Friday, July 27, 2012

Riding Reflection: Dressage Test Prep

Although I do not love dressage for the competitions, I do see the benefits of entering the occasional dressage show and those benefits are reaped before we even load up to leave the farm.  Like many things in dressage, it is all in the preparation.

I wouldn't mind if Harley brought some of this on Sunday.

I have signed up to ride First Level Test 3 and Second Level Test 1.  We made it into the show ring for First Level Test 1 and Test 3 twice last year.  This is the first time either my horse or I will be entering at A for a Second Level test.  I am excited about this and I plan on taking both tests seriously, schooling show or otherwise.  I know that I have set us up for a challenge.  First Test 3 is not easy and we can certainly do much better than we did last year, but competition as it is, there are no guarantees and even though the test feels easier now, First Test 3 is not a picnic.  Despite this, I am still motivated to try Second Test 1.  Practicing for these tests is already showing me some things that I would not have learned if I had not signed up for the dressage show.

For example, I must not override my horse.  What I mean by this is, I must not go out there and let determination exude from me in the form of a heavy seat or aids.  I must not lean back or against his motion.  I absolutely must ride my horse and be there for him, rebalance him, ask him to meet the challenge, but I cannot ride him like he is a Grand Prix horse.  This totally squashes his movement.  I did this by accident a few days ago.  I went out to practice the Second Level test with minimal warm up, so that I could see what we could do without much prep, and I overrode.  Harley tried to comply, but the result was that impulsion suffered, his movement died down, and his right lead canter threatened to be four-beat.  He could not canter a 10 meter circle without breaking to trot and when I tried the counter canter loop he threw his head up and shook it from side to side in total irritation.

"Seriously, woman?"


At least I learned that one early on.  I went back and let him go forward.  I let him stretch in the canter and we got our rhythm and impulsion back.  I found out that he was much more likely to canter a nice 10 meter circle if I sat light, let him have a little lower neck, and just nudged my outside heel at the beginning of each stride.  I have to trust him.  I cannot be the horse.  That is his job.

 Another thing that I learned is exactly what we need to do in the warm up to prepare.  When I prepare for a dressage test, I spend time practicing the warm up.  When you go before the judge, there are no do-overs.  You get one shot to show-off each movement, so you better be prepared before you enter the arena.

My Warm-Up Plan:
After as long a walk warm up as I can fit in the time schedule, begin with forward in trot.  Keep the reins long and give Harley an opportunity to stretch and go with as long a frame as he wants.  He does this nicely at home, although the show grounds may be too exciting to get the same relaxation, but I will still give him the opportunity.  Go large and round off all the corners.  Ride big circles and changes of direction all in rising trot, of course.  When he starts to flow, incorporate some walk transitions, keeping the reins pretty long and not asking for too much contact or collection.  The first goal is forward and relaxed.

Once forward and relaxed are there, we can start warming up flexibility and asking for more accuracy.  I will start riding smaller circles and smaller turns for changes in direction.  I can start asking for some leg yields and shoulder-in, still in rising trot, and walk transitions with a more positive connection.  I tried this a couple times this week and when he is ready to shift his balance back, he starts doing it on his own as the circles and turns get smaller.  Once he starts offering that shift in balance, I can sit a little taller, take up some slack in the reins and start riding him into the corners.  I must remember to ride several 10 meter circles, as this will help him in the canter, as well as a couple trot-halt-trot and a reinback to two.

Before the canter work, I should ride some sitting trot to give him a chance to accept my seat.  I must try not to control the first couple canter transitions too much and keep the figures large until he feels like he is bending properly in the canter.  This is like the trot warm-up.  Change rein a couple times through trot and then work a few canter-trot-canter transitions on the circle.  This seems to really help him maintain impulsion in the canter and establish obedience to my half-halts.  I should also incorporate some changes in gait within the trot and canter.  A walk break should be thrown in as needed, too.

Our Personal Gauntlet:
Before we enter the ring, I must be sure to ride a couple simple changes and a counter-canter loop in each direction.  The counter canter loop in the First Level test is shallow, so I may just need to ride that one once in each direction and save the more difficult loop for the Second Level test.  I was concerned about the simple changes, because Harley and I have never practiced them before.  We have trained canter to walk and walk to canter, but always on the same lead and the canter to walk was still a challenge and inconsistent for us.  So it was a happy surprise, when the simple change seemed to click for Harley this week.  This is perhaps the only time that I need to really sit on him in the canter.  The transition is not perfect, but some feel quite nice and he now seems to understand the purpose of the whole thing since we change leads after the walk.  I walked in to the test worried that we would blow these and now I see them as a welcomed chance to rebalance and breathe for a couple walk steps amidst what seems like a grueling canter tour.  The simple change is actually easier for us than the 10 meter canter circle, which I am considering riding a little large on purpose.  If we lose the rhythm or he becomes fatigued because the circle is physically challenging, we may sacrifice the rest of the test, so sacrificing a couple points for the circle is preferable.  And then there is the counter canter...

The counter canter is, by the way, the most valuable schooling experience that has come out of these test preparations.  Why haven't I been schooling counter canter?  I write time and time again that my horse likes to flying change at will and I have been struggling with this as both an obedience issue and a rider effectiveness issue and now I see what I should have been doing to help both these problems.

The counter canter.

Oh my goodness.
What an obedience challenge.
What a rider effectiveness challenge.
I now see the light.

My first attempts at the counter canter loop were utter failure.  Harley and I made every mistake.  Head-tossing.  Flying changes (nice ones, too).  Breaking to trot.  Physical tension and a lack of attention and submission.  I almost canned the whole thing right then.  I was not sure that there was any way that we could fix these problems before Sunday.  But the good news is that attempting this exercise forced me to address some issues that I have been too lackadaisical about.  As far as I can tell, our difficulties with the counter canter were almost entirely mental.

Well, maybe 90% mental and 10% physical.

Pretty, but not easy to tame.  Keeping my butt in the saddle would be a start!

Harley can counter canter.  Believe me, he can counter canter.  He demonstrates this sometimes when he flying changes onto the outside lead.  He can even do this on a circle and will continue along in counter canter.  He is a show off.  But that whole desire to show off is an obedience issue.  When I asked him to counter canter a loop at E or B, he did not believe that I wanted to canter on the "wrong lead".  I kept my aids the same, I did my best not to shift my weight, but he would still blow through my outside aids and switch leads.  If this did not work, then he broke to trot and changed leads.  Would you believe that I do not drill flying changes?  In fact I have not asked for a change since June.  I made the decision to get to his mind and convince him to let me do the thinking.  It was the only way that I could see us completing the exercise.

So I went back and repeated the exercise.  I did not try the loop, I just tried counter canter.  A diagonal, a half circle, whatever, it didn't really matter what shape.  I kept my aids absolutely on, without overriding (not too tight or too heavy!), and I kept looking into the inside bend.  If Harley did anything other than maintain gait, I told him "no", turned him around and went back to the beginning of the exercise.  By the fifth repetition, I felt discouragement creeping in, but I shoved it back.  I have faith in my horse.  If I can just convince him that I truly want him to canter on the wrong lead, I know that he can do it.

It might have been six or seven repetitions, but he finally complied.  I felt him shift his weight back, maintain the bend and the original canter.  As soon as he came around the turn, I stopped him and praised him with a long rein and the end of our ride.  I wanted him to know that what he had just done made me just as happy as any flying change.  I needed him to remember that.

And wouldn't you know it, two days later we rode again and he remembered.  This time on the first try.  He even stayed relaxed with those cute little snorts on the exhale at the end of each canter stride.  I stopped him again and praised him like crazy.  By the end of our ride, we managed the three-loop serpentine with no change of lead in both directions.  This exercise is very tough and very new for us.  I can feel that if I push too much he will break to trot.  The turn between the second and third loop is fragile and I believe physically difficult, so I have to ride carefully.  I cannot promise that we will pull it off at the show; there are just too many variables and maintaining relaxation and obedience will be more difficult away from home, but at least I know that we have it in us.  And when we return from our adventure, I believe that we will be well on our way to more obedience in the canter and improved rider effectiveness.  If I had not been forced to try it, I may not have taken the stand for obedience and the clarity of my aids.

Harley's mind is his greatest talent and my greatest training challenge.

All in all, let's hope for a safe trip and nice weather on Sunday.  The test preparations have already made me happy with my decision to enter this fast-approaching competition no matter the scores which should follow.


  1. Love this post! I could almost ride along with your wonderful descriptions.

    Counter-canter is HARD. It requires a lot of balance and strength, and of course your horse must believe that you really want to be "on the wrong lead". It can definitely be a challenge to get into your horse's head on this one, but it sounds like you've got it.

    And while you're in the arena, yeah, if he could bust out with some of THAT trot, it would be grand! ;)

    1. Thanks, jenj!

      We will try our best. If we mess up I am just going to try and keep the mistake within the same movement so that we can carry on with the rest of the test.

      He seems to have the idea when we head down the diagonal, but it seems like such a great distance to power trot!

  2. Sounds like you've got a good plan for the show. I wish you and Harley lots of good riding and good weather. Good luck!

  3. Best of luck, Val! You know how much I like to show (even when we're not always prepared) so I applaud your efforts. I love your attitude about it. Go out and let Harley kick some butt! I can't wait to hear how it goes. :0)

    1. You are a real trooper when it comes to horse shows. I admire your dedication, Karen.

      I will let you know!

  4. I figure that a show is an assessment and an exam as much as it is a competition. There's a reason they call it a test! It's all just information. :)

    1. Makes sense and that is a good way to look at it. If I glean some tips from the judge, that will be worth it, too.

  5. Good luck!

    I love counter-canter as an exercise for building balance and flexibility, but hate it as a test element. There's no do-over in a test, and I also ride a horse that already has a flying change. Last time we did First 3, he did a perfect flying change at X during the shallow canter serpentine, then counter-cantered around to C. I just laughed, and decided to skip 2nd level!

    1. Thanks, Shannon!

      I plan to incorporate more counter canter after this show. I think that it will give me more control in the changes, which I definitely need, and it should help Harley's balance, straightness, and such.

      It is a bear of a test element, though. Seriously.

  6. Harley is a smarty pants!

    Have lots of fun, good luck and take lots of photos please. :D

    1. We will have fun!

      Planning on photos, for sure!

  7. Great post! Good luck at your show :-)

  8. Wonderful post! Maybe you should read this when you get there to keep it all fresh in your head when you are warming up. You guys are gonna be terrific, I can just feel it. I can't wait to read about the outcome. Go Harley go! You to Val!

    1. I am taking your advice. This post is a good reminder for me.

      Thanks, Mary!


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