Tica Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011
You read about Gil Merrick in an earlier posting: now, five months later, he returned for another clinic at The Ark. But this time Linda and I were able to afford two sessions rather than just one. It was wonderful to see Tica, with Linda riding her, progress so quickly within the space of two lessons. I wish I could show you them on day one as well, but I didn't have my video camera. Though on the second day Tica was more relaxed, she seemed a bit tired so her trot and canter weren't quite as expansive as they'd been the previous day. Here's a brief sample of the work Gil, Linda, and Tica did:
One of Mr. Merrick's numerous pedagogical gifts is that he seamlessly slips into the combined role of teacher, coach, and friend to you and your horse. There is never a hint of the irritation, sarcasm, or superiority which I, and I'm sure most of you, have experienced at least once in your efforts to progress in your sport. By way of underscoring Mr. Merrick's civility and supportive manner, I thought I would jot down, by contrast, some of my least happy (and least productive) encounters with instructors. Names have been changed to protect the guilty.
While I was teaching cadets international relations at West Point in the early 1980s, I rode in a dressage clinic hosted by an Englishman named Tony. The invited clinician, his former instructor Hildy Schmidt, had flown over from Europe. Though I did have a vague idea what shape qualified as a circle, I didn't have a clue what constituted twenty meters. My horse, being ridden by me, wasn't helpful with the metric system either. Early on, Frau Schmidt gave up on us and turned her pedagogical Klieg lights on Tony. All was apparently going well--how could I really tell?--but then Tony's mount began to rear. I halted and glanced over. A horsefly the size of a well-fed hummingbird had attached itself to the animal's neck.
"Forward! Forward!! For-waard!!" Frau Schmidt screamed.
(A thin stream of blood now ran down the poor chestnut's neck.)
"I'm sorry, Frau Schmidt, a fly is bothering--"
"If he vas concentrating he vould not be sinking of flies!"
On another occasion, I called a friend's cell number. It turned out she was auditing a clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, given by a member of Germany's gold medal dressage team. This instructor's style was akin to Frau Schmidt's. But even louder: I heard every impatient word.
"Forward! Forward!! For--waard!!!" Then "Outside rein! Outside rein!! Out-side rein!!!"
I could have audio-audited the entire despotic clinic from my sofa here in Acton, Massachusetts. That is, had I wanted to.
In Munich, over twenty-five years ago, I proudly showed a university professor and fellow rider a photo of my young Andalusian mare with whom I was planning to have an exciting dressage career. He glanced down at my stomach--he had just learned I was two months pregnant--and said with a dismissive shake of his head:
"No, you are too old (I was thirty-five). After zis baby you will ride only in za park."
If he showed up today on this side of the Atlantic I would happily have him accompany all my silver-haired friends, now finished with our competitive season, for a five-mile gallop along the sands and tide pools of Crane Beach. Park, indeed.
Lest you think I'm focusing unfairly on one nationality, here are two more examples.
A friend of mine accompanied by one of her own friends was en route to a clinic given by a former member of the U.S. Olympic dressage team. Already acquainted with the sharp tongue of this high-level rider, they made a pact: they were not going to cry, no matter what was said or how it was said. They succeeded, but others did not. As my friend entered the ring, two weeping riders were leaving.
A few years ago I entered a clinic given by a "gentleman" from Scotland whose Sally Swift-like work is known world-wide. He'd written a book which I greatly admired. So, I was totally taken aback when he sarcastically tore me into little pieces, and scattered my remains, metaphorically, about the arena floor. In a flood of tears, I dismounted and began to walk out. The organizer of the clinic caught me at the door and convinced me to get back on. I shouldn't have. I did, however, have enough residual pride and common sense to sell my next day's ride to someone else. The teacher was back the following year for a November clinic. The person in whose house he was staying remarked with some amazement that he had willingly peeled a whole bag of onions for their Thanksgiving dinner. I peevishly remarked that I hoped they'd made him cry.
These personality types are not confined to clinics and lessons. One British woman studying dressage in Germany was told by a fellow boarder that she had a world-class horse but that he was never going to win any serious competitions with her riding him. That person--together with that same horse--went on to ride in the Olympics and win a bronze medal.
And then there are the instructors who pounce on the most vulnerable segment of the riding population--children. I worked as an instructor at a local riding school (factory) for nearly a month. But when I kept changing the horses out of their severe bits into loose ring and d-ring snaffles, it was determined that my knowledge of the horses' mouths was not nuanced enough. And I stopped lessons too many times to work on body alignment. They decided I needed to shadow one of their instructors in a group lesson.
I did indeed learn, but not the lesson they had in mind. There was one little girl, about ten, who was obviously terrified of jumping. As she approached an in-and-out on her large pony, the little girl would invariably, out of fear, haul on the reins. Thus, she was screamed at. It was an accident in the making. The more the teacher screamed the more she hauled. All this was a normal reaction on her part. She was in what I call the riding death spiral, a figure of speech occasionally all too literal. When riders are afraid, they hang onto the reins but then do not release the pressure. The horse learns there is no reward for his having slowed, so why should he bother? Therefore, the more the rider hauls, the more the horse responds in kind--the other way.
I was witnessing the evolution of a disaster. The next go-around the pony tried to take the in-and-out as a bounce rather than a one-stride and crashed right through the second fence. His little rider went flying and landed with a thud--her worst fears now realized. She was then scolded for making all this happen. The poor little tyke managed to hold in her tears and climb back on her now equally traumatized mount. When it came time for the next jump, the little girl blasted over the obstacle, precariously managing to stay on. She received much praise for facing her fears.
But when she dismounted she nearly crumpled to the ground. She'd hit her head on the previous jump and said she felt dizzy. This was the instructor's now sympathetic and thus, even more emotionally destabilizing reply:
"Don't you know that when your head hurts you're supposed to get off?"
OMG! In that environment no child would dare think of dismounting--even if her own head was about to fall off. I ran into the mother, whom I heard saying to another parent, "I guess you've just got to get back on when you fall off."
I walked up to her. "No you don't," I said, "and certainly not when your child is terrified and in circumstances that are increasingly frightening--and dangerous."
I quit that farm that day, resolving that if I ever got another job teaching I would never force a child to ride through paralyzing fear--a modicum of uneasiness or apprehension, yes, certainly--but never ever the kind of self-fulfilling fear that actually causes accidents.
Of course, the psychological roots of this kind of pedagogical tyranny are well known. But I think the great Czech poet Ranier Maria Rilke sums it up better in "Imaginary Career" than any shrink ever could:
"The child bent, becomes the bender."
Like some of you more advanced riders, I've been to clinics where the message and the messenger are both sub-par, to clinics where the message was appropriate but the messenger would have been shot in some cultures. I have zero financial or any other kind of stake in this advice: If you have a chance to ride or simply audit with Gil Merrick please take it. In him, you'll see that the message and messenger are one, and that such oneness in a dressage trainer is to be cherished.
This little girl below, Amalia, age seven and a half, hails from Switzerland, and is at the very beginning of what is sure to be a great equestrian career. She has been riding at Windflower only three months and is already an expert at round penning. Here you see her driving Kip forward:
Amalia and Kip Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011
And in this next photo she has achieved join-up. By moving Kip forward then making her change directions (but without direct contact of a lead line), Amalia has established herself as "herd-leader." Thus, no reins or lead are required for Kip to follow her obediently:
And now Amalia demonstrates a gesture of her own invention: "The Mother Stroke."
After a recent lesson, Amalia was administering huge strokes all over Kip. I asked her what she was doing and she replied, "Giving Mother Strokes." This was news to me.
"Amalia, what are 'Mother Strokes'?"
"Well," she said, "remember when you told me how mother horses lick their foals all over when they're born? You said you thought that was why horses liked to be stroked all over, and that it helps them relax. That's what I'm doing, and I call it Mother Stroking."
Dear Readers, having read the above, I expect to hear a collective "Awww" in cyber-space. And since there is now an official name for it, I recommend that all of you give your horses "Mother Strokes" after each ride, which may be done with or without the slurping sounds Amalia makes with her tongue.
I received this charming Christmas tree ornament from Amalia just this afternoon. She made it out of polymer clay. It will grace our trees for many holidays to come. (The sloppy handwriting is my own.)
Here is where I planned to include photos of Firefly, Elementa, and Dolly. We took them to Foss Farm in Carlisle twice to use the jumps in the lovely ring there and then took them on a little hack. But both times I forgot to insert my CF card! I happily clicked away both times until I paused long enough to note that the 'no cf card' was flashing. Argghhhh!! There will now be an extra card in my camera bag at all times. Otherwise, it went very well.
Last blog I wrote about Rufo, the half-shepherd, half-pit bull who has been in a Yonkers, New York, shelter four out of the five years of his life. The staff has refused to euthanize him because of his loveable nature. I'm happy to report that as of April 1 Rufo will be adopted by my friend Jon. Many years ago Jon adopted a dog I had found languishing in a local shelter. Robbie became an adored member of Jon's home for many years until he died two years ago. Since then Jon has been dog-less, a state which needed an immediate fix.
Unfortunately, the nature of Jon's work precludes him from adopting Rufo until Spring, but the people who run the rescue group www.dejafoundation.org, and who were the ones who initially informed me of Rufo's plight, are trying to find Rufo a foster home until then. They are even arranging obedience training for this lovely boy. Though he is super-friendly, the nature of his living arrangements have precluded Rufo's being up to speed on social skills.
And now a Clem update:
Master Clem wins all hearts who have the good fortune of meeting him. He is a charming puppy who continually amuses us with his adorable antics! Even things for which he must be admonished--constantly stealing shoes and socks--brings smiles to our faces. He loves his long walks, loves his food (turkey got a big "paws up"), loves to hop into bed with us, and even loved his trip to the vet. "What needle? Was that a needle? Oh, this man in the white coat likes me. I will lick him all over because I like him, too."
Next week Clem and Jim begin four weeks of obedience training at our local pet store. At four months Clem is now too old for puppy kindergarten. Not that he is without training: he's just been home schooled. I'm going to attempt to video the sessions and if any are blog-able will post them.
Clem in repose Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011
I don't quite understand! Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011
The above photos say more about this little man than my words can.
I don't know if you've heard this, but their are "laughing clubs" springing up all over China. It has been decided there--as it has been in many places--that telling jokes, that is, good ones--are beneficial for one's health. Chinese routinely meet to laugh their heads off! I thought I'd make a modest attempt to elevate my readers' endorphin level (mine, too, BTW) by occasionally including a humorous fact, story, or joke at the end of a blog entry. This is from the classified section of a newspaper:
"Free puppies. 1/2 cocker spaniel--1/2 neighbor's sneaky dog."
Thank you for reading The Windflower Weekly and . . .
Clem's silhouette Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2011