When I started riding Murray last year, I knew I wanted to give him a very thorough dressage foundation, so, in addition to taking regular lessons with my trainer, I took some lessons with my trainer’s dressage trainer, Tina Steward. Tina is a Grand Prix rider, trainer, and judge, and a top-notch educator. Her basic formula for working with a young horse with limited education like Murray is to achieve longitudinal flexion through lateral flexion. In English? It’s hard for a young horse to understand “stretch your back” at first, so you just ask him to stretch himself sideways, and that slowly gets you the lifted and stretched back we desire.
The first three months were a lot of foundational flat work, with little bits of dressage philosophy snuck in. Yield to this rein, move off this leg. How do you feel about a French link bit? Good? Ok, now we need a flash. I know you hate the flash, just get off this leg. Forward, less forward, respond to my seat. Bend this way, bend that way, bend at all. Stay off that leg. Keep your own pace, don’t make me beg you.
Though Tina comes to our barn monthly, my last real lesson with her was in January. It wasn’t that I didn’t want lessons with her, simply that the stars never aligned for one when she was around. Murray luxated his patella at the beginning of February, in March I was prepping (and paying) for a combined test, April was camp, May was another show…. The list goes on. However, our January lesson was quite productive. Murray and I had moved past the point where maintaining some flexion and connection on a circle was challenge enough, and Tina started us on lateral work: leg yields and shoulder-in at the walk, and a little bit at the trot. And that is where we left it.
So this is what I practiced. For ten months. I started as we had in our lesson: turning Murray into the wall and asking him to leg yield up the wall. This was impossibly hard for him at first, and he would take smaller and smaller and sadder and sadder steps until he worked himself into a knot — so before he got there, I would circle to the inside, and we’d start the exercise again. Four steps, five steps, eight steps. Always just one more step than Murray wanted, and lots and lots of praise at the end. Then, later, at the trot; here Murray really struggled to cross over his legs and not just smash his face into the wall, but we got there, eventually. We started the leg yield from the quarterline to the wall. One, two, three steps, then straighten him out, then a few steps more. Every ride I would review what I worked on last time, before asking him for a few steps more.
Later, I could ask him to bend around my inside leg for a little shoulder-in. I started with a circle in the corner so I could just sliiiiiiiide up the wall with that bend maintained in the babiest of shoulder-fore. This too was really hard for the kid – how can I possibly look in and bend in and not TURN in?! Murray complained with groans and the occasional dirty look. We shrank the circle, 15 meters, then 10. I thought real shoulder-in was achieved, but Murray’s neck was overbent and he was faking it. Back to the 15 meter circle. Murray learned to stay engaged for the whole process, and not panic and drop his back when I asked his hind legs to cross under.
I watched DressageHub videos. I realized my leg yield was dangerously uncontrolled and Muray was just falling to the outside. I went back to the walk and caught Murray’s shoulders. I did it again at the trot, and I made sure not to let his shoulders escape me. Eventually, we could do it all at the trot, for a whole long side, more than once, with his back still engaged. By then, Murray was stiff on his right side, struggling to bend left. So I slowly stretched out his right side with leg yield down one side of the arena, and a smallish-circle-to-shoulder-in down the other side. I worked this on both sides, but more tracking left than tracking right, and suddenly he could bend left again. But the right bend was now stiff and struggling.
Does this sound boring? Imagine doing it for ten months. If not for the jumping, shows, and extracurricular activities (XC schooling, gallops, etc.) I would definitely have been driven bonkers. And I love the philosophy of taking things slow. I want nothing more than to slowly build a confident, happy, correct horse from the ground up. But ten months…. Ten months and I was itching to try something new. Wasn’t ten months enough for me to at least be competent at training level dressage movements? So one day I set Murray up for shoulder-in and put my outside leg on as well – you know, just scootch right off that one instead and maybe show me that beautiful half-pass you’ve got hidden in there. Murray’s head shot up and the stink eye came right out. I went back to leg yields.
I had another lesson with Tina in November and evidently, ten months of slowly building has really paid off. Tina noticed immediately Murray’s lifted back, looser gaits, better joint articulation, and general increase in strength. We did all our favourite exercises for her – you know, only ten months of practice later – and were declared successful. Murray is stronger, more responsive, and more flexible than before, and is starting to really step under himself like a Real Dressage Horse. There’s still plenty of room in our rides to work on leg yields and shoulder in – they are, of course, fundamental suppling exercises that will be useful to Murray and myself – but I can now relegate them to what they are: suppling exercises, and not the main focus of every one of my dressage rides.
Suddenly, I’m really glad I spent those ten months practicing the same two exercises over and over! Despite my boredom and frustration, those ten months were worth every movement. I strengthened my horse in the right ways, finally sorted out those leg yields and shoulder-in, and got his mind ready for some of the harder work to come. Tina started us on the counter-canter in our lesson…. here’s to hoping that I’m not working on that for ten months too!!