First Dressage Lesson

I know you’ve all eagerly been awaiting my full ride recap. I definitely spent most of Saturday digesting and re-watching videos, and I hope this is the first of many dressage lessons in our future, because we definitely got a lot out of it.

There were no big “aha!” moments for me, but I do think Val had a few. This was his first dressage lesson, and mine, and we didn’t do anything super crazy or mind blowing, but we did work a lot on keeping him relaxed, and in a good frame since he tends to get tense and upside down. A big part of this was boring him to death with circles.

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There was some of this…

In general, I was really proud of Val. He had a lot of (maybe) first experiences, and he was really willing and pleasant all morning. Amanda was super amazing and picked us up bright and early, and though we planned a few extra minutes, he marched right onto her straight load with only a cookie for encouragement, then stood politely while we put the ramp up and did his butt bar.

When we stopped to pick up Henry, he still stayed nice and still in the trailer while I stood at his head and Henry sniffed his butt before climbing in on the wrong side (the stupid new guy was in his spot), and then he rode nicely with Henry to the dressage barn. While Henry marched out, Val again waited patiently, and then tip toed his way out and down the ramp. So proud of my little Thoroughbred for being so well-behaved during that experiment, and I won’t feel too bad bumming rides from friends here and there knowing how easy he was even by himself in a new, much smaller trailer.

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and some of this.

We watched Amanda and Henry lesson first, and I had a minor panic attack over the fact that I don’t know the short court letters, let alone the long court letters. But I also made some mental notes, and tucked away some exercises for later.

Near the end of their lesson, I hopped on and started walking my horse around the ring to get him loosened up and used to the arena. He was definitely concerned about a pile of poles and chairs in one corner by the mirrors, but eventually got over it. He gave the mirrors a hairy eyeball once or twice, but really wasn’t concerned.

After speaking with the Dressage Trainer (henceforth DT) about how he’s often tense, and really has most of the same problems as your typical thoroughbred, we got right to work.

I won’t bore you with too many details, because there was a pretty basic theme. Val has always had a really soft mouth, and it took forever just to find a bit he would accept contact with at all. But he still would rather you weren’t touching his mouth unless you’re asking for something, and his head almost always shoots up when you first take contact. So we worked on that. This required me to maintain a straight line from my elbow to the bit, with a light, but steady contact. Val often tricks me into letting a loop slip into the reins, and I’ve always had trouble keeping my fingers closed.

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Getting there.

Maintaining that light contact meant that I “created a barrier” that told him where it was acceptable to put his head, but I also had to follow up with leg to keep him pushing from behind into the contact. When he really stepped into the contact and stopped resisting, he slowed down and needed a lot more leg, because suddenly he was using his back and abs in a whole new way. These are things I’ve noticed, but it was really helpful to hear why, and to know exactly how to create it consistently.

Once the walk was better, we moved onto the trot. I should mention that all of this was done on a 20 meterish circle around DT. We worked on the same concepts, but he tends to be a bit more auto-pilot and I had to work a lot harder to maintain the contact without letting my reins slip. DT was very pleased with his rhythm at the trot, which I was pretty pleased with. As is usual, to the right I had to also work to keep his left shoulder from bulging out, and to the left I had to keep it from falling in. We worked on a spiral both ways which really helped this.

We eventually took a short walk break, where he got to stretch just a little, and then we asked him to package back up and accept the contact again. This was much more difficult after trotting, because like a typical TB, he was anticipating more trot and then canter work, and walking on contact was certainly too much to ask in his mind. It was especially important to think about pushing his shoulders around the circle with my outside leg, while continuing to ask him to give around the circle. We did a little more trot work which was really pretty reasonable, and then moved onto the canter.

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Are we dressage stars yet?

While his canter has improved by leaps and bounds (he used to have a four beat canter if I asked him to collect at all) we still have a long ways to go. I’ve been letting him poke his nose up and out, because the canter feels so much better than it once did, but it’s time to ask for more. Val did not appreciate this.

Though he was pretty resistant at first and it took a lot of leg to keep him cantering up into the bridle, I had to remember to keep my heels away from his sides except for the occasional poke. Val reminded me of this with his signature buck.

We hates dressage.

But then things started to come together. He’s not strong enough to hold it forever, and he wasn’t quite sure what I was asking, but we had some nice moments. We went left, right, left, then right. His left side is his stiffer side, and it took a while to get it at first. Then the right lead came quicker, but he didn’t really want to hold it long. The second left lead was really nice most of the time, but the second right lead was really hard because he was tired. We went around and around and around before he finally gave in.

When he was really resistant to the normal aids, DT had me drop my hands so that the were really low and wide, with the reminder that this is a tool that is a means to an end, not the way I’ll always ask for this. What helped the most was when I basically set my inside hand at my thigh, and used my outside leg/hand to push his shoulder around the circle, and I very lightly “played” with the outside rein. This was not a seesaw at all, but more like the tiniest of wiggles with my finger to keep a little movement so that was didn’t set against or ignore the aid.

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There it is!

I was so impressed with DT’s patience as he kept saying “It’s ok. It’s ok. He hates it. He thinks he can’t possibly do it. He can. Keep asking. Keep asking. There it is! Good! Ok, ask again. He can do it.” Never did we punish or get angry, but instead we kept asking and insisting, and my job was to make sure he only had one place to go so that the answer to the question was very clear.

And wouldn’t you know, each downward transition to the trot from the canter was relaxed and soft, and he stepped into a nice trot rather that trying to jig or break back to the canter, which is a first for us.

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Stretches plzzz

Our homework was to continue the exercise on the circle at home. As he gets stronger we can ask for more, but for now 1-2 circles at the nice canter is all he has to do at a time, and we’ll do a lot of really correct trot work to help build that topline. I have to remember to roll my shoulders back and maintain that line from elbow to bit. Sunday I did a short 25 minute hack doing the same things. Since I know he was tired and probably a little sore in new places, I didn’t ask for much. But I was so proud that he remembered, and even though he was a hot mess in hand and wandering around the arena, once I put him on the circle, he was so good, in his left lead especially, plugging right into the canter we were looking for. I’m really excited to see how we improve over the next few weeks.

If you’re curious, the last half of my lesson is below:

Obviously we still have more to work on. Even when I thought I had contact, I barely had any, and when I thought my shoulders were back, they actually weren’t. But there were some really good moments, and as his top line improves, and his abs get stronger, I’ll be able to help him rock back more and more.

huge thanks to Amanda for letting us bum a ride, and for getting a bunch of video footage.

I’m probably the weirdest Hunter/Jumper rider ever for being so excited about dressage lessons, but I feel like they’re going to be really helpful, and I think Val is athletic enough that we can play around with some of the upper level movements once we get the basics more solid. What do you think readers? Do we look like real dressage could be in our future?

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