Thursday, September 8, 2011
Trajectory and Focus
Back in April, when I bought Qrac, my seven-year-old Lusitano, I was entranced by his good looks and his calm, commanding presence. My tendency towards lower-back problems made me appreciate his smooth paces, in fact, prior to buying Qrac, several people had warned me that once you get comfortable with a smooth moving Iberian, transitioning back to the bouncier, bigger moving German/Dutch Warmbloods is virtually impossible. Frankly, since I have no intention of transitioning to any other horse for the next fifteen years or so, I don’t really have an opinion on that, although I guess I can see where they’re coming from.
Riding Qrac is becoming smoother all the time and in the past few weeks we’ve made considerable progress. I mentioned in an earlier post that, on top of working with my regular trainer, Marie-Valentine, I’ve recently started working with another trainer, Greg Scheers, a local showjumper. Greg keeps five horses at my stables and lives in a small flat on the premises, which makes him wonderfully available. He took care of Qrac during my recent holiday in Colorado, gets along well with him, and calls him “The Playboy”!
I’ve found working with Greg and Marie-Valentine complementary. I’ve known Marie-Valentine for many years, and she and I are very similar in our sensitivity and appreciation of “feeling” in riding. For example, when riding on a circle, she and I will both have a tendency to focus more on how the horse feels to us, on the way he’s moving. We’ll obsess over the softness of the connection rather than on the geometrical perfection of the circle (unless, of course, we’re working towards a competition). Greg, however, insists that I focus on riding a perfect circle, assuring me that the less I worry about how my horse feels to me, the better he will move. “How Qrac moves is his problem,” he says. “He needs to find his own balance. And keep your head up. Don’t look at him; look at where you’re going to go. You don’t need to look at him to know how he feels. Besides, it makes him move ‘smaller’.”
This approach initially freaked me out, throwing me out of my comfort zone; suddenly my rides felt mega untidy, but I soon realized that Greg had a point. It sounds silly, but the process of “feeling” how my horse is moving without looking at him initially reminded me of massaging my stomach clock-wise with one hand and my head counter-clockwise with the other. But I’ve found that the more I concentrate on my trajectory, the more focused Qrac becomes. Of course, Marie-Valentine has been badgering me for years to keep my head up (and to keep my pony tail still, as to do this I really have to stabilize and engage my core) but, for some reason, Greg’s obsession with trajectory seems to finally be doing the trick.
Work with a showjumper and you’re bound to come into contact with poles. My last encounter with poles dates back to the early Nineties and the memories are relatively traumatic, so when I saw Greg starting to lay out poles in a strange pattern on the ground I swallowed hard. “Err, what are we going to do?” I queried, trying to deep breathe away that prickle of adrenaline. I hate adrenaline!
But all he was doing was laying out a square that created the boundaries for three circles of various circumferences. The biggest circle went around the outside of the outermost poles, the middle-sized circle went in between the outer and inner poles, and the smallest circle went inside the inside poles. And the inside circle was tiny! Well, it seemed tiny to me, considering Qrac still had a tendency to “run”.
When I first trotted Qrac around the middle-sized circle (which was hard enough), the idea of transitioning into the inner circle seemed way beyond our capabilities, but when Greg told me to choose a good moment to do so, I took my time, prepared our trajectory and took Qrac into the centre, where he surprised me by soon finding his balance, bending around my inside leg, and taking a steadier contact with the outside rein. After a few rounds, we transitioned back to the middle-sized circle, and then back to the outside. We also worked on walk-trot and trot-walk transitions in the different-sized circles, to which Qrac responded beautifully, gradually softening, bringing his hind legs further beneath him..
But could we perform the same exercise in canter? The notion initially seemed way out of my league; at the beginning of the summer I couldn’t even canter Qrac on the right lead without him losing his balance and switching to the left lead. Of course, I worked on this so much that I now generally feel more comfortable on the right lead than on the left, although once in a while he still loses his balance and pops a flying change. But it’s one thing cantering a “free” (wonky!) circle in arena, and quite another cantering around a “marked course”. Even the middle circle would require him to really take the outside rein and seriously sit down. As for the inner circle…well, pff, seriously? Whatever next; a pirouette?!
Oh me of little faith!
Within two sessions, Qrac and I performed several totally acceptable, nicely balanced canter-trot transitions in the middle circle, even ending the second session with a mind-blowing right-lead canter-walk transition. And, during a third session, we actually managed a couple of uphill, wonderfully harmonious rounds in the central circle!
Having discovered how useful poles are as markers, I now really enjoy working with them (we don’t have letters in our huge, oval-shaped arena, so it’s hard to find a reference point). And Greg was right; having me focus on the trajectory has improved my connection with Qrac. I suppose he feels more secure, more guided. He’s gained in confidence, is far more attentive to me, and therefore easier to ride. He’s also becoming stronger, and is really starting to fill out. As for me, I’m fascinated by the constant evolution of my partnership with my wonderful new horse. I know a lot of people find dressage boring and repetitive, but, as far as I’m concerned, nothing beats the magical feeling of those tiny, soft, harmonious, step-by-step triumphs.
How about you? What particular aspect of horses and/or riding fascinates you the most?