I just returned from a riding adventure in Massachusetts which I had planned along with a couple of friends for almost a year. We wanted to experience, at least once in our lives, what it felt like to be on a highly trained classical riding horse. We knew we didn’t have the skills to ride such a horse independently, so we signed up to go to a professional training barn for a week of immersion in classical principles with the hope of at least being able to sit a piaffe while the horse was guided by the instructor’s long lines.
We got our piaffe on the first day, but little did we know the trials that awaited us after those first moments of pure joy. For those of you familiar with classical ballet training, just imagine the ballet master, complete with his stern face, imperial bark, and a cane to whack the buns of dancers who don’t stand tall or reach high enough, transported to the riding ring. We were all put on the longe line, which we expected, but we also had to do some acrobatic stretches and balancing acts that might as well have been at the barre, except the barre had been replaced by a horse!
Eventually we were allowed to ride a horse independently. This was not such a big reward, but actually a formidable challenge. The Lusitano schoolmasters at Sons of the Wind are trained to within an inch of their lives, and although they are of a temperament that allows them to remain unruffled by rider mistakes, this does not mean that they guess what you want them to do and then carry out your misguided instructions. If you do not ask them perfectly properly with every single part of your body, you will get absolutely nothing from them except a plodding horse that is impossible to steer. Where is all that classical lightness and instant response to the aids? Well, if you’re me, you will be praying to the gods of horsemanship that some enlightenment will suddenly rain down upon you. Enlightenment came intellectually, but it certainly did not come physically. That horsey ballet barre remained quite out of reach.
Of the three of us, one had spectacular success. Her position improved daily, to the point that by the last day she looked incredible as she followed her horse’s huge canter with a perfect seat. One of us was so taken aback by the rigor of the training that she opted out of the last lesson. For my part, I did a pretty thorough flame-out during my final lesson. I could not persuade my body to coordinate itself sufficiently to convince the horse that yes, I really did want it to canter. So we all came home with our various takes on the experience, but with one conclusion in common: several years of hard work remain for us if we ever expect to even approach attaining the title of “classical rider”.