My first dressage lesson was thoroughly confusing. Paula, the trainer, used a lot of terms that I was unfamiliar with, which was really scary considering I had been riding for fourteen years. Also the concepts that she was trying to get across to me didn't make sense. I felt really incapable. I also felt like Kaswyn was thinking "Huh?" about everything I was asking him to do. Or, more accurately, what I was attempting to ask of him but was probably confusing him.
You see, the way I had been taught to train a horse was totally different than what Paula was telling me to do. Blair taught me what I now think of as "The Arabian Way" to train horses. It probably spills over into other breeds, and might not even be the way Arabian trainers do it anymore. But here is what I was taught...
The goal was to get the horse to have a head set. In other words, the horse should hold it's head steady in a certain position, especially in hunter or western. This would be accomplished by taking the reins, moving the bit back and forth until the horse put it's head down, then releasing the reins. With the release the horse should keep it's head in the desired position without rein contact, which would only need to be made again if the horse moved it's head out of position. This is especially true with western, where the reins are draped and loose hanging from the bit, only to become tight if the rider "bumps" the bit to remind the horse to get the proper head set again.
The head set was created by lunging the horse in a surcingle with side reins (or long lining), or what we used to call the "bitting rig". The goal was to adjust the side reins so that the horse's head was in the proper position. As you lunge the horse, he gets the idea that when he pulls on the bit he is just pulling against himself, and when he has the reins loose it's more comfortable. Thus when you get on the horse and ask for the headset he responds by backing off the bit to find that comfortable spot where the reins are loose. This can backfire with a hard mouthed or bullish horse, who will just lean on the reins for support and not really care about the pulling in his mouth. Fixing this problem takes tact in the saddle rather than more work in the bitting rig.
This concept of little or no contact between the horse's mouth and the bit only really applies to hunter and western. The english horses have a much higher headset and require much more contact. I remember that Blair's english show gloves would only last a few shows before she rubbed a hole in them somewhere. Also when I rode Bo (such a sweet horse, and greatly missed) I remember my arms aching from holding his head up in position.
Now, I have no idea if this was the proper way to train a horse. This was how I was taught by Blair, and she and her students had won many Regional Championships and Top 5 awards, so I could only assume that it was effective and correct for the classes and the breed. So this is how I broke and trained Kaswyn. The last Arabian show that we went to before my first dressage lesson got us a few blue ribbons and the Hunter Pleasure Championship, so it was clearly working. However, it was NOT what was needed for dressage.
What Paula wanted me to do was have bit to rein to hand contact with Kaswyn. He had been trained NOT to have contact, and when I made contact he would just curl the neck more and try to loosen the reins. As he had been taught. She kept saying that she wanted Kaswyn "on the bit" and "going to the bit". She also wanted me to "half halt". I had no idea what these things were. It was a humbling and frustrating 45 minutes.
At the end of the lesson Paula said that there were so many problems between my horse and I that she didn't even know where to start. She thought a good place, however, might be getting a dressage saddle. She said I could work in my hunt seat saddle, but it would be harder for me to get the proper positioning that way (I talk about my saddle issues starting in this post here). I didn't plan another lesson right away, but decided to think about it. And I had a lot to think about - a completely new direction for my horse and I, a new saddle, and lots of lessons. Plus a new trainer. Was I ready for that yet?
To be continued...
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