Right now I’m riding regularly with my third and fourth trainers since moving to my current barn. The first one started wintering in Florida. The woman who took over for her that season was a great fit for me — very positive and upbeat, very involved, and fantastic with me and the greenbean. And then she was drafted to the US team for the Polocrosse World Cup, and jetted off to Australia, and then moved down south. So now I’m doing dressage with her replacement, and have done a handful of jumping lessons with another woman whose approach I really like.

I’m not a delicate flower of a rider — I really like being told what I’m doing wrong! — but I am a bit hard on myself, and get into these discouraging cycles of self-doubt — which is part of what was so perfect for me about the second instructor. I never doubted her confidence in me, which helped make me a believer too, and Poe & I always ended the lesson much better than we started. I like the people I’m training with now, but I miss my cheerleader and my funny metaphors and her willingness to have me trot in a circle however long it takes.

SO — you can imagine how excited I was when I got a text a few weeks ago that she was coming up for the weekend, and would I like a lesson?

I’ve felt a bit stuck for a while now. Demoralized. Daydreaming, I will confess, of handing over my sweet red pony to someone who can help him better than I can. Giving over this hard part and coming back when it is all easy and fun. It doesn’t sound quite right that way, because it’s not that I’m not interested in putting in the work — more that I feel like I can’t. Don’t know what I’m doing. Am going to ruin him.

Anyhow — at the start of the lesson she asked me how things have been going and what I want to work on. Softness, I said. Before she left we had a few lessons where we got him feeling incredibly connected, swinging, and sweet in the contact. I haven’t found that feeling again since. So we spent the next 75 minutes working on that (the woman after me was running late, so my time went long). We walked A LOT, and we got the walk good before we started trotting — and spent almost the entire rest of the time trotting a circle. She hopped on him for me for a while, and we all worked our asses off, and it was glorious. There were moments he felt so so awesome.

In the end, as we were motoring around in a circle, him light & lofty and me grinning, she said, “You can do this. You got this — this was all you. You can do this again.” It was hard work, and it took me longer than it did her, and she was there coaching me through it — but I did get it. I could recognize and respond to the feeling, to the moment he softens. Getting there was a fight. It was not all pretty kumbayah. There were times I was pretty up in his face, and I struggle with that. I know in a perfect world you’re just supposed to ride right and the horse goes right — but I think in the real world there’s some unpretty middle ground. There are stages where you have to show your horse strongly what you want, and it’s not going to be perfect right away. But being strong a few times, at the right times, and then being soft when he is right — it works, and I think it’s more effective and kinder than going around and around picking at him, nagging him, and having him just not get it, or decide he doesn’t have to listen.

So, we are trying a little tough love right now. We are getting ugly down by the bench where he’s taken to spooking and ignoring me. (She put it beautifully during my lesson: He can look with his eyes, but he’s not allowed to change his body.) It’s also been effective to approach the bench slowly, to work closer to it in agonizing stages while I totally ignore it — but it takes a long time, and I don’t think it’s doing much to teach him that he has to listen to me even when he’s concerned (or looking for ways out of work). So I’m doing it the tough way, and it definitely escalates things for a while — but it always gets better. Always. And the intervals are getting shorter. So I’m trying to have a positive attitude about it: any time there’s a new coat down there, it’s more practice for this summer, for how he will be at shows. It’s another opportunity to get his attention back on me. Another moment to say Sorry buddy, gotta bend.

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