Friends, I'd like to share with you the Ultimate Answer to Riding, the Universe, and Everything, and no, it isn’t 42 -- although it felt like it took that many years for me to figure it out. Until I learned the trick, though, I struggled and struggled and struggled to improve my riding ... especially in dressage.
But of course it was a struggle, you might say. After all, riding is complicated, isn’t it? There’s so much to learn, so much to understand … and then you get on a different horse or ride with a different clinician, and it starts all over again! Learning to be a better rider is going to be tough, no matter what you do, right?
Wrong. What if I told you that the key to making it all understandable is so simple that a child can do it? In fact, children usually excel at it without any instruction whatsoever.
Do you want to know the Ultimate Answer to understanding all your deepest riding questions? Are you ready? It’s profound. The Ultimate Answer to riding, the Universe, and Everything is … asking questions.
Seriously, it’s that simple.
The trouble is that as we get older, life teaches us otherwise. We learn to follow directions without talking back; we learn not to ask ‘stupid’ questions; we learn that knowing what we’re doing means knowing all the answers, and that asking questions is a sign of weakness, ignorance or disrespect.
Take me, for example. As a young rider, I was a natural. I was always able to get horses to do what I wanted -- mostly by feel and guess work. If my instructor said something was good, I made it keep happening with very little technical grasp of how I was doing it or why it worked. I was also the sort of kid I call a “pleaser”. I had been taught by my parents to do as I was told, and that unquestioning obedience transferred to my riding lessons. I wanted my instructors to like me, to be happy with my performance, and to be impressed with what I knew. And I sure didn’t want to look stupid. A great deal of my self-confidence was wrapped up in being a good rider, and I wasn’t willing to let that image slip. If I was unclear about something the instructor said, I’d either go with what I was doing until it got corrected, or just figure it out later. No way was I going to interrupt my instructor or my lesson to ask some silly question. I just worked around what I didn’t understand, and as a result, my riding education was riddled with holes.
As an adult professional returning to a regular lesson schedule in search of a stronger understanding of dressage on a very, very difficult horse, my inability to ask questions didn’t get much better. In fact, before it got better, it got a great deal worse. The more technical my instructor’s demands became, the more the gaps in my understanding prevented success. The more my success was impeded, the more frustrated I became -- and frustrated riders are extremely hard to teach. I’d shut down and not even hear what the instructor was saying, or I’d only partially do what she said, or do it by rote without feeling or understanding why it was important.
My poor horse would get tense, then angry, then dangerous, and it would take a near-death experience, with me considerably outside my hot-shot, sticky-seated comfort zone, to get me desperate enough to listen to what I was being told to do. I cried in lessons, got so angry that I’d have to dismount and stand quivering at the end of the arena until I got a hold of myself, or hide in the tackroom to cry in secret afterward. I snapped at my instructor, was short-tempered with my horse, and generally felt hopeless about ever “getting it”. It was hard to keep coming back, but I wanted the knowledge so, SO badly.
I don’t know how long I tortured myself before the answer (or, the question, as it were) finally came to me -- and when it did, it felt like defeat at first. It felt like I was utterly giving up when I came to a full halt in the middle of an exercise, turned to my insanely patient and understanding teacher, and dropped the reins. Then I cried as I admitted that I didn’t understand something that she’d said ten minutes ago, and that was why I wasn’t able to do it now. I still remember her expression of surprise -- not so much that I hadn’t known it, but that I hadn’t asked.
She’d had no idea that I’d been confused by that one tiny piece of theory. How could she? And she’d been grasping at straws trying to sort out why her explanations hadn’t been working. You see, there’s no way an instructor can know what’s going on in your head. If you don’t ask about something, or worse -- act like you understand when you don’t -- they have to guess where you need help. And while you’re struggling to sort it out, your mind is busy with that instead of feeling what your horse is doing, connecting with him, and responding to the signals he’s giving as he tries to learn what you want him to do. It becomes a vicious cycle of frustration for everyone, and the crazy part is that it’s so easy -- and at the same time, so hard -- to stop it.
For me, at first, I was so blocked in my own head that I couldn’t even identify the point of confusion, so at the beginning, I had to resort to taking a time out when I felt the frustration mounting. Instead of just fuming until I could pull myself together though, I would stand there by my instructor, reins on the horse’s neck, mentally rewinding through the last several minutes and sorting emotions until I figured out where the block was. It was hard. Harder than the lesson. Harder than the exercise. But, once I settled on a question and worked through the uncomfortable cognitive dissonance of new learning, things always got better.
From there, I learned to stop as soon as I needed a question answered, and yes, it did get in the way of the riding occasionally, but I had to train my brain how to learn, and I couldn’t do it on a moving horse!
Finally, as I got more comfortable with formulating and asking questions, I was able to ask while I was riding, and that’s when the clouds really started to part and my progress took on a whole new trajectory. I had discovered the Ultimate Answer: asking questions.
And now, you know it too. Asking questions is the most powerful piece of equipment you own, and it's free, never breaks down, and comes in a limitless supply. You can't use it up, so instead of pressing on in a haze of confusion, or walking away still unclear about something you heard or did, STOP. Call a halt and think of a question -- even if it takes a while -- then ask. Ask until you understand because that one little answer might be just the key you needed to unlock the door that's blocking your progress.
It’s been over a year since my last article. A busy year. A sad year. An exciting year. Through it all, Grimm paved the way, even though his recovery from the DDFT issue didn’t go as hoped.
Last fall, we moved to a new barn where I was offered a position as an in-house trainer. The board was high, and the thought of moving again, losing a client base, and starting over was terrifying, but the footing and care were far superior to where we were, and I went because my last hope for Grimm was that the soft, indoor footing at the new facility would allow him to come back to work.
While his unevenness improved minutely, his attitude toward work did not. Despite everything I tried, he was monstrous on the longe, and grew positively homicidal when asked to work correctly. I tried to press on with a consistent program, but he simply wasn’t having it. He didn’t seem that lame, but he sure didn’t want to work any more. As my optimism waned and acceptance took over, my motivation to write here drained away. Months passed, and then, in April, I finally understood what had been bothering him for so long.
At 6:30 am, on the morning of April 16th, 2017, I got that call from the barn that every horse owner dreads.
“It’s Grimsby,” Sam said. “He is sick. You need to come.”
It was a Saturday morning, and I tried frantically to get a vet to answer my calls as I drove to the barn. When I arrived, things didn’t seem so bad, but Sam was adamant that I needed a vet. I believed him and kept calling. I finally got one to come -- from Tacoma, an hour away.
We started walking, and it became obvious as the endless minutes passed, that this was no ordinary colic. Grimm went downhill quickly, suffered a spasm that dropped him to the ground, and he was in severe distress by the time the vet arrived. Her diagnosis: lipoma.
Lipoma is a benign fatty tumor that develops in the mesentery, a membrane that attaches the intestine to the abdominal wall. A lipoma dangles from a stalk that can -- and usually eventually does -- wrap around the small intestine, cuts off the blood supply, and … well, I’m sure you know the rest.
The vet offered the option of referring him for immediate surgery, but it didn’t take long for me to consider all that entailed. I couldn’t do it to him. I wasn’t sure he’d make the trip anyway, and I wanted him to go quickly, in as little pain as possible. By 9:30, Great Grimsby, the horse who changed everything, was off to a better pasture than I ever could have bought for him, bound for his eternal retirement.
The universe took him from me way, way too soon, but not before he made sure I got a few more lessons. The first was to listen to my gut. I KNEW there was something wrong with him, even though the vet said he should be okay to work under saddle. He had been telling me every way he knew that something didn’t feel right; I just wish I’d had a crystal ball so I could have understood sooner exactly what was hurting him.
The second lesson was about moving on. He came to me as the answer to what I thought was the end of the world. He left, and it felt like the end of the world again, but in truth, when he left, he allowed ME to move on -- because while losing him was the hardest thing I’ve ever endured, it also opened doors.
In his absence, I spent the spring and summer starting my young horse, Bel, which I’m not sure I would have made time for if I’d still been trying to work with Grimm. Without his needs to consider, my house-hunting parameters opened up, and I found my way to a perfect piece of property that NEVER would have worked for him. And finally, in taking his leave, he set me free to remember him with joy, gratitude, and love instead of worrying and wishing he could be what he used to be.
My handsome boy may not be nickering at me from a stall in the barn, but he’s with me every moment: when I’m riding, when I’m teaching, when I’m sitting in my beautiful new home where his picture hangs on the living room wall. I will never ride him again, will never kiss his perfect white nose or let him whisper in my ear, but I will always have what he gave me: memories, knowledge, and some really, really great stories. I think I'm ready to start writing again, now that I finally summoned the courage to write this article. My posts will take a new tone because I'll be writing without him as my starting point, but I'm keeping the name, "One White Horse", because without him, there would be nothing to write.
I love you, Great Grimsby. Thank you for everything.