I had my first lesson of 2018 yesterday! The instructor I’ve been training with is now rotating her teaching schedule at locations throughout northeastern Oklahoma, which means that Candy and I hauled somewhere new. The facility we rode at yesterday is a private, no-frills farm with an outdoor arena that’s somewhat larger than a 20 x 60 dressage ring. While it’s not fancy, it has excellent footing and ample parking, which is all I really need! (Who am I kidding? All I need is parking; I’ll ride anywhere.)
I was really looking forward to my lesson, as I’d had two terrible rides in a row last week. I couldn’t get Candy to focus on the work I was asking her to do, and I felt like she was crow-hopping while cantering. Lessons always serve to remind me of the tools I already have (but may have forgotten) and often give me new ones to work with.
Candy was very good about traveling; she hopped right in the trailer, despite Gina screaming from the pasture. She unloaded quietly and stood politely at the trailer while I groomed her and tacked her up. I was surprised at her behavior, since she’s normally a little freaked out at new locations. She never does anything terrible, but she’ll weave nervously and sometimes whinny. Yesterday, she was alert and paying attention to the new surroundings, but didn’t seem anxious.
When I hopped on, Candy felt tight. I let her walk a lap on a loose rein in each direction to let her check out the space, and then Trainer had me begin some lateral work. Candy’s leg yield at the walk is becoming very consistent and it’s a useful exercise to help her warm up. Trainer reminded me to keep my weight in my thighs instead of my seat- when I fixed that, Candy immediately became rounder and I could feel her reaching further under herself with her hind legs.
Upon moving to the trot, Candy reverted to short, choppy strides. I worked on keeping my thighs heavy, and Trainer advised me to think about using the tops of my calves to “pump” Candy up into my seat. This was a really useful phrase and visualization to me- I could squeeze Candy with that part of my leg and feel her increase her impulsion without feeling like she was simply increasing her speed or careening around on her forehand. It also helped her round over her back.
We did some leg yield at the trot, which didn’t go as smoothly as it did at the walk. Candy generally has the sideways element down, but struggles to couple it with forward movement. Trainer suggested I re-frame my aids for the leg yield to use the same ones I will use for bending: inside rein gently asks Candy to look to the inside, inside leg pushes her body outward, outside leg asks her to move forward into the outside rein, and outside rein gives her somewhere to go. That helped a lot!
We also introduced lengthening at the trot. I’ve struggled with trot lengthenings on all of my horses- I definitely know this is an area in which I need to improve! With Candy, I thought about pushing her forward into the bridle while supporting her with my thigh and keeping a steady hand. She was able to achieve a couple of strides across a short diagonal (F to E, for example) and come back to a regular working trot quietly. I’m looking forward to improving my ability to ask for, feel, and ride this movement, and I think it’s going to be something Candy will be able to do fairly well.
After a walk break, it was time to canter. Trainer had me put Candy on a 20-meter circle and we talked about the canter, since it’s not something I have worked on in a lesson. I explained that our trot-canter transitions are prompt, if sometimes unbalanced and often above the bit. I described our downward transitions as “splats”. We started tracking right- it’s the stronger side for both me and for Candy. Our upward transition was one of our better ones. It was prompt and fairly balanced and round. Candy quickly put most of her weight on her forehand (and in my hands); Trainer told me to think about sitting out of the saddle and off Candy’s back. Lo and behold, Candy became noticeably lighter. Back on the circle at the walk, I asked if I was tipping forward too much. Trainer told me that it probably felt like I was because I had previously been tipping too far back. This isn’t the first time I’ve been hesitant about what I’m doing- one of my very first lessons involved me working hard on my lower leg position and moving it further back. Apparently, you aren’t supposed to ride dressage the same way you ride a drop fence!
We finished up by cantering to the left. It’s the tighter, weaker side for both Candy and me. I tend tip my left shoulder inward while putting a lot of weight in my right stirrup, which makes me very crooked. Candy doesn’t like to use her left hind leg to track up well or push strongly. Our upward transition was okay, but once in the canter the wheels started to fall off. Our combined imbalances resulted in me weighting my right seatbone and leg too much, while Candy braced against my hand and took awful little strides. Trainer had me move my seat to the left (which felt wrong in only the way that breaking an ingrained habit feels wrong) and think about counter-flexing Candy and using the same bending aids from the leg yielding exercise. I’ll admit that I was pretty sure that would end up with Candy super counterbent and flailing around. It didn’t, though! Candy became straighter and felt more balanced, and I didn’t feel so off-kilter. I felt like she was underneath me instead of off to one side or the other. Dressage is magic!
I’m really glad I decided to start taking lessons regularly. Having a trainer who is familiar with me and my horse has been really helpful! Problems (and their sources) are quickly identified, and I’m given exercises and information to help address them on my own. I think lessons have contributed to a better relationship between Candy and me, too.