When we started Murray’s dressage training there was plenty of good to work with: rhythmic gaits, a good cadence, and the good type of sensitivity. But he was also terribly spooky, suspicious, stiff-backed and –necked, and uncomfortable with the idea of using his body in a different way. And his gaits, while very steady, were short and stiff.
Both my regular trainer and my dressage trainer, Tina Steward, wanted me to get Murray using his whole body to move, instead of just stabbing his legs around, and to unlock his neck, back, and pelvis. Tina’s main method of doing this is by over-flexing a horse to the inside with a strong, steady inside rein. A steady inside rein can act almost like a side rein – when the horse finally gives through the neck the contact immediately softens. My very first lesson with Tina focused on exactly this: encouraging Murray to lower his head and thereby lift the base of his neck, and then later simultaneously do this while changing bend on a serpentine. It was incredibly challenged for my four year old – he was four then!!! – and gave me an effective tool for encouraging Murray to use his neck and come through his back. So for a long time I rode Murray off of pretty much just that inside rein – the outside rein was there and helped with steering, but all of my connection was with the inside rein.
I knew, and know, that this wasn’t the “right way”. You don’t ride dressage completely off of the inside rein, and the point beyond which a horse can go around with his head essentially as low as he can get it is around intro level. But it was an incredibly useful tool to get Murray thinking about using his body the right way. It got him there without a fight, when more conventional methods of encouraging a horse to lift through his back and come into the bridle would have (and did, on the few occasions we employed them) resulted in a bucking fit, or him only traveling in side pass for an entire ride, or a curious inability to turn right. But by reminding him that all I wanted was for him to stretch down and through his back on that inside rein Murray relaxed and fundamentally changed the way he moved and used his body.
My trainer, a couple of clinicians, and my MIL all commented that it’s time to get Murray working like a regular dressage horse and transition him over to the outside rein. And now that I’m thoroughly entrenched in that process, and I know how to use my body correctly to get Murray to his his body correctly, I can see that this really is a more effective way to ride. Once Murray is warmed up and on board, the connection is better, his bend is truer, and it’s easier for me to communicate what I want with really little movements. But Murray is not always warmed up and on board. And when he is not, the dramatics are … large and in charge.
I can see why it would be super tempting for someone to move on to shifting the connection to the outside rein immediately. Now that I can get it a bit I’m like “WTF IS THIS MAGIC”. When I talk to trainers they’re very happy to hear that Murray is really rideable(ish) off the outside rein, and that I’ve come to drink the kool-aid of the Real Dressage Connection.
But there’s this part of me that’s always like “but he needed it. He really needed it!” And he did need it. Obviously I can’t know for sure what it would have been like if I’d gone straight to the outside rein with him – maybe it would have been fine (instinct says no). But now Murray has a legitimate understanding of using his topline from his tail through his poll, and not just arching his neck and hollowing his back. He doesn’t think of dressage as a place where he gets trapped or into fights, so his inclination isn’t to tense and brace.
That inside rein was a tool – or a crutch, if you want to think of it that way – and as unconventional as it was, it was effective. Maybe not everyone needs it like Murray does, and maybe they don’t need it for as long as he did, and maybe it’s not the right tool for other horses. It wasn’t directly on the path to the “right way” of riding dressage, but we are still working our way there. Which is at least a part of the point of this whole ramble – there is no one right way to do this.