There is a big difference between schooling your horse with intention for dressage and just riding around walk trot canter. That is the difference between riding a pattern or an outline, and REALLY riding your horse with quality through that pattern or outline. Students just beginning their dressage endeavors often misunderstand the point of a dressage test. It is just the outline of a painting, and the true brilliance of dressage (and challenge of it too!) comes from being able to paint within those lines with good quality riding and a masterful art piece.
Today I am going to share with you my tips to be mentally focused to create a good quality ride schooling ride that leaves you feeling refreshed, accomplished, and happy and without anger or frustration.
For me personally, good riding starts the night before. I always sit and meditate quietly for a minimum of 10 minutes. If I am struggling with a particular horse or movement sometimes after my head is clear and I am grounded I will focus on that. It removes the mental baggage from the day and makes my mind and body free to ride well. But HOW do you meditate? People always talk about it, you should go meditate, and there's really fancy long guided meditations out there. However, for me personally I find the best benefit when I just sit and don't allow any input into my head. No music or thoughts, no thinking about tomorrow, no seeing any images in my head. Sit with nothing and I promise you your relationships with people, problems with money, and frustration with your horse will resolve. If you've worked all day then you should ground yourself before riding and clear out the baggage of people and energy that you have dealt with all day at work.
Now for the riding. You should have an exercise picked out to practice ahead of time that is appropriate for your schooling level. I have only 2 horses in my barn that need to come out and go walk, trot, canter right away to relax and loosen up. My other horses need a solid 10 minute walk before I start asking questions. I like this time with my horse because it allows us to connect without expectation.
STEP 1 of an AWESOME RIDE: Change your expectations + Wait time. You cannot come out and yank on your horse into a frame and expect them to go off carrying themselves walk, trot, canter in that position without creating anger, tension, and frustration. That's just not how it works. How would that go over if you walked into your office at work and treated people the same way? It wouldn't. You ask your horse a question softly with ONE aid, yes, just one...and you wait for them to think and respond. When I worked on my Master's degree in education I remember one of my professors saying that the wait time for teaching kids is FIVE seconds before they are capable of answering. I think a horse that is just getting on the aids is more like TEN seconds. So, do you have WAIT time before you expect your horse to answer? Good quality riding comes from great listening. Ask your horse a question and WAIT and LISTEN to see if they respond. If they don't, then ask a little louder after you have waited.
STEP 2 of an AWESOME RIDE: Set you and your horse up for success. Baby steps. If you are getting angry and frustrated, if your horse is acting out, then you need to go back a step. Remember that wait time? If you punish your horse too soon while they are thinking and responding then they are going to get frustrated and act out.
STEP 3 of an AWESOME RIDE: So, that exercise you have planned out is going to be the OUTLINE of the painting we are creating today. First, ride it at the walk on a loose rein. Then, ride it forward with a little bit shorter of a rein. Next, ask for the connection at the walk. If your horse slows down you need to add leg and probably a tap with the whip if your horse doesn't respond to the leg. Once you can FLUIDLY ride the exercise at the walk with a good quality connection then and only then can you proceed to the trot.
WAIT! Don't make an awful trot transition. That transition has to be QUALITY. What if an artist made a bad brush stroke with their painting? Can they erase it? This is the "ESSENCE" of dressage. When it's time to trot, do not throw it all away and let your horse invert, toss their head up, and not use their back. Ask for quality 100% of the time. If you don't ask for quality, it's not going to be good artwork. Your transition should be beautiful and elegant, lightly off your seat with just a little leg wrapped in, sitting back (but not collapsing at the waist) and lifting the saddle uphill towards the withers with your seat...now that's the good kind of artwork and riding you should be striving for!
STEP 4 of an AWESOME RIDE: Now we have momentum! It should be easier to get the connection at the trot. It's okay if the reins are a little loose at first if your horse was sticky going into the trot. Gradually, and quietly, shorten the reins so the horse doesn't notice. Make sure you add leg if your horse slows down. If for any reason that quality deteriorates, go back to the walk.
RULES: DON'T DEVIATE from your plan. I repeat, do not deviate from your plan. I repeat, stick with the plan. Would an artist get up from their artwork and start on a second painting while they are working on the most important part? Absolutely not. Stay focused with your outline, and within that structure think about what aids you need to do at the softest and quietest level possible to create a beautiful connection with your horse.
STEP 5 of an AWESOME RIDE: If and ONLY IF your horse is going beautifully at the trot you may canter. I repeat, if an only if you have a beautiful connection, your horse is going forward, and it feels like omg my horse is amazing today you can canter. Now, if you are a strong rider you can set your horse up for a beautiful transition. You don't just thinking OK, CANTER...NOW!!!! If you are new to dressage, this canter transition takes prep work. By that I mean, whatever your exercise you are schooling I hope it can set the canter up somehow. If you're on a circle, it's going to take one or two laps around your twenty meter circle before you are in a good position with a great connection to ASK for the canter.
When your horse is on your aids, and the connection is beautiful, then you can softly sit and ask for the canter by sliding your outside leg back and keeping your inside leg at the girth. Make sure your outside rein is tight and your hands don't bounce or move. School the same exercise (if possible, or modify) with the same focus on quality and intention for a few laps.
WAITTTTT! Please don't do an awful downward transition from canter to trot. This is the MOST difficult because if you aren't a strong rider you are going to get rocked around in your seat, and your seat has to be strong enough to hold your horse together so that they do the transition using their hind end and not falling on the forehand. PLEASE do not do canter to an inverted trot to a lazy walk. Just don't, that's a really bad painting...like Kindergarten style.
SO, you as the rider are going to breathe out, drop your knees like you're going to pray and stop moving your back. AS SOON as you feel your horse is about to go canter to trot you are going to add lower leg and perhaps a little tap with the whip and go back to that GORGEOUS trot you had with a beautiful connection. Do at least two laps of that on a circle and then you can do a lovely trot to walk transition that is forward and call it a day.
If you school for the connection and quality this should feel like a beautiful ride. Make sure you are PATIENT, ask for wait time, and any time you feel anger or frustration go back one step. Ride with this mental diligence every day and you will soon find success.
When you give your horse an aid, you as the rider has to LISTEN to the effect. If your aid doesn't create an effect, then you need to ask yourself if you asked correctly or if you are being too noisy with other aids.
I have this student that I taught many many years ago. She still follows me on facebook and asks me questions from time to time. I cringe sometimes at the thought of how I taught her compared to how I would teach a student her age now. The good news is, it didn't really matter, because she still loves her horse, rides her horse, and is pursuing a career in the horse industry. But it also reminds me that good quality teaching is really an art.
I also have an old instructor that spent a lot of time riding with Vi Hopkins. I still call him from time to time, and he always tells me, "to teach well, you have to pull a rabbit out of a hat." When I teach kids, I notice that I have to be very direct and exaggerate an aid. Like, if you tell a kid to punch, they might tap like a feather. It's just the opposite with adult students. Most of my adult students that come to me are too busy with their aids. It's my job as an instructor to help them refine and finesse these aids so a
The first step to de-cluttering your aids so your horse can hear your voice is to sit like a statue. Stop moving.
1. STOP trying to pump with your seat and be loose in your seat bones and "follow". If you're out of time that's really hard on your horse's back. Your horse can't hear your fine seat aids through all that seat bone jabber.
2. STOP moving your leg. No you cannot bend your horse around your inside leg right now. It's more complicated than that, like .... your horse is probably really crooked so we are going to have to move the shoulders in on the circle first to line up with the haunches and then after that straightness detail is added in THEN we can talk about creating bend in the correct direction which can usually be done with your seat soooo (deep breathe) ... please don't try that trick yet. Just sit like a statue and only use your legs as a gas pedal to go forward and if your horse doesn't listen back it up with the whip.
3. Your hands...first you need to make a fist and HOLD. Do not open your hand. I repeat, do not open your hand. Do not pull back, your hands do not go behind the saddle. So you have this fist that you can keep a baby bird in softly or you can murder a bird in if your horse is a little not listening but you don't don't don't pull backwards to turn...or stop. I repeat, do not pull back to stop. Use an opening rein (like a hinge from your elbow) to turn.
4. Your torso..First, we have to super-glue your elbows to your torso. If you elbow unlocks from that position, meaning if you can't feel your elbow on your hip, then your horse is stealing your contact. Then you need to squeeze your arm to your armpit a little, these two thoughts usually tighten up a torso and create an effective framework for your horse to go into the contact.
5. Your breathe. You breathe out and close your knees for your downwards transitions. You breathe in and lift up the front of your pelvis for upward transitions. You do not pull back in the downward transition.
The timing of your downward transition is : breathe out, drop your pelvis, make a fist and close your knees.
The timing of your upward transition is: Breathe in, lift pelvis, close back of thigh and wrap ankles around horse if necessary, back up with whip if horse doesn't respond to leg aid.
Do you see how light these aids are? They are imperceptible. To become a quiet rider you have to refine your aids to this level too. So now we are not using loud leg aids, seat aids, or rein aids. How does that rider using those invisible aids get their horse round and on the bit? This is my easy version, that needs modified for more advanced riding but will get you started in the right direction.
1. Do everything with your aids above so they are not noisy and your horse can hear your message.
2. Get your horse forward and in front of you leg. Not sure what that means? Then get your horse forward ask it to go more forward than usually without it feeling like it's speeding away or out of balance.
3. Turn your shoulders and waist around your circle in the direction you are going. Make sure you are on the correct posting diagonal.
4. Shorten your reins so there are no loops in them.
5. Make a fist with your outside rein. HOLD it. SQUEEZE IT and hold. Don't do that nagging ring finger thing, just hold. Don't pull back either.
6. Crawl down your inside rein. Open it just a smidgen to the inside of the circle. DON'T pull back with it or your horse will probably stop, just open it to the inside of the circle while you resist on the outside. When you feel your horse yield or give a little immediately bring that inside rein back in and push it just a little forward, like an inch, maybe less, to release. You should still be holding your outside rein and you should feel the connection there. Every time your horse loses the connection and their head pops up bring the inside rein back in towards the center of the circle until the horse yields. This should be done in a very invisible kind of way that is really hard to see from the ground (I shouldn't see your hands move).
This is a very watered down version of how to get your horse round. The key point is that your aids should be soft and effective. If you're not getting a result, change something...and don't forget to sit like a statue and don't move your legs or hands.