Thursday, July 19, 2012

I’m going over to the dark side, but first - a dressage lesson

I have finally gone off the deep end. After years (and years and years) of eventing and dressage shows (and years of no shows at all), I have actually signed up to go to a hunter/jumper schooling show this weekend. I think this will be the first h/j show I’ve been to since… erm… 1988. I swore off from them back then because they were a) ill-run and took forever, and b) frequented by a bunch of snobby riders with even snobbier trainers. I don't actually know if anything has changed since then, but I guess we'll find out this weekend. I’m doing a 2’ hunter class, a 2’3 hunter class, and a flat class. My one goal is to stay on and attempt to give my poor horse a decent ride, instead of just flinging him at fences and praying that he'll take me over. We'll see how it goes!

But first! I finally got in a dressage lesson! I ended up trailering out to it, since they have a covered arena and it's still too squishy to ride in our "arena". When I pulled into the barn, I realized I'd been there about 15 years ago for a dressage schooling show. I remember it quite well - there were pigs at one end of the arena that caused most of the horses to perform a very interesting change of diagonal across M-X-K, often with an uncalled-for halt in the vicinity of X, some backing, and perhaps a spin-and-bolt. Cash, who had pretty much seen everything, paid them no attention, nor did he even blink at the rooster who decided to hang out around X and crow while we did our 20 meter circles at E and B. I believe I still have that test, and the judge's comments included something like, "well-ridden despite distractions." 

Anywho, the lesson. I am running poor Saga off his feet at the walk. As a result, he's not using his hind end for pretty much anything, because he's falling on his forehand. He can't help himself, it's my doing, and I need to slow him down with my seat and make sure he's pushing off from behind instead of pulling himself along on the front. 

The rushing problem was worse at the trot. I slowed him waaaay down with my posting and my core, and he became more relaxed and rounder. He's falling in on his right shoulder to the right, and I'm hanging onto my left rein too hard for him to get any proper bend. I actually had to push my left hand forward (eep! letting go of that supporting outside rein!!!) and suddenly he went sooo much better. I'm holding too hard on that rein for him and need to let it go. He's also traveling with his haunches to the outside to the right. To the left, he fell out with his shoulder (shocker there) and I had a hard time with accidentally overbending him left. I also figured out that my right leg is way more active than my left, and that my right heel has an annoying tendency to creep up. Honestly, I can feel that my right calf muscles are tighter than my left, and I think it's because of driving a car. Does anyone else have this issue?

Canter was... a joke. I could not get him to canter to save my life. I tried about six or seven times each direction, and finally had to drop my stirrups to ask him to canter. Again, not his fault at all - as soon as I ask, I'm rounding my shoulders, throwing my upper body at him, and lifting my heels. OF COURSE he falls on his forehand and runs at the trot. For whatever reason, without stirrups, I could make it work - I think because I MUST sit up or come off. We had two decent canter departures, one in each direction, and then I was pretty much done.

During the canter, the falling in/out on his right shoulder became even more pronounced, and I think we've figured out why. My lower right leg is, as I said, far more active than my left, but my right thigh is not on him at all. In contrast, my lower left leg sits there like a vegetable, but my left thigh is on him. Since the lower leg controls the hind end and the thigh controls the shoulders, I am pushing his shoulders over to the right with my left thigh and throwing his butt to the left with my lower right leg. There's no support on the other side to counter this, since my right thigh is not on and neither is my lower left leg. Given that, it's no wonder he travels with his shoulders right and his butt left - I am asking him to do so! Again, I wonder if my driving habits aren't contributing to this - I noticed today that I tend to drive with my right leg bent outward at about a 30 degree angle, while I sit with my left leg straight. Has anyone else noticed this about themselves?

Finally, I learned that I'm sitting with my pelvis tipped too far forward. I need to tighten my core muscles to "lift" my pubic bone up. I felt like I was sitting on my tailbone when I did it, but apparently I was about right. I actually found it very difficult to keep my core engaged and not round my shoulders - I think some longe lessons are going to be in order in the next few months. Somewhere in the years of inconsistent lessons I have lost my position in a biiig way.

So, it was sort of disappointing to find so many things so very broken, but it was also incredibly informative and I have a much better understanding of the biomechanics behind what's going on. Very much looking forward to next week... after going over to the dark side this weekend, of course. I wonder if they have cookies?


  1. That IS interesting about your legs. I found my right heel slipping towards Maest's shoulder when we were schooling travers.... I wonder if it's to do with how I sit??
    Or maybe just dominant/weak sides??
    The lessons sounds productive, though.
    Good luck with the dark side!!

    1. Good question, LL. Are you right-handed or left? I'm right-handed, yet my LEFT hand is the one that maintains more consistent contact, even if it's a little too much for Saga. Maybe BECAUSE I am right handed, I like to "fiddle" with the right rein? Who knows. What was super-interesting to me is that nobody - in 25 years of riding - told me about the thigh/lower leg controls. Makes total sense, but I can't believe I've been bumbling along for so long without knowing that. This is why it pays to take lessons from different instructors!

  2. My left leg is much more released than my right leg. My right side (right-handed, too) is tighter, which makes it more difficult for me to keep my right lower leg down and more difficult to swing my right leg/seatbone forward. However, my left side is the one more likely to collapse and get concave, which I think if more typical of the tighter side in the rider. I ride my horse better going right, because he and I are much straighter.

    I have not paid attention to my driving position, but I know exactly how I like to curl up on the couch and watch TV: left side concave, right side convex with my legs draped to the left so my right leg is more bent and my left leg is longer. I have tried to change it and sit straight, but it is so comfy the other way!

    1. Val, I totally know what you mean about curling up one way, collapsing one side! I do it when I'm reading. I wonder how much of what we do every. single. day when we're NOT riding carries over into riding. I'm guessing much, much more than we're aware of.

      I wonder if there's something like yoga for equestrians? I've done "regular" yoga a few times and could really feel both sides being stretched and feeling more even after. Something specifically for equestrians would be super awesome!

    2. There's a gal around me who is a retired MD, turned dressage rider turned pilates instructor. She doesn't practice medicine anymore but she does teach lots and lots of pilates (both in studio and while you ride). I have audited a clinic from her and know that my pretzel body could probably benefit from some one on one, but she has some books (and videos?) I think that might have exercises us pretzels could try to work on without her guidance... her website is I haven't ever bought anything but just writing this comment reminds me I should!

    3. Gingham, thanks for the link! I may have to order that DVD. I wish she were closer to me (by like 1500 miles or so, haha!), 'cause I would for sure do a couple of classes with her. If you take any lessons or classes from her, please blog about it! I'm really interested to see what she's doing and if it helps.

  3. "I also figured out that my right leg is way more active than my left, and that my right heel has an annoying tendency to creep up. Honestly, I can feel that my right calf muscles are tighter than my left, and I think it's because of driving a car. Does anyone else have this issue?"

    Oh yes! My truck is a manual transmission, and I spend six months of the year on a man sized tractor all day. My right leg - too active, heel creeps up, ride side collapses and right seat bone is usually out of place laterally. At least, that's what I have figured out from Val's feedback...

    I'm fixing to do some posts about Mary Wanless' book Ride With Your Mind - An Illustrated Masterclass in Right Brain Riding. You might like it. Lots of info on position re biomechanics. It's complicated material presented in a simple way. Really resonated for me.

    Love your description of the very distracted dressage test. Good luck at the HJ show. Can't wait to hear all about it!!

    1. CFS, I drive a stick shift sometimes, with a really hard clutch, and my left quad is way more defined than my right. I'm starting to think that driving is bad for riding. Clearly we should ride our horses everywhere!

      Very interested in your posts about Ride With Your Mind - I will be watching for them on your blog!