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A skilled dressage rider makes riding seem so quiet, beautiful and effortless. Riding is easy but the sport of dressage is actually physically and mentally demanding. It requires focus. The slightest shift of balance, hand or leg movement can affect the quality of the ride. Tension is the enemy and unfortunately I have that in abundance.

Charlie and I moved around the arena at a trot in the early morning sun. I massaged the inside rein, sat into his back and tightened my calves around him. Charlie responded by coming over his back and rounding his neck. I laughed as he switched to passage. Bouncing beneath me like a huge ball as we continued moving in a slow trot.

“Stop showing off!” My instructor shouts from the opposite end of the arena. Her voice is tinged with laughter too.

“I’m not,” I replied. “I just can’t trot!”

“That’s because you’re too tight!”

Blech, those words of wisdom again. I’m too tight. I have admit that passage feels great! But what I really want is a trot. Just a good old fashioned trot. Please!

Oh, there it is! Oops. Back to passage. Laughter bubbles up from within me.

Bounce, bounce, bounce

Okay, let’s focus and attempt to relax. I need to make it around at least once at a trot.

Woot, woot success!

I love school masters! That is when I’m not busy hating them for exposing every fault in my position and aids.

A lot has happened in the past year. At times I’ve thought that I just couldn’t do this. It’s frustrating, discouraging and disheartening.

And that’s just the trot!

Correction. That’s the walk. I still haven’t gotten him to trot!

I can’t believe this! I’ve reverted back to beginner level.
Why, why, why did she put me on Charlie?

Please trot. Please.
I hate schoolmasters!

“Most people don’t have this problem with Charlie. It’s you. You’re too tight today,” said my instructor. “Looks like I’ll have to chase you around.”

Ah, pearls of wisdom. It’s you. I know it’s me. Sigh. Now how do I fix it!

Uh-oh. Here she comes! (Trottt, trottttttt, trotttttttttttt)

Oh, the shame of it! (Hanging my head in shame.)
Someone please give me a paper bag.

I give up.

Wait.
Was that a trot?
Yah! Let’s go!

Nope. I don’t think so. Nada. Not happening.

Sigh. It’s just not happening today. I give up. Sigh.

Wait.
Another trot?
Hmm.

Let’s go!
Nope.

I give up. Sigh.
(Trot)

Hmm, I think I’m onto something here. My legs and fingers are relaxing when I sigh and say “I give up.” That’s allowing Charlie to move forward. Then when I start to think abut trotting and “Let’s go!” my legs start to grip and my fingers tighten. I’m telling him to stop not go! What’s wrong with me?

And that was an awesome lesson.

My left leg is jealous. It’s all my fault too. I’ve been unfairly focused on it’s sibling. Sigh.

I’m sorry. I should’ve paid more attention to you but I’ve been busy. I know, I know. (Pressing hands in the air.) No excuses, but… I’ve been in the midst of negotiations with your sibling. An offer is on the table and I think we’ve finally reached an agreement. It benefits you too.

How? Well, right leg is agreeing to mind her own business and stay on her side of horse. No more creeping up in an effort to do your job. Isn’t that great! She’s also agreed to relax more.

See? I really didn’t mean to ignore you. It’s just that this whole riding thing is sooo demanding. I’m juggling two shoulders, elbows, hands, seat bones, thighs, lower legs, heels, um, and a dressage whip. Oh, and a horse, duh! Which of course reminds me of the countless separate and simultaneous signals needed to communicate effectively. All at the same time!

Whew! I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

Yes, you’re right. I should’ve seen the signs of neglect earlier. Then I would’ve known that you needed me. Your cries for attention started out small, huh? First, my right stirrup felt too long. Then I noticed I was leaning to the left. Kinda like the photo here. Sigh.

Hey! Where’s my right seat bone?
It’s slip slidin’ away. Right off the saddle!

Knock it off!
Stop pushing me off the saddle!

Look we need to come to an agreement. This behavior is totally unacceptable. You need to stay long and relaxed on your side of the horse. Just like the right leg does.

I know! Let’s try something? I promise that I’ll give you equal attention. Actually, this will help you do your job. Will you try it? Great!

trotting…
this feels great…
oops! sliding off to the right…
barely lift myself up and set myself down on the left…
ah, much better!…
canter? uh, sure…
cantering…
lift…set down on left…
cantering…
lift…set down…lift…set down

Much straighter! Now relax those thighs!
Remember no more slip slidin’ away!

I am soooo sorry. I’ve been remiss in my duties as a blogger. What can I say, except that life gets in the way. (Shrug) But enough about that!

Rewind

The horse I rode hated me. Everything about me. My hands, my legs,… Wait. That was another post. (Ooops! Nothing more embarrassing then catching myself plagiarizingmyself!)

Let me start again. Ahem.

It was the best of rides, it was the worst of rides. (How ’bout a little Charles Dickens with a twist?) Pretty accurate summation of my dressage lesson though. This mare isn’t an easy horse for me to ride. She demands quiet! Quiet hands. Quiet legs. Quiet mind. Everything I’m not. Usually.

I came to this particular lesson in a blue funk. My internal banter, a.k.a. monkey mind, was on vacation. I found myself focused only on the moment. I allowed myself to step back and just let things happen. I wasn’t struggling to make them happen. I had no goals. Time stood still. I was mentally released from trying to achieve outcomes.

Mentally released.

I rode with quiet hands, quiet legs and a quiet mind. Amazing!

I was able to bend a horse that’s very stiff side-to-side. I got the forward in a posting trot and kept her on the bit. Somehow I kept her together around a 20-meter circle, then the full arena and cross the diagonal. Wow!

Things were far from perfect though. Let me count the ways.

I had to use my whip on the circle to get the forward. I got it alright and a buck for good measure. (Sensitive horse, sensitive horse.) I’m not very subtle with the whip. Yeah, subtle. Not my forte.

At times my legs stirred from their quiet slumber and I proceeded to rub her belly with my heels. Sigh. She is not a Buddha. Rubbing her belly will not bring me good luck. I may be rewarded with pinned ears and a buck but not luck. Remember to use the insides of my calves, on/off.

A few times my hands awoke too. Steady bridle! No head wagging! Right. Push her forward into my quiet hand.

Another time it was my feet. I was fishing for my stirrups. It annoyed me so, I can only imagine how the horse felt. Deep breathe. Find my feet. Ground them in the stirrups. Imagine dragging them through the sand…better yet, toes up. Relax your thigh and knee. Bingo!

Shhhh!

I’m riding effortlessly in silence.

I can barely hear my instructor’s voice.

Very Zen like.

Meditative.

When I moved to my current barn and instructor I was honest about my riding ability. I told her that I could walk, trot and canter. My cantering wasn’t that great and don’t even get me started regarding the sitting trot! I was looking to change disciplines from hunter/jumper to dressage but most importantly, I needed fine-tuning and refinement. You know what I’m talking about, all that…minutia. The stuff that makes an average dressage rider into a dressage diva!

And that’s how my journey began.

We started by tweaking my posting trot. Wait a minute…did I say tweaking? Make that a major overhaul! It felt as though I needed to relearn everything!

To begin with I needed to change my upper body position. Less forward tilting and more of a vertical dressage alignment. In the downward part of the posting trot I was staying in the saddle too long and landing a wee bit too hard. This was putting me behind the motion. To fix this I was to just touch the saddle and then rise upwards. My mantra became “touch, you’re up, touch, you’re up.” In the upward position, I needed to think hips to hands and imagine that a string was attached to the top of my helmet pulling me upwards. Open and close my hips. If you don’t fully open your hips in the rise you won’t get the forward.

Then there was my back end to consider. You know…the junk in my trunk. We all have a natural arch in the small of our back but I had a habit of increasing the arch by sticking out my bum. That meant I was riding on my crotch. Ow! I needed to tuck my bum under me as I was sitting and rising. This would help flatten my back and ensure that I was riding in balance and on my seat bones. I spent a lot of time riding around the arena with my arm in the small of my back and a hand at my hip joint.

During this time we also worked on my canter. The funny thing is that I was stronger and better in the corners then I was on the straights. I know why too. I felt more precarious on the scary corners so I sat deeper determined not to fall off. The biggest change I had to make was opening and closing my hips. My mantra become “grow tall on the up, close on the down.” This also helped me keep my bum in the saddle. “I don’t want to see any air or daylight!” The other change was not to fall behind the vertical. I had to imagine a wall behind me so that my upper body would stay with the motion. Then there was my tendency to go fetal with my legs. I needed to relax my thighs. When I was remind my leg would drop about 2 inches! No more lost stirrups! I was also throwing myself off balance by bringing my outside leg back too far to give the canter cue. Who knew? She did. My biggest breakthrough moment was when my instructor said, “you have great balance, trust yourself.”

Trust yourself.

Powerful words.

Now I’m beginning to see and feel the rewards for this fine-tuning and refinement. My trot work has really come along and my canter! I’m finally starting to feel plugged in! At least on the left lead. Still working on transferring all this good stuff onto the right lead.

Please join me on the next leg of my journey.

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!

I’m a magnet, really I am. Every rider in the indoor was in my little corner of the world. Have I mention that this indoor is a regulation dressage arena? Plenty of space for everyone, but no, they all need to be at C where I am. Including all the parents, boarders and others with nothing better to do.

It was the end of my private lesson and I was trotting on a 20 meter circle at C (remember my nemesis?). My instructor, who’s been away training, had asked me to canter. At the same time her next lesson has entered the ring at C. The other instructor’s students are cooling out at C and her next lesson students are also entering and mounting at C! What am I, a magnet?!! Why at C?

So, instead of cantering I continue walking/trotting/stopping to wait for traffic. Growing more and more nervous about the canter. Watching clueless teens putzing around on their mounts, crossing my path. Can we say performance anxiety?! I’m stressed, the horse is stressed. I finally did get in a half circle of canter and my instructor finally asked the kids to clear the way for me. At this point I announced that I was too nervous to continue.

Can we canter earlier in the lesson? Please.

Big, scary doors were conquered today! I lucked out and it was quiet in the ring. Two boarders were cooling out and no one else! What a treat! We worked on rhythm, impulsion and straightness. In the beginning I was using the full track and as we passed the center doorway my horse side stepped. I immediately turned her and made another pass. I wasn’t quick enough with my inside leg though and she shied again. Repeat. This time we made it pass the door. I took her all the way around the track concentrating on the trot, saying 1-2, 1-2, 1-2 under my breathe. This time just as we reached the door I felt a tiny twitch and I was able to tap her slightly with my inside leg and on we went. I gave her huge amounts of praise and pats on the neck for making it past the big, scary door. My instructor and a boarder both smiled at my lavish praise.

After that it was off to work on straightness by riding the quarterline. A real test with this horse. If you aren’t riding both sides she heads for the wall. It attracts her like a magnet. In no time she was nice and relaxed and stretching down. I was turning her the subtlest use of inside rein and leg. All the while I was saying 1-2, 1-2, 1-2 under my breathe as a reminder to pay attention to the rhythm and to BREATHE. She was so different from last week.

Then it was time to canter down the long side. I usually canter her in circles so this was different for both of us. Our canter depart was fairly good. She didn’t hollow her back at all. On our second attempt I was able to apply my inside leg into the outside rein. WOW! She rounded up and was in front of my leg. I’ve never ridden her in a canter like that…wow!

After my lesson I was chatting with a friend who mentioned that one of the owners may only use the mare for low level riders. They think that she’s having trouble because I (and others) are asking too much of her and that it hurts her muscles. If they take her away I don’t know what’s left for me to ride. The school master is sick and in the past the mare was a higher level horse. I don’t know if this is a compliment or a kick in the teeth.

Contact Me

leecullen@comcast.net

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