"The horse is always right"
When there is a challenge or a seeming obstacle in the training, the horse usually has a point to make. It may be that he misunderstood our request because he wasn't straight when we made the request. Or maybe we weren't clear enough in our aids. Or maybe a previous rider explained it differently or failed to follow through on some aspect of the training. Either way, it is easy to believe that a particular horse is "naughty" or taking advantage. But there are very few truly malevolent horses, and even those probably have a story related to human error. So I always ask myself what I am missing when behavioral issues or difficulties arise.
Most often I need to simplify and go back to basics. I have found this patient approach to be the best especially with the most challenging horses. For example, a horse who evades or fights the contact often benefits from spending some time on the lunge line in side reins. Letting go of expectations or timelines of progress is often necessary. It takes as long as it takes. If the basics are missing, the work ahead will be difficult at best.
During show season, especially a week or two before the show, it is important to school in a way that prepares you for test riding. That doesn't necessarily mean you drill the test. But practice movements and transitions in a way that ensures the test movement is great. For example, if you have a 1st level horse you will be careful to avoid riding canter to trot transitions at the end of the long side, because that would accidentally suggest this transition when you instead want to come back to working canter after a lengthening. In the lengthenings themselves, ride 2 or 3 lengthenings on each long side (in canter, or diagonal in trot) with a couple steps of the working gait in between. This will ensure you can half halt and rebalance the horse during the lengthening as well as make an easy transition back to working canter. And to school the change of lead through trot across the diagonal, vary where you ask for the transition to trot. If you always ask at X, the horse will start anticipating the transition and fall out of the canter early in the test.
“Riding a horse is not a gentle hobby, to be picked up and laid down like a game of solitaire. It is a grand passion. It seizes a person whole and once it has done so, he/she will have to accept that his life will be radically changed.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
As dressage riders, most of us are captivated by the will to improve our skills and by the joy of riding itself, which drives us to ride as much as possible. Yet many riders have busy lives and occasionally riding takes the backseat. Meanwhile the desire to move up the levels is still there. It was cold over winter and you took a few months off? Many think they can dust off their boots and pick up the training where they left off, but unfortunately the horse will not have the fitness he had when the temperatures drove you indoors. Moving up the levels requires an incredible amount of strength and fitness on the part of the horse and rider. So time off means starting the fitness training up again slowly to avoid injuring your horse. And just like any athletic training, 5-6 days/week is essential to progress. What if your schedule just doesn’t allow for that much riding? Should you give up? Not necessarily. A trainer can help keep your horse fit and progressing. Or if you can’t afford that option you may be able to find someone to half lease your horse and help keep him fit. Meanwhile, your goals and expectations of your own riding will need to be adjusted to fit your lifestyle. Many riders enjoy focusing on the basics and bonding with their horse when they have the time. Each of us has to find a system that works for our individual lifestyle. Regardless of the intensity of your riding career, we are all truly changed by our contact with these noble beasts!
July 2016 by Jennifer Grant
Do you have a nagging bad habit that your trainer is repeatedly reminding you to fix? We all have some bad habits and they tend to die hard. Here is a simple way to begin replacing it with the new correct habit. Remember it takes thousands of repetitions to create a new habit. So, each time you pass a letter in the arena, you can repeat a phrase that suggests the new habit. For example, if you tend to lean to the right, as you pass each letter, your mantra may be "sitting in the middle." Most riders have a few position issues that stand out, so a mental checklist of these items can be helpful in correcting them. At each letter a quick review of the checklist can go a long way in creating new positive habits. A sample checklist might be: sitting in the middle, connected on both reins, bending off the inside leg. Similar checklists which address the primary elements of each movement can be helpful too. For example, in shoulder-in, your checklist might be: bending from the inside leg, outside hind contained, maintaining impulsion. If you are new to the sport, or struggle with multitasking, keep it simple and begin with just one item. Once you see some improvement on the most important item, such as balance or alignment issues, then you can move on to more refined issues. Sometimes we have to pick our battles and your instructor can help you decide which issue to start with. It is easy to get overwhelmed with so many things needing improvement. And even if you are normally good at multitasking, keeping it simple will take you farther than trying to address everything all at once.
July 2016 Jennifer Grant