The other day, Nautica and I had a major breakthrough in our riding and it wasn’t even during a lesson.
My instructor was riding one of her training horses (fun fact: another American Saddlebred dressage horse) at the same time I was schooling Nautica. During my work on a 20-meter circle, she noticed I was struggling with getting my right-direction bend. Again.
I was focused on the fact that Nautica was avoiding my leg by leaning in, bracing his neck and sharply falling in on the circle. To establish bend, I was attempting to correct him by widening my inside rein, adding increasingly more inside leg and pushing him into the outside rein contact; simple, basic schooling. Or at least this aid would be simple… if Nautica had the first clue of what I was asking of him.
Sometimes I forget that Nautica doesn’t naturally know these “regular horse” things. “Inside leg to outside rein,” while a phrase often repeated to the point of eye-rolling banality among the equestrian community, is mind-blowingly new information to a saddle-seat horse who has never once been judged on the quality of his bend. So we took a major step back.
Before Nautica could understand that he needs to follow the direction of a widening inside rein, he first has to learn how to yield to pressure. Take it way back to the walk. Actually, scratch that. Take it down to the halt.
After witnessing our struggle, our instructor explained to us that Nautica needs to disengage his “lock” feature found so commonly on ex-show horses’ necks. In many instances, though not all, saddle-seat horses are not corrected on any unintentional counter-flexion around a curve. Whether it be trotting along on the arena rail or cantering a circle in an equitation class, proper inside bend takes a back seat to other qualities such as their “headset”, motion, gaits, manners, etc. Every now and then you will see a well-educated show horse with their exhibitor riding them in what could be considered a slight shoulder-fore, or even simply inside-flexion, and oftentimes these horses have a much more improved, balanced gait quality over their fellow competitors, but I’m getting off track here.
Before we can accomplish a proper inside bend, Nautica has to learn to respect my rein aid. In falling in on a circle, he was very subtly disrespecting my bit contact. It’s not his fault—it’s mine along with seven-plus years of riding him the best way we knew how at the time. Now we know better so it’s time to do better.
So we worked on getting Nautica to let go (literally) of his learned tendency to brace against contact.
My new task was to take steady contact on one rein at a time, bending his neck in both directions at the halt and then progressing to using this same flexion technique when moving forward on a circle, always immediately releasing pressure at the first sign of giving on his part. I could keep slight, steady contact on the opposite rein, but we were really focusing on the reaction of Nautica’s neck softening to the desired direction. First, we did this at the halt, then progressed through the walk and onward to the trot. It was painfully boring and slightly awkward at first, but he was catching on quickly.
The goal right then was to get Nautica to let go of me. No pulling matches, no bracing, no exceptions. This is one of the stages in our training where’s it’s not fun, it’s not pretty and it’s not “dressage.” I can almost guarantee that if any other actual, classical dressage rider had seen me working with Nautica that afternoon they would be a little concerned. How could a person allow a horse to trot around so blatantly overbent with no control of the shoulder, moving around all willy nilly?! Crazy.
The truth was, yes, he was overbent and yes, his outside shoulder was all kinds of out of control, but he was responsive to the aids and his neck was soft and manageable. Finally! Now we can start to consider that outside shoulder. But that’s a lesson for another day.
The good news is Nautica is catching on quickly. In just nine weeks he has already improved beautifully in his trot tempo, gait quality and we even found our canter again. It’s almost resembling something of a normal, three-beat, equine gait as opposed to an antelope’s leaping.
The dressage will come. We just have to work on regular, good old-fashioned riding first. You have to learn to give before you can bend and you have to learn bend before you can progress on to the spectacular flying changes and piaffe… or quite possibly there are a few more steps in there somewhere.