Once again I’ve been a little MIA.
Life as a full-time working student (*cough cough* underpaid, barn-managing miracle worker) is hard. Well, it’s not necessarily a difficult job per se, but it is exhausting, tedious and oftentimes thankless.
After eight hours in 105° Alabama heat indices running what is essentially a daycare for obstinate, oversized, hooved toddlers, I don’t want to look at a horse, let alone write about them at the end of the day. Despite all of that, I do still love this sport and adore the animals that make it very much a team activity.
A few weeks ago, Nautica had his first-ever “big” riding clinic as a dressage horse! Linda Strine came down from Kentucky to teach at River Rock Stables on June 29th and 30th, and speaking of miracle workers, Linda most certainly is one.
The lesson began with Linda watching Nautica and I do our normal workout at the walk and trot. She immediately zeroed in on our two biggest issues: gait tempo and rigidity… everywhere. From this information, Linda provided us with a few exercises. They primarily involved Nautica yielding his hindquarters. Why yield the hindquarters? I’m pretty sure there’s a really good, dressagey reason. I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but it did seem to work!
When I think of the word “supple”, my young, naive dressage brain thinks about one of two things: my horse must give to my leg pressure in the form of moving his barrel away from my leg (bend), and he must also give to my rein pressure by moving his head and neck in the direction of the rein aid (flexion). This is apparently not the case. Or is it? That’s not rhetorical; I am honestly still so lost and confused…
Nautica’s new exercises included yielding his hindquarters to the outside of a largish, 15-meter circle, essentially making a wide, traveling turn on the forehand. We would do all of this while maintaining correct inside flexion of his neck on the curve. (TLDR: Inside flexion, haunches out.) I would ask him to do this for one half of a circle and then use my straight lines (one letter-to-letter length) to check for softness. The result: a much softer, more easy to manage Nautica. Like I said earlier, a miracle worker!
Of course, we had trouble maintaining that softness on the entire straight line before reaching our second letter, but within only two reps we were already seeing a big change. Baby steps. Our new-found suppleness also aided in fixing Nautica’s too-quick tempo issue since he wasn’t immediately resorting to bracing through his neck and running. He was now only slowly resorting to bracing and running, kind of like how a heavy object needs to gain momentum before going up a hill. That metaphor (simile?) works on multiple levels because Nautica has recently become a little chunky on summer grass and he is now quite literally a heavy object.
Anyway, back to the suppleness. It’s hard to run away when your neck is not tense. Nautica’s trot tempo was now more of a low-speed race rather than a frantic trot sprint. Like The Little Engine That Could, Nautica was doing his best “I think I can, I think I can…”
I think you can’t, buddy. Slow your act down.
So, turn on the forehand. It might just solve all of our problems, end all conflicts and bring about world peace. Who knew? It’s such a simple exercise but sometimes I need that person like Linda who is so much more knowledgeable than I am to remind me of these things. My six month battle with give and release on the bit (AKA “Let go you asshole!”) while not in vain, was no longer necessarily yielding as desirable a result as it had when we first began our dressage training. But lateral work? In dressage?? What a novel concept.
Oftentimes we get stuck doing one single exercise simply because it yielded a certain behavior at one time. My job is to remember that Nautica is always adapting, for good or bad. He changes based on new knowledge gained as well as past experiences and how all of it ties in together. That’s why I must always be changing as well, seeking further instruction and adapting my daily, short-term goals to match his current abilities. It’s easy to get stuck on an exercise and become frustrated when it stops working. But thankfully, there’s also the option to take a step back, regroup and call in outside help for back up.
So that was the highlight of our clinic. There’s only so much you can do with a horse that’s still green to dressage. In addition to the magical turn on the forehand exercise, we also played around with other such dressagey concepts, like the always-reliable leg yield to shoulder-in, a few baby renvers and the tiniest of tiny baby half pass. All of these things added to Nautica’s suppleness, and by the end of the lesson, he was a proper noodle-necked dressage horse.
Our clinic ride with Linda not only gave us some exercises to help with Nautica’s current set of issues, but it also provided a breakthrough in the way I think about horse training. Dressage isn’t a quick-fix kind of activity. Dressage is a process. A long, drawn-out, painful process… I knew this, but I definitely needed the reminder that that process is dynamic. It is always changing and adapting based on the horse you’re riding today—not the horse you were on last week. Don’t get stuck, ask for help, and always keep learning.
In other news, at the beginning of June, my thoroughbred, Lacy, competed in her first “official” recognized beginner novice horse trial at River Glen Equestrian Park. She was a superstar, finishing double clear with an eighth place in the open division! I am very pleased with her progress and we are trucking right along, hoping to have similar success in our first big move-up to novice this weekend at the Poplar Place schooling show. I’m nervous, but Lacy is telling us she is bored with beginner novice and ready for more of a challenge.