Just to give you an idea of how crunched for time I have been, I actually went on a short trail ride at dusk and ended up riding in the dark. Do not be alarmed. We went with our trusted trail buddies, Cisco and his mom, and we stayed close to home. This is not the first time that we have explored the darkened trail, familiar yet surprisingly mystical as the sunlight disappeared between the trees. The best part of our walk was the end, because when we turned onto the sandy path in the clearing, we found ourselves facing a beautiful sunset. The orange horizon called us home. Harley was marching with the most gorgeous walk ever. If only he could reproduce that in the dressage arena!
A few days later I made some time to ride while the sun was still up. After a little walk around the paddock, we entered the riding ring and began our warm up. Harley felt...
...like he was on vacation. He was walking at a snail's pace, although he did stretch to the bit when I picked up the reins a little, but unfortunately for him, I remembered that awesome walk during our nighttime trail outing. So I proceeded to energize my horse. I walked energetically with my seat and if he did not match my energy (he didn't) I nudged with my legs. If that didn't motivate him (it didn't either), then I tapped with the whip and I did not stop tapping until he was trotting. With repetition, Harley finally decided that it was okay to work again. His forward-thinking kicked in 100% once we started trotted and I repeated the energizing by tapping him into the canter. Then his motor shifted into overdrive and we were officially ready to ride!
Our canter warm up included practicing flying changes. Although this may not seem like a warm up activity, Harley really enjoys them so these serve as a motivator as well as training in their own right. I love how I can feel him thinking when we work on flying changes. We often practice on the straight away of the diagonal (purist dressage-style), but lately I have been using a large figure eight instead. The circle helps me help him to remain balanced and consistent in his tempo. The right to left change is nearly reliable in the figure eight exercise and has improved in smoothness. I do not have to prepare by putting my current outside leg on to engage his future inside leg before the change. Instead, I sit tall in the saddle and very clearly switch my legs as I look in the new direction. He does a flying change nearly every time. Sometimes I feel that he changes behind first and then in front in the very next stride, but many of the changes are in one jump and feel clean. I expect the consistency to improve with practice. His anticipating in this direction is just about gone.
If I approach the left to right change in the same nonchalant manner, he does not do the change. He may do a cute little one-trot-stride change or he changes behind before I ask. I have found that if I offer the outside leg preparation as described in the previous paragraph, then he is able to make the change with a nice strong jump. The left lead is his less balanced leg, so I imagine this is why he has more difficulty switching leads. The circle definitely benefits our training in this direction, which is why I am taking advantage of this school figure.
A nice walk break followed our warm up. Once I picked up the reins again, Harley was completely with me. Yes! We continued in walk and practiced the shoulder-in to renvers exercise from Second Level. I love this exercise. When we ride shoulder-in in walk, I can visually evaluate his bend from nose to tail by looking back at his tail. Then I reverse my bending aids and he assumes renvers (haunches-out). I can see and feel the new bend. It is really neat and an excellent suppling exercise. I am so grateful to have learned these lateral movements when I was training with my original dressage instructor. They are invaluable. At first, Harley adjusts his head carriage in the bend change and comes above the bit. Except for some gentle requests to flex at the poll in the bend change, I allow him this adjustment room as long as I feel the bend changing behind the saddle. With repetition, the exercise improves his suppleness, throughness, and response to my aids which is readily visible as the carriage adjustments and coming above the bit melt away.
Dressage movements do not need to ridden perfectly to be beneficial. Often signs of resistance are really just signs of stiffness, which the exercise brings to light and then targets and benefits. This is one of the many reasons why I love dressage.
We repeated the shoulder-in to renvers in trot. In some ways this was easier, because Harley had impulsion to carry him through the bend change, but there is also less time to make adjustments. I try to keep the transition of bend slow, because he tends to get a little over-reactive and swing his quarters around rather than softy changing from the middle. Like the flying change, this type of exercise is challenging, but seems to be very motivating. Harley is definitely a thinking horse. Some of his apathy at the beginning of our ride was probably in part due to the fact that the short rides we have gotten in have been little walk/trot/canter jaunts to keep him loose and somewhat conditioned. Harley's attentiveness increases with the difficulty of the exercise as does his forwardness. These qualities make him very enjoyable to work with, as long as the attentiveness does not boil over into over-reactiveness and hotness, which are both destructive to learning. Thankfully, Harley has discovered how to be effortful and calm at the same time. I am very proud of this, but it is never far from my mind how many years it has taken for us to develop this working relationship.
|Post-ride cooler. Harley is ready for a black-tie affair!|