Sunday, June 24, 2012

Skipping Levels

Drunk on my first experience inside the judge's box, and feeling frustrated by my inability to reliably conquer the simple changes, I have decided to skip 2nd level.

That's right!  I say to 2nd level, "Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!  Now, go away or I shall taunt you a second time!"  (I hope you guys get that reference, because if you don't I just look

I'm not doing this all willy nilly, either.  I have pondered it.  I have discussed it with others.  I have come to the conclusion that the 2nd level tests don't make much sense, I don't like them and I don't want to do them.  Spider already has a flying change, courtesy of his jumper training.  We have a haunches in, a shoulder in and volte.  We have the beginnings of half-pass.  There is absolutely no reason we should be schooling 2nd level ad nauseum.  It's time to move on.

I decided to break this news to my trainer a few hours before my last lesson via text (because that is really the best way to tell someone something they may not want to hear).  I figured he would not be in love with the idea, and he wasn't.

I got: "Fine.  Be prepared to school flying changes and half pass.  We will see if you change your mind".  Which seemed fine, that's what I wanted to do.  So I responded "Good, I want a challenge".

Then, a few minutes later, I got:  "Actually, let's school piaffe instead".

Figuring he was being sarcastic, I responded "Actually, I was thinking Spanish walk".  My trainer responded, "I wasn't kidding.  We're schooling piaffe".  And that's when I knew I was in trouble.

Now, we did not actually school piaffe.  He was just making me sweat (and sweat I did!).  What we did  was encourage Spider to engage.  I rode Spider at walk down the long side and he walked next to us with a whip.  As we went, I asked for more collection and he tapped Spider's hind legs with the whip.  It's the same method that is used to teach piaffe, but we weren't looking for actual piaffe steps.  Spider isn't ready for that, yet.  What we were looking for was more engagement.  Spider needs to bring his hind legs under him more.

Conformationally, Spider is a typical Thoroughbred.  His hocks are pretty straight, he does not naturally "sit down" behind.  It must be trained for him, more-so than with the "typical" dressage breeds.  But, I can't train it by myself without knowing what it feels like, hence the "piaffe training".

Spider has numerous conformational flaws. But the mud washes off.

Once I had the feeling, my trainer stepped back and we picked up the trot.  I took up a small circle around him, and he encouraged Spider with the whip.  He didn't touch him with it, he didn't have to.  Spider had the idea now.  But when Spider started to get strung out and I was having trouble fixing it, he would raise the whip a little to remind him.

So then Spider started with the tricks.  His major evasion is cantering.  And canter he did.  Every time I would ask him to sit down, he would canter.  And I'd have to bring him back and start over.  But it was a nice canter.  Oh, it was a nice canter!  And the trot was nice, too.  Because, engagement!

Eventually, we were able to move off a small circle and use the whole arena while still maintaining that level of engagement.  The transitions were balanced, the lateral work became soft and fluid, as though we were floating across the arena.  It was something to aspire too.

But, how do you get that engagement without having someone on the ground to encourage it?


  1. A couple of ideas - one, do lots of transitions (but you know that already). One of my favorites is to do trot to halt to back to trot - if you've got a proper back with softness this often does the trick.

    Second, do a turn on the haunches, perhaps a quarter or half turn - done properly it requires the horse to rock back, followed immediately by trot - Mark Rashid used this at the clinic with one horse and it worked like a charm.

  2. Lots of trot. Halt. Reinback. Trrrrot!!! Also turn on the haunches in trot creates engaged half steps. Trot, halfhalt/almost walk/trot on. Basically what Kate said - a lot of forward and back.

  3. You sound determined and will do this.

  4. wow! I think my brain would be fried let alone my ponies. Good luck to you!

  5. I think that is so cool!

    AND it makes sense. I understand that your trainer wants you to feel the balance that will be required for third level and that will not be a walk in the park, but why should you drill your horse to do simple changes when they are a stepping stone to flying changes, which he can already do? Besides, I bet he will be able to do the simple changes once he learns to sit down more. Sometimes you have to try something much more difficult and then the stuff you were trying before will be easier. I have felt this several times with my horse. He benefits from the same extra training to sit that you described for Spider.

    Lots of good advice about the transitions. I am going to add renvers. Makes them straighter and engages. Shoulder-in to renvers is one thing that I do like from the Second Level tests.

  6. Shoulder-in to renvers and shoulder-out to travers on a circle has been great for me. Should in to lengthening to collected trot to canter to working trot to lengthening to collected canter to lengthened canter.... Just switching between lengthened, collected, working gaits really has helped a lot for me.
    I refer to big gaits as "lengthenings" right now, though we basically have either medium or extended gaits as my TB just isn't built to do an easy lengthening - if he's engaged enough to lengthen more than his working gaits, it's not just a lengthening!
    Persistence and reward for the engagement. If your TB is like mine, he'll feel joy in the engagement. It turns out not nagging and allowing my horse to enjoy those gaits is reward enough to continue to encourage them! Now instead of really pushing for forward or upward, all I do is tighten my ab muscles to think of pulling together my rib cage - that's enough to shift my seat in such a way he just drastically increases his engagement and GOES, even if that GO is at a slow tempo in a collected gait - I call it finding his springs.
    Oh, and we get the half steps in the saddle, though typically not intentionally on my part. If I ask for him to bring his hind end under as I go to a trot but hold too much for him to really trot, we either get half steps or some version of piaffe/passage. Our TBs are so generous, I'm pretty sure that'll start to happen with you without you even meaning for it to happen! One big delay will be strength, and the other relaxation. I'm not how strong and soft he is over the topline, but for my horse those were the two pieces where he could not hold the engagement for too long, then one day I got on and he was just a different horse. All the pieces had worked together and since then he has moved differently with ease.
    Not me on him, and he consistently got behind the vertical mostly because he was overpowering himself with the hind end engagement (topline has since gotten stronger!) but you can see the back end really pushing:

  7. Good advice from all, I don't think I have much to add.

    As far as skipping levels...I rode second once with Toby and hated it as well, so I just moved up to fourth. Took a little work to get there but we did OK. (3rd didn't have the flying changes back then.)

    Some levels just don't ride well, just as some tests within a level don't always ride as well as others.

    Let me know when you are going to the Horse Park! (Riding 3rd, of course.)


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