lessons from lessons (dressage)

I had originally intended to make my “lessons from lessons” post from Sunday a one piece post, but it became long and verbose and I really don’t like mixing jumping and dressage lessons because that way I don’t have as good of a resource for myself.  So here we go: lessons from lessons part two, aka THE DRESSAGING.

Friday our fab dressage trainer and DVM and chiro Tina Steward came to town and I had an early morning lesson with her before things got hot.  I was a little behind schedule so sadly wasn’t as warmed up as I wanted to be when my lesson started, but this turned out to be a good thing.  Tina watched me warm up both ways and then we chatted about what I wanted to work on.

If you recall from my Q3 goals post, one of my big goals this quarter is to get Murray starting to shift more weight to his hind quarters, lift through his withers, and generally start really trying to achieve some relative elevation.

IMG_1983This is lovely but it’s also very much on the forehand

One of the typical ways to encourage a horse to start shifting some weight behind is the T word: transitions.  And this works well for us; when Murray transitions downward from trot to walk he really shifts weight onto his hind quarters to do so.  And the purpose of all these transitions is, in my understanding, to help install a good half halt, where you almost transition down but instead recycle the energy forward and end up with a more balanced, uphill gait.  This is all well and good, but lots of transitions (a common prescription for working on shifting balance behind) are not exactly Murray’s cup of tea.  He’s a lazy boy and loves to play along for a few walk transitions.  But after about three repetitions of walk-trot-walk-trot he’s gotten wise to the game, and when I ask for a nice, balanced walk transition he will instead run through my hands because he knows I’m just about to ask for a trot transition in a little bit anyway.  And that defeats the purpose of the exercise.

uphill1Moar like dis!

Tina noted, during our chat, that left to his own devices Murray not only likes to hang around on the forehand (his fave place: long, low, and lazy) but that he is stiff behind and doesn’t articulate his hocks or stifles much.  But we both know he can do better, so she suggested that we use some lateral work to open up his hips and get him moving better.  We started with some shoulder-in on a circle.  This was hard for both of us: for Murray, because he’s not used to circling and bending quite so much, and for me because I’m not used to the shape of shoulder-in on a circle!  As is Tina’s way, as soon as Murray “got” the exercise a little bit we shifted back to the big circle to make things easier.  This meant that as soon as I could feel Murray’s gait get springier and as he released the tension in his back, I moved out to the big circle for at least one revolution.  The great thing here is that after the tough shoulder-in on the circle Murray was very willing to stretch down, and I could feel his gait getting bigger, swingier, and like more of a whole-body trot.

 shoulder in circle 1First, shoulder-in on a circle, slowly asking for more bend…

With each repetition of the exercise I asked for a little more shoulder in.  Because it’s hard to shoulder-in on a circle, we tended to drift in to a smaller circle, but Tina wasn’t too worried about that. Once Murray was stepping nice and springily on the small, shoulder-in circle, I leg-yielded him back out to the 20 meter circle and let him stretch down as much as he wanted.  I then pushed him forward and asked for a little bit of extension in his trot, looking for bigger (not faster) steps and more swing.  And curiously enough*, it worked!

shoulder in circle 2Then, once you’ve got a good shoulder in on the smaller circle, leg yield back out, and ask for a bigger trot on the big circle.

* This should not be curious. Tina is a fantastic trainer. Murray is just a curious creature.

This exercise worked wonders for Murray’s trot, and he groaned and grunted as we convinced him to loosen up his hips.  Luckily for Murray (!!), Tina said I could ride him like this three times a week.  A few more important points from this part of our lesson included:

1) Don’t let my inside leg slip too far back; keeping it right at the girth gives Murray something to bend around.
2) No more nagging Murray with my seat when he gets sticky in the walk. Instead, bump him with my leg, even if it makes him a little agitated.
3) Make every walk-trot transition count. Murray has developed a charming habit of tensing up and resisting my requests to trot.  This is not okay.  So every up transition, whether we are jumping or flatting, needs to be soft and obedient.  (He hates this. A lot.)

Our canter work focused on installing a good half halt and getting Murray to learn about collecting and sitting back on his haunches, all of which are interlaced.  We presented Tina with some very nice canter transitions (thank goodness!) and did a touch of counter canter.  Our counter canter is actually progressing very well, I just need to keep Murray a little straighter in the neck as I do our shallow serpentines.  So we quickly moved back on to the 20 meter circle and focused on slowing Murray’s canter to get him sitting back.

IMG_1991We tend to get flat and disorganized

Tina told me to think about pausing as my hips moved to the front of the saddle.  Murray felt my pause and was like “oh, trot?” and discombobulatedly fell into a trot a few times.  He was game to pick the canter back up again, and this time as I paused I also squeezed with my legs (half halt, anyone?).  This “hold and drive” served to really slow Murray’s canter, make him think more about how he was moving, and started to really rock him back on his haunches.  In both directions, our last few strides before we trotted were really set back and collected, and Tina pointed those out as the feeling I should be looking for.  With practice, we will be able to collect the canter much more easily, and extend, and collect, aaaaaaaaaand walk.  Because canter to walk is the devil’s transition.

I love lessons with Tina for many reasons: she appreciates Murray’s silly personality and how hard he tries (sometimes), but also lets me know when it’s time to kick some butt.  She is also a wonderful trainer and gives me excellent exercises to work on during our lessons, and excellent homework.  Which is probably no less than I should expect from a GP rider, trainer, and judge!!

My final bit of homework before I next see Tina (probably in two months, as I’m showing at the end of this month and traveling a lot in September so will probably have to skip that lesson) is to investigate a loose ring bit for Murray.  Tina noted (and going back through these pictures I’m seeing how true this is) that Murray tends to go from behind the contact to adamantly inverted really rapidly, but he’s never really seeking out the bit.  This might be due to the corners of the D-ring he currently wears poking him in the lips a little, and the side effect of the D is that he can lean on it when he is feeling tired or lazy.  So, time to investigate new bits.  My favourite thing.  Second only to saddle shopping.

uphill2Soon we will have ALL THE ELEVATIONS!!!