Because of how impressed I was with J and Kelley’s lesson with Brooke Cramton, I decided to take a lesson with her Monday (since both Laws were full). That way, I’d have a private dressage lesson, then be able to process it while I watched the Laws teach private dressage lesson. A day of dressage!
Of course, this was after I took Joyce and boys to the local airport….and wrong way Rickly took the wrong exit initially. But we eventually found it via the back way, and they got off just fine.
The lesson with Brooke was just as good as I had hoped. She started out watching me warm up, and soon began commenting: straighten up! Don’t look down!
She asked what type of comments we got in our dressage: needs more impulsion; loses energy in trot; behind the vertical; needs to push into the bridle. Watching me, she said she thought I was fiddling too much with his head and not enough “push” from behind. I end up “fixing” his head/neck, but NOT his impulstion. I realized that part of the reason I was looking down is to see his neck/my hands (and their effect on his neck). I need to look UP and over his ears, NOT even at his neck/my hands. As Brooke said: “you don’t need to look at his head! You’ll be the first to know if it falls off!”
What was amazing to me is that I was less “hands-y” and more consistent when I DIDN’T look at my hands. Go figure! If I keep my hands still, and push into them, using my inside leg, I’ll get better gaits. She was also concerned that I had to work so hard, and made me get a whip (I’m not very coordinated, so I don’t like to work w/ a whip…but I know that I can only get coordinated by working with a whip. Sigh). She told me to ask for trot/lengthening with my inside leg, and if he didn’t respond immediately, touch him with the whip. I did, and he really did “wake up”. Which then left me behind! So I need to ask but be READY for the change I just asked for (and that goes for transitions, stops, and so forth). There’s that dang “planning ahead” thing that keeps cropping up more and more for me.
At our last dressage test, I got rigid, and he got hollow. How, I asked, can I engage my “core” and still be soft? (someday I’m going to write up a post about dressage being nothing but contradictions: Bend and push to be supple; use your core to be soft; push to be light; plan ahead but ride in the moment; and so forth. How the heck does ANYONE master this crazy sport?!?). Brooke realized right away that I was doing too much (um, I’m the one who tries to do it all for the horse: “here, let ME jump that for you by jumping ahead! Let ME lift you up with my mighty core…” etc.), and that “core” didn’t mean “perpetually engaged like someone was going to hit you in the stomach”. Instead, she said, think “toned”. Lift the ribcage, but think light and relaxed. Riding is fun!
She noted that I was holding my arms away from my body and riding with very wide hands. I remember when I started doing that: I’m a huge believer in the fine art of imitation, or imitation, and I watched Kim Severson ride Dan that way my first Rolex….and win! I figured if I rode that way, maybe I’d get better….but I’m guessing she had a good reason to….and I’m not getting the same result, and now it’s become a nasty habit. Brooke had me actually hold my outside hand so that the thumbs weren’t just up, but actually angled away from the horse’s neck, and even a bit lower than the inside hand. THAT was hard, but it really made me aware of where my elbows were.
She had me work on the changing bend in the two loop serpentine in the trot, and her suggestion was for me to think of my bend NOT just as I was coming to it, but half a circle away. That took some getting used to, and I actually started the bend early—but it worked.
I came back from lunch in time to watch the end of the first dressage lesson with the “he-Law”, Leslie. He had gotten on a very nice but stiff and un-engaged dressage horse, and he was using lateral work to push the horse into connection. My first thought upon seeing him was “he’s not perfectly straight!”. But BOY, was he relaxed and supple on the horse….and BOY was the horse getting better as he rode it!
I sat down next to someone I didn’t know, and as is my MO, I chatted with her briefly. She commented on the next rider who requested a whip: “first thing I’d do for her is to put some spurs on her before I gave her that whip”. The next breath, I caught the tail end of what Leslie was telling the rider: “people do more damage with whips than spurs”. Hmmm, I thought.
Once again, he had the rider work on lateral work (lots of leg yields, some bending and counter bending) into submission and connection. I asked the woman next to me what he was doing, and she explained that If you get the hind end engaged and the front end supple, you’ll be able to bend both ways, and this horse was stiff. I marveled at how she seemed to know just what was going on, and she smiled and introduced herself: Rebecca Algar, who was Leslie’s Pony Club instructor back in England (Herefordshire)! She now lives outside Dallas and trains/shows cutting horses!
One of the riders was particularly tight/stiff, and so was the horse. They had real difficulty finding a consistent rhythm. Leslie tried to get him to soften his elbows, and find “strength in his fingers, not his arms”. When the rider relaxed his elbows, the rider got a much better gait/rhythm. Rebecca noted that he shouldn’t pull back so much, but just flex and give “like you’re milking a cow”. Now, as a former Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, I have milked cows by hand, and that image…that “feel” of muscle memory…really resonated for me. I’ve heard people say it’s like squeezing a sponge, and while I’ve cleaned, I’ve not really connected with that image/feel.
Rebecca suggested that riders who want to learn/maintain rhythm should ride to music, because riders and horses will both try to stay in the rhythm, follow the beat. Then it becomes second nature.
A couple of the riders rode with what my colleague calls “Puppy paws”—wrists turned inward. Rebecca noted that she hated that—and when I asked her how to stop doing that unconsciously, she said “ride with carpal tunnel braces!”
As I watched Leslie ride several other participants’ horses (and watched the riders, too), I began to realize how important “rubber”, following arms were. Rebecca reinforced the idea: “let the horse do the work—you need to follow”. This didn’t mean, however, that a rider’s hands simply followed “dumbly”. The rider is always keeping the horse in the contact, milking the reins to keep a bend, a connection, and so forth.
Several of the horses had trouble stopping square. Rebecca noted that US riders don’t spend any time working on their stops, and they tend to be bad. She said to ALWAYS fix legs at the stop, and then the horse does it naturally. You can rock to make a horse bring a front leg back, and tap to get a back leg. I need to work on that!
The riders weren’t doing a very good job finding a 20 meter circle, so Leslie placed cones so that riders had to go through them…and suddenly, they rode better! They were concentrating on making it through the cones, and they ended up not worrying so much about their horses…and their horses were then able to get into a rhythm. The circle kept them supple. Rebecca said that, to get a perfect circle, don’t look ¼ of the way ahead; look ½ the way ahead. I’m going to have to try that.
I have to say that several times each ride, Rebecca would say something to me (like “if that horse could get into a consistent rhythm, he’ll learn to be balanced. And then he’ll be easier to supple. And then he’ll be amazing”) and then five minutes later, Leslie would say almost the same thing. He obviously learned a lot from her!
It seems to me that riding dressage is like pulling a trailer. You have to think ahead (prepare for stops, turns, and so forth, and when you do those things, you have to do them appropriate for the size of the trailer/road/etc.). And you do it all in part for the vehicle, but mostly for the horse!
Leslie echoed Brooke from earlier in the day when he told one rider to “follow with your body when asking for a canter depart! Otherwise the horse is confused!”
Leslie chided a rider for not making the horse listen: “He’s got 23 hours a day to do what HE wants….for 45 minutes, he can darn well listen to me!” Rebecca laughed and said that he got that line from her!
He had a couple riders do a circle around a cone in the middle of the arena, making sure to keep an equal distance from the cone at all times. This suppling exercise really seemed to help some of the horses.
He told riders to “make a roof” with their thumbs….that is, they need to be up and pointed to the opposite ears of the horse, like a rooftop. Good image.
Sitting next to Leslie Law’s first Pony Club instructor and watching him teach was like getting a double clinic experience. I’m truly lucky to have picked that seat, and that Rebecca Algar found the ad for this clinic and opted to come. Bravo to her for doing such an excellent job with Leslie and, I’m sure, many, many other students.