Friday, March 28, 2014

Loose hands - not good for baby birds and not good for my horse

As dressage riders we frequently are told the visual that we should hold our reins as if we are holding a baby bird.  Tight enough not to drop the bird but not so tight that you will crush the bird.   I thought I understood this and followed it well until today's lesson where I had an "aha" moment.   (Yeah!  I love those!)

I have been working hard on keeping steadier rein contact but I missed something important.   Today my instructor pointed out that my hands were "giving the reins away".  I was keeping steady in my arms and elbows but each time I asked for more from behind (and other times too...really a LOT of the time), I was opening my hand and providing a loose environment... essentially dropping the baby bird.

You would think that a soft forgiving hand grip would be a good thing.  And it is.  But a hand that continually opens and closes is NOT a forgiving hand grip.  Its a taking / giving / taking /giving hand and that can be annoying and even worse cruel.  

Its our job as a rider to provide a stable place for our horses.   They need to know that our hand is going to be stable in every area -- the hand, the elbow, and the arm.  I understand its a fine line between staying stable and being rigid but that is our job as a rider - to find that fine line.

Go back to that baby bird.   If I am only holding the bird with my thumb and pointer finger I am keeping him from falling or flying away but I am not providing a secure environment where he bird feels safe.   Keeping the bottom fingers closed and firm provide a "nest" of security.   I need to do the same for my horse.

Like all bad habits this is going to take a bit to break.  I knew it was working well because Golly responded well to the change.  Despite that I felt as if I was clenching my fist in comparison to the previous amount of pressure.  And I found myself continually having to remind myself to "darn it... shut those fingers".

Time to practice!

Monday, March 24, 2014

What is Dressage?

I promised a posting on the first phase of eventing -- Dressage -- and here it is!

Dressage is my discipline of choice but its still the most difficult for me to explain.  I'm asked all the time what it is and I have difficulty explaining it to my friends and family but I'll do my best here.

Dressage has been practiced for over 2000 years.  Although clear documentation is not available, there is some evidence that ancient Greeks practiced the discipline mainly as a method of training their war horses.  It was important their horses were nimble and responded to the lightest of aids.

Imagine being in war attempting to utilize various implements of death and your transportation is a live animal with a mind of its own!  The horses were taught to move laterally with just changes of weight so the soldier could use their hands to fight.   The horses were taught to trot in place to keep their muscles warmed up without moving and to change speed and direction with changes in the position of their rider.

Today we compete in dressage by completing what we call "tests" which are specific patterns and movements.  Each "level" has a different pattern and set of movements.  As you move up the levels, the movements become more difficult and each level progresses from the level before.   Precision is very important.  For example, in nearly every test a 20 meter circle is required.  The circle must be exactly 20 meters, be perfectly round and performed exactly where specified in the ring.

There are various letters around the perimeter of the ring and the test uses those letters to show where to perform the movement.  For example, the test might say to start the 20 meter circle at A or to halt at X.   The letters on the perimeter of the ring have actual markers but the letters in the center of the ring are just known by the rider and judge to be there.

No one is quite sure what the letters mean or where they originated but they have been used for many years and are continued to be used.   There is one theory that in an ancient Germany the walls of one stable courtyard were marked with letters indicating where each courier and horse were to wait for their rider.  So K for King and F for Furst (Prince) and so on.

We also use something called the Dressage Pyramid which is progressive as well. Elements at the top of the pyramind cannot be perfected until the ones at the base of the pyramid have been achieved.  In addition, the bottom elements of the pyramid are practiced more than the ones at the top and are even top riders and horses will work on the lower ones during each ride.   Proper collection cannot happen unless you have first achieved rhythm and relaxation.

You receive a score that is based on the potential of ten points for each movement.  For example, one movement is entering at A and then halting at X.  You are judged on how straight you come down the centerline and how square and still the halt is (among some other smaller nuances).   A perfect score would be a 10.  A marginal score would be a 5 and a 0 means you didn't perform the movement at all (say your horse decided that jumping outside the ring would be a better movement!).  Each score is added up and the final score is based on what percent you received of the total possible score.  For example, if a total 120 points were possible and you got 92 then you score would be a 76% (92 ÷ 120 = 76%).

Many riders only compete in dressage but dressage is also the first phase of eventing.   The scoring in eventing dressage is a bit different than the rest of the dressage world as the lower the score the better.  They essentially subtract from the perfect score points for each error made.

Eventing itself is very similar to a triathalon.  The first phase is dressage.  The second cross country which I explain in the post - Rolex Kentucky 3 Day - and the third phase is show jumping.  Show jumping are jumps set up in an enclosed ring.  The goal is to get around the course without knocking any poles down within a time limit.   The same horse and rider complete all three phases and there are vet checks between each phase to ensure the horse is fit enough to continue to the next phase.  Lower level eventing is typically completed in a single day but for the larger more advanced events, they are completed over three days.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Spring... Where are You?

Spring, where are you?   We were teased this weekend with sunny skies and nearly 60 degree temps.  I rode in a tshirt and actually was sweaty.  I loved it!

Attempting to find the road
But it was just a tease.  As we were riding on Sunday afternoon, the clouds suddenly rolled in and the trees started swaying in the wind.   Then the wind felt as if someone has opened a refrigerator door.   The air was still warm around us but it felt as if there were cool streams of air tunneling holes into the warmth.  
And then the rain started.  A chunky rain -- filled with bits of ice.  I live about a mile from the barn where I keep my horses and had driven the tractor over to rake the arena.   So of course I had to drive the tractor back home and hadn't even thought of a rain coat so I used the ever so fashionable discarded sawdust bag over my head.  I turned a few heads as I drove down the road!

During the night, we were the lucky recipients of a freezing rain and then snow.  By the time I started the trek to the barn, the truck was completely covered in snow.   As I was driving slow in a four wheel drive, the slick road conditions weren't too much of an issue but because the snow was so deep and I was the first to drive on it I wasn't sure where the road was.  I made some good guesses and seemed to be on solid ground luckily.    

The horses had been in all night so I decided to put them out for the day despite the snow so snuggled them up in their blankets and sent them out to enjoy some hay.  

Despite the beauty of the snow I am SO ready for spring and this March snow just seems a cruel joke after our gorgeous weekend.  I am ready to ride and enjoy longer days and sun on my shoulders. 

Stay consistently on the triangle

As dressage riders we talk a lot about staying evenly on the "triangle" of the two pelvic bones and single pubic bone.   When we are balanced and deep in the saddle, all three should have equal pressure.   Of course, there are times when one of the bones will have more pressure.  For example, one of the pelvic bones will drop to get more bend on the side we drop.   Or both pelvic bones will have a deeper feeling when we are going for a driving seat.

At my last lesson I realized that I have developed a bad habit of dropping weight into my pelvic bones each time I use my whip.  I have recently discovered that Golly goes much better when I have either equal weight or lighter weight in my pelvic bones -- keeping an open seat rather than a driving one -- so this is  the exact opposite feeling I should be giving when I am asking for more forward motion with the whip.  

I think this is a bad habit that developed back when Golly still had a bit of buck in him.   When I put the whip on him he would frequently throw a buck and I started sitting back some as a defensive move to stay in the saddle.  Not a bad thing when that was happening but since he has matured and is no longer bucking, its time to drop the habit.

What is amazing is that I had no idea I was doing it until my instructor pointed it out and then I realized I do it EVERY time.   Just one more reason why its so important to have someone on the ground that can give you honest feedback on your riding.   One more thing to keep in the back of my head during schooling.