Monday, May 19, 2014

Dressage Lesson

My friend José, son of Gredos Ecuestre guru Gaby Mendez, is amazing at dressage.  Not only has he helped his father train horses for his trail riding business and fix clients' problem horses since he was a kid and given riding lessons at his dad's stable more recently, but he's also ridden and trained professionally at a couple of breeding operations in Spain, so even at the tender age of 23 he's got loads of experience.  And he's also a really nice guy and fun to be around, so when he told me he was coming to Mallorca to work at a very exclusive stud farm I was thrilled.  So yesterday I showed him around Palma, and in return he very generously gave me a dressage lesson after lunch (hopefully the first of many if I have any say about it).

Right off the bat, he told me to raise the snaffle as it was apparently hanging too low in her mouth to act effectively, and I had to put the noseband back on my bridle (I don't really care for nosebands and had taken it off) and tighten it way more than I had ever tightened it before.  I was worried that Starbuck would find this uncomfortable and fight it, but it didn't worry her at all - no nodding or head shaking or pulling, and right off the bat she started to have a little foam at the corners of her mouth and munched on the bit a little.  Then I mounted up and started riding and he started giving me some pointers which I'll list below in more detail.  But here's a quick summary: We started out taking up much more contact with the bit than I'm used to, and as a result I haven't worked so hard physically while riding for years - I think Starbuck thinks that bit=brakes and when she has more than just the barest contact she has to be pushed to keep going.  Also, any time I change anything about my posture, the rest of my body seems like it has to work overtime to keep from falling out of place.

To make a long story short, both Starbuck and I (and probably José as well!) worked much harder than we're used to yesterday, but got some really positive results - for example I figured that her accepting a steady contact and flexing at the poll correctly would take weeks if not months to achieve, but yesterday after only 20 minutes or so she was starting to get the picture and carry her head more vertically, even if only for a few moments.  And even though I had to constantly push her harder than I normally have to and he wouldn't let me use the whip as much as I wanted to, I could still feel at times that I had much more "horsepower" at my disposal than usual.  So here are the pointers I can remember as well as the exercises we worked on - it looks really basic but believe me, it was extremely exhausting!

Warming up - walk / trot

  • Spread hands to width of my body, elbows bent.
  • Exterior hand remains still and firm with fingers closed, interior hand slowly spreads towards the center of the arena / circle flexing the head and neck inward and then back again, straightening the head and neck. Elbows remain bent!
  • Repeat until the head and neck go down, then release (open fingers slightly) and add leg to maintain impulsion.  
  • Repeat every time the head comes back up.  Walk and trot with this "lengthening" pattern.
  • After several circles of her doing the exercise correctly, go large and release the reins so she can stretch down and forward, then change diagonal and repeat.

Normal work - walk / trot / canter

  • Hands together near the withers, elbows bent.  Hands still.
  • Fingers closed, leg on to maintain impulsion.
  • If she fights the contact, keep elbows bent and fingers closed and wait.
  • If she leans on the contact, give her more leg to move her forward until she lightens, then release (open fingers slightly).
  • If she looks at something outside the arena, flex her head to the center by opening my inside rein as in the warm-up and then straighten her back up.
  • Build up impulsion but don't allow her to advance before transition, then ask for transition with steady building leg pressure (not kicks) while maintaining contact.  Maintaining contact is key for a good balanced transition.
  • I can use the whip lightly to increase / maintain impulsion, but always using the leg first.
  • After several circles of her doing the exercise correctly, go large and release the reins so she can stretch down and forward, then change diagonal and repeat.
  • End with forward trot on a long rein (but still with contact) several times around the arena.

Overall pointers:

  • Never cross hands over the withers - one hand on each side of the withers
  • Keep my elbows bent
  • Keep my hands closed except for release
  • Maintain steady but flexible contact at all times, even with long reins
  • Sit up straighter (3 point seat)
  • Legs behind the girth so I don't have to kick and can simply squeeze
  • Steady leg pressure instead of kicks
  • More leg than whip and always leg before whip
  • Use whip more lightly, only enough to get a little more energy, not enough to startle

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