As a member of the Eastern Region of Dressage Ireland, I have the opportunity to take part in subsidised training with top local and international dressage trainers. The most recent one ER organised was with Dane Rawlins – Grand Prix Dressage rider, Director of Dressage at Hickstead and UK List 1 Judge – and I jumped at the opportunity to take part. I had heard great things about Dane’s lessons in the past and was keen to get a fresh perspective on our dressage riding from a judge’s perspective.
The lesson took place at Marlton Stud the day after our show (where we qualified for Winter Finals!), so I had lots of ideas fresh in my head of what I wanted to work on. Dane started off by getting us to warm up as we normally would so he could see how we both worked in all three paces.
The first issue he spotted was the contact – or lack thereof! My reins were too long, resulting in a lack of effectiveness in my rein aids, and Betsey was bracing against the contact by bearing down on my hands and crossing her jaw – something I really wanted to work on! He started by showing me some flexion exercises I could do in the saddle and from the ground to get her to soften to the contact, and showed me in halt how to keep a very still contact with the reins until Betsey ‘mouthed’ and softened, then I could give and move forward. He also had me shorten my reins (in his words) by ‘about half a mile’, so that when I asked for flexion, I didn’t have to pull and could just squeeze, and as a result the aid was more effective. As someone who has short arms, I found this really hard but will need to work on it!
I learned how to give the contact fully forward by ‘patting her neck’ every few strides, alternating the rein I gave each time, to ensure she was balancing herself instead of leaning on my hand. As Betsey needs to learn to lift her back more to become more through, Dane suggested that I spent some time in a light seat in all three paces to free up her back – and added bonus is it helps me build strength in my lower leg!
As you can see in the video above, Betsey is much deeper than the traditional ‘test’ frame, where the poll is the highest point, however here we were focused on ‘breaking up’ the area around the neck, jaw and throatlash to create less resistance through the body – and then bring her back up into a test frame.
The next issue Dane spotted was my leg position – as you’ll see in the video above my leg comes up almost as high as the base of the numnah! I have been working to fine tune Betsey to the aids (she’s not the most forward-thinking horse!) but my leg position is still a big issue that I need to fix from the days where I had to practically chase her around the arena. Dane really got after me about this – he encouraged me to bring my legs forward, drop the weight down through my heels, and ask with my calves rather than heels to prevent them coming up. I’m not going to lie – it killed me. But as Dane said ‘mind over matter, ride through it’ – I loved his attitude and it really helped to keep me going.
Next it was time for lateral work, and sitting trot. For anyone who spends most of their schooling time in rising trot, or is not as flexible as they should be, you will know that sitting trot is HARD. I felt very much like a potatoe at this point in the lesson as I bounced about in the saddle, and my pity for both Dane and Betsey was immense. But both of them were equally as good-humoured about my ordeal, and as time passed, my seatbones somehow connected with the back of my dressage saddle, my heels dropped, and I stopped bouncing about (as much). We worked on leg yield – and I won’t lie, neither me nor Betsey are very good at it. Mostly because I don’t co-ordinate the aids effectively, and Betsey thinks leg=run, not sideways.
Dane showed me how to use my half-halts more effectively to ‘block the shoulder’ and encourage her to move sideways rather than running through the bridle. We worked on using a more pronounced inside bend than is typically required in leg yield to allow my inside leg to get at her body and reinforce the idea of moving sideways. If it wasn’t working we could halt straight away, rein back to soften the contact and prevent the usual running through the bridle, and then move off again. Also, Dane noticed that I regularly start my leg yield too quickly off a turn, so we’re pointed at an angle rather than being truly straight, which makes it hard for me to ask Betsey to move sideways – we worked on getting Betsey straight before asking for the leg yield which made a massive difference.
By the end of the session it was a completely different picture to the one we went in with: a horse that was more supple and through, working over her back; a rider that rode more effectively and with purpose; and a grasp on lateral work – finally!
We didn’t change the world, and I don’t expect to be moving up to Novice in our next show, but we took away some actionable learnings that I can put into practice in our daily schooling:
- Betsey must learn to give at the jaw before I can hope to control any other part of her – focus on the give through the jaw and ensure to GIVE when she gives. This is important.
- Leg and rein aids should be given with purpose and not every stride – tune the horse up to respect the aids and use them less.
- Get up off the horse’s back for a few strides to allow them to lift their back and get more stretch.
- Give the rein forward by patting the horses neck every now and again to test they are truly in balance. If they bear down or drop their frame you need to work on balance.
- Lateral work is a great way to gain control of the shoulder. Turn on the forehand, leg-yield and shoulder in are good exercises.
- But ensure you are STRAIGHT before beginning your lateral movements.
- Use the half-halt to control the shoulder in lateral movements and stop them running onto their forehand.
- Get off the outside track – do more work on the inside track to encourage balance.
- And most importantly – keep those bloody heels down!