That’s right I said it; I pointed out that big pink elephant in the dressage room! Dressage is boring, especially when you do it everyday. I will freely admit this fact, which is why I am a huge advocate of cross-training horses. Today after I went and bought the spoiled animal more alfalfa hay (because fescue and timothy could not be good enough for his highness, of course) and cleaned out my horse trailer, I decided that the ring was, in fact, dry enough to ride in. A good call, since by Friday rain is back on the menu.
Val was in a good mood today which is awesome – I secretly think he enjoys being in especially when all the other horses are in with him. After Getting him out of his stall he was in my pocket the entire time I groomed him. His newest trick is that when you rub his belly he lifts up his foreleg and bends it up and out-of-the-way so you can scratch him on the underside of his chest. I swear he knows just how adorable he is. My horse will never be majestic – he is far too cute for his own good. After tacking up, all the time promising him that today’s ride was going to be fun (no Saturday repeat!), I led him down to the ring and stood him by the pile of standards and poles that are in groups from when the ring was drug before the rain.
Now I preface this saying, if something sounds like a bad idea then it probably is – if you have a bad feeling, even a little one, listen to it. But no, here I am ready to give my sneaky animal the benefit of the doubt and let him be bad. I am thinking to myself, “Why of course my horse will stay while I set up the gymnastics I want to work on today. Why wouldn’t he?” Big Mistake Number One. My horse stands for the first two poles that I drag to the middle of the arena and then takes off, fully tacked, towards the open gate (“I don’t need to close the gate! He doesn’t run out it!”) – Big Mistake Number Two. I have never run so fast in my entire life – there is no one else at the barn if my big horse manages to easily push past me and go on an outdoor adventure. Big Mistake Number Three. I manage to get to the gate before he does and make myself seem like a six-foot tall sumo-wrestler – “I AM BIG! I AM BIG! …. don’t hit me!” I get the gait closed and scamper out of the Beasts way as he barrels at a full gallop (with acrobatics!) around the edge of the arena. His reins are loose and I am pretty much in cardiac arrest at this point – “Oh God! Please stop! Wooooah, Waaaaalk, Brrrrrrrr, Pleaaase?” And around and around we go. At some point I am laughing because dang my horse is beautiful at a full gallop and wow, has that dressage training really improved his gaits! The next moment I am about to cry envisioning those reins flying over his head and him breaking a leg. Finally he stops, and I creep and beg and plead before I am allowed to once again allowed to grab him. So Val got his gallop that I knew he has needed for the past couple weeks – just not really in a way that I approve of.
I drag him back to the poles and this time I don’t let the reins leave my hand – which makes setting up gymnastics a little more difficult, thank you horse. But it’s okay because he is still in one piece and I did ‘allow’ him to be bad after all. What’s that saying, it is always the riders fault? I set up a set of four trot poles on the circle today and then also set up a low square oxer to use as well. Cross-training horses is so important for their minds. How would you like to do the same thing everyday? If we think dressage can get boring what must our horses think? Now it is true that dressage is a slow, methodical muscling of the horse and for this to happen it takes repetition and time. But repetition does not call for the same exercise everyday. As the rider you have the brains of the operation and it is your job to find a way to turn work into fun. I have always made it a point of Val’s life to be introduced to all sorts of activities and disciplines – from hunter paces, to cross-country schooling, to stadium, to bareback riding and swimming. Always do what is safe, but never be afraid to try something new and out of your comfort zone!
Starting off we did lots of stretching forward work – after his little ‘gallop’ forward was not a problem today. I worked a few times over the poles playfully in warm-up although I knew they needed adjusting prior to working over them for real after those times resulted in little hops and shuffles. Canter is the gait I almost always work first on Val and it is a huge part of our warm-up process. It is the gait that allows for the most freedom of the back and the rider can most easily influence tempo in this pace. By now you are all probably saying, “Okay but what does this have to do with jumping?” Trust me, I am getting there! I have talked about transitions within the gaits before and I probably will again; it is after all the building block to collection. We also all know horses speed up when they jump – they get excited. Fact of life. So how, as a smart and thinking rider, can we use this undeniable fact to our benefit? Let’s jump to improve our dressage!
Using the forward and energy sparked by jumping, Val could better enter the ‘collected’ canter that will someday become his pirouette canter. I jump, he is forward and eager after, I sit down and collect him underneath me and ask him to use that ‘spark’ to sit down and stay active, ride it for a few strides, and then back out in a nice normal collected canter to the jump once more. Jumping also improves rhythm – ask Val! By the end of today he was getting a perfect spot every time – jumping clean and beautiful with both legs level and forearms flat. Think about your rhythm both as you ride to the jump and then the dressage work away – they should be the same whether you are in small collected paces or going free ones preparing to take flight. Jumping can improve relaxation – use the jump as the reward for the good dressage work. Today I rode off the jump into our working canter and played with half-passes and flying changes. When I was satisfied and Val was being good then we came back to the jump once more as a reward. Jumping is a different stretch for the horse as well. With the hard-working back muscles needed for true ’roundness’ and collection, stretching them out is required. A correctly jumping horse arcs his back into a beautiful bascule bringing himself up and over it – the goal of dressage! It is a different movement for the horse and therefore requires him to move and use muscles in a slightly different way which is not a bad thing for strength.
After our canter work we did collected trot pole work. I cannot recall ever having done trot poles on a circle before today, and let me tell you if you think it’s like normal trot poles they will tell you otherwise! I make sure to post over the poles themselves allowing freedom for the back to come up and the hind legs to snap under and the hocks to engage, but I take care the tempo should not have changed once I sit one stride after them to ride the other 3/4ths of the circle. It goes back to that training scale (doesn’t everything?). Bend and suppleness was the hardest thing to master over poles on a curved line but once I figured it out he was magnificent.
So my advice is to try something new out, and whether you are a dressage person or not the road goes both ways. Everyone needs to shake up their routine and find ways to accomplish the same goals using crafty and exciting means. I would love to hear any ideas or training methods you use for not-so-typical-dressage!