Be prepared: This post is rated PG13 for boring dressage content. It will contain a vast amount of dressage-related drivel. Showjumpers and anyone who doesn’t want to hear about the ridiculous minituae of the most nitpicky sport of them all, look away now.
With Nell safely (and very happily) installed in her new home halfway across the country, poor old Arwen has resigned herself to the fact that she is now the current top dressage horse in the yard and has been pressed into service satisfying my craving for the sport so hard it’s almost art. When I brought her back into work in mid-November after the quarantine, I’ll admit I didn’t hold much hope that we’d be doing great things next year. Arwen likes dressage (Arwen likes anything as long as it makes her brain and body work), so that’s not the problem; the problem is that our dressage was becoming steadily more mediocre as last year went on. In terms of marks, we were slowly climbing the high 50%s, so they were very ordinary but at least improving. But the way she felt was just always iffy.
I realise, now, that we were just missing true connection. She went in a frame and it wasn’t exactly a false frame; she didn’t break at the third and her back was lifted. But it wasn’t truly through, not the proper cycle of power we all read about from the hind legs to the hand. She was just holding herself up the way I wanted, not flowing through herself the way she needed to be. It was subtle; the judges’ comments never pointed at something specific. Everything was just mediocre. Comments almost invariably began with “Needs more”. She wasn’t exactly crooked or stiff; she just “needed more [insert term here]” and it was everything. Connection. Straightness. Bend. Suppleness. Impulsion. Meanwhile she was always resisting just slightly; never my aids – obedience is her speciality – but there was just an against-ness in my hand, all the time. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I just knew she didn’t feel like Nell; there was a softness and a power-moving-through-ness in Nell that just wasn’t there in Arwen. I decided we’d try and do Elementary and if we got it done I’d retire her from dressage. Neither of us were enjoying the fight for more than that.
And then Nell went, and I had to try and fix Arwen as much as we could. Of course, the horses and I all have a deal. I don’t make them try and do something they physically can’t or mentally really don’t like to do. But in a last-ditch effort to touch those higher levels I want so much, I threw all the focus that had been Nell’s into trying to bring out the very best in Arwen. And God, Who of course had planned all this, revealed a whole new level of awesome that had hitherto been locked away in Arwen for lack of necessity of belief in her.
First, even before Nell’s sale was a probability, we had the chiro out. She found a small arthritic change in Arwen’s off fore fetlock. It wasn’t enough to make her lame, but it was enough to make her lean just a little to the left to spare that foot a little, which in turn put out her back and that put out her neck. Connection’s like pouring water through a pipe; a good flow is dependent on straightness. Kink the pipe to one side and the water can’t all flow nicely out the front; it dams up by the kink, all boiling and nasty. Arwen continually tipped her nose to the right, and that locked up her whole back. The chiro put her back and neck in again and left us to take some time off and give her joint support to fix up the fetlock.
When I brought her back to work, she was feeling better in her body than ever before. And I was desperate; desperate to school Arwen perfectly, because perfect schooling and a brilliant brain can make up for non-flashy gaits like she has, as long as they’re correct like hers are. One of the biggest things I changed was our routine dressage warmup. I noticed that she only started to feel good in the last five minutes of each session, but by then her brain would be tired. I also read everything on the Internet that Charlotte Dujardin ever said (mild exaggeration, but seriously. I tried.) and she was always talking about her warmup. Warming up like Blueberry might not turn Arwen into him, but it was worth a shot. And the change was phenomenal.
The new warmup isn’t dramatic. It’s actually simple. The most important part is that we start with a hack. 10 minutes maybe; just around the long stacks of bales and back in a walk on a long rein. No contact, no long and low, just forward and straight and forward and straight. I usually take the time to roll my ankles, stretch my quads and do a breathing exercise or two. When we get back I’m breathing and she’s dragoned out some of her dragonness; then we halt, salute and pray, and then we trot two laps of long and low without stirrups. I rise the first lap and sit the second lap. Only then, 15 minutes into a 30-minute session, do I actually put the horse into a contact. By then she’s warm and listening and forward and straight and the connection is just amazing. The power is flowing up her back from her hind end straight and true; all I have to do is recycle it in my hands and it just happens. We do working trot a lap each way, then do some transitions within the trot and a halt and rein back. The halt and rein back isn’t really warmup, it’s just something we have to do every day until we get it good. Same with counter canter; we do working canter, a simple change on each rein on the long side, medium canter, and counter canter because we’re not much good at it.
That usually leaves us like 10 minutes to actually work on stuff, but it’s quite enough because by then the horse is so ready for it that we only have to do things once or twice before we see improvement and move on.
You guys, the change in this horse is just amazing. She does still struggle with medium trot and rein back – her old enemies – but suddenly she just magically has counter canter. She never did, but now she’s doing half 20m circles, changes of rein, the works. Her turns on the haunches are awesome. Every canter transition hits the correct lead no matter where we are in the arena. And the feeling in my hand is incredible. She’s seeking the contact for the first time; she’s solidly there, but not pulling, just happily taking the contact and going forward and soft. I love it.
DQs are nutcases. Excited by the oddest things. But I am excited now. Our scores have spiked; we now have points for Elementary, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
As usual, God knows exactly what He’s doing, especially when we don’t. Glory to the King.