Pressing Onward

gustafson_-_jack_and_the_beanstalk-726768A 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.


                                              Litmus Test

(posted 11-6-21)

Your horse truly understands flying changes when . . .

. . . You can make a clean, relaxed change on the long side from true to counter. Then you are ready to think about tempis— beginning with a pair of sixes or a pair of fours.


                                              Passing the Tokens

(posted 10-5-21)

A lot of inexperienced or nervous riders manage to get themselves lost in the show arena, their hearts sinking each time they hear the judge’s scolding whistle. Try as they might, they are befuddled by all those darn same-sounding letters.

What can be done to give them a break? I propose that Adult Amateurs have the option of more comfortable, familiar markers to indicate where movements must begin and end.

How about large versions of the Monopoly tokens? Or the weapon tokens from the game of Clue? Make them 4 feet high, easy to spot, and each one very individual in appearance.

I personally can’t wait to hear their readers intone, “Change rein on the diagonal from the thimble to the iron,” or “Between the lead pipe and the rope left lead canter.” And what rider could fail to see the humor in this scene and begin to loosen up, breathe, and let her mind work?

For that matter it probably wouldn’t hurt a lot of overzealous Type A riders, even ones who never get lost, to see those goofy tokens if not in reality but at least in their mind’s eye as they rider past them before their tests.


(posted 9-25-21)

I know you have heard this all before. Wear your seatbelt! Don’t run with scissors! Don’t leave a loaded gun at your child’s place at the dinner table! And, oh, about that riding helmet . . .

The turning point was probably Courtney King’s accident. Since then most of us have been wearing ours all or at least most of the time.

There was one instance not long ago that I did not. I was just planning a quiet stroll around the farm on a mannerly and well behaved horse on a warm afternoon.

I put the mounting block in the yard near the barn, tacked him up, and took him outside. Irons pulled down, he stood rocksteady and let me put my leg over him as I do every day. And suddenly he began bucking in place like an absolute maniac!

At first I thought I could ride it out, but he just didn’t stop. I decided that bailing was my best choice which I did rather indelicately, landing in a heap underneath him and giving my skull a moderate bump.

By then he was standing over me with a quizzical look on his face, and I realized there were dozens of fire ants crawling under my shirt and biting me like crazy. Obviously I had parked the mounting block in the wrong place, and he had just been trying to rid his legs of them.

So as it turned out, no harm was done. But after the fact it was one more example of “Listen to your mother (or whomever). She knows best!”

                                       It’s a Hold Up!

 (posted 8-28-21)

I’ve been starting to ride a horse for a woman. She is an adult amateur jumper rider with a big warm blood – easily over 17 hands. She describes him as very strong, almost like a freight train, particularly on his way to fences.

She had been trying a series of very strong bits, ones that dressage people usually roll their eyes and shake their heads about. None of them seemed to help much. I decided I just wanted to feel him in a regular snaffle to find out what I was dealing with.

He had had some decent training in Europe before she bought him, and in the walk and trot he was comfortable — round, fairly light, and willing to move off the leg easily.

In the canter he was more the way she had described. He would stay flexed but insisted on being unpleasantly heavy. At one pint on a 20 m circle I released both hands forward (uberstreichen), and he was shocked, throwing his head up in the air as if to say, “Oh my God! Where did the support I am used to go?”

So I spent the rest of the session weaning him away from his expectation of constant restraint. First little bits of small releases. Then gradually teaching him to canter long and low without getting strong. And finally bringing him back up and helping him find a balance to make canter to walk transitions without diving or falling on his face.

In my mind he has to learn this on the flat before I can hope to carry it over to the jumping ring. Logically, if you don’t give him a chance to fail (by releasing), he never has an opportunity to figure out what he is supposed to do with his freedom — freedom to carry himself, not grab ahold and run off) The corollary to all this is if you teach him an independent balance, he’ll be much more maneuverable and far easier to stop.

                          The Cone of Uncertainty

(posted 8-16-21)

The national weather service has issued an advisory complete with a mapped out cone of uncertainty for the “potential development of a tropical disturbance” which would be named Fred. Be clear: at the moment it does not exist, but there are indications that it might in the future.

This is a good model of how you should think about riding your horse. As you are preparing to perform a movement, don’t wait until the storm clouds are gathering on the horizon to think of packing a hurricane survival kit.

Let’s take turn on the haunches as an example. It’s easy to get over-focused on the aids for the turn itself and be surprised at a stiffening or resistance in the middle of it. Remember your main focus should be the basic principles of attention, connection, and throughness which must be present whether you’re riding a 20 meter circle or a canter pirouette. When you have just lost it, that’s a bad time to think of it!

Riding through the potentials of a problem before it ever crops up – testing the validity of the relationship with your horse constantly — is the way to prevent such problems from surfacing unexpectedly.                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

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