To ride dressage is to dance with your horse, equal partners in the delicate and sometimes difficult work of creating harmony and beauty.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Dancing with Debbie

Warning: If you came for stunning professional images like those Wendy takes, move along, folks. Me and my little point-and-shoot digital camera are just providing some "visual interest. :-)

Today I got up at o'dark thirty to audit a day of the Debbie McDonald clinic at nearby DevonWood. They had to start early in order to fit in all nine riders before Debbie had to dash off to make her flight for a clinic in Australia.

It was great to see riders on a range of Training Level through Intermediate II horses (all lovely warmbloods), and I really liked the way Debbie worked with each one (with one exception). And each horse knew, from its session the day before, that that little lady in the middle of the arena had sugar cubes for them!(This was the youngest horse in the clinic, a six-year-old gelding working at Training Level.)

The only horse I felt badly for was this lovely grey mare. She was being stiff and resistant with her rider, so Debbie got on (the first and only time she did so in the two-day clinic) and worked her. There were occasionally nice moments, but no real improvement. I was convinced early on that the mare was not having training issues, but some serious discomfort. I just wanted to stop the ride and plead with the owner to have the horse thoroughly examined by a lameness specialist like my husband (I strongly suspect neck issues).(I love this blurred image of Debbie and the mare in one of those nice moments!)

There weren't any "ah-ha" moments for me; when watching others go I can almost always see what needs improvement and have a pretty good idea of how to go about "fixing" it (not that I can always achieve it all in my own riding!). But it helps to get a firm mental image of the moving work of art I am trying to create with my horse. And while those images were fresh in my mind, I went right home and rode Russell. It was a good ride. :-)

On my way home I called and left my instructor a message. If I can find the time and money, I would love to get back to at least occasional lessons. When one rides alone all the time without so much as a mirror to check one's position, a multitude of evils can result. It's time for a check-up, now that Russell and I are dancing again!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Working at dressage

Today I got in our third ride of the week (bless the weather for clouding over and my husband for taking Brian with him!). At this stage of the game, I'm still getting Russell "legged up," or reconditioned, so it's easy to be a little lax in my riding, not using all my muscles the way I should. But I know better, and the "Instructor Spotlight" in the September issue of Dressage Today reminded me to be more conscious of the effort I must put forth. I heard once, "If you aren't working at least as hard as your horse is, you're not riding correctly." That statement gets blank stares or outbursts of disagreement from a lot of riders, but I think (I hope!) all dressage riders understand. I can't expect Russell to use his back and belly muscles correctly if I'm not using my core muscles correctly, and I can't expect him to try and maintain an uphill frame if I'm not "riding uphill," using frequent half-halts and supporting him with my leg. My hands have to be closed and my elbows need to be drawn down and in, not to mention keeping my legs still and in proper position. Maintaining the correct (read: effective) position on a moving horse takes great muscle tone, and mine is in need of as much work as Russell's! But when I really focus on riding correctly, I get a straighter, more forward, more responsive horse. Hurray for us!

Next up: a report on Sunday's Debbie McDonald clinic at DevonWood.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Anticipating the next two Sundays

Tomorrow, come you-know-what or high water, I am riding! This week other things took precedence and I didn't get the time on Russell I was hoping to. But tomorrow is a new day with few obligations, so I'm looking forward to another dance with my partner.

A week from tomorrow I will be getting up early to join a friend at DevonWood to audit a Debbie McDonald clinic. Rick asked me if I was going before I even mentioned that I would like to get away for it (I had a postcard for the clinic on the table); how cool is that? Two years ago we got to see Debbie ride Brentina and her young horse (below; yes, he's short in the neck - he was quite tense that day) at nearby DevonWood; what a thrill! I still get choked up when I watch the crummy YouTube video of her exhibition freestyle on Brentina; what a connection those two had. We got to meet Debbie, too, and she is truly a nice person - and as tiny as Brentina is huge! I know that I will come away from her clinic with new inspiration for my dance sessions with Russell, and that, my friends, is always a good thing.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Dealing with what comes

So this morning I pulled Russell out of the pasture where he'd been munching on his breakfast hay (all the grass long since eaten up and dried out) and got him ready. It wasn't too hot out yet, but he was warm from standing in the sun and acted pretty sluggish. After walking around a bit I asked for a trot and got a very lackadaisical response. Okay; clearly I needed to get him thinking forward, and hotter off my leg. Like Jane Savoie says (and I paraphrase), a horse must be responsive to your leg or you have nothing to work with. So I began a series of walk/trot transitions going both directions; it didn't take long at all for Russell to get with the program. A couple times I got more than I asked for, but that's okay; I let him canter a few strides and then quietly brought him back and asked again for an energetic trot from the walk. (Never correct a horse for offering more than you ask for; just quietly bring them back to where you started from and ask again with more finesse.) After a walk break that included shoulder-in, renvers and traverse, we did the same thing from walk to canter (taking care that the downward transitions to walk were just as forward and active as the upward transitions were). I decided to end with one final exercise on staying forward: going from working canter to working trot with no "sucking back." The first time my instructor had me do this, it took forever to get it right! (Our obvious need of a more forward downward transition was exactly what prompted her to make us do it, I'm sure.) The first downward transition to the trot was good, but when I asked for #2 (I try to do everything in threes to solidify the point being worked on), Russell throttled back. Nope - forward at the canter again; you don't get to trot when you do that. I asked a couple more times, with the same response on first his, and then my, part. Then he stopped listening to subtle aids and went into overdrive, charging around like he had energy to burn. So - burn, baby, burn! I could have brought him back, but only in a way that would have resulted in a lot of tension, so I let him gallop around and around (round, of course) to the right, then asked for a flying change across the diagonal and let him bomb around to the left. The intensity seemed to lessen, so I brought him back to a working canter and asked for the trot with no change of speed or energy. Got it - three times. So, back to the right again, and got the transitions properly that direction, too. Then I let him trot, big and stretching, before we started a long cool-down.

I had no intention to work him that long and hard, but you gotta deal with what comes. And by not getting into a battle with him, I was eventually able to get what I wanted and end on a good note.


If you want to know it . . .

teach it! There really is something to that old adage, and I have been blessed to have people over the years who desired my instruction, thereby improving my own riding in the process. Right now my only student is a long-time friend; I don't charge her for lessons and she doesn't charge me for boarding my dog whenever we go out of town. Once a week or so I give her a lesson on her little thoroughbred mare; they are now schooling Third/Fourth Level. Since that is the level Russell has been schooling, I'm basically reinforcing in my mind what I need to be doing every time I give her a lesson. Since Brian is off with daddy, I think I'll pull on some breaches and go put those things into practice before it gets any hotter!

"The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a woman."

Sunday, August 16, 2009


This is my dressage training journal, my ode to the horse at its finest, and my virtual bulletin board, where I can post reminders to myself on the purpose and practice of correct riding.

I'm just getting my horse Special Majesty (Russell) and myself back into a regular routine after a spring show (one class at Third Level), subsequent symptoms of discomfort on my horse's part, and several months of minimal schooling and some trail riding. It's been a long time since I've gotten regular instruction even though the instructor I use is one of the best; being a homeschooling mom of a young son really interferes with my hobbies - ha!

Today was our third schooling session in a week - WOOHOO! It feels good to be back in the saddle again. Like old ballroom dancing partners, we know the moves, but our bodies are a little out of shape for the task and we can easily lose the beautiful lines we are going for on the dance floor.

I'm working on keeping Russell straight (imagine riding a dolphin and always keeping that dorsal fin straight up in front of you) so that he can use both hind legs effectively to go forward. At the same time I am encouraging him to keep a soft contact from the bit through the poll and down the neck to the shoulders, so he doesn't get tight in his back. Ideally we do this equally well going both directions, but that rarely happens. In our first canter work this evening, he felt discombobulated going to the right, but after some more work at the trot, his right lead canter got much better. I did just a little sitting trot work tonight and it felt very good, but I won't overdue it before his back and belly muscles have more time to strengthen for the work. I'm looking forward to my belly muscles regaining some strength and tone, too - along with my thighs and butt. When I was riding a lot more, I used to joke that I could crack walnuts between my thighs; right now I don't know if I could squish a green tomato!