Dressage for Dummies

Finally, finally, after weeks of waiting on an abscess to heal, weather to clear up, and finding the time, I finally got to ride Johnny. I haven’t been completely out of the saddle–I had a couple of lessons in between, but poor Johnny hadn’t had a job to do in nearly a month. He was showing his frustration, too. He’s eaten Dad’s shooting bench, chewed the fence, and started cribbing.

So, yesterday, I saddled up an eager Johnny, and down the road we went. I’ve been studying classical dressage in addition to my lessons, and so for our 15 minute walk to my neighbor’s arena, I worked on maintaining consistent contact with his mouth–not an easy task on a thoroughbred off the track. He knows just how to turn his head to the left or right, creating a loose rein on that side. Shortening the reins too much causes him to duck behind the bit or come above it, so I worked on using my legs to push him forward every time he tried to evade the contact.

When we entered the arena, I started off on 20 and 30 meter circles, staying off the rail. It was muddy near the rail, and we need to work on circles anyway. I started applying the new flexion method that my dressage instructor had taught me. To the left, it worked like a dream–flexing him three strides in a row every time his inside hoof was on the ground. He’d give in to the contact, round up his back, and we’d carry on for a few strides before I’d have to ask for the flex again. To the right, he fought gamely at first, but when he realized I’d only outsmart his evasion and continue to hold for flexion, he gave in. So then we tried it at the trot. Needless to say, our circle started looking more like random shapes, but I was focused on getting him to give and flex and round his back. I didn’t care if our 10 meter circle looked like a diamond. And this is where it got really interesting. Johnny has a tendency to rush as the circles get smaller or I ask him to do something that challenges his balance. So, before he’d give, he’d be flying at the trot–his legs moving as fast as lightning. But, when he gave in, he’d push from his hind, and his trot felt like it should. Unfortunately, he’s also out of shape, but at one point, I got a very nice Western jog–not the shuffling, lazy jog you see in the show ring, but the impulsive, pushed jog with that moment of suspension that you can ride all day long. His back came up beneath me, and I could literally feel the drive from his hindquarters as his hind legs pushed him forward the way they’re supposed to. Of course, this only lasted a few strides since it was very hard work, but it was a few strides we’d never gotten before. I was ecstatic. All this hard work resulted in Johnny getting rather lazy, so we did some trot-walk-trot and walk-halt-walk transitions. I made a mental note to spend an entire ride on those. However, Nan’s ‘step’ lesson made a big impact there. Our downward transitions were much cleaner with less rein action, and I tried not to collapse my upper body as I’m so prone to do.

On the way home, I continued to ride and not just let Johnny carry us back to the house. We did leg-yielding–resulting in a much more responsive Johnny, who is starting to realize that I am asking at the right time, and he’d better respond or he gets a sharp reminder. And, we did lengthening at the walk. I asked him to open up his stride and then come back, again, resulting in a sharper, albeit tired, horse. I’m always aware that we probably look like a drunken couple weaving back and forth across the dirt road. Strange enough for my neighbors to see one of ‘them fancy English riders’ on a giant 17.2 hand thoroughbred; even more strange to see us yielding back and forth across the road…

As I pulled the saddle off his back and checked for uneven sweat marks (finding mostly symmetrical sweat stains), I noticed his topline looked remarkably better. Much like a weightlifter’s body gets pumped after a good lifting session, Johnny’s muscles were engorged, and instead of being hollow-backed, I could tell he was using his abdominals to push his back up somewhat. I imagine it felt rather good to stretch his back up! Granted, he’ll be sore today, but he’ll get the next two days off since I can’t ride, so hopefully he’ll be ready to work again by Sunday.

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