Don't get me wrong; she's not suggesting that we ditch the training pyramid and toss out straightness. Instead, she means that the horse must have some bend when doing practically every dressage exercise, especially when riding 10 or 20-meter circles.
Maintaining a bend has helped me see that I was pulling back, a lot. When Sydney gets nervous or anxious, which is every time he leaves the property or even while riding in my own arena, his go-to response is to pick up speed at the very least, or bolt sideways with a rear at the worst. Have you ever tried to stop a bolting thoroughbred? I have, and the only way to get the job done is to run him into something, or crank his neck around. Pulling back doesn't work.
Hi, my name is Karen, and I am a recovering "puller of the reins."
Saturday's ride presented me with many opportunities to pull back, but I stayed on the proverbial wagon and used a bend to achieve the relaxation that Sydney needed. JL, my trainer here in town, calls it letting the geometry teach the concept.
A young couple with two little horse crazy girls have been coming to the barn every now and then to groom and ride. I helped get Bailey saddled even though I suspected their presence in the arena might cause Sydney to be tense. I was right.
Dad and the little boy, not much older than a toddler, hung out on the fence while mom helped my barn owner lead both little girls around on Bailey. The girls switched off riding, but the whole time the group was in the arena, they were laughing and enjoying themselves.
Dad and little boy were one thing, but Bailey, and his entourage were yet another. Sydney checked out. He squealed, he grunted, and he tensed his whole body as he prepared to launch himself into the next county. Lois's advice to me during moments such as these was to let Sydney think that he could gallop off across the county line. I wasn't going to hold him back.
Instead, I bent him around my inside leg and put my spur behind the girth to send his haunches around. He could go as fast as he wanted to, but it was going to be in a small circle with a bent neck. I bumped him off both reins and let him just go. As long as he didn't grab the reins, I didn't touch his mouth or have any contact. We circled for a long time.
Every time he softened his body, I reduced the bend and suggested that he move out onto the bigger circle. If he changed the rhythm or grabbed the bit, I tried one half halt. If that was ignored, I immediately bent him into the small circle and continued on as though making 8 - 10 meter circles was my favorite thing to do.
Eventually, he started to listen to my aids, and we were able to ride the larger circle for long and longer. I don't know whether Sydney learned anything, but I sure had quite a few aha! moments. This exercise was boring as hell, but it allowed me to keep perfect control without having my horse run off. It also showed me that Sydney can carry himself and maintain a steady rhythm without me holding on to him. He can do those two jobs himself.
After what seemed like forever, and it really was at least 20 minutes, Sydney was mostly willing to keep a steady rhythm and listen to my aids. His ears started to get floppy and I was able to use half halts to slow him down. I moved on to the counter bent exercise and even got him to canter. The canter transition was explosive of course, and I had to do a lot of canter with a counter bend, but I eventually got a round horse who had released his back.
I changed direction and we started the process over again.
Riding Sydney to the right can be quite difficult. He ignores my inside leg and shoves his inside shoulder forward. Riding the 10-meter circle becomes an exercise in pirouettes. I did several things to fix the problem. First, I bent him around my inside right leg and spurred the heck out of him. He literally grunted in surprise. I could practically hear him yell, WTF? He moved off my inside leg though which allowed me keep the bend as he circled at Mach 10.
I was able to expand the circle enough to ride him in a counter bend. Lois also suggested that I ride the square when tracking right. Knowing it is not very dressage-like, I rode the square completely off my outside aids: outside rein and outside leg. My inside rein simply kept his nose in place; I couldn't get any inside bend. Instead, I worked the problem by having too much outside bend and then gradually got his neck straight.
Eventually, I felt him soften on that outside rein, and I was able to get a little inside bend. I added a tiny bit of inside leg and smiled. Finally; inside leg to outside rein. When my ride first started, I was irritated that our visitors were "ruining" my ride. After a bit however, I was thankful that they were there as they had given me an excellent opportunity to apply my skills and put my horse together.
While Sydney was a complete pain in the patootie, I felt that I at least made tremendous progress in that one ride. I felt a whole new sense of control and purpose. The exercises worked and helped me to balance my horse without pulling back. And instead of pulling, I was able to offer a giving hand whenever he was ready to take it.