What do you do when your ride goes bad? First of all know that you will have those rides. The first time I considered this was when reading W. Zettl’s book Dressage in Harmony. You’ve probably had that ride when everything feels like it came together perfectly - it is awesome.
A lot of times riders believe, hope or try to repeat that same greatness on the next day and plan to build progressively on those experiences. However, what happens is that they may skip to the good stuff too soon. A rider may leave out the preparations that previously got them in unison with the horse for that awesome ride. Then the horse isn’t ready to execute its best movement. Now the rider tries harder and two things come into play in their body.
One is that they tighten muscle groups to apply more force, with more power and over an extended moment. Force just equals tightness and if we remember that the horse is processing a multitude of pressures all over its body from our weight, our saddle, the reins, the bit and any other tack we have applied. Not to mention boots and bells perhaps. If you carry a whip and wear spurs those are to be considered also. Hidden pain and stiffness may also be subtlety present. It takes amazing ability in the horse to process, sort and respond appropriately to the aids you want it to respond to while sorting through all of that sensory input.
Add to this a rider with a tight body and a forcing attitude perhaps even with emotional energy leaking out all over - what’s a horse to do? How can it perform as the rider desires? As another example a rider who has been told that their leg is weak may start contorting their body and twisting their reins and getting out of balance in order to apply a stronger leg aid.
Remember also that the horse has no preconceived idea of the outcome. Its understanding of our expectations come from well timed softening of aids and releases to neutral. These give feedback to the horse that it is safe and results in their willingness to repeat the behaviors we want as riders.
All right so there are some of the problems that can occur. I believe that as a rider gets higher in the scale of development they get better control of what could be influencing the ride and they also acquire a maturity to moderate each element to achieve better results.
How do you get there from where you are now? Maybe you are stuck at a point in your development and desire a breakthrough. Maybe you are post-competition and want to develop a good ride in another area like trail riding for relaxation. Perhaps you have been off from riding and in your returning you could be discouraged by what has dropped away in your skill level and the fitness of your horse.
Here are some suggestions and where I take my students so that their “come-back” is smooth, progressive and rewarding in the shortest and most stress-free way.
1. Assess Your Best Moves today. Is there rhythm and are you getting to the state of relaxation. The parameters of that is a horse that is moving freely in a consistent tempo and stretching as it goes. Is the horse appropriately responsive to the simple aids of the reins and legs? Qualify those on a scale of 1-5 for yourself with 1 being a light touch with an immediate and correct response and 5 requiring a deeper pressure and longer hold. Until you have those things in your warm-up preparation you will be wrestling your horse to get a move it’s not ready to execute.
2. Be Fit. Require yourself to be supple and improve the timing of the aids. Here you need to become physically adapted to the horse during the warm-up. Have an adequate plan to build the co-ordination and fluidity you’ll need between you and the horse so that you can progress in the movements.
3. Don’t skip steps - test each step in your plan and fix the one where the problem shows up before you move on.
A little story: I was adding transitions to a moderately complex pattern and my horse was stiffening in the corners and sometimes beginning to rush in the gait. Trying harder albeit more correctly executing the aids only caused tightening in me and confusion and worry in my horse. As I made adjustments to my thoughts (lower the expectations for a bit and feel for what is out of sync in my horse) I began to realize that I was applying a few aids altogether and my horse wasn’t able to sort it out. The solution was simply to give him a moment of neutrality between each request and that horse began to execute the combination of moves more clearly and confidently. It was me, of course, and my communication had to be softer, clearer and rewarded more often.
So glory in the great ride but after the pinnacle know that there will be a valley. Think of the valley as restful, lower pressure, explorative and most of all have fun there. The pinnacle ride will show up again. Be encouraged as you search for the great ride! Enjoy your horse and stay safe.