thoroughbred

A Dressage Horse

These two photos show the difference that a couple of years of consistent, focused work can make.
These two photos show the difference that a couple of years of consistent, focused work can make.

For those of you who know me “in real life” you know that this journey of mine with my beautiful mare has been a long one, with a very twisted, jagged path.  It was never a straight line (in any direction) — especially not upwards, and many times not even forwards.  However, as my fitness coach says:  consistency equals change.  In other words, you don’t have to do an hour every day — you just have to be consistent in the little things that you do.  Apparently, it applies to horses too.

I am thrilled beyond measure with the photo (from yesterday) in my header on this post.  It is the culmination of the vision I’ve been working towards since I bought my mare 12 years ago. She was still in race training, but I watched her passage around the pasture and that was it.  I had to have her.  I doubted I would ever be able to achieve or ride anything like that passage under saddle, but hey…a girl can dream, right?

I want to share a few important points that I have come to realize through looking back over the past couple of years.

  1. Conditioning rides are incredibly important.  It is NOT about quantity.  It is ALL about quality.
  2. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of working at a WALK to achieve these results.
  3. Don’t get sucked in to your horse’s drama.

In regards to quantity vs quality.  The two pictures in the header were taken just over 2 years apart.  The results were achieved riding an average of three days a week — because that is what I get if I’m lucky.  On occasion, I might get 4 days in a week. However, I am a small business owner with two small children (my oldest child just turned 4) and my horse, while a true passion of mine, is a luxury item and I simply can’t afford to ride every day.  Therefore, it was really, REALLY important that the time I do spend at the barn is focused on achieving some kind of goal.

That being said, my mare is also 17 years old, and as anyone middle aged knows, it is really hard to just maintain a fitness level, let alone develop a better fitness level once you’re middle aged.  That is where conditioning rides come in to play.  I knew that physically and mentally, I couldn’t just drill movements for our rides.   So here is what we do:

We always start with 15 or 20 minutes of lunging.  Sometimes in the round pen, sometimes on a lunge line. It doesn’t really matter.  We do 2:30 minutes of trot each direction and then 2:30 minutes of canter/trot transitions each direction. Then another 2:30 of trot each direction. She really needs this to loosen up and move freely over her back.  Sometimes we’ll do another set of canter work if she’s still not moving freely — or if she’s particularly hot that day.

Some days are purely conditioning rides. We have a 10 acre (or so) hay field right next to our outdoor ring and so we’ll do walk, trot, canter (or hand gallop) laps around the hay field. Its good for the body and the brain.

Once I get on, we spend the first 15-20 minutes walking with a focus on connecting the front and back together. That means: half halts from the seat alone, taking up contact, getting a collected walk, stretching down into an extended walk, going back to collected walk and then stretch down the buckle. We do that multiple times both directions at the walk before we ever trot. Once we have that at the walk, we do it at the trot and then at the canter. Some days, that is all we do. And we don’t work for ever. If I get really good working over the topline for 25 minutes under saddle, we’re done.  With the round pen work, that is 45 minutes.  I would much rather have a short ride that is phenomenal than a longer ride that is mediocre at best (’cause I’ve had lots of those and they don’t really accomplish much).

And it doesn’t look pretty for a while sometimes, because, lets face it, engaging the hind end is HARD WORK.  And when you have a very smart mare who didn’t really have to do that for the first 16 years of her life, sometimes we have to have discussions about it.  “yes, in fact, you will work in self carriage.”  This brings me to point #3:  I had to learn to not get sucked in to my mare’s drama.

Regardless of what she does, or how she reacts, learning to sit deeper (instead of that instinctive crouching forward), driving her forward with my seat, taking a deep breath and just letting it go (aka forgetting it happened) were all things that I had to figure out how to do.  It seems simple, but it isn’t always.  And because she *is* a TB, she’s very sensitive.  So her drama would become my drama and then she would play off of that until we were just a mess.

My learning to sit deeply, ride the disobedience and then FORGET the disobedience, has been truly a ride-changing concept.

Before I wrap up this post, I’m going to add one more important thing. Having the *right* trainer for you and your horse.  I have done all of the riding on my mare.  She has never been in training under saddle with anyone else.  However, I would NOT be able to make the changes and improvements that I make without riding with the right trainer for us.  I am lucky and blessed to call Amanda Pisano my friend and trainer.  She has a knowledge of classical dressage training that is deep and complete.  And not only that, but she is a great communicator and can explain things in multiple ways if I don’t understand them.  I could not have come so far without her guidance and honesty.  I’m looking forward to many more great lessons in the future.

I know many of you out there are on a similar journey.  I would love to hear about your successes.  Please leave a comment and let me know what you’re doing too!

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