Achieving Elegance

My sister has a picture of a model from a Land’s End catalog on her refrigerator. She claims it motivates her to keep exercising so she’ll get a flat stomach and perfect figure(never mind that she already does). The photo’s a neat reminder, though.

I keep a similar picture in my mind when I ride. It’s of Nicole Uphoff and Rembrandt, the 1988 and 1992 Olympic dressage gold medalists. They portrayed the very essence of riding perfection. It’s difficult not to stare at a photo of that polished young woman aboard that floating, powerful Westphalian gelding. Their tests reminded me of the awe I felt when Nadia Comaneci scored the first 10 in Olympic gymnastics in 1976. It just doesn’t get any better than that.

My instructor, a brilliant equestrian and teacher, says to think of ourselves as “equestrian queens,” meaning achieving elegance in the saddle. As I ride, the picture of Nicole and Rembrandt transforms into me and my mare. I work to look graceful — royal, even — and often think I achieve it. That is, until the day my husband decided to take his camera to the riding ring. That short roll of film blew apart my elegant self portrait.

My hands weren’t always where they belonged, and I tended to lean a wee bit too far forward at the trot (OK, a lot too far forward, but I’m dealing with it). As I looked at the photos, I wondered if I should give it up and head for the trails. Then it hit me: I need think about Nicole and Rembrandt, but I need to study the photos of me, too.

The pictures reinforced my instructor’s words. Hands need to be wherever necessary to get a straight line from bit to elbow. If that means six inches off the withers, so be it. When Sally puts her head down, my hands will come down, too. Keeping my body straighter and my shoulders back will help her balance, a necessity. Without it, we just feed off each other’s problems. Actually, the more I looked, the more I began to love those blasted photos. They were like a silent instructor who communicated powerfully.

In another month or two, I’ll ask for another photo shoot. And I’ll not cringe when I look at the photos. Instead, I’ll stare, just like at pictures of Nicole and Rembrandt, and improve my riding by combining an image of perfection with a priceless dose of reality.

-Cynthia Foley