I have finally figured out the topic of the book that I will (might) someday write. It will be about developing confidence in female dressage riders, particularly adult women.
This is a topic I have been thinking about a lot lately as I have been reflecting on the common issues I see in my students, most of whom are adult women. Lacking confidence comes in many forms and seems to rest at the base of most problems my students face. The most common phrases I hear out of my students when up against an issue are "I don't know what to do," and "I don't want to hurt the horse."
Yesterday I had two very capable students with many years in the saddle use both of those statements immediately upon failing to pick up the canter on two of my horses. Ah, the canter depart and its ability to turn talented balanced riders into either a ball of mush or an iron rod.
There is a book to be written about learning to pick up the canter with confidence, but let me just say the one thing I know for sure is that falling back on these two phrases will not help you learn to canter.
First, you have cantered before and it worked. It wasn't magic. If you know how to canter, you know how to canter. Yes there are levels of subtlety and finesse that will improve as you gain skills and experience, but that doesn't mean you can't pick up the canter.
Second, an error in timing is not going to 'hurt' the horse. The more likely thing to hurt the horse will be you dropping their balance when you slouch into a giving up ball of mush or jabbing them in the back with your iron seat bones when you tense up because it didn't immediately work.
If the canter depart doesn't work immediately, please, for the sake of horses and instructors everywhere, continue to ride well, regroup and ask again.
And why did that canter depart that you have done before not work this time? Is it possible that the horse has learned that if I ignore the rider, they will give up? In the old married couples of horse and rider pairs that have been together a long time, this is most common. The horse has learned how to shake the rider's weak confidence by not answering at first, trusting that with a little delay, the rider will give up, probably need to regroup in the walk for a few minutes, try again, fail, regroup in the walk again... and the horse won't do the sweating and the rider will blame herself.
And the horse that has taught lessons is of course the other most skilled at the delayed response. They have to figure out what level of capable is this rider? Should I respond? Was that an accidental aid? Does this rider follow through or can I take a nap now?
And here is the thing, horses have the right to check. They are smart to check. They aren't mean or naughty with this little trick. They are just street wise. And I love them for this character trait because it means that they aren't machines.
But, ladies. Please! You know how to canter (insert flex, bend, down transition, half halt)! So instead of immediately blaming yourself, doubting yourself, feeling embarrased or incompetent, try smiling at your smarty pants equine partner, say 'nice try' along with a quick tic with the whip or something that confirms your intent, and canter on!