‘You’ve done a good job, because you haven’t killed the spirit of your horse… don’t correct, it’s too late, tell your horse what to do… now I can see what you are doing, now I can’t, now I can… stay on your dotted line; line zero’. Anybody who has lessons With Maarten van Stek will recognize his inventive use of language when teaching. For three whole days I was allowed to sit next to him when he took over the helm and instructed some of my pupils and, honestly, not only was it music to my ears, it gave me so much more.
When, through a fluke, Maarten and I connected last year, I could hardly believe my ears when he offered to come and teach my pupils. This meant more to me than he could even begin to understand. Not only was this a chance for some riders to work with a teacher of a caliber of which there are only very few, but also, I would be able to learn so much for myself. It had the potential to more than double the result. My pupils would grow, their horses would grow and because I would grow, we would be able to continue that process in a clearer and cleaner way.
It was hard work for all of us. Riders, who had looked forward to this so very much had to relax before they could work to their capability. I know from my own experience that this is not always easy and takes some self-discipline. Maarten had a lot on his plate, other than having to get into the groove of speaking English, he felt very much the responsibility to, one, make sure every rider would finish up with something which would enable them to work on and not get into trouble next week through a misunderstanding; two, help me to understand and put it in the right context so I would be able to add to my own teaching skills; three, make and keep it fun for all. His skill in doing so was showing not only his incredible professionalism as a trainer, but also his wonderful human approach and his ability to get ‘under the skin’. My hard work was to keep my mouth shut for one whole hour at a time and all who know me, also know that this is not a natural thing for me to do, but I think I managed that quite well. Other than that I had to digest everything, watch and listen and store at the same time.
At the start of most lessons Maarten talked about the spirit and the instinct of the horse. The spirit which should stay alive always and how the rider should use the fact that the horse is an animal of flight in a positive way. Based on the principle that the horse is only able to rely on his instinct and can only respond in a positive way when told what to do, instead of being told all the time what not to do, gave riders the opportunity to ride more quiet and subsequently opened the door to ride with a little more feel. I am a sucker for getting the basics right before getting into the more tricky bits and this was emphasized in every lesson yet again, which will help me to stick to this most important rule in the future even better.
The biggest and reoccurring problem for every rider is to keep the horse truly for the leg and accept that you can not ‘fix’ the mouth of a horse. Maarten explained this so brilliantly by saying if you compared the different parts of the rider to the toolbox of a carpenter, then the legs might be a hammer and the seat a pair of pliers, body-parts which can be used to create or repair something. But the hands can only be used as a level. A level is not a tool you can fix something with as it can only check something. So the hands can only check what the rest of the body-parts create, no more than that!
The very clear explanation why the canter-trot transition is so difficult to get soft, round and uphill, was new to me and such a revelation. The knowledge that canter has one diagonal set of legs moving, trot two and walk none, was there. However, it never occurred to me to connect that with the fact that, for this very reason, in order for the horse to go to trot he has to add a second diagonal, which is an effort. Far more of an effort to go from canter to walk. As a rider I am able to deal with this instinctively, but as a trainer I can now explain it and do a much better job helping my pupils to improve this transition.
All my pupils are committed, hard workers who, other than care for their horses really well, take their training serious and want to do it in an honest way. It was inevitable that these lessons, where riders were pushed to another level, it would bring the odd frustration to the surface. As riders we have to be tough on ourselves. In order to train on days the weather is rotten or your old injuries hurt you have to push yourself often. But you can also be too tough and our biggest enemy is perfectionism. Maarten was direct in a kind and patient way, which made every single rider know how much he cares.
So now, after three full days, Maarten has left and we go back to the drawing-board. But with vigorous and revived spirits and in the hope that, if he wants to visit again for a repeat, we can show him we listened, we worked and we learned.
I saw Maarten ride and teach some thirty-five years ago. Some of the things he said then stayed with me forever and I felt sad I was not in the position to have lessons at that time with someone that kind and competent. But we’ve made up for that now and it was certainly worth waiting for. Maarten, thank you, from the bottom of my heart for everything you gave these past days. It was tons more than I could have hoped for!
Sadly it was not possible, because of time restrictions, to fit everyone in, but if we are lucky there will be another time!
Picture: A tired but delighted Rachel Wood with Jazz looking for well-deserved polo’s in Maarten’s pocket
Picture: Claire Daniels on Euro in full swing, with Maarten
There are two more blogs on Maarten van Stek. ‘Perseverance and more perseverance’ from the 6th of November, 2014.’An afternoon or two with Maarten van Stek’ from the 1st of March, 2016.