We did a dressage competition at the Royal Canadian Riding Academy last Saturday. We were riding the 2019 USEF Training Level Test 2. For the first time, a test result that came back and I'm quite happy with everything on it. The judge, I was told afterwards, judges FEI competitions, and has a reputation for marking hard and being picky, so it was that much more pleasing to read the comments, and realize that of all the marks, the lowest was a 6, the highest, a 7, and bulk were 6.5, giving me an overall score of 66.038%. The comments were also telling: only one mention of more energy (I allowed myself to be distracted for a moment), the first circle wasn't completely round (I was slightly off-balance in the saddle) in that it had a bit of a bulge, but not much, and the others all reflected a proper circle. We got complements on our transitions, on our relaxation, our rhythm, pace, and overall impression showed the judge thought we were quite good. This has been a long time, almost 8 years now, in coming. We have stayed at this level over the past years because I firmly believe that, until we can get this simple test down well, I consider it pointless to push ahead to do more difficult levels.
I spent the first two years of training undoing the previous training and learning how to train horses (using Clinton Anderson's Method), and the next five have been slowly learning, refining and becoming ever more precise and responsive.
There are several reasons for this length of time, when so many others may perform this test and move onto more difficult levels within a year or so. It took so long because first, we were both green, which is never a good combination. A very competent rider, experienced in teaching horses, can teach a green horse in a relatively short time (It does not help that most horses are much easier to teach and more tractable and less flighty than Oakley), and a new rider can quickly become good by riding on well-trained horses. The ability of the knowledgeable to instruct the unlearned is far more efficient than the time it takes to learn by oneself. We, therefore, learned a very little bit at a time, so improvement has been very slowly ratcheting upwards. Now, let me be very clear: I'm not at all by myself: I have a set of three very, very competent and knowledgeable ladies, each with decades of experience, instructing me. The all love me because after our lessons, I go off and actually practice until I have improved and absorbed what I needed to, so they appreciate having a student who listens; something apparently uncommon. Apparently, most students frequently do not even pay attention and follow instructions during the course of a single lesson, never mind the backsliding normal between lessons.
A second major factor in the length of time as been that, at best, I have only been able to ride about three or four days a week, and this past 9 months, less than that. Were I able to ride twice a day, 6 days a week, I'm quite sure that we would have improved much more quickly. But we have constantly improved, sometimes two paces forward, one pace back (like doing The Cha-Cha) but always becoming better.
But the most important reason for all these years of learning slowly is that it was a deliberate choice. Years ago, even as a pre-teen, I somehow absorbed the important point that, to use the old comparison, a building without a solid foundation cannot last. Consequently, I have been unusual in that I have insisted on spending a great degree of time and focus, in everything I do, on mastering the basic techniques before moving on. I don't know if the need to rush on to attempt ever more difficult feats as quickly as possible can be ascribed to human tendencies or if this simply reflects Western European culture (I suspect the former), but I do know this tendency to be quite typical for most people in this society. As an aside, I was told early on, that the finest, and most ancient, academies of equestrianism in Europe spend five years training their horses and almost 7 years training their riders, considerably longer than many people expect. Thus I chose to take my time, a choice which finally paid off magnificently. I have a horse who has become the model of good behaviour, who can maintain his focus on a shoulder-in while a 10-month old puppy races around between his legs and he didn't do more than flinch in annoyance.
Both Clinton Anderson, in his video course which I've diligently applied, and Warwick Schiller in his discourses, several other modern trainers I've read, and the most famous writers in history going back all the way past de la Guerriniere to Xenophon, agree that one cannot perform more complex and difficult maneuvers without first becoming very adept and smooth at performing the simple basics. Warwick Schiller, as I said before, has a phrase "do it until you can't get it wrong" and, as I said before, that really means to repeat some action until the muscle memory becomes so ingrained that one no longer needs to even think about how to perform it properly, thus allowing the concentration to focus on more nebulous aspects, such as refining the subtlety of the aids until they become invisible to the casual observer. Consequently, I chose to follow this advice, and have spent a long time doing only the basic moves, such as transitions, extensions and contractions, and simple circles until I am now completely comfortable with them. I was thrilled that I received validation from a world-class judge who has never seen me before.
So it is with great pleasure that I can steal a phrase from Winston Churchill and say that if we have not yet reached the beginning of true excellence, we have definitely achieved an excellent beginning.