Gorilla Arms (or, how I got mad and started to fix my position)

At the beginning of August, I had the good fortune to ride in a clinic with Michael Barisone.  My trainer, Lauren Sprieser, works with Michael on a regular basis, and she periodically has him come down to Virginia.  Finally, the timing and finances of this visit worked out, and I was able to ride two days with Michael.

After achieving all of my showing goals for the year in July, Lauren and I had talked about where to go next.  Obviously, we’re aiming for the Prix St. Georges now (because who doesn’t want to wear a shadbelly?), and that likely elusive Silver Medal.  But there’s a long way to go between here and there.

One of the things holding me back from progressing at this point is, well…me.

I still have the residual habit of leaning forward and making what we all lovingly refer to as “gorilla arms” when things get tough.  You know, hunch down and stick your elbows out, wrists in, and I probably make a gorilla face too.  Lauren is on me about it, and even Kevin mentions it to me.  “Sit back, shoulders back, chest out” is something I hear a lot. Unfortunately, years into this dressage journey, I still do it and have a hard time correcting myself, especially when riding alone, which is most of the time.

Michael ClinicSince Michael is a good trainer, and has eyes, my position was just about the first thing he latched onto.  Interestingly, his very slightly different approach of telling me how to fix it was really helpful.  Rather than telling me just to put my shoulders back, he focused on telling me to lift my hands and keep them together.  That little bit of direction (and then a regular reminder about it for the next 45 minutes) really stuck and helped set me on the road of fixing a longtime position problem for real.

Of course, the real test is whether I can remind myself to fix this when I’m at home, without mirrors or Michael and Lauren in my ear.  This is where something else Michael said has really stuck with me – and made me angry enough (aka inspired me) to make the effort to fix myself once and for all.

“You look like you’re asking him to come to the bit, and he gets partway there, and you say ‘OK.  That’s all I can get.'” said Michael. “You look like a First Level rider who’s just along for the ride!  When you sit up, and pick up your hands, the whole picture changes and you look like a Grand Prix rider!”

This wasn’t an untrue statement, and I didn’t find it to be unkind.  But boy did it make me angry.  Angry enough that I didn’t want to hear someone say that – or think it – ever again.  After all, I’ve been riding for 30 years now, and I sailed through First Level two years ago!  “I’m a Third Level+ rider now!  I’m a Bronze Medalist,” cried my inner child.

Well, this was apparently just the thing to motivate me.  When I ride at home, by myself, I now hear Michael in my head.  I still make gorilla arms sometimes when the going gets tough, but more and more, I’m able to remember to sit up, and pick up my hands – and the new reward isn’t just that I hope I’ll never hear Michael say that again, its that Cardoon is going better than ever.  His back is freer, he bends more honestly into the contact, and his lateral work is greatly improved.

The Region 1 Finals at the Virginia Horse Center are just around the corner, and I’m hoping that my new and improved position, coupled with my new and increased expectations will help us score even better than we’ve done already.  Onward and upward (with my shoulders and chest)!

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