Monday, September 7, 2015

Dressage exercise: Small circles within a big circle and a breakthrough

I managed to squeeze in a dressage lesson yesterday, which was good, because I hadn't been to one in several weeks.  And I admit that despite my best intentions of entering a schooling show last month (so did not happen), I have really not been working on our dressage much the past couple of months.  I have a hard time being disciplined in the arena when it's really hot, so we've been sticking to pretty basic work.  Thus, I had some concerns that we would be sad and pathetic during our lesson.

As it turned out, Nimo is starting to feel more comfortable at my instructor's new barn.  She moved in May and Nimo has been completely freaking out in the indoor arena at random light and open windows.  He's been gradually getting better, but yesterday was the first time that he seemed reasonably comfortable.  He still eyed the big windows at the ends of the arena with suspicion, but my instructor had us get to work on something fairly difficult for us right away, so we were both too busy working on following her directions to worry about much else.

After exhausting us with a lot of canter/trot transition work which I was thankful to survive, we took a short break, and started an exercise that had I known the endpoint in advance, I would have insisted we could never do.  (This is a favorite tactic of my instructor that always works well.  Somehow she knows what we can do and figures out how to get us there.)

The diagram is below:

Not a rendering of an alien head
We started out in working trot on a 20 meter circle (the big black circle in the diagram).  Then, as we approached the wall on the side of the circle, we would go into the smallest (think collected - active with good joint articulation - not pokey quarter horse jog) trot Nimo could do and still be moving rhythmically and do a 10 meter circle (the smaller red circle in the diagram).  After doing the 10 m circle, we would come back to the main 20 m circle and I would ask for the biggest trot Nimo could give me and still stay reasonably balanced on the circle.  And we proceeded around the 20 m circle, doing a 10 m circle at each side of the arena.  The small circles were always done with Nimo trotting in what will eventually become his collected trot and the main 20 m circle was always done in a lengthened trot.  We would do the transitions between the two trots as close as possible (within 1 or 2 strides) to the wall where the small circle started/ended.  I hope that makes sense.

As we got the hang of the exercise, my instructor had me sit the trot only for the small circles.  Sitting the trot added a challenge because I have a tendency to slow my body movement when I sit, creating a mismatch between Nimo's movement and mine.  Nimo is absolutely unforgiving of such mistakes and he will stop dead in his tracks if my balance or movement is off by more than the tiniest of margins.  So, we did a few more circles until I figured out how to more fluidly switch between sitting and posting trot while also getting the transition within the trot.

Next, my instructor had us canter the 20 m circle and transition to sitting trot for the 10 m circles.  So, the final pattern went like this:  working canter a half 20 m circle, transition to sitting/collected trot for a 10 m circle, working canter a half 20 m circle, transition to sitting/collected trot for a 10 m circle...repeat (but no more than 3 times without taking a break or changing direction).  What made this exercise so challenging for us was the frequent transitions between working canter and the sitting trot, although those transitions also helped in a way because it is easy to lose momentum on a small, slow circle, and the need to transition back into the canter helped both of us to keep thinking forward.  We have struggled with our canter work for years, and I still often internally cringe every time my instructor asks us to canter, even though Nimo's trot to canter transitions have improved so much over the past couple of years.  However, yesterday, we did so much canter work that I was able to get out of that habit and just ask for the canter with the same nonchalance that I use to ask for the trot.

There were two other great results for us from this exercise.  The first was that our canter to trot transitions improved a huge amount.  We typically struggle with making those downward transitions clean and balanced, but because there was just no room or time in the exercise for dilly-dallying, we had to get the transitions sharper and faster.

The second thing was that I actually sat the trot.  I hate sitting trot.  Let me repeat, I HATE sitting trot.  Why do I hate it, you ask?  Well, because I ride a Friesian.  To clarify, Friesians look beautiful when they trot.  All that fabulous knee action is a sight to behold, and many people think that it means that Friesians must feel like gaited horses.  This is WRONG.  Friesians are not gaited, nor do they feel like them.  In fact, they don't even feel like your average quarter horse, who ideally has a flat-kneed action at the trot, which means smoother movement.  All that crazy knee action has to come out somewhere, which means sitting the trot on a Friesian is like riding a jack-hammer - a giant, out-of-control, multi-directional jack-hammer.

It is true that dressage schooling can really help smooth the movement out as the horse's back gets stronger and of course, the rider gets more in tune with the horse.  But in end, sitting the trot on a Friesian is just never going to be as comfortable as it is on breeds that are actually bred as riding horses instead of harness horses.  (Although, I wonder if some other warmblood breeds are also jack-hammers in disguise, based on how uncomfortable their riders look.)  Regardless, my instructor assured me that she was going to help me become comfortable with sitting trot this year because it is essential for me to learn that skill before we can advance much more in dressage (or so saith the dressage masters and those that sell a lot of dressage books - I remain unconvinced).  So she has been throwing in a few strides here or there in our previous lessons, but I could tell she was implementing the final phase of her plan during this lesson.  She had explained to me earlier this year that the typical way professionals learn to sit the trot is through exhaustion.  At the time, I told her that sounded like lunacy.  The theory behind this "exhaustion method" is that you are lunged with no stirrups on a school master at the trot until the tension in your body that is causing the resistance to moving properly with the horse evaporates because your body wants to wither up and die, or some such nonsense...

Anyway, as it turned out, the exhaustion method may not be such a bad idea after all.  As luck would have it, I totally forgot to wear full-seat breeches.  I have come to appreciate them and have been wearing them for my dressage lessons for at least a year now.  But yesterday, I just spaced it and put on my ugliest pair of riding tights because they were clean.  Riding tights don't have much grip or texture to the fabric, in my opinion, thus making them a very poor choice to use when working on sitting trot.  And at the beginning of my lesson, I was sliding all over the place, my heels wouldn't stay down, and I felt like I was going to just swoop right out of the saddle at some point.  I was irritated with myself and struggling with even the simplest of aids.  However, my instructor paid no mind to my issues and really pushed us for lots of canter work at the beginning of the lesson and then through the exercise I explained above.  I was exhausted physically and mentally by the time we changed direction for the last round of the exercise and guess what?  All of a sudden, the sitting trot was not an issue.  I'm not going to claim that I was the reincarnation of Reiner Klimke, but I wasn't bouncing around or uncomfortable anymore.  And my heels stayed down in the canter.  And I was no longer leaning forward at the canter (something I have been struggling with correcting for awhile).  I actually felt like a dressage rider in my slippery knee-patch only riding tights.  Totally weird and cool at the same time.  So maybe it isn't the full-seat breeches after all...


  1. Love that exercise! Interesting insights about riding the Friesian, too -- never thought about it, but that makes a ton of sense. Thanks!

  2. (I was never in love with full-seats. I get that they're the popular option and I've owned a few pair, but I never felt like I could get down into the saddle the way I wanted with 'em on. Probably my failing! But your report at the end of the post makes perfect sense to me.)

    1. I've fallen in and out of love with full-seat breeches more than once. I typically don't like them because they have too much fabric in unladylike places. But, I do like the FITS breeches. The cut-out for the full seat is certainly not attractive but they feel less bulky and the leather seems to grip without being to restrictive. I did go through quite a few years feeling as you do, though, so I totally get it:) Not to mention that nice tights and knee-patch breeches are south cheaper!