If I only had a brain (I could remember what I learned)

With a sense of the clock ticking for both me and Finn (“Far Above Par”) – Finn being in his prime work years, and me being, uh, not so prime but still able to work sort of hard – we’ve been signing up for clinics and applying ourselves hard to the study of dressage.

That is, I have been applying myself hard: reading articles, watching videos, attending the World Cup, taking lessons. Finn goes along for the ride and will work for treats, bless his pony heart.

I worked hard, I've had my bath. Now feed me. I can't believe how slow and ineffectual my mom is about getting her chores done and getting to the important part of the day: LUNCH! How a pony suffers for his art.

I worked hard, I’ve had my bath. Now feed me. I can’t believe how slow and ineffectual my mom is about finishing her chores and getting to the important part of the day: MY LUNCH!              How a pony suffers for his art.

Finn continues to be an excellent schoolmaster, performing beautifully when asked approximately correctly (ha!), very safe and sane. A little occasional sluggishness is excusable as the price I pay for such safety and general good nature about putting up with my learning curve.

Finn and me working with Miguel Tavora

Finn and me working with Miguel Tavora – this looks like medium trot on a circle, I think. We did a lot of shoulder-in to medium trot that day.

Having moved barns to get to better, more consistent footing for training, I now have access to some new clinicians, too. What I’m finding comforting is that everyone pretty much says the same thing, with variations. These are the current challenges, as we continue our dressage journey and debut at 4th level this year:

  • Consistent uphill balance
  • Better engagement from behind
  • Consistency! Every transition clear, planned for, balanced
  • Maintaining balance all the time – through the extensions, transitions, corners, etc.

If I could do everything in that list,  4th level test 3 would become simple and I could just move on to Prix St Georges, right? RIGHT?

But we’re not there yet, no, not by a long shot…So, how to get from here (inconsistent) to there (balanced and consistent)?

Here’s what all the clinicians (and my trainer) are saying:

1) Don’t nag! Give an aid, get a response, get your leg off of him.  He must become very light to the leg and responsive to the seat as you go up the levels. You can carry a horse through lower level tests. Not so as you get higher. Things come too fast and the demands are too great. The horse has to carry itself and be responsive to your seat and your light aids. Train it to be so. Finn is happy to be trained to be either dull or responsive: my choice. And while I’d MUCH rather ride a responsive horse, it’s amazing how quickly I slip back into nagging and I dull him. This is my constant battle but I’m improving. I worked on activating the horse in January with another clinician and am STILL working on it. If you also struggle with this problem, you might find this article useful: (https://wordpress.com/post/75277491/496/)

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 7.31.24 AM

Look at me nagging! See that leg curled up with the spur pressing in? Disengages my seat, tightens my leg, and dulls his side. Not to mention my reins are too long and my hands too low, my eyes looking downward rather than ahead. I think I am posting here and that’s why I don’t seem to quite be sitting in the saddle.

The details matter. Where my leg hangs (closer to the girth vs too far back), how I use it and take it off. What kind of spurs I use. At my latest clinic, Miguel Tavora told me to get swan necked spurs instead of the Prince of Wales ones I currently use, because Finn is small and my leg is long. This will help me keep my leg long and off him rather than being tempted to have it curled up and pressed into him (as above).

Swan necked spurs. Useful for riding short horses if you have longer legs. These are the only spurs that you may wear pointing UP.

Swan necked spurs. Useful for riding short horses if you have longer legs. These are the only spurs that you may wear pointing UP

2) Keep your leg long and draped! Don’t grip. Open your hips. Sit soft and deep in the saddle. Do you know how difficult this is? Yes, I’ll bet you do. Especially on a pony. It actually IS harder on a pony. O.k., enough whining. I love my pony. I can and WILL do this. Let me recommend you start with a saddle that fits you (and your horse) well. This is impossible to do in an ill-fitting saddle. My saddle fits and I have no excuse.

3) Give forward with your hands – without losing the contact! This takes feel and timing. Keeping the horse on the bit, moving forward, and yet having a forward/giving feeling is a great feeing but I have to think about it. Otherwise I can tend to have a backwards hand which put the brakes on for the horse. Charlotte Dujardin is my role model here:Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 7.03.14 AM

Look at Charlotte – leg long and draped, hands forward and yet maintaining the contact. A teensy bit behind the vertical with her torso if we’re going to be nit-picky, but if anyone ever got such a nice picture of me, I’d blow it up into poster size and put it on my wall to say, “Look, I did it right for one brief shining moment!” She’s a lovely and effective rider.

When I practice with Finn these days, I have mantras running through my head: reins shorter and higher! Leg long! Don’t nag! Give him space, don’t hold with your hand (but don’t let him off the contact).

“Remember to reward often,” Finn says. We horses appreciate it.

All this and keep the horse and yourself in balance. Oh yeah, and memorize a couple of tests, too.

Dressage is for crazy people, don’t you agree? 

Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 5.06.04 PM

5 thoughts on “If I only had a brain (I could remember what I learned)

  1. First off, yes I DO agree that this sport is for crazy people. It feels incredibly challenging sometimes. Not to mention how weird to try to explain it to other people while still making it sound interesting 🙂
    I find my biggest problem is to give, WHILE having the contact consistent. Incredibly hard, I try to visualize, but then something else gets my attention. (Wait, here’s the corner! Transition to canter. No canter, not all out plow-through-gallop-like-a-bandwagon! Sit! Transition down!) And there goes the hands, holding back again…

    Loved this post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yep, I have a similar problem. Giving while maintaining an elastic contact. And still remembering to do all the other 1000 things I’m supposed to be doing at the same time. Not enough brain space, so then I start to just HOLD with my hands. Ick. Getting better, but progress is glacially slow. Or it seems that way sometimes. Nice to have equally crazy friends!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yep….the issue of not letting your horse off the contact but not hanging with your hands is a doozy. I struggle with this. My pony is an artist when it comes to evading–he has what I call an “accordion neck”, meaning he can squish it super short or make it super long at any given moment, so I feel like I need to be constantly adjusting my reins. He loves to bobble in and out of contact. It makes it very hard to find that “sweet spot” and maintain a soft connection. I know that this will come, but it’s hard to be patient and to not get frustrated on those days when it seems like he’s just messing with me! One this that works when I feel him pull on me or lock against my hand right before he pushes his nose out, is to give a quick, sharp yank on my outside rein and then to hold my elbows at my sides and not let him move my position. When I feel him give, I “float” my inside rein a little to say “Good, now hold yourself there by yourself.” It does help–he gets round and soft and carries himself for a while until the next time he decides to try to evade….


    • I agree this is a really difficult concept for horse and rider, one that Finn and I continue to work on. In the end, it goes from back (legs, and through a soft, engaged and not braced) back, to front, where the hands receive it. That doesn’t mean throw away the contact, which I can tend to do, trying to be soft. The hands have to receive it and sometimes to ask for softening by bending the horse (and of course bending happens through the body, too, and not just in the neck, but the hand can gently ask the horse to soften in the jaw). Lateral work, lots of transitions between gaits and within the gait (from collected to medium, etc.), and keeping my reins short seem to be helping me the most lately. It’s really hard for me not to let the reins slip through my hands…Riding is a continual challenge! For horses that struggle with the contact, lunging them in side reins (with no rider) a couple of times a week for maybe 15 minutes can help them get used to it and build some top line muscle. Just a thought.


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