Greek philosopher Aristotle authored this definitive explanation of the learning process more than 2,000 years ago: “For things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”
This is how a baby learns to crawl, then toddle, then walk, and how he learns to talk. It’s how we learn all manner of skills, including the ability to ride horses.
It’s a wonderful statement for many reasons, not the least of which is that it gives us permission to fumble, stumble and fail. But it also demands that we get out there and “learn by doing.” Aristotle’s statement explicitly conveys the enormous power of rote, repetition and practice.
A more modern rendition and variation of this theme is the adage “practice makes
perfect.” This is often amended to, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” In other words, if we practice doing it wrong, we get very good at doing it wrong.
Whether we take piano lessons, baseball, play golf, or ride horses, we go through varying levels of expertise. Most people get stuck somewhere on the lower levels of whatever pyramid they’re aspiring to climb. Abraham Lincoln said, “God must love the average man, he made so many of them!”
Being average is partly determined by our inherited physical, mental and emotional traits, but it’s even more determined by what we do with these traits. I’m not convinced that most upper-level riders possess gifts from God that allow them to meld with their horses into Centaur-like beings. Most of the good ones ride many hours on many horses.
In eventing, there are any number of ways to get it wrong. I would say that these four faults are pretty universal:
First, most people don’t have good independent seats. They lurch, cling and bounce at the sitting trot and canter.
Second, most people have poor posture. They look down, hunch their shoulders, and their arms and legs fly all over the place.
Third, most people dive up the neck over the jump. Their upper bodies lie along the topline of the horse, their crotches go in front of the pommel, their knees pinch, their lower legs swing back toward the horse’s hip, and they look down.
Fourth, most people can’t consistently and accurately get their horses to the right take-off point in front of the jump. They get them long, then short, then right almost by accident, then short again. The horse struggles to jump because he’s always “being lied to,” as the saying goes.
What is to be done? “For things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”
The horse’s back is a giant horizontal-motion and concussion machine. When he trots and canters, his back swings, ripples and creates shock waves. The rider’s body is a vertical-motion machine, capable of swinging and rippling in harmony with the horse’s motion.
The rider’s stomach, pelvis, lower back, hip and thigh are the points of contact where the vertical body of the rider needs to mesh harmoniously with the horizontal body of the horse. When all that works, rider and horse become one. When it doesn’t, the rider flails and bounces. This causes discomfort to the horse so that his back gets tighter, so the rider bounces even more, and the vicious cycle spirals downward.
Jack Le Goff, the former USET three-day coach, used to have a little joke. “What are the three most important things you need to have to be a good rider?”
Answer: 1. “A good seat.” 2. “A good seat.” 3. “A good seat.”
Why, then, in the dressage warm-up areas of all eventing competitions do we see so few totally fluid, elastic, elegant riders, totally at ease, on the back of a moving horse?
There are probably lots of answers. Perhaps they didn’t trot and gallop endless bareback hours on their ponies as children. Perhaps, they’re unfit and unathletic, or they’re nervous and rigid. Perhaps they don’t like to be uncomfortable, so they post at the trot and get in a half-seat at the canter to avoid the concussion created by the horse’s back. This avoidance is how people can ride for 40 or 50 years and never acquire Le Goff’s “good seat.”
The great instructors at the great riding academies of the world don’t let their riders get away with not acquiring good seats. They take away their stirrups, they longe them, they ignore their whining and sniveling until they don’t bounce any more. It’s that simple. It’s also the reason most people can’t sit: Most people don’t have the true grit to go through the torture!
I used to look to the hunter-jumper world for the prototypical lovely position over fences. Bert de Nemethy, Bill Steinkraus, Frank Chapot, Mary Mairs Chapot, Kathy Kusner, George Morris, and Neil Shapiro were not only effective, but they were also beautiful to watch. Their heels were down, their legs were underneath them, their hip and knee angles were closed, their backs were flat, their eyes were up, their hands were soft.
Get some old books with pictures of those riders. Now, take several recent issues of the Chronicle and look at the difference. It’s really appalling. What happened to style, elegance and effectiveness?
While talking to George Morris last fall, I said, “George, you judged some of these people, and you gave them ribbons. You don’t teach that stuff. What’s going on?”
George replied in that unique voice that anyone who knows him can recognize from miles away: “Denny, I had to pin the best of the bad!”
I don’t know whether people are being specifically taught to lunge up their horses’ necks, or whether they’re just not being taught at all. Instructors have told me that if they really grind on their students to get them to do it right, many of those students simply leave.
That’s another thing Jack Le Goff said years ago, when he first came to this country from France: “Americans don’t want you to teach them how to ride, they want you to teach them how to compete.”
First, we have to acquire some sense about how to do all those things correctly, and then, in order to “own” them, we have to repeatedly do them.
Obviously, getting the requisite amount of practice is much more difficult in horse sports than in golf, for example. The golfer can drive and putt every day for hours without damaging his club. If the rider jumps too many fences, or sits the trot too long, it damages his horse both physically and emotionally. This means the rider needs to be able to ride more than one horse, and that gets expensive.
While Aristotle’s quotation anticipates and permits plenty of failure, his words are ultimately reassuring. If only we can somehow do things right enough times, those right ways become our natural ways.
People often watch beautiful, effective riders and say, “Look at that natural rider!” That’s incorrect. The person may be a natural athlete, but he or she is also a highly trained rider. They will have learned correct ways by endlessly doing them correctly, most usually because someone endlessly badgered them to get it right.