Dressage Lessons

You all know that one of the many reasons I love my trainer so much is her willingness to talk about all different aspects of the horse world- the pros and cons of the pony jumper division, farrier billing mechanisms, educational programs offered through USHJA, etc. A little while ago we were having one of those conversations that included a ton of different topics, and one thing that she started laughing about was how she will regularly have a client ask if they can have “a dressage lesson.”

Quick context: yes, her focus is in the hunter/jumper/equitation world and she is the bomb dot com at that. But she did spend several years over in Germany with a dressage barn as well, so asking her for a dressage lesson isn’t as random as it sounds.

So I started opening my mouth to say something like, “Ooh yeah I’d like a dressage lesson too!” but before I could, she continued, “What do they think they’d be doing differently in a dressage lesson that I don’t have them doing in our flatwork? They’re not going to move right into half-passes just because we aren’t jumping that day.”

Huh.

And I realized that was kinda why I wanted a dressage lesson. I wanted to do the super exciting fancy dressage-y stuff like tempi changes and canter pirouettes and all that jazz! We can ignore the fact that getting a left-to-right change depends on many things, but my cues are not usually one of them. It would most certainly happen effortlessly in a Real Dressage Lesson.

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This was Frankie’s response to my whispered instructions to “go channel Valegro”

I also realized that we do, in fact, incorporate a ton of awesome stuff into our flatwork already. Our canter circles have gotten smaller and smaller, and we’ve gotten pretty good at doing haunches-in at the same time. It’s not even close to a pirouette, but several of the building blocks are there that weren’t there before. We have started playing around with half-passes as we’ve built strength and nuance. We’re not very good at it, but that’s the first step to being good at something, right? We’re not going to go win any gold medals in the sandbox, but I think we could go do a lower level test without embarrassing ourselves (after I learn some basic geometry, you know, minor things like that).

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“NO NO NO NO NO” -Frankie’s response to flat lessons

I’ve been working with Frankie in his elevator bit for a few months which has been super excellent for him- but I was also pretty sure that a large part of our newfound ability to actually push up into the bridle and werk was due to having that type of leverage. So the other day I popped his plain snaffle back in for a leisurely ride, and then tested the waters. And lo and behold, I got some lovely work out of him in that snaffle. It was a real breath of relief to know that he is stronger and more educated to that contact, I am stronger and more educated to that contact, and we are not reliant on the stronger bit to maintain it. We can be straight and manipulate the bend and work over our back and extend and collect without hanging on my hand. In short- we can kinda dressage!

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We were in the plain snaffle all last year and it was…fine. But for a very NOT sensitive horse, it was not the best fit. We’ve built a lot of sensitivity since then, but I still much prefer having a more direct line of communication on course.

I certainly don’t plan to switch back to a snaffle for jumping since it gives me a lot more tools when we’re both fired up to bigger fences, but I’m happy to know that our dressaging is paying off so handsomely.

 

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Can you see what a hunkachunka he is these days?!?! CAN YOU?!?

Looks like we’ll be continuing our unintentional dressage lessons!

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Dressaging My Horse

I’m going to talk about a really novel theory here: better flatwork leads to better jumping.

ALERT THE MEDIA THIS IS AN ORIGINAL THOUGHT EVERYBODY IS NOW GASPING IN SHOCK.

I know, I know. We all know this. But I want to talk about it, so humor me.

More specifically, I want to talk about how hard we “push” on the flat and over fences, and how we can connect (or sometimes disconnect) the two.

I know for me- and I can’t be alone in this- my temptation is to push over fences. Jack ’em up, give us tighter turns, let’s giddyup and go. I don’t do this willy-nilly because I am not a total dumdum, but I love jumping and my drive to improve focuses on jumping.

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Doing this is better than cocaine (I mean…I think? I’ve only done the jumping, not the drugs)

But. Without dressage-ing my horse and building capabilities on the flat, I will eventually reach an ceiling of my horse’s abilities over fences. So I need to be pushing just as hard to extend our fitness and abilities on the flat if I expect to be pushing hard over fences.

This is why we’ve raised our expectations on the flat as we’ve raised the fences. Establishing balance around smaller circles = time saved by doing the inside turn in a jumpoff. Firmly installing lateral movements at all gaits = better control and precision on course. Maintaining a steady connection between the aids = the ability to adjust to the right spot, slice a jump without a runout, communicate more clearly. Not to mention the fact that all of this builds fitness and self-carriage.

This is why we do crap tons of lateral work and spend so much time “warming up” in our lessons. Frankie’s abilities over the small fences got 100x better as we improved our flatwork, and suddenly the bigger fences were coming up more smoothly.

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Remember when I considered this decent form for Francis?

So what would happen if we pushed to improve over fences without pushing to improve our dressage? What if there was a disconnect between the two?

Let’s assume that Frankie was in good fitness from hill work and regular exercise, but that we didn’t emphasize lateral work, collection/extension, things like that. Let’s assume that I hopped on him every day, WTC around for an hour, then hopped off. No pushing of technical skills on the flat.

I’d better hope I have the magic eye for distances >4 strides out, because we don’t have a ton of adjustability. I’ll need to shorten or lengthen much earlier because my horse won’t be tuned to that.

And I’ll need to hit the perfect take-off spot every time, because he will have a tough time getting a bouncy enough canter to handle a super short or long one.

Once we land, the turns better not be too sharp. We have a tough time connecting to the outside rein and moving off the inside leg, so we’re not super balanced as the turns get tighter.

We have a tough time moving our shoulders/haunches independently, so I’ll need to set my horse up very straight to each jump. Otherwise we risk a drive-by. I don’t have a lot of options with my turns since it’s limited to how quickly we can move his whole body.

And all this is assuming that my horse has developed the self-carriage to get a powerful enough stride to jump the bigger jumps. Which I find unlikely.

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A million leg-yields and shoulders-in later, that’s more like it.

So yeah. If we were running into a problem with our lateral work or collection, it wouldn’t make sense to me for us to try to progress with bigger jumps or tighter turns. It would make sense to keep the jumps at a comfortable, manageable level while we improved our knowledge and abilities on the flat and only THEN ask harder questions over fences.

While I haven’t sat in a dressage saddle in at least 10 years, I take dressage-ing my horse extremely seriously. Of the 5-6 hours of work he does each week, 4.5-5.5 of those hours are spent on the flat developing strength and consistency, flexibility and adjustability. When he gets a pro ride, that’s usually heavily flatwork-focused. We know he can jump the jumps- developing his “buttons” on the flat is what gives him more tools to do that. Even when working over fences, we keep them under 3′ most of the time- there are so many skills we can practice without jumping his legs off.

Frankie definitely prefers to jump. No matter how lazy or bored he seems on the flat, he perks up and hunts down the fences as soon as they go up. He would probably be much happier if we jumped more and flatted less. But I strongly believe that this would be doing him a huge disservice and lead to holes in training/health problems down the road.

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Mahm. Flatwork stinks. So bored. Mahm. Stahp.

So there’s my soapbox for the day. I’m sure it’s nothing you haven’t heard before, no novel new concepts, but I’m feeling pretty passionate about it these days. And if there’s anyone out there that I can rant to about the importance of developing a stronger shoulder-in, it’s all y’all crazies.

Fancy Pony

Remember that part where I said that Frankie is a little lacking in polish on the flat?

I TAKE IT BACK. I TAKE IT ALL BACK.

Chapter 1: Seriously Olivia  that doesn’t count as fancy, that’s a pretty normal thing

Francis and I went for a trail ride with some buddies a few weekends ago, and it was just as fun as I anticipated. Frankie the Tankie was clearly having a blast getting to play outside, and it was cool to be on a horse that I could boot up to a gallop and then have him come right back with minimal pressure on his plain snaffle. I wasn’t really that surprised- one of his selling points in his ad was that he goes XC in a snaffle.

Here’s where the fancy comes in: Frankie has a SUPER active walk. Like, the vet commented when we were vetting him that he’s never seen a horse with so much movement in his walk. And he’s a tall guy. So when we’re all walking along on this trail ride, he naturally pulls ahead. And when we want to stand and wait for everyone to catch up, that’s no fun BECAUSE STANDING IS BORING I DON’T WANNA DO IT MAHHHHMMMM.

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Everything the light touches is Franklin’s.

Being the mean mom that I am, I made him stand quietly. Once he gave me a few moments of stillness, I decided to reward him by giving him a job that required some use of his brain while we waited for the rest of the crew. LATERAL WORK SEEMS FUN LET’S DO THAT.

And I think my horse has a future as a reiner. Turns on the haunches, on the forehand, leg yields, he was FEELING it. All based almost entirely on leg. So now he’s just armed me with the knowledge that he can totally give me tighter turns if I balance and ask properly. Muahahaha.

Summary of Chapter 1: my horse has way better lateral buttons installed than I realized.

Chapter 2: Seriously Olivia this is so ridiculously basic how are you just getting this now

The following Monday was spent on flatwork, and I had a mission in mind to figure out that whole “working on a contact” thing. You know, that thing that I definitely should have been figuring out looong before now. Go ahead and judge me, I promise you I’m judging myself more.

But better late than never! I entered the order of Inside Leg to Outside Rein and dedicated myself to feeling the contact and putting the puzzle pieces together. Here’s what I came up with: inside leg pushing into the outside hand + balancing and softening with the inside hand and maintaining straightness with the outside leg + relaxed and swinging seat + engaged but not tense core + relaxed jaw + a sacrifice to the moon goddess + Venus aligning with Pluto = uphill, round through the back, freely moving, on the contact Franklin.

Sound familiar to LITERALLY EVERYONE???

Clearly I figured this out and now we work perfectly on a contact and I do all of those things all the time. Obviously.

HAH.

What actually happened was that I got a much better feel for how to position myself to encourage that type of movement in Frankie, and we spent roughly 30 minutes at the walk while I practiced maintaining that feel. As an overcooked baked potato of a rider, I often lost that feel. But every so often it would click into place and I could feel the Tank soften right onto the bit, step under himself, and engage his back.

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Addy’s mom rode him for me over the weekend while I was out of town, and got some GORGEOUS work from him.

It. Was. Magical. I have a whooooole new understanding of what makes you DQs tick. Don’t get me wrong, I would go totally nuts if I couldn’t hop colorful sticks regularly, but I have a newfound appreciation for the obsession with getting every little piece into place because HOLY GUACAMOLE my horse felt fancy.

In true Olivia fashion, I texted my friend after that ride saying the following: “And every so often he would just soften and round and it was like HOLY CRAP TEACH US TO PIAFFE BECAUSE WE ARE FANCY DRESSAGE RIDERS. Canter half-passes are up next.” That is a direct transcript, caps and all.

Summary of Chapter 2: my horse has crazy fantastic flat buttons when I figure out how to press them, and I learned how to walk properly some of the time, maybe.

Chapter 3: Seriously Olivia do you want a gold star just for doing what you’re supposed to do?

I mean, yes? I would love gold stars for everything.

Right now I’m going to talk about quality of the canter and how I’ve been struggling a bit to nail that sweet spot with Francis. He has a RIDICULOUSLY comfortable canter to sit to, but a big long stride, so it can be very deceptive. I’ll be bopping along all comfortable and my trainer will be like “OLIVIA WHY ARE YOU GALLOPING ALL OVER MY RING CAN YOU PLEASE NOT” and it’s like ohhhh my bad totally didn’t realize.

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Big ol’ gallopy stride. Complete with tiny little jockey stirrups.

But I also want to make sure I have lots of power in the stride. So what I’ve been working on is compressing his stride a bit by keeping my legs wrapped around him and shifting my seat to change the stride length, and picking my hands up out of my lap to recycle that energy back to his hind end.

STARTING TO CLICK INTO PLACE

When I do these things, I get this amazing uphill powerful canter that is SO adjustable. Like, we did the pony strides in a line, then went back and did the galloping horse strides. And they both rode smoothly because we were able to rate his stride. I’m kinda spazzing out about this because while the BeastMare has many amazing qualities, we struggled a lot with adjustability. So to have a horse that will literally give me any stride length I ask for as long as I sit up and keep my leg on? This is new. And amazing.

So now I need to remember that feeling so I can get it off the bat, not 30 minutes into our lesson. As my trainer reminded me, we don’t get one or two or three practice courses in the jumpers. We get a couple singles in the warmup ring and then it’s showtime. I need to be able to push up into that energetic elastic stride from the get-go. Frankie is broke to death- he’ll give it to me immediately if I ask. I just need to remember to ask.

Summary of Chapter 3: Sometimes I can actively ride my horse instead of galloping around with a big fat grin on my face.

Overall thoughts: If I give Frankie clear and correct instructions, he will immediately and happily give me some gloriously gorgeous work. Turns out the only one who needs polish is me!

Time to (Not) Hit the Brakes

I’ve alluded to something several times in my posts on this blog, but I’m going to state it outright and give this some attention:

Addy has a go button. She loves the go button. She lives for the go button. Not a huge fan of the brakes.

I’m embracing the go button as an adult, but this wasn’t always the case. Addy is the type of horse that terrified me as a junior- I would’ve been crying and yelling to my trainer, “she’s going too fast, why isn’t she slowing down?!?!” I hated the go button, because I didn’t understand the go button (how many times can I say “go button” in one post?). I wanted a horse that was constantly on the brakes and only moved forward when explicitly asked.

Past me was such a ditz. Nowadays, I feel so much safer knowing that my horse is going to move up if I let her. On a horse moving sluggishly there are two extreme options for changes in motion- they could stop dramatically, or they could bolt. On Addy the only real extreme available to us is stopping, and she shows little inclination for that. Her power and speed make her predictable.

I’m about to all metaphorical up in here, so bear with me.

When you sit in a car and are not pressing the gas OR the brakes, you usually idle along around 5 mph. You hit the brakes to come to a full stop, or hit the gas to go faster. Most horses I’ve ridden are like this- idling along at a walk until told otherwise.

Once we’re warmed up, Addy does not idle at the walk. She idles at the hand-gallop. There is no need to ever hit the gas pedal, just varying degrees of hitting  or releasing the brakes. My aids are almost entirely devoted to straightening and balancing, because there is no need to push her up in front of my leg. She lives in front of my leg. I do not ask her to move forward- I allow her to move forward into the pace she wants.

If you look closely you’ll notice the wrestling match going on trying to get this freight train to balance and slooooow dooooowwwnnnn.

I’m going to take this metaphor one step further: we all know that the brake is on the left and the gas pedal is on the right. Just like we were are taught that pulling hands back on the reins means slow down and releasing means move forward. Addy got that memo, but then became too smart for her own good- she knows that if she’s on a loopy rein it means we’re relaxing, and she knows that if I take up a contact it means we’re going to be doing something fun. Our brakes and gas pedals are mixed up. If we’re walking and I take up a contact she will canter off, and if we finish a course and I loose the reins she will come back to a walk. Clever girl.

All of this kinda makes her sounds like some snorty complicated beast that takes off with me and won’t stop, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. I have never once felt unsafe or out of control with her, and she always always always listens when I ask her to downshift (even if it is rather begrudgingly and takes a minute). But my struggles seem to be a lot different from many others seeking advice.

There is so much written about generating and maintaining impulsion and getting the horse moving with energy. But what do you do when your horse a) generates her own impulsion b) maintains her own impulsion and c) moves with plenty of energy? How do you harness that and channel it for the powers of good?

You ask people on the internet who know better than you. All you horsey people in blogland have given me some awesome ideas for exercises to improve our adjustability. And I took it one step further- I asked the experts on Judge My Ride to give me some advice.

Dressage goddess Karen McGoldrick delivered. I love reading through her responses to other people’s questions because she always takes the time to explain the mechanics behind the movement and takes everything back to the root of the issue. Seriously, if you’re struggling with something I would totally recommend posting in the “Ask the Judge” category, or even just browsing through to see if someone is asking your question for you. It’s pure gold.

Anyways, she gave me some really solid advice- go back to basics and NAIL that half halt. But she didn’t just leave it at that. She walked me through every. single. step. of how to get to that ideal half halt, and explained how my body should be positioned as we progress. And then explained how it should feel when we get it right. It’s the next best thing to having her there while I’m on the horse, and I was excited to give this a try yesterday.

I’m a big believer in going back to basics, which is why I have been struggling with certain exercises- they may have helped with Addy’s adjustability, but I didn’t feel like we were getting to the root of the problem. Taking the pressure off and going back to our half halts is the building block skill that sets us up for adjustability when we’re thundering down those lines.

Addy responded so well to this! Despite no turnout yesterday and a fairly light workload the last few weeks, she came right back when I asked properly. She very much wanted to move up, but she was so sensitive just to the stopping of my seat and a light touch on the reins. Being more conscious of my seat let me keep her on a contact when we were moving slow, and kept her going when I loosened the reins a bit. It all goes back to being more deliberate– I’m getting to the point where I can and need to ride actively instead of clomping on her back like a potato.

Her reward for this was twofold- she got to hand gallop around a whole bunch to get the ants out of her pants and stretch out (with periodic downward transitions to make sure she was still paying attention and staying balanced), and we jumped through a grid a couple times. We don’t usually jump outside of lessons, but the assistant trainer saw what I was working on and let me take her up the centerline a couple times. She was so good! She stayed balanced off the hard turn up the centerline, and then stayed straight to the end before balancing through the turn.

There’s plenty still to work on, but it was so encouraging to see the results of a few simple changes in position. Correcting just the angle of my hips led to a chain reaction of changing the pace of my horse! It was a productive and fun ride for me, and I’m sure Addy felt the same.

I actually never doubt that Addy is having fun during our rides, because she’s the one who asks to keep going (I have to steer her away from jumps when we’re done). So we’re going to work on our balancing, and our straightness, and engaging the hind end, and packaging her power, and not anticipating, and a whole slew of other things. But we are going to embrace that go button and keep the engine running.

How do you work with your forward horse? Any tips for perfecting our half halt?

PS- I impulse-bought a pair of white TS breeches the other day, and I’m so obsessed. Owner Lady has also announced that she has a breastplate and figure-8 bridle I can use any time and OH MY GOSH PLEASE CAN I TRY THE JUMPERS NOW. I’ve got the look nailed down so that means my trainer has to let me, right? Right?! 3’6″ looks like my new goal so I can get to those Jumper Classics…