My favorite movie is Dangerous Beauty, the story of a 16th century Venetian courtesan. One scene depicts the heroine, addressing a group of Venetian wives, and, as she is peeling a banana, she says, “The Latin for banana is arienna. Banana tree is pala. A woman’s greatest, and most hard-won asset is an education.” The scene is all the more memorable since she concludes by deep-throated the banana, but that doesn’t really relate to my blog, so I’ll leave that alone….
I treasure my education, and I routinely augment my regular lessons with clinics. The quality of education from this year’s clinician list has been truly impressive. Secret, Venus, Eclipse, Sling, Flash, and Legend have been my mounts, and I thought I would give you a peak at my lesson notes. Rather than bore you with pages and pages of notes from each specific clinic for each specific horse – and believe me, I have them – I thought I’d sum up in a Cliff’s Notes-style blog. None of these things are profound, as the difficulty of dressage is not in the complexity, but rather in the specificity. So here goes.
Control every part of my body. Control my thigh pressure, control my seat, control the angle of my pelvis, control the placement of my legs, control the pressure in my calves, control my hands. Ride better.
Control every part of the horse, every stride. Control the shoulders, control the hind legs, control the tempo, control the balance. Train better.
Keep every part of my body separate. If I need to boot a horse forward, my hands need to stay still. Otherwise it’s confusing to the horse.
Sometimes I need to ride the harmony, sometimes I need to disrupt the harmony to change a specific item – balance, suppleness, activity, obedience. Then I need to re-establish the harmony. Don’t leave the exercise until the harmony is reestablished.
Pushing when there’s tension only makes more tension.
Pushing when there’s relaxation and balance sometimes creates some really amazing work. Don’t coast when it feels good, use the “good” to make “even better.”
Tempo and clarity of the gait cannot be overestimated. If every stride isn’t in a clear, correct rhythm, fix it. Don’t move on until that basic is in place. Skimping on that step will cost you balance and suspension in the long run.
The calf is for go. The spur or a thumping calf is the correction for not responding to the calf. Save the whip for collection.
If I think my horse is supple enough, supple some more. A lack of suppleness can show up as heavy on the aids, running from the aids, or just plain stiffness.
Ride the horse out to your hand. Don’t take the bit back to the horse. If the horse won’t go to the bit, check the suppleness, then let the horse go out to the bit again. Ride better.
Ride the horse out to both reins first, and then worry about bend. If he’s not out to both reins, I don’t have control of enough parts of him to make a correct bend anyway.
If my horse is heavy in one rein, make sure the opposite shoulder isn’t popping out. Don’t give him the rein to lean on, instead put movement in the “heavy” rein, and a steady contact on the rein that is avoiding contact. And get off the track – the second track encourages straightness.
Break things down for the horse. If he understands walk pirouette from the seat aid, but wants too much help from the rein in the canter pirouette, keep going between the two until he understands that it’s the same thing, just a different gait. Teach the horse, don’t just muscle him. Train better.
Know what I am doing and why. When I ride a circle, I need to know what I want to accomplish through that circle. Do I want more bend? Do I want to control the tempo? Do I want to improve the balance? The clearer I am in my mind, the more clearly I will communicate to my horse.
If an exercise begins to fall apart, stick to the “why.” If I wanted leg yield in trot to improve suppleness, and the horse misunderstood and cantered, rather than correct the gait (which wasn’t the goal of the exercise) stay in leg yield until the horse understands and gives me more suppleness.
In short, ride better and train better. I think that’s what we all want. With or without the banana.