Monday, November 2, 2015

Improve Your Dressage through Endurance Riding

I think it is pretty common to think that schooling dressage exercises can help improve a horse's performance in another discipline.  On the other hand, there are certainly many, many dressage riders out there who view dressage as a discipline in and of itself (I used to be one of them).

Recently, though, I've begun to wonder if there isn't something else going on.  I try to take dressage lessons regularly.  Typically, I like to have one every other weekend, which gives me some time to practice what we worked on during the lesson as well as get some conditioning rides in and maybe even take the occasional weekend day for some down time.  However, when I'm getting ready for an endurance ride, I take a break from my lessons for 4-6 weeks to allow me to focus exclusively on trail and conditioning rides, so I can test any changes in my equipment, make sure my brain is where it needs to be, and give Nimo a short break after the ride.  And, looking back on my ride log for this summer, I can see that I didn't do much dressage work outside of my lessons.  I think that when the extreme heat started early this year, I got unmotivated quickly and never really got back on track.  So between the lack of independent schooling and the pre-ride preparation for the OD in October, I got nowhere near my optimal schedule for dressage work since probably May.

But something interesting happened.  Normally, if I had been that inconsistent about my dressage work, we would have stagnated or even started having problems with movements that we'd been able to do before.  Instead, the quality of Nimo's leg yield has steadily been improving for the past few months.  It is certainly possible that it would have improved faster with more dressage work, but the point is that it improved even without it.

And then something even more interesting happened.  I had my first dressage lesson in what I though was 6 weeks this past Saturday.  But when I checked my ride log, I realized that it had actually been 8 weeks since our last lesson.  So, we haven't had a dressage lesson in 8 weeks, and we did exactly 1 ride in the arena during that time (2 days before the lesson).  All the rest of our rides have been conditioning rides out on the trail.  During that time period, we had 3 rides that were particularly challenging:  1) Graves Mountain (not a long ride, but it included a really extreme climb), 2) 15 miles of the OD, 3) 12 miles at Andy Guest with 4 other endurance riders (we rode FAST!!!).  Those rides were done within a 5 week period with quite a bit of rest for Nimo in between them.

Getting ready for our lesson

Anyway, back to the lesson.  I pretty much expected it to be pathetic.  We had done no practicing with the exception of one ride 2 days prior, which was basically to make sure my dressage saddle still fit, that I could find my dressage bridle, and that Nimo remembered how to move on contact and canter when asked.  The ride actually went surprisingly well, but we only covered the basics, so I was sure that we would spend all of Saturday's lesson with my instructor asking us for more forward movement, reminding me to keep my heels down, and essentially wondering why she keeps bothering to try to teach me.

Here's what actually happened.  Nimo was awesome.  He was the most forward in a lesson that he's probably ever been.  It may be the first time that I've ridden him in a lesson and achieved the nirvana of forward movement where instead of asking him to move with more impulsion and energy, I just sort of allowed that impulsion and energy to come out at the appropriate time.  I'm not sure if this makes sense, but it was kind of like the time when my dad adjusted the timing on our old Chevy Impala, and I think he made a mistake because the car basically idled at 25 mph.  I remember having to keep the brake on for much of the drive because the car's default speed was a little faster than was needed.  So Nimo's default trot was more like a lengthened trot, and I would gently contain it for some of our movements, and then basically ease my foot off the brake for lengthenings or when we needed more energy.  I didn't ask for more energy in my usual way, which would be gently squeezing my legs or tapping with my whip; instead, I sort of thought, "Forward" and he would move more forward.  It was a very cool feeling.

And because Nimo was moving so well, I could spend the time I normally spend worrying about his movement on myself.  The result?  My heels were DOWN the entire lesson.  They didn't come up a single time.  I think it was because I have a tendency to contract my leg when I'm trying to get more movement or get Nimo's attention, but because I didn't have to do that, my body naturally stayed in a much better position.

Plus, our leg yields were improved over our last lesson.  They have begun to feel deliberate to me.  I'm not at the point where I can place every footfall, but when we do the leg yields now, it seems like time slows a bit and I have the ability to focus on fine-tuning the movement.  Before, I just pressed with my leg, held the outside rein and prayed for lateral movement:)

We did still have things to work on, of course.  My hand position still needs some work because I have a tendency to hold my hands just 2-3 inches too wide and too high.  And we needed to work on consistent bending and tempo through 10 meter circles, but at no point during the lesson did I feel like I was gasping for air, which I had previously thought was an essential component of all my lessons.  There were definitely challenging parts of the lesson, but they didn't exhaust either me or Nimo like they have in the past.  I'm sure my instructor will figure out how to up her game in future lessons, but it was nice to have a lesson where I felt like we were really working together.

Yet, how to explain so much improvement when it had been 8 WEEKS since our last lesson with ZERO practicing?  Most serious dressage riders school 5 days a week with a light hack on the sixth day, and I have definitely found that a schedule like that is effective for improving my horse's dressage work.  It does require paying a lot of attention to what you're working on each day and making sure you are working different muscles on alternate days and incorporating cardio work.  And there's the mental factor - I have a hard time spending that much time each week in the arena for weeks, months, and even (gasp) years! on end.  So it's not a schedule that I want to use, and it may not be the most effective one for us, either.

The only conclusion that I can draw is that all of our heavy duty conditioning work is somehow helping both Nimo and I to communicate better, to become more fit, and for Nimo, to become more flexible and forward-thinking.  What is interesting about this conclusion is that I ride so differently out on the trail than I do in the arena.  Dressage typically demands a constant communication through seat, legs, AND reins.  I find it exhausting and tedious much of the time because it means that I must be so focused for every step Nimo takes.  And I wouldn't be surprised if Nimo found it equally exhausting for the same reason.  But, we do it because of the benefits that I am convinced dressage schooling conveys.

On the other hand, when we're out on the trail, I give Nimo as much autonomy as I can and I rarely ride with contact unless Nimo seems to want/need it, or we are negotiating a difficult section of trail.  Whenever possible, I let Nimo choose his pace and where he goes on the trail (outside, middle, or inside if the path is wide).

One thing that I do for both trail and arena work is that I never fuss at him about head set or frame.  I have discovered that he will move his head and neck according to the terrain and effort he is putting in out on the trail and that in the arena he will typically adjust his frame based on whether we are warming up, working, or cooling down.  His head and neck will be lower during warm-up, cool-down, and breaks, and they will come up for work.  I rarely have any issues with him throwing his head up or down to evade the bit, or in his case, the noseband, so I don't feel like I need to worry about it.  And even in my lessons, the only thing my instructor will say to me is to ask him to be a little more round (it is usually a pretty minor adjustment).  She seems to be as unconcerned about his headset as I am.  I suspect that is because she uses the exercises to generate the appropriate frame, rather than expecting me to frame the horse and then do the exercises.

Anyway, I am now wondering if instead of thinking of dressage as improving our endurance riding, I should be thinking of endurance riding as improving our dressage:)


  1. Ashke and I do most of our dressage work on the trail, whether it is a leg yield or sidepass to sidle into position next to a gate, flexing at the pole and lifting with his back in an extended trot, a collected canter as we weave our way through a series of bends, twists an turns as we follow the singletrack through the trees or his lengthened stride as we hand gallop up a hill. Correct bend comes naturally as we weave through trees on a singletrack trail and he is forced by the trail to contract his canter, really rocking back on his haunches to make the turns at a canter that we have to make or go careening off into the underbrush. It's really helped him develop the muscles, balance and skill he needs to do some of the stuff for the Working Equitation without driving us both bonkers in the arena.

    1. Your trail rides sound awesome, Karen!:)

  2. Yet that's pretty much where my lateral work is right now: "Before, I just pressed with my leg, held the outside rein and prayed for lateral movement:)

    1. Ha!:) I think you're doing pretty well with all that you've got going on!