Pseudo (and real) Dressage

I sure got lucky last night with the weather – it was just starting to sprinkle when I arrived at the barn and by the time I hauled Schmoodle (me running, him dispiritedly jogging) into the barn, it was a full-on thunderstorm.  It was one of those vicious summer storms that’s gone as quickly as it came, though, so by the time we were tacked up, the skies had cleared, and I had perfect, beach-at-tide-level footing to play in!

Alas, I took advantage of the virgin footing to analyze Schmoodle’s footprints and realized that, despite how good he is being re. relaxation and suppleness, our straight lines are still more like a micro sine wave depending on where is focus is. So I set out so have a real straightness-oriented workout.

Schoomdle: "A dog on the left! A jump on the right! A bird on the left! An uneven patch of sand on the right!"

Schoomdle: “A dog on the left! A jump on the right! A bird on the left! An uneven patch of sand on the right!”

Backtrack: last winter, when trainers M&L were down in Florida, leaving the rest of us up here to freeze our buns off, I decided to start taking dressage lessons. As I’ve mentioned before, I loooove a good flatwork sessions and had always counted myself pretty proficient. I prided myself on my ability to get on pretty much any horse and have it going round, straight and relaxed. Little did I know, I was basically in a state of unconscious incompetence: in 2011 I moved to England and started riding with a bunch of Intermediate/Advanced level eventers (more on that at a later date), and realized how woefully inadequate my capital-D Dressage skills were compared to theirs. So when the opportunity came around to remedy this, I jumped on it.

I would say I have now progressed to conscious incompetence?

I would say I now tend to fall squarely in the conscious incompetence category?

I began riding with a local dressage trainer, Robin, who runs a full-service show barn on whatever the dressage equivalent of the A-circuit is, but also has lots of lesson clients. I explained to her that I wanted some new flatwork tools for my toolbox, and we started weekly lessons.

That first dressage lesson kicked my butt HARD CORE. I don’t know how you dressage riders do it, honestly. Even now, with about twelve months of dressage lessons under my belt, I can’t say maintaining a dressage-y leg and seat isn’t a constant struggle. For my first couple of rides, my victim chosen mount was Franklin, a 3rd/4th level schoolmaster type. Franklin accepted my flailings as I learned that a) I didn’t know how to get a dressage horse to canter; b) my sitting trot muscles were seriously underdeveloped; and c) although I thought I knew what a half-halt was (basically, hold the outside rein harder?), I actually didn’t. At all.

To paraphrase the Dowager Countess: "Is this a saddle, or an instrument of torture?!"

To paraphrase the Dowager Countess: “Is this a saddle or an instrument of torture?!”

Mercifully for him I moved on from Franklin to Billy, a QH who, though basically stiff and earthbound, could plug out a really solid 3rd Level test if you rode him correctly; then Lady, a former 2* eventer, who fulfilled all the stereotypes of a flighty TB mare but who gave a really good feel if you could just calibrate your aids subtly enough. I took a hiatus for the summer then returned to Robin’s this winter, when she presented me with a new horse to ride: Cedrik, her first FEI horse, now 21 and enjoying life in his paddock.

Even at 21, Cedrik’s power, sensitivity and energy were waaaay beyond my skill level at that point. Our first lesson together consisted of him lugging me around at what felt like Mach 10 – at the trot. I realized I had better shape up pretty quickly if I didn’t want to spend every Monday evening feeling like an idiot (a very sore idiot: every muscle in my body hurt after those first 45 minutes on Cedrik.)

After a couple of lessons, Robin offered to put me on a different, easier horse. It was tempting, I’ll admit, as Cedrik had basically totally demoralized me; but I’m so glad I stuck with it. Thanks to Robin’s patience, good humour, and generally great teaching skills, I learned how to half-halt, apply a dressage leg, coordinate my lateral aids, and most of all, really ride from my seat. Cedrik began to take a liking to me and although I still finished every lessons with many huge pats for him for putting up with my ineptitude, I began to develop the ability to actually influence the “conversation” in our rides. The best part was the moments in which I could tell I was doing it right, and Cedrik gave me a feeling I have never felt before or since: real collection, lightness and balance. (Then I would do something stupid like pull on the reins and it would all go off the rails again.)

Cedrik in his heyday. He is a lot furrier now, but still adorable!

Far from our bumbling beginnings (Robin, at one of my last lessons: “Hahaha! Remember when you couldn’t steer? That was hilarious!”), by June Cedrik and I had done half-pass, three-time changes, and canter pirouettes (dressage riders: pirouettes feel AWESOME and I am jealous of those of you who get to ride them regularly.) I was even able to do renvers without collapsing into a pretzel! (Incidentally, straight talk: renvers is the dumbest and most confusing dressage movement ever. In my humble opinion.) More importantly, I learned so much about connection, balance and straightness that I now try to being to my rides with Schmoodle.

So: today with Schmoodle, I put my pseudo-dressage-rider hat on: we did lots of serpentines, lengthenings across the diagonal, and stretchy trot circles; lots of leg-yield, followed by shoulder-in and haunches-in in each direction; canter voltes at each letter; center lines; and counter-canter patterns. I focused on the balance and angle of my lateral work, and the quality of the connection in our transitions. I concentrated on riding up into the bridle, rather than using my hands to create the shape I wanted. I ended the session with a much straighter and more supple horse – success.

Homework:

  1. I’m still struggling with Schmoodle wanting to swing his haunches out or in to avoid truly carrying himself, mostly in canter. I will bring a dressage whip to our next ride to attempt to nip this habit in the bud.
  2. I’m not sure if I’m really uneven with my shoulders/ribcage. I suspect that one shoulder is usually higher than the other. I need to document this and then correct it. Wish I had the ability to videotape on something other than an iPhone – or that we had arena mirrors.
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