On Saturday February 16th I had the opportunity to groom for Bruce and Gamble at Sprucehaven Farm for a dressage lesson with clinician John MacPherson. John is a Level 3 dressage coach and an M level judge, who has judged many events in Ontario. Bruce has had the opportunity to be judged by John before, so it was great to be able to get some tips from a judges point of view. I've heard nothing but great things about John from eventers in the area, and was very excited to watch this clinic.
The clinic started out with a 5 minute overview of Bruce's goals, expectations, and riding abilities. Bruce's main goal was to understand more about the uphill balance Gamble needs for Prelim level movements, and how to achieve that. John asked how often Bruce rode, Gambles age/breed, and a little bit more about their training program. He then asked to see Gamble trot around each direction in a working trot, nothing special. This is the way John began the next clinics session as well, and I believe it was to gain a starting point for the lesson. For Bruce and Gamble, the starting point was the riders dressage position.
Overall Bruce had a fairly solid position, wrapping his leg around the horse and staying with Gamble every stride. He was "in tune" to Gamble's position, as Gamble was to his. John tweaked the position a bit with a few simple changes. Elbows bent, Heels down, Hands in "Riding Position". I never quite caught what riding position was, but my interpretation was thumbs on top, fingers closed, and wrists straight yet flexible to the horse. He referred to Sally Swifts metaphor of holding two birds in your hands; not so tight that you'd suffocate them, but not so loose they'd fly away.
John had Bruce work through a series of halt transitions, first from trot to halt, then from walk to halt. The point of this exercise was to get the horse first moving forward and then concentrating that energy into a more collected movement. Eventually Gamble was being asked to walk, almost halt, and then walk again. This kept the energy moving forward and up. John made it a point to ride the transition forward and never pulling. The horses movement wasn't to rock back on the halt, just stall and then move forward again. This had Bruce applying contact like he was going to halt, but riding the walk forward resulting in an uphill balance.
The Working Trot:
Bruce and Gamble then went back to the working trot to establish a rhythm. John repeated rhythm several times during the day, and it was very apparent this was the basis of all the movements he'd ask for. Gamble tried repeatedly to canter when Bruce tried to push him forward into a trot rhythm, which was okay -- as long as he kept squeezing Gamble up into a trot. To help Gamble get used to this process, John picked on the riding position again. In the posting trot the hips come up towards the elbow, the lower leg is on the girth and pushing down in rhythm. To assist the horse, use your leg on-and-off to push the rhythm out. The key was to get Gamble going stronger, not faster.
"Ask him to reach over a cavaletti each stride" -- John MacPherson
The first leg yield asked was from the centre line, across the short diagonal to E. It was apparent from the end of the arena I was standing at that Gamble was leading with his hind end for several strides at a time, and not coming through from behind.
John stopped to explain the how the leg yield should be executed at this stage of training.
1) The horse should be bending away from the way it's travelling, without falling through the outside shoulder.
2) The horses front legs should be leading well away from the hind legs.
3) The hind legs propel the horse and cannot be pushing the horse forward if they're leading sideways.
The main take away from this was that every lateral movement is a forward movement, and shouldn't be thought of as a sideways one.
"A hindquarter that is going sideways is not coming forward underneath, and therefore you should never stop that hind quarter from going straight ahead."
After this Gamble and Bruce were floating across the arena in close to perfect harmony, so he moved on to shoulder in and canter departures.
John had Bruce leg yield from the centre line to E and strike off into canter going the new direction. The key with this exercise was to hold your body in the same position as the leg yield required; right leg on, sit right, ask for the transition with the left leg back behind the girth. Gamble thought this was the perfect time to practice counter canter instead, but soon figured it out and had some beautiful straight canter departures. They worked for a few minutes on getting his canter a bit more collected, but since the forward movement was much more present in the canter this wasn't an issue.
Now that a rhythm was established, the balance was beginning to move back, and Gamble was moving nice and forward, John had Bruce perform the collected trot. He again stressed not to pull back, but collect like you're going to trot on the spot. John addressed that when developing your technique, you want to exaggerate; put it all out on the table.
"If you want your horse to sit down, YOU sit down and push your balance where you want your horses."
Soon Bruce had Gamble trotting forward with a pronounced rhythm "not fast, not running, but marching forward solidly."
At the end of the lesson, Bruce and Gamble started to train the collected walk. This was much like the collected trot, in thinking about walking on the spot. John wanted Bruce to feel like he was going forward at the walk and halting at the same time. Gamble needed a couple light taps at this point to keep moving, but was soon marching like a soldier!
The themes of the day were rider position, rhythm and straightness, which were the three elements of the dressage pyramid that Gamble and Bruce needed to understand to reach the level of collection needed for Prelim Dressage. The understanding gained by both Bruce and Gamble were very apparent at the end of the day. I even put the tools learned to use on my own horse, Oz, and had great results!
Thanks to Bruce (and Gamble) for bringing me out, John MacPherson for the great learning opportunity and Linda Plank for hosting the clinic!