I suppose I shouldn't have mentioned the cold last weekend. I haven't done much work at all this week. We got hit with an ice storm that lasted three days. I did get to spend last Monday teaching before it rolled in. I have a student who has spent the last 10 years raising and training her first horse, a Marsh Tacky that she got as a baby. She has done a phenomenal job with limited input, and no true formal instruction on a regular basis. Last fall she realized they had hit a plateau in their relationship. She loves trail riding, and he's fairly solid in the woods, but she started on a quest to try something new. We are on a journey into western dressage together. She has limited schooling space at her farm, and does most of her work in a 60 foot round pen. She will be competing at a Middleton schooling show next month. Dressage (western or classical) is a measure of a horse's willingness, riders communication, mutual suppleness, and dare I say it...GEOMETRY. Yes your middle school math teacher was right, even horse people need geometry. We have spent the last several weeks working on her riding position, his attention, and started flexion work all while trail riding in the woods. This week it became time to tackle the nitty gritty details that make dressage unique. This is the first time I have done this in such limited space. I broke our first lesson down into 4 exercises to introduce the basic concepts.
The first thing we worked on was maintaining flexion on a circle. We have introduced the basics of this in a straight line while trail riding, but it is actually far simpler to do with the bend of a circle. When a horse travels in a true circle with bend through his body the inside hind foot steps not straight forward, but actually up and under the center of their barrel. This allows them to lift their barrel/rib cage and come round over their top line. You can experience the drop right now. As you're reading this hunch your back like a turtle, and feel what is happening through your neck. You should be experiencing a desire to bring your chin to your chest.
The second skill we introduced was how to enter on a center line and stop square at "X". Halting square is a skill that the rider and horse have been working on in hand for several weeks. As I've mentioned before I don't believe in asking for anything from the saddle that hasn't already been mastered in hand. By working a horse from the ground first you minimize their confusion, as you can be very clear without being thrown off by their movement. Once a horse clearly understands a cue and movement, then we start asking from the saddle. I had to be a bit creative based on our limited space. I set up 4 corner cones, and we used our imaginations that dead center of the square was "X". The first couple of times our horse got quite crooked in his hind end when he would halt. We knew this had to be a result of rider error, as he halts very square in hand. We talked about what the rider was experiencing, and discovered that she was carrying some tenseness in her seat. This created a tense, sudden halt demonstrated by the horse's hip flipping out. We corrected this by working on riding to a halt. Our rider started planning her halt a few steps earlier allowing her to slow down her 5 word question to a step by step transition. Her words were "think woah, relax seat to sit deep, soft audible cue, seat getting heavy, and finally a touch of rein".
The third skill we worked on was how to ride a circle inside a square. This pair rides in a round pen regularly, so the rider felt this would be a fairly remedial exercise for them. However, when you take the rail away, and have to communicate from the saddle size and shape of a circle to your horse rather than the environment dictate it there are other considerations. We talked about how you can break the circle into 4 quarters and you ride each bend start and stop one cone to the next. It's important to not allow a bad quarter to carry into the next one. The first time they attempted a circle I marked the horse's footfall at the peak of the bend. We observed that they were carrying outside the dimension of the square. At test time this would result in touching or dare I say stepping over the arena rail. We worked on riding with more seat and leg with less rein to create a more natural relaxed bend to our circle. This is a tough skill initially to learn, as it's the first one that has to develop "feel" and awareness of arena presence in the rider. This is a skill that became part of their homework assignment for the next couple of weeks.
The final skill of the day was riding a diagonal line through the square. This skill started out very well. The rider and horse had a nice tight turn right at their marker to head in a beautiful straight line to the opposite corner. When they hit "X" the horse stared to lose forward momentum, and get crooked throughout his body. I asked the rider to do it again, but this time halt as soon as she was pointed up the diagonal. Once halted I asked her to describe what she saw. She talked about the driveway, the farmhouse, and the pasture in front of her. She then started up the diagonal. I again asked her to halt at "X". Now what did she see? Dirt, a cone, and arena rail. What had happened? She had dropped her eyes studying her "end point". Everyone of us has had a trainer tell us "eyes up" or "look ahead". This is not so much about being aware of obstacles or hazards, but is crucial in how it effects our seat and position. I do an exercise with every rider. While at a halt I reach up at their horse's shoulder and have them hold my hand. I ask them to look straight ahead and try to jerk them out of the saddle. Low and behold it's near impossible to do. I then repeat the same motion with them looking down at me maintaining eye contact with them. The result? I can unseat just about any rider regardless of body size. Again you can experience this sitting at home. Sit on a hard surface with your eyes straight ahead. How do your seat bones feel? Now drop your eyes. What do you experience through your spine and seat? When the rider rode up the diagonal the next time "feeling for the cone" and keeping her eyes up and her head on a swivel approaching the corner they had a beautifully straight line. (credit to Colleen Kelly for the shared exercise)
I know there is a lot of information in this article. In fact it seems perhaps I should write a book titled "Dressage in a round pen". If any of this is not clear please jump over to our Facebook Page. We'd love to answer/discuss any questions you have.