I recently took a two week holiday (the longest holiday I have EVER taken in my life), and my horses always get their holidays when I get mine! Paddy ended up having three weeks off in total, which was well deserved as he had been working so hard and was being so good in the weeks leading up to the holiday. So when it came time to bring him back into work, I wanted to ensure we got off on the right foot, especially with our flatwork as it’s fundamental to everything else!
Paddy’s Physio noted that he was a bit tighter through his left side, and that his left hind wasn’t fully pushing through – which went a long way to explaining the struggles I had with him leaning on my right hand, and his challenges bending to the right (i.e. stretching out that left side). She told me to lunge him twice a week in the John Whitaker Training Aid, and to work on getting that left hind to step under him, and make him more even.
So the next thing I did was book a lesson with my dressage trainer, Sandra Blake Farrell. It had been a while since we’d been to see her as I was focused on ‘at-home bootcamp’ and getting to know Paddy, so I was looking forward to getting some ideas from her as to how we could improve Paddy’s straightness. I was also really keen to come away with a few exercises in my back pocket that I could revert to when things start to go pear-shaped!
Changing the Tempo
The first thing we did in the warmup was look at changing the tempo within the pace, with the aim of getting Paddy sharper off my aids, and ensuring that at all times I was choosing the pace/tempo, rather than allowing him to set it himself. Sandra noted that Paddy has lovely big paces, which is great, but as he is big and I am not, it can sometimes mean that I don’t have complete control over his body – particularly his shoulders – and often trying to turn him if he is distracted can look something like this Thelwell picture!
Controlling the Shoulder
So we moved onto improving the steering by regaining control of the shoulder. Paddy is forward-thinking and has big paces, however he is also weak behind and as a result forward can sometimes equal being on his forehand (and my hands!) – this is not something I want to encourage as it keeps him on his shoulder and is developing all the wrong muscles. Sandra’s advice was to slow everything down, get him off his shoulder and focus on turning him off my outside rein and leg, rather than trying to steer off my inside rein. This encouraged Paddy to listen to me and move his body rather than leading with his head/forehand. We did lots of pirouette-style exercises with him, and I found a massive difference in the control I had over him through this exercise. I found a great video on Youtube which explains this quite well, below:
Focus with transitions
By this point Paddy had lost some concentration as we were working in walk (and another horse started working in the arena with us), so Sandra suggested we let him do a bit of faster work and throw in some transitions to get his focus back on me. We did a simple figure of eight in canter with a trot transition in the middle, focusing on sharp, quick transitions both up and down. Initially we were a bit slow to get the upward transition, and sometimes we struck off incorrect, so to anticipate this I asked for a few steps of leg yield in the downward transition, and then he was already in the correct bend to get the correct strike off. We also focused on opening up his stride a little bit to encourage more ground-cover once he was balanced in his transitions.
This did wonders for his focus and I would never underestimate the value of such ‘simple’ exercises to break up your schooling sessions. Sandra noted how balanced Paddy was in his canter which I was delighted about, as I’ve been doing quite a bit of work on our canter at home lately!
Travers/Quarters-in for straightness
With his focus back on me, it was now time to get back to the task of getting him off his forehand. We looked at quarters-in (also known as travers) in walk and trot – this targets the hind-end and is great for developing suppleness and encouraging straightness. It also gets them off the forehand and encourages better placement of the shoulders. We looked at it on both reins, first in walk and then in trot – again the directive from Sandra was to start slow, and we can pick up the pace when we are more established at the exercise. Next steps are for us to be able to execute this correctly on both reins (the left rein is a bit iffy due to my weak right leg!) in walk and trot, and we may then begin to try it in canter. I LOVE this exercise and am thrilled to now have it in my armory! The below video with Anna-Ross Davies explains it really well.
To finish things off, we had a little look at the Leg Yield both ways – from the three-quarter line to the outside track. On the right rein (trickier rein as he needs to push off his left hind) he was running through the bridle a bit, so we slowed it all down, little trot steps and we nailed it. On the left rein, quite the opposite! He was almost ready to stop dead on me when asking for sideways movement, so we did the opposite – moved him up a gear and then asked for sideways, and again nailed it!
I always enjoy my lessons with Sandra, and it’s so rewarding to work with a horse who is so clever and is always trying so hard to please. He genuinely likes to work, and picks things up extremely quickly – I just have to be careful not to a) push him too quickly, and b) always ensure I’m keeping things positive so he doesn’t ever lose that motivation.
My homework now is to work on these few exercises over the next few weeks, and see can we get them correct on both reins. When riding I have to be constantly thinking ‘is this my arrangement, or where Paddy wants to be?’ and even if I’m not sure, it’s no harm to change things up a bit – if he’s forward, maybe slow it down, or vice versa.
Sandra noted that his topline had improved a lot since I was last out to see her – think it’s time for me to start taking pictures to note his progress! I’ve recently put him on Bailey’s Topline Conditioning Cubes, so we’ll see how he gets on with them!