I got up bright and early Friday morning and headed to the barn to load up for the dressage clinic; Moe was bright eyed and cheerful. I fed him breakfast and hooked up the trailer (which only took me about 10 minutes!!), then loaded up my tack, loaded up my horse, and got on the road.
I got to the clinic site with plenty of time to spare and spent about half an hour chatting with the farm owner (who is a fellow Green Country Dressage board member) and admiring the month-old unbearably cute Friesian/Arabian colt. I was tacked up and in the arena right on time.
The clinician was Aaron Wilson, a dressage rider and trainer currently based out of Arkansas. He judged a schooling show we had over the summer- the show where Gina and I muddled through First Level. I thought his comments were constructive and helpful, which was why I was eager to ride with him. In addition to dressage students, Aaron’s usual clientele includes some hunter/jumpers who want to improve their flat work and a handful of eventers.
My semi-private lesson had turned into a private due to a cancellation, so I had some time to talk to Aaron before we got to work. I explained that I’m an eventer who desperately needs to improve my dressage scores; he asked me about what kind of comments I get on my tests, what sort of evasions Moe prefers, and what I felt was my biggest struggle. Then he sent me off on a 20 meter circle.
Some things he pointed out:
- Don’t smush the horse. Aaron explained that sometimes riders end up giving strong ‘forward’ leg cues at the same time they ask the horse to lower its poll and soften its jaw, effectively smushing the horse between leg and hand. He advised that it’s better to ask the horse to go forward, then ask the horse to come on the bit, then ask the horse to go forward again (if necessary). The horse has somewhere to go and doesn’t get upset at trying to understand what its rider wants it to do.
- Spend some time at the walk. Aaron had me work at the walk for what seemed like half the lesson. The walk is easily Moe’s worst gait, even though I feel like I spend a lot of time practicing it at home. Aaron likes the walk because it’s a) less stressful on a horse’s body and b) it’s easy to concentrate on asking for various things correctly because you aren’t moving at a high rate of speed. Working correctly at the walk will not only improve the walk, but will translate to other gaits.
- For the love of god, get your right shoulder back, Stephanie. My right shoulder has been a problem for a while; I can usually feel it creeping forward and correct it. Sometimes, though, I end up get caught up in the hundred other things required for riding and the right shoulder (and hand) get several inches further forward than the left shoulder. Aaron identified this in the first two minutes of my lesson and patiently reminded me to fix it several times throughout the ride. When my shoulders are straight, Moe is straight. When my hands are even, Moe can reach into the contact and stay steady.
- It’s okay to look down sometimes. When my shoulders get crooked, my hands become uneven. Aaron had me look down at my hands several times to see just how bad they were; this made me fix them quickly and keep them in place longer. He told me that it was okay to look down sometimes, especially if I couldn’t figure out why Moe wasn’t reacting to my requests for less-llama-more-dressage-horse. Aaron said, “You’re very good at looking up, but I want you to look down every once in a while!”
- Let the horse be your mirror. This was my biggest takeaway of the day. I don’t take a lot of lessons, my arena doesn’t have mirrors, and I’m usually riding by myself. There’s no one to say, “Fix your right shoulder”, no mirror to see and think, “What the hell am I doing?!” Aaron advised me to let my horse be my mirror. He pointed out that Moe tells me when my right shoulder is too far forward by being above the bit and either overbent or counterbent. I have to learn to read what Moe’s body is telling me and react appropriately.
Overall, I felt like it was a very helpful lesson! Aaron is calm and patient, even when he’s reiterating the most basic principles of dressage (or you know, riding). I felt like his explanations were easy to understand and I appreciated how he took the time to ask me a lot of questions before we started work. He complimented Moe’s condition and attitude (as did a couple of other people at the clinic), too.
After my lesson, I stuck around to watch a local dressage trainer ride her Intermediate horse and talk breeding with a couple of people. It was a great clinic and a great day- I’m so glad I went!