Murray and I had a great dressage lesson Friday, which is encouraging because our first horse trials are in a little less than two weeks now. This close to a show (and definitely not the week of a show) I don’t like to tackle big new concepts that we’re going to be tested on at the show. There’s no “let’s see if we can really do a 2’7″ course!” (I would hope if I had entered beginner novice I would be confident at my horse’s ability to jump a 2’7″ course) or “I want to nail the flying changes!” or even, “I need to get him to keep moving over his back through the transitions”. These things take time and practice, and I don’t personally feel that worrying over them or stressing your horse out with a new thing right before a show is good for either partner.*
But this is a good time to tune up the things I know we probably have in there, but just aren’t quite up to snuff. Chief among these are our transitions. Murray is a “go, go, go” kinda guy, so down transitions were pretty easy for him to get the hang of. Up transitions are another matter entirely. I often feel like Murray isn’t listening to me when I ask for an up transition (“la la la la la oh you were saying something?”) and when he is listening, he’s a bit sluggish to hop to.
Dem dressage skyllz…
This has resulted in a horse who reacts to the aids instead of responding to the aids. This is a contrast I got from Emily Beshear when she was on the USEA podcast (check it out here: http://usea.podbean.com/e/meghan-odonoghue-emily-beshear/). Emily pretty much perfectly describes our progression: you put your leg on, so your horse’s head comes up. Then you add more rein, to help control your horse’s head, and in return you have to add a bit more leg… and so on and so forth. Not only that, but he often doesn’t respond to me the first time I ask for a transition, which is sloppiness I’m not willing to have. Since I’m quite sure dressage judges are not looking for a carousel horse or horse-going-to-war during the transitions, I knew we had to fix this.
When it came time to canter, the transition was late and filled with resentment — hollowed back, head shaking, pony resentment. Alana’s philosophy on transitions is that rude ones mean you go right back to the previous gait and ask again, aiming for sass-less transition. So down to trot we went, and again I asked Murray to canter. More of the same.
“I just feel like he’s not LISTENING to me!” I complained to Alana. “I ask him to canter and he’s too busy thinking about something else to canter when I ask to.”
Alana disagreed. “He’s cantering, and his face is saying ‘what is your problem? I’m cantering aren’t I?'” She thought his confusion was more to do with my contact. Racers, she reminded me, are trained to lean into the contact, and nobody cares if they use their back or not when cantering (not that they really canter much). So instead of fussing with the contact, Alana told me to just keep my inside leg to my outside rein while I asked, and not worry about where Murray put his head.
So we tried again, inside leg to outside rein, with less worrying over the contact. We were even going left, his better direction, and every transition was a disaster. At one point, Murray surged forward for 10 trot steps, straight towards a jump in the arena, before throwing himself into right lead canter and somehow barreling around the corner.
“How are you asking him to canter?” Alana asked me.
“Well, he’s been getting the wrong lead a lot lately, so I make sure he’s bent around my inside leg, ask him to leg yield out a tiny bit, then put my outside leg on to ask him to step into the canter.”
Alana’s response: maybe, ask with less.
So I asked with less. I didn’t leg yield, I didn’t inside bend, I just asked with my outside leg. And of course my trainer was right. Of course. It didn’t happen instantly. At first, Murray was inclined to respond just like he did before — inverted pretzel tranter — but after a couple of trot-canter transitions and walk-trot-canter transitions, he was stepping into the canter with minimal fuss. This isn’t to say his form is perfect, by any means. He still loses connection through transitions, and clearly that’s something to work on, but this will suit us just fine for our intro horse trials next weekend.
Clearly, I was asking way too much of the monster. How could he leg yield, stay connected, bend, and canter all close together like that?! And his response was just that: HOW CAN I DO THIS?! And instead of explaining it, I was yelling at him to do more.
Murray is the one crying this time….
* Exceptions to this exist, of course.By asking with less, instead of louder, I gave Murray the chance to actually do what I was asking. And he stepped up and did it.