dressage lesson: all the feels

Murray and I had a fantastically productive dressage lesson with Tina last week.  It wasn’t so much that we worked on new or exciting exercises or revolutionized how the horse went, but it confirmed that we are doing correct work, how to take that work to the next level, and that my feel for what is right is developing and becoming more accurate.  The lesson also gave me some good data on a little experiment I was running last week, but more on that later.


no relevant media from the actual lesson,
but I did the same exercises the next day with only slightly less success

We started out by addressing my (wildest) hope that I am finally able to actually feel when Murray is bending through his ribcage, and not just falling all over himself laterally.  Tina had me put the beast on a large circle, then shrink the circle in and increase the bend in his body as appropriate.  I evidently can feel true bend now (HOORAY!) because I managed to keep Murray bent on a 15m circle, even though we were tracking right (harder direction) and it was our first circle post warm-up.  Tina encouraged me to bring the circle in a little more and push for even more bend.  She wanted me to ride the edge of Murray’s ability to bend without falling apart, in order to enter that zone of maximum learning and skill building (my words! totally my weirdo words).  We got to about a 12m circle before Murray’s haunches started to lose it around the circle, and so I slowly let him back out to the 15m-ish circle before carefully and slowly leg yielding back out.

Before we switched directions I told Tina that one thing I was struggling with in this part of our education is understanding, and obviously helping Murray understand, the difference between an inside leg that asks for bend and an inside leg that asks him to move over.  She told me to think of the inside leg that asks for bend as more of a toned or firmed leg, and the leg that asks for lateral movement to actually push.  This exercise, she pointed out, would help Murray to develop that understanding of submission to the inside leg for bend vs. movement.

i only tracked left in this ride, but just pretend my work to the right was equally neato

When we changed directions to the left Murray was much more competent at the exercise, and we managed to get down to about a 10m circle with a fair bit of effort on both of our parts.  Because Murray struggles more to the right, we went back that direction once more.  Tina reminded me to keep Murray’s haunches in with my outside leg — though I probably did not need to swing it quite so far back, as the first time I tried that he promptly cantered.  But after one attempt left, he was also more capable to the right.

We moved on to the next big challenge I see: developing sit/collection at the canter.  I really struggle with this because it’s something we need for both jumping and dressage.  I also feel like Murray used to be able to sit and shrink his stride at the canter really easily when jumping, usually while  maintaining an uphill  balance.  But lately it seems that his smaller strides have been very downhill and inverted — maybe they have always been that way, but I’ve only just developed a good enough feel to tell the difference.  I also don’t know how much collection I should be aiming for — Murray obviously wants me to think that I’m being too mean/it’s too hard. But progress is hard, kiddo.


i read something about thinking of your elbows as “weighted” and tried to envision it in these rides to stop them from floating off into outer space. instead i way overcorrected and put my hands in my lap. moderation is needed. Murray looks cute though!

We cantered on the big circle, then slowed it down and brought Murray into as small and collected of a canter circle as I could navigate — probably around 10 meters.  The first time we did it was incredible, because Murray was listening really well, but wasn’t anticipating the smaller circle.  So he just sat as much as he was able and we managed a pretty good little circle.  Tina said that I should try to make the next circle even smaller and slow Murray down even more, shortening the sweep of my seat to keep the strides quick and small.  It took me a couple of repetitions to get this down, but on our third try I felt some really uphill and controlled strides from Murray on that little circle that made me very happy.

We struggled more tracking right once again, especially because Murray lost all the bend on our first small/slow circle and dropped his back.  Even though I’m trying not to hang on the right/inside rein, I can’t let Murray lose the bend through these exercises.  For the lesson Tina had me go back to our old way of overbending the neck using more inside rein, but I imagine that as we practice I will be able to transition to a lighter inside rein again.


heading in to the tiny circle. i made my transitions from 20m to tiny circle too abrupt when i repeated this exercise, and the quality suffered for it. so i know for future practice to give murray a little more spiral-down time to get into the small circle.

We ended with a couple of counter canter loops which were seriously our best to date.  They were shallow-ish as there is a big pile of poles and standards stacked in a teepee right at X, and I didn’t want to tackle going past/around X for the first time when Murray was tired and had a bunch of stuff to potentially spook at.  But for the first time our shallow loops in both directions were controlled and balanced, and we kept the tempo.  HUGE progress for us, since I’ve been struggling with downhill running through the counter canter for basically two years (also known as, I suck at counter canter and probably started it too early).

Another huge win for us: not once during this lesson did Tina have to remind me not to nag with my seat. FOR ONCE!

in love with how good Murray  looks in this pic

It was such a great lesson in terms of confirming my feel (for bend and collection) and to do exercises where I can replicate the feeling later on.  Obviously, because the pics came from there, I did these exercises again the next day with not too much degradation of quality — though of course I did make some all new mistakes to learn from.

A few other notes from the lesson and subsequent ride:

  • keep riding seat to hands/don’t get pulled forward and down in canter (especially when trying to collect)
  • ride the extended transition in the canter in the exercise also to develop more elasticity
  • hands and elbows more forward (not so bad in the lesson, but they were a bit too far back the next day)
  • likewise, shorten the reins a little for steadier contact
  • a touch of haunches in is ok for now, while developing better bend
  • still need crispness/clarity/lack of static in the canter transitions – but they are better
  • I need to work on quieting the forward-backward movement of my leg when giving different cues
  • try to develop a more uphill half halt in the canter collection
  • eventually, the goal is to get the canter collection from seat alone — but that is for a year from now! for now, develop strength and suppleness in this work with lots of support from me.
  • work the weak side more, but with lots of breaks — both walk breaks, and breaks where you work the stronger side
  • who cares about sugar-induced navicular if lifesavers keep Murray happy and compliant?!

2 thoughts on “dressage lesson: all the feels

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