Happy Holidays y’all! I am not a big Christmas person myself, so every year am like “shit… that month where I have to give gifts is coming up” and find myself in a bank account hole for a little while. I should know better, as I like receiving gifts… a lot.
In addition to several other awesome gifts I got this year, Murray and I were lucky enough to be invited to dressage bootcamp and my mother in law’s! This was actually a birthday gift arranged by my boyfriend (okay, she’s not my real mother in law, but it’s fewer letters and less confusing than “boyfriend’s mom” and even if it isn’t, MIL is a way better abbreviation s I’m going with it), for which he traded several weekends of little-brother-sitting. For my part, all I had to do was pack my car, throw shipping boots on Murray, load him up, and then watch him fall out of and sit down behind the trailer upon unloading.
Making a good first impression. He excels at it.
I am extremely lucky to have awesome in laws. Both sets, actually (boyfriend gets the bonus giant family), are badass. But having a horsey MIL is the most badassedest, because it means that I can pick her brain about dressage questions whenever I want, and get useful feedback! MIL is a pretty legit dressage rider, competing her home-bred-and-trained mare at Intermediare I right now. So you can imagine I was all over this gift like white on rice. But I was also fairly apprehensive, as I’ve watched MIL ride a lot and she is a strict rider. She has expectations for her horses, and she wants them to step up and meet those expectations. Murray is occasionally a total toad about expectations, and sometimes dressage rides make me want to nose dive into the footing voluntarily. It turns out I had nothing to worry about.
We started Murray out on the lunge, and MIL had me go through my standard lunging routine. She pointed out that Murray is very stiff through his SI and hamstrings — other people have commented on this also — and wants to take short, choppy steps behind. The challenge is getting him to relax that back and encourage him to take bigger steps behind without rushing. When Murray rushes, he gets on the forehand, so what I’m looking for are slow, airy, relaxed steps with a swinging back*.
(I tricked Murray into thinking my phone was cookies so he let me take a picture with him.)
Under saddle Murray was amazingly compliant. We started with a small-circle exercise to encourage him to step under with his inside hind. MIL had me do three things differently than I usually do at home: 1) pulse the inside leg; it doesn’t just squeeze constantly but when you squeeze he should move over, and then you give (this is a big theme with all the aids — aid and then release), 2) keep my outside rein steady (I’m a big inside rein bandit so that is hard for me), 3)* flex the inside rein and release immediately to remind Murray of the direction we are bending. If Murray got “stuck” and just started going sideways, I pushed my hands forward and let things go on a little (10, 15, or 20 meter circle) until he remembered to go forward, then asked for sideways again. Going left this was much easier for Murray than going right, and we got great cross over left and only a little to the right. But magical beautiful amazing arena mirrors meant that I could see when we were doing it well.
For the trot work, MIL had me really focus on riding the outside shoulder*. I’m pretty inside-rein dependent, which is a hold-over from when I was learning to dressage and teaching Murray to dressage, but it’s time to graduate from the inside rein. I was to do the same thing at the trot as I did in the walk work: outside rein steady (that is where your contact always is), and ask-release with the inside rein when I needed to remind Murray about the flexion. It may sound like I was see-sawing with my hands, but it really wasn’t, it was a very defined “hey, remember, we are flexing to the inside!” and immediate release. Almost like a very coarse and primitive half-halt (for a coarse and primitive dressage rider). The first day we focused on slowing Murray’s trot to that slow, relaxed, bouncy trot, and I did some sitting trot work which — shocker — is easier when his back is relaxed. The second day I sat the trot a lot more and we worked on some shoulder in-haunches in and leg yields to get Murray crossing over. I have to be really careful with Murray’s haunches whenever I am asking for them to move right, as he likes to just twist his body and avoid the bend on that left side (his stiffer side).
At the canter we started working on teaching Murray to shift his weight behind, starting with some little spiral in. By riding the outside shoulder I could feel Murray really jump and push from behind in the canter, and when he got round his canter felt awwweeesomeee! And when I shrank the circle down to 15 meters, then turned in to make an even smaller circle and thought “walk” with my body and my legs I got a really solid attempt at a walk transition. It was through the trot, yes. But Murray had shifted his weight behind and the trot was soft and supple and there was no mouth hauling or misunderstanding or fighting. MIL said to practice this regularly and in a few weeks canter-walk will be a thing. HOORAY! During my second ride we focused on the sitting trot-canter transitions, which Murray anticipates terribly. Even when I don’t move my leg he wildly flings his head in the air and runs off into the canter, as if I’m going to do…. something to him. I’ve not done many of the sitting trot-canter transitions yet, so I don’t know how we got to this place, but MIL thinks it’s a confidence thing. Murray isn’t confident in me, and I do have a history of getting on his case about transitions so…
The plan is just to practice being round and soft in the trot before the transition, and then immediately getting round and soft in the canter after the transition. Eventually the round, soft trot will meet up with the round, soft canter and we will have a round, soft transition!*
For the majority of both of my rides there haven’t been any wild Murray moments or opinions, and I have been shocked and delighted. MIL wants me to give Murray more opportunities to do the right thing (aka be soft, round, and flexed in the correct direction) and put a little more trust in him so he does do the right thing more often*. This reminded me a lot about what Megan wrote about TC, and which I have experienced to a small degree with Murray, that if you just treat your horse like he will do it right, they can sometimes rise to meet you.
I marked all the big, newer-ish, remind-yourself-often-Nicole takeaways in this post with bold stars, so here they are again, in summary:
- slow, relaxed, airy steps with a swinging back
- give and release aids
- ride the outside shoulder (outside rein is always there)
- be forgiving about mistakes — round-softness will come in the transitions
- open to door for Murray to do the right thing more often
I am going to have a few more rides before the weekend is through, I think, so with any luck I will have more to report here. So far, this has been amazingly educational and