Thursday, April 4, 2013

Dressage: The Art and the Sport of It

Is Dressage sport, or is it art? I believe there are two sides to it, and, they do not have to be in opposition. They can work to benefit one another. My definition of Dressage is that it is the art of systematic gymnastic development of a horse's body, as well as, developing a deep communication and oneness with the horse. Showing seems at first glance to be a contradiction to this pursuit. For me, this is what showing is about: 1. fun and bonding with my horse; 2. to prove that I can keep my horse on my aids, and that I can continue to ride well, in a pressure situation; and lastly, 3. feedback from various judges, which I take into context with my system of training and where my horse is...i.e. if the judge says I need more lengthening but I know that my horse is offering all he can at this moment in time-accept the lower scores and continue to work on the things at home that will improve the lenthening, figuring out WHY they aren't there yet, rather than forcing them to be there because a judge said they needed to be. No different than with the stretchdowns...Frisco stretched when he was physically able. Many horses will allow themselves to be trick ridden into a stretch-just go watch on the sidelines and notice how many do a gravity stretch with riders jiggling the bit back and forth and the reins slack.  Once Frisco was physically prepared to stretch and honestly connected, we now have that as a highlight, often getting 8s on it where it used to be a 5. With the lengthenings, rather than panicking and chasing my horse off his feet, I started analyzing him-watching video and lunging. Do you know what I realized? His natural stride is already the distance of most horse's lengthened stride. Of course he couldn't lengthen any more, he was already very long strided and not yet srong enough for extended trot, which with his trot stride length is the next step on the continuum. I was basically asking my not even five year old for extended trot!!! So how do I fix this? I have to develop his collectability. Janet Foy said it multiple times in the symposium I rode in back in November, and as well in her book, Dressage for the Not So Perfect Horse: you can only have as much extension as you  have collection, you have to develop the pendulum of the hind leg incrementally. I have to make his working trot shorter and more elevated. Then I will have a lenghtening. These two examples are just what showing means to is not about the movements or the test patterns. Showing is not dressage per se, it is what I said above, to me. The test patterns are simply a structured way of accomplishing those three things. Showing is a sport, an opportunity to publicly display the fruits of your artistic endeavors. It is what an art show is to an artist. Properly preparing your horse at home prior the show, taking the time to develop the spectacular moving sculpture that is a properly developed and muscled dressage horse, will set you up for a fun and successful show. Having a strong base of communication will bring artistry and beauty to a technical endeavor. Take the criticsims and the praise-the reviews-and go home and continue to hone your craft and further your relationship with your horse. Let the two serve to further one another.
Photo Courtesy Scott Hallenberg


I'd like to introduce Champ.  He's a 2007, 17.2 hand pinto Old/Han gelding by Sempatico, and is owned by Mary Lou Pazik of Henderson, NV. Champ was sent to me at the end of October, 2012, for basic training. He had been taught to lunge correctly, and, was backed and ridden out onto trails by a cowboy, when he was younger. He was sent to Texas for a year to live with Mary Lou's daughter, Stephanie, where he was ridden some. Stephanie unfortunately sustained a serious injury to her foot and was then unable to walk, much less ride, for quite some time. Champ was moved to a facility that in the end did not take very good care of him. When he arrived at Lava Bluffs, he was about 200 lbs underweight and his hooves were platters.

I started him out lunging. In the beginning, he could not start to the left-I had to start his lunging to the right track. Also, he could not pick up the right canter. Boy did we have a long way to go. His size made balancing a real challenge for him, even without a rider. After a couple of weeks of just lunging, I felt his fitness was improving and began riding him a little bit after each session. By the end of Champ's time with me, five months, he had really come a very long way in his strength, health, and training. He still needs to continue working on his strength, topline, hind end, and his transitions, but he has a good start. He has a super mind, a very gentle soul, enormous gaits, and I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with him.

I did think it was cute that I had two gigantic black and white horses to ride for a while there!! Here's a couple of photos with me holding Champ and Tanner. Champ is on the left and Tanner is on the right. Tanner is a 12 yr old, 17 hand Percheron/Paint gelding. Also below is a link to video of me riding Champ after exactly five months of training. I hope Mary Lou has fun with her horse, and I hope he comes back to me for more training later!

Photos courtesy Karen Martz

Tanner on the right, owned by Karen Martz, and Champ on the left, owned by Mary Lou Pazik

Easter Weekend Clinic with Alfredo Hernandez

Frisco and I participated in our fifth clinic with Alfredo Hernandez this weekend. This time, Brenda and Cookie also attended, their first. It was as usual a wonderful clinic. We covered a lot of territory with Frisco, working on travers, renvers, shoulder in, leg yield, reaction time, and transtions. The biggest key to all of this is Frisco's reaction time to my aids. Alfredo wanted a much more prompt reaction to any and every aid I used. He had me carry the whip flat in both hands in order to require me to keep my hands lower, and to be more effective in the use of my leg and seat, versus relying too much on neck flexion to get things done. We worked extremely hard on Saturday with all of these things, and on Sunday I can honestly say that we had the most lovely shoulder ins yet. Alfredo had me really concentrating-I need to get a reaction to my aids, and, I must prepare Frisco much more carefully. A very simple exercise of 20 meter figure eights in trot, focusing on the preparation and change of bend, was the set up for the shoulder ins. It could not have been more seamless.
Alfredo was very happy to see Frisco's continued muscular development, and he could clearly see that we had been working hard. He wants to see me do many more transitions, in and out of the gaits and within the gaits. As well, he wants to see many transitions from one lateral movement to straightness to another lateral movement, not staying in any one movement for too long. He stressed the importance of keeping the quality of the gaits when I work on the lateral work-riding straight and forward any time I lose rhythm or tempo. He also stressed the importance that the horse reach into the contact and maintain the connection in all the work but especially in the trot stretch.
Cookie's introduction to the work was an exciting undertaking. I expect to see greatly improved acceptance of the connection in her as we continue these clinics. I am overjoyed that Brenda is putting her time, money and energy into furthering her education versus showing right now. Cookie is very talented, but it is a big leap to dressage from other disciplines for a rider. After a very successful first year at Training level, this time Brenda is taking to really deepen her understanding of this very intricate discipline will be time well spent. Alfredo loved Cookie, and spent a little time working her in piaffe. She will be a piaffing machine. Alfredo said she has very clear talent for piaffe, passage, and flying changes. What else do you need in a Grand Prix horse?! How exciting for Brenda!
Here are some pictures of Frisco and I, courtesy of Scott Hallenberg. Thanks Susan for sharing your husband's photography skills with us!