A couple of years ago I started assembling some thoughts for a blog, but, oops, it became DRESSAGE Unscrambled. Other than The Godfather, Part II, I can’t name very many sequels that measured up to the original.
So, now it’s back to Plan A. I ended D.U. for the same reason that you stop eating potato chips—at the time I was full and, presumably, so were you. But like an old dictator haranguing the crowd, I’ve got my second wind now. You probably join me in observing that many, many riders get in their own way—by over-analysis, by under-analysis, or sometimes because they just ought to be in analysis.
Dressage is full of Truths. You are bombarded by them in books and articles, during lessons and lectures and even over a glass of chardonnay at your dressage club meeting. Unfortunately, those truths are not all equally applicable across the board in all circumstances. Some obfuscate; others downright confuse.
Navigating the whole shell shocking world of dressage is as fraught with pitfalls and booby traps as the task of Buying Your First Horse is to an unwary and unaccompanied novice. I certainly don’t claim to have a monopoly on dressage wisdom, but the same rules that apply to the human condition are equally valid as applied to our sport—exercise some common sense and avoid the mistakes that everyone before you has made.
And, for heaven’s sake, don’t take it all so seriously. It won’t make you ride any better. As before, the tales which follow are not arranged chronologically but in studied disorder. Some are meant to illuminate. Others to distract. Some just can’t stand to hide in the dark any longer. Light and Truth R Us.
And, oh, by the way, feedback is GOOD! I’m afraid that within me there’s an element of Alexander Haig after the Reagan shooting or Riff in Rocky Horror–“I’VE GOT TO KEEP CONTROL!” Consequently, this isn’t an open contribution blog. Tell me what you think. If it fits in, I’ll post it. If not, at least I’ll have learned something. CLICK to comment on anything below.
Testing Body and Mind
I want you to do me two favors the next time you are schooling your horse on the flat. First, whatever you’re doing — trotting down the long side, leg yielding on the diagonal, whatever —briefly stop using your aids and see if he is willing to continue on without your constant prodding. Don’t expect him to go on forever. He’ll need to be reminded of his duties, but you would like him to carry on without the need to be nagged incessantly. “Self carriage” is more than holding his head up without leaning. It’s your horse’s “willingness to carry himself forward”—his whole body. If you never give him a chance to try it, he’ll never figure out that he can (or should).
Now about that other favor …. As you are riding, consciously decide how “sincere” his movement is. Are his reactions casual, perfunctory, lackluster, thoughtless? It’s not just what he does but why and how much he is thinking about them. Or, hopefully, does he feel motivated, dedicated, involved? This is a difficult awareness to acquire. Once you have felt it, the feeling is unmistakable. The difficulty is if you have not felt it, sometimes you might think you have and never look further. This whole question is one which you should roll around in your mind fairly often as you think of your relationship with your horse.
Free ≠ abandoned
If your reaction is “Oh, yeah, everybody knows this,” then simply congratulate yourself. If you are an event rider, a foxhunter, or a trail rider, then what I am about to say ought to be second nature. But especially if you are late to riding and in particular to dressage riding, and even more so if you have acquired a schoolmaster to pursue your dream, then listen up!
For the better part of 50 years, a holiday tradition of mine has been the Christmas Day trail ride. Long ago we would foxhunt on Christmas morning. Over the years as we have progressively ossified and increasingly pickled ourselves for the occasion, the ride has devolved into a more casual stroll around the neighborhood…. leading me to this observation: While I am totally in favor of technical riding, the notion of having your horse “on the bit” should be a matter of choice, not a reflexive defense mechanism every time you put your foot in the stirrup, especially if your intention is to have a leisurely trail ride.
It’s about letting go, about teaching your horse (if he doesn’t already know) how to deal with freedom, about trusting him, and about not micromanaging every step that he takes.
Yes, at times of your choosing you may wish to school your horse out in the open, and you should be able to put him on the bit anytime you want. But that is entirely different from riding out always on a tight rein, the horse on contact, and his neck shortened and flexed. Perhaps you do it out of habit, perhaps from lack of confidence. Either way, the message you transmit to your horse with restrictive forearms and clenched fists hardly invites relaxation!
Constant restraint equates to pulling. You pull. He pulls. It happens in the arena, and it happens on the trail. Just as every half halt should be an interruption and a momentary release (his reward), so must the advices you give him when riding out. “Check then allow and repeat as necessary!”
Here’s a tip: a worthwhile skill to develop is the ability to bluff, to fake it. I can think of times when a horse I was on was actually running away with me, but as long as I didn’t reveal that fact to him, he didn’t really use his advantage, and I was able to regain control.
So if you hack it out, just survey yourself. Suck it up and remember, “on the buckle” means more than letting the reins be 2 inches longer!
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