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Riding Lessons for Artists

Mirror, Mirror

The value in reflection.

By Judy Wood | Posted August 26, 2009 | Updated June 23, 2019

One of the useful tools we can employ in both art and riding is the mirror. Useful in a literal sense, and also metaphorically.

In general life, I am not a "mirror" person. I have little personal vanity (some would say too little, as I tend to a minimalist look when it comes to personal presentation) and try to avoid looking in a mirror unless I have to. Of course this has led to the occasional embarrassing moment such as the one when a dear lady pulled me aside as I was shopping at Costco to inform me I had my top on inside out, but on the whole it could have been worse and she was more distressed about it than I was.

My mirror use and appreciation comes with the truly important activities in my life, with doing art and in the riding ring. Seeing one's art or riding position reflected in a mirror is a great reality check. With our artwork, we can become "blind" to problems regarding basic compositional flaws, problems with perspective or proportions, or a myriad of other defects that we could and should correct if only we were aware of them. Since most artworks evolve over a span of time, sometimes we stop really seeing what we have done. Doing a "mirror check" usually provides enough of a different way of seeing the familiar that we suddenly become aware of the concerns that need to be addressed.

Holding your work upside down and looking in a mirror works as well, since with the inversion both top to bottom and side to side that we get with this view, our analytical brain will take over and disregard the subject matter to focus on the basic elements of colour, shape and composition. We can have the most wonderful subject matter in the world, but if these basics are off, we are unlikely to do it justice. This applies equally to "realistic" representational art or to more interpretive ways of working. If we don't have the core elements there and in visual balance, we're going to be struggling, and using the"mirror check" system is a good way to keep us in touch with how our work is developing.

A variation on this theme for contemporary artists is to take a digital photo of the work or work-in-progress, then look at it on the computer monitor. I have often been struck by the flaws and errors of execution that suddenly appeared in my work (in various media ) once viewed on the computer screen. There is something about this way of seeing our work that provides enough psychological distance for us to be able to view what we are doing in a more objective fashion. I'm not sure why this is the case, but it does seem to work that way. Of course now that I work with photo images and digital manipulation, everything I do is on the computer screen. Maybe I need to hold a mirror up to the monitor to assess this work!

Not everyone has the luxury of an indoor riding ring with mirrors, but I can state from experience that mirrors are a valuable learning tool here as well. You can be told dozens of times that you are leaning too far forward, too far back, legs in a chair position, hands too high, hands too low, horse not engaged or moving correctly, or any of a number of ways to go wrong, but until you *see* it, you don't really understand what your instructor is telling you.

Mirrors provide a valuable visual check to ensure that you and your horse are doing what you should be doing to the best of your ability. When a rider takes a quick sideways look at the mirror on the opposite side of the ring as they are training, you can be pretty darn sure they aren't just admiring themselves (although occasionally they *will* be admiring their horse). Generally they will be doing a quick top-to-bottom assessment of their position in the saddle, how the horse is carrying itself, and going through a mental checklist on what they should be doing better. I have a bit of a problem with my saddle tending to move to the left over time, mostly to do with my horse's anatomy. It takes a while for me to realize that this is happening when I am doing a lot of outdoor riding in the summer, but when I am in the indoor ring riding straight towards the mirror in the short end of the ring, I can see instantly if the saddle is properly centered and get that problem sorted out before it starts affecting our performance.

The photo (or video) works well for riders who don't have access to mirrors during the course of their training. I do a lot of client photos at horse shows in the summer, and while I save only the shots of the best moments to pass on to the clients, I often wish they could see the ones I delete as they speak volumes about the "instructive moments" which aren't necessarily the prettiest ones, but which are infinitely more valuable in our quest to improve ourselves and our way of handling our horses.

While the mirror is a literal way of showing us our faults (and our good bits too!), it can also be used in a metaphorical sense as "mirroring" our emotions or state of being. One of my favourite quotes is "the horse is the mirror of the rider." Horses are sensitive to our emotions, and if we come to the stable in a foul mood, telegraphing it to the horse with our body language and insensitive handling, then proceed to have a really bad ride where nothing we try to do goes right, is it any wonder? I'm always amazed that horses put up with as much as they do. After all, they don't really need to! The least we can do is try to be courteous partners, and if what the horse reflects back from his mirror isn't to our liking, we are the ones that need to work to correct the situation. Luckily horses will reflect the good things we do as well, and a satisfying ride on a relaxed but lively horse that is doing its best to accommodate our requests and be a true partner certainly reflects positively on the rider.

Artwork too will reflect our state of being, whether by conscious or unconscious processes on our part. I remember a potter I used to work with in a co-operative arts and crafts store. I never used to think of pottery as a particularly "emotionally reflective" medium, but while she was in the process of a particularly long and stressful divorce, her work changed and became very angular and rough, with dark (often black) glazes, totally unlike the work she had produced when her life was running more smoothly. For better or worse, our artwork provides a mirror and a record of our state of being at the time we created it. Not a bad thing to be aware of!

©2009 Judy Wood. All rights reserved.

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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