Tuesday 19 June 2012

Checkpoint #4 - did you learn anything, Curmudgeon?

A few months ago, I was asked to do a talk on "Dressage" for a local pony club group.

Being asked to do a talk on "Dressage" to a local pony club group is probably sort of the same as being a dentist and being asked to do a talk on "The Magic of Flossing" to... well, just about anyone.  You have to accept right from the get-go that your audience will be underwhelmed.

But  you can't take it personally.  In my case, the audience was thirteen years old, and thrived on Prince Philip Games (whacking your pony in the head with aforementioned wooden fish on a stick and whatnot) or blasting through cross country courses, or executing really bad stadium jumping where they get to fly around at mach-5 jumping 2 foot  high fences, using levels of skill and finesse that would leave them dead or paraplegic if the fences were 3 foot high -  why the hell would they want to hear about something as dull as dressage. Or flossing.

But it was the middle of February and I had nothing better to do, so I gave it a whirl.  What did I have to lose - even if they all said I sucked once I left, it would have absolutely no impact on my life, and I really could care less.  And, I was promised there would be cake.

And so, I prepared...

I spliced together a bunch of video clips shamelessly stolen from YouTube in an attempt to show off things like "horse with impulsion" vs "horse without impulsion" and "leg yield" versus "drifting horse with head cranked in one direction" and "person with steady contact" versus "person with really long reins and busy hands way in her crotch, who looks like she is pleasuring herself".  (No, I didn't really say this.  I just thought it quietly in my head while watching the video clip).   

I think my favourite clip of all was a really wonderful "classic" dressage bit, where a woman did a series of perfect, slo-mo, set to dramatic music 4-tempis, every one of which was late... I guess that is what made it "classic" (as in "woah, man, this is classic!  I can really help these kids understand what a late change looks like!")

I took a dressage whip and did that de rigeur thingy that every coach everywhere feels compelled to do at some point in time - you know, the one where you push the bendy end of the whip into your palm, showing how riding "back to front" creates a nice round bendy horse.  Or something.

I brought a snaffle bit and some reins, and did a demo that involved a child holding the bit and me putting my foot on their ass and pushing them "into the contact".  It seemed to make sense at the time.  So far, no charges have been laid against me, so what the hell - maybe it actually did make sense.

But I think the point I wanted to get across most of all was the thing that I remember being very significant to me when I started riding the ponies in the Land of Lilliput.

If the ponies were ridden correctly - forward, into steady contact, using the concepts introduced to me way back when I learned about the mystery of the half halt... they went on the bit and stayed there, swinging along, in a forward and pleasant fashion.  While I did nothing but sit pretty, monitor the situation, and adjust as needed (a little leg here, a squeeze of hand there)....yes, as bizarre as it seemed, after years of hunchy-chicken neck-jabby-jabby-see-saw hunter riding - there was this strange possibility that I could ride around someday without having to kick-fuss-pull-wiggle every fricking step of the way.  

It dawned on me after a few lessons that this bizarre concept, taken to the extreme...yes, Curmudgeon, this general idea just might someday morph into...self carriage.  As in - when horse does stuff without you holding them up, nagging them constantly, and muscling them through every manoeuvre

At the risk of having someone tell me that I should learn to ride from riding horses and not reading books on the toilet, I will say that Kyra Kyrklund gives a good analogy of this in her book "Dressage with Kyra", where she talks about the fact that a rider should not have to influence their horse all the time, and that riding a horse is like riding a kick-sled.  Kick-go-relax and enjoy the ride.  No more kicking until speed decreases.  

(I actually used this analogy with the Pony Club kids, but I changed "kick-sled" into "skateboard" and used a picture of Bart Simpson to make it seem more hip.  Nothing like really putting the icing on the "old boring woman doing talk on dressage" cake like referring to a cool toy of the 1800's)

Woah!  Who needs an Xbox when you have a Kicksled!

Oooh, but Dressage Curmudgeon!  We must constantly be rebalancing our horses!  I do 1000's of half halts every ride!

There seems to be some pissing contest thing going that requires one to blather on about just how many half halts one does during their average ride.  Or just how one must execute these half halts.  Ass or abdomen?  Lifted, or level hand?  Zzzzz... 

Honestly, you sound like idiots.  Bottom line - there is no magic number, or magic method - you just have to play around and learn, with good eyes on the ground to let you know when you are doing it right.  But every moment the horse understands, responds, and trucks along doing exactly what you want, in a balanced fashion without your input - even for a second - is an amazing moment.  And I do remember being quite excited by this when it first came to life for me while riding the ponies of Lilliput.

(Developing the sensitivity and timing to run these moments all together into a seamless and invisible ride...uhhh, well... another story all together.  Baby steps, eh?)

Annyway to wrap things up - the cake was carrot cake - and I felt it was fairly delicious and worth the drive to Fergus.  I have no idea if the kids learned anything about dressage, or were just left wondering how Bart Simpson fit into the whole picture.  But I hope that someday at least one of them is bopping along doing a nice big booming trot, just sitting back and enjoying the ride, and says to herself... HEY - maybe this is what that crazy woman was talking about back in 2012...


  1. omg, yes re: the self carriage vs constant half-halting (aka fidgeting). Sorry, but I just don't get the latter and never have. One summer I had my dressage TB at a barn near home away from our regular trainer, and the pushy barn owner there insisting on giving me a lesson. Uh, okay. She explained I needed to half halt every three strides by closing my outside fist and squeezing with inside leg. Every three strides? She was actually counting out the strides as if I was learning to post. (We were showing second level.) My horse was like "huh?" and promptly began ignoring the rhythmic and predictable squeezing. WTF. Pointless. What Kyra said is something you hear repeated from all the top riders. The horse is capable of holding himself up, and, BONUS: he already knows how to walk, trot and canter! All by himself!

  2. Ummm yeah I agree re the half halts. If you can see me doing one from the ground then it's too much. I should have done something earlier so I didn't need a massive rebalance aid. But mostly the more still I sit and get out of his way, and the more clear my head is in focusing on what I want...surprise, surprise he generally does it, the best he can. Dressage for simple people like me!!!!

    You should have treated the kiddes to some nice PP slides on value propostions and mission statements and low hanging fruit, and the view from 20,000 feet...would have made as much sense I expect. And you wouldn't have had to tweak your slide deck much.Heck I'll lend you mine. I'm big on mission statements to stakeholders!


    1. When someone says "low hanging fruit" I always think of testicles.

      Probably good I didn't bring this up with the pony clubbers.

  3. ME TOO Stephanie. That's exactly the visual I get. LOL


  4. One of my happiest "horse in self carriage" rides was riding my boy in a homeward direction on the army reservation dirt road, footing moisture *just* perfect and horse 100% on, forward, and awesome. He needed the slightest of halfhalts every so often as his pace pushed past what his impulsion could carry (if that makes sense), and he seemed to be like "oh, I forgot you were there", he was so focused on using himself and GOING.

    It reminds one of what we strive to get every time in the ring. That would have scored 10.


  5. I finally achieved that incredible moment of clarity with my mare (re: self-carriage and pretty much everything else).

    It was our third show and everything just came together. I suppose it helped that I had been taking intensive hour-long dressage lessons 3-4 days a week. I'm a hunter on the flat rider, so this was a big concession for me.

    I will never forget that feeling. I started crying halfway through the class, no joke.

    Of course it was a GINORMOUS equitation class and I didn't pin because I had slouchy shoulders.

    Still don't care. I had the best damn horse in the ring, and I had the ride of my life.

    tl;dr -- dressage changed my horse show life

    1. I forgot the picture. I know, it's not great compared to the ideal of dressage. But I'm right chuffed to have brought this mare along by myself.


  6. sorry, but all the "top riders" constantly say half halt. cortney dye- king wrote a few months ago about how it took 50 half halts to get the picture that was supposedly perfect.
    I agree with stephanie whole heartedly about self carriage but lets not pretend the top riders don't scream half halt every ten seconds.

  7. So what does she do on a good day when she gets to perfect at only 47 does she say "shit, I have three to go...fiddle fiddle fiddle...ta da! Fifty! Done!"

    I agree with you totally that everyone says/does half halts (sorry if I gave the impression that I don't think this), but the goal is not to ride around doing them for the hell of it. They aren't push-ups. The hard part is learning the finesse to know when/how they are needed, and to let the horse be once one is well received and understood.

  8. The lessons at the MVA where my horse lives: The instructor yells "HALF HALLLT!" constantly while her up-down students are careening around (this makes more sense now that I know that 50 per ride are necessary).

    I think what she means is 'sloooow down', but she is a legend in her own mind so she instead says 'half halt' to people who are just trying to stay on at this point in their riding. Makes me think of a previous post of yours every time. I really do wonder if she has any idea that a half-halt isn't actually half of a halt after all (I am certain her poor students don't). I'm really too busy unloading my own shavings and hay to ask though....

    Thanks for the blog. Love reading it!

  9. FWIW i think it's an instinctive thing a rider does, to rebalance the horse in a very subtle way. If you can see I've let him fall on his forehand,then I'm way too late. The half halts (and I refuse to think about driving into a standing hand --- too strong) should just flow with the ride. It's feeling how he's using pushing and weighting his hind legs and feeling him communicating over his back and in the mouth. NO wonder it's impossible to explain..better just to chant half halt over and over. LOL

    I just think of it as our ongoing conversation. Somedays are easier than others. I hate the bendy whip thing too...btw WTF is that about? My guy is 1200 and 17 hands I'm supposed to compress him? Ahnold S couldn't compress him.

    But hey..I never did get around to reading what Janie Savoy said about de-mystifying the thing. Maybe it's like quantum mechanics and string theory --- a doddle when you've swotted up on it. Jane

  10. Your best post yet, curmudgeon.

  11. OK and now I will forever think testicles when someone mentions low hanging fruit! :@)

  12. Your all idiots if you don't understand half halts ! Get some some education children

    1. Maybe they decided to learn about grammar first.