My friend Sarah Brander of April Showers Farm in New York wrote the following post. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
I live in upstate New York, where the winters are long and cold. I really can't ride outside from November 1st through April 1st. I've boarded my one riding horse, Virgil, at a facility with an indoor arena. It is marvelous to ride on great footing, in a standard size arena. I also enjoy having other folks to bounce ideas off of while riding. Virgil is inside under lights and blankets and I try to ride 6 days a week. It is a Quarter Horse Hunter barn, and they have been VERY helpful with my dressage aspirations. They invited in a dressage clinician to teach for the day. The clinician is Ray Wellihan and he is the dressage coach at Cobleskill College and he is also a dressage judge.
First, he said I should ride in "dribble glasses"- a pair of "glasses" that basketball players use to feel the ball to dribble it and not look at the ball. They would stop me from looking down at my horse. My first dressage instructor used to say, "You'll know when he's not there. You don't have to look!" We've all heard the ideal that rider posture should be ears, shoulders, hips, heels in a vertical line- as if one could pull the horse out from under you and you'd be able to stand on your feet. When you look down at your horse, your head falls in front of that vertical (off balance) and to compensate your heels have to come back, this lifts your seat forward out of the saddle and then you grip with your knees, pinching the horse's back so he can't lift his back!
Second, I've heard many times to "make the sit part of your posting longer than the rise". This instructor asked me to make the rise part longer- he said it will allow the horse to "find his rhythm" and "give him a place to lift his back." When you ride a Morgan, they like to trot and like to trot fast. I rarely find myself encouraging Virgil to keep trotting, but rather to slow the rhythm of his trot. Holding the rise of the posting, even if imperceptible from the ground, did make my core stronger and steady his pace and quite honestly, it relaxed his back a little.
On a side note, the girls that ride over fences, did a similar exercise, by making the posting rhythm "change your posting diagonal every three strides by standing for two beats", rather than the traditional sitting for two beats. When nobody was looking, I tried it. Definitely a balance exercise!!
Third, he had us come around the short side of the arena posting on the wrong diagonal. As you start the long side, wrong diagonal, get straight, as my horse to leg yield toward the quarter line. The first time we did it, Virgil was baffled, as we had only ever leg yielded from quarter line back to track. The second time, we were both a little more prepared to try this new move. Actually leg yield appears in First level tests as "leg yield from x to the corner" and as "leg yield from the corner to x". So I can see where this is a start to riding the first level tests and a prep for riding leg yield from corner to corner.
The fourth thing I learned in this lesson was actually learned from one of the other riders in the clinic. I've been dedicated to the art of classical dressage since 1990. I've banished all other books from my shelf and sold anything that was my saddle seat days to pay for dressage lessons. Learning the lateral work is a mythical honor. An honor you study for years to be allowed to learn. Posting along in front of me is a girl too young for a driver's license, riding a lovely QH and she has him in shoulder in, then leg yield, then haunches in. Things I've studied over 20 years to learn!!! Where Virgil is boarded, is a busy stable of 40 horses. There are always 5 horses in the arena at any time. Policy is that we all track left until the committee reaches a decision to reverse and track right. This knowledge means that you can make each trip around the arena productive- not just trotting aimlessly around the arena until you can change direction. I can practice shoulder in on one long side and then leg yield track to quarter line on the next long side. I've even started asking for haunches in.
The final piece of education is about canter. My little Morgan does not appreciate canter as a gate. For that reason, I don't do a lot of it. One of the issues with my canter is that I lean forward and I canter for him, pushing until he has to canter- then begging for him to stay in canter. Ray wanted me to just use my leg to give canter cue. Then when cantering I had to imagine a line coming out of his withers towards the sky- and not let myself get in front of that line- helmet or chest. This allowed Virgil to find a pace and stay in canter. I think by leaning in front of our imaginary line, I threw him off balance to start- he didn't have a prayer of a balanced canter. By continuing to "pump" for canter, I set they rhythm, rather than him setting the rhythm and every step was off balance. By the way, all the QH geldings can canter in a rhythm second to none, they even school counter canter and flying lead changes like candy!!!
After the lesson, I mulled all this over in my head. Now, a few weeks have passed, and I feel like some of this information has lost it's freshness, and writing down "what I learned" will bring these thoughts to the forefront while I am riding again.