First off: this post is pretty much for Austen
, and maybe Megan
will read it to giggle at how slowly people learn dressage. Oh, and I can almost always count on Lauren
for a pity comment (thanks Lauren!!).
To those of you bored by dressage minutiae: I sincerely apologize. I know this isn't great content.
To those of you who read this and therefore deserve to have your name linked at the top: leave me a comment and I will add you to the abject nerd Rolodex.
All that said, here are my most important takeaways from the dressage clinic:
|so much bend. more than this.|
Courage likes to be very tight in his back. I like to blame 6 years of racing for that, but the truth is, I also never move my back and I had that problem well before I had Courage. We can chicken/egg this all damn day, but both of us need to get our backs in motion. Also this is a problem I need to fix in the first five minutes of EVERY SINGLE RIDE.
Suppleness is a critical component of moving up the levels. We have to be legit good at this to do second level and a lot better at it than we are now for first.
Right now, Courage will either bend or go forward. He hangs on the bit and gets stiff in the neck, but this isn't a bit problem. Instead, I need to WAY overbend him AND kick him forward. Think of a perfectly straight horse as 1. A horse with his nose on his tail is 10. We need to be comfortable in about a 2-3 bend. In order to get comfortable there, I need to be able to take him to 5 so that 2-3 feels easy and comfortable.
Bend first (for this horse), then kick forward and hold the bend. Hold doesn't mean brace--it's active. Move. Think almost shake Courage's head no--ask for bend (with body AND rein), then release and see if he holds it. I can feel his release--his back moves. I need to get this release both directions at the walk before we move on because we can do nothing until his back moves.
2) MOVE THROUGH MOVEMENTS.
|imma put this pic on everything|
This is a bit sketch in terms of a title, but once Courage starts releasing and moving his back, it's time to move on and WORK. It's not enough to get a release on a 5m circle at the walk. Once his back is mobile, start carrying that mobility through everything. Walk/trot/walk transitions. Leg yields. Canter transitions. For this to work, I have to be VERY PROACTIVE. If we're halfway through a leg yield and Courage gets stiff, do a 5 or 10 m circle to break him loose again. It is more important to do quality movements at this point.
We need to be working towards doing at least 2 GOOD transitions on a single 20m circle.
3) My position.
|and then bounce your legs up and down laterally AND TRY NOT TO DIE|
I'm in this weird netherland of post-jumper-rider-not-quite-dressage position. I need to really work my position--head up, shoulders back. Upper leg straight down. Toes behind knees. Thighs lifted a little away from my horse (because I like to pinch with them). Then sit in the front of the saddle on my seatbones with an OPEN SEAT. Relax the seat muscles. God gave you pillows to sit on. Use them.
This position does not feel natural to me, but it does feel good when I get there. A good position allows me to ride well, which helps my horse to go well. I need to stretch my legs behind me (out of the stirrups) with my knees straight to really stretch out my hips before I even start riding. In and out of the saddle, I need to start stretching my hips to allow them to open up and work properly.
4) Hands matter.
|demon right hand will find you. YOU CANT RUN YOU CANT HIDE|
Up until now, I've been riding Courage with pretty wide hands to encourage him to stay soft and seek contact. He's doing brilliantly at that, so it's time to start making some changes.
Going to the left (or generally in left bend), I need to keep my right rein short and against his neck. I need to be aware of my left rein--Courage really likes to lock his left poll, even when he has sufficient body bend. To break this up, use an indirect inside rein in front of his withers (and release). This is the only time someone has ever told me to use this rein aid, but it makes a huge difference for Courage. It's not pretty at first, but it really helps unlock him.
To the right, I also need a more active inside rein while staying steady outside.
Both ways, I need to lift my hands and bring them more together. It's about time to start riding Courage like a trained horse.
5) The canter.
|notice right lead omg. do not notice wtf position.|
(Aside: I am SO PROUD of us cantering this weekend. It may not have been "good", but it was some of our best work yet).
This is the biggest area where the ex-jumper thing is holding me back. I ride defensively (FOR REASONS, I might point out), but that means I put my feet a little ahead and my seat a little behind. This puts me behind the motion, which pops my seat out of the saddle and keeps me from sitting on my horse and supporting him. Hot. Mess.
This is hard to fix at the canter, so I need to practice my dressage position a lot at W/T. Particularly at walk, I need to sit and think the canter rhythm and really memorize that feel. Getting my position right is critical to being able to move on here. Courage is pretty accepting of me sitting on him in the left lead, but he tends to flatten and break to the right, which is historically a problem area for us.
Once I get my position dialed in, I can help him improve.
6) The contact.
|hello sexy dressage ottb|
I've kind of covered this already, but I'm really excited about it. The whole time I've had Courage, he's been super funky about contact. In the past few weeks (and with his silly $10 bit), he's finally willing to really take a contact and go forward, which is fantastic. I do need to be aware though, because he's experimenting with laying on the contact a little bit.
I don't really notice it that much (especially because Courage laying on the contact is about 85 less pounds in my hand than Cuna taking normal contact), but it's something I don't want to encourage. Again, this isn't really a hands problem. It's a body balance problem, so lots of transitions and stay active.
7) SHOWTUNES aka DO MORE
|fabulous tail flick!|
I've been settling for baby leg yields. No more! We need more VA VA VOOM stepping over. Right now, it really helps to break Courage's hind quarters loose with a 10m circle, then once he's loose go from center line over to the center letter (E or B) in the small arena. This creates actual crossover and gives leg yields a true gymnastic effect to Courage's body. It's still a new thing for us, but it feels really cool when he does it right.
This applies across everything Courage did. The clinician kept saying "YOU need to work harder", meaning that while I'm doing the right things, I need to be more proactive and more assertive, so that I get the correct things sooner. Not only is this better riding, but it also creates a better trained horse, because he's more clear about what I want.
8) The hard stuff.
|but how great is my horse guys?|
Breaking Courage loose as described in step 1 gives us lateral suppleness. Once we have that, it's time to start working longitudinal suppleness. This is the first step towards collection. Hence, lateral suppleness in small circles and leg yields. Longitudinal suppleness means holding that through transitions with my hands up and position good and contact.
Wave of the future.
I'm going to be a little bit real here and say that this clinic marks the first time I've ridden through two whole clinic days and felt like I was on a dressage horse. Not a greenie. Not a precarious ottb who might kill me. Courage really showed up both days, kept his brain in his head, and gave me some fantastic work. He never quit trying, checked out, or told me no. To me, that is the real reward of all this--we're building a partnership together with a foundation of mutual trust.
We have miles to go in terms of training, but this weekend was a huge step in the right direction. At the end of our second ride, the clinician told me we were knocking on the door of first level, which is exciting. Also exciting was really feeling the quality of movement I could get from Courage when I rode correctly--sitting trot and second level don't seem so insurmountable when you're like "oh this is the best trot ever". (Noted: we are in no way ready for second. Just a reflection to ponder.)
And if you made it this far, gold star!