I judged a few schooling shows at the Quantico Marine Base stables when I first arrived in Virginia. While there I chatted with a few of the faithful Marine husbands, at the show to support their wives. I forget how we got on the subject, but one told me that there’s a saying that goes around Marine basic training: “Embrace the suck.” It’s boot camp, preparing you for life as an elite warrior—it’s going to suck. And the sooner you accept that it’s going to suck, the easier things get.
It resonated with me, not just because the idea of that many push-ups makes me blanch, but because the training of young horses up the levels is a little bit the same way. The end result is a glorious thing to behold. But in the training part, there are days that it really, really sucks.
I don’t just mean the annoying teenage phases, the ones where they decide that the application of your right leg is animal cruelty; the ones where they decide they are not going into that corner of the arena/the trailer/the wash stall; the ones where, even though you have been through it a thousand times, the half-halt still doesn’t work on the thousand-and-first.
These phases suck too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had The Talk with young horses, my own or clients’. The Talk goes something like this: I am putting my leg on, and you are going forward. If you go forward, yes, you will have to work hard, but that is the only way my leg is coming off. You are welcome to tell me you don’t like it, but I will not take my leg off. You are welcome to kick, buck, slow down, pin your ears, swish your tail, gnash your teeth, lean into my leg (my favorite), lean into the wall or stop, but I will not take my leg off. The sooner you grasp this, the quicker your ride will end and you will get a cookie. And no matter how big a dirtbag you are, it is going to be this way until the day you retire, so the sooner you accept this, the sooner you will get a nice amateur lady who will give you cookies and supplements and acupuncture.
Yes, going through all that sucks. But even once you’re on the other side of the teenage nonsense, there are still going to be stages of Ugly Mess that are completely and totally normal. Even on the most emotionally uncomplicated, physically capable and talented horses I’ve ever ridden, the introduction of the flying change turns them inside out. They get itchy and trigger-happy. They can’t counter-canter, they can’t turn, you can’t touch them.
The introduction of piaffe makes walking, trotting, half halting and gesticulating with your whip impossible for weeks, sometimes months, after. Learning the ones sends the twos, threes, fours and sometimes even trotting into the garbage. These phases make everything a disaster until, one day, it’s not.
The same is true for riders. Learning to sit the trot—really, truly, sit the trot, not just ENDURING the sitting trot but RIDING it—will make you sore. You’ll grip with your lower leg and your horse will surge off; then you’ll grip with your thigh and your horse will stop; and then you’ll try not to grip at all and you’ll bounce all over the place.
When you prepare to go down the centerline for your first-ever dressage test, or your first FEI test, or for your first Grand Prix test, your frontal lobe will beat a hasty retreat and be taken over by your reptilian brain, which was not paying attention during any of your lessons, and you will make mistakes you’ve never ever made in your whole life.
It will, in short, suck. And it’ll all be OK. Because there’s a time in the life of everything that works when it doesn’t work. What I wish I’d known as I began my journey of making Grand Prix horses was that the right reaction to those moments of great suckitude is to take a deep breath and ride on, not to change the path or the plan.
While yes, insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result, the truth is that much of training both horses and riders is pressing on, soldiering through the quagmire until the student is physically and emotionally ready to do it right, and that virtually no mastery comes in one, or two, or even a handful of rides.
The process takes as long as it takes, with lots of yuck in the middle. And that is exactly the way it’s supposed to be. Embrace it.