Sunday, November 23, 2014

Dressage Milestone: 10 meter canter circle

I've been spending the month of November getting re-focused on dressage.  While we're still doing at least one trail ride a week, those rides are shorter and less intense than they would be if we were actively conditioning for an endurance ride.  In place of all that trail conditioning, we've been working on our dressage schooling, which definitely got put aside pretty much all of October as we ramped up for the Fort Valley ride.

We've had two lessons in this month, and both have been just what we needed to check our progress and get back to being more disciplined in our arena work.  Yesterday's lesson, in particular, ended up being amazing.  I was riding in my new dressage saddle for only the second time (yes!  FINALLY!  more on that new saddle in the next few weeks), so I was still fine-tuning the fit for Nimo as well as thigh block and stirrup position for me.

As a follow-up to our last lesson, we were continuing to work on making sure Nimo was responsive to my leg aids.  As he sometimes will do when we are working a little outside his comfort zone, Nimo was substituting a transition to the canter in place of more forward engagement at the trot.  Usually, once we work through a few of those substitutions, he'll settle into work and really lengthen at the trot.

This lesson was a little different.  The canter substitutions just kept coming.  And, in fact, he threw in a couple of decent bucks (also a sign of work outside his comfort zone) and even walk-to-canter transitions (when I asked for walk-to-trot).  The canter was of very nice quality and the transitions felt and looked good, though, so we decided to just let Nimo do what he felt like he needed to do.  My instructor said that as long as he was giving us forward motion, we'd take it and see what happened.  (This is why I love working with my instructor so much - regardless of what her plans might have been for the lesson, she is so willing to work with the horse that I have that day, and it can lead to breakthroughs like the one we ended up having.)

We settled into working on 10 meter trot circles where the objective was to keep our tempo and pace consistent the entire way around the circle.  10 meter circles always seem so small to me until I have to work on something while we're doing them - then they seem endless!:)  Anyway, as I asked for more trot because Nimo has a tendency to fade a little during the second half of the circle, Nimo was still throwing in some canter strides, and then it happened.  I was really focused on making our 10 meter circle with a nice bend and good impulsion and as we started the circle, Nimo cantered.  It was a nice transition, he had good bend, and the canter felt smooth and balanced.  So we went with it.  And Nimo did his very first 10 meter canter circle - I'm not counting the one he surprised me with during our dressage show in September because it was supposed to be a 15 meter circle and he did it while leaning on his inside shoulder and being completely unbalanced and running around like a lunatic.  (For those unfamiliar with dressage levels, a 10 m canter circle is introduced in competition at 2nd Level.  We are in the stage where we are competing at 1st Level, so we want to school at 2nd Level where possible.)  This is a HUGE deal for us.  Nimo and I have struggled with canter so much for so many years, and to see him finally working with what seemed like minimal effort in the canter and advancing was just about enough to make me cry.

My instructor didn't really say much about it until the end of the lesson because we were in the middle of some kind of crazy pattern that involved doing 10 meter circles as we progressed down the long side of the arena and then there was crossing the diagonal, trot lengthenings, and leg-yields-to-canter transitions.  After both Nimo and I were good and tired, my instructor and I chatted about the lesson and this is what I think was going on with all the unsolicited canter work.  While it isn't uncommon for Nimo to offer canter instead of more engagement at the trot, in this case, I think it was actually that somehow my aids were getting communicated to him either a little more forcefully with the new saddle or the change in my position due to the new saddle was causing me to give the aids a little differently.  There was one time where I thought I was asking for a little more trot, and I literally got an explosion in forward movement, as if someone had literally lit a fire on his butt.  I am the last person to give any advice on what the proper aids are for any transition or movement in dressage because half the time, I don't even really think about them.  But because all the unasked for canter transitions were occurring while we were on a circle, I think that the aids I was using for the circle (inside leg at the girth, outside leg behind the girth, outside hand making good contact, and inside hand asking for bend) were getting meshed with the aids for "more trot" (basically just squeezing with both legs) and that was pretty much exactly what I'd do for a canter transition (except I will usually move my outside leg back just a bit when I ask for canter on the circle), so Nimo was giving me what he thought I was asking for.  The reason he'd bucked a couple of times at the beginning of the lesson was because he thought I was asking for canter before we'd fully warmed up at the trot (he's very particular about that) and he was letting me know his back wasn't quite ready for the quality of canter he thought I was asking for (we usually warm up in the canter on a longer rein and we don't go right into 20 meter circles).

I'm sure many of you are wondering if the fact that I was riding in a new saddle that may not have been properly fitted for Nimo might have been the cause of the bucking and the confusion about the aids.  The main reasons why I don't think that is true is because the bucking stopped after the first few minutes of the lesson and the quality of the canter that Nimo was offering was just so nice - nicer than anything he'd given me before.  And I find it improbably that Nimo would offer a more advanced movement in a correct way if he was really uncomfortable.  Also, the first time I'd ridden in the saddle, Nimo hadn't given any signs that he was unhappy.  While it is my practice to take things easy the first time I ride in a saddle in case there are fit issues, I rode for over an hour at all gaits and over a few small cross-rails at both trot and canter without any issues.  However, I'm the first to admit that I don't work nearly as hard in our schooling sessions as I do in a lesson, so the degree of effort required in our lesson yesterday was leaps and bounds above what we'd done in our previous ride.  I guess time will tell if there are any fit issues with the saddle that I'm not seeing, but for now I feel comfortable that the saddle is OK.

If I'm right about what was going on, I'm seeing an interesting result from switching from my endurance saddle to a dressage saddle.  I have always believed that dressage is something that can be done with any saddle, but this new saddle definitely made a difference (in a good way, I think).  And Nimo's reaction to my aids forced me to think about them more carefully and play around with them a little to see what worked best for him.  I think it's going to be really useful for me to spend some time focused on how I'm communicating with Nimo and I'm hopeful it will result in a higher quality of work from both of us.  I was pretty impressed with the quality of his canter yesterday, which leads me to believe we are moving closer to collection.  I'm really looking forward to spending the next couple of weeks experimenting with aids and Nimo's movement and I'm hoping that we're really going to make some progress over the winter!:)

8 comments:

  1. I think it is totally plausible that you could do *better* dressage in a dressage saddle than endurance saddle. The first comparison that came to mind is that you can do endurance with all horses, but it's going to be easiest with Arabians - perhaps the same is true that you can do dressage in all saddles, but it's going to be easiest in a purpose-built dressage saddle.

    That sounds like a really lovely and productive lesson!

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    1. I'm sure you're right, Figure. I was just surprised by the striking difference because I feel really balanced in my endurance saddle and I didn't expect the see a huge difference with my new saddle. I was even questioning whether I should have gotten a dressage saddle. Now I'm glad I did!:)

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  2. Sounds like a great ride, proper dressage work helps everything!

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  3. I'm willing to bet that the dressage saddle puts your leg further back than your dressage saddle - which can provoke temporary bucking due to confusion about the aid (leg back to canter) in sensitive or particular horses. The difference in position and where your seat is can also make it easier for a horse to shift its weight back, to sit behind a bit more and that could well have contributed to the improved canter.
    It is completely true that you can do dressage in any saddle - it is however, a damn sight easier in a properly fitted dressage saddle, which is why people have different saddles for different sports. It's not all rampant consumerism (despite the teenage livery client who accused me of promoting that mindset when I suggested that she might find showjumping easier in a forward cut saddle!).

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    1. Thanks for your comment, FD. Your points about my leg and seat being a little different in the dressage saddle are interesting. I've never really thought of Nimo as being a particularly sensitive horse, but he just keeps surprising me!

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  4. Sounds like you're getting your money's worth out of the new dressage saddle! ;) Your analysis of Nimo's responses to your cues makes perfect sense to me, especially given for how long you've owned and ridden him. It always makes me smile when people talk about their horse's particular quirks and preferences: it's the kind of thing that comes from spending a lot of time with your horse. What a great lesson, and I love your trainer!

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    1. I love my trainer too! She is so different from anyone I've ridden with before and she is so tolerant of and even seems to welcome all my tack changes and questions.

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