“ . . . as you come around in the small circle, sit a couple beats and canter!”
WHAM! CRASH! BANG!!
Gusting winds picked up the corners of the big doors closing off the alleys on either side of the indoor arena, lifting and them dropping like a child stomping her foot in a mad tantrum.
I sat my couple beats, smiled at Becky and trotted the entire circle. Other than an inquiring flick from Royal’s ear questioning the bumpy ride up top as I had prepared for a wild leap that never came, he didn’t turn a hair.
I do not know what Becky Parker, our visiting dressage instructor saw when she watched the tall to me bay and white spotted Arabian go through his paces for us that day. My glow of happiness probably obscured her view.
It isn’t that we are natural born dressage champions or that things came easy to either one of us. It was our first dressage lesson together and even though I’ve been riding my lovely Barnesby saddle as much as possible I am still nowhere near as confident in it as I am my comfortable and forgiving Western roper.
My position is much better than a few years back when I tested for instructor with The American Association of Horsemanship Safety. My dratted forward leg kept me just under the threshold for the coveted Full designation.
I still bend forward at the waist, fairly certain if I sit up and back, shoulders square, my arms will then become too short to reach my reins and also I am quite likely to tumble off the back should my pony take one of those much expected wild leaps. It takes a true act of faith for me to stop holding my breath, relax and move with my horse.
When I could manage to get in balance with Royal on that blustery day, the result was truly beautiful.
When I didn’t, it looked like this:
“Terri, when his head comes up, it’s probably because he is out of balance.” Becky says to me. “Instead of taking hold of him and trying to balance him yourself, release to him a little and let him figure it out for himself. If you always do all the work he will never have a chance to learn how.”
Light bulb. And, a familiar one. Peter “get the horse ready and let the horse take care of the doing.” This is the same.
Just as the work we do with Peter Campbell that gets the horse moving all four quarters equal sets up a beautifully balanced horse that can do whatever it is you want.
Also what happens, Royal speeds up, slows down and I flop around adjusting my seat, my legs, my hands trying to get him back where we need to be. Sounds busy? It is. It gets in the way of him already in the process of working that out and we have a little mess for a few moments until we are back in sync again.
But, just a small mess. Amidst skeletal branches frantically waving their bony fingers through the high windows of the arena, occasionally scraping fingernails for emphasis, winds that howled and roared, my horse stayed calm and unconcerned.
A lonely small startle came after one of those little messes. I had him distracted and something boogered him. A few stutter steps and as usual, he’s over and done with it before I can pick up a rein or need to.
We were the first riders of the day, and I’d done only a little groundwork, wanting the best of my horse fresh for the lesson. I’d asked him to move in a circle around me, four corners reaching equally. He is used to this and does so easily, no knots in his brain or body to get in the way. A couple of canter steps in each direction with no happy bucks thrown in and we were ready to rock and roll.
I stand on the mounting block. “Come get me buddy.” My horse gently sidles up til I am in perfect position to mount. Yes, this is the horse that once took a guy on each side holding his head while I stabbed my foot into the stirrup and tried to stay alive long enough to land on top. A horse that Trina had to come hold as I could not keep up with him at our first Peter Campbell clinic together. Now, he comes gets me.
I’d had some concern with my position issues, I would spend the entire 45 minute lesson standing in my irons trying to find the elusive balance spot that would be my seat. I worked pretty hard on that the past two weeks.
We got to do all kinds of things. Becky had me make adjustments and ask Royal to come on to his outside rein. He’s been very adept at avoiding it or I have been really inefficient one of the two because we’ve NEVER had the balanced contact we experienced that Saturday morning. My horse likes support. As long as he had a place to go, in this case forward, he didn’t mind being closed between my inside leg and outside rein.
When he got a little crookedy and Becky asked me to also use my outside leg in conjunction with the outside rein, that got a little trickier. For me. It was like chewing gum, rubbing the top of my head clockwise with one hand and coloring something purple with my foot. I am not a largely coordinated person.
Again, when we got it, there was magic between us. I could feel him floating along. I was no longer bothered by the environment because he never had been.
We did circles, long trotted, picked up good walks and relaxed. The serpentines were likely not pretty, again more to my lack of coordination.
Working out where to change my rein is no automatic process as of yet. We did them, my horse willing and happy to go where he was pointed.
And then we were at “sit a couple of beats and canter!”
Had I not lost my courage at the crazy thundering doors, we could have . . . maybe. I don’t have a good canter transition from the dressage saddle. My lack of balance, not his.
We missed our transition completely a few times and then could not get the left lead. Over and over again, unintentional counter canter. Becky was unrattled, helped me make some adjustments. I showed her the back a half circle, leg yield to the wall and canter maneuver that Peter had taught us last September. Worked like a charm as it always does.
She smiled. “You know why that works, don’t you?” I am thinking things in terms of sets his body up correctly and me in the proper position as well.
“Yes, and, you don’t throw him away when you do it like that.”
Oh man! Another light bulb. Getting ready to canter, I was pitching him slack, me thinking I am freeing him up to make the transition. What I am really doing is throwing him off balance, and getting busy with my body to add to that. Doesn’t sound comfortable sitting here writing it, I bet it didn’t to him, trying to move under it.
“Just sit. Don’t make changes in your rein or your seat. Put your legs on him and canter!”
And, then we did. That lovely sweet going places canter he does when he’s happy with the world.
Happily a couple of friends and fellow students at the barn had their cameras and got some neat shots for us. I got to audit their lessons as well and watched a day of people and horses making good changes. Great horsemanship speaks the same language. Might be some different terminology but the flavor remains the same regardless of the britches you wear or the shape of your saddle.
Why dressage you might ask? The basics of this discipline aids everything. And that’s what I want to do with Royal T. Everything.
Photo credits to Kenzie Sikora and Jess Kirk