Boot Camp, Day Three

Well, I’m more than half way through boot camp, with five lessons under my belt in three days.  The primary focus has been working on developing correct inside-leg to outside-rein connection.   This connection is important for so many reasons, including bending, executing proper turns and lateral work, and, I’m learning, to “catch” the power one generates when engaging the haunches.

Yesterday I rode both Diamond and Jag – two diametrically different horses.  Diamond is a classic QH with a shorter neck.   Jag is taller, more willowy, and relatively speaking, has a neck like a giraffe.  Both have a variety of tricks and evasions, and I struggle to get both connected, on the bit, and filling the outside rein.  The solution?  I have to ride more actively – literally riding every step, constantly asking for bend if it’s not there, supporting correct bend on the outside rein if it is there, keeping the horse round and soft, and asking the horse to round and soften when necessary (which seems to be about every other stride in my case.)

When riding Diamond,  Christy broke down correct bend, reminding me that a horse that is giving you honest contact will follow the bit, meaning that it’s up to me to put the bit where I want the horse’s head.   As she was saying this, I realized that in my struggles to soften Diamond while holding outside rein contact, I had worked his head up, not down.  Jag can go around with his head up high (a habit we’re trying to break.)  In addition to being totally undesirable, I simply wasn’t giving Diamond anywhere to go.  I immediately pushed both hands forward.  Diamond responded by stretching out into the bit.  Epiphany.

Switching to Jag, I had some different challenges, but the solutions were similar.  When his neck was braced, I had to insist that he bend – by really holding that outside rein, softening on the inside rein, and getting really active with my inside leg.  Jag was having none of this dressage business yesterday, and was braced against me for what seemed like an eternity.  “BEND HIM,” Christy insisted from inside our 20m circle.   Nearly ready to give up, I took a deep breath,  closed my fingers around the outside rein, opened the inside rein up pretty wide, and put my spur (a tiny tom thumb, the bittiest spur made) into Jag’s side.  And was ignored.  I turned up the volume on my aids and was rewarded with tail swishing, and then he started to try to spin under me.  “You’re right, keep riding him, don’t let him get away with this!” Christy called, having dealt with this attitude last week.  Jag decided to canter, which was really remarkable, since we were on a tiny (5m) circle.    At this point, I was pooped.  I got a decent transition from that goofy canter, and dropped to a walk. From there, we were able to bend fairly nicely.  Sheesh, all that drama over just. a. little. bend.

“Five more minutes, can you do it?” Christy was not going to let us off the hook.  “Just get a nice trot and good bend, and you’ll be done.”

I patted Jag on the neck, telling him that we could do this the hard way or the easy way, and doing it the easy way would get him back to his stall (and dinner) faster.  I sat up, and asked for the trot.

Great heavens above, I think my horse understands English.  He gave me a nice round trot,  keeping a steady tempo, and, miraculously, bending. One quiet lap, and we hung it up, ending on a good note.   Jag got his dinner, and I headed home to pop some Advil and collapse into a heap!

Today was more of the same, and involved a lot of work simply walking a 10m figure eight, which was a great way for me to practice changing the direction of the bend correctly.   We also did more work on the trot.  Christy really emphasized the necessity of steady tempo and roundness.  We have a tendency to go too fast, and when that happens, Jag hollows his back and his head comes up.  At that point, one can barely post effectively, much less even entertain thoughts of a decent canter transition or a leg yield.  That inside-leg/outside rein connection is crucial to those movements, and one needs to have the horse round and soft to get proper connection.

So we worked on regulating the trot tempo.  Adjusting the gait is important in all levels of dressage (working/collected/extended) and I’m just starting to learn to regulate Jag’s trot.  Developing the ability to produce a round, connected trot with a reasonable tempo is an absolute must if I ever want to produce a good canter transition.  In our case, this means a lot of half halts, and really riding every stride as described above.   But when it finally happens, and the horse’s back comes up under me, and he’s round, soft and connected, it is worth it!  I finally have a trot that I can sit, and from which I can ask for a canter transition.

We did a few of these transitions each way, focusing first on getting (and maintaining) a quality trot, then asking for the canter, and then transitioning back to a smaller trot.  This continues to be challenging and I’m sure will be the subjects of tomorrow’s lessons.  Stay tuned!

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