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.
So you are back from something big—the championships or the regionals. You were more than OK—middle of the pack or better but less than you’d hoped. On the drive home or perhaps sitting by the fire in your own living room with a glass of wine, you take stock. Improvement can come two different ways.
As you review your rides, you can pick out a number of places where you lost a point or two: he stepped back in his halt; his haunches led at the start of the leg yield; he stepped out or stuck in one turn on the haunches; he switched behind for a step coming back from a canter lengthening. Clean up a few of those and your out-of-the-ribbons 67% jumps up to fifth place in a tight division. Yes, every point counts and your entire presentation is the sum of your attention to all those details.
But there is something larger going on. If you were wise, you would’ve watched some of the top scoring rides or some good tests in the level above where you competed. Most likely the differences you saw between theirs and your ride were related to balance and expression. A pleasant, harmonious test is certainly desirable but in tough competition that won’t get you to the top.
This is where you must actively create a different way of going. More springy, more cadenced, more up-hill, more expressive. What we are talking about is less than a parallel universe or even another dimension. But it IS certainly a quantum leap in your demands and the relationship you must have to accomplish them.
Chances are your horse will have to become hotter (quicker) to the leg but remain confident and relaxed, not anxious, which can only happen if he is coming through in a more sophisticated way than probably he has been. He will have to become more mindful of the conducting and governing effects of your body language and weight aids. In short, your riding may have to rise to another plane in order to bring him along to his. It’s a good thing that winter is coming!
Bits of Advice
How much does the bit you ride your horse in matter? I have one student who took the advice of a traveling bit guru and bought a $250 snaffle of exotic metals. She subsequently discovered that her horse went better in the $20 loose ring that she’d used all along. So it goes.
You’ve probably heard the old adage: “Horses are trained in the arena, not out of the tack trunk.” I stand by that although there are exceptions. Judging a schooling show recently, a horse came in to ride Western Basic. It was extremely over round and not moving forward. In its mouth was a massive curb bit that PETCO could have used to pry up manhole covers.
To the horse’s credit, he was steerable, although his rider had to keep the reins totally slack with absolutely no contact. The whole notion of reaching into the bridle was a total impossibility. No matter what WDAA rules permit, this was beyond counter productive, and I suggested something milder might give her a better chance.
Meantime, an opposite example: my wife has acquired a Dutch harness horse cross experienced in combine driving. He is built with a high neck carriage and has gone that way historically—leaning on the bit, particularly on the marathon. I’ve been riding him, but “pushing him through” just makes him heavier. Essentially he has no concept of a half halt or being able to be backed off to hold himself up and reach politely to the bit.
After some weeks of endless basic transitions—halt/walk and walk/trot— and trying to supple his poll and jaw in the halt, I broke down and put something stronger in his mouth. It’s a kimberwick, not exactly classical I admit, but with his driving background something he respects.
When going to a stronger bit, the key is not to constantly rely on its mechanical advantage. Not taking back but remembering to ride the horse forward to a momentarily non-allowing hand so that he softens in response to the pushing aids allows me to encourage lighter contact and to be rewarding him for it. The goal, of course, is for him to understand and make the connection to the same relationship in the snaffle. In this case the bit does not train the horse, but it makes the light more likely to dawn and reduces stress in both of us.
More Hunting Tales
Except for a few diehards, the essence of foxhunting is being able to tell exaggerated stories at the party afterwards.
Fox hunting can be a great place to meet people. I first made the acquaintance of a lifelong friend when she fell head over teakettle jumping down a drop into a pasture, and in the most gentlemanly fashion I retrieved her horse and brought it back to her.
Back in the day—we are talking almost 50 years ago—I wasn’t always so clever. In another loose horse situation I lit off in hot pursuit with the image of a Roy Rogers type rescue in my head. As I galloped alongside and reached over to grab his flapping reins, I somehow got my other hand up in the air and managed to crisscross my own reins under my horse’s neck. It was only a mildly panicky situation. My embarrassment was having performed this spectacle in front of the whole field.
I was in my late teens/early 20s when most of this stuff happened. I was new to all the customs and rituals and trying to learn on the fly. There were several older gentleman members—pillars of the community—who rode up front behind the Master and whom I observed closely looking for people to emulate. We were galloping single fille down a winding trail through the woods when the call echoed back from up ahead: “ ‘War fallen giant!” In that moment my mind flashed on a terrifyingly massive, brow band-high redwood tree felled across the path. How relieved I was upon rounding the bend to discover the “fallen giant” was, indeed, big but only about the size of J Lo’s thighs!
Another time while hunting in Virginia, we were checked up in front of an imposing, solid snake fence, waiting to jump it one at a time. it had to be a good 3 foot nine, and of course I was on a young, green, horse who’d done a single Novice Level horse trial. We milled around in trepidation awaiting our turn. I could not have been happier when the horse to go right before me totally wiped that fence out into a heap of pick up sticks. Its rider was relatively unscathed—just a flesh wound— so we picked our way through the debris and cheerily went on after the hounds.
And thence to the party to share the story.
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