Dressage Horse Training: Bringing Natural Horsmanship Feel to Dressage

Hello Everyone,

I had one of my most on the surface frustrating, yet enlightening lessons yesterday.  I am tackling how to really get Donzer through his back.  While I understand the biomechanics and dressage theory in my head, getting my body to get his body to come through his back is another task altogether.  I am usually able to teach Donzer to do something new and “accept the job”- Zaid Shamis al Hashmy, but this is frontier territory for me in terms of what it should feel like.  Creating a new feel with Donzer that neither of us really knows is quite a challenge.  In fact, I find that Ava is learning very quickly because there is no gray area with her.  On Donzer I’m like, well, I think this is right.  On Ava, I’m very clear that there is one answer I’m looking for for my aid.

For anyone who’s been to my youtube page, you know that I’m a big believer in groundwork, natural horsemanship or what ever you would like to call it.  I believe in getting the horse mentally ready to work and accept new information from the safety of the ground before getting on their backs.  One of the most important lessons you learn from groundwork (and I do mean you, not your horse) is that it’s all in the release.  What I mean by that is your horse learns when you release pressure, not when you apply it.  So, if you are teaching your horse to bend it’s head around to touch their belly and each time the horse gives you pull more, then it takes awhile to convince the horse this is a good thing to do.  If the horse gives and you ask for just a little bit more without a reward then the horse doesn’t like to play that game.  However, if when the horse gives you quickly drop the lead line giving instant release the horse will quickly realize that the release comes as soon as they comply with your request (se call this submission in dressage although I prefer the concept of a partnership).  It’s in the give not the take.

The challenge I am having in translating this most foundational of concepts in horse training is that in dressage you have to learn not only to give but not to the extreme of “throwing your horse away.”  The most simple example is asking your horse to flex at the poll to accept a contact with your hands.  In the beginning the rein is fairly loose but in dressage we take the loop out of the rein and ride with a following hand.  So, although there is contact all the time from your elbow to the bit, if the rider is allowing their hand to follow the natural motion of the horse, then there is a release in the motion.  When you ask for a half-halt (asking the horse to rebalance their weight more to the hindleg from their shoulders), you momentarily stop the following motion of your hand so the horse feels a block.  The release in this case doesn’t come from dropping the reins but from the horse shifting it’s weight to it’s hind end.  This takes a bit more training and is less black and white for a new rider still learning to develop an independent seat.

There are several problems that can manifest in this situation and as I rider I do all of them.

1. Allowing the reins to slowly slip through my fingers and end up with reins that are too long.  The rider ends up with their hands in their lap. This prevents a half-halt because the rider has to pull their hands all the way up to their ears to create the blocking contact with the horse to get the horse to consider rebalancing themselves.  This causes problems with the rider’s position and balance and you can see the snowball effect starting.

2. Horse evades half-halt by sucking back like a turtle pulling it’s head into a shell and physically shortening their body.  We are looking for the horse to articulate all the joints in their hind end (ie bend their hocks, stifles and lower their croup) and stretch over their back towards the poll seeking contact with the bit.  When a horse sucks back, the rider will end up with their hands in their lap.

3. Horse evades half-halt by slowing down and moving their hind legs more out behind their body.  This is usually accompanied by the horse shifting more weight onto their front end and ducking their head behind the vertical.  The rider ends up with their hands in their lap (are you seeing a trend here?).

Here’s where the breakdown in riding and training happens.  As a rider, if you’re aware of what’s happening you can fix it.  Most of the time when all of your brain cells are busy, as a rider you are not aware of what has happened.  Teaching is helping develop my awareness of this cycle.  I am able to monitor myself quite well at the walk.  Yesterday, I fell apart at the trot.  Sitting trot is still the bane of my existence as a rider and I did learn yesterday that posting when you become fatigued is not admitting defeat but smart riding.  I knew Donzer and I were not getting our work done and I was not understanding the comments of my instructor as they related to what I thought I was doing.

In my head I had a pretty picture. I was sitting back, relaxed carrying my hands making corrections as necessary.  So when I was being told to let go of the reins, I couldn’t understand why.  In my self-portrait I was in  a good riding position.  So, the best thing happened. Out of instruction ideas, my trainer got on Donzer for a few minutes and figured out what he was doing.  I watched my trainer (who was in fact riding in the correct position) and I asked her to show me what I was doing with my body.  She showed me that I had my hands back in my lap, and this caused me to lean very slightly forward which caused me to pinch with my knees to balance myself and my shoulders were lifted because the reins were so long.  Then I got it.  Once I realized what I was doing instead of what I thought I was doing, I was able to correct my position mistakes.  And, when I acknowledged I was tired, I was able to post to effectively ask for the forward motion towards the connection instead of allowing Donzer to bounce me around on a back that was not carrying.

Once the snowball of reins too long, sucking back, slowing down, behind the leg begins it is almost best to halt for just a second or two and regroup.  Trying to fight your way back to a good position is like trying to get back up on your water skiis after you’ve started plowing through the water on your face.  If you trainer will physically show you for come over and physically touch your body your brain and muscles will believe the correction needed.  Sometimes an instructor can talk you back to a correct position but not if your body doesn’t believe you.  In flying on instruments, it is a challenge because your inner ear will tell you you are straight and level when you may in fact be in a slow spiral towards the ground.  It is hard to ignore what literally the seat of your pants is telling you and do what your instruments say.  It is important for instructors to remember that this is what happens to riding students.  One of the biggest parts of riding is developing physical self-awareness.  We all think we are doing it correctly.  If the instructor can create a pattern interrupt (to borrow from neuro-linguistic programming), then the body will adjust it’s self-awareness towards a more correct self-assessment.

So, if you find yourself in a lesson and the conversation is focused on your hands, I challenge you to find the root cause that is almost always in your position.  You may decide that the position problem is not going to be fixed overnight but once you understand what is causing you to do funky things with your hands, you will correct the overall problem more quickly. For example, I will now be more tuned into when my sitting trot muscles have fatigued and I need to post to get the same amount of impulsion needed for our work.  I will take time out from my work with Donzer and just work on my sitting trot.  This will allow me to keep getting stronger but not have a negative impact on my work with Donzer.

Good Riding,

Tara, Out of the Saddle: 9 Steps to Improve Your Horseback Riding

Out of the Saddle

Out of the Saddle

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