Harley and I had a nice conversation under saddle on Friday. He warmed up really well and I paid special attention to my left side in the warm up: raise my left wrist, feel both seat bones in the saddle, drop my right shoulder and leg. This was combined with thinking about the bend in my elbows, especially the outside elbow.
Some Dressage Philosophy...
Over the years, my horse and I have developed a working connection, which I believe trumps the partnerships I have had with other horses. I like to describe Harley as "particular". If the rider (me) rails against him (even a little) with a fixed position and/or leaning back, he will tighten and invert. If the rider (me) is able to keep him from inverting with effective aids, he can still brace against the bit and the fixed position. This tips his balance to the forehand and defeats the purpose the training. To be fair, rider error is not the only cause. He can throw himself into this off-balance situation if he is pushing more than he is carrying with his hind legs due to habit, excitement, conformation, or a loss of rider balance (Oops! Me, again). If he is moving flat and rushing, the problem is best fixed by returning to a slower gait and reestablishing relaxation and the conversation between horse and rider. If balance has been compromised, but he still has some softness to his back and neck, then a check of rider position and a well-timed half-halt is usually a successful remedy. The rider position check is a must, but somethings my version of a half-halt is a transition or school figure or the verbal cue "aaanndd" from our lunge line work. Correcting my position and riding a nice corner or volte with the purpose of rebalancing my horse, gives him the opportunity to improve his coordination as a ridden horse from the inside out. This is very different from packaging the horse and trying to control every step. Harley's "particular-ness" prevents me from overriding and has taught me to listen to my horse and become a better rider.
I have heard riders who describe their horses as having to be "held together" or if they do not ride every step the horse comes to pieces. Although I understand the importance of providing support and that sometimes this support may be quite large, these descriptions do not speak to my training philosophy. Training should teach the horse to learn better balance himself, not just learn to take cues from the rider to maintain a frame or balance and fall apart when the supports are removed. In the other direction, I also do not agree with leaving the horse to his own defenses and expecting him to just figure it out. For example, riding at a trot or canter with loose reins on a horse that has not learned how to lift his back or balance under a rider and is not straight. At best, the rider learns to stay with the awkward movement of a horse running on his forehand or the horse adopts a very low-impact gait that may be more self-preservative, but does not necessarily improve the horse. I do not like to think about worst case scenarios, which definitely depend on the individual horse and rider, so I am just going to say that I think this strategy puts a disproportional amount of responsibility on the horse. My challenge, as Harley's rider, is to present safe and challenging movements or figures that help my horse improve his ability to carry me. As we improve as a pair, he requires less support from me and this is how we strive towards lightness. We each maintain our individual balances, which allows us to maintain our collective balance. The horse learns from the movements under a balanced rider, which is my understanding of the essence of classical dressage.
Friday's movements were small circles (voltes), shoulder-in, haunches-in, and half-pass in sitting trot with some rising trot and forward stretch to reward his efforts and relax his muscles. Asking my horse to move his shoulders and haunches independent of one another improves every aspect of our work together. Since he has practiced lateral work many times, I feel him rebalance himself as my position requests a new body position from him. After bending the joints of a hind leg a little more to accomplish a haunches-in, we straighten to a springier trot. The lateral stretch required for haunches-in, improves his longitudinal stretch which allows him to collect his body. I feel him carry me more easily with each repetition. There is an elastic flow under the saddle, like a cloth being tugged out from under my seat and then rebounding for the next stride.
I was very careful about only using my legs to ask for the body position. If his responsibility for impulsion had to be refreshed, I used the whip in time with his steps. Using the whip as a metronome was very effective, even with gentle taps. A couple times I did not ask for the movement. I just changed my leg and seat position, felt him change his, and then I praised him and returned to straight. This was good practice for both of us and gave me a chance to release my tighter right seat bone forward.
The neatest repetition was our last time at half-pass right. This is our more challenging direction, because the right side is less bendy and the left side resists stretching into the outside rein. I turned Harley in a small half-circle, ready to approach the rail in half-pass. Before changing my legs for the half-pass, I asked for shoulder-in down the quarter line. He did some of the most lovely shoulder-in right that I have felt and then I gently swung my inside leg and seat bone forward, bending my outside leg behind the girth. I also remembered to keep my wrists lifted and level. Lovely, forward half-pass back to the track.
Good boy. I dropped the reins and patted Harley, thinking about how focused he was and how nicely he was carrying himself. Then I realized that my stomach felt itchy. I scratched what I thought was an insect bite, but when I looked at my stomach my heart sank. Hives. My horse needed cooling, so I started to walk Harley around the ring and then thought better of it. He nodded toward the gate and I agreed. Better get off now and get Benadryl.
A couple Benadryl later, I was rinsing his legs and my wrists and stomach, trying to stop myself from sweating. My scalp and underarms were itching and my palms were burning. This is not a convenient situation when your horse still needs to be cleaned up and your tack put away. I have a sensitivity to preservatives containing "sulfites". If I eat foods containing this preservative and then sweat, I get hives, probably from the preservative or its byproduct excreted through my pores. I have read that it is not a true allergy, since my body is not reacting to a protein, but Benadryl still halts the allergic response. Unfortunately, I had eaten at a diner, which I do not frequent, for lunch. This was probably the source of the sulfites, as this preservative may have been applied to prevent food born illnesses. This is quite ironic for me and my husband, as we both experience itchy misery from the preservative. I read labels like crazy to avoid purchasing foods with these preservatives and foods naturally possessing sulfites or sulfur dioxide such as balsamic vinegar, concord grape juices, and wine, but it is still a risk when eating at a restaurant.
I finished everything in record time and rushed home for the relief of the shower. The Benadryl halted and reversed the itchiness.
...and an Itchy Public Service Announcement:
If you suffer from mysterious full-body hives especially after exercise, have been allergy-tested and do not know the cause, I encourage you to read about "Sulfite Sensitivity". This preservative (any chemical name ending in "-sulfITE" and sulfur dioxide, not sulfATE.) is present in so many forms and used so frequently that it is consumed by most people on a regular basis. Some foods contain sulfites naturally and this information will not be included on a label. Concord grapes and any food derived from this fruit always possess sulfites. I have been allergic to concord grapes since I was a child, but only learned of the probable cause as an adult. Avoiding foods containing sulfites effectively prevents the itchiness!