Test riding. Not my favorite thing.
In my mind, there are two kinds of test riding: trying a new horse and practicing dressage tests. I am referring to the latter.
I have not ridden a complete dressage test from beginning to end for more than a year. Showing is not the focus of my passion for horses, so although I review the USDF dressage tests to keep up with standards and expectations, I do not practice tests unless I am attending a horse show. I have always been of the school of thought that you should not practice the test, you should practice the movements. So repetitive test riding has never been my strategy to prepare for a dressage show, but I felt that some practice was in order since I am attending a schooling show on Sunday.
One of the required movements is a trot lengthening. Harley is not a big-moving horse, but he does have a nice stride and tempo and a strong engine. Being able to push off of his hind end is something that is as much a benefit as it is a detriment. When I first purchased him, he was all "push". He had almost no "carry" in his toolbox, but would happily tool along in whichever gait I wanted, often at full speed. I was thrilled with the power coming from his hind end and dreamed of the days when he would be able to channel that power into self carriage. Boy, those days were much farther off than I first imagined!
So back to the lengthening. My horse can lengthen. I do not just mean speed up. He can stretch over his back and reach with lifted shoulders and push into these big, soft strides. This is so different than the running pace he used to adopt and it has taken so much slow work to get there. Once in a great while, he offers a fabulously huge gait, which I swear is an extended trot. If this happens, it is on a day when he has been gymnasticized by lateral and canter work. He just gives me this sense that he can take off like an airplane, if I just say the word. So I nudge him with my legs, I yield the reins, I try my best to stay centered and he sores down the long side in trot! I usually end up laughing, because the feeling is that awesome. I cannot contain my joy! But now we are trotting along and the next movement is the lengthening and I can tell that there is no lengthening in him. He is calm and attentive, two things that I do not want to spoil, but his body is not offering that bubbling spring feeling, just waiting to well over with power and brilliance.
What is the prescription for magic?
All I need is a moderate lengthening. We are not trying to win a gold medal, but I would like to show what my horse can do. Isn't that the meaning of a show?
I guess this is the difference between riding a test and a training ride. When I am riding/training my horse, I often wait to see what he is going to offer, especially after we have stretched and rebalanced and put him in the best possible place to carry himself. When I train, I am opportunistic in the sense that I am eager to indulge his whims, especially if his whim is equivalent to something that I want him to do on cue later on. I like this philosophy and I feel that it is a critical aspect of partnership. Sure, we have practiced lengthenings. It is just that there is a world of difference between getting a good lengthening after you have tried three and your horse knows the plan, and just getting that one during the test.
Ride the transition when the horse is ready. Ask for a movement only when you know the horse can give it to you. I believe that success thrives on this concepts, but perhaps I need to challenge myself to focus more on preparedness. How can I encourage my horse to be ready when I want the transition? How can I start the spring bubbling? If I can do all of this, and maintain my sensitive horse's calm, we will truly be on our way. That will be the ultimate challenge. If I push and haul and grind to try to force the engagement and energy that I need for the test, I am certain that I will receive the exact opposite and my calm horse will be replaced with a stressed, angry horse who is wondering why I suddenly got so particular about where we do everything. He doesn't hold those sorts of things inside; he will make it very clear to me and the judge if he does not like the way he is being ridden.
My horse show goal will be "to prepare". I will prepare him for each movement, so that he is not surprised or upset. I will hope that he shows off some of his beauty and the products of our work together, but I will not force the magic. I will accept what he offers and plan to make "preparedness" a larger part of our training in the future.