The Critical Student

the critical student

By Jennifer Klitzke

The sound of my sneakers gripping the polished floor caught the attention of fellow students as I entered the classroom. Looking around for a place to sit, Professor Larson interrupts the glances, “If you want an “A” you’ll have to sit in the front row.” Giggling classmates lighten my apprehensive return to college after a 21-year break. He was teasing of coarse. However, I took a seat in “A” row because of my ambitious nature (and my peepers didn’t see as good as they used to).

Professor Larson made it his mission to form critical students by encouraging each of us to listen, take notes, think through, and apply what is presented. That’s how learning is best retained.

I discovered that you don’t have to be in school to learn, but college put words to things I had already been doing as a student of dressage.  For years I had been taking notes after each dressage  lesson and clinic I’ve ridden in and I practice what I’ve been taught in efforts to form a new habit. I even take notes while watching instructional DVDs and while auditing clinics. I underline and scribble notes in the margins of dressage books I purchase. I think through the concepts presented and try them out the next time I ride.

My favorite way to learn is through lessons, but there isn’t anyone in my area who teaches gaited dressage, so between annual clinics with Jennie Jackson, my second most helpful way to learn is through video. Each week I set up my video camera on a tripod and record my ride. After each exercise, I stop and describe how it felt to the camera so that I can verify if what I see on screen matches what I felt from the saddle as I replay it. (I guess you could call it a form of self-help gaited dressage instruction!)

I became a student of dressage twenty-seven years ago with my first riding instructor. For 12 years she did a wonderful job coaching me from Training through Second level competition with my Trakehner/Thoroughbred gelding. She taught me a foundation of feel for when it felt right and what to do when it felt wrong (at least from the German dressage perspective). Back then I felt like a traitor if I took lessons from anyone other than my instructor or dabbled with another training philosophy, so I became locked into only one view of riding.

Looking back, I think this was rather silly, as Professor Larson wasn’t the only teacher who encompassed my college education. I learned from dozens of professors who collectively imparted diverse knowledge to form the breadth and depth of my study.

After 12 years of regular dressage lessons with my first instructor (for which I am very grateful), much has changed: I remarried and moved away, and she went on to Seminary and is now an ordained Pastor leading a church in southern Minnesota (still riding horses of course)!

Thankful for my years under her mentorship, my curiosity and passion for learning didn’t stop when our paths went separate ways. It actually freed me to try new philosophies beyond the German form of dressage imprinted upon me. From there I became introduced to French classical dressage with Dominique Barbier; natural horsemanship with Pat Parelli and Larry Whitesell; riding bio-mechanics with Mary Wanless; gaited dressage with Jennie Jackson; gymnastic jumping with Len Danielson; and versatility training: trail riding and trail obstacles, endurance riding, orienteering, sorting cows and team penning. All of these instructors, riding philosophies, and activities have added to the depth and breadth of my naturally gaited riding experience.

You see, I am open to ideas and activities that foster and build teamwork, trust, balance, relaxation, forwardness, lightness, and engagement, as I ride Makana, my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse. To me learning goes beyond the knowledge of just one instructor and training philosophy.

My favorite way to learn each time I navigate uncharted territory as I apply dressage to my head shaking, four beat flat walker is to take lessons. In between lessons, I sift through my treasure chest of note books, dressage books, video and DVD library, and if I don’t find an answer, I scour the Internet.

While I’m blessed with an abundance of online resources and much of it free, it gets tricky knowing which ideas to consider and which ones to discard. Often times one philosophy contradicts what I’ve been taught. For me, that’s when becoming a critical student comes in to play. I’ll listen to an idea, think it through. If it has merit, I will try it out. Evaluate it, and if it shows promise, I will add it to my treasure chest. If not, I’ll pitch it. If I’m in question, I’ll ask my riding friends what they think and pick my instructor’s brain during my lesson time.

Trying out a new idea doesn’t replace everything I’ve learned up to that point. Nor does it mean that by embracing ideas from a new training philosophy or instructor means that I will scrap everything I’ve learned from another. I merely add workable ideas to my methods of getting to my final outcome—which is a work in progress.

In the end, my intention aims to bring about a harmonious partnership with my horse, moving together in balance, bringing out the best movement, frame, and lightness of aids, establishing consistent rhythm, relaxation, and engagement as it relates to the gaited horse.

You see, I’m passionate about learning and will always consider myself a student—even in my grandma age.