I’m no dressage expert. I enjoy watching it. It’s a great training tool for both me and my horse. Even the legendary hunter, George Morris, says that dressage is the basis for jumping. Still, I can’t see the fine details the way that others can. But knowing that my success as a rider will stem from my work on dressage skills, regardless of what discipline I participate in, I sought out a more dressage-focused training opportunity for Charlie Brown and me this winter.
I found one with Sprieser Sporthorses in Virignia, about an hour and a half from our home barn. Lisa Hellmer and Natasha Sprengers-Levine, assistant trainers, offered the two-day camp while Lauren Sprieser had many of her competition horses in Florida for the winter. That left open paddocks and stalls available for the campers to use.
To be candid, getting there was a challenge. This place is not just off the interstate. And while I’m pretty good with my bumper-pull trailer, a winding road with significant hills require me to up my driving game to navigate things successfully. Backing it up is still my nemesis, but more on that another time. When I took the directed exit of I-66, we were only about two-thirds of the way there. The circuitous route gave us a marvelous seclusion. Charlie and I didn’t have to think about the distractions of cars or visitors because there were none. And the fabulousness of the facility made the extra driving effort worth the work.
Since our ride times weren’t until later, we arrived around noon. When we got there, I was quickly introduced to Lisa and a working student named Fischer. They were gracious and welcoming, and helped us unload and get Charlie Brown settled into his stall.
Then they had a warm and homemade lunch ready for us and the rest of the campers. Actually, it was more of a culinary throwdown between Lisa and Natasha — both of whom, as it turns out, are gifted riders, exceptional teachers, and darn good cooks. Frankly, the tack room where we had lunch looks nicer than my living room at home. So as soon as I win the lottery, I’ll be moving in.
Our first lesson was a private one with Natasha. Even though she had never seen me ride before, she quickly picked up on our oft-noted issues: Charlie’s wiggliness, his inattentiveness to my aids, and my work-in-progress level of confidence.
We worked solidly for the entire lesson without a whole lot of breaks. Natasha encouraged me to be more pre-emptive with my leg and whip to correct Charlie’s inattention — like his insistence that we look out the window every time we passed it. Goodness knows that the horse outside running in their paddock was far more interesting than the work we had to do in the arena.
When we moved up to canter, Natasha noticed that initially, ours had about 3-1/2 beats. She encouraged me to go “half a mile an hour faster.” That was a revelation for me because whenever I hear my trainer at home call for “more speed” my assumption is that we need to go twice as fast. But in reality, we just need to go a little bit faster. And when we do, the rhythm smooths out and the rhythm sorts itself out to a proper three beats. But the instruction to go faster doesn’t mix well with my re-budding confidence. Going just half a mile an hour faster is a lot more do-able.
Our second lesson was a semi-private with Lisa, focusing on cavalettis. Charlie and I rode with my fellow student, Caitlin, and her horse, Paris. Lisa reminded us that it is my job to stay straight and it is Charlie’s job to figure out where his feet go. The arena was set up with exercises in each end, which we eventually strung together to cover the entire arena. One end was a 5-pole fan with a chute to a 3-pole set. On the other end were another 3-pole set in the center, with 4 more poles marking out the surrounding 20m circle.
The fan made us work on me posting a little bit higher in order to give Charlie the space to pick up his feet a little bit more so he could really clear the poles cleanly. The chute helped us get super straight to the next set of poles. The poles on the 20m circle made us focus on the quality of our gaits so the poles were barely noticeable.
My epiphany here was a small mention of where my eyes were. Lisa suggested I keep my sight between Charlie’s ears — specifically over his outside ear — and let my peripheral vision handle where we went next. Once I did, I had no way of getting too far ahead of things, and I had to focus on the one move that was in front of us.
Our final lesson on Sunday was a private, again with Lisa. Here, she encouraged me to “breathe into my lower back,” to remove the sway there, and let my legs hang relatively loosely. The arch in the lower back is a natural anatomical feature, and it’s exaggerated by spending time in a hunter barn, where it’s considered desirable. But in dressage, not so much. Add to that the fact that I was taught to ride in the era when you were supposed to grip with your knees. So releasing the patellar pinch is a constant battle.
Then, when it came to transitions, I got a second revelation. Lisa challenged me to stay entirely still from the knee up, and only ask for the transition with the smallest possible move in my ankles. I did, and it was beautiful. Again, simple but not easy. But a major revelation.
I know these aren’t huge changes, but this is a sport of finesse and small moves. And finding them was worth all the effort. Now we’re off to practice these new skills before the next camp in February. Charlie and I can’t wait!