I've been studying really hard for the Final Exam of the "L" Program, which I take next weekend, November 5th & 6th. One of the concepts the instructors really wanted us to understand is how important the General Impressions are. It is easy to sit and give a "play by play" of what is happening. But, can we actually assess and communicate to the rider what is missing from the picture, as it relates to the Training Scale, and the General Impressions? While accuracy is very important-it increases the difficulty and shows careful preparation-it is like the pennies in your pocket as compared to the dollars and fifty cent pieces...those being the Gaits and the training of the horse. At Training Level, there's not much to it, and riding with accuracy, both in your figures and the placement of your transitions, will earn you very respectable scores even with an average horse. But as you go up the levels, the expectations increase exponentially: the Gaits must not only be preserved, but enhanced; the degree of balance and self-carriage expected increases; the need for absolute acceptance of the aids and connection is imperative to proper development of the horse's musculature; and thus, the rider must quickly shift roles from being a benevolent leader at Training level, to becoming very effective with her aids in such a way to improve all of the aspects laid out in the General Impressions. Have you actually read the General Impressions on your test sheet? Have you read the directives of the movements? Have you read the purpose on the top of the test sheet? Have you read the Dressage rule book? Do you know what the purpose and essence is of each movement that you ride? If you read this information, really read it and try to understand it, you will quickly realize that how you influence your horse, how you train him, how you present the aids and the contact, are the most important part of this sport. Sheri Dumonceaux always told me "It isn't about the movements". I always tell my riders "Pretty is as pretty does".
The point I'm trying to make is this...the next time you are schooling, don't just go through the motions and ride your test movements. Know why certain things are required at certain levels. Take the shoulder-in for example. Once it is introduced at Second level, this movement becomes an integral part of the rest of your dressage career. Do you even know why you have to show this movement? Do you know what its purpose is? What is the essence, it's most important reason for being?? And more importantly, do you realize that you don't just wake up one day and decide your horse will now be required to demonstrate shoulder in? Have you been preparing your horse, day after day, ride after ride, circle after circle, to lower and engage his inside hind leg? If you have, well, shoulder in will "be there" when your horse's balance and the coordination of your aids reaches that level of sophistication. If instead, you've been allowing his hind legs to swing out as you round corners or make turns, if you've not developed control over his shoulders in the leg yields, if you've failed to pay attention to whether or not he truly stretches into your outside rein and yields his body to your inside leg, then shoulder in will bedevil you. Your horse will wonder why, suddenly, he has to show balance, bend, honest connection to the outside rein, and load his inside hind leg, and you will encounter much resistance. You may find yourself contorting your legs and body in a vain attempt to get the angle, bend, and uphill balance inherent in the movement. Think of the shoulder in in terms of the General Impressions. Does the horse maintain the regularity in his trot? Does he show freedom and elasticity with his shoulder? Does he lower the inside hip, thereby engaging the hind legs and improving the uphill balance? Does he accept the inside leg and go confidently into your outside rein? If so, the picture you will present is a horse that is working with a soft inside rein, has a slight bend-just enough to allow the inside hip to lower and step toward the center of gravity(underneath your inside seatbone), has the impression of growing taller at the wither and more compact in his body, and shows a marked increase in freedom of the forward reach of the front legs as well as a deepening of the flexion of the hind legs as they take more weight during the stance phase. Because you have developed his understanding of the connection from inside leg to outside rein over the years, your position will remain subtle and correct with no crossed or restricting reins or exaggerated leg positioning, because your horse has gradually built up the strength needed to do this well, and is confident and obedient, offering himself lightly to your aids, letting them through. All this comes together to produce cadence and balance, and over time will develop a very straight, collected horse moving in an uphill balance with a great deal of confidence in the connection to his rider. Here is an excellent photo of just such a shoulder in, with all credits due to Heather Mason, Flying Change Farm, and the photographer: www.flyingchangefarm.com/Photos/D@P.BF2E0015.jpg
So the next time you ride...ask yourself, can I get "there", whatever you perceive "there" to be, from "here"? Are you setting your horse, and yourself, up for success, by always riding him, and not just the test?