By Anessa Romans
I attended the 2012 edition of Straight Forward Dressage’s Winter Camp December 28th - 30th and, in short, I had a blast. It was an action packed three days of fitness workouts, riding theory, and of course riding lessons. I’ve never been so simultaneously exhausted and energized after a clinic. There’s a bunch to share so to keep it semi-organized the article will be in three chunks. One on the riding & training theory topics that were discussed, a second on rider fitness (mostly physical but I’ll also touch on the mental), and finally some takeaways from my one on one lessons. I’ve also included lots of photos. Before diving in I want to say thank you to the tireless staff of SFD for hosting such a wonderful event and thank you to DVCTA for making my participation possible via the scholarship. -Aneesa
|Cheryle lead the discussion for our training toolkit.|
Training Toolkit. The first discussion introduced the goal worksheets. Each sheet was for a specific riding goal or problem area and there were spaces to list exercises one could do to address it including highlights for success and potential pitfalls. Tempo, relaxation, straightness, contact, impulsion, and similar goals/problem areas were tossed out by the group in the brainstorming phase. I will sheepishly admit that it wasn’t until typing this article that it dawned on me that these same goals are prominent residents of our venerable pyramid of training. However, there are many roads to Rome and it’s up to us as trainers to understand our horses and tailor our approach accordingly. As an example, under the goal of relaxation it was suggested to warm up the horse in a predictable pattern paying attention to consistency from day to day and place to place bearing in mind the possible pitfall of the horse either taking over or tuning out the rider. It was also suggested to constantly vary the warm-up routine paying attention to keeping things fresh and stimulating with the possible pitfalls of making the horse insecure or agitated. Both are legitimate strategies and excellent additions to ones training toolkit.
When talking about warm up consider the physical, the horses’ body temperature actually rising as a result of increased blood flow in the cardiovascular system, and the mental, like the relaxation strategies mentioned above. Warm up is also time to gage the horses’ attention and obedience. Reine, the resident corgi, aptly demonstrated how obedience is more readily attained once you’ve capture her full attention. Then Ange talked about how having a plan in mind before you mount can speed up the process of getting the horse focused and responding to aids promptly. Start with the basics of go, stop, and turn, and refine the aids from there, acknowledging places where you meet resistance and incorporating that into your plan.
Now I’m not a very serious person by nature and while all the theory is well and good it’s also a little heavy. Thankfully we got to spend two days putting the training scale into practice without even having to think about it. How you ask? Why quadrille practice of course! Keeping eight horse and rider teams synchronized tested everyone’s training (and our poor instructor Cheryle’s dodging skills) in a fun and positive way. Mastering the fan, the pinwheel, and carousel all required a firm grasp on the many shades of go, stop, and turn that we established in warm up. My horse particularly liked using thread the needle to show off trot lenthenings that he never gives a regular test. The highlight was finally pulling off the routine Sunday afternoon with our fearless band of junior riders leading the charge. If you’ve never tried quadrille please do!
Sadly our quadrille lacked a soundtrack, but we got plenty inspiration for next year by cozying up on the couches to watch freestyle videos, read the test sheets, and discuss what makes for a good musical ride. From the simple, like matching the beat to the gait, to the subtle, like placing crescendos to highly extensions. We were also treated to talk on competitive dressage in the days long before the grand prix freestyle test was started. Jenifer Bryant brought along several books that gave us a glimpse into the time when dressage was simply a part of a military horses training and competitions were only between cavalry members. I was floored to learn that the first Olympic dressage test was approximately 17 minutes long! (I really hope they allowed readers) The books also illustrated the evolution of the type of horse used for competition as the cavalries were disbanded, the world became more industrialized, and amateurs got into the sport. New training systems grew alongside new bloodlines and new judging requirements. Competitive dressage is changing faster than ever in today’s information age, and I appreciate the context provided by gaining a better historical perspective. Now I understand why these big kerfuffles erupt every time a new biomechanics study is published that flies in the face of “tradition”.
Rider Fitness. Owning a “fun sized” horse for the past seven years has made it pretty obvious that my balance (or lack thereof) directly impacts that of the horse. So, like most ambitious equestrians, I’ve always made an effort to maintain a decent level of fitness out of the saddle. Running is my go to activity along with yoga classes sprinkled in to counter the tightness in my hips that comes along with pounding the pavement and being a desk jockey for forty hours a week. I was looking forward to testing my mettle in the daily fitness classes. Each morning of camp was kicked started by trainer Carolyn Grashof who always came with and smile and a van full of equipment.
|Yea, these hurt. They just do.|
Jumping jacks raised everyone’s heart rate and squats and lunges woke up the large muscles below the waist that are vital to keeping us firmly in the saddle. It didn’t take long for participants to start shedding layers and reaching for water bottles. Bungees provided resistance for working the upper body solo and in pairs. Balance exercises that went far beyond any field sobriety test abounded, first while standing on solid ground, and then on an inflated disc, sometimes with a medicine ball thrown in for good measure. Targeted abdominal work came with the help of a squishy ball tucked into the small of the back for “support”. I later found that it was actually there to dampen the tremors as we were all soon quaking from the effort. All told I’d give myself an ‘A’ for effort but only a ‘C’ for execution. My shoulder strength is non-existent and I got bucked off the disc more times than I could count. Still, the first step is admitting you have a problem and I’ve started doing exercises at home to improve in these areas.
|Liz and Chris on the balance discs.|
Another area of improvement I’ve sighted in on thanks to camp is emotional balance. On day two the group sat down for a candid discussion on fear, frustration, and ambition. There’s no doubt that we’ve all had to deal with these emotions but putting it out in the open still takes courage. I’m grateful to everyone who shared their fears and their failings, along with tools to better manage those inevitable situations. I personally wrestle with performance anxiety and don’t always handle frustration too well. Especially if it’s something I’ve put a lot of effort into. In the past I’ve turned my feelings of frustration on my horse and while I know that’s totally unfair and completely irrational it doesn’t always register in the moment and it leaves me feeling like scum once I’ve regained my senses.
These types of discussion rarely provide a quick fix and often leave more questions than answers. But as long as it gets us thinking, talking, and reflecting I believe it is very worthwhile.
Riding Lessons. Camp included a half hour private lesson each day and I thought I’d share some of the things I learned. So you know where I’m coming from, and whether any of it might apply to you, my horse is a 15.1 hand 19 y.o. Arabian gelding and we show first level. He is a laid back and forgiving sort that is usually happy to give exactly what you ask for but not a penny more. He tends to be tight in the base of the neck, he avoids engaging by traveling wide behind, and he will pop up above the bit if ever given half a chance. He has a nice walk and scores well in the canter work. We struggle with the lengthenings and anything lateral.
Our warm up exercises tended to be things that tested and sharpened his forward and sideways buttons while encouraging the neck to stay long and placing the poll a little lower than you’d want it for showing. Three to four strides of leg yields on and off the wall and nose-to-the-wall leg yields for half a long side rolled into shoulder in for the second half are examples. I paid attention to getting the bend through the whole body, not just the neck, and getting flexion just in the poll and again not the neck. You’d be correct to assume that my horse has a very flexible neck and he’s not afraid to use it.
|In addition to traditional dressage lessons, participants |
could take a spin on Maddy's lunge line for a
"seat focused" lesson
Once he was tuned up the real challenges began. In one lesson we introduced renvers. I was given two ways to set up for it. The first was asking for it out of shoulder in where you already have the proper angle from the wall and just need to switch the bend. The second was to ask after a short leg yield from the wall to the quarter line so that the bend was already established and you only needed a change in the angle. I had better luck with method two since his haunches want to trail in the leg yield anyway but both exercises went into my “toolbox”.
In another lesson we really went for a higher degree of collection in the trot and canter. On a circle the horse was asked to open and close the stride. My job was to keep his back up and neck soft so that he didn’t go down and out like a racehorse when opening up but rather jumped up and then out. I also got some help from the ground with the instructor tactfully using an in-hand whip. After much grunting and huffing (mostly on my part) he settled into gaits with a super amount of suspension and the cheeky pony even decided to show off a couple flying changes.
Those of us who didn’t mind catching some air were treated to jumping lessons at Nancy Ligon’s lovely Firefly Farm. She provided us with excellent school horses that took care of their riders and enabled all to have a good time. One of the biggest adjustments I have to make going between dressage and jumping is in the leg pressure. After hours of lunge lessons training my legs to “drape” around the horse and using my seat to stay centered it’s quite a challenge to have to lighten the seat and hold my position with steady pressure from the inner thigh and calf. Nancy taught me how to regulate the horses speed by simply opening or closing my hip (squats anyone?). The goal was to maintain an even pace around the course and for a sensitive horse like the one I was riding, shifting my weight over the saddle was much less disruptive than using the reins or adding leg. That is a lesson that will certainly carry back over to my dressage work.