For those of you that have been following my blog since the beginning (THANK YOU!), you may remember one of my very first posts was on my training experience with Sandra Blake Farrell (post here) – and how following a dressage lesson on one of her schoolmasters, I opted to continue my dressage journey on my own horse by getting regular lessons with her. Sandra has an amazing way of teaching at all levels, and gives really useful exercises that improve both horse and rider.
As Paddy has been away improving his skills, I took the opportunity to improve mine too and booked an Ultimate Dressage Experience – a lesson with Sandra on one of her schoolmasters to sharpen up my aids and learn more about some of the more advanced movements so I would know a) how to ask for them, and b) how they should feel when it comes to training Paddy myself.
I had the honour of riding Biala Perla (stable name Pearl), one of Sandra’s highly successful competition horses. Pearl has had great success both at home and overseas (at Hickstead), winning many ribbons at Medium and Advanced Medium level with both Sandra and her very talented student Kevin. It’s both exciting and a bit nerve-wracking to be able to sit on a horse of this calibre, but I was pleasantly surprised during the lesson to realise I wasn’t a complete potato and seemed to be able to get a good tune out of Pearl!
We started doing some simple warm up work, focusing on my position and making sure I was sitting straight in the saddle. One thing that was really interesting (and reassuring) to me was that even at the higher levels horses still have weaknesses that need working on when schooling at home – Sandra spent some time getting me to stretch Pearl out and down, working over her back, as she has a tendency to carry herself in a higher frame. No matter the level there are always areas to be improved and I got some good tips to help Paddy work over his back at home! Sandra also gently reminded me not to “nag” (my words!) with my legs and if Pearl was not responding to my aids to give one stronger aid rather than lots of little nudges which can result in a horse tuning the rider out. GUILTY!
From there we moved onto lateral work, starting with leg yield – which I was able to do pretty easily as I do quite a bit with Paddy at home to work on straightness – followed by some shoulder in down the long side. I struggle with shoulder-in as I am never sure of the angle I need but getting this right in the lesson has helped me feel confident to try it at home, and even off the track!
Next, we moved onto half-pass, and it’s at this point that I want to say a huge thank you to Sandra for her patience in teaching me this! I just could not seem to get my head around it, and either ended up doing some form of wobbly mix between leg yield and shoulder in, or just going across the diagonal. One of Sandra’s greatest qualities is simplifying complex concepts and breaking them down into little steps, and when she saw I was clearly struggling we went back to basics and walked through it step by step. The lightbulb moment for me was Sandra telling me the horses sternum should be facing C in a straight line (if half passing across the diagonal), bend towards the diagonal then ask for sideways movement.
On the left half pass we noticed that Pearl had a tendency to lead with her quarters, so we started by positioning her in shoulder-in before asking for the half pass, and this worked wonders. On the right half-pass she lead too much with the shoulders, so we went with a travers position before the half-pass to get her a little straighter. I found this invaluable as now I know what exercise I can use based on what I feel, even if I don’t plan to teach half-pass – if Paddy is loading his shoulder, try some travers, if he is a bit quarters in then try a bit of shoulder in to straighten. Yay for more exercises!
I got to do the half pass in walk, trot and canter, and have to say I found it easiest in canter. I forgot to ask Sandra why that might be!
Then we moved onto some medium work, and flying changes. The feeling of true medium movements is just amazing – and I say true medium because honestly, how many of us think we’re doing medium when really we’re just going a little bit faster?! I know I’m guilty of this! It was great to feel what true medium trot and canter should feel like so now I can try to teach Paddy correctly.
The flying changes were interesting – I have trouble getting Paddy to land on the right lead, left is fine, and I always thought it was me. However with Pearl it was the opposite – the changes to the right came easy while the ones to the left were stickier. Hard to tell if this was me or the horse, especially as it was the opposite with Pearl and Paddy, but I got a great tip from Sandra which I will absolutely use from now on! Instead of collecting up the canter before the flying change, which is my (and I’m sure others’) natural tendency, try a medium (or ‘bigger’) canter across the diagonal, half halt, and then ask for the change. As the horse is in medium and therefore pushing more from behind, asking for the change comes easier as their hindleg is already under them. Loved this, was a huge revelation for me and will definitely try this instead of collecting too much!
We cooled down with a little more half pass just in case I had forgotten when doing my changes, and I was pleased to see I started to develop ‘feel’ in the half-pass, making small adjustments as I moved across the school to stay in the half-pass.
I’d highly recommend a schoolmaster lesson to anyone looking to improve the delivery of their aids on the flat, or to learn more advanced movements that they may want to teach their own greener horse at home. Something I would certainly go back and do again soon! Also a huge thank you to Eventing Ireland as I won a Grassroots Training Bursary at a recent training day which covered the cost of this lesson – a fantastic opportunity to improve my skills thanks to the investment of EI in Grassroots riders.