Saturday, November 19, 2011

Visualizing Dressage!

My daughter, Jen, has a t-shirt that lists the top 10 things about eventing. One of them is that "eventually dressage and show jumping will go away," leaving just cross country!
While that is wistful thinking, it isn't going to happen...if you want just cross country, there are eventing derbies and fox hunting to give you that. Without dressage, while eventers moan about it, is a necessary evil to eventing...that test of training and response on the first day is what makes a great eventer responsive and in tune with his rider on the cross country course.
Even when I was a teenager and didn't know anything about dressage, I still knew that it was important to ride my horse on the flat. I had a hot headed grey jumper, a Perch-QH-Arab cross by the name of Sir Tally. I bought him in his late teens for $800, and he had alot of baggage that came with him...he could jump, but his nick name was Silver Streak. It didn't matter what type of bit we used....kimberwickes, pelhams (God, I hate double reins!), elevators, gags....nothing mattered. Finally, in desperation and frustrated by my lack of control in the show ring, I turned to flat work. No jumping for 6 months. Instead, we did leg yields, circles, transitions and more transitions. When we showed up at our first horse show in a snaffle, at least five people asked if I had lost my mind...after we rode our first course in a cool, calm and controlled manner, everyone was asking what I had done! It was a proud moment for me, and a major turning point in my riding career. I suddenly realized, that any horse can go in a snaffle, if properly trained with flat matter the chosen discipline of the horse.
In eventing, a good dressage score is the opposite of traditional dressage, where the good scores are high...60's, 70's and 80's. Few achieve scores in the 90's. In eventing, the good scores are low. Low 30's is the norm. A few break into the 20's. Jen would pretty much always score in the low 30's, and it was a difficult task to achieve those scores on her hot Thoroughbred mare, yet she made it look so easy. In upper level eventing, such as Rolex, scores average in the 40's and 50's.
Tuckers first horse trial earned us a 38. Not great. It was ok. His conformation, with his short thick neck, makes bending at the poll difficult. We constantly struggle with this. Our next outing, last month at Rocking Horse (see post about the fire breathing dragon!), was horrible...the first cold front of the season meant I was happy to just keep him within the dressage ring without jumping out, or bucking along the way. It was a disastrous 42. Clearly not the direction we were hoping to head in.
The week before that event, I had taken a lesson with Bruce Patti of Adagio Farm. After complimenting my hands and seat, Bruce immediately pinpointed what I needed to work on: getting Tucker more uphill, creating smoother transitions to the walk and getting him to flex through the poll.
Bruce is a visual instructor. I like that. Having images to compare my movements to really helps me. For the transitions to the walk, he told me to imagine that we were about to crash into a padded wall. The impact would result in Tucker doing a boing-boing-boing movement. In other words, when asking for the walk, don't let all the energy dissipate, resulting in a boring, flat walk. Instead, move into the walk and keep the momentum, resulting in a bouncy, forward and animated walk. Now, when I do my down transitions, I simply imagine that padded wall in front of us!
For his heaviness on the forehand, Bruce wanted me to try different half-halts than I was already doing. He wanted them quicker but stronger, so he instructed me to visualize coming down a hill at the gallop, with a log jump at the bottom. Such a ride would entail strong half-halts to get the horse collected and on his haunches, ready to make the jump. So now, when Tucker is starting to get strung out and too heavy on the forehand, I give him the necessary half-halts, just as I would if we were about to approach that jump at the bottom of a hill.
The other instruction I got from Bruce was to increase the transitions. Constantly be changing gaits to keep Tucker guessing what was coming next, which would aid with the bending and flexing as well as getting him off the forehand.
We practiced these every ride and at the next lesson, last week, Bruce commented that it showed that I had taken his instruction to heart and was practicing. "Why wouldn't I?" I spend good money for someone's advice and then not follow it would be a waste of money.
We worked more on the bending as well as learning to do a rein back and ask for a canter. I had never done a rein back into a canter. Again, a visual example: imagine that I am asking Tucker to move forward, but there is a closed door and the only way to move is to go backwards. Keeping him round and supple, he must take a few steps backwards, then stop and immediately proceed into the canter. We need more work on that task! We were able to keep him round and collected, and a few movements got him getting the hocks under him and pushing off, but he was a bit confused and Bruce instructed me to work on this task only in lessons for now, so as to not further confuse Tucker. Our take home work included more transitions and doing 6-8 meter circles with the inside rein leading wide out...."like a witch stirring her cauldron"...yet another visual image....and then to ask Tucker to leg yield on the bend. Bruce explained this is something that he would not instruct a beginner to do, and doesn't use this method often, but with Tucker's conformation, he feels this will help with the flexing. "Anyone other than a reiner may question why you are doing this, but don't worry about what people think" he said. We also lengthened my stirrups and worked on my position at the sit trot...less up/down and more sliding with my seat bones forward and back, like a snow skier. It is a challenge doing this in an all purpose saddle, but Bruce kept encouraging me to allow my calf's to stretch down and keep my knees away from the saddle blocks.
Our lesson today was more challenging. Bruce is asking us to raise the notch a level, and let me say, I am ready for the challenge! Lots of leg yields with more outside rein support, doing our small circles with leg yields, and reinbacks into the canter. Tucker is a tough cookie with his stiffness to the right. We have our work cut out for us, but I say, bring it on! I want to be competitive come January at the Longwood South Horse Trials..with $20,000 in prize money...yes, you read that right, I want to come home with some of that loot!
I can't wait for next week's lesson!

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