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.
Out of Order in the (Dressage) Court
A guy came down my center line some years ago all decked out in his top hat on a Friesian exuding cadence and displaying a high, arched Second Level frame. He then proceeded to ride a very elegant Intro test which garnered something like 80%.
My obvious question after his final salute was, “So what are you doing in this class anyway?”
He replied, “Well his canter isn’t quite perfect yet.”
He was finished for the day, and my ring was running ahead of schedule, so I invited him show me a canter circle. It was worthy of a seven.
I told him that and suggested that Training Level would certainly be appropriate at this point. His eye-rolling rejoinder: “I don’t want to move up until I am getting all tens.”
Aside from the zero likelihood of that ever happening, it does bring to mind a philosophical training question. One approach is to perfect “A” before moving on to address “B” and to continue in that linear manner throughout the training of a horse and/or rider. As a teacher I am sympathetic to the concern of allowing a student to proceed into increasingly difficult movements or exercises which she can only do badly.
That said, while we would prefer the shoulder-in to demonstrate collection when it is being shown, since one of the purposes of the exercise is to develop collection and engagement, why should it not be used in training before the process has reached total fruition? Employing an exercise developmentally is not remotely like just doing it wrong!
In a similar vein some argue that movements like leg yielding should only be performed when the horse is reliably on the bit. But the same rider hand and leg coordinations required for leg yielding mimic the suppling, gathering aids which produce acceptance. Why shouldn’t leg yielding be a laboratory in which riders discover and practice these coordinations?
Teachers who would have you perfect “A” before they allow you to proceed to “B” erroneously assume that an understanding of “A” is finite, universal, and unchanging. In fact, your concept of “A” (and most everything else in riding) will change over time in light of things you’ve felt doing “E,” “F,” and “G.” The learning process is complex and cumulative, and obviously students absorb and comprehend ideas and acquire physical skills in lots of different orders. Mastery can come later, Exposure to parts of the puzzle which lie beyond a student’s comfort zone or level of competence can not only draw them forward but help them better understand what they think they already know.
Aside from overt resistances, evasions, and arguments, there are two other circumstances where your horse can hide his lack of connection. One category is defined by “posing.” He can show you a round frame and be going fairly well forward over the ground. But if he is not honestly coming to the contact, it can feel like there’s nothing in your hands, and there will be no energy transfer or weight shift if you try to make a half halt. Be sure you don’t mis-identify this false lightness as a desirable self carriage. It is not!
The solution is to create thrust from your horse’s hind quarters and to pour it through the reins into your hands. Generate the spark of reactivity with smartly ridden upward transitions and hot off the leg lengthenings. Develop his affinity for the bit by teaching him to stretch elastically forward and down over his top line. When that is working, generalize the same reaching to the bit idea when he’s traveling in the normal poll-as-highest-point outline.
The second category of disconnection can be a bit harder to recognize because it only pops up if you ask your horse certain embarrassing (revealing) questions. A horse with a “passive connection” may appear to be steady and round as long as you don’t upset the apple cart by asking to shorten, lengthen, or rebalance him. That’s when he will brace or lean or invert himself. This situation befalls riders who are so grateful that their horse seems to be accepting that they don’t want to risk undoing anything.
Such an impermeable horse must be made laterally supple with bending exercises and varieties of leg yielding. From there he can be challenged with longitudinal suppling to make him more accordion-like through his top line and less prone to resisting. The key here is to be willing to put up with short term unsteadiness as you break through his rigidity to arrive at a softer, more pliable connection.
Remember: meaningful connection is defined by what you can do with it. If your horse is quiet and steady as long as you don’t ask him for anything, you are not scratching below the surface of his potential.
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