Friday, July 31, 2009

The End and The Means

My recent dressage lesson video prompted some interesting comments. Many thanks to those who take the time to write in. I read every comment, even if I don't always have the time to respond.

I wanted to write up my thoughts about how I train my horse in the discipline of dressage. I should note that these are my opinions and thoughts and I do not actually have the skills or body control to ride as perfectly as I would like. Furthermore, I realize that much of what I believe is currently unpopular with the competitive dressage set. But there are some principles that echo throughout all my training. Despite my best efforts to confuse and befuddle, Brego very much is the product of my training. The happiness in his work and his willingness are cultivated very carefully. I cannot take credit for his talent, but I can take credit for his everyday work ethic and his progress through the exercises.

It is no secret that I fancy training methods that improve the movement and gait of my particular type of horse. I ride a horse that has a natural carriage very much on his forehand. I am not so lucky to buy a horse that was born half trained with an uphill, floaty trot. But that does not mean we are doomed to plod around on the forehand. I have done extensive reading, watching of videos, and, dare I say, experimentation on my own forgiving horse to see what works best for him to help him carry himself.

A horse Brego's size, when asked to do the heavy work of dressage or jumping, should be encouraged to unweight the front end, to free his shoulder and allow maximum shock absorbency on his front legs. His obviously powerful hind end should be slowly and carefully built up to carry more of his weight in balance, to give him more power through his back, and increase his agility. To be light and nimble, he must have his weight back.

To this end, I have been most successful in practicing principles esposed by the "classical masters" of dressage, namely Baucher, La Guérinière, Oliveira as translated and executed by Phillippe Karl. I find his teaching style very approachable and his examples clearly illustrate some of the physiological issues about how and why horses move through their gaits.

I ride Brego in plain nose cavesons, loose enough for him to graze in his bridle. I use french-link or double-jointed snaffles for everything but cross-country or foxhunting. I will not use a flash, crank, or figure-eight nose band. My goal is to make Brego's mouth comfortable and relaxed in his work and if he is gaping, gnashing or lolling his tongue, then it is a training issue for this particular horse (knowing he does not have a physical condition) I must correct, not mask through equipment.

I do not punish anticipation. I have heard in many dressage circles that the horse must not anticipate the next movement. If I am schooling simple changes on a figure eight and Brego anticipates the change in bend in the middle and perhaps changes early or lightens in the bridle in anticipation of the transition, to me it is because he is mentally engaged. He is thinking about the problem, the intent of the exercise, and he is showing initiative and a willingness to please. Good!!! Brego is not a robot, and especially while hunting or cross country, I want him a thinking, eager equal. I need him to be there helping to keep us safe.

I do not school perfect 20 m circles. I introduce lateral questions early and often. Why is a shoulder in a 3rd level move??? It is critical to strengthening the inside hind and moving the shoulders. How can you achieve straightness, one of the most critical dressage tenants, while trotting 20 m circles without lateral exercises? Perhaps Brego is just not that talented of a horse, but until I taught shoulders- and haunches-in, there was no hope for straightness. He has strengthened through the lateral work and with his strength, comes his ability to move straight. Does he do the lateral movements to perfection? No, but rebalancing and strengthening is still gained through the attempt.

I do not keep my hands low and fixed. I agree greatly with Phillipe Karl's write up on the critical roll of the hands to communicate and encourage the correct weighting and bend. Modern dressage confuses the end with the means. Yes, a schooled horse should be presented (FEI level) with a fixed and low hand showing his or her understanding of the questions, self carriage, and light response to aids. Keeping my hands fixed and driving Brego into them would not invite any suppleness through the poll or the throat, instead he would learn to lean on them, a weight I am unprepared to carry.

In the same vein, I do not drive with my seat. I do not pump. The ultimate goal is to lighten Brego's front end. Driving with the seat is riding "down" not riding "up". A nicely balanced horse is a "nice place to sit" with a gait and cadence that "carries" you. The rider should not be compelled to push the seatbones down and forward, which invites the horse to hollow the back to evade. Certainly, it does not raise the back to carry you. I have been guilty, once or twice, of fixing my hands, leaning back, and driving with my seat and the response was immediate and drastic. He rounded his neck and went immediately behind the bit, dropping his back. In shame, I must admit that I did the move almost as a punishment, a "Hey, listen to me!" move when he was blowing off my aids. Paul Belasik describes using his seat as a weapon until the poor horse he was riding reared in protest and collapsed in an exhausted heap on the ground. That is not to say that one should not have a following seat, but a driving seat pushes a horse and does not lighten a horse.

I strive always to lighten my horse which is why I do not increase leg pressure, I train him to respond to less and less pressure. I also do not school in spurs. I will wear nubbin spurs at shows to get a little extra attention from him, but I do not school in them. People use them with great success, but I personally do not have the leg control to not deaden my horse to the aid with them. I realize this about myself and so I make the choice appropriately. In fact, the last few months, we've worked almost exclusively on lightening the aids, until at the last lesson, I squeezed lightly and he bounded into a trot, or rolled into a canter departure. This is the ultimate goal. Riding a well schooled horse should take very few muscles. :)

Finally, I do not force a head set. I don't use draw reins. I don't see-saw on my horse's mouth to get him to tuck his nose. I ask for softening, I ask for a mobile jaw, and I release. I ask for him to push from behind and he carries himself.

I am not a particularly talented rider and I am certainly not a dressage expert. I am a training-level rider on a training-level draft horse so everything said herein should be evaluated with a healthy dose of skepticism. But I start with the premise of "do no harm" and everything I do is geared towards the longevity of my mount. A light, responsive, happy horse is a good mount. It's worth taking the time to get him there.

Luckily, I have found a talented dressage trainer who agrees with my principles and is happy to guide me on my path. Measure progress, not perfection.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Big News #2

It's taken a long time to get to be able to post this, but I have Big News #2.

I have resigned my position in Portsmouth, NH, and will be working for a new company out of my home. So I will be able to ride on my lunch break, get early morning lessons, watch Brego romp from my office window and not suffer through my daily 1.5 hour commute (gas + tolls + emissions).

This also means more time for blogging, and my personal silence on this blog will be lifted. I have one more item of Big News in the next week or so, stay tuned!

But in the meantime, can I get a "Hell, Yea" for lower carbon footprint!?!?!?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Dressage Lesson 10

We were very crafty and got up early to take a dressage lesson from our neighbor/trainer before the rain started again. I was concerned that Brego would be tired or sore from our gallop ride yesterday. Instead, it seems to have stretched him out because he was very forward (for him) and relaxed today.

So today we worked on introducing long and low, the hint of suspension (still a far off dream) and canter transitions. We have a little Arabian dressage show in a little over a week, so I wanted to try to refine some of our transitions. Brego did very, very well and seemed eager to stretch and work through his back.

A note on the video: My reins are too long. Period. I have no idea why my trainer did not scream her bloody head off at me. What the hell have I been doing to get this nasty habit? She mentioned they were long, but didn't correct me until I got them under control. I completely need to fix this. Secondly, my equitation is horrendous. Whenever you start to wince watching me ride, just focus on my big, beautiful horse doing everything right, ponder for a moment how such, er, unusual riding can warrant such an amazing result, and then vow to never ride like me. mkay?

The video is published without sound intentionally because the cinematographer and my neighbor's husband were having a delightful conversation on how to trap the fox eating my chickens and I did not deem it horse-appropriate. My apologies.

Those who suffer through the whole video will be treated to a delightful walk-canter transition, completely unintentional. I was asking for a shoulder in. Or at least, I thought I was. I am sure I asked for the canter and Brego, being the very intelligent and sensitive animal he is, transitioned nicer than I ever get when I think I am asking for it. That's horses for you. It just tells me I am off balance when I really ask for it, perhaps throwing myself at him or dropping my left shoulder.

Dressage Lesson 10 from Eventing Percheron on Vimeo.

Despite the slow summer and wet conditions, I am very pleased with the progress Brego is making this summer. This is just more foundation building up to our show season next year.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


My close friend from Texas was in town which only means one thing: Hooligan Riding. We've been friends a long time and are very horsey friends at that. I get to see her once a year when she stops by on her way to family stuff in Canada. We have to get a year's worth of riding into one day.

Today, I think we just managed it.

It's been raining every day, but today dawned bright, sunny, and warm. We packed some extra sole guard on Brego's wet feed and tacked up to hit the trails. We rode the 4 mile loop but took extra time at the gallop track on the way back. Today it earned it's name: Gallop Track. I must say, that although Brego is a big ol' drafty boy, and I am certainly handicapping him as a rider over my tiny friend, Brego caught up to the Thoroughbred mare in a dead gallop. That boy can haul.

We ran several laps, up hills, down hills and the horses were just amazing. I even got two very nice right to left flying changes ON PURPOSE for the first time. His left canter is sticky so we have not been successful in getting a flying change in that direction. I was thrilled.

After much running around, we walked them back towards home. We walked through the subdivision down the road and just happened to be walking back by the fairgrounds. I looked out over that massive flat turf field, nearly 1/2 mile from edge to edge, and convinced my friend to go for one more gallop.

She agreed so we walked to the end, turned around, and slowly worked them up from a canter to a gallop. Then I ducked behind Brego's ears and told him to "show her!" He has a whole other gear, folks. I watched that Thoroughbred mares hind end pumping up and down in her gallop, clods of dirt flying into my face, and Brego gained. Just when we got a length away, my friend pulled Hobby up slowly and we blew past. It was amazing and exhilarating! Brego has never felt so good.

Sometimes, you just need a big pipe cleaner to show a horse how fast they can go. Tomorrow, we have an early morning dressage lesson, so we'll be back to being "proper" and all that. But today we we rode. Already my thighs are telling me they were not amused by the amount of two-point I held in my gallops.

It was worth it.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Honest Scrap Award

Thanks so much to Cathryn, SolitaireMare and wolfandterriers for nominating me for the Honest Scrap Award!!

  1. I tend to prefer Lagers over Ales. In summer, I like a nice wheat beer or a pilsner. Fall is my favorite time because of the annual emergence of Pumpkin Beer. Yum!
  2. Like some of my readers, I have no TV or radio in the house. I do listen to NPR on my commute. (Can I personify stereotypes any more?) In general, I hate all the commercial interests and advertising in modern media. I do have high speed internet at home and have been known to go to movies (only if beer is served in the theater).
  3. I wrote my Master's thesis on the social impact of great, culture-defining structures and how they express our very humanity, e.g., Eiffel Tower, Golden Gate Bridge, Great Pyramids. The earliest example I cited was the curvilinear ruins in Malta. One of my life's goals is to visit Malta. Also, the Pharaoh Hound is the national dog of Malta! Connections everywhere....
  4. I am a total Mac snob. I love developing on Mac OS X and I could not live without my iPhone. So while I sometimes come across as a Luddite, I prefer to think of myself as a discriminating technologist who ultimately chooses Nature over Machine.
  5. I have few very close friends, but I am fiercely loyal to those I have. I tend to be private and reserved around strangers, but I would do anything to help my friends. I love and cherish them and they mean the world to me.
  6. When I was younger, I played the violin... poorly. So I switched to percussion and became a nationally recognized timpanist despite being somewhat tone deaf. I gave up music when I went to college.
  7. I have the noble distinction of sleeping with a professional hockey player. The very definition of kewl.
  8. I cannot cook. Horrid. I ruin rice. It's that bad.
  9. Despite a rather scholarly upbringing and education, I do enjoy mind-numbing entertainment. Exhibit A: I own an XBox360 that I play games on when I can find the time. Exhibit B: I thoroughly enjoyed the Transformers 2 movie in all its inanity. Sometimes, you just need to take the starch out of your collar.
  10. I am recruiting minions to hike the Appalachian Trail with me within the next six years. Comment below to apply!

Thanks to everyone who thinks often of this blog and thanks to those who awarded me this honor.

Brego and I have had a nice series of rides. He is shaping up well for the dressage show in a couple of weeks. My close friend from Texas is spending the next week with us and we will be doing plenty of horsing around. She is one of my oldest horsey friends and we always ride like hooligans when we get together. I can't wait to go kick up our heels (oh, and show off Brego's new halt-canter transition ont the right rein! Woot!)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

With the Sun Comes Riding

The pesky upper level pressure system has moved off of New England and so we're back into a normal weather pattern after a month of rain and 80% cloud cover in June. That's enough to stifle even the sunniest personality.

As the ground has dried, Brego's feet have improved. His winter flare is mostly grown out and with it comes nice, thick hoof wall all around his sole. I am so glad we took this disastrous summer to build up good wall, even if we lost some riding because of it, so that fall Hunting season and next year will be all the better.

I've been riding as often as I can, sometimes in boots, sometimes barefoot on turf. Brego feels sound, but tight through his back, which I attribute to not enough quality dressage work. The other day, during a walk hack around the fairgrounds, basking in the clear, dry, sun, I was overcome with love for this stupid horse. He is often a pain, often a trouble maker, but he's just such a good soul. He can sit in a tiny pen for a month and then walk calmly across a huge open field. I could feel his happiness and appreciation of just being out. This break from showing has been good for my perspective. Constant showing, especially a horse as "special" as the Brego can really work on your psyche. He will never be good enough, I will never be good enough, blah, blah, blah. But on beautiful days, on the back of a solid, willing animal, he is perfect. One day, when the showing is behind us, I look forward to many open miles with him.

I am getting close to revealing some big news, not much longer to wait. But I do have some minor news. The fairgrounds across the street are hosting an open Arabian show that will have one day of open breed dressage. Oh that's right! I am totally going to ride my draft horse across the street and compete against Arabians in dressage. I can't think of anything more fun!! (well, maybe if they had a jumping class.... Snap!!!) So I am working on getting us at least presentable for that show in early August.

Also, cubbing season starts August 19th and I am counting the days, nay minutes, until we follow the hounds. We have a lot of conditioning work to do between now and then, but I know we will both be mentally ready. Last night, I took Brego over a couple of low verticals set at two strides and focused on my position. He jumped so well, so honestly, that I had to remind myself that it has been over a month since he last jumped. We kept the session short, but the boy has forgotten nothing. I am crossing my fingers for a very fun fall.

I was able to get my lower leg under control over the fences, but I felt stiff and locked in my knee to keep my toes pointed forward. I need to film myself and see if I am sacrificing my position in other areas by trying to keep my leg fixed in the ideal position. At this point, I am happy I at least have some control over my leg, even if it is not ultimately the way I want to go.