There’s not much that’s more boring than a ride recap in which I just write “yep, went pretty well” for a couple of paragraphs. For the first stretch of time in a long time, my rides are going pretty damn well. It’s a perfect combination of regular lessons, a horse in great physical condition, my renewed commitment to physical fitness and presence, and a couple of small revelations all clicking together at the same time.
That said, my horse still can’t really canter on the bit, so obviously it’s pretty far from perfect. Here are three things we’re working on right now in our dressage schools.
1. Accessing the hind end independent of the front end.
First and foremost, this has implications for lateral work. It’s part of getting him to be more supple and responsive. I can do a somewhat acceptable leg yield and shoulders in without fine control of his hind end. I cannot hope to get beyond that. I started playing with haunches in yesterday and it was not pretty.
It’s both a frustrating problem and an interesting puzzle to work on. It’s a lot of thinking for me, requiring a much higher degree of communication through my seat than I have been used to, as well as more subtlety of aids than I have trained my horse to respond to. That’s the tough thing about being 99% responsible for your horse’s training: no one to blame but yourself.
So I am struggling to do things like ask him to step through with his inside hind from the saddle, and to do different things with his hind end than his shoulders might be pointing toward. Moving against the bend is a big red flag what is even wrong with you, mom? See also, haunches in. Most of our problems in that can be boiled down to being totally unwilling to step under with his hind end in a new way.
2. Transitions, transitions, transitions
I’ve been hitting these hard lately, particularly the trot to canter. Halt to walk, walk to trot – not perfect, but I can get them soft and through with some level of consistency. Slowly, slowly the trot to canter is starting to shape up.
I like the longe line for this, particularly with side reins or the chambon. Once I’ve got him responsive and quick off the aids, I ask for a trot to canter. I praise him for transitions in which he pushes up from his hind end, through his back & withers, even a little bit. Transitions in which his neck goes vertical and he lurches his whole body upward via his shoulders get an instant back to the trot and then another swift try. His reward is thus both loud praise – which he does respond to on the longe – and a brief respite from doing transitions.
I’m also working on downward transitions, specifically not quitting on them. I’m trying to make them true transitions and not just a drop down, carrying over energy and softness, and using a higher gait to invigorate a lower gait. This has been working particularly well in canter to trot, and my most successful strategy has been patience: waiting for the right moment to ask, usually on a long side after a good, deep, bending corner.
3. Bend to straight and back again
Everyone has lessons they’re always re-re-re-re-re-learning. Forward is my core one. I’ve added a new lesson to that list: the phenomenal improvement in Tristan’s way of going by focusing on moving between a deeper bend and a true straightness.
The best example of this is coming down to a short stride: I ask him to stay straight and then for a deep bend to make a true, directed corner instead of just shaving off the corner and making a sort of oval. Then I aim for 2-3 strides of a straight, uphill gait on the short side, then another deep corner.
A slightly different variation of it is on a 20m circle. Points of the compass get a stride or two of deeper bend, and curves get more straightness. (Obviously not complete straightness, but more of the dressage definition of straightness.)
If I focus on this hard, really follow up and work those feelings of bend and straightness through his whole body, keep him soft and reaching for the bit through it? 10 minutes of this work is like magic for him. It’s like a giant, half-ring-sized half halt that’s easier for him to process and makes him ever so much more supple and more willing to respond to what I’m asking going forward.
Are there any things you’re particularly picking apart right now?