For the first time in at least two years, I took a dressage lesson yesterday! I hauled down to a barn about 45 minutes south of me that regularly hosts a well-respected dressage instructor. I took Gina (who finally had a shoe tacked on Monday).
This particular instructor specializes in biomechanics and its influence on effective riding. She’s also a USDF-certified instructor and USDF “L” program graduate; Green Country Dressage has often utilized her services for judging schooling shows and teaching at clinics and camps. I’d always heard very positive feedback from people she’s taught, and I’ve thought her judging comments were fair.
Gina took all of her crazy pills yesterday and spent ten minutes trotting around her paddock and avoiding me. Once I caught her, she loaded and traveled pretty quietly, only to pace around like a lunatic at the facility. She pulled back once when the wind blew my cap off my head, and was actually pretty calm after that. Maybe I need to spook her into pulling back whenever we travel!
The instructor used a Ceecoach headset to teach, which was super cool. An ear infection a few years ago left me with serious hearing loss in my right ear, so I often have a hard time hearing if my “good” ear isn’t facing someone. With the Ceecoach in my left ear, I could hear the instructor perfectly, and there was no static or weird reverb happening.
She asked me a little about my riding and my horse. I explained that I’m really an eventer, but that Gina is my old, creaky dressage horse. I told her that I sometimes get frustrated and impatient with Gina because I know she can do things (and do them well), but is often too tense or too distracted to perform to the best of her ability. I told her that I will sometimes pick fights or argue with Gina for the same reason. Basically, I’m kind of a jerk to Gina, and she’s kind of a jerk back.
The instructor had me start with walking Gina with a bit of contact and asking her to walk around the arena, slightly off the rail, asking for left flexion, then straightness, then right flexion. Gina had a lot of trouble flexing to the right and was overall fairly resistant to this exercise. We changed tactics slightly, asking Gina to leg yield toward the rail, go straight for a couple of strides, then leg yield off the rail, then turn into the rail to reverse directions. Gina was much happier performing this “bowtie” exercise, and I felt like it definitely helped her loosen her back.
The next exercise was one that challenged me more than it challenged Gina. The instructor called it “Drunken Line”, which was a pretty apt description of both how the exercise looked to the casual observer and how I’m sure I was riding. The goal was to use my body in a subtle way to influence Gina’s direction. To get her to go right, I pushed with my left thigh and applied a little pressure to my right stirrup. To get her to go left, I pushed with my right thigh and applied a little pressure to my left stirrup. We started on the quarter line and zig-zagged our way down the arena, changing the direction of our line whenever I felt Gina’s shoulders and hindquarters line up with the new direction. I was instructed not to use my reins to change the horse’s direction.
I was blown away at how well Gina responded to this exercise! She positively excelled at it, and I started to experiment with how much pressure I needed from thigh and toe to get her to move. The answer: not much. At a walk, Gina moved around with the barest application of weight in my stirrup. The instructor had us move to a trot and continue with the exercise. This was a lot tougher for me. Gina is super bouncy and super forward, and it was hard for me to get the timing of the aids just right. When I asked correctly, Gina responded correctly, so I know the problems we had were mine. Eventually, we were in harmony enough that Gina began to stretch forward into the contact and lift her back- what a great feeling that was!
At this point, the instructor had us go on a 20 meter circle and challenged me to keep the circle round and keep Gina on the bit by using that subtle thigh and stirrup pressure. When I felt Gina fall in, I pushed her back out. When I felt her start to drift out or bulge her shoulder, I corrected it. She was much better to the left than the right, but was pretty good overall.
We called it a day after that; even though most of our work was at the walk, I could tell Gina was tired. Her cardiovascular fitness is good, but her strength for this type of exercise is lacking.
The best part of the lesson was receiving a page of notes the instructor took while I was riding! She jotted down things she observed, things we worked on, and drew diagrams of the exercises we practiced. Apparently, her regular students bring a notebook with them and she’ll write in the notebook each time they have a lesson. How awesome is that? I’m glad I took a lesson, and can’t wait for another!