Sunday, August 15, 2010

When the Student is Ready, the Master Appears

In the "L" Program study material there is a diagram depicting three different cycles. One is a bicycle with the tagalong bike behind, that two people can ride. One is a standard bicycle. And one is a unicycle. There is also another set of diagrams. One depicts the commonly seen drawing of a horse travelling on a bent line, with each foot falling as though the horse was a train on train tracks. Haven't we all been told that's how our horses should travel? Like a train on train tracks? The other depicts that same horse, but with the inside hind leg and the outside foreleg setting tracks down onto a single line, as though the horse was moving on a bent tightrope. The point of these diagrams is this: in order to gain greater access to all the parts of your horse, you must be able to narrow its base of support. The inside hind leg and outside fore leg must adduct towards the midline of your horse when travelling on a bent line. The only part about the train on tracks being correct is that you want your horse to do this without leaning in or out, and all the carts on the train have to stay in line. If you only ever ride your horse with the hind feet following exactly in line with the forefoot of the same side, the most you can ever hope for is a level balance, you will never get your horse's forehand lightened enough to develop an uphill balance. So how then do you get that horse's balance uphill and keep it from leaning in or out? Well, in addition to narrowing the base of support, you also must shorten your horse's base of have to slowly, step by step, bring the center of mass over the inside hind leg until your horse feels as though you are riding a unicycle. That sounds hard, doesn't it? Why would we want to bring our horses to such a fragile state of balance? Well, to gain access to his body. When we can keep our horses working towards a shorter, narrower base of support, that inside hind leg, then we have ultimate control over what happens next. And amazingly, when you really have your horse balanced over that inside hind leg, that quest for lightness of the forehand just happens.
I rode in a clinic with Crystal Kroetch this weekend, my second clinic with her. It was the first time in all the lessons I've taken that an instructor brought up that concept of bringing the inside hind and outside fore more onto a single line. I'd already been struggling with it, after studying it in our first "L" session, trying to figure out just how to make that happen. Turns out the missing ingredient was getting Charisma's base of support not just more narrow, but also shorter, and not by stopping the front end, but by riding the hind legs more and more underneath her, a little bit more every step, a little bit more every circle, a little bit more every day. Did she get-WE get-a little wobbly at times and feel like we might tip over? You betcha. That's where that core strength must come into play. If you tip the balance bar(the reins) too aggressively, you will fall flat. Little adjustments...a little outside thigh here, a little inside calf there, a little more push with the seat and calves-but don't get tight!, a little vibration on the rein she(we) like to hang on, et voila! ...a few steps of heaven. Bask, then, back to work. I remember looking in the mirror at one point during the lesson, while working shoulder-in. I was getting good feedback from Crystal, and in the mirror, Charisma suddenly looked just like a video I've never forgotten of Edward Gal riding VDL Prestige in shoulder in. The massive stallion suddenly looked very tall and slender. Now, we are certainly not in that league, don't get me wrong, but it's amazing how an image can stick in your mind, and you don't know why, and then one day it becomes "crystal" clear why it was so inspiring. Edward Gal had narrowed and shortened that mighty stallion's base of support so much that he was balanced over the inside hing leg just as though he were sitting on a unicycle. I remember being awed at how easy and light it looked. Now I know why.
I have said it to my students a million times...if you want to be a tourist, buy your husband a convertible, park yourself in the passenger seat, and watch the beautiful world go by. Dressage is not an easy discipline. You have to ride a 1300 lb animal, be precise, consistent, fair, strong, soft, flexible, and all the while keep breathing and look like you are doing nothing. Best learn to ride with your mind and not your might! You will make mistakes but that is how you learn. Mark Twain said "Education consists mainly of what we have unlearned." Stay humble and willing to leave your comfort zone. As for me, I plan to buy a unicycle for crosstraining :)

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Leg Yield Demystified

Below is a link to a super article by Jane Savoie regarding the leg yield. In watching various horse/rider combinations during my L Program education, I am realizing this is a commonly misunderstood and therefore improperly ridden movement. The leg yield, along with lengthenings of stride, develop the thrust(pushing power) that is necessary at First level, and is a prerequisite to the carrying power required of Second level and beyond. It teaches the horse to adduct with the inside hind leg, knowledge he will need when you begin to develop the shoulder-in. Only when the horse learns to keep the inside hind leg underneath its center of mass will it then learn to lower that inside hip, which will allow him to develop the carrying power necessary for collection and cadence. Well ridden, with a nicely filled outside rein and a high degree of submission to the inside leg, this is also a super suppling and submission exercise for more advanced horses. Be creative: leg yield away from the rail, or, leg yield in one direction, straighten, and leg yield back, in a zig zag. This should provide you with an excellent clue as to which hind leg your horse can better adduct, valuable information for future development of straightness. You can also, when encountering resistance to the outside rein, turn that into a counterflexion and ride leg yield with nose to the rail. Keeping the distance covered in each direction symmetrical will also create muscle balance in your horse, and you. Start with a little and develop your horse's suppleness over several requests. But don't forget, forward before sideways, so never allow your horse to fall sideways. If the shoulders begin to lead too much(and anytime it is more than you decided, it is too much), half halt on the outside aids-more leg than rein. While the crossover of the legs is the essence of the exercise, do not sacrifice the thrust this exercise creates for the sake of sideways motion. Your horse's feet should not drag or create dust, and when you complete a well-ridden leg yield, you should feel your horse bounce lightly into your outside rein and carry forward with a nice cadence for at least a few strides. Scroll down to the bottom of this blog and find a picture of Anvil's Rethel, a rare white dun Norwegian Fjord, at just this perfect moment after a leg yield to see the beautiful cadence he has carried forward from the exercise. A well-timed subtle pet with the inside hand will reward your horse for this higher degree of balance, engagement and self-carriage, reaffirming that lightness we all seek. Enjoy!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Too Much of a Good Thing?

I am always game to try different approaches and hear about alternative ways to resolve common riding problems. But the increasing popularity of "western dressage" and the proliferation of "natural horsemanship" guru's needs to be considered from all angles. I strongly believe that these different forms of riding can be very useful to those of us in the dressage community. I personally hired a working cow horse/reining trainer(who also happens to be a good friend I'd seen start colt after colt) to start my 2 yr. old. Will I keep all the things he taught Frisco? No. But, his help was invaluable to me, and I have taken many things he taught Frisco and reformulated them into a more dressage-specific language, and applied them to other horses. One of my longest-term clients(who again happens to be a good friend whom I'd seen start filly after filly) has a significant amount of experience with Parelli and its offshoots. These two people have filled a huge void in my education as a rider and instructor, by giving me wonderful background in some things dressage riders frequently overlook...ground manners, yielding to pressure, and ground work designed to establish the human as the leader.
But after sitting in the Utah Dressage Society's "L" Program D-2 session this past weekend and watching rider after rider go around the arena with zero contact on the reins, and the impact of that approach on the harmony of the picture, I think I must play devil's advocate with the whole "lightness/yield to pressure" mindset that seems to have infiltrated our sport. OF COURSE we seek lightness. OF COURSE we need our horses to yield to pressure. But, this sport requires a significant amount of core strength, self carriage, and balance from both the rider as well as the horse. One of the most important aspects of our sport, sitting just above rhythm and relaxation on the training pyramid, is...CONNECTION. It is simply impossible to correctly develop a dressage horse's musculature over the course of many years without it. Muscles can only develop when they are engaged and asked to work. Slack toplines and slack reins do not equal relaxation my friends. Sawing the reins in the quest for a yield to pressure does not develop acceptance of the bridle. It only irritates the poor horse, making him wonder when next his teeth will be chattered, and is a dead giveaway to the judge that the connection of your seat to your horse's back is non-existent. The only way a horse can carry itself around the arena with the rider bearing only the weight of the reins in her hands is if that horse, and that rider, are so completely engaged in their cores, and so completely in balance with each other, that the horse no longer needs the support of the reins, and can "push back" from the bit, in 100% self carriage. I saw a lot of slack reins, or worse, long reins, but, not one horse did I see pushing itself back off the bit and carrying itself with a rider in perfect harmony. I dare say this misguided obsession with light reins is actually more detrimental to the horse's back and brain than the tight, short reins of a horse being ridden front to back. At least the latter horse knows he's not going to get a punch in the mouth at the end of the long side, and has a shot at bracing his back and underneck to protect himself against that death grip and the inevitable behind the vertical position of the rider as she digs her seat bones in a quest for "forward". Neither picture sounds very pleasant, does it? Neither is on the right track when it comes to that third tier of the training pyramind, connection. All I'm asking, fellow riders, is that you consider all the ramifications when you try new things. There is a reason why all the old books, all the old masters, all the old school trainers, demand that you learn to use your seat and position correctly. There are simply no shortcuts in this sport. Don't be seduced!