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Photo: Judy Wood



Riding Lessons for Artists

The Basics are Basic

Even if you have a "gift", you still have to work hard to realize your potential.

By Judy Wood | Posted April 20, 2009 | Updated June 23, 2019


One of the irritating facts of life in many endeavors, and riding and art creation are right in there on this one, is that "the basics" are basic. As I have mentioned before, none of us came into this world knowing how to do these things. They need to be learned.

Some of us have a greater aptitude than others, but we all have to learn from the ground up no matter what our area of interest may be. The "lucky" ones are those who do have that "natural" ability that makes learning and application of the learning less difficult than it is for many of the rest of us. Note I didn't say "easier", just less difficult. Even if you have a "gift", you still have to work hard to realize your potential. In fact, being a "star" in either art or in the saddle can have its drawbacks, since the level of expectation is often much greater for the "gifted" student, hence the pressure to "succeed" and "realize your potential" is more onerous than for we less stellar performers who are slogging away in the trenches. We have the advantage of being able to toil away at our craft in relative anonymity as we work at improving ourselves and our performance, which is on the whole not such a bad thing. Then we can spring our hard-won accomplishments on an unsuspecting public who will be amazed at what we have become while they were tracking the high-profile performer, who by now has often burnt out and quit.

I can think of a number of examples of very talented individuals who were in art classes with me decades ago, all of whom have fallen by the art wayside over the years. Of the group I went to art school with that I am still aware of, I'm one of the few who continues to pursue a life that involves expression in the visual arts. Many of the others had more innate ability than I did (certainly in the realm of painting, at any rate) but for whatever reason, they did not have the level of commitment or long-term interest to keep them in the game. They ended up as the "shooting stars" of their day, blazing briefly then flaring out, while we more pedestrian performers dug in for the long haul, kept on keeping on, and have generated solidly successful (by our owns terms, at any rate) art careers.

Similarly with riding. I will never be more than a reasonably capable amateur rider, and it's taken me a lot of years even to get to this stage, but I can recall many faces that have come and gone in the time that I have been working on my skills. Some of them were successful in the show ring for a few seasons, then just vanished from the stables and from the horse community. They had an interest and they had some aptitude, but the day-in-day-out devotion and willingness to work hard for positive results just wasn't in them. I have observed others at "my" barn who have no natural ability at all, very little confidence and a good dose of sheer fear to conquer (been there, done that myself, and still working on it some days) every time they get on a horse, but by gosh they are there week in and week out working hard to get to the point that the "natural" riders started out at. Doesn't seem fair, but that's how it is, and I think the depth of experience and satisfaction to be achieved by having to strive for results can be much greater for these individuals than it might be for those to whom success comes too easily.

Back to the basics. The basics are the core skills that we all need to incorporate into our very being in order to advance to the higher levels of our art or our riding. In art the basics encompass such things as composition, proportion, understanding the elements of design, really learning to *see* what we are looking at, colour theory, and the technical skills of whatever medium we are working in. This knowledge underpins all our endeavors and gives us the structural foundation for the work we do. As in building a house, first you dig the foundations, pour the cement, and get a solid framework established. Then there are no worries about having spent a huge amount of time tweaking the decor and getting everything just right only to have our house collapse because the foundation wasn't correctly in place.

Similarly in the riding ring. The basics include such things as our seat, balance, use of our hands, applying our legs, knowing the correct aids and how and when to deliver them so that our horse will understand what we want, and will be able to work with us to deliver our requests. Because riding involves another sentient being (and a large one at that) with its own learning trajectory and history, the basics in riding are a little more critical than they are in art, if only for the fact that riding is statistically one of the most dangerous activities out there, while generally speaking most studio work isn't. So in a very real sense your life, and/or your limbs, can depend on having a good secure seat and a sound and applied working knowledge of the basics.

Something I have observed in both art workshops and in riding clinics is the desire on the part of some artists/riders for the "tricks." Some people are convinced that there are secret tricks or shortcuts that will leapfrog them over several levels of skill in a very short period of time. Sadly, these tricks don't exist, either in art or in riding. It's all a step-by-step incremental process, and indeed my experience has been that going backwards and repeating earlier lessons that were incompletely learned or incorrectly understood/applied, is more common than sudden leaps forward. The good news is that by going back and getting the basics right, we can then move forward faster and in a more direct fashion. At least until we hit another of those "basic knowledge incomplete or incorrect" walls again.

I've had one of these epiphanies myself just in the last month or so, when I finally "got" using my leg consistently with my horse. For more years than I care to enumerate I *thought* I was using my legs correctly, but in fact I was inconsistent with applying leg aids and indeed tended to take my leg away at the moments when it was most needed. Now that I have finally understood the incorrect aids that I was applying, and and am working to correct them by going back to basics (yet again!!) the quality of my riding and of my horse's performance has increased exponentially. Who knew?

This point would make a natural segue into my observations about instructors, teaching, and ongoing learning, but that will have to wait for another time. For now, I'll leave you to think about a quote I came across recently that has stuck with me — "Knowledge does not come all at once." We learn one bit. Then another. Then when we are ready, yet another. Then we have to apply them. Consistently. Sigh.

©2009 Judy Wood. All rights reserved.


Next: How Do We Learn and From Whom?


Equestrian and Artist Judy Wood

Judy WoodJudy Wood is a Canadian art photographer whose images and writings are shaped by her prairie based lifestyle as an artist, photographer, writer and horse person. ...


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Photo: Judy Wood