So you pulled with your inside rein and your horse bulged his shoulder and you crashed into the jump. Nice! Now it is recommended that you take a few dressage lessons so that you can properly steer your horse while running mach two at solid objects. But you are scared to take a dressage lesson because it is hard, awkward, and different. You know that you’re going to do everything wrong and you don’t feel like being criticized trying to trot a circle that your jumping trainer says is perfect while your dressage trainer pecks at it incessantly for not being perfect enough. So today we are going “dressagin” so I can help you mentally prepare yourself for a dressage lesson with a DQI (Dressage-Queen-Instructor) without quietly seething under your breath over your not-perfect-enough circle.
Forget Everything. This Only Applies to Dressage
Obviously, your attitude determines your altitude so the first step to a dressage lesson is to throw everything you know about jumping out the window. Just let it go. Challenge yourself and learn something new. They are different languages right down to how we ask for the canter. (I mean, you know dressage riders ask for the canter with their inside leg and jumping peeps ask with the outside, right? Except on green horses, then the dressage divas ask with the outside on the greenies until they are trained and can respond to the inside hip…) If you didn’t know that, this article is for you.
The Circle Diet
The first thing a DQI is going to do to improve your riding is put you on a Circle Diet. Yes, you must always be on a circle, unless it’s lateral work you will eat, sleep, and breathe a circle. I try to be generous in the beginning with a twenty meter for my jumping students but as you become more adept it will shrink to a volte. The point: You are not allowed to let the rail HOLD you up and keep your horse balanced while you “flat”. The goal is to teach you to be able to steer and balance your horse while riding on an intangible imaginary line without a solid object to set you up. So I call it the circle diet with my students, and that’s a requirement when they go dressagin’.
Sitting on your “Tail feathers”
After your DQI puts on you on a “”Circle Diet” they are going to pick on your seat. No pointy toes outward, move your leg back and twisty your thigh in and let it hang. You gotta drape that leg or your instructor is going to do it for you. It’s going to give you a butt cramp so if you don’t want that to happen do some pendulum leg lifts before your lesson. Your leg belongs at the girth and not half-way back on your horse’s belly with you lifting up your heel everytime you squeeze. Actually, we don’t really want to see your leg move because that alters our princess looking game. So when we use our leg we move it into the horse, not up and back. Imagine a rubber band wrapped around your two ankles drawing them together underneath the horse. When I ask for a transition I bring my ankles together and think of lifting my horse’s belly up to their withers. KEY POINT: Your DQI doesn’t want to visually see your leg move...so don’t lift your heel and squeeze with your calf to make your horse go in your dressage lesson, but do that in your jumping lesson tomorrow.
Don’t forget to sit on your butt. Like your tailbone. Just go for that exaggerated feeling so you don’t spend the whole lesson getting off your crotch. As a kid during hunter lessons I remember my instructor always telling me to stick my “tail feathers” out between the fences. Now you have to tuck them under your seat and your hips are going to swing up through your elbows when you post. Carry your hands legit like a tray of food is resting ON TOP of your arms; it will feel heavy and make your forearms sore for a bit if you’re always dropping them down into the mane.
“Shoulders like a Princess, Hips like a ….”
We post different. A lot different. So in jumping land with short stirrups you use the barrel of the horse to squeeze to get up in your post. That is going to drive your new DQI insane because to us the whole belly of a horse is like a keyboard and each position is a different key. Legs back might be more like a piaffe or reinback, legs forward at the girth means go. You should probably bring your DQI some wine if you are going to give her that much anxiety over changing your leg in the post, because remember those buttons on the barrel mean everything to us and it will just render us speechless if you keep hitting the button and your horse tunes you out!
The key point - be prepared to drop those stirrups just a hole or two so that you can post off the stirrup and with balance and not by using the horse to prop you up. It will give you more balance and make you a better rider, I promise! Also, every aid with the leg means something for a dressage rider. We don’t press and squeeze without expecting a movement or a reaction.
Addicted to Accuracy
We are addicted to accuracy. Taking lessons with a DQI will raise your standards of quality. To jumping peeps, you ask for the canter, you get the correct lead, you are happy. To a DQI, we want a STRAIGHT and BALANCED canter depart that is smooth and uphill and at the perfect time all without chasing, clucking, or flopping around with our leg like a fish out of water. It has to be magical and effortless and smooth. And you know what? A good DQI will teach you how to make that transition really perfect and effortless. Once you learn how to do that and raise your standards you might actually get a little addicted too. It’s really not hard, I promise.
On that note, you know there’s only two ways to get your horse into the canter right? You can chase them into it from a speedy trot which causes your horse to fall on their forehand and drop into it, or you can do the DQI method of using some tactful positioning and circles and squares to teach your horse to LIFT into the canter. Choice is yours but I bet you will look mighty cool at a show if you do the latter.
Okay, now that you fixed the seat and position stuff you can get to the real dressage! This is so exciting. So first you get to loosen up your OTTB by doing lots of bending side to side in the neck. That will help loosen the shoulder sling (so your horse is really free in the front end for a great jump). Then you get to work the shoulders which is 100% going to help you better steer to your fences with your outside rein and stop that pulling and bulging problem you had going on to start with. Lastly, you get to work that hind end with lots of leg yields and that is going to make your horse loosen those back muscles behind the saddle. With that combination of “Dressagin” your horse is going to feel oh so perfect and smooth he’s going to jump like a freak and pop you out of the tack. Jokes aside, you do realize if you work those areas your horse is going to jump way better right? And you won’t embarrass yourself with steering. That’s why you should go dressagin’.
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Ashley is a dressage trainer and instructor that loves to train dressage and teach lessons.