Dresssage Horse Training: Behind the leg a subtle but showstopping evasion

Hello Everyone,

Today I want to share the next layer of the onion I’ve peeled back and it is more like remembering information.  One of the things about dressage is that a trainer or coach can tell you to do something but if you are not mentally or physically able to process the information, then you most likely lose if for the moment.  As a teacher and a student I can say that if you tell your student to do something and it doesn’t happen then one of two things happened.  One, the student didn’t hear or understand.  Two, the student thinks they are doing it!  It is so valuable as an instructor to pause and find out what the challenge is and help correct it.  You may very well find out that the student rider needs more core strength or balance to execute a movement and that will be added to the longer timeline.  But, as a teacher you can focus on a more attainable goal for the immediate lesson.  Even better is to discover there is simply a communication breakdown that can be resolved with more clarification.

I remember a trainer pointing out that slowing down is an evasion that is every bit as disobedient as a little bucking. I was surprised because no one has ever fallen off because their horse started walking more slowly.  Now, as I am working on Prix St Georges, I can tell you that this subtle evasion is very much a problem.  Donzer has always liked to curl his chin into his chest and while he has a great free walk, he does slow down ever so slightly when I pick a contact with the reins.  While I’ve felt this happen, I have not ever consistently done anything about it.

When I was first learning training level on my quarter horse, Red, my trainer pointed out that the horse needs to be focused and walk on with a steady marching gait.  That was 10 years ago and I’m now understanding the significance of the statement.  I didn’t register this as a big deal because we did not really focus on it or discuss it again.  So, I’m sure the trainer was busy teaching me other things but now this sucking back is showing up as a retraining issue for me at PSG.  A challenge of learning dressage when you are not at a barn full time is trying to figure out the order of things.  What aids, skills and responses can be works in progress and which aids, skills and responses need to be very correct to avoid downstream retraining time.

The Dynamic I am Retraining

Here is what I am now aware is going on with Donzer and I.  When I ask for more collection, Donzer slows down.  Donzer takes nice long strides but does not really do the more elevated higher quicker steps.  So, when Donzer slows down, he really gets behind the leg and it has been a bit deceptive for me to feel because we still cover ground with his long strides.  When I ask for more forward and keep the length of rein in front, Donzer disagrees because he does not understand/agree to go forward into a contact requires lifting his back.  He tries to do half-steps, pull, run side ways, etc.  What I am now aware of in my position is that I tilt slightly forward off my sits bones, balance my position with my knees and in essence support Donzer being behind the leg.

The Retraining Process

I chuckle as I write this because it is myself that is in the retraining process.  Donzer was perfectly happy with how we were doing things.  When I sit back on my sits bones, carry my hands in front of the saddle, keep my armpits down and my heels down, I can feel Donzer trying to push me forward or at least off to one side.  When Donzer tries to slow down, the reins get a bit loopy because he is sucking back like a turtle.  When I keep sitting up and asking Donzer to go forward instead of just leaning a little forward, Donzer has a bit of a tantrum jumping around and generally expressing his displeasure.  I get it, I’m changing the rules on him.  The best thing for me to do is to keep my butt very relaxed and wait it out.  Donzer is working a little better each day when he realizes he is not getting a rise out of me because when I used to get more engaged and try to kick him forward, I would lean forward and get off my sits bones–what Donzer wanted all along.

It is very challenging to sit quietly and not engage when Donzer has dropped the contact with the reins, has tightened his back and is starting to jump around.  I really just want to slide my hands back towards my lap to keep the contact or lean forward and get a really good kick into his sides to just go forward.  The more relaxed and especially if I can exhale with one of those “I’ve got all day” sighs (and really mean it), the quicker Donzer gets on with moving forward.

Finding the Stretch Zone

There are been a few articles recently in the different magazines reminding us that in all athletic training (people and horses), you want to work in the stretch zone.  If you jump right to the do it perfect zone, many athletes will quit.  What I’m finding with Donzer is that I’m building up the mental stretch zone.  While he is physically capable of lifting his back, he mental stretch zone is smaller and he’s pretty sure he’d rather jump to fighting.  I am finding the agreement to work and starting to increase our mental stretch zone as well.  I don’t know what happens energetically but when I verbally acknowledge to Donzer that lifting his back is very hard work but let’s just try it for a few circles, Donzer is giving me a few circles.  I am honoring that effort by adding in a promised work break.  It seems that after each break Donzer is coming back a little better.  I keep trying to extend the stretch zone and have Donzer give me just one more time around the arena.  When I get greedy, then I have to back track and rebuild some trust.  But, it seems that as long as I do not get angry, Donzer is forgiving.  I am learning to create intensity and focus without anger.

Moving Energy from Back to Front

Donzer has a great free walk and a pretty good extended walk.  Medium is pretty acceptable as well.  Each time the collection level increase, the muscles being engaged are more towards the topline.  What I am more aware of now is that Donzer is figuring out how to let the energy flow over his spine, withers and up to the poll.  Donzer has great development of the muscles in the middle of his neck and when I ask for more collection I can see the baby trapezius muscles in his neck right in front of the saddle start to engage.  There is also only about a half inch difference between him engaging the underside of his neck to pull on me and Donzer flexing at the poll to engage the topline of his neck.

Now that I know I want Donzer to do this great collected walk, I just want him to do it now.  Donzer, needs time to find and engage these new muscles and then to agree to take on this next level of difficulty.  Steffen Peters has said many times in his lectures that you are always training or untraining your horse.  Since I’m learning with Donzer, I am often unwittingly untraining Donzer because I am not consistent when I should be.  That is what is happening as I am now aware of and insisting that Donzer march forward steadily into whatever contact I decide to establish.  I am allowed to change the rules and I need to be patient and very consistent for Donzer to adjust.

Readjusting neuromuscular pathways at the walk

As always, I am giving myself time to process and make my new adjustments at the walk.  I have time to run through my body position, check in with Donzer’s hind legs, see if he is popping through a shoulder, etc.  This is also giving Donzer time to rebalance himself with out me constantly trying to half-halt and rebalance him.  It keeps the conversation clearly on the topic I want to address–stepping forward with energy into the contact.  I have added some canter when the walk is in a good place–and tried not to get greedy.  I am adding in posting trot so I don’t accidentally block him with my hips if I am not keeping up with the sitting trot.

I am taking a few weeks off of lessons to incorporate this new awareness into my riding.  I find it very frustrating to take a lesson and have someone  point out things I am aware I need to fix.  I like to come to a lesson feeling pretty solid and ready for the next improvement.

Good Riding,

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

Out of the Saddle

Out of the Saddle

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