Dressage For Dummies

April 10, 2009 at 9:44 am 2 comments

In my quest to not embarrass myself at this event thingy Klondike and I had our first dressage lesson last night.  Before going over it, I have to say that I was really excited this morning, because when I got up, I didn’t feel all that sore.  I thought it was a miracle.  However, one forty minute commute later, and I’m starting to feel it.  My butt muscles are feeling awfully strange, and my legs are not responding to my brain’s commands very quickly.

My dressage lessons in the past have been largely geared towards hunters, since that’s what I wanted to do with my own horse.  To some that might sound weird, but I love dressage and think it can make any horse better for any discipline.  So those lessons concentrated mightily on building the back, getting supple, and establishing a really good rhythm in all gaits.  And even those lessons would leave me a hopeless puddle, unable to straighten my legs and walk properly afterwards.

This was different.  Explaining that our goal is to get through a real dressage test, not just improve a hunter or whatever, Stef modified things a little more to get me in an actual upright seat, and ride like a real… dressage person.  She watched us warm up a little just to get a feel for Klon and how he goes.  I explained that the things we were having issues with largely related to going forward and doing good transitions.  He likes to be lazy and jog around like a western horse, and tends towards not maintaining his rhythm once we establish it.  I also mentioned he can get very “posey” with his head and neck, making you think he’s all round even when he’s not really accepting contact and not really using his back and hind end. 

After watching a little WTC in both directions, with my trying my darnedest to keep my hands soft and steady, and leg on, and everything else, I was already breathing pretty heavily, so I was delighted when Stef asked to get on so she could feel what was going on and give him a little intro to real riding. 

Klondike was almost immediately REALLY annoyed.  Stef is a wonderfully soft and rewarding rider, but she does expect horses to go forward and accept both leg and contact.  Klon put up a pretty good fight when she asked him to simply “give” at the halt, to each side.  Instead, he stuck his head waaaay up in the air and fought and fought and fought.  I’m not sure what he was thinking, since it’s much easier and more rewarding to just… turn the head to the side or accept contact.  He did figure that out eventually, but he didn’t really look happy about it.

Then Stef worked him around a little bit, with lots of half halts and lots of leg, and it’s pretty cool watching him tuck his butt down and use it more.  As he got more forward, he definitely was moving like a rock star.   He was still fighting contact a bit, but was holding himself much better and using his back much more, when Stef stopped and announced it was my turn again.

As much as I know I chose to take this lesson, and know I need to work on these things, it was with a little bit of whiny hesitation that I got back on.  I’ve experienced this pain before, but because we’re preparing to do an actual dressage test, I knew that it was likely to be a more physical and demanding sort of experience.  And of course I wasn’t wrong.

The first order of business was starting from the beginning- the halt.  I admit that the halt is not something I think about very often, besides the act of getting to the halt.  I’ve thought about the quality of it, for sure, but I’ve never tried to get a horse to “hold himself” at the halt.  If they’re standing square and not plowing down with their head, I’m pretty happy.  This time, however, Stef wanted him to accept contact, and also to lift his back and hold himself while standing perfectly still.  This was a new concept to me.  And it involved a LOT of leg.  No hand without leg, ever, right?  A couple times I felt the muscles underneath me engage, and saw the muscle at the base of his neck looking rather large, so I think that’s when we “got it.”  Of course, the massive amount of leg that took already had my legs aching, and we hadn’t even walked yet.

So her next command took me by surprise:  “I want you to T-R-O-T”

Immediately and unconsciously, I sort of loosened up on the reins in preparation and relaxed my upper back. “BAH!” 

oh dear.  That little habit of mine meant another three minutes of work at the halt, before attempting to t-r-o-t again, except this time I was NOT to give up the contact and I was to stay engaged.  We almost succeeded, except to be honest, at that point, I had no idea how to apply more leg than I was already applying.  I somehow managed it, which resulted in a sluggish walk transition instead of the trot I desired.  I was still with it enough to use my tools and got us quickly into a trot.

From there, much of the lesson is a total haze.  There was lots of “you are going forward, NOW!” and me trying desperately to keep my fingers closed and elbows at my sides at all times, to keep the contact consistent regardless of where his head was going. 

Then, it was time to canter, which normally feels pretty easy, but we picked up the wrong lead several times.  Stef gave me some instructions about lightening one of my hips and stretching down with my inside leg.  Unfortunately, my brain and body were having a really hard time processing how to do both at the same time… but we did manage to get a few decent transitions.  “Good! Yes!” is always nice to hear, but I still have no idea if I was lightening my hip properly or if I’d just gotten lucky. Stef is always liberal with praise, but half the time I’m so worn out at that point that I have little clue what I did to deserve it.  I tell myself I am developing a feel and doing the right things totally unconsciously, to make myself feel better about it.

At one point during all this, I found myself stretching really tall, feeling totally balanced with a good amount of contact going on.  I could feel his hind coming up underneath me, and suddenly, all the struggling of the previous thirty minutes was gone and everything felt really easy.  It made the whole thing worth it… but two strides later it was gone, and there was still at least another twenty minutes to the lesson.

When we switched to work in the other direction, I found I really couldn’t use my legs anymore.  They were starting to flop uselessly in the stirrups, and I kept losing those stirrups when I couldn’t keep my heel down anymore.  So I admitted weakness and took a break, pulling my knees up over the pommel to relieve the tension in my hips and outer thigh. 

When we started back up, I just gave up on the stirrups- they were useless to me at that point, and I needed to stretch my leg down more anyway.  We started the same way in this direction- at the halt, asking him to lift his back and accept contact.  Being more and more worn out, everything seemed much more impossible.  At one point, on a twenty meter circle, he bulged outward, wanting to stay on the rail.  “Outside aids!” shouted Stef, along with an incredibly smart-sounding explanation of why they were so important.  OK, I told myself.  Outside aids, outside aids.  With my outside hand and leg firm, I started another circle.  He still bulged outward.  “NOOO! OUTSIDE aids!”

Huh.  I really thought I was using them.  My nerves were tingling from my leg up to my brain saying, “yes, these muscles are in use!” but apparently I was actually sort of numb from the hip down, so my perception of the actual strength of that leg was a little… off.

Later, I was told that I was awfully rigid through my hips, and I needed to follow the motion more with my seat and lower back.  “Leg! But relax the hip and follow!!!”   OK brain… help here.  This means I have to use my leg, hips, and lower back completely independently of each other.  My body did not cooperate.  Keeping leg on and engaged, without tightening through my hips, was an exercise in near- futility, though I eventually managed it with a few tips on how to handle my upper body (which at that point was being neglected, since I was concentrating on my other parts).

Sometime later (I have no idea when, I lose track of time in a big way), it was all over- it was time for a long rein and stretching out, which Klon was VERY happy with, and then we were done.  Surprisingly to me, I was actually able to walk when I got off, though it seemed my legs were responding to my commands several seconds after the brain issued them.

I’m thinking positive, after a few more of these lessons, I think it will get much easier.  Right?  Klon earned some good treats, stretches, and then a generous scoop of my horse’s extra-fat feed.  He also seemed to recognize that the lesson was at least as hard on me as it was on him, and wasn’t holding it against me.

Saturday, after my track visit, if the weather’s good, it’s mosey-on-the-trails day.  We both need it!


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Who Stole Spring? Really?

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Adrienne  |  April 10, 2009 at 10:58 am

    Oooh I so wish I could have a Stef lesson! I love them so, especially the hurty the next day. I know exactly what you’re talking about too, I can hear her voice in my head yelling “OUTSIDE AIDS!!” lolol

    I’m so excited for yoU! I can’t wait to see pictures =))))

  • 2. jessicamorthole  |  April 13, 2009 at 7:32 am

    Totally laughing! Dressage is hard isn’t it especially on horses that are all OMG WTF is contact and leg combined together mean..it means stick my head up like a giraffe and run right??? It doesn’t… well that it must mean come up with every other evasion possible until my rider gets so tired they give up.

    I looked at my dressage pics from the show and I totally need dressage boot camp asap!

    Can’t wait to see the new and improved Klondike..well once you can walk again 🙂


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