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Graceful
Beautiful
Effortless

Those are the words that come to mind when I think of dressage. As a matter of fact, those three words were the whole reason I changed disciplines. When I announced my intention the hunter/jumpers at my barn looked at me in shock. “What?! How could you pick something so boring? It’s worse than watching paint dry!” My response was always the same. “It’s dancing on horseback.” Sigh. “Beautiful.”

I was so naive. In my excitement I forgot to research my new passion. If I had maybe other words like Years and Geometry would have caught my attention and given me pause. Maybe.

That was three years ago. (ahem, years…)

At the new barn I was introduced to Geometry, The Twenty Meter Circle and his gang, The Four Touching Points. In the beginning they helped me learn how to ride a correct circle. However, within a few weeks I noticed that things had started to change. Small things like, I could never find all Four Touching Points when I was riding. And I swear that The Twenty Meter Circle had traded places with his twin The Oval.

Things escalated and it was obvious that I had an arch nemesis. The Twenty Meter Circle and his minions had quickly become huge thorns in my side and conspired to turn my circles into something that only Salvador Dali could’ve painted.

Well, I’m now happy to say that my years of studying geometry on horseback have paid off. Recently, the second level student I ride with exclaimed “Look at that circle!” and my instructor during another lesson stated “You know your circles.”

Yah! I vanquished the enemy!

Once again, I declare that 20 meter circles are evil!  Evil I say!  Especially on a lazy horse. Why? Well, for the obvious reason…since I’ve been riding Thunder I haven’t had to do them. (Yah! Happy dance!) That is until this past lesson. My instructor is heading to Florida for the season and I was royally tortured. Something to remember her by, huh? <Grrrrr!>

Oh, how I cursed those circles under my breath. I cursed them trotting. I cursed them cantering and still my instructor demanded more!

Get to your touching points!   *Bleeping* touching points.
Don’t let your circle get smaller!   *Bleeping* 20 meter circle.
Activate the hind end!   *Bleeping* circle.
More outside rein!   Aaaaargh!

Interesting how much I blamed a poor, innocent and harmless circle. Did I blame my instructor? No. The horse? No. Myself? A little. That was the Aaaaargh! However, it’s been decided. It’s all the circle’s fault. Nothing can escalate my frustration faster then a 20 meter circle. The thought of quitting flitted across my mind as tears glimmered in my eyes. Yet I continued to ride that circle. It will not beat me!

Finally, we moved on to riding the quarter line in rising trot and leg yielding back to the track. As I entered the corner I asked for canter. The pattern was repeated again and again with varying results. Remember, I’m riding a lazy horse. I have to keep him in front of my leg but at the same time regulate the sideways and straight motions with the outside rein. Too much outside rein and he starts to slow down. The upward transitions into canter weren’t the best. I usually lost the outside rein contact because he’d back off. <Sigh.>

The finale? Doing the pattern in sitting trot. Ow, ow, ow… The fronts of my thighs are killing me. I’ll be amazed if I can even walk tomorrow.

Amazingly enough my instructor thought I really had him in the outside rein. I just need to work more on the canter transition.

Then I surprised both of us by announcing that I wanted to show in the spring. (Who said that? Me? Was that really me?) That is if she thought I was good enough and wouldn’t get laughed out of the arena.

The verdict? YES!

So, look for me at Beland this spring and pray that I can ride a *bleeping* 20 meter circle.

My Fourth of July riding lesson began with a dumb blonde moment. The horse’s, not mine.

We picked up a……wait for it……wait……20 meter circle.

Crossing the centerline Buttons’ ears perked up and her full attention was focused on the corner. We were no longer on the line of travel. If anything we were performing some distorted version of haunches in on a circle. Ah, on second thought, make that a gourd. I kept the outside rein as she tried to spin around to avoid the lions hiding in the corner. When I released the pressure we were standing still looking at the object of terror. I then asked her to trot on the circle again.

Wash, rinse and repeat.

My instructor asked me to allow her to just stand there for moment to look at “it.” Another student was cooling out along the rail so we followed them tow truck style into lion territory. Huh, she was fine after that.

We then continued the lesson.

Circling to the right Buttons likes to look to the inside and this causes her to fall out. Think of an eighteen wheeler jack knifing. That’s her. Her head and neck = the truck’s cab, body = the trailer. In order to control her outside shoulder I need to keep my outside rein. (I tend to give it away. Sigh.) Outside elbow glued to my hip. No twisting of my upper body. Turn the toe of my inside foot in. Shoulders down and back.

Circling to the left she doesn’t like to look to the inside. She keeps her body bent like she’s still traveling on a circle to the right. In this direction I have to exaggerate the bend around my inside leg. Head to tail.

After about a half hour my instructor jumped on Buttons to demonstrate what she wanted me to do. Buttons didn’t like the idea of softening or bending with her either. I need to be more assertive and get my point across much earlier. Buttons was like butter after that. Of course we still had our moments where I wasn’t quite quick enough with my aids but still…heaven. I think I need a warm up rider.

I ended my lesson chanting:
keep the outside rein
shoulders back and down
elbow to hip
toe in
head to tail…

That got your attention, huh? Lendon Gray doesn’t need help, but as a struggling dressage rider, I do.

I submitted my plea as an entry essay for the Week with Lendon Gray Contest. Basically, I summed up some of my blog entries that focus on my arch nemesis, the 20 meter circle. Then I asked…okay make that begged, for her help. I think it went like this: “Please help me Lendon Gray!” Too much? What do you think my chances are of winning the contest?

20 meter circle victory dance here I come!

In the fairness of competition I’ll remind you that the contest ends August 1. Visit the link above to enter pleas of your own.

circoOh no! Does this mean I need my own horse?

A speedy perusal of the online sale pages reveals that Circo is a nice dressage prospect. He’s well within my budget, an easy keeper, a barn favorite and good ground manners.

SOLD!

My Hunter Jumper personality rears it’s ugly head Er, no offense to all you H/J riders out there but I changed disciplines. I’m a Dressage Diva now. (Yeah, right.) <cough> OK, let’s rephrase that. Make that Dressage Diva Wannabe. Hey, is there a level for that? I think Wannabe Level would be perfect for all us adult amateurs changing disciplines.

Oops, I’ve digressed.

My upper body was very forward during my dressage lesson. My back was arched and my bum was stuck out behind me like tail feathers. I was falling forward onto my crotch (ouch! I felt that later). That meant that my core muscles weren’t engaged. (Core muscles!? What core muscles? Oops, off topic again.) This all lead to closed hips and mixed messages. Posting with a closed hip prevents the horse from coming forward into my hands. <sigh> Go forward but not really. My horse hollowed out in response and being a mare looked…well, marish. (Is that a word?) Oh, and my thighs were gripping due to this mess.

feathersAnd that wasn’t all…my 20 meter circles continue to be the bane of my existence. I’m soooo frustrated that I gave some serious thought to quiting. As usual I ended up with my inside leg turning so that my toes are out and the back of my calf and heel are against the horse. (The toes of my inside leg should turn in slightly to indicate the turn and to keep my hips open. Think of knocked knees.) My inside hip ends up moving back instead of being forward and my upper body twists as I then try to pull my horse around the circle with the inside rein. Bad. All bad.

We moved on to sitting trot to get me thinking of sitting more upright and vertical. I experimented with how things felt if I moved too far forward, into a correct balanced position or too far back. In both the too far forward and back position my thighs would grip to make up for my compromised balance. In the correct vertical position my legs hung down the sides of the horse and my hips were open and flexible, absorbing the movement from side to side, up and down. Because my hips were open I had nice breathing legs and I could use my inside leg to outside rein for better connection. Every so often I had absolute lightness and it was perfect. Then my brain would kick in, I’d start to THINK about it (bad) and everything spiraled downhill. I need to stop thinking and just go with feel. Thinking gets me into all kinds of trouble.

Quiet.

Stillness.

Zen         like       peace.

That’s right, 20-meter circles rock! Gasp! Excuse me, but did you just hear that? Did I just say 20-meter circles rock??? Has someone been playing mind altering tapes while I’m asleep? No seriously it’s true. As of today’s lesson they rock. Next week they’ll probably return to their rightful place as my arch nemesis.

It was a great lesson. I rode the sweet Quarter horse and we had the ring mostly to ourselves. We warmed up traveling the full ring then started 20-meter trot circles. I didn’t even flinch when my instructor said, “Pick up a 20-meter circle at A.” What’s up with that? I didn’t once hear “Get to your touching points!” (OK, maybe once…or twice).

Starting at A we picked up the circle, then took the track when we returned to A. Bending through the corner we proceeded to B. Rinse and repeat at B, C and E. I should’ve been dizzy and a stressed out mess but instead I found myself saying “Circles ROCK!”

I found that I wasn’t looking at her head/neck at all. I was truly looking around at the line of travel. My mind was quiet. I was quiet. Wow! Maybe I have it all wrong and being alone in the ring is what rocks!

We changed things up with change of rein across the diagonal. At the end I also had to switch to a few 10-meter circles because she was starting to hang on my left rein unresponsive to my half halts. At this point we also did almost stops from trot to walk to get her to wait for me.

I then moved on to the canter. On the 20-meter circle of course! My canter work has been sadly neglected. My instructor says it’s like I’m two different riders. My trot work is quite good (her words) and at a higher level and my canter is…well…lacking. We get so focused on the trot work that there are times when I never canter. Other times it’s tossed at the end when students are switching around for the next lesson and I’m an exhausted puddle. (You would be too at the age of cough, cough forty-two after an intense one hour lesson.)

It was good actually. I didn’t tense up when she said “Do a 20-meter circle and canter at E.” Canter? Gulp. OK, maintain a good trot. If I don’t have a good trot I can’t have a good canter. Keep a relaxed thigh in order to maintain a nice long leg. Keep the bend of the inside rein, half-halt with my outside, allow the head to nod. Good, good. Oh, my God! Her back is coming up and she’s in a rounded frame! Circles rock!

We ended it there. My instructor said it’s the best canter work I’ve done. Yah!

Sometimes I find myself twisted up like a pretzel while riding. You’ve been there remember? No? Well let me jump start your memory. You’re trying to make yet another dreaded perfect 20-meter circle. On the open side instead of looping around your horse strolls on down the rail. Your perfect circle has just become a fish hook. OK possibly a keyhole if you were able to pull off a last minute save.

The twist In essence my rib cage has collapsed to the inside, my weight has shifted to the outside stirrup, the outside rein may’ve crossed the withers, my inside leg has turned out and drifting toward the horse’s shoulder and my eyes are looking maybe steps ahead of me.

In response the horse has bulged out or fallen in. When I collapse on the inside, my weight is in the outside stirrup causing the horse to step in that direction to balance himself (think of a leg yield).  My outside rein crosses the withers and no longer contains his outside shoulder and my outside leg isn’t there either. My inside leg has turned out and rotated my hip. I just opened the door and the horse strolled through it. Oh, yeah and my eyes pointed him there.

Now it’s time to shout. To fix my collapsed rib cage I need to remember to step into my inside stirrup. Not a lot. Just a little. Enough to elongate that side (and keep my bra strap up). Keep my weight centered over the saddle. Forget about the curve and ride straight. Then remember to keep my elbows near my hips. Think glued there. No better yet rubber cement. Then I’ll remember to keep them elastic not stiff. My inside leg should turn in to indicate the bend. Keep my eyes looking a half circle ahead of us. The horse will follow my eyes.

Eureka! I had a great lesson applying these techniques. I found that I had to think of leg yielding or maintaining straightness on the quarterline instead of thinking about circles. The more I think about circles the more stressed out I get. The more I over think them and become a contortion artist. I had great changes of bend on a figure eight too. My instructor didn’t really harp on touching points so something must’ve been right. Oh, and I had the ring to myself.

I am my own worst enemy. I know this because I still can not ride a 20 meter circle. I just have to hear the instructor mention 20 meter circle and I start to tense up. Not good. If my horse is my mirror it’s no wonder I can’t ride a circle!

We approach the corner, use it to re-balance and pick up our circle at A, half-halt, oops too strong, don’t hang on the inside rein, pat the horse’s neck, turn your wrist out and move it in toward the center, keep your legs under you, don’t cross the whithers with that outside rein, don’t cling with that inside leg, don’t twist your upper body, ride her straight (huh? it’s a circle), pretend your outside rein is a side rein, don’t complain, just do it!, circles do not have corners!

Aaaaaaaaargh! The school horse has outsmarted me and reduced me to a puddle of frustration on the verge of tears.

The bright side is that several days later I can laugh about it. I received a great pep talk from the sub instructor, subbing for the other sub. She thought I had gotten some great moments from the schoolie and I should consider showing at Beland in the spring. OK, our centerline was straight and we did very well on the broken lines…it’s the circles that are killing me! I have this on video and after studying it several times I realized that it’s not as bad as it seemed at the time. Not great but not horrible.

Overachiever that I am I had to read everything I could find on dressage circles. I read that the horse is our mirror. Therefore, I need to relax so that the horse will. That also means breathing! Nice deep breathes. Also, I think that I’m looking too far around my circle. I need to start breaking it down into quarters which should help me to ride straight (oxymoron I know). Finally, I need to get my Zen back and get into the zone. I’m fully capable of it. Tune out everything…including that instructor’s voice buzzing like a mosquito in my ear.

Wish me luck!

Contact Me

leecullen@comcast.net

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