Monday, March 14, 2011

Early March lessons, part 1

One big problem with dressage competition is the judges judge how the horse looks, not how they feel, and sometimes there’s a big difference between those two.   And sometimes, as a trainer, I’ll need to break the rules a bit for a time to help a horse get strong in a specific part of their body.  It’s not the kind of thing a trainer likes to do when there’s a show looming on the calendar, so that training is reserved for the non-competition season, which is when the ‘real’ training happens. Show season is for showing off, training season is for training. 

During training, when I feel the need to break the rules a bit, I prefer to do so with some help from the ground.  One of the amazing things about living here in Chester County, PA, is the wealth and depth of dressage training experience just a short trailer ride away.  Some years I trailer more in the winter than in show season.

This has been a really hard winter, and to me, that means I couldn’t trailer. Added to the weather, Cara had an ugly abscess that put her out of commission for a couple of weeks in January, then as she was playing catch up from that, she and I passed a nasty cold back and forth, so we couldn’t even rely on each other’s eyes.  I was left to go it on my own, which can mean I have time to work things out, or it can mean I have just enough rope to hang myself.  After my last trip to Hasslers’, I was a little worried about Venus.  Secret, Sling, Silhouette, Eclipse, Flash -- those guys I feel ok developing with the help of a camcorder. But Venus, well, I’ve learned a lot about training from her, as her personal training path is not my instinctive way of training, so with her, I need help.  With all the ice this winter, help just wasn’t available.  

By the end of February, I was ripe and ready for help. 

In this mindset, of course I said “yes” to a dressage lesson at OVCTA’s Jean Moyer clinic March 5-6.  When Happily Ever After farm announced that Barb Strawson would be teaching there March 3, again I said “yes.”  Then, when Jann, Hassler Dressage’s secretary, e-mailed and said Scott would be available March 2, of course I said “yes” again.  

Venus was first up for the education week.  Last time Scott saw her we were working on a better forward response to my aids and a more correct reaction to the use of the whip.  Such lofty dressage goals, I know.

We began by discussing her progress in the 6 weeks since he saw her. I wanted to check our homework, to have some help with the in-hand whip, and to look at the half pass and maybe her flying changes. I also said the homework of breaking-the-rules with a slightly rounder topline was creating more swing and power in the trot, but was concerned because, in that outline in the canter, she can get really short in her neck.

Once we started the work, Scott thought she looked much better in her back, and was much more responsive and quicker to the aids. We went to the in-hand work right away, and he had me focus on the transition into the first half step. He wanted it really crisp. When I let her ease into the half steps, she’s tipped onto the forehand. When I got her crisper, with his help from the ground, she started sitting more and tipping her withers and her poll up. The good news is he could just touch her with the whip to get a response, instead of the much-higher pressure from our January visit.

After a bit more suppleness work, Venus started to give me the super-swingy trot I’ve been getting at home. I was concerned that her hind legs were too slow in it, and Scott said she was fine.  My new self test is to take the trot a bit more forward and back, to verify that she was right with me and not just bouncing behind my aids. 

When we took the super-swingy trot sideways in half pass though, she lost her bend, just like she’s been doing at home (I was so thrilled she was making the same mistakes in front of Scott. Nothing is more frustrating than taking a horse for help, have the horse go perfect away from home when I have help available, then go home and have the issues crop back up again.).  He described her movement as “sliding sideways,” which is exactly how it feels.  He had me quicken the tempo a little just before the first half pass steps, and when I combined that with a more active seat, her half pass started to bound sideways instead of slide.  I still have more work to do until the half pass is show-ring ready, but I now have a plan to get there.

By the time we got to the canter, she was starting to fatigue, which meant she showed Scott the short, stiff neck-tipping forward routine that had recently crept up at home.  He said I was being too nice when she set her neck muscles against me. If I needed to supple her neck, I should try once politely, and if she ignored that, make a clear correction, and then go back to riding nicely. In short, get in, get the job done, then get out and ride the harmony.

He had me keep the connection, no matter how short her neck became, and put enough leg on (translate – a whole heck of a lot of leg) that she finally took a firm contact with the bit. Once she took the bit, I could more easily unlock her neck, and push her neck longer using my seat and leg. 

With the canter sorted out, we ran a couple of changes, and talked about a strategy for getting both changes more consistent. Her right-to-left change is quite fluid, and she’ll let me influence the canter before, during, and after the change.  The left-to-right change is a bit more tricky.  In the left lead canter, she leans against my right rein, and I’ve been using counter canter to help straighten the canter. Venus has gotten confused as to when she is supposed to change leads and when she is to stay in counter canter.  He had me be very clear, even to the point of quite loud aids, for the first left-to-right change, then come back and ride that same change from a much more collected canter.  Going between those two ideas, she started to focus more on the aids.

The test of any lesson is the next day—if the horse feels better and the work is repeatable the next day, then the lesson was a success, no matter how pretty or ugly the actual lesson was.  I’ve been working with Scott for quite a while now, so of course the next ride she was fabulous.  I have been focusing on keeping her correct in the contact and really active with her hind legs, and she’s been rewarding me with super work for the last two weeks.

Next up was Eclipse’s lesson with Barbara Strawson. Eclipse hasn’t been off the farm since last June, when he was diagnosed with Lyme’s.  He’s been feeling super, and the video looks good, but I needed confirmation that I have enough collection for his FEI debut this season. 

I enjoy working with Barbara. She has a great eye, and asks about the feel at just the right time—working with her is truly training together.
Well, as expected, I had a lot of horse. Eclipse is a wonderful stallion, with a fantastic mind, but on March 3rd spring was in the air, and the trailer sometimes goes to New Bolton’s reproductive center, and he’s an optimist, so it took a bit for him to quit craning his neck around looking for the ladies. Once he finally settled, Barb and I discussed our plan. I wanted to focus on the balance and the thoroughness, to make sure I was riding Eclipse’s most expressive, fluid gaits. The “tricks” are pretty easy for Eclipse, but with his over-achiever mentality, he can get a little over tempo, or a little over bent, or a little too collected in a matter of moments. So we got to work.

For more, see part 2

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