I’ve recently begun riding with a new dressage trainer, since my previous one moved back to Denmark. This past weekend, she hosted a clinic with Shannon Dueck, and invited me to ride. The commitment was for two days, an hour lesson each day, and involved taking Charlie about an hour up the road. Generously, she offered me a stall to stay overnight, to avoid the back and forth trailering.

I’ve never ridden with Shannon before, but she was a breath of fresh air. Even though she is a highly accomplished dressage rider in her own right, she has made the transition to trainer/coach well. Sometime, the great riders have a tough time explaining things to a student because everything comes so intuitively to them. But Shannon coaches positively, telling you what to DO (so I know what I’m aiming for), instead of what NOT to do (which just leaves me lost). She describes things uniquely, and memorably. And when it’s punctuated with the classic Canadian “Ey!” its even a little bit funny.

Eveyone at the clinic was incredibly nice, and I felt at home. Then I watched a few of them ride, and suddenly felt like the little kid at the grown-ups table at Thanksgiving — way out of my league! The biggest impression was made by a woman named Hailey, and her gorgeous black stallion. They floated through their half passes, glided through string after string of tempi changes, and never skipped a beat when turning a corner in counter canter and then gracefully doing a flying change. The other riders were all doing Prix St. George or Grand Prix as well. And here I was at little old Training level. <sigh>. Oh well. Gotta start somewhere, I guess. Right?

To begin with, Shannon teaches with a headset. And for those who don’t, I’d recommend you revisit it where possible. It gave me the ability to hear her instructions clearly, but without the screaming that’s required when coach and rider are at opposite ends of the arena. It also gave me the opportunity to have Shannon give me those verbal nudges, sometimes gently, sometimes more adamantly, to keep demanding something of Charlie all the way around. Her soft “Don’t quit, don’t quit, don’t quit” humming in my ear helped me find a little more leg when I thought I had none left.

Well, the first thing was that Charlie wasn’t moving forward enough for Shannon’s liking. He was completely ignoring my leg, and my spurs were deemed far too inconsequential to get any kind of meaningful response. After a few minutes of hollering around the barn, we borrowed a pair from someone that made me swallow hard. They were 1″+ and squared off on the ends to produce a sharper edge. Now it was up to me to keep from goosing Charlie unnecessarily. But I must admit, he respected the spur, which was a nice change of pace.  When I put it on him, he sort of shook, as if to say, “Ooh! I didn’t know you were THAT serious about moving forward! No problem. I’m on it!” But then I get into feeling like he’s running too much. Feeling the difference between forward and running isn’t exactly something that I have mastered. But I guess that’s why I’m at Training level.

I had to forgive his moving up to canter when all I intended was a trot, because forward is always better. So I kept trying to sit back and go with it. Which was Shannon’s next adjustment — my seat. For dressage work, I have to stay way, way, way back in the saddle versus what I’m used to for jumping. I practically feel like I’m lying down on Charlie’s back.  So much so that I’m ready for a pillow so I can take a nap with my head on his rump.  At least that’s how it feels.  In reality, I’m just at vertical.  So I rotated my pelvis back. Picture having two peanut butter sandwiches in the back pocket of your jeans. Now try to squeeze the peanut butter out of them just by sitting back on the pockets of those jeans. While you’ll never get the peanut butter out, it gets someone like me closer to that correct dressage seat. And when you post, your kind of swipe out the front of the saddle, and then sit back down on the fleshy part of your butt.

The next thing Shannon adjusted was my stirrup length.  She wanted to lower me by two holes, but we compromised on one, and I promised to work on the extra hole before the next clinic.  She also had us do some no stirrup work.  It wasn’t the kind like militant no-stirrup people who want you to jump huge fences with no stirrups.  This was more about getting my leg to hang long, and get Charlie to move from my leg and seat.  I managed to adjust to the extra leg length alright.  And now I’m just one hole different than the trainer who rides Charlie during the week.

Then Shannon wanted to work on Charlie’s yielding to the bit. So we planted my outside hand, using the buck strap on the front of the saddle for back-up, and tickled the bit using the inside hand. Nothing big, just little squeeze-and-release moves. Charlie braced his shoulder, stuck his head in the air, and hollowed his back. Ugh! I was mortified. I looked like an idiot, and he looked like a giraffe. And with all the extra forward momentum, I felt like were were in perpetual “tranter” — you know, that obnoxious half trot, half canter, discombobulated gait with no discernible rhythm or cadence. And I never know whether to sit or post when that happens, so I just wind up bouncing all over the place.

What an impression we made?!  After the hour-long lesson, I practically fell off, between the heat and humidity and work involved.  But it was fun, and the time went quickly.  Once Charlie was cooled off and ensconced in his stall, I went back to watch more of the day’s lessons.  After lunch, I snuck off to the tack store to pick up a more appropriate set of spurs.

The second day, we started a bit ahead of the day before, and worked on getting the forwardness, and the seat, and the longer leg, and Charlie’s yield to the bit a little more progressed. It’s new muscle memory for both of us, so there’s lots of repetition and practice to be done. But I look forward to riding with Shannon again soon, ey!