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?


jenj said...

It's SO true about not focusing your horse. What I've found that is that not focusing on him actually equates to me not "messing" with him. If I'm not making those minute corrections with every stride and instead RELAX, things go amazingly well!

Promise said...

I just love reading about Qrac!

I was always taught that without a dressage base, every discipline becomes harder. To jump, you must be able to control your horse's feet - whether you like flat work or not, you must do it before you start jumping.

Sounds like both of your trainers know this and it is great to work with someone outside your discipline!

Francesca Prescott said...

Jen: it's the working in relaxation that's the hard part for us, which is pretty crazy when you think about it, as that's just what we're asking our horses to do!

Promise: I'm thrilled you enjoy reading about Qrac!

I often wonder why more people in other disciplines don't work more on the basics of dressage. At shows (jumping shows) I see so many riders careering around, yank yank yank, flap, flap, flap, and it just seems to unfair and crazy, not to mention dangerous, since many of them are always on the brink of no control. Why don't their teachers teach them the basics? I don't get it!

Thanks for reading :)

horsegenes said...

I don't think it matters what discipline you chose - the same principles apply. My trainer is constantly telling me to look up, don't watch my horse, feel my horse. I recently did a Ranch Horse Versatility Clinic and Show. In this competition they used a semi-quasi dressage pattern (I think you could call it that as I have never ridden a dressage pattern in my life!) and called it Ranch Riding. It was a pattern with a bunch of transitions and stops at markers, etc. Wow... it was hard! Really hard. I have always thought dressage was kind of like watching cement dry, but now I can see how you can get hooked on dressage because of the absolute finesse and perfection that you need to complete the patterns.
The Ranch Versatility has always fascinated me. This was my first experience and I loved it. What fascinates me about this particular discipline is the broad range of ability that the rider and horse need to have. Watching the horses go from one class to the next and perform was truly amazing.
For those of you not familiar with it you can check it out at - it would be interesing to hear what dressage riders think of the pattern.

Dreaming said...

I'm thinking I need to get some poles! I've been doing circles... and I laugh because today I kept reprimanding my self to look up and look ahead! Doc has a terrible time with circles (or is it me that has a terrible time and messes him up?)! He begins his circle, and then drops into it, making a sharp oval. We need poles!! I've worked with a few cones, and when he drops in, he just runs over the cone. Maybe a pole would be a bit more of a reminder and a bit more of a barrier!
Thanks for the great post!
Uh... you came to Colorado and I didn't even know about it?!

Francesca Prescott said...

Kel, thanks for bringing up Ranch Versatility, I'll go and take a look. Yes, riding "patterns" is very hard, but I guess you don't know until you try it.
But even working on, say, simply improving the canter can be so rewarding. The amazing feeling you get when things come together, if only for a few strides, well it's just...!!! The best thing ever!

Francesca Prescott said...

Dreaming: you soooo need poles!!! I'll have to take a photo of the pattern Greg lays out on the ground and send it to you so you can just copy it. I'll give you the measurements, too. Don't think I can send Greg over though!!!

I was in Colorado for a week. Just outside Crawford, at the Smith Fork Ranch. I LOVED it! We all did :). Where are you?

Laura Crum said...

Francesca--Your post makes me feel like such a slacker (!) I enjoy trail riding and gathering cattle, so that's what I do these days. I don't enjoy arena work so don't do it. But I have done a lot of it in my life and know the value of it. I think your concept of keeping your focus OFF the horse is very like my concept of "giving the horse a job", which I wrote about in my previous post about training a confident horse. Its interesting how these things overlap. Glad to hear Qrac is doing so wonderfully well. Sounds like you are having fun!

HorsesAndTurbos said...

After reading this I set up poles (and used some barrels) and rode my greenie gelding Friday in circles (he is learning leads) and it really helped me...I didn't have to watch to keep hin in a circle *and* focus on him giving me the correct lead - I'm using it just the opposite right now, and it's great!

Tell your trainer-guy thanks!


Francesca Prescott said...

Laura, you are SO not a slacker! I mean, seriously, with everything you do, a slacker is the last thing anyone could call you. You've just been in the arena, done that, and moved on to other things.

I thought of your post about giving a horse a job to do when I wrote this post; it definitely overlaps.

Francesca Prescott said...

Jackie: how cool that it helped you! I'm very excited about that and will definitely tell Greg when I see him tomorrow :)