I was fortunate enough to attend the ICP Symposium in Ocala for this morning’s dressage session with Jacqueline Brooks. Jacqueline is a top Canadian dressage rider and the dressage coach for the Canadian Eventing Team. Her teaching style was thoughtful and engaging both for the riders and spectators. Many thanks to the USEA and Longwood for hosting the educational event.
Here are a few insights from the morning session, made up of horses in the early to middle stages of training (novice/training/prelim).
• Visualize the horse’s back as a bridge from croup to wither. As a rider, you want to be in the middle of the bridge, not sitting on the forehand or hindquarter. You want that bridge to be springy and flexible beneath you. Jacqueline said even the most well-trained Grand Prix horse is tense going into an electric environment of a huge show; the trick is to move their back, get them springy, so that the tension doesn’t show in the horse’s movement.
• “Bounce” your seat bones like drumsticks. Use your seat in rhythm with the gait to influence the horse’s hind legs. Sit on the seat bone that you want the horse to step under: for haunches-in right, weight the right seat bone. For leg yield left (flexing right), weight the left seat bone.
• Weight the outside seat bone for shoulder-fore and shoulder-in. This was a new one for me; I’ve always been taught to sit on the inside seatbone for bend, and shoulder-in is 10-meter circle bend on a straight line. Jackie explained, however, that you want the inside hind to cross under toward the outside shoulder, so sit firmly on the outside seat bone (and “pulse” the inside drumstick if needed). In the canter, where horses should be traveling slightly shoulder-fore to be straight, be sure to sit on the outside seat bone while flexing to the inside. It worked beautifully for the demo horses and riders.
• For counter-canter: lean in the direction of the circle, do not sit on the “lead” seat bone, that’s how you ask for a flying change. This was also opposite of what I’d learned — weight in the direction of the lead — but it made a significant improvement in Kristin Carpenter’s horse in the first lesson. Her mare was not patient in counter-canter, really wanting to change; but by leaning in the direction of the turn, while bending in the direction of the lead (exaggerated), the mare was able to hold the counter-canter much better. By the end, her true canter was soft with lovely balance.
• Also to prepare for counter-canter and changes, practice travers (haunches-in) to control the haunches and get proper bend. Half-pass is simply travers on a diagonal.
• For travers, weight the inside seat bone You should feel the horse pivot his butt beneath you, keeping his shoulders straight (and pressing into your inside leg). Then by sitting to your outside seat bone, the horse should swing around into shoulder-in. The hands are only responsible for maintaining flexion; the leg position and seat bone ask the horse to change his body.
• Begin to ask for collection by “connecting” your elbows to the horse’s hind legs. When the horse is properly flexed, bring your elbows back (both hands, not just one or the other) and ask the horse to lift his poll while maintaining the activity of the hind end. Riders made it look very easy as the horses sat down, lifted up in front and showed a nice moment of self-carriage. Jacqueline was quick to praise the horses and encourage the riders to reward the slightest positive improvement.
• Visualize your track. Jacqueline said she can mentally draw and see every line of her dressage test — knowing where to lean, which seat bone to weight, where to half-halt — before she ever rides the pattern. Treat it like a cross-country or show jumping course; there is a “perfect line” for every jumping round, the right track to take that will make you efficient, balanced and straight to the jumps. See your lines in the dressage arena — visualize the horse’s footprints from letter to letter on a 20-meter circle or through the corner, and ride those footprints. Show off your horse on the short side, that will improve your gait score in the collective marks.
• Young, green horses should be educated to three types of leg: leg on, leg draped and leg off. Jacqueline had riders practice by halting (push your hips to your gloves, don’t pull, just stop the motion in your hip). At the halt, leg your leg drape loosely on the horse’s sides. Then take your leg away and ask for reinback; you may have to pulse your leg lightly, then take it off and squeezing your fingers ask the horse to back up. After several steps, drape your leg and halt. Then close your leg and trot off. The leg aids should be light but distinct, and the horse should learn to differentiate. It may take practice!
Sadly, I had horses to ride at home and was not able to attend the afternoon session with the Advanced horses. However, I had plenty of homework to work on, and my young horses definitely went better for it!