By Carson Richards
This article won the 2020 GMO Newsletter Award for first person experience for GMOs with 175-499 members. It first appeared in the July 2020 issue of Tracking Up, the South Carolina Dressage and Combined Training Association Newsletter.
The trailer was packed, horses were bathed and manes pulled, and my sister Clara and I had just hooked the truck up for a 7 AM departure. I hadn’t had a dressage lesson in over eighteen months, and with our first competition looming in three weeks, I was looking forward to my lesson. Clara and I were incredibly disappointed when Katie, the SCDCTA junior/young rider clinic organizer, called us that night to tell us that the clinician had cancelled. The next morning though, Katie assured us that someone would teach, so we loaded our horses and started driving. If nothing else, I reasoned, it would be a good chance to get the horses off the property for a low-stress outing.
Three hours into our drive, Katie sent us a text: Kassie B. is on the way!
Clara and I started getting excited again. As eventers, we were unfamiliar with the majority of FEI dressage trainers, but even we knew of Kassie. Years ago, at the USDF Region 3 finals, Clara and I had watched her perform an incredible costume freestyle. Her ride had been magical. At the time, I had spent the majority of the horse show trying to stay on my young horse, and it’s a testament to how impressed Clara and I were that we both remembered her ride.
“Don’t ride into air!
I brought Five to the clinic, a nine-year-old thoroughbred, who was a relatively new ride for me. After trotting just half-way around the arena, Kassie immediately recognized that we needed to work on his connection.
“Come here.” I walked over and she grasped the reins, creating a light pressure against my hand. “Feel this? He looks like the kind of horse who’s quite light in the contact, yes?” I nodded. “He needs to feel like he has someplace to go, even when he gets swimmy. He should be taking your elbow forward.”
We started at a walk on a 20 meter circle, and Kassie immediately told me to ask for more purpose in the walk steps as I began to supple him laterally on the circle. We moved to a stretching rising trot, which she explained was often useful for thoroughbreds to encourage them to lengthen their frame.
“Right away I can tell that you two are both goers, and you’re a soft, forward rider. But he needs to wait on you, take a little more time in his trot steps.” Kassie also encouraged me to think about controlling the placement of his hind legs, imagining that I was riding him in diagonal pairs: inside hind leg to outside front, and vice versa. “The neck is only a way to get to the hind legs.”
Downwards transitions were ridden almost as a leg yield, encouraging him to step under himself for the downwards to prevent him “sticking” in the transition. I hadn’t worked on simple changes with him much, but I knew this would help him enormously in the canter-walk transitions. Every transition was another chance to ask him to step under with the hind leg, because, as Kassie noted, he had the tendency to get almost too straight and then unbalanced and running in the downward transitions.
She also helped me use my leg more effectively on the circle, really laying my whole hip and
thigh into the saddle. It was such a slight change, but as soon as I turned my shoulders, thereby mobilizing my hip, I felt his trot change as he stepped under himself with the inside hind leg. This was also helpful when we moved to another suppling exercise, left and right shoulder-in. Kassie advised always practicing on the centerline so the horses “couldn’t lean on the rail.”
After the warmup, we started working on counter-canter. From the left lead, I would ride a long left leg yield from the centerline to the corner. Then, I turned on centerline again and made a right leg yield before maintaining the left lead in counter-canter. Using the leg yields to set up the counter canter, I could really feel the delicate balance on the outside hind (right) leg. Five felt much more adjustable and supple after using the leg yield to set up the counter canter.
Kassie also emphasized the importance of having an “entry and exit plan” for all the movements in a test. “It’s not all about the movement, it’s about how you get in and out.” This, I knew, would enable me to ride a test, although I knew I hadn’t practiced these transitions between movements enough in my riding at home. It’s like learning how to jump a course: adjusting the horse’s length of step, maintaining the correct balance in the turns. Jumping single jumps is easy; putting them together is when it becomes difficult.
Throughout my rides, I realized that if I wasn’t two steps ahead in my mind of where I wanted to be, I was behind. I’ve always struggled with my accuracy, which I knew was essentially throwing away points in a test. Thinking of about an “entry and exit,” as Kassie called it, I found myself making more transitionary half-halts and riding more proactively as a result. As Kassie said repeatedly both days, “You’re only as good as your preparation,” which applies to every aspect of riding and competing.
Clara and I stayed to watch as many rides as we could over the two-day clinic, and learned something from every horse and rider. I came home thrilled to have so many new exercises to work on and immensely grateful to Kassie, Katie, Robert Dover, and all the members of the SCDCTA who worked tirelessly to make the clinic happen.