Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Major Dressage Clinic Takeaways

First off: this post is pretty much for Austen, JenJ, Jodi, Alli, Jan, Karen, Shannon, 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.
1) MOVE. 

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.
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.
and then bounce your legs up and down laterally AND TRY NOT TO DIE
3) My position. 

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.
demon right hand will find you. YOU CANT RUN YOU CANT HIDE

4) Hands matter.

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.
notice right lead omg. do not notice wtf position.
5) The canter.

(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.
hello sexy dressage ottb
6) The contact. 

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.
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.
but how great is my horse guys?
8) The hard stuff.

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!


  1. I read the whole thing! I still read everyday, even though I don't dressage ;)

    You guys are coming along leaps and bounds! I'm so happy for you both.

  2. I'm in the same boat as you in regards to Do More. My coach told me this last week. She told me that while I'm doing the right thing I have a tendency to quit if she even gives me a hint of the right movement, rather than push for more.

  3. Kudos for keeping a dressage write up interesting! Such a great weekend, fun to watch and incorporate in my own riding!

  4. God gave you pillows to sit on, use them.

    This pretty much made my day!

    1. It's definitely a solid visual. I have good pillows.

  5. Sounds like a great clinic! It's funny you mention the 'breaking to trot when you actually sit on the canter' phenomenon. Sheldon (my OTTB project pony) had a really hard time adapting to that. He was incredibly eager to please, and a very quick learner but it took probably 4 months for him to be willing to carry a quality canter with me sitting in the saddle. To put that into perspective, with only 45 days of post-track training, we could w/t/c & go over poles with just a neck rope.

  6. I relate so much to so many points here!! The 'take the release and DO WORK WITH IT' omg welcome to my life. And the hands/ride him like he's trained. My trainer tells me, "Ride him like he's a 4* horse and see what happens." At some point we have to trust them to do the right thing instead of trying to prevent their mistakes, and it's SO HARD. Loved this post. :)

  7. I loved all of this! Things to learn for everyone here. I am going to practice opening up and stretching out my hips in and out of the saddle before my lesson this morning.

    Regarding lateral and longitudinal suppleness, this is how my dressage trainer has approached things from the very beginning and it's usually what she prescribes to any new rider with her, as many horses come with that kind of baggage. I'm personally obsessed with this method (like, total devotee freak of nature obsessed with it) because I love how it works and really unlocks horses backs, and it's now how I understand dressage! Anyway, all that to say it's one of my favourite exercises and I use it with every horse ever.

  8. Position is hard. And so is everything else.

  9. Oh man, that whole do more thing is totally true. Our horses sucker us into accepting less than perfect for all sorts of reasons. I get called out for that on the daily.

  10. Oh I am SO GUILTY of "riding stiff" thing. Because I always try to "look perfect," I tend to become rigid. Then my horse becomes rigid. UGH. I really have to concentrate on staying loose and playful. Courage looks fantastic by the way!

  11. I read all of your posts, but don't always comment. In fact, I rarely comment outside of Facebook. What's up with that? But I devour stuff like this. Please can we have more? I like to wrap myself up in information like it's a security blanket.

    Even though Shuga and I have different areas to focus on right now than you and Courage (well, except the rider position thing), reading about what you're learning with him helps me to understand better what I'm learning with her. It also gives me hope that I will figure stuff out. Eventually.

  12. These are definitely things that I need to keep in mind, so thanks for writing this! I can totally relate to the back thing, and the contact, and the upper leg position, and...okay, I can relate to everything, so thanks! :)

  13. Sounds a LOT like the stuff I've been working on with JM - using circles to work the horse against it's own tension and carrying suppleness FORWARD. Which i'm bad at. Oops. I like these posts quite a lot myself.

  14. This sounds like a pretty intense clinic. I have similar position issues. The pillows comment is pretty awesome.

  15. This is why I love dressage so much! So much learning, and when it's finally right, it's the best feeling ever. Bring on all the dressage clinic and lesson recaps!

  16. It's funny how we are all working on different things, on different levels, but so much of what you struggle with is the same things we each have issues with as well. THANK YOU for posting this. I love the line about sitting on pillows. Good one!

    I was watching a video online last night. The clinician mentioned releasing the horse. "Let go. It's not like his head is going to fall off. I haven't seen it happen yet."

  17. I learn so much (mostly about how little I know) from all of you dressage types.

  18. what a great feeling to have Courage staying with you ready and willing to go to work - little baby is growing up!! also, pretty much everything your wrote about position is highly relevant to my interests... ugh why is it so hard to transition from jumper to dressage rider?!? in a weird way i'm hoping that i can sorta start fresh after being laid up for a few weeks, but that seems unrealistic lol....

  19. Oh, that's awesome. Benny is tight in the back also. Just last night we have a bit of a breakthrough in the walk. So fun!

  20. Man, a lot of this is exactly Pig. Flexions and bend (turn head to right and KICK ON) and more go, those are all things we work on daily. It was so good to read again exactly why I do those things.

    So excited for you guys!

  21. Being a little on the closed-hips side myself, I am interested in what your off-horse exercises are to open teh hip flexors? My horse is getting used to me swinging my legs backwards and forwards wildly to open the joints, but that is just not enough....

  22. Nice write up! One more thing you can add to your suppling routine is counter flexing and alternating the bend. While I was riding last night, Izzy locked his neck completely. As I was sitting there thinking, Holy Crap, I reminded myself that I do have a tool to fix that. I immediately changed the bend and pushed with my outside leg. We did half a circle or so and then I switched back to a regular bend, sat on my inside seat bone, and pushed him out to the outside rein. Presto, neck was a lot softer. Chemaine also has me working on tiny changes of bend as I ride which help to keep that softness. Think of them as a 2 or 3 on your bending scale.

    Ten-meter circles with your inside hand planted on your thigh also help. This will "force" the bend as you half halt with the outside rein. It's just a VERY CLEAR way to explain that you need his body to bend.

    Keep on keeping on! :0)

  23. Great write-up! I've totally got the sit-on-my-pillows thing down pat - until we trot. Then up come the knees and I tip forward. ugh. I'm so happy for you that Courage is clinicing like a big boy now!

  24. All the gold stars! I enjoy these posts and learning new things I can apply to my riding.

  25. I'm in the Nerd Rolodex too! I always read!

  26. I used to work and ride at a dressage barn. I'm currently horseless and haven't audited a clinic in forever. As a result, I find posts like this fantastic. It's like auditing secondhand. I love it.


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