Back to basics

Since fall set in, I’ve been doing my best to uphold my vow to work on dressage with Moe through the cold months. Moe doesn’t need a lot of schooling over fences: he is very brave, extremely enthusiastic, and is definitely capable of getting us out of hairy situations. He felt just as good as he ever has during the hunter pace, and he’s always been pretty handy in the show jumping ring. So while both of us would probably enjoy practicing gymnastics or going for gallops, we’ve been diligently grinding away in the dressage ring.

Moe has a lot of holes in his dressage training, which is entirely my fault. He came to me with solid basics: he could walk, trot, canter, and halt. He could do a little lateral work, and he would eventually get on the bit. But ten years ago, I definitely didn’t have the appreciation for dressage I have now. It was just the stupid thing you had to do before you got to go cross country. (Who am I kidding? I still feel that way sometimes.) I didn’t practice dressage on Moe often- only enough to have my test memorized before a show.

Dressage in 2003 looks a lot like dressage in 2015.
Dressage in 2003 looks a lot like dressage in 2015.

So now, at age 20, Moe is going back to the basics.

We’ve been working a lot on our walk/trot transitions, both upward and downward. Moe’s always been fairly sluggish in the dressage ring, so I’ve strapped on my spurs and started demanding he respond to my leg. I get him in a nice, balanced walk where he’s listening and engaged, give him a tiny half-halt, and squeeze. If he doesn’t respond, I poke him with the spurs. Then we trot for a lap of the ring, and go back to a walk. Our downward transitions are actually pretty okay, even though Moe hates the working walk and thinks it’s a waste of his time. Then we repeat our upward transition.

Moe usually lets out a tiny grunt of surprise when he’s poked. He’s also prone to doing his best llama impression when he’s asked to move faster than a sloth. When he gives me a nice upward transition with minimal grunting and llama-ing, I praise him heartily, get half a lap of good trot steps, and then let him relax at a walk.

We’re also working a lot on halting. Moe is very good at halting square and straight (this usually drags our halt score up a point or so), but he engages in full-on llama mode when asked to halt. He raises his head as if it’s a periscope and he needs to survey the judge’s table from afar. I’ve been working on the halt in the tiniest of baby steps; instead of asking for a halt from a trot, I ask for a quiet trot to walk transition, then a walk to halt transition. The work is paying off- Moe had a very nice halt last week with only a couple of walk steps.

How could I get upset at this face?
How could I get upset at this face?

I’m learning that while it’s important to practice things like accuracy, I’d rather have a soft, quiet transition that’s slightly late than a hollow, ugly transition right on the money. I’m also learning exactly how much pressure I can put on Moe before he gets too frustrated or confused to be productive. Our morning rides are usually no more than half an hour; I’m really making an effort to quit while I’m ahead. My elderly horse is also teaching me zen-like patience. A terrible transition? Deep breath, try again. I am the transition. The transition is me.

Dressage is definitely a long game; there’s no fixing bad habits overnight. Especially when those habits have been ingrained for years. But it’s nice to know you can definitely teach an old horse new tricks, even if those tricks are very, very simple.

Author: Stephanie

Equestrian, amateur cook, people person.

9 thoughts on “Back to basics”

  1. great post! my trainer is adamant that transitions in schooling only happen when the horse is soft and ready for them – rather than at a specific point. he says if we are disciplined about that in schooling such that every transition counts, it’ll be easier to get the accuracy in an actual test. supposedly. lol

  2. Our entire winter is going to be spent drilling the basics. Apparently we cannot make ANY transition without llama-ing/bolting/rooting. Which isn’t to say it’s the mare’s fault at all, apparently I can’t ride! Ugh. Luckily winter is boring enough for riding that we can focus on me becoming soft and balanced and actually learning the training ladder instead of looking at it.
    Riding is NOT easy. Oh to be young and ignorant again!

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