Sunday, August 14, 2016

Training in Black and White

When riding got really tough and slightly soul-destroying, my trainers would always tell me "if it was easy, everyone would be doing it" and it couldn't be truer. Dressage has a reputation for being complicated, sometimes too much so for some people to take an interest in it. However sometimes we overcomplicate things. There is so much to think about and we can get carried away with nitty gritty details instead of focusing on the obvious problems. It is always important to prioritise the issues rather than being overwhelmed by trying to fix everything in one go.

Keeping your sessions simple results in a happier
 horse and rider
I will confess that I am queen of overthinking, and riding is a really good way of reminding myself to think clearly for the sake of the horse's understanding. The way that I do that is to think in "black and white", and dispose of any grey or fuzzy matter in my mind that is distracting me from finding a solution to the most obvious problem.

When you make the decision that you're not going to get complicated with your training sessions and focus on simple solutions, it is actually really relieving! Why make dressage harder than it has to be? Don't get wound up by your horse not feeling "good" because it is slow, or stiff, or running away and tight in the back and try to fix it all in one go. Prioritise what needs fixing in that moment an focus on that first.

If the horse is pulling and running away with you, then stop! Do a downward transition to walk or even to a halt if they aren't responding quickly enough to your restraining aid. But the important part is giving to them AS SOON as they respond in the correct way, as that is their reward. Once they come back and you give, you can push forward again in a better balance which can be kept with just half-halts. If they do start pulling and running through the half-halts again, just keep doing the transitions until they learn to stay in balance using subtler aids. This is being black and white. 

If they are slow off your leg and not quite listening to you, then go! Give your reins slightly so they have room to move forward and use your leg as much as required to get an immediate reaction. Yes, sometimes you do need to use a short, sharp kick if they're slow off the leg, but the most important thing here is to NOT pull back at the same time as kicking to go forward so you maintain clarity in asking what you want. Make sure you have your body in balance with the horse and go forward with them and even if they come above the bit, don't worry! Because the problem here is that the horse is behind your leg, so sort that issue out first. Roundness comes from the horse being active in their hind legs so you can't expect to keep the horse truly on the bit if he is too slow and behind your aids. Once the horse moves forward and you stay in a good balance with their movement, then you can close your hand slightly to bring them back into a connection but without stopping the hind leg.

You can mix up these forward and back transitions in your session and focus on being really clear when you mean GO and when you mean STOP. It is amazing how attentive the horse becomes when you only focus on those two factors.

Sometimes the horse is slow and stuck because he is stiff in his body, so you can combine these transitions with some sideways work. If you have the feeling of the horse being stiff underneath your leg and tightening against it every time you apply pressure, you can soften the belly by moving them sideways in a leg-yield either across the arena or along the wall. When they move off your leg and you feel them release their sides (whilst you soften the neck), you can straighten up and push forward in an upward transition, making sure you have that immediate reaction that I explained earlier. 

So basically you can design your whole training session around four important components: Forward, back, left and right. This makes your half-halts so much easier and more effective. You can make your work as simple (walk and trot transitions in combination with leg-yield) or as complex (medium and collected canter transitions in a half-pass) as you like, as long as you pay attention to the sharpness of the horse's reactions to all four aids and then use half-halts to fine-tune the balance.

Just remember, riding is only as complicated as you make it. If you can focus on these simple solutions it will be a lot easier to stay clear in your mind and be able to enjoy your training!

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