my friend.

The red lips (and fingers!) lesson is conveniently relevant to those spinning wheels of mine that are afraid to make mistakes when I ride. I distinctively remember one of my lessons with Lendon during one of the Robert Dover Horse Mastership EDAP weeks. I think things were basically going ok during my ride, but apparently I was too locked inside of my head… too zoned in… trapped in Tangoland. (Tango was the name of my trusty steed) During my lesson some of the other riders and auditors were sitting in the gazebo at C. Lendon gave them the job of holding up any given number of fingers for me to count and call out every time I passed by them. If I didn’t stop staring at the arena or my horse’s ears long enough to do so, I got yelled at. 🙂

There are lots of should and should not do’s, but sometimes I think I need to give myself the rule not to spend so much energy worrying about all the rules and lessons learned. Nothing changes if we’re always thinking of what we shouldn’t do or wish we hadn’t done.

Rules make me feel safe, like as long as I don’t do THAT I’ll be doing ok. Or if I just stick with what has worked for me in the past, I won’t fall off the deep end. But being stagnant is smelly and no fun at all, and being totally lost in my brain, checking off the do’s and don’ts before I make every move just sort of makes me miss life… Miss the experimenting that leads to figuring out what is even better than what I already know. Plus it seems kinda snobby to always be in lock-down processing mode.

Later, we went to Stillpoint Farm and watched some of the trainers there ride. At one point Robert was schooling an FEI horse while coaching another rider. Thinking and yammering away while making his horse do fancy things…? There was a group of us there, and Lendon specifically called out to me, “Koryn, could YOU do that?”… “Uh, Noooo.” Ha. Must focus. Must control. Must think. Must. Not. Make. Mistake. Hmmm.

I’m definitely not getting at, “Rules are made to be broken.” No, rules are important, and lessons are learned for a reason, but not everything has to be black and white. Why not let in some Red? So if you see me around somewhere sporting red lips, or say, blue strips in my hair… please don’t laugh. I’m either already very aware that I look ridiculous or finally proud of myself for lightening up and living outside of my box!

Permission to Dance

We had theBimi privilege of having Katherine Bateson up for a clinic at Bel Air Farm last week. She’s such a lovely person; I’m so grateful to be able to know and learn from such awesome human beings. What is especially cool to me is that in my lessons on Bimini, we basically touched on everything that Courtney and I have been working on, but there was just a different voice – different words to guide me on the same path. I love that feeling of connection when we’re all on the same track.

 “Keep everything as simple as possible.”

So maybe this Dressage thing really is pretty complicated, but it’s never going to simplify if we don’t at least try. My aids and my mind need to be as clear and basic as possible. We started out by making sure that my aid for the half halt was simple, not reliant on my hand (partially so that we can try to keep his neck long), and effective. Katherine reminded me to lean back a bit beyond where I usually sit to access my back. This made a clear change in my seat to tell the horse that it’s time to sit and wait. When it was good, it got to the point where I felt like as I sat back the hind end would lower. If it wasn’t instantaneous, I could use my hand quickly to say, “Hey, that meant woah!”

I was reminded that it’s important for me to do lots and lots and lots (millions) of these half halts. I need to make sure that there’s an immediate response when I sit back and tighten my abs, but I can’t just sit there and try to hold the half halt so that he gets “claustrophobic.” Since Bimini is such a go, go, go, energizer bunny kind of a horse, my body tends to want to ride negatively, to keep him under me instead of riding positively, pushing him to go and then just using the half halts as a reminder to sit and wait.

A big focus was to see how long I could go around letting Bimini be sort of, “on his own”.  He needs to learn to wait for me, to stay with me instead of deciding that dragging me around town is more fun and efficient. “Just keep saying, ‘I’m not going to hang onto you.’”

She had me ride 10 meter circles in every corner to give me the chance to ride positively. I could really put my leg on to push his hind end without him just getting away from me or burying into my hands. Leg doesn’t mean run, buddy! The voltes sort of did the collecting for me. I realized that I usually use too much hand in the turns because he looks for it. He would rather have me hold him up than to sit and carry himself around the circle. “When he wants you to take back, you’ve got to give.” So when I choose to give and my hand just sort of disappears, he’s forced to sit his butt down and hold himself up. Then my hand becomes unnecessary. See, it is simple after all.

Schooling the flying changes went along the same lines. I get especially caught up in my brain when I go to ride the changes. It’s so obvious when changes go wrong, so I tend to think harder, ride more, and just generally complicate them in my effort not to make a mistake. I’m learning that spinning wheels are often counterproductive. It reminds me of a song that my Bestie and I were listening to on a road trip with the lyrics,

But we’re willing to wait on you; we believe in everything that you can do, if you could only lay down your mind.”

 The way we started practicing the changes was all very relaxed and simple. “The aid for flying changes can’t be faster than the rhythm of the canter. He already wants to be too quick. Don’t get ahead of him, it’s gotta be like a dance.” I had to make a clear effort to be lazy. Hmm, that’s an oxymoron. But really, just quieting my mind and body helped me to feel my horse and let him move with me like a dance partner.

 It’s time to give myself permission to dance.