Dressage, for all its beauty at places like WEG and the Olympics had me mesmerized and seriously disillusioned as to what kind of horse was in that ring. Being the kid that grew up as a open show rider who watched many pleasure rounds, it looked to me at first like super calm horses poking around at what looked like the western jog, in snappy outfits, playing with lead changes and just keeping their horse’s head up and with contact! While I generously admit that is completely WRONG, it has taken me a long time to understand all the elements, and while this is only the beginning on my dressage journey I’ve learned so much and anticipate what is coming around the corner.
I’ve really started to understand the training scale. We’ve started at the bottom – and often dwell at the bottom – but I have started to see a glimpse of some of the top of the pyramid come through in our smallest victories. Sometimes my mare conquers a problem area which opens up the can of worms and we see all kinds of other issues and back down the scale we go! I think the biggest thing for us to do is to keep working. I’ve never been at a place with my horse where I’ve felt like we can genuinely conquer a challenge and both feel willing and good about it until Dressage came into my life.
When we started we were a few things. In our first off-site clinic Claire was called a “deadhead” to which I replied “isn’t’ that a good thing???” Turns out we had no forward motion, we could putz around like a pleasure pony and go on the buckle. We now have forward movement (not fast, which I learned was a different thing), which has immeasurably helped out that whole canter thing where we used to buck around the arena and now we want to canter.
Once we found a little go-juice we moved into having some tempo and rhythm in it. While we are still here some days at the trot, I have noticed that we are more consistent and I’m learning how to use my body to tell her to keep pace. Claire was famous for a lovely trot which when she decided we were done with 20 steps in, would drop back to almost a jog and see if I would come zooming off up top. However we have learned to post to our own little song made up by our instructor “Mon-day, Tues-day, Wednes-day…” It’s amazing for keeping my body in charge of her trot! Also even our free walk has been awesome, we have learned to sashay around “like a cougar in the grass” (can you tell I love love love my lessons and the examples that come with them!).
Relaxation has been an amazing part of our scale. First of all this was the mare that was relaxed when at home riding but now that we are working that whole relaxation thing is a fun challenge. Our first lesson in serious Dressageland was amazing because our goal wasn’t to package her up and go out there flying half passes and piaffes. It was “Do you trust your horse?” What a loaded question that is! “Sure”… “Good then, walk the arena on the buckle” and sure enough our goal at shows away from home when Claire used to be jazzed up and would make me not even want to get on is now on the buckle in warm up. If I can get a freewalk there I can get anything else I want in the ring.
Connection. Oh man, is that hard for a hunter pleasure horse… “Claire, let me touch your face with these reins” (Claire’s response isn’t fit for public eyes). Well, we are still working the connection game. But in just a few months it has come a long long way. We are riding a horse using my two feet and two hands connected to two balanced reins and asking her to find that bit and sure enough she’s found it. Woohoo! It’s not constant yet but it’s come so far! When we started the trot was a “don’t touch my face” activity and in response to contact we would ball up and crow hop. Yep I rode the last 4 or 5 tests at shows demonstrating my own special dressage move… the crow hop…but I’ve learned to “Sit on her hocks” (that’s Lisa terminology for stop looking like a hunter rider) and push her forward through the test instead of letting her win. In turn that pushing her out of the hops has helped us start to get off the forehand and to show a little impulsion. That’s right! My deadhead is awake and we are moving with purpose.
And finally…Straightness. It’s a daily challenge. As she’s using herself more we are seeking the leaks and gaps elsewhere. While we ride an impressive semi-drunken 20 meter circle and have NO concept of staying on the rail, we’re getting there. We started using some leg yields to get her over and I am learning to ride the circle and fix things. My instructor calls this riding Right to Left or Left to Right depending on what I need to do to help my horse who sometimes falls into her circles (and almost falls over her circles!) and sometimes decided that 20 meters is highly over rated and we shall make a giant oval.
We’re currently dancing up and down the scale with every move we make, and I’m glad for it. Each little move we make correct from a halt to a transition has flowed up the pyramid and as we improve each one I’m really seeing what I said in my previous blog when my instructor promised me I’d see the other side of Claire’s drama. I have seen her though and past the issue that I though was ride ending and now discover more fun things to work on! I’ve never been so confident, so excited to ride and truly enjoy my horse. Even last lesson when Claire was up and being very intimidating before I got on her I said to myself “Oh man, this is going to be one of those bad rides where we have to hop the whole time…I see it now” yet we spent the whole lesson doing canter transitions; something three months ago I NEVER dreamed would happen!
So Happy Piaffe-ing, my upper level friends! This intro level lady just nailed a solid 8 on my halt! We’ll see you some day up there!