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Tuning In and From the Core

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Rally SchoolLast weekend I went on my rally driving day, to a Rally School in South Wales.

I have driven cars, including professionally, in many different circumstances, and 20 odd years ago my training even included instruction on a skid pan to learn to control spins in both front and rear wheel drive cars. This rally driving day was to revisit this and be an “experience”, I actually wanted to just plain have fun.

So, as soon as we arrived I was given an explanation of how to stay safe on a rally stage, in very greasy ground conditions. We started with a briefing, how to read maps, how to go sideways<BLOG_BREAK>, and the owner of the school, Phil Price, explained that not many cars are rear wheel drive these days, but sideways is safer and fun, and as novices rear wheel drive is easier to achieve that, so we would spend most of the day whizzing round the practice area in Mk 2 Escorts as they are so fun. We could also practice in his red Subaru, which is 4 wheel drive, but biased towards the rear wheels, but apparently that is not half so much fun.

Hmmm, sideways is safer? Not sure I get that! Most of my initial professional driver training was on how to control a skid, but that was in order to bring the car “back under control”, as in to stop the skid! This man seemed to be telling me that he wanted me to learn to flick the car from one direction to another, staying in a sideways skid all of the time. He even showed a video of a Rally accident, and he broke the accident down so we could see that while the car was sideways it was safe, but when the driver went to change bend (that is the equine term, not sure of the Rally equivalent!) the wheels became straight, the wheels got grip, then when he lost the grip again he was off the track and crashed.

I left the briefing open to the idea, but still a bit puzzled that I was going to learn to get the car to slide, and then not try to recapture the equilibrium. Hmmm.

The rally school has two training areas, the one where we drove the Escorts was a flattish area,  surrounded by tyres to make a safe haven. There was also a rally stage on the hill, which most of the Rally Teams use to fine tune their cars, this included big drops and trees, to lose control in this area would not be so safe! In the afternoon, having been trained on sideways, I was to do the rally stage in the Subaru, yes, me driving.

We spent most of the morning in the rear wheel drive escorts, learning to go sideways. Not really knowing what to expect, I set off with gusto, as I did not wish to look as if I was out doing my weekly shopping! In this mud that meant that I was soon sliding. As soon as I was in a skid I watched in amazement as my hands started to do a dance on the steering wheel, like they were controlled by someone else, and I was, as they say, steering into the skid, and soon we were out of the skid and around the corner, once more composed.

I was actually feeling pretty pleased about this, watching my dancing hands, repeating a skill that I have not practiced for 20 years, and I did not even have to think about it. Then the instructor started to teach me, no, they did not want me to control the skid in that way, I was to keep skidding, and control the turn by the pressing of the accelerator. More power = more offset skidding, less power = less offset skidding, but I was not to allow the car to straighten  up entirely.

After a while I could drift around the corner, but I was still doing too much with my steering wheel apparently, I should be controlling the car more from the back end, less with my hands. Hmm, is this starting to sound familiar equine-wise?????

One by one we were taken out to tour the rally stage hill at a steady speed, to learn to read the terrain. Hill? No, it looked more like a mountain to me, a slippery, slidey, rock and tree and drop infested DANGEROUS road. Ya want me to practice my sideways on THAT???

Lunch next, and contemplation at the task ahead.

After lunch more practice at sideways on the mud, practicing with gusto and concentration as one at a time Phil took us out in the Red Subaru to go on the circuit. He has a completely dual control car, two wheels and everything, he uses it to train foreigners so the wheel is on the correct side for them, and also so we novices can get up some speed, and if we are about to leave the mountain he can bring it back under control.  

I LOVED the practice area, learning a new skill, but HATED the rally stage! Here was I, next to a man I don’t know, with helmets and a microphone, being told, 60Left, tightening to 100, whilst wrestling a car sideways, trying to work out what on earth he means, which I do know, only it takes a moment to process. And I was having to drive faster than I can see, which I hate. I really hate the crests, where he says it is 45 Right, but I can’t see a thing, and I did commit the sin of not trusting and slowing down! Hey, I have only been doing this sideways thing for a few hours, the mountain side thing seemed just a step or two too soon. With more time I would have loved it I think, but not just at that moment!

Twice the man had to save me from the mountain, he really can wrestle the wheel. I think I kept allowing the car to be “true”, as in how I would like it driving on the road. At times I did look as if I was out doing my shopping, particularly on the steep, slippery downhill.

After we had all driven on the mountain Phil got out his Blue Subaru, and gave demo drives with clients in the passenger seat. I gave my spot to David, and Andy had a spot too. That car does not seem to touch the floor much when Phil drives it! I thought David and Andy would be underwhelmed, but I was wrong. Apparently Phil takes car control to a new level, they were....... er...... “gobsmacked” would not be too strong a word for it. I could see it from the viewing area, the car set off from a standstill, and from then on it drifted on its way, like it was on a carpet of air, sideways like a hover craft. But totally, but totally in control.

Hmmm, something to learn here, I asked the instructor in the practice area to drive a demo drive for me, so I could feel that feeling in the safe area, in a car where I would have time and the trainer to get it right. Oh yes, when the trainer got the car to move, it sang. Even an aged Ford Escort, flicking from side to side. I took the wheel with a new set of expectations, kind of imprinted the feeling in my mind and then went for the drift.

I got it a time or two. The BEST bit was when there was a sustained bend, I could drift around it, with the wheels not needing much adjustment, and I could have the car offset more with a tickle of the accelerator. Then, Off the power, as soon as the car was straightening, just ¼ of a turn from the wheel, and a tickle of power and the car slides from offset to the right to offset to the left, in one smooth movement, no moment of straight traction, and again I was drifting round the opposite bend smoothly.

It started to become a familiar feeling, passing power from one side to the other, controlling the speed by the angle of the car.

On the hill earlier when I was driving the Subaru, we were told to be very careful with the brakes, they are set up with most of the braking to the rear, and downhill you don’t have much weight on the rear, so the brakes don’t work well. When I watched Phil drive down the hill he had huge speed, but also a tight turn at the bottom, and he could not brake hard. Instead he offset the car, drifted down the scary hill sideways, even though the hill was fairly straight, and used the special Rally tyres to brake him using the edges of the tyres. He had shown us the special tyres earlier, they have strong tyre walls with ridges especially for sideways drift braking. Coming down the hill in this way the engine was still engaged, he was still driving forwards, and the turn came easily as he was already set up for it. Hmmm, that is sounding a bit familiar equine wise as well.

Its funny, when I went Tango Dancing I was expecting to learn something to help me in my understanding of the horse/human relationship. In my blog last month I said how I did indeed find that. In this car driving I was not expecting to learn some about horses. Two people dancing, that is about two beings tuning in and working together like horse and rider, but a car? No, that is just a machine, I was not expecting to learn about tuning in to a horse by driving a car. But now, in my contemplations of that day I realise I was wrong, and also that in the dancing I missed something.

When the car drifts and I am controlling it by the use of the engine then it feels funny, like I am tuned in. It feels different than when all of the wheels have traction. In fact, in the driving conditions we had that day, it felt more PONDEROUS to have traction, and there were more possibilities open to me when we were in a controlled drift.

This feels to me to be kind of similar to when a horse is working “on” or “off” the bit. Some people think that “working on the bit” relates to where the horse’s head is and how much contact you hold, but to me there is a whole different feel to it. Driving that car helped me realise that it may be more to do with the tuning in, the being poised, in fact the feeling that the possibility of movement in any direction is open to me.

Hmmm, I had that feel in the dancing too. When we swapped partners and “took the stance” if we just stood it felt heavy, and I had no idea which direction we would move off in. Some partners started with a forwards step, some a backwards, some a step to my right, but we did not discuss it, we had to “follow”. But if we just stood heavy on the floor it was impossible for me, there was no “connection” even though our hands may be touching, and we had a hand on the other’s shoulder. There was no movement in the other, nothing to “follow”.

As a pure novice I actually needed a big movement to tune in to my partner, we did this by starting a sway as soon as the music started. It was so big a sway you could see it, but it put us “with” our partner, raised our energy, tuned us in, and made any direction a possibility for me to follow.

With the car too, when it is driving normally, forwards is available, but sideways is not. It is a completely different feel when the wheels lose some of their traction, sideways is a possibility, the power and energy is there to be used and guided.

So I feel it with the horses too. When you get on a horse and walk it around without engagement, the energy is not contained, and the horse feels flat. As I walk along the canter, or a side pass, or a pirouette, are not available. When the horse is worked “on the bit” and with the energy collected it can then be immediately be guided wherever I wish. I can stop on a dime, turn on the rear end, move sideways, diagonally, increase speed. Everything is available and open to me.

“On the bit” is not such a good way to name this feel to me. In America, with the cutting horses, they had this “available energy” feeling and there was absolutely NO contact on the bit at all, but the horse and I were working from our cores. I wonder if “From the Core” would be a better expression to use?

Looking at horses, take a downward transition, say from canter to walk. An experienced rider has the horse working from the core, to transition the horse will lower the quarters and “sit”, staying engaged, and ready for any possibility when in walk, such as to canter again, to go sideways. Hmmm, sounds like that rally car down the hill, sitting down still when Phil was slowing down with the engine still engaged......

But the take the horse, maybe with a less experienced rider doing the canter to walk transition, if the rider and horse are not connected and moving from their core, then the horse will weight the front end to stop (hmmm, like the rally car with me driving!), the stop will take longer, and even when the walk has been achieved the weight is all scattered, and there are few possibilities open.

I guess it’s also just like the novice dancer (me!), where often my mind is in my feet, deciding where they have to go, I am unable to “follow”. Whereas in the few fleeting moments where I “got it” I was holding myself higher, moving from my core, all possibilities are open to me and “following” is suddenly possible.

I always presumed that this feel was unique to the balance between two living beings, I was not expecting to find it with a car! I guess that was short sighted, just look at a world class gymnast, when they move they too have all available options open to them, they are athletic. But maybe, just maybe, when they first get out of bed after a hard day, just maybe they too walk looking just a little earthbound? Like the horse with an unbalanced rider. When performing they too are working “from the core”. They do not need to interact with another living being to do this, it is from inside themselves.

Such different experiences, the very differences leave one thought clear to me. For “that feeling”, that “equine-on-the-bit” or that “Rally-drifting” or that “Tango-one-ness” there is a common thread. It is not about flat energy. It is about accepting the energy and movement, embracing and directing it, not seeking to truncate it.

I have heard myself say that with horses a time or two, like when Sherlock first went to competition, he had energy and it could not be “turned off”, but when softly directed we came together and magic was possible. I have also noticed that sometimes, with an inexperienced rider, the first time they feel a horse "working from it's core" or "on the bit" they just don't like it. There is too much of a feeling of power, and to direct all that power can initially make people feel overawed. Like me initially trying to "correct" the drift, back to a "safer" feel.

I also noticed with the car how I physically reacted. The driving was good for me as I have few preconceived ideas on how “well” I should do on drifting around a corner. Until the morning briefing I did not even realise that drifting was good, I thought I should “control” and “stop” it!  I could monitor that at first my left leg was braced and tense, funny as we did not use the clutch once when we were out on the circuit. No, that was me not being relaxed, and that leg was pretty tense and sore before I even  realised what I was doing. The sore leg reminded me to check my breathing, and yes, I was holding my breath. “Tuning in” is a substantial thing once you have it, but it is a very insubstantial thing to chase! I can’t just internally think “RELAX” and expect that to happen!

I found with this driving experience that I did best to just notice that it had happened, smile at myself, then move onto another thought. Once I was truly absorbed in feeling for the balance of the car, then we were doing the drifting and flicking, and the breathing just came.

Wow, so much to think about from a blast of a day!

Sherlock continues with his rest time, daily turnout, and a three times a week ride-and lead. His feet look great. Is he sound? I don’t know, he looks to be walking OK, but I have not yet trotted him up. There is time yet.....

  Ride and Lead


What next? Well, next weekend I am off to the "Your Horse Live" exhibition. See http://www.yourhorse.co.uk/your-horse-live-2010/ for details. A day of horsey heaven, demos, experts, horses and shopping. Maybe I will see you there?

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  1. Jo Field

    I love your writing Ruth. One thing that strikes me in this is that you consider yourself to be a complete Novice. Ruth, you seem some way evolved even before you touch a new sport, by virtue of your attitude, willingness to learn from a new experience and gift of being extremely perceptive. I think that a true novice might need several experiences to get to the point that you are at as a newbie!! Well done you, and thank you for sharing it with us x Jo

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