Elvis is really cool, guys. He’s keen but relatively unemotional. He’s athletic, but he’s also efficient. His default answer is yes. There’s a heck of a lot to like.
He also was weird about the whip when he came to me, and he had a bit of a misunderstanding about what piaffe was all about, so it took some time to get him confident enough to accept a new approach. And then, about a year ago, he started letting us in, and over the course of the summer it started becoming a re-creatable phenomenon, first in hand, then from the tack. And then we hit a bit of a plateau, which isn’t unusual. And a year in the life of a horse learning to piaffe is such a tiny amount of time.
But I just felt stuck and lost. Ali Brock, my amazing coach, kept telling me that I was on the path, and that it was improving, but I really wanted someone else to feel what I was feeling from the tack, and Ali is pregnant and not riding right now.
Enter my incredible friend Olivia Lagoy-Weltz. She sat on Puck, who she said was fun to ride! (I should retire.) And then she sat on Elvis and gave me super good thoughts on both. On Puck, who has always been a weirdo, she told me to stop riding him like he was a weirdo and to kick on and ride him like he’s trained because he is, because I did it. (I get this advice at LEAST once per horse I’ve ever made.) But on Elvis, she gave me this amazing piece of wisdom about how I sit on my horses in general. I use my back, with an open hip angle, which helps with engagement but can also push the withers down. She uses her belly and her quadriceps, which helps draw the withers up. I tweaked how I sit, and BAM: My horse piaffes. Up in the wither, active behind, and with a relatively painless transition both in and out.
This is fantastic, right? I should be giddy as a schoolgirl. And I was, for a bit. And then my horse, using all sorts of new muscles, hit a wall. I entered our first Intermediaire II, full of hubris and bravado, only to have poor Elvis crash and burn muscularly. Together we were fantastically unimpressive. The timing stunk. This is just how the path goes, and I know this, but for the moment, learning a new way, we’re really in the weeds.
This is why we have to have horsey friends. This is why we have to have other trainers who love us, who we can call and say, “OMG THIS IS CRAP. I AM CRAP. EVERYTHING IS CRAP. MY OWNERS ARE GOING TO FIRE ME, AND I’M GOING TO HAVE TO GO GET A REAL JOB,” and have them listen patiently until we need a breath. Then they say, “Hey, you’re fine. It’s fine. Settle down. It will be OK. This is the path. You are on the path. You are so, so not alone on the path.”
A few years ago, I had a train wreck ride at a horse show, and Olivia took me out for a pedicure and regaled me with tales of famous riders on famous horses failing spectacularly in public. When Elvis and I had our unimpressive I2 debut, both Ali and Olivia told me that their first Grand Prix-ish rides on their top horses were far, far sketchier than my own. A few weeks ago, one of my favorite riders, Cathrine Dufour, shared on Instagram that she’d been tossed, and she included a spectacular photo of her bruised behind.
We are all just here, doing the best we can, and sometimes the best we can really sucks. This is the path. There is a time in the life of everything that works where it just doesn’t work. We came home from the show, and Elvis had a brief break, and every day since, every time I’ve called upon him to piaffe, he’s said yes. Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s bad, but it’s there. I am ready for this next step of the way, where I go to some shows, and some are going to be good, and some are going to be less good, but I’m going to learn something new every time, and it’s going to get better. I’m going to be smart about where I show, because really, truly, at the local level, no one cares if you blow it. My owners are not going to fire me. (I hope. Hi, guys.) My horse is going to get fitter and be better able to answer the questions that he does know how to answer but just can’t always find the power to do it well.
It’s all so freaking hard. Learning is hard. Being vulnerable and being open to new ideas, including some that require a few steps back, is hard. How lucky am I to have so, so many people in my world who’ve walked this sucky path before me, and who are willing to walk it alongside me now.
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s Guernsey Elvis and her own Gretzky RV, Kingrose and Ojalá with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Read more about her at SprieserSporthorse.com, or follow Lauren Sprieser on Facebook and Instagram.