Monday, August 10, 2015

Dressage Insights and More From David O'Connor

Last week I promised to relate the David O'Connor jumping clinic to dressage. Then life filled up my days (or, really, job searching and riding did). No matter the extreme love and devotion I have for you guys, I just didn't have a chance to get my thoughts put together. I hope this post makes up for my tardiness!

I'm going to divide this post into three sections: Straightness/Impulsion, Horse Shape/Effective Position, and Rider Shape/ Effective Position.
David lectures to his riders before they head out to the ring to get started.
Straightness/Impulsion:
One of the first things David emphasized in his lecture was the importance of keeping the horse straight. He tied this in to direction and keeping a line, for striding purposes. However, straightness is also very important to both jumping and dressage when you consider its effects on the horses ability to create impulsion and "jump".

When you collect a horse, one of the biggest and most common evasions the horse will exhibit is a fishtailing hindquarter. Why?

Imagine for a moment a stick horse...
Maybe not like this...
To lift up the front end of the stick horse, the hind end has to be directly under the front in order for the horse to have enough strength and balance to lift itself appropriately. When you collect a horse, its hips tuck under a little, the hind legs come further under, the front end lifts up a little and more weight is put on the hind legs. That's hard. So, a horse will avoid the compression and weight lifting type of activity by shifting its hind end out slightly, making more room for its hind end. Often the rider is tricked into thinking the horse is collected, though it is not.
Tricksy...
But while the crooked position feels easier for the horse, it's not very powerful. With his hind legs directly behind him and ready to accept the weight of the front end, the horse can load the weight on without having to involve too many other muscles. His power is solidly aligned. When he's crooked, he has to work a lot harder with a lot more muscles to try to get his body up in the air.

While this is obviously important in jumping, when you want the jump to be as easy and powerful as possible for the horse, it is also important in dressage. When you are asking for a canter lengthen, for example, it is impossible to get a big and uphill canter with the horse's hind end off to the side somewhere. He can't help but be flat and diving onto his forehand. There's nothing behind him to propel him up, you see.

Feeling the haunches swing out takes focus. When the horse is directly underneath himself, his back feels flat and even. When he's evading, there will be one seatbone that will have a problem connecting, or you may feel the horse is not in the rein on the side the horse is popping out. Without a hind leg pushing him into the contact on that side, he'll simply vanish.

Riding with mirrors helps develop feel, so does being aware of your horse's tendencies. For example, Pig is very likely to swing his haunches out to the right. He doesn't like loading his right hind stifle. Knowing that, I can be proactive in keeping him straight.

How do you keep a horse under himself? That varies. David suggested being aware of over or improper bending. Bend should come from the outside around the inside. The middle of the horse's body should be where the bend comes from, not the neck or the haunch. That means you should be keeping a steady connection between the outside rein and outside hind leg, and your inside leg should stay on so the horse doesn't flail to the inside. Working on the haunches/shoulder in can help you develop more tools for controlling the hind end of the horse.

Horse Shape/ Effective Position
David directly related show jumping to dressage when he discussed roundness. He wanted riders to understand that a round horse in dressage was quite different from a round horse in show jumping.

For jumping, the horse should be engaged (with tucked and reaching hind end) but up and mentally engaged in front. Meaning, specifically, the horse should have its head raised and be looking for and assessing the next obstacle.
Like this.
Image via: http://rebloggy.com/blog/martinamirandaphotography
Note the horse's lifted front end? Now look at this one:
Image via: http://luda-stock.deviantart.com/
This second horse is still very lifted in front, but he is much more compressed. His focus is getting a shorter and more vertical hang time. The other horse is focused on a more powerful forward stride. The dressage horse could certainly jump out of this canter, but probably wouldn't clear the spread of a fence. The jumper could certainly jump up and over the fence.

There's a difference in how these horses are using themselves. The top horse is lifting with his back and haunches. The second horse is lifting with not only his haunches and back, but also the base of his neck and through the withers.

David advocated lifting a horse's head as the rider collected them, to get the front end "lifted and out of the way." He was adamant that the horse look up and see where he is going, tipping the nose out. He should not be allowed to get heavy or drift onto his forehand. He suggested that when rider try to get their horses "round" they allow them to get onto their forehand.

One horse in particular tested DOC, until finally he hopped on the horse himself.

You can see DOC popping the horse off his hands and changing the horse's balance from front to back. One collected canter does not suit all. For those retraining jumpers (like me) or doing eventing, this bit of info should be really studied. Also keep in mind that in dressage, different canters are asked for at different times. There are times the more open canter is asked for. It's important to know how to change that frame.

Rider Shape/Effective Position
DOC's biggest point for me was the effect of rider conformation on riding style. When discussing cross country riding, he emphasized that riders with tall upper bodies (Ahem. That would be me...) need to keep their upper bodies very still. With so much weight and drag above the saddle, riders with longer upper bodies affect their horses balance easily. They need to be more aware of how their movement changes the horse. Asking us to envision William Fox Pitt or Boyd Martin's cross country style, DOC reminded us a rider's balancing aids should come from the seat and hips not from throwing the upper body around.
How is he so still?!?!
In dressage, this is absolutely just as important. I had a trainer recently suggest that my body type was going to mean my abdominal muscles would need to be 10x stronger than someone with a shorter waist. I have found this to be incredibly true. I have to be very careful with my upper body. Any sort of imbalance on my part (say, sitting too far left) has a huge impact on the way my horse travels. Tipping forward is just about as good of an e-brake as a curb shank. Leaning back causes my horse to run right out from underneath me. I must remain very still and balanced in my upper body, only changing the engagement of my pelvis, tightness of my back, and twist in my spine.
Maybe a little less still in my hips, though! But, wow, we've changed so much since May.
It makes me wonder what it's like to ride with a shorter upper body. You lucky people, you!

18 comments:

  1. OH MY GOD I literally laughed out loud at that stick-horse GIF....that might be the best thing I've ever seen!

    You make a super interesting point about having a tall upper body. I am very compact all over (I'm only 5'3"), and what hinders me most is my short legs and short arms, and I've had to alter my two-point to be as effective as possible while still allowing for a proper release and a sturdy lower leg. You definitely have to learn to work with what you've got, but I never thought about the drag of a tall upper body before!

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    1. Oooh shorter arms would be tough for releasing! Never thought about that!

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  2. Have you played the game CLOP? go play the game CLOP!

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    1. Never understood why the back end is SO light. Also, the key to victory? (Or closer to victory...) is pacing. I tried trotting once. FAIL.

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  3. that stick figure is amazing! and i love your perspective on the clinic seeing as you have an entirely different background from which to hear and apply it. the whole bit about rider position really resonated with me too. i have a pretty short torso (my length is concentrated from hip to knee, actually) but it's still a critical factor in that i ride a sensitive pony. that stillness and straightness is something i need to strive for every single ride

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    1. Sensitivity is a huge factor, too. I think the horse has a lot to contribute to the rider approach, too.

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  4. I am just shy of 5'1" and have almost 3'6" of leg, which is just a leeeettle bit short-waisted, if you will. And I will say that I definitely don't feel a ride in my abs the same way other people do -- but we are, of course, riding different horses and you can't necessarily compare. Anyway, I seriously think that being short-waisted should be beneficial because I'm less likely to tip myself over with my upper body weight, but sometimes my boobs do that for me anyway! I have recently started really half halting through my abs and it is very beneficial but it's also harrrrrrrdddddddddd.

    All that to say, thank you for the excellent notes!

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    1. I was just saying that if I had bigger boobs I'd probably fall on my face aaaaaaall the time. As I am already an incredibly ungraceful creature, I am happy with my current set up. ;)

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  5. I laughed so hard at that stick figure. I'm going to save it. Hahahaha

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    1. Always good to have a few good gifs stored away!

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  6. Omg that stick horse...

    I'm 5'6 with a 34" inseam so definitely have a shorter upper body (but not too short I guess). It doesn't stop me from being totally in the way sometimes though. Tracey talked about being still with the upper body a lot, especially at the canter. It's cool how a cross country lesson can give such insight into dressage. Fun!

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    1. Haha. I'm 5'6" with a 30" inseam. The rest of that height is made up in my waist ... where I am almost 2 hand widths of extra space. Looks great in a bathing suit, is not useful on horseback.

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  7. It was really cool to have you chiming in from the dressageland perspective during the clinic! Plus that noodle-stick-horse GIF is the most amazing thing I've seen in a long time. I am actually pretty darn proportionate (lucky me) but since Dino is a midget I still need to be careful with my upper body, especially in tight turns, lead changes, anything where I can throw off his balance by flinging myself around too much.

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    1. Pocket DQ! ;)

      Smaller horses certainly bring another challenge, like Emma was saying. I notice when I ride Pig my balance has to be a lot more "on point" than when I ride a bigger horse. He's not a pony, but at 16h an lighter boned he's also not a massive warmblood!

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  8. Hear hear for the ridiculous tall torso team. I'm 5'9" and mostly torso and yeah... Good thing I like sitting still, because any motion becomes huge.

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    1. Ever feel like one of those wacky waving arm inflatable tube guys?

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  9. Love this. Great write up. I took a lot of new knowledge away from this.

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    1. Since you do so many different things with your horses, I bet that change of frame stuff is really interesting!

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