Monday, January 30, 2012

What Is Dressage?

I recently went to a clinic put on by a friend of mine.  It was a clinic for "beginning" dressage riders, people who are just getting started in the sport.  During the lunch break, there was a discussion about the challenges faced by people trying to break into the sport.

I was surprised to hear how many people had difficulty finding a trainer to teach beginners.  I was even more surprised to hear how many thought, or had been told, that they couldn't do dressage at all on the horses they had, or that they would need to buy an expensive Warmblood to be "competitive" in the sport.

First of all,  if anyone tells you that you or your horse can't do dressage, then they don't know what dressage is!  Secondly, if you're riding dressage just to be "competitive" and win ribbons, you're in it for the wrong reasons.  Dressage is not about winning or losing.  Dressage is about the horse.  The horse doesn't care if he wins a ribbon, he doesn't care about the score and he doesn't care who thinks he's not going to be good at dressage.  Dressage is about making a horse better.  Whether you're making him better in the dressage ring, over fences, chasing cows or on the trail doesn't matter, if the horse is getting better then you're doing it right.

Realistically, any horse, barring injuries or illness, can do a Prix St. George test, regardless of breed, sex, religion or creed.  The horse might not ever win a Prix St. George class, but he can do it.  Anyone who tries to tell you any different is ignorant.   I don't care if that person is an Olympic Gold Medalist, if they say "You can't do dressage on that horse", then they don't know anything about dressage.  And, yes, I know there are professionals out there who say that exact thing.  And I know that those professionals are out there showing and winning and they have barns full of students, but that doesn't mean they really know what dressage is.

So, what is dressage?  Dressage is sore muscles and lots of time.  Dressage is tears of frustration when you don't get it and giddy joy when you do.  Dressage is that addictive feeling of connection with a horse.  Dressage is watching your horse grow and blossom into a true partner, and knowing that you created that partnership.  Simply put, dressage is a good horse.

And, for all those out there who are trying to break into this sport, don't get frustrated or give up if you meet resistance.  And don't ever think you can't do it.  If you meet a naysayer, just file that person away in your mind as someone who just doesn't get it.  If you have a trainer who says you can't do it, find a new trainer.  There are trainers out there who understand what dressage really is, you just have to find them.  I know a lot of good trainers, and that isn't just dumb luck.  It was me getting myself out there and talking to people, surrounding myself with people who "get it" and casting aside the ones who didn't.  It took time and effort, but it was worth it.

Spider, going down the center line at his very first dressage show ever.   Most people didn't think he'd make it very far in dressage, and I'm glad I didn't listen.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Good Weather, For January...

Why do they stand out in the rain when they have stalls?

The snow melted and it's warm again.  It's actually 60 degrees here today.  We had quite a bit of rain this morning, but it seems to have cleared now and the puddles are drying.  It's shaping up to be a pretty nice day.

This week has been pretty full, training wise.  Well, full of riding days, anyway.  I've decided that this winter, because of the inconsistent weather, I'm just doing the basics with Spider.  That means transitions, mostly, with some leg yields thrown in here and there.

My "decision" was sparked by a conversation I had earlier this week.  A friend of mine asked me how my changes were coming along.  I honestly haven't touched them in over a month.  We've had warm days, followed by freezing cold and wind or torrential rain and that's really made my ability to stay on task difficult.  I can't practice my "tricks" when the footing's sloppy, I don't like practicing the tricks when it's windy, and I can't really ask Spider to perform like that if he's just coming back from three days off because of bad weather.  So, it's been mainly conditioning work and transitions this winter.  And, even though we're not doing anything exciting, Spider feels better than he ever has.

Although this is the first time I've ever trained a horse this far myself, I've watched many others train horses to the higher level work over the years.  Many riders make the mistake of going straight for the tricks once they pass 2nd level, then drilling them over and over.  Many riders also end up doing quite poorly once they pass 2nd level, even though their horses can do all the tricks.  The tricks are not the goal of the higher level work, collection is the goal.  And drilling the tricks won't develop a horse's collection, because the tricks come from collection.  Collection comes from transitions.  Transitions are boring as hell, but there's no way around them.

Transitions are also the reason Spider feels better than he ever has, despite the fact that we aren't working on a single new thing.  The work we have been doing has created a horse that is strong and fit, but still light and responsive off my aids.  I have the utmost confidence that the tricks will be there when I ask for them.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Check This Out...

I've just come across a great new blog:  Equine Biomechanics.  It's written by Dr. Sian Lawson, who has a PhD in biomechanics. So far, there's only six posts, but all six are fascinating reads.  Head on over to check it out and give Dr. Lawson some encouragement to write more!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Coping With Winter

Winter has finally decided to settle in here, bringing snow, sleet and ice.  Prior to this icy development I was still riding my horse regularly.

I've developed coping strategies for the cold weather.  I wear layers of clothing, plus lined gloves.   Spider wears his thick fleece quarter sheet.  And we drink wine.  Not a lot of wine, of course.  I certainly do not advocate getting drunk and then trying to ride your horse, but Spider and I do like to have a little nip to get the blood flowing.  We split a glass between the two of us:

Sharing is caring.
I couldn't get a good picture of it, but Spider sticks his tongue in the glass and laps it out like a dog.  Clever boy.  Unfortunately for me, this method leaves a lot of horse slobber in the glass:

This is why I drink my portion first.

I would love to say that I was riding in the freezing cold because I have a strong dedication to the sport, but actually it was much more mundane than that.  I had taken the horses off the pasture and put them in the dry lot in an attempt to preserve my grass.  The grass isn't growing right now, but the horses are still eating it.  If I didn't pull them off, they would eat my pastures down to nothing.

The down side is that the pastures keep them busy and moving (particularly Spider).  When confined to the dry lot, the horses start to get bored and fidgety (particularly Spider).  A bored, fidgety Spider is a generally unpleasant Spider, so he must be worked religiously any time he is confined to the dry lot.  The dry lot, by the way, is about half an acre.  It's not like they're really "confined".  They're just spoiled.

Unfortunately, snowy conditions have prevented any riding this weekend, so I had to turn the horses back out into the pasture.  It was either that, or deal with a bored Thoroughbred.  I don't really need to preserve the grass in the pastures, anyway.  I can just re-seed in the spring.  Re-seeding is much easier than entertaining a Thoroughbred.  

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Slacker's Guide to Warm Ups

Warming up a horse is undeniably the most important part of the ride.  It's also the most difficult.

It's hard to figure out just exactly how to warm up.  Horses are all different, riders are all different.  Really, with horses, every day is different.  Every trainer I've ever known has a different "system" for warm-ups.  I'm not clever enough to come up with a system, though.  I suppose that's why I'm not a trainer!  I just cheat.... I let the horse tell me how to warm up.

Generally, I like to start off every ride with a brisk walk on a loose rein with many changes of direction and a couple leg yields.  This walk gives me time to establish the idea of "forward" while still stretching the horse.  It also gives me time to stretch my own muscles, establish my proper position and ponder what I want to work on in this ride.  Most importantly, it gives me time to assess what my horse feels like.

If he's feeling sluggish, we start our work with many quick walk-trot transisitions to get him fired up.  If he feels stiff, we stay at walk and focus on leg yields and turns on the forehand before moving on to trot work.  If he feels tense, we usually do some canter before trotting (this works well at shows, too).  And then there are days like we've been having......

It has been cold here.  I mean cold cold.  And windy.  In the cold and wind, my horse turns into a fire breathing dragon.  It's a combination of tense, stiff and psychotic with a helping of way too much energy on the side.  So, the warm up has changed a bit.  Rather than a brisk walk on a loose rein, we start in a brisk trot with contact.  Rather than transitions, we do many changes of direction.  We continue in this manner until I feel his energy start to lag, then I put him to work.  I end the ride with stretching trot and a brisk walk on a loose rein. 

Some days, his energy never lags. I call those "cardio days".  On cardio days, we trot around until my energy lags, then call it a day. 

With the way the wind is blowing out there today, I suspect it's going to be another "cardio day". 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Play Day

While I have been working my horse of late, it has been mostly boring work.  Transitions, serpentines, etc... It's the meat of training, but it can also get absolutely mind numbing.

Today when I got on Spider I could tell he was just not feeling up to the work.  He was sluggish and, while compliant, there was none of his usual willingness.  His "spark" was gone.  I thought maybe he was sore, since we worked on collection yesterday, so I chalked his resistance up to that and decided we would have an easy day.

At the east end of my arena there is an entrance to a trail that winds through the woods behind my house.  It isn't very long or interesting, but it leads to the neighbor's hay field, where I take Spider for gallops sometimes.  As soon as we turned onto that little trail, Spider perked right up.  By the tilt of his ears and the spring in his step, I surmised that his sluggishness had little to do with soreness.  We went down the little trail and into the neighbor's hayfield, where Spider volunteered an exuberant hand gallop up and down the fence line.  No soreness there, he just needed a break!

I brought him back to the arena, but our hearts weren't in arena work.  I took him for another little gallop alongside the driveway.  My driveway runs straight out from the arena and is pretty long, with a nice grassy easement alongside of it.  At the end is a big tree.

We galloped down the grassy easement to the end, then I pulled him up into a nice little collected canter around the tree, then let 'er rip back up!   When we got to the end, I collected him up and cantered him through the bushes and back into the arena.

We were quite pleased with ourselves after that little romp, but now we were back in the arena.  Luckily, I realized (being the conscientious horseman that I am) that we had only gone around the tree in left lead.  Obviously, we needed to gallop back down the driveway and go around the tree again in right lead.  So as to properly work our muscles and all.  We repeated our gallop down the driveway and around the tree in right lead, and ended up in the arena again.  Now what?

Well, there is another little trail at the other end of my arena, but it's really boring so we never take it.  It just leads straight out to the road and, after Hurricane Irene, it's mostly blocked by downed trees.  But, we were just having so much fun, I decided to take it anyway.  The first downed tree is in the beginning of the trail, but it's fairly easy to negotiate. 

On a lark, I decided to see if Spider would jump it.  I kicked him up to trot and pointed him at the tree....

Now, let me just say here that my jumping education is rather lacking.  I have had a few jumping lessons, but they were many years (and many, many beers) ago.  Also, today I was riding in my dressage saddle.  Oh, and I was riding in my super stiff dressage boots and in a double bridle.  In short, we were not really set up for jumping.  But, we were having a "play day", and we were having some fun, so I gave it a try!  I figured he would probably just refuse.

Spider trotted right up to that log as brave as can be.  Then, in a feat of athleticism that I honestly did not know he was capable of, he snapped his legs up and trotted right over the log.   Seriously.  He never hesitated or missed a beat.  That log is 18 inches high.  I measured it.  And he trotted over it.  Oh, he is a dressage horse!

We continued down the path until we got to a tree we could not safely cross.  Then we turned around.  As we approached the first log, the one Spider trotted over the first time, Spider picked up the trot and pricked his ears forward.  I allowed it, since we were having a fun day.  But then he was aiming for the highest part of the log,  which I rather doubted he could trot over.  I started to correct him, but he resisted.  Not in a defiant or nasty way.  He was just like, "Relax, I got this."  I decided to trust him, and I went with it.  As we approached the highest part of the log (nearly 2 ft, I measured!),  I stood up in my stirrups, stretched myself over his neck and took a nice, light grip on my reins.  And my boy tucked up his legs and popped me over that log like it wasn't even there.   We landed on the other side gently (so gently that this dressage rider's seat was not ruffled in the least) and cantered off down the trail. 

Spider was quite pleased with himself.  I could feel that in his demeanor: swinging back, lofty legs, collected even on a loose rein.  And he had reason to be pleased with himself!  He had hauled me, a novice jumper at best, over that 2 ft log like it was nothing.  He trucked me over it like it was his job!

Of course, at one time jumping was Spider's job.  Spider was a jumper before I bought him.  I'm told he went up to 4 ft.  But, he hasn't jumped anything in nearly seven years because, well... I'm a dressage rider.   I don't jump.  I don't even own the correct equipment.

I must say, Spider surprised me today.  We spend a lot of our time in the arena, I didn't know he had it in him to leap over trees in a single bound!  I'm glad I decided to trust him today, and let him show me what he could do.

I think maybe I'll even take him to one of the local Hunter Paces this spring and see if he likes it.

Trust is a two way street.  I ask for his trust every day, but how often do I give him my trust?  How often do any of us let go and give our horses our trust?  We spend countless hours training them, instilling the cues and obedience in them... but do we ever just let go and let them show us that they're listening?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


The holiday season is the most un-inspiring season for my blog, I think.  I'm not working on anything new because of time constraints.  The winter holidays are the one time during the year I make an attempt to be social.  Social with other human adults, that is.  My everyday life is filled with socialization: two young children, three horses and twenty or so ducks and chickens... how is that not social?  But, during the holidays I do try to actually do things with other grown-up human beings.  Which is taxing, mostly because it leaves me little time to play with my horse.

However, in one of my off-farm ventures, I had the opportunity to audit a Lendon Gray clinic.  Lendon is a superb clinician, particularly for those riding the so called "off breeds" (aka: non-Warmbloods).  She made a name for herself riding Thoroughbreds and ponies and is a great supporter of the idea that dressage is for every horse. 

I suppose I could have ridden in the clinic, but I already have a trainer that I like.  He knows me and my horse, he knows our story together.  Besides, auditing really provides more bang for your buck.  I was able to watch Lendon Gray, an Olympian, train ten different riders and horses for thirty bucks.  Not bad! 
I think, really, no trainer or clinician is re-inventing the wheel.  We are all working on the basic ideas that were set down by our earliest ancestors.  I read Xenophon's work, written down around 400 BC, and I see in it the same ideas we adhere to now.  And Xenophon even quotes an earlier influence in horsemanship, Simon, whose works are lost to history.  We are just not working with new ideas, here.

Every trainer should really have the same thing to say: the basic tenants of horsemanship are not really that different regardless of discipline.  The main difference between the trainer you love and the trainer you don't use is in how they communicate with you, the rider. 

And that is why I'm such a huge fan of auditing clinics.  All these trainers are saying the same thing, and I have already found the trainer who speaks to me best.  But, for a fraction of the cost, I can sit and listen to these phenomenally educated people train other horses and riders.  And, in watching them do this, I develop my eye for a horse and rider.  That "eye" can only help me become a better rider.

And, even if the trainer in question turns out to be a total nutter, you still get a valuable lesson.  And, believe me, I've been to see some nutters, but I still was able to watch a number of horses and riders do their thing.  I was able to see their reaction to the instruction and formulated my own opinions on what should be done.  Sometimes, the most valuable lessons are the lessons in "what not to do"!  And, now I know to never ride with that clinician.  Priceless!

Of course, Lendon Gray is not someone I would count as a nutter.  She's tough, that's for sure!  But, also fair and well-rounded.  She understands horses and horsemanship, embraces other disciplines and does not discriminate against horse or rider.  She is also excellent at speaking to the audience, which makes auditing her clinics a real treat. 

I did not take home any huge revelations from auditing the clinic.  I did not expect to.  What I got was a chance to observe ten horse and rider pairs with the commentary of someone who is not only an Olympian, but also the trainer of National Champions and Olympians.  I watched the horses go, thought about what I would do with that situation, then listened to what Lendon had to say.  What Lendon said and what I would have done weren't always the same thing, and I gained some perspective and some new exercises to try.

I kind of feel bad.  I only paid 30 bucks.  Poor Lendon got cheated.  ;)


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