With usual competition schedules we can easily get in the mode of ‘training for the next event/show’ rather than training our horse. With the current COVID-19 concerns riders are sharing their exercises – jumping and flat alike. But what comes before those exercises? I asked J. Michael Plumb (JMP) what he likes to work on when not preparing for a competition (a little background — he is ASPCA Maclay Champion 1957, the only U.S. athlete to compete in eight Olympic games, the first equestrian to be inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, U.S. Combined Training Association’s “Leading Rider of the Year” 10 different times, and many more accomplishments).
His answer was rather blunt – “What we always work on around here: the B-A-S-I-Cs!”.
What are the basics? We have the dressage pyramid – Rhythm, Relaxation, Connection, Impulsion, Straightness, Collection. A great starting point! Can you walk, trot canter with rhythm? If not, start where you can, is it the walk? or the trot? that is easiest for you and your horse? Start with your horse’s most comfortable/best gait.
How is your connection — leg/seat to rein? Is he bouncing off the contact? Over-flexing? Encourage your horse to take contact with just the outside rein and work with a counter-bend to help strengthen the correct connection. Then go straight, and slowly slide into a shoulder-in, then work your way back to the counter bend. Play with those exercises until your horse takes a feel of that outside rein while you can push him with your seat and legs. Once you have the connection established with the outside rein, you can begin to work on a connection with the inside rein as well. Don’t hesitate to go back to just the outside rein at any time – that is the starting point.
When riding straight – is your horse really straight, and, with a solid connection? Back to the above exercises, those will help you achieve straightness.
Geometry, geometry, geometry! Circles are not eggs. Straight is not a squiggle. Practice geometry every time you ride, and it will become second nature.
And, very importantly, work on the relationship between you and your horse (horse and rider).
If you are wondering where you need to start with your horse, look at the comments on your last few dressage tests? Any repeated comments? Scores that seem to repeat (that you want to improve)? For each movement read the “Directive Area” on the dressage test … How are you scoring? And what are the comments? That information should tell you what to work on.
Jumping – a ground rail, raised rail, pile of rails, whatever … can you walk, trot and canter the element straight (really straight), on a bend (as in a circle)? Sharpen the pencil here! Work on yourself to ensure you give your horse the correct aides. Are you using your leg to straighten or bend, or your hands? Getting it right with a ground rail or small obstacle prepares us for correctness over larger obstacles.
For your horse’s mental health, and yours, be sure to get out of the ring and hack your horse if you have the location to do so safely!
And, was your ride a ‘deposit in the bank’ or a ‘withdrawal’? Did your horse settle more and more through the ride and become more settled, and quiet in his mind?
Of special note: JMP rides five to eight horses and works with multiple riders EVERY DAY. He will be 80 on March 28, 2020 – so stop making excuses for not riding your horse! As the expression goes … “Just Do It!”
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