rowing up, my coach used to tell me I had “electric buns”. Those electric buns bit me in the, well, buns, during one lesson in which I somehow convinced the horse I was on to dump me - not one, not two, but three times. To this day, that moment sticks in my head as one of the foundational lessons missing from my riding repertoire.
In reality, it was a perfect storm that triggered my three-times-is-most-definitely-not-a-charm lesson learned. There was a beautiful dappled gray (because of course he was a dappled gray) off-track Thoroughbred gelding that had just come into the program at the barn. His name was Opie, and he was the stuff my 13 year old dreams were made of. Nevermind that he was 17 hands tall, a bit of a sensitive ride, and more than a little forward. Shrugging at my lovestruck appeal to ride him, my trainer settled in and tried to teach me how to ride the horse that I had no business riding.
Three falls and thirty minutes later, I emerged, very scathed, with a swollen calf and a bruised ego. Where had I gone wrong?, I wondered. Not only was I blinded by the dappled light, I was also a victim of my own making: I’d skipped over so many of the foundational lessons that my long-suffering coach had worked so hard to instill and thought I would just be able to make do with my natural born talent.
The joke was on me.
Let’s talk a little about the concept of the electric buns. Surely this isn’t the first time you’ve heard the term. That lesson still haunts me to this day, a little because of the hurt pride, but mostly because of the glaring issue it pointed out: I did not know how to sit quietly, and this caused the sensitive gelding to explode.
I’d love to sit here and tell you that I learned my lesson that day, that I’d dedicated my life to learning how to properly sit the canter, that I’d gone on to become a much better rider for all the times I hit the dirt that day. But that isn’t what happened.
It’s very easy, as a rider, to focus more on your horse than on yourself. It’s natural — we want our horses to live their best lives and to be given all the opportunity in the world to succeed. Why are we not doing ourselves that same favor?
A more dedicated rider than myself may have seen the learning opportunity here. I only saw my bruised pride and the horse who wouldn’t love me back. In fact, my lack of skill when it comes to quieting my seat and really riding the canter continued to hold me back for my entire riding career. Before too long, I learned about the half-seat. This caused me to work on perfecting that style of riding because it was easier, more comfortable, less difficult to learn.
Learning how to properly sit the canter is a skill that every rider needs to have. Watch the greats such as Ingrid Klimke or Charlotte Dujardin ride for a few moments. Note the soft yet clear direction of their hips, and watch how their horses’ bodies respond.
We, as riders, are athletes. Our bodies must be trained in the same ways our horses are: for optimal performance. Yes, it can be dreadfully boring and monotonous to learn simple, foundational skills. In all likelihood, you can’t even remember the first lesson you took at the canter. It’s second nature now, right? Well, I for one was wrong. I would strongly encourage each of you reading this to take a look at your tool box and find areas to improve.
My lack of control of my seat stemmed from a lack of core strength and balance. In order to increase my level of performance, I needed to focus in on the muscles that weren’t doing what I asked simply because they weren’t strong enough. I also needed to slow down and appreciate the process — perhaps a lunge line lesson or three would have helped me, maybe I needed more time sitting the canter in a proper dressage saddle. No matter what, this was a foundation that needed to be minded.
It’s a new year, and with it comes the promise and hope of reaching new goals and smashing our expectations for ourselves. But for any progress to be made, there must be a proper foundation. Don’t skip or skimp on steps in favor of the quick fix. The reality is, that will always come back to bite you in the (electric) buns. Just take it from me and my ego, which I’m happy to say has recovered enough to give it another shot.
Feature photo by Dani Maczynski.