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Now that we’ve worked through the things that were holding Elf back physically, it’s time to figure out what to do this more powerful, bigger stride. First, though, we have to fine tune his straightness by influencing the hind leg placement!
Our lessons have been unimpressively sporadic so far in 2016. Between my flu & pneumonia, Elf’s muscle soreness and the rain, we’ve been markedly inconsistent. Perhaps it’s a good thing, though. There was a point where more than three days off meant at least one really bad ride before we could have a productive one. In the last few months, I simply haven’t had that luxury. I’ve only been able to ride 2 or 3 times a week and I need to make the most of each one.
That busier than normal schedule was making my normal Tues and Thursday lessons tougher to fit in. So I moved my Thursday lesson to Saturday. Since the 9 am slot was available, I figured I would so that and get it out of the way so I could spend the rest of my weekend with my family. Great idea – unless you totally space about your lesson until your Google Calendar alert goes off while you’re still sleeping at 7:45 am on Saturday. It takes me about 25 minutes to get to the barn and about 15 minutes to get ready. I read my google alert at 7:47 am still laying in bed and was on the road to the barn at 8:17. I still couldn’t tell you if my clothes matched.
The other surprise that welcomed me Saturday morning was a sudden drop our recent summery temperatures and a very brisk wind. After tacking up and getting to the ring, it was quickly apparent that I had a fire breathing dragon in place of my pretty red pony. Apparently I wasn’t the only one. My trainer mentioned as she walked up to the arena that considering how all the horses were acting, she was glad she was on the ground.
Warming Up The Brain
With the wind blowing and the turned out horses galloping in circles, our warm up quickly became more about relaxation and focus than anything else. In a way it felt really good to know that even with his brain ping-ponging around his skull, Elf was in front of my leg and somewhat responsive – I just needed it to be connected and less explosive to be productive!
Figure eights and serpentines of various sizes are my go to with Elf when the crazy train comes to down. I don’t know if it’s the bending or the constant changes of direction or the repetitiveness but it seems to help his brain settle. It took a while, a little bit of bouncing around with all four feet coming off the ground and any number of figure eights but we eventually (about 20 mins later) found a trot we could work with.
Adding Some Hover
We’ve been pretty consistently working on controlling how much ground the trot covers since the Melissa Allen clinic in February. Elf is very sensitive to the seat aids so I have to learn to be more precise and deliberate about asking for more or less stride. In this case, we working on shortening and elevating the stride by pausing the “up” part of the posting trot – basically adding a beat of hover. Need an add work out? Try ten minutes of that. Melissa described it as “shortening the front line of your body”. You engage your core, bringing your pubic bone closer to your rib cage. It has the adding effect of lengthening your back and giving you more control of the tempo of the gaits by stopping your body’s forward motion.
Elf likes to fight this particular exercise by swinging his hind end so his body is crooked and getting very stiff in the jaw. We’ve been working on the concept of legs on meaning contracting the belly and bringing down the head instead of just MORE TROT, but it takes a little reminding each time. Regardless, the ability to flex and counter-flex is slowly becoming more accessible as a tool to even out the trot and straighten his body.
And now – the haunches
Once I was able to get a decently productive working trot that didn’t look like a four year was controlling the fast forward button, we moved into working on the straightness that was compromised by Elf’s really impressive ability to point his haunches in a completely different direction than the rest of his body is traveling. To the left, we did this by asking him to travel with his haunches in. The first hurdle was being clear in my aids that this was not, in fact, asking for a canter transition (which was Elf’s first guess and accompanied by some interesting leaping with the front legs as he desperately tried to jump into the canter). I had to consciously focus on keeping my outside seat bone back to avoid confusion. This was the first time we’ve really working on haunches in for more than a long side so it was definitely a muscle building experience for Elf but the difference it made in his straightness was pretty dramatic. His innate crookedness meant that traveling to the right, he straightened by *thinking* haunches out (and first exaggerating it).
This concept of “thinking” a movement has been one of the most educational aspects of dressage lessons for me. It just wasn’t a tool that I employed before. But it makes sense – you don’t want to constantly ride around in a leg yield but for a horse that tends to drop the outside rein (ELF), thinking leg yield and offering a very subtle aid to that effect can help to push the weight and contact back to the outside rein without actually move the legs. It has more to do with my body position than his, but that just makes it more effective.
Now at the Canter
One of the more interesting challenges we’ve had with Elf is that the quality of his canter swings dramatically. He has a spectacular, sweeping canter than is fabulously adjustable but with a quick brace of his back muscles can turn in a heartbeat into an impossible to sit, credible impression of a pogo stick. Obviously, a lot of our work has focused on keeping the sweep instead of the bouncing. A loss of balance through the hind end was a driving factor in the less desirable aspects of his canter, which is why we were working on straightening it with the haunches in and out work.
Saturday’s lesson proved that theory stunningly correct when, on the first try, we were able to canter the diagonal into counter canter without a loss of rhythm, pogo stick impression, unbalanced auto change or fire breathing dragon (all of which normally accompany working on canter diagonals when I refuse to let him do a flying change). We called it a day on that very positive note with my coach’s observation that “well, we’ve figured out what that issue was”. By asking for haunches in through the short side and across the diagonal, he was balanced enough to meet the wall and look into the turn into the opposite short side without a panicky need to change his lead. Either that, or the effort of holding the haunches in as it became haunches out was substantial enough that he simply didn’t have the brain power to do any of his normal antics.
Either way, I’ll take it.