Finding your inner trainer

To really become a good at dressage, you have to think like a trainer and not just a rider. And you don’t have to be a ‘professional’ trainer to think like one.  I’m not there yet, but I’m getting closer.

In the early days of my dressage journey, I spent endless hours riding 20-meter circles, thinking that was the key to success in the dressage ring. I did not understand that doing something endlessly, imperfectly, would never make it better. I did not understand the concept that to fix the trot, for instance, didn’t necessarily have anything at all to do with the actual trot – the horse may be crooked, not forward, on the forehand, etc – and those underlying issues needed to be addressed before things could actually get  better. I advanced at a snail’s pace because I did not understand that basic concept.

During the many periods when I was trainer-less, when problems came up, I had to solve them myself. And somewhere along the way, I started thinking more like a trainer. I came to understand some of the underlying issues that could cause seemingly unrelated things to feel wrong. I began to realize that a trainer is sort of a cross between a personal trainer and a ‘life coach’ for a horse. A rider rides the horse they have at that moment. A trainer rides the horse with an eye to the future – trying to prepare the horse for the harder work to come and make the horse stronger and more supple. A trainer has a “lesson plan” for systemically doing the exercises that do that.

I used to be very intimidated by anything past first level. Now that I’ve trained three horses to second level and one to third, I think the harder work is fun, and doing the correct lower level work that is the foundation for that higher level work is the real challenge.

I used to just sort of ride aimlessly around with no real goals for each ride. Maybe it’s because I’m 53 and have a smaller window to try and accomplish my goals. Now I try to push myself to ride purposefully each and every time I ride. Faeryn and Faxx are almost 5 and I’m already doing shoulder fore and lots of transitions within transitions to build muscles and create energy – all with an eye toward collection.  With Fling, even tho our flying changes aren’t yet confirmed, I read the 4th and Prix St. Georges tests like some people read best sellers. I collect ‘exercises’ to recitfy a variety of problems. I use the entire arena – including quarterlines and centerlines.  I am not afraid to try new things – even if I am not sure exactly how to do something. Horses are amazingly resilient creatures and I’ve learned that, unless you fry their brain, training boo-boos can be fixed. I’m not talking about fixing incorrect basics – that’s hard. Plus, I’m not aiming for the Olympics. I’m just an amateur trying to expand my comfort zone, and be a better trainer. I’m not afraid to make mistakes. That’s how you learn. Babies fall down a lot before they learn to walk. There’s no other way to learn. I think a lot of dressage trainers make their students afraid to try stuff like this, for the exact reason I was.

It’s been raining almost every other day the entire month of December. Our farm is a muddy mess. This weekend it was actually dry enough to ride each day. Today I rode Fling and Faxx. Fling’s canter is getting much stronger. I am using some of the Jan Brink exercises and I am also just cantering straight lines. Fling had a bad habit of wanting to just take off on the straight lines – she was just sure that every straight line meant a medium canter. I am working at keeping her on my seat and just doing long stretches of canter – along the long side, and across the diagonal. She is listening to me better, staying on my seat and getting stronger at the canter.  She did several hugely overexuberant flying changes that almost launched me until I finally convinced her to bring it down a notch. I also did some large schooling canter pirouettes.  She is a long way from doing a competition pirouette, but it’s fun and you have to start somewhere.. I’ve also learned to warm her up at the canter. She and Faxx both do better that way – gets their backs unlocked. I walk and do flexion exercises like haunches in and shoulder-in, then move to canter. Now I do trot last and when I do it, because of the canter work, her trot work is much better. Those are the kinds of things trainers think about. I threw in some extended trot and I always forget how much fun that is with Fling.  I always wondered how people sat those extended trots. Now I know the secret  — if your horse is truly through, it’s pretty easy to sit the extended trot! Fling’s back comes up in the extended and I just feel like I’m sitting on the highest point on it. I also learned to keep her on the new outside rein, which also helps.

Then I rode Faxx. He is getting much better about taking contact with the bit – it’s almost a non-issue now, even tho I’m afraid to even type that for fear of jinxing myself!  His canter is just fabulous to ride. He is still tough to sit the trot. One thing I’ve discovered is that I have to absolutely sit up straight and not look down at ALL when sitting Faxx’s trot.  It is key to keeping him connected and his back up. If I collapse my core or look down, I lose him. And if he’s not connected, I absolutely cannot sit his trot. I can sit his trot for longer and longer periods of time. I am confident in a few months I’ll be able to sit an entire First level test.

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