I’m sure we have all heard the house building analogies, “If you build on sand, you can build a hut. If you build on solid foundation, you can build a sky scraper.” How true that is when we are working with horses. Every good instructor I have had has said the same thing. I have read it in every good book, I say it to every one of my students and at every clinic I run.
It’s interesting how we hear things said and think to ourselves, “Yeah that makes sense,” and then let the idea drift away until one day it comes back to smash us in the face. Then we say, “I remember so and so saying blah blah blah.”
Have I lost you yet? Are you thinking I’ve heard all of this before?
Often when faced with the realisation of the fact that they have neglected this basic, yet imperative principle, riders refuse to acknowledge their shortcomings. They try every kind of gadget, they blame backs, teeth, saddles, feet and use a million other excuses but eventually, if they are honest with themselves, they will have to draw the same conclusion: they didn’t build the foundation, they have built a house of cards that is destined to collapse at some stage.
Am I boring you?
Let me go over it again. Take some bricks and pile them one on top of the other and see how high you can make the pile. You may get to a metre and a half but eventually the pile will topple over. Start again, take the same bricks and build a base one-meter square. Cement those bricks together then build the next layer 950 cm square and cement it again. You can imagine you might build a tower several metres tall on your second attempt. Understandable that you failed on the first attempt, but you learnt and did better the next time. So if you are able to admit you made a mistake with your horse, you can go back to the beginning and start again, right? WRONG!!
The emotional, physical and mental damage done to your horse on your first uneducated, unthinking or rushed attempt can’t be completely undone. Yes, you can go back and try to re-educate him, you can build some of the muscles you neglected the first time around, but he will remember the point where he fell down before and will always be tense when he approaches that place.
Be it show jumping, dressage, cross country, racing or any other equestrian sport, there are certain foundations which cannot be neglected lest we pay the price of mediocrity.
Look at a dressage situation. Go to a local competition in the preliminary class and there will be 20 or 30 riders. Novice will have similar numbers, in the elementary tests there may be 10 on a good day, then in medium there are three and occasionally there will be two in the classes above. This is my experience in local competitions in Australia. It is very difficult to go past elementary without a solid foundation, this is where it all falls apart.
Occasionally horses fake their way forward but if you look, it is usually easy to see their shortcomings. I am seeing Grand Pre horses advertised in Europe for 200,000 Euro that only flex correctly in one direction.
Let’s say in your local dressage community there are 200 aspiring competitors. Some will never raise the courage to even get into the arena. There always seems to be one rider who has achieved the lofty heights of advanced or above – lets say one at Grand Pre, they have built the foundation and reaped the rewards. One in 200, that’s 0.05%. So let’s be generous and say less than 1% of riders are building a foundation to reach a serious level.
If you have ever had the wonderful experience of sitting on a horse with a real foundation you will know it, you will never forget it and you will always strive to achieve it.
Are you in that under 1% who are doing it correctly? I’m sorry to tell you, but I doubt it.