The Steadfastness of the basics - Cowgirl Chronicles
Updated: Oct 11, 2019
When I was a kid I had the privilege of being in dance class for the majority of my childhood. 2 days a week for about 12 years I would flex, bend and mold my feet, torso and mind to meet the barre (pun) of standards that ballet required. As one might not assume; the discipline of dance was more than bun-heads and pink tutu’s it was actually hard work - impossible even, at times.
And through my long stint of training all those years I saw many dancers come, go, and then come back to dance again. I remember one specific dancer had been gone for a few years; and when she came back to ballet it was as if she never missed a step (pun).
My instructor remarked a very memorable statement in regards to the student that returned : Amy has been absent for the passed few years, but you would never know it because her feet remembered the foundational formula that technique requires.
I remember this story as I took a short ride on one of my short horses (no really, he’s like 14 hands and I’m embarrassing tall to be on top of him). Smudge (son of a snaffle bit champion) has been with me his whole life, and he is the hardest easy horse I’ve had the honor of training my self. Every horse gives a curve ball or a learning curve, luckily with him - it’s been a learning curve; content but manageable. He’s docile and athletic, friendly and also….lazy. He’s kind of like a kid - game to splash in the kiddy pool, but apprehensive about the effort needed to paddle around in the deep end; he’d rather stay where his hoof could reach the sand and his margarita.
During my ride I felt like we were getting along pretty well. No one was pinning their ears at each other, no one was stamping their feet in the ground. The order of how I progress with him (I’ve learned over some struggle) has been starting kind of slow and methodically doing some ‘ground work’, taking deliberate pauses when he offers to do a task correctly, and then taking just as deliberate steps to the next task - careful to never disengage my brain from his. Avoid la-la land at all costs by keeping an even pace with effort that crescendo’s upward.
This ride was unique and in some ways special because what he offered in terms of effort and execution of task was more immediate and frequent than normal. And the other weird thing was it wasn’t like he’s been ‘in-work’ for the last few weeks and was primed and ready for me. In fact, it had been a shameful amount of time since I’d been on him (let’s not talk about why it’s a sore subject I’m a stay at home mom). Honestly the grace he showed me by offering to do what I was suggesting was nearly moving to my heart. What kind of freak-of-nature horse just let’s me hop on cold-turkey and let’s me do mid level maneuvers for fun?!
And then that’s when I remembered the quote my dance teacher said all those years ago; His feet remember the foundational formula that technique requires. I didn’t have to fight this horse, because he already knew how to do the things I was asking. A horse’s memory is always in que and on demand because it is how they survive - remembering situations and stimuli at a moments notice is how they function; unlike us who may take our processor a while to boot up while it retrieves some dusty data.
Another saying came to mind as I was dazzled by his diligence to lope a circle stood up in the bridle with respectful flexion: slow and low, with a lot of love. Not only was his little canter circle slow and low done with a lot of love (my favorite kind of circle for a barrel horse) but that has been my technique in instilling the foundation for his feet. This horse has taught me through his consistency, that the more diligent, consistent and kind I am with my approach he will learn more and retain it faster, and retriever it quickly when the skill is needed.
That sought after feeling of power, preciseness and unity is often imitated and never authentically achieved. And the proof is in the pudding because when time goes by, or tack changes - the horse will tell you what he knows, respects, and remembers. I think a lot of people assume sowing foundational elements into their horsemanship (like teaching a horse how to stay balanced in every single gait, in every direction, in every lead) is boring drudgery. But I can tell you after losing a few arm wrestling matches with horse, and winning a lot more rapport with him, that it isn’t boring; it is smart.
The more a horse understands, the more he will offer. His willingness is a result of obedience, and his obedience is a reflection of our relationship. Somedays you don’t want to survive riding the equivalent of a floundering fish on a dock; somedays you just want to have a peaceful ride and tinker around with a few on going projects ( like not loping on your front end like you are a prehistoric creature). And on those days - your reward will be double; getting what you asked for and realizing there is no question that what you’ve been doing has been right all along.
Even if it seems like other riders are whizzing around with their prospects doing fancy things. Sow seeds that stick, that have the environment to take root, and that have the time to bare fruit. A tree might miss a season or too, but he doesn’t forget how to sprout whats good.