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Shoulders and Elbows

March 1, 2010

Our old way of going was on the forehand and hollow.  In my first ever dressage lesson, I learned how to get Carly to drop her head down, round up, and use her back.  It seemed easy – the instructor asked me stop and flex her right and left, suppling her down.  I needed to work on my timing by reminding her to keep round before she had thrown her head up in the air, but it seemed like in an instant we had transformed our trot from a lazy putter into an suspended dance.  We glowed.

There was one problem – my hands. They moved constantly and obviously.  Over the next few rides, I tried to quiet my hands and use just my ring fingers to supple her down.  Unfortunately, this turned into the dreaded see-saw and my mellow girl let me know quite clearly that she did not like the see-sawing motion of the bit by throwing her head up like an Arabian and inverting herself in a way that she had never done before.  Ugh.

In my next dressage lesson we worked on balance and roundness at the walk and trot.  “Get her shoulders up first, then ask her to be round,” my instructor advised.  So we worked on some exercises – mostly leg yielding out and in on a large circle, bending and counter bending, until I could feel her shoulders coming up and moving underneath me as we went from side to side.  This movement, even at a walk, is powerful and exhilarating.

But we were not round. “Don’t worry about her head, worry about her shoulders,” my instructor reminded me.  As we continued our circles, Carly would leap into the trot when I was using my leg to push her over.  “She has to trot because you are not giving her anywhere to go.  Her head moves up and down at the walk and you need to maintain even contact at the walk by following her head with your elbows. Don’t follow with your hands – that’s when your elbows straighten out and she falls on to her forehand,” my instructor told me.  I focused on maintaining even contact by letting my elbows follow her head. Sure enough, as I used my leg to push her into the corners, she stretched into my hand as I let it follow her head instead of leaping into the trot.  After a few more circles of following elbows, she started to trust that I would not hit her mouth and relaxed into my hand.

“Now you can ask her to be round by taking up some more contact, but as you add resistance, you need to keep on following her,” my trainer asked.  This balance between resisting and encouraging doesn’t make sense on the surface, but like with many horsey things, I just thought about creating this balance with my elbows and suddenly we had a lovely round walk.  Magic.  We started trotting and I continued to ask her to be round through this balance of resisting and encouraging and it felt like we were floating.

I don’t know if Carly and I will ever compete at dressage – my girl really loves her jumps – but I want this light smooth feeling all the time, not just when we are doing dressage.

I tried to get this feeling in jump lesson this morning.  It eluded me during the warm up, and throughout our lines (although we had some of the best lines we have had all month since I decided to stop fiddling with her mouth ever step of the way to try and make her round).  We got horse strides, not pony strides in our lines.  My jumping trainer usually nails me for this, but today she let it go: “There’s not much you can do about that line – she was soft, she was slow, you got a nice distance. Her strides are just long right now.”

In between our trips, we walked and trotted some circles and I focused on shoulders and contact, hoping for roundness.  I finally got her round at the walk by finding that balance of pressure and encouragement with both my hands and legs, as I bent her in one direction and then the other and suppled her down. “Keep your elbows bent,” my jump trainer reminded me. Right, my elbows – the key to even contact and following her head. As I paid more attention to keeping the bend in elbows and maintaining even contact, I realized at the trot that as I suppled, I was letting go too with the other side. I realized as we trotted and I flexed her to the outside, that I just needed to keep that amount of pressure as I then asked for flexion with the other rein.  Magic! She was suddenly straight and round.  “Why did you just get this now,” my jumping trainer yelled.  “I don’t know,” I hollered back, “I just finally found the right balance.”

Getting Carly round and balanced requires more attention and careful riding than my very first attempts. But it is a better roundness and results from a more pleasant riding experience for both Carly and I.  I think it will get easier for both of us. For now, I will just keep riding.

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