The last two days have been absolutely filled with dressage. It has been awesome.
First, yesterday I got to ride my friend’s awesome quarter horse, Big. After realizing that he didn’t really like reining, Big’s owner decided to give the English disciplines a go and it turns out Big LOVES to jump! He is seriously the cutest little new jumper I’ve ever seen!
Big’s owner irritated an old injury but still wanted him to get worked, so I got to jump on and do some dressage. It was very different than any of the thoroughbreds I’ve ridden in recent memory. For one thing, Big is long, long, long — long neck, long back, looooooooooong. It’s like having two horse’s necks out in front of you! I think that longness contributes to him having a canter that rocks both longitudinally and latitudinally — does that make sense? Basically, my pelvis was riding side to side as well as sweeping back to front in the canter. Other than feeling different, Big rode very similarly to Murray: he was sensitive off my seat and leg aids, and totally told on me about my bad habits. At one point, he was drifting right across the arena and wouldn’t get off my right leg. After a mental “WTF are you doing horse?!” I realised that my weight was shifted left, so Big was just doing what I told him and moving off my weight. Gotta love an honest horse! It was fun to ride while his owner watched too, and we chatted about our various dressage strategies and things Big could work on to improve, so that was fun. Thursday I will get to JUMP him and am EVEN MORE excited.
After putting Big away, I rode Murray and — drum roll please — tacked him up with no bribery needed. He did have a little initial sad dance at the fact that I was putting on his girth (wtf demon belly strap begone!!!!!!!!!!), but settled down quickly and let me tighten it to a reasonable level. By “reasonable level” I mean at least the level that any self-respecting rider would walk out to the arena with her girth at, not hanging loose on his body, but not as tight as it needed to be either. Murray put in a very, very honest dressage workout. I’ve been alternately lunging and not lunging using the stretchy technique before our dressage rides, because it’s probably not something I would do at a show, and I’d like to be able to put Murray together without having to lunge him first. I get that it’s a tool, but he and I both need to be adaptable enough to work correctly without it.
So I hopped on and did our long walk warm up (new strategy against back soreness after dressage rides), did some loopy-rein (read: inverted and giraffesicle) trot work to get him moving and WHAM — Murray slammed on the brakes when we passed a patch of Funny Dirt. Clearly the arena dragger had gotten stuck on something and there were two big berms with a curiously flat patch between them. Murray pulled out the full Ungulate Snort and was NOT impressed with the Funny Dirt. Once he got over fearing it he realised it would be fabulous to roll in, and I had to kick him up and just generally avoided that corner afterward.
Anyway, we had a lovely ride. Not quite as lifted and forward as our Rolex Weekend Addiction rides, but definitely connected and easy and steady in the contact. One of my biggest fights with Murray in the past has been getting consistent acceptance of the bridle — not even asking him to flex his poll or drop his head, but merely asking him to accept the fact that contact exists. Some days he would be super, and other days he would be really fussy. Usually I just have to Get Serious about it and he’ll pop into line, but recently, the fights have been decreasing! Another win. I did use my whip for the first time in a while — err, I think it’s been a while? I always carry it regardless — and popped Murray on the haunches when he ignored my right leg during an attempted leg-yield. He immediately flew off my right leg and maintained his soft, supple, relaxed movement, which Megan wrote earlier this week is so important, and I was THRILLED. We’ve been getting in our best lateral work yet, lots of steps of shoulder-in and leg yield while still through and supple.
So today when I realised I’d totally screwed the schedule by mis-reading when a meeting was this afternoon — thus making me stay at the office an hour later than I intended, missing my jump lesson and another ride on Big — I ran out to the barn early to get my ride in. Then I saw that Alana had an empty lesson slot right when I would be ready and I jumped on it. I had a dressage lesson planned for Thursday morning, but decided to switch it so I could get my dressage check in sooner.
Alana asked me what I wanted to do in our lesson, and I told her I wanted to check in re: everything, but since that would be quick I wanted to start walk to canter. Because I feel like walk to canter is one of the next logical steps in our training but I had literally no idea where to get started with them. Turns out it’s a pretty methodical idea: trot-canter-trot-canter-trot-canter-trot-canter until Murray is Mr. Johnny On The Spot re: transitions, then down to the walk for two steps and canter! And guess who has four hooves and got it INSTANTLY? THIS GUY.
To the left anyway. Right was a bit harder because, just as Megan predicted, someone leans on/fills the left rein much more than the right, and every time we would go down to the walk he would fall left and I had trouble packaging him back together to get him to pick up the right canter immediately. I did counter-bend him and get it perfectly a time or two, so that was awesome. Our homework is to add more walk to canter to our repertoire until Murray is comfortable with the idea of it, and not really worry about where his head is at. Once he relaxes mentally about the transition — right now he’s a little confused and WTF about it all — then we can start to get his body to relax also.
I also did a little haunches-in so Alana could evaluate it, and she thought I should ask Murray for a few more steps of it. Whenever I’ve been introducing new lateral work, I always start easy and work my way up — one step, two steps, that’s okay in the beginning! — so that it doesn’t become stressful. Murray was giving up on the haunches in even before I stopped asking for it, though, so Alana said I needed to really get him off those aids and remind him who decides the lateral work plan.
Weeks like this are super rewarding in addition to being fun! I really feel that all progress is a punctuated equilibrium — I actually have a post to write about that soon — with a healthy dose of shifting baseline thrown in there for most people. So when you get to the upswings of progress, instead of the long, steady, plateaus that are so much more common, it is amazing! It says to me that I’ve been putting everything together just right, and everything is coming together to make Murray strong enough — mentally and physically! — to take the next steps.
To top it all off, Alana commented that she loves what I’m doing with Murray, and is very pleased with how subtle of a rider he has made me. My former lease horses really made me confident and bold — they needed a lot of pushing and forwardness, but they weren’t going to stop if you rode right — but were a little lacking on the finesse. Murray has made me really quiet and and rewards subtlety. Really, he’s so cool. I owe him everything.