Sunday, May 30, 2010

KOC and DOC Clinic: Day 1, Dressage!

Jennifer, I thought of you as I started the day on the floor of my trailer stretching my hips! I think it really helped me last time, and I needed all the help I could get, since I didn’t sleep well: it stormed last night, and I kept walking up thinking “are the horses ok? Is the trailer going to blow over? “ etc.

After feeding, stretching, and eating/hydrating, I stopped to consider what my goals were for my dressage lesson. I need to remember “more leg than hands”. I need to be more aware my aids, so that I can ask, but not nag. I need better, more well placed, more effective half-halts. And I need to work on lengthening, esp. at the trot.

I was in a lesson with a young woman I remember from last year, Olivia, who was working on some of the same things I was, so we had a good, productive lesson. I learned as much from watching her as I did from riding.

Karen started each lesson by asking the participants to “warm up as usual”. This served two purposes: it allowed the rider to begin feeling more comfortable in the ring (the horse, too!), and it gave Karen a chance to see us to determine what we might need to work on (other than what we talked to her about. I warmed up while Karen had Olivia work on getting more forward/rounder at the walk. Karen said “race at the walk”. “It’s not about his mouth” Karen said. “It’s about what he does with his back.”

Both of us were admonished to USE our hands. “Hands are a driving aid!” Karen stated. “Think about jockeys—they don’t use ANY leg. It’s ALL with their hands—what do they do? They follow, then PUSH.”

My contact isn’t contact until Paddy pushes into it. Even when I have him “in hand,” he’s often resistant or evading, and NOT using his back to come through. And we can’t do anything until he’s “round”.

“It’s like hamburger” Karen said (inventing a new metaphor on the spot). You can’t smash it until you make a ball, until it’s round. If you do, it gets cracks and goes everywhere.

BUT if you make a nice ball, you can carefully smash it into a beautiful, round patty. That’s what we need when we lengthen.

(can I just say I LOVE people who can teach using metaphors?!)

I need to become MORE consistent/demanding about the outside rein. Paddy wants to throw his shoulder out, and if I can be constant (but not overbearing—elastic) with the outside rein, he’s MUCH better. When we got a few steps of round, it suddenly became much easier—he was lighter, and we were shorter but bouncier.

Karen explained that we push INTO the contact, raise our hand to see if the horse becomes “light”, then re-establish the contact. This procedure, in addition to the various seat/body aids, helps balance the horse on his back end…and that’s part of our job, part of the “rider’s responsibilities” that make us better, safer riders.

We need to insist on contact in the walk. When a horse was looking at something outside the ring, Karen said “take his vision from him with your hands!” Nice image, and it worked!

“Where does the bit have contact with the horse?” Karen asked. The bars of the mouth, the tongue, and the corners of the mouth. It’s the latter that we need to be most concerned with. Karen said someone explained it to her this way: contact with the corners of the mouth is like a postage stamp: it’s there, and it’s never going anywhere w/o it.

We did a lot of trot circles, making sure that the trot was “good”…that the horse was on the bit, that he was in a good balance…because without that, the lengthen can’t happen. We prepare for the lengthen in the corner, where we make sure the horse is under us. We turn like we’re turning a boat, with both reins (and our body); then we need to be STRAIGHT. The long jumper can’t jump out of a turn—he needs the long, straight run. Same thing for lengthenings. Once we’re straight, follow with our hands INTO THE CONTACT and push. I was losing my impulsion at X, so Karen told me to push like I was going to go outside the arena…then right before the letter, say to him “ooops, I changed my mind!” then almost stop….and then say “ooops, I changed my mind again—we’re going forward”. Otherwise, I anticipate, and guess what? He does, too!

EVERYTHING in riding has preparation. We prepare for the long side in the short side. We prepare for the corner with more engagement. And so forth.

All horses have a tendency to drop contact, esp. in the walk…..when Mandiba would drop contact, Karen would GROWL at him and be VERY aggressive with her seat and hands. Eventually, he preferred the contact, and accepted it willingly at the walk.

Several times during the day, Karen used the expression that the contact should feel like a fish at the end of a line (and not an empty bobbin!). At least five pounds in each hand!

RE: elbows as a driving aid: for more movement, have more spring in our elbows. She had several riders exaggerate “rowing” with their elbows (and seats), then stop…and the difference was profound.

Karen remarked that I had a lot of weight in my upper body (sigh. Everyone here seems to be lithe little teens!), and I had to make sure it didn’t work against Paddy moving forward. Once again, she commented that my posting sent my hips forward, but not my shoulders….I need a 45 (another time she said 60) degree bend in my hips, then go forward and up, not JUST forward. Also, when Paddy sticks his face out, I need to push him into the contact—so once again, it’s LEG, not HAND. (Hand is steady here). When I don’t lean forward, the horse gets a negative drive. The body, then, largely determines how “forward” the horse will be. WHY, then, do I see so many dressage riders almost leaning back to go forward? I need to remember to ask her about that.

Big horses often need “convincing” to be light in our hands…at first, they are heavy in our hands…then, we push hands up the crest for a second. If he lightens, go with that (with re-connection from time to time); if not, start again. So consistent strength must precede being light (but connected) in our hands.

Interesting: Horses will lower their neck in a downward transition if they are connected.

Several times Karen used the image of “closing our thighs”, making the saddle go up and down (this was during a sitting trot). I like that image, but I worry about tightening too much. I’ll have to work on that.

For medium canter, we’re following with our hands. To collect, we move our hands up the crest just a smidge and hold the hands steady while still moving our hips (only this time, more up and down).

To one rider, she talked about how moving the hips forward was a driving aid, but moving them back (and this is the muscle behind the seatbones), it’s an engaging aid. “We help the horse lift his shoulders with our saddle and our hips”.

Karen talked a lot about “finger aids”….the small “adjustments” we make while keeping our contact consistent.

We “speak” to horses with our bodies. We need to try to understand NOT what we meant, but what they “hear”/feel. We teach them to move away from pressure….so the leg yield is one of the best, basic tools that provide the base for more complex movements. We need to get good at coordinating our seat and hands so that horse is STRAIGHT, and so that horse’s gait is consistent. We push with an inside leg to a blocking outside rein—so the horse needs to move INTO it. We set the tone for other movements by the quality of our leg yields. Guess what I’m going to practice more at home?

It’s not about what we did…it’s about what the horse felt/thought we did. So when I was correcting Paddy once, she said “that was mean!” (too much spur!). It’s not that Karen thought I was mean; she was voicing what Paddy was likely to have thought. Point taken—it’s like Julia’s admonition: NO DRAMA!

I like that Karen throws in personal stories: she said when she broke her shoulder last year, she had to re-learn how to follow with her elbows so that her riding was effective. Once again, we’re reminded that riding is a perpetual process

“A half-halt is NOT pulling on the reins!” Karen said. Instead, it’s the closing of the thigh that brings the horse’s back up and engages the legs under him, pushing him into contact, in to an “unyielding hand”.

“Don’t teach your horse to ignore you!” Karen admonished to someone who was pushing with her seat but had locked elbows. The horse, receiving mixed signals, simply chose to ignore one (in this case, the “whoa” rein). “Don’t make your horse think ‘Ah, gee, why’d *I* get the dope-on-a-rope?’”

Some of the riders talked about making their horses come “through”. “’Through’ is a long process. Be happy with a few steps at first. Then expect more. But you’ll always have to come back to those steps”.

She asked several of the riders with pony tails to “make your pony tail longer in the back!”.

Some of the younger horses had “intermittent organization” and small attention spans. For them, Karen said, we need to think about what we need to pay attention to, because THEY will pay attention to what WE pay attention to. So, if a horse is tossing her head or going behind the bit, MOVE HER along, and she’ll think about her back end.

What’s the best way to engage a horse? Back up. One of the participants had a young horse who’d never backed up, and Karen spent some time working with her, asking the rider NOT to pull back on the reins, but to keep her hand “unyielding” and to slap rhythmically with her legs (from her hip). (“going forward into resistance.”) The horse can’t go forward, so she goes back and is rewarded. Once the horse figured it out, it was great to see. “Backing up is a trust issue. They can’t see where they’re going, so they have to trust you.”

We need to look where we’re going…but not TOO far ahead! Look to the middle of the long side—then GO THERE.

Several riders were admonished for too wide hands (one of the observers said “it’s a disease!”). Bobo would be proud; Karen said that our hands should be no wider than our bit.

We “whoa” by closing our thighs. So it really IS a half halt…I need to figure out what I’ve been doing. I think I tighten by butt…not sure about “closing the thighs”.

She had several riders go ten steps at driving walk, then ten steps doing nothing. Same for trot and canter. It was really impressive to “see” the difference in these riders!

“Amateur riders” Karen said, “often give too soon or too much once they get contact, thus throwing it all away.” We need to be elastic in our contact, and elasticity comes from the elbows.

For the lengthening, we’re posting “cantle to pommel”

When our elbows are back, there’s more pressure on the corners of the horse’s mouth….”it’s a heavy fish!” Ultimately, contact must be part of the horse’s mouth.

She described the difference in “real” contact and not contact as “holding a gas pump and then clicking it on”.

Some of the riders came from hunter backgrounds, and Karen expressed great admiration for them. “It’s incredibly difficult to be still, have the same pace, and to make it look easy all around a course.” Eventers could take a lesson from them in stadium. But we also need to go from on the forehand to VERY uphill in cross country, so dressage is vital for eventers. Riders who are nervous can fix the nervousness with the knowledge of (and ability to produce) better balance.

A blocking hand results in a curled neck (ala Paddy!); elastic hands allow you to help the horse put his feet underneath him. In cross country, the body should be behind the legs except in long gallops.

When a horse is walking forward, his poll comes up. Don’t let the nose lower in the turn…keep it up and elastically connected! Thigh pressure helps to keep horse “up” and collected at a slower speed. Close thigh, grab saddle, relax into saddle, all while keeping bit in the corner of the mouth. The torso goes up and down like a jack hammer.

“It’s the different between dancing, and dancing on a crowded dance floor”.

The rider’s butt isn’t curled under. It’s not force out by a sway back. It’s down and IN the saddle, behind the seat bones, moving the horse’s back.

Horses want to work, they want to have purposeful lives, says Karen. We need to help them understand what we want so that everyone is happy. Never forget that YOU are the leader. You need to be clear in your communication, and you need to be consistent. Horses speak the truth….they tell us what we told them to do!

Some gems that were too good not to write down:

“That’s not a halt! That doesn’t look like a halt even a little bit!”
“Be part of the solution, not part of the problem!”
“To get a horse to walk forward on contact, make it the path of least resistance.”
“Horses really do what we tell them!”
“Multiply the motion in the saddle to unlock the back”
“He needs more convincing…he’s a bit of a brute!”
“You’re back to fishing with a bobbin!”
“Go bigger! You’re about to FEEL it!”
“Aids have volume! Turn it up!”
“Horses reward good rides”
“Horses yield to pressure. If you give them conflicting aids, conflicting pressure…it’s a pressure cooker!”
“If you feel like a broken record, it’s called RIDING!”

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