I’m sure all of us have had great rides. The ones that leave you beaming for days, just thinking about the quality of a movement, the power of a jump, or the throughness of the connection. Those rides where you feel competent and accomplished and your horse feels just awesome. Few things in life feel as good as those wonderful rides, I think. They keep us coming back and keep us going through the early mornings, the frozen hands, the sweat-drenched breeches, the dirt, the dust, and the disappointment.
And I know we’ve all had the terrible rides. You know, those times when nothing goes right. There is no in front of the leg or on the aids or bend. You’re somehow both wobbly and stiff at the same time, and the bits that are supposed to bounce stay tight while everything else flops like jello in an earthquake. In those rides, it can feel like your horse has forgotten everything you’ve ever thought they’ve known - and maybe you’ve forgotten it all, too. Surviving those rides and finding a teeny shred of positivity is often all you can do. Trail ride, anyone?
Those are the extremes. They’re easy enough to recognize and categorize. Although the bad rides are awful (and can make you question any competency you ever thought you had - or perhaps just your sanity), to me, the most challenging rides are often the mediocre ones. Those rides where everything is okay, but not great. That medium you thought you were rocking? Meh. The expression you’ve developed in the canter? So-so. The connection that you thought was solid as a rock, those hind legs that stepped right up to your hands? A little too wiggly and messy. The mediocre rides, for me, are the hardest to get through.
When the ride is just miserable, you can categorize it, learn from it, shelve it, and move on. But the rides that are just okay are more confusing yet. Is something not quite right? Is your horse a little sore? Something wrong with the equipment? Footing? Your seat? Were those brilliant movements you’ve been getting all a farce? Do you even know what you’re doing at all? Is this all there is? You see, these rides make you question everything you thought you knew. The aids that had been working just fine now are questionable. The movements you’d been getting beautifully are now just average, and you can’t necessarily pinpoint what (if anything) is different. Should you ask for more? Should you back off and ask for less? What do you do? When things are terrible, at least you have some idea of what to do - usually because it’s so darn obvious (e.g. the horse is running around flashing you her blaze at six million miles per hour). When things are just average, everything is so much murkier.
I don’t know what I’m doing. (Isn’t this what you wanted to hear? Comforting, no?) I am trying and I am learning, but I am the last person to say that I know all the things there are to know, or even a good chunk of the things there are to know. But - I try to collect things that are useful and build on those. Here are some of the more useful things that flicker through my brain during those ho-hum rides:
Just like us, horses have days. You know, those days where you’re tired for no real reason, or just don’t have lots of energy, or are just a touch sore. Sometimes there’s a clear reason, sometimes not. It’s just part of being an animal, from what I can tell.
Um, work is hard. There is a reason we all don’t work for free - because it don’t make no sense! There has to be some incentive to work. If we could all go to work and earn money, or stay home watching Netflix and earn money...well, you understand the end of this analogy. Did your horse wake up today and think, “Today is the day, I can feel it! I am going to nail every single change and float in my lateral work! Mom will be thrilled!” No. Never. That is just not a thing. Your horse wants a snack and a nap in the sun and maybe some scratches with a good mud bath in there somewhere, and probably a pasture so he can work on his bucking. Work is not on the agenda. We are the reason he works. Do not be surprised that this is hard and that he tells you it’s hard sometimes. We can be fair and kind and all of those good things, but at the end of the day, it is easier (and evolutionarily speaking, smarter) not to work. We as riders have to create the incentive to work through clear communication and reward.
Sometimes, work is just boring! So go outside. Gallop (or walk!) through a field. Hop over some jumps. Set up some cavaletti. It is work for your horse, so make it a bit fun if you can!
More than anything, please remember that more often than not, the mediocre (and awful) rides are okay. That is part of the process. Learning is hard and slow. I spent about 27 years of my life in some kind of school, and I am still not sure what I know. There will be good days and bad days, and it all evens out in the wash. Take it with a grain of salt, get good help, and keep plugging along. Riding (at least dressage and eventing) is a test of persistence. Having a poor or mediocre ride does not mean that everything has gone off the rails. It’s just a thing that happens. When most of your rides are poor or mediocre, there are other paths to travel (vet, chiropractor/acupuncture/massage, saddle fit, footing, different instruction, different horse, and so on). But the mediocre rides that come in between the awesome ones? Par for the course. It’s okay. You are okay. This is not a crisis. I repeat, this is not a crisis.