Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Dressage doesn’t have to hurt to be right

Like most eventers, I think of dressage as the icky wall of fire that I have to pass through to earn entrance on to the cross-country course.  Or maybe it’s just me.  Anyway, this weekend we did a sort of mini-clinic with USDF Certified Instructor Camilla Fritze at the gorgeous Whitethorne Ranch up in Somis that may change my mind about dressage.  It was - dare I say it? – actually a lot of fun!

The two days were terrific, with Camilla taking the time with both Carolyn & I to work out whatever issues we had picked for the day.  Day one was naturally the most interesting.  While Junior had a brief turn out on Friday & Sat before we left, due to high wind/faint hearted mummy Reese spend Fri in his stall and had a brief turn out on Sat.  All things considered, both boys were great, but it was the first time I’ve ever felt like Reese was running off with me!  I didn’t really think the tiny little dressage rails would keep him contained but ultimately we managed to stay in the arena.

Here’s some of the homework we took away from the weekend that we can continue to play with on our own:

Rhythm: Numero uno on that Dressage Pyramid thing and in Camilla’s lesson’s as well.  Establish your rhythm – key point, YOUR rhythm, don’t just follow the horse – and keep it no matter what.  The rhythm needs to match the horse’s stride so for a horse like Junior, who hasn’t learned to use his front legs yet, the rhythm might seem painfully slow until he figures his shoulders out.  Don’t assume that a faster rhythm will get you a better gait; it may just come off as rushy rather than more energetic.  It’s too bad that Garmin doesn’t make a watch that makes the tick of a metronome so people like me who are rhythmically challenged (you do NOT want to see me on the dance floor with less than 3 drinks in me) wouldn’t have to conquer genetics AND riding all in one fell swoop!

Don’t obsess about his head:  Trying to fake dressage by working with your horse’s head down when he really isn’t coming through doesn’t accomplish anything.  Camilla’s focus was on rhythm first and usually, eventually, once the horse kept a steady rhythm with equal, steady contact on both reins, they were more willing to work through their back and naturally lower their head to the dressage picture we all carry around in our heads. 

Turn the shoulder, not the nose:  Simple concept that I’m sure every instructor has tried to ingrain in me since I put a foot in a stirrup but somehow the way Camilla phrased it really made it pop.  I could give a little reminder “hello” with the inside rein if need be but for the most part, but focusing on turning the shoulder/feet and not the head I reduced (not eliminated – please!) the amount of times that I lost his shoulder in a turn. 

Sitting (or stepping) in: This sounds much easier than it is, but was pretty transformational for a horse like Reese, aka Captain Klutzy, who throws you to exactly the spot where he doesn’t want you to sit.  Trying to break it down in simple terms (‘cause that’s all I remember!) you want your outside seat bone over their outside leg, while putting weight in your inside stirrup.  You’re not leaning in (though sometimes it felt like it) but you should feel more pressure on the inner thigh of your outside leg.  (At least until you get used to riding this way.)  Make sense?  Think about it next time you ride and it might suddenly become clear. I had to think of it not just around the turns, but with every single stride, particularly on his oh so sensitive right lead.  It was amazing how much straighter it made him.  Which leads to…

The straighter the horse, the stronger the engine:  With his engine/hind end really behind us, Reese’s gaits felt even stronger and he was able to lengthen out just a little bit. 

The connection mystique:   While I wouldn’t go so far as to say we accomplished true connection by DQ standards, Camilla did make it easy to understand the feel of having your horse in both your reins.  Another one of those concepts that sounds easier than it is, but boy when you had it, the horses looked and felt like a million bucks.  Bottom line: you have to get the horse to accept both reins before any dressage magic can happen. 

Look straight ahead: Years of trying over come the beginner habit of looking at my horse’s ears has gotten me (and most of you out there if I had to guess) into the equally bad habit of looking too far ahead.  Every time I looked through his ears to maybe 5 or 6 strides ahead, the turns just flowed in perfect(ish) balance.  When I turned my head too early, I couldn’t help but throw my hips one way or the other and my little house of cards of balance/rhythm/ came crashing down.   As much a part of me as putting my heels down, this habit may prove to be a tough one to break, but it was really obvious how much of a difference it made.  

Staying in balance with your horse:  For me, this was actually one of the toughest concepts to wrap my head around.  Shoot, you’re in a jump saddle you lean a bit forward, you’re in a dressage saddle and you lean a little bit backwards, right?  If only life were that easy… Camilla pointed out the importance of staying in balance with your horse rather than slavish devotion to the idea of sitting upright for dressage.  Yes, your shoulders should always be open (or your collarbones opening up, or your spine pushed into your body, or your shoulder blades touching, however you need to picture it) but if your horse has fallen a bit on his forehand, go with him and slowly rebalance him.  Sticking with the sitting upright no matter what he’s doing only makes it harder to regroup and after all, this is a partnership like a dance, not a wrestling match.   (Ok, I came up that last little bit up as a way for me to think of it.  I sincerely doubt Camilla has ever seen a wrestling match, nonetheless referenced it in a dressage lesson!) 

And finally….

Intent:  It sounds weird and all new agey, but it’s amazing how much simply focusing your intention on what you want makes a difference.  Having a clear picture in my head of what I wanted made it easier for Reese, me or both of us to understand and therefore achieve the goal.  And while I may not always be able to police myself on whether I’m in rhythm, balance, sitting in or having him in both reins, I can control what my little pea brain is focusing on (mostly)! 

Thanks again to Camilla for a great weekend and the folks at Whitethorne Ranch who could not have been nicer.