Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Breakup - Part 3

Part 1
Part 2

I had my first riding lesson in six years; a dressage lesson. It didn't go as well as I'd hoped, and made me feel like a pretty inadequate rider. I needed to decide if I was going to take more lessons and change disciplines, or if I was going to stick with what I knew. After thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that I didn't enjoy feeling like a crappy rider. I also recognized that I should have instruction of some sort, and that Kaswyn really needed a change in direction or I'd risk some permanent training issues. Bottom line is I wanted to be a better rider, and learning of any kind would probably help me get there.

I called Paula and scheduled a regular lesson time. I could not afford to put my horse in training, so I planned on taking lessons to learn dressage and then between the lessons I'd train Kaswyn myself. I knew that this would take longer, but it was not only an issue of finances. It was also an issue of not wanting anyone to possibly screw up my horse. I had purchased a young, unbroken horse for a reason. I didn't want to inherit another trainer's bad habits or training problems. Kaswyn was still fresh, unspoiled, and loved to work. I wanted to keep it that way.

However I needn't have worried about Paula messing up my horse. She was a very strong believer in ultra classical dressage. She didn't think the horse should be pushed very hard at all, lest he begin to dislike the work. She didn't like to see very young horses at the upper levels, since the only way she thought they could arrive at that level so soon in life was through rigorous and overly aggressive training. Things like draw reins, martingales, and the bitting rig were heavily frowned upon by her.

After our lessons we usually ended up talking about training philosophies and methods, where I asked a lot of questions in an attempt to learn more than what was presented in the actual lesson. She suggested that I read some books, starting with The Complete Training of Horse and Rider by Alois Podhajsky. She said there although there were many dressage books out there she considered this book "the Bible" of classical dressage. I bought the book and had a hard time reading it at first, and wasn't able to read the more advanced chapters until our training had reached that level. The concepts it contained were difficult for me to follow, coming from such a different background. But it did help to clarify some of the terms that Paula was using that I found confusing.

My concept of Kaswyn having a "head set" was incorrect for dressage. The dressage horse is supposed to make contact with the bit, not back away from it as I had taught my horse. It should be a situation where the horse pushes adequately against the bit and the rider holds the reins, but neither is pulling, pushing, or holding up the other. The hand of the rider and the mouth of the horse should meet each other halfway, and the contact should be light but still exist with the reins having no slack in them. The head and neck of a dressage horse should not be set, but should be fluid and able to lengthen or shorten to extend or collect the stride. It should be very movable, bendable, and changeable; not only from front to back but also from side to side. Our head set was none of these things. This was perhaps the most difficult habit for Kaswyn and I to break.

Closely related to this was the concept of "going to the bit". Since the dressage horse should always seek the bit and therefore the contact with the rider's hand, the rider should be able to lengthen the reins and have the horse stretch it's neck out as it seeks contact with the bit. This is one of the reasons for the "stretchy circle" found in many dressage tests. The goal is for the rider to lengthen the reins to show that the horse properly goes to the bit and is not in a head set or static frame. Ideally the horse, on a rein that is slowly becoming more and more loose, would stretch it's neck fully out and down to the point of the nose being close to the ground. It also follows that if the rider were to shorten the reins that the horse, trained to have a light contact, would be able to raise the frame, neck, and front end into a more collected stride. This collection only is possible to execute correctly after years of proper training that have strengthened the horse's back and haunches to the point that the collection is done easily. You can fake it and just hold the horse up with draw reins, but that is very damaging to the horse and counter productive in the long run.

I began to see an improvement after a few lessons, and then suddenly I felt the light bulb go on in Kaswyn's head. He got it. He couldn't always do it, but he finally understood what I wanted. Go to the bit, make contact, but not too much contact. This started a wonderful upward climb in our ability to do this dressage thing. Our lessons were more and more helpful and we both started getting in the groove, and enjoying it.

Paula had talked about some schooling shows in the area, so I decided that I'd like to go to one. I told her that I wanted to go to one in January, four months after my first lesson with her. She was horrified, convinced that it was too soon and that it would end in disaster. Kaswyn and I had shown a lot before, so I wasn't afraid of going in the ring with him. Besides, how bad could it be?

To be continued...

Part 4


Echo said...

I WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS!!!! I find myself checking your blog with the intensity of a soap opera addict - desperate for the next installment! I read through your account of your first instructor and had to read the whole thing all at once.

dressagemom said...

I'll try to write faster! But you know, you can't rush a good story. ;)

vic said...

As a riding instructor, your account of your lesson made me cringe! I believe that each lesson must end with the rider feeling good and more confident than when they started the lesson. I would recommend picking an instructor who pushes you but leaves you feeling good after each lesson. For some horse training q and a, check out

Rising Rainbow said...

That's right, don't rush your story! Just like you don't rush your horse!

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