Monday, April 18, 2011

An HP in DQ Land: My Dressage Lesson

Since Tucker is still out of commission (though the vet is coming to check him today -- cross your fingers), I have been looking for other rides on the weekend.  I've been curious about dressage for a while now, and figured now would be the perfect time, especially since I'm boarding Tucker at a barn run by a dressage instructor (Cindy), who graciously offered to give this hunter princess a dressage lesson. 

I have to admit to a bit of naivety here.  I've probably spent a collective 20 minutes in a dressage saddle in my lifetime, occasionally hopping on in someone else's tack to help a rider get her horse past a spooky corner or something of the sort.  So going into the lesson, I figured how different can it be?  My stirrups will just be longer.  I can adjust. 

Haha.  Haha.  Ha.  About the time I picked up my posting trot, the mare I was on was probably quite confused, and thinking to herself, "You seemed to know your way around tacking up... but... clearly you have never been on a horse before?  Are you okay up there?  Are you having some kind of seizure?  If not, can you please get your feet out of my elbows?"  Cindy had to walk over and put my leg back where it was supposed to be a couple of times.  It didn't stay there.  In fact, I pretty much lost all communication with the lower half my right leg and couldn't tell you what it did for the duration of the lesson.

Now, to state the obvious:  Dressage is completely different.  The seat is different, the leg is different, the hands are different, the posture is almost the opposite of how I normally ride.  My hip angle usually stays closed.  My weight is down in my heel.  My hands follow, all the time.  My shoulders are angled a little forward.  I close my leg with the back of my calf.  I send the horse forward by sending my hips forward.  All this: out the window.

I had the hardest time finding my balance.  And quickly learned that the aids I normally use were close to useless.  It sort of felt like I was speaking Spanish, and the horse was speaking French, and occasionally we'd hear a word that sounded similar and be able to communicate for a brief second.  Then we'd lose each other completely again.  But, thankfully, this mare was very tolerant of my complete incompetence and for the most part tried to understand what I was attempting to tell her, in my bumbling, yet earnest, kind of way.  I did have moments at the trot where I "got it," and they felt lovely.  Brief, but lovely.

Highlights of the lesson:  Upon my first canter depart, I did what I normally do, which is slide my hips forward.  This resulted in ramming a rather sensitive area into the pommel of the dressage saddle, which, er... took my breath away, so to speak.  I then spent the next ten strides or so trying to figure out where the tack had gone and why I was sort of floating and swinging along like a piece of driftwood.  I wondered whether it looked as bad as it felt.  Glance to my left... instructor laughing hysterically.  Excellent.  It looked worse than it felt.  I then tried desperately to find someplace to sit.  Whenever I found it, the mare would break.  I could not for the life of me correct this problem (Cindy explained it was because I was sitting with no strength coming from my chest/core.  Makes sense now).

Then there was the downward transition.  Where I got run away with at the trot.  This is the point at which I realized my position would have been excellent... had there been skis strapped to my feet and a boat in front of me.  Sadly, that was not the sport in which I was participating, and was rather ineffective for the task I was trying to accomplish.  Eventually, the mare got sick of speed-trotting in circles and decided to walk of her own volition, for which I was quite thankful.  Cindy had been trying to get me to move the horse right to left and regain her balance and focus.  I finally accomplished a few steps of this once we had come back down to the walk.  After looking down to verify that my right leg was, in fact, still attached to my body.  Since my brain had apparently completely lost contact with it.

What I learned:  I learned a few things that I can definitely apply toward my hunt seat riding.  First, I tend to twist my torso, so that my right shoulder is always forward.  Cindy advised me to look at the wall whenever this happened (tracking left), and voila - fixed.  Something I am going to continue to do to keep myself sitting straighter.  Second, opening up my chest.  By stretching taller instead of hunching my shoulders, I gain more strength in my core, which gives me more stability and leverage.  I used this on the equitation horse I rode on Sunday and it definitely helped.  This is not a new critique -- instructors have been telling me this for years -- but I did get the feeling a bit better sitting in that dressage saddle, since I basically lost all control when I hunched forward.  Third, the half halt starts from the shoulder (my shoulder).  I love this.  I haven't really thought of it this way, but it makes sense, and I think will provide a more subtle way for me to increase a little pressure on the rein for my very sensitive horse, and I'm always trying to find a way to be more subtle with him.  It also keeps me from breaking at the wrist, which is a terrible habit of mine.  Fourth, my hands need to be more still, steady contact, instead of fidgeting with the bit.  Hard habit to break, but something I definitely need to work on, in any discipline.

Things that are really sore right now:  The tops of my feet (!), my shoulders, the sides of my torso, and especially, the outside of my hips/thighs.  I really don't use these muscle groups when I ride.  I suppose, arguably, I do use my shoulders.  But not quite in the way that I used them on Saturday.  And I definitely don't use the outside of my thighs.  Holy cow.  The first word out of my mouth on Sunday morning was "OW!"  Followed closely by "I'm coming, I'm coming," as I hobbled slowly toward the cat food.

All in all, definitely learned something, and definitely had fun (despite the pain).  How many of you have taken a lesson outside your discipline, and what did you learn?

p.s. -- I'm not holding out on you... Julie's travel plans shifted a little, so she won't be home until Tuesday night.  I'll take lots of pictures, promise!


  1. I ride all sorts of ways in all sorts of tack - dressage saddle, close contact saddle, Western, bareback - and do all sorts of stuff - trail riding, dressage, working cows (when I can find some to work), etc., and I used to show hunters. I think all good riding is good riding and many of the principles are the same. That said, I find that when I ride a lot in a close contact saddle I tend to end up hunching, leaning forward too much and sometimes bracing with my leg. I prefer a dressage saddle, bareback or even Western - it's possible to ride with better posture, a relaxed and long leg and open hips, all of which lead to better and more subtle communication with the horse, at least for me. That's not to say that a good rider in a close contact saddle can't achieve the same things, I just find it harder - close contact saddles are really made to optimize the jumping position.

    It's fun to try out different equine disciplines and you tend to learn a lot.

  2. How fun! I've been DYING to try a dressage lesson but never have. No one rides dressage where I board, or has the proper tack so who knows when.
    I'm sure I would be a complete mess for a while, but it would be fun to try.

  3. Good for you for stepping outside your comfort zone. I think I'd probably have similar problems if I hopped on someone's show hunter and had to be in two point for an entire lesson, haha! The training and position nuances with each discipline are so interesting, eh? Dressage is about staying really tall through your core , carrying your hands independently away from your body {hard!} and relaxing through your inner thigh {also hard when you're short like we are}. What helps me is watching how really good dressage riders sit and how quiet yet strong they are. I've never taken a lesson outside my discipline. I guess my lessons in and of themselves are composed of 3 different disciplines (dressage, show jumping and XC). I do have this dream where I take Pongo in a hunter class and give the judges heart failure with all his spots, but they cant argue that he is the best horse in the class so we win first maybe we might need to try a hunter trainer for a little while :P

  4. Cool - sounds like a fun (if not somewhat difficult!!) lesson. I like how the instructor made sure to laugh at the appropriate moments.


    I ride mostly western and have done some dressage back in the day. If you put me in a CC saddle I would feel like a jockey - those short stirrups kill my knees and ankles!

  5. Very cool that you took a dressage lesson. Dressage is fun! It's also very hard to do correctly...

  6. I still ride like a jumper in my dressage tack. I've learned, that although my leg is long and relaxed, I cannot (CANNOT) turn my toes in. Too many years of hell down, calf on, toe OUT!

    Frankly, as long as P still squiggles around, I'm happy to revert to my sticky, glued on seat. :)

    Good for you for taking the lesson. I find instructors in different disciplines tend to just explain things different enough to cause a few lightbulbs to go off... glad you had fun!

  7. I. Could. Not. Stop. LAUGHING.
    You could have been writing about my experience trying hunt seat after years of dressage. Same thing, poor horse was "well gee, it feels like you're a rider, but, ah, IT'S TOTALLY WRONG. Fix now, K?"
    Things I heard: "close your hip angle!"
    "um. Hunt seat is forward, it's okay to angle your upper body forward. No. The other forward."
    "Don't try riding off your thighs, it won't help. They're not in the saddle. Use your calves!"
    Oh my the sides of my butt hurt for DAYS. Two point, even in the Ish stage, takes muscle!
    Hilarious post, love it.

  8. This is EXACTLY how I felt the first (and only) time I took a dressage lesson. I have never hurt as much as I did after thirty minutes of private lesson in a dressage saddle. God help me and the horse...if I so much as sneezed, she would shoot off sideways in a sidepass because my right ab muscles would inadvertently contract. I spent the entire lesson afraid to breathe less I accidentally signaled her to do some fancy airs above ground or something.


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