I've been on the dressage stairs(of doom!)for a while but yet again this week, I have been reminded of how much I don't know or didn't fully understand on the first pass by. See, I thought I had a handle on the whole straightness thing. Horses have a natural preference for one bend with their body or the other. An example would be like the horse below that has a tendency to always want to curve to the left no matter which direction he is tracking.
I figured out through trial and error and a lot of reading how to get my horse pretty straight on the circle each direction using pretty subtle seat, leg, and body aids and that was that. The circles helped my horse to be more evenly curved to each side and he felt good on bigger figures. There was no obvious jack knifing, cutting in, leaning on a shoulder, or super heavy rein one way or the other and I felt like I had a handle on this straightness thing. As long as the figures were pretty big.
I even did some not bad shoulder-in and haunches-in and felt like we really got it. Sometimes. I could never figure out why smaller figures, certain directions or movements in lateral work felt so much harder though. Was it my asymmetry or his? And collection remained an elusive beast. Very strong half-halts ala 2 Spines Align helped but also pissed my sensitive horse off. Sometimes I felt like the answer was to get a trainer, buy a huge moving warmblood, cram him from front to back and head out to the show circuit. But seriously, wtf can afford that or actually wants to do that day in and day out?
So, in my elusive quest(on a budget!) I ended up finding Dressage Naturally. I loved how alignment on the circle led to a longitudinal stretch to the ground by the horse. I loved the fact that everything is based on the "Sweet Spot" principle of relaxation, balance(through alignment), and energy. A very user friendly system of training that works on all types of horses not just fancy warmbloods. Jet and I progressed nicely through the Sweet Spot exercises, to the flexibilty exercises, and started playing with the mobility exercises with some success. And then he went lame.
The first time I rode him after he had his right stifle injected and IM glucosamine it was like riding a cloud. Haunches slightly lowered, about two more inches of loft in every step, and ready to collect or reach out to the bridle. Easily. Just walking around with no warmup. Obviously, he had been a little sore for quite a while without being actually lame. You could tell he felt great. I kept him in light work besides some time off for a foot abscess and while he still felt good, he never felt as great as those first two or three rides. WTF? Sore already with shots wearing off? Just screwing with me? What was different?
I put my thinking cap on and ran through the possibilities. Lack of energy? More stretch/lifting of the back? More straightness?
Well, I'm here to tell you it was the straightness. I went out and just worked at the walk on the basic alignment exercise for a few minutes, where the rider takes the horse from crooked through straightness to the other crooked repeatedly until the horse figures out it is easier to stay really straight. You know they are really straight because they are always reaching to the (light) contact and will stretch if allowed by the rider. Then I trotted and had the powerhouse trot. Easily. I rode a couple of circles each way, petted the pony, and ran inside to use Google to figure out what the hell had just happened. And figured out how much I don't know.
Did you know that the natural curve one way or the other of the horse's body also links to a dominant hind foot? And that the circles and lateral work help the weaker foot to step under and closer to the mid-line but only if the rider is really conscientious about straightness and alignment both directions of travel and ESPECIALLY when the weaker foot is to the inside. Otherwise the horse can be slightly crooked and get out of working the weaker foot even on the circles and in the lateral work. So, if on the nicely bent circle the horse is only an inch or two off the symmetrical curve of the circle he does not have to lower his inside hip, step a little more under with that foot, travel with his hind legs a little closer, and reach around with his outside shoulder. You know like on a good 10 meter circle or shoulder-in. Which strengthens the weaker leg over time and leads to what you ask? That's right my friend, both hind legs engaged, bending of the haunches, and my favorite, collection.
My working theory is that Jet felt so much better after pharmaceutical help that he didn't even try to be crooked to avoid working harder. After a few days the glow wore off and he decided this was like hard work plus boring and got slightly crooked to avoid anything silly like that. Perfectly pleasant to ride but a little dull and nothing like those first couple of rides. Good but not great. When I started being super picky about straightness doing the basic alignment both ways first at the walk he was perfectly willing to have the nicely energetic, slightly bouncy trot that reaches to the contact. Both ways. Really precise lateral work at the walk gave the same effect. Easily. Fun things ahead now that I understand the loading of the back feet, how the straightness affects the hind feet reaching under and travelling closer together, and the strengthening of the less dominant leg. Who knew? Apparently a lot of people, just not me.
This also brings up the interesting point that if Jet's right hind is his dominant foot and I have been letting him be slightly crooked and not load the weaker left hind. Which would lead to more and more loading and strain on the right hind as we did harder work while slightly crooked. Which, you know, might lead to him being sore in that stifle. Time will tell I guess.