1.) The horse can do it. When I first started riding on uneven surfaces such as in grass fields and out on the trail my horse would trip and stumble. I would get so frustrated, often complaining ” this is never going to work… we can’t do our “dressage” training with such crappy footing. I can’t ask my horse to be round and collected in the grassy, uneven field. But, we kept riding and it wasn’t long before I started to realize our rides were improving. Athena was tripping and stumbling less and over time hardly ever if at all stumbled. With soft persistent requests and lots of grace Athena started to learn how to find her own balance and to pick up her feet to avoid stumbling. Before long, we were in fact able to find moments of collection, soft contact and roundness in our rides… even on uneven terrain.
2.) My own balance and seat has improved. With the uneven ground I’ve had to really focus on being independent of my mare’s movements. Whether she slowed down, sped up, over jumped a pole, tripped or even stumbled, being able to keep my own flow and not be rattled by the mistakes has made me a far quieter and more balanced rider.
3.) We’ve learned to work through distractions. The leaves on the tree rustled, the pheasant flew up from the tall grass, the dog came running up from down the hill, the giant backhoe in the yard… No problem… we are used to all of that now. Staying focused, or regaining composure quickly after a disruption is a fantastic skill to learn and has tremendous benefits, especially if you have plans to show. Very few environments are void of distraction and scary things for our horses. Teaching them to cope with these moments is one of the best tools we can teach them.
4.) I learned to celebrate the tiniest of improvement. Most rides in imperfect conditions and/or uneven surfaces are a blend of good moments and frustrating moments. Rather than focusing exclusively on what isn’t right or how the horse isn’t moving, find the little victories; The 3 steps in a row where you and your horse are in harmony, the two strides where your horse is “round” with a nice even contact, the moment your horse didn’t spoke at something or recovered quickly when you asked. Reward to try ALWAYS. This becomes especially important when you are out “in the world” doing your training. This build trust and your partnership will grow deeper.
5.) Training in the real world builds trust and I believe a deeper connection with your horse. I’ll be honest, I would love to ride more regularly in freshly groomed white sand arenas. But, that’s not my reality, so I’m making lemonade out of lemons and you know what I’ve learned…. all the imperfectness creates a deeper level of connection and a stronger level of trust between my horse and I. For example riding on a loose rein, for long and low stretchy trot out in a field takes courage and trust. As a rider you are giving your horse the choice to decide to work with you, or take off for the barn. I’ve found myself pleasantly surprised on more than one occasion at my horses desire to really try for me, to work with me and be with me, given all of her choices. Likewise, she is learning to trust me; if I say the path is ok, it’s ok. If I am not phased by the pheasant then she shouldn’t be either. It works both ways.
6.) Training outside can be a lot of fun! The views are spectacular, the sound of the birds chirping is super relaxing and no two days are every the same! A huge bonus for my easily bored mare who often gets sour when we train in an arena for more than two days in a row!
7.) I’m a more confident rider. I used to always walk down hills because well, trotting was far too scary, and I felt that I could only do a 20 meter circle if the area was perfectly flat or ask for a canter when coming around the corner. Now, I ride whatever is in front of me. If we are trotting and she gets quick and doesn’t respond to my half halt, we do a circle, it doesn’t matter if there is a small rise in the ground, or a stump we have to go around, we just do it and continue on with our ride. I call it all terrain dressage. After-all the word in it’s self means to train and that’s what we do whether inside, outside on level ground or hilly fields… we train in it all and grow with every ride!