Adventures in Beginner Dressage

Last week, I mentioned that I would describe my recent participation in a handful of dressage lessons. After competing in an online western-dressage show last year, the judges’ comments made me realize I needed help in clarifying some basic dressage concepts.

As it so happens, my aunt is a dressage instructor, Lynne Sprinsky Echols. Before she was a dressage rider, she introduced me to the world of horses. Then after studying riding at the Reitinstitut von Neindorff in Germany, she later became a Graduate Balimo Instructor. As part of her student outreach, she now hosts an interesting and informative page for riders at https://www.facebook.com/RiderSeatMD/. I encourage all my readers to check it out!

Unfortunately, I live too far away from her to take advantage of her expertise in person. I needed to find someone who at least lived in the same State.

After doing an online search, I found Ken Levy at Legacy Farm Dressage. He is a United States Equestrian Federation “r” judge who is waiting to take the final exam for his “R” license. Ken is also a United States Dressage Federation Certified Instructor/Trainer.

A USEF “r” judge can judge through second level and has completed a rigorous licensing process. While a beginner dressage rider like me can’t fully take advantage of everything such an instructor has to offer, I figured that lessons from a licensed judge would help me better understand the test comments that I received. I was not disappointed.

My equine partner for these lessons was a tall, handsome Hanoverian gelding named Gin, trained through second level. That’s us in the above photo. Those of you who are regular readers have read about my admiration for lesson horses.

In a post titled “Are You Your Horse’s Limiting Factor?” at https://thebackyardhorseblog.com/2021/01/04/are-you-your-horses-limiting-factor/, I detailed my observations gleaned from watching other students ride the same lesson horses at a different barn. Just like the others, Gin is capable of a higher level of performance than I was able to bring out in him.

I never did see Gin ridden by another rider, but I saw how he went on the lunge-line as a warm up before my lessons. He looked like a very nice mover who could easily go forward, even and round, at all three gaits.

In one of my final lessons, the instructor gave me the opportunity to film my ride. To be honest, my heart dropped when I saw the video. My riding clearly prompted Gin to go in a flat, strung out, pokey kind of way while I was flailing around in the saddle trying to follow the instructions given. At times it is admittedly disheartening to ponder that after years and years of riding, I still have so much to learn.

But learn I did, at least in the sense of having my eyes opened to certain issues. I realize that to some people, claiming to learn is equal to claiming mastery. For riders like me who are unlikely to reach an advanced level of riding, I think learning means something a little different.

Improvement may come in smaller increments and at a slower pace than it does for others. It is more akin to an increase in awareness of issues verses a measurable increase in skills. I may or may not be able to move up the levels, but I figure any effort to make myself a better load to carry for the horse is worth while.

My first few lessons, I did some work on the lunge-line where I rode the horse but the instructor controlled Gin in a large circle at the end of the line. Riding is an exercise in coordination if nothing else. For those of us who have trouble doing several things at once, lunge lessons can be a real treat. They allow the rider to concentrate on her position and feel without having to add in the major complication of directing the horse.

Off the line, I received instruction on various basic skills depending upon the day. The difference between flexion and bend. The different ways to apply my legs and seat for a varying range of gaits. Leg yielding. Aids for the canter. Practicing turns and using the corners (and the need to stay out of the corners if you are trying to ride a circle).

Each lesson included instruction on the geometry of riding dressage figures, including circles, serpentines, traveling down center/quarter lines and change of rein across the diagonal.

In both of the judges’ comments from my online test, I received more than one note on my lack of correct geometry. I realized from these lessons that I frequently am traveling straight during figures when I actually should be bending. I am also often failing to start and stop the figures at the correct points in the arena.

I apparently have quite a bit of trouble visualizing the movements and then linking how I am riding the movements to how they should actually look. This is something I can’t solve within a handful of lessons, but I can take that awareness home with me.

I can try to be more alert while practicing with my own horse. Hopefully I can reduce the number of “watch your geometry” comments regarding any future tests.

Now that Winter has come to an end and my dressage lesson-budget has dried up, I turn my attention to riding my own horse at home as regularly as the weather allows.

Many thanks to the patience of my instructor and his lesson horse. I certainly have a renewed appreciation for the precision of dressage. My top hat is off to you dressage riders out there who allow your horses to move and perform so beautifully while making it look easy. They don’t call it “the art of dressage” for nothing.

*On a related noted, for those of you interested in following an actual dressage blogger who trains and competes, please check out the Horse Addict blog at https://horseaddict.net. There you will meet the writer, Anne Leueen, and her horse, Biasini. Anne trains with Belinda Trussell, a Canadian Olympic rider who competed in two Summer Olympics. Through Horseaddict, Anne allows her readers to get a glimpse behind the dressage scenes, including lots of informative video clips of her riding. I enjoy following Horse Addict and am happy to have Anne as a reader of The Backyard Horse Blog.

4 thoughts on “Adventures in Beginner Dressage

  1. I can see just by watching dressage that it truly is an art. It’s so beautiful to watch. I’m hoping to take up riding again, at the age of 67, once all the Covid restrictions have been lifted. I haven’t been on a horse since my teens. It’s now or never!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Your plans to start riding again are exciting! I know plenty of folks in their sixties and seventies who enjoy riding and otherwise being around horses. And I like your “seize the day” outlook. Thank you for taking your time to leave a comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dressage is not for the faint of heart. Not the kind of bravery required of eventing cross country but those geometric shapes can be tricky . I have had tests where the judge has remarked on my egg shaped circles. Thank you so much for the mention and the kind words. I appreciate it.

    Liked by 1 person

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