Thursday 4 February 2016

Dressage Weekend Part III

Part I and Part II

Part III - Saturday Schoolmaster Lesson with Sandra

This was the late addition to my Dressage Weekend Extravaganza, but actually the part I was most excited for. I knew the simulator would be great for working on my position, but I also realized that it wouldn't be the same as a real horse in terms of feel. I was super excited for the chance to ride an actual dressage schoolmaster and see what it felt like.

The drive from simulator stables to schoolmaster stables was full of beautiful
rural properties, huge houses, and views of the Rocky Mountains

Do you have schoolmasters available to ride in your area?

For me, I've never seen a horse available for lessons that had done more than 2nd level, and the price tag to buy horses of that level seems to start at $20,000. This made the prospect of riding a schoolmaster so much more exciting. 

When we were emailing back and forth to schedule the lesson, Sandra told me I'd be riding Wrangler, a 4th level Quarter Horse. Now I don't know about you, but I hear the name Wrangler, and I automatically assume a gelding. So, when I got to the barn on Saturday and was told we were going out to catch a mare named "Bissy", I was a bit disappointed. I thought that they had maybe switched me to a lower level lesson horse for whatever reason. This seemed even more the case when I saw how slowly this mare was plodding along while being led out of the field. 

But, you know what they say happens when you "assume". Luckily I didn't say anything, so I didn't actually make an a** out of myself. Turns out that what I heard as "Bissy" was actually "Pissy". Apparently Wrangler, the mare, earned herself the nickname of "Pissy Pants" as a young horse and it stuck. I still think it's fairly hilarious for this sweet, well mannered, 4th level horse to be called "Pissy".

Meet Wrangler, aka Pissy

(I think it's pretty cool that Wrangler is a quarter horse; seeing as my own horse is not from conventional dressage breeding {I don't even know her breeding}, it's nice to work with an instructor who doesn't have the opinion that big fancy warmbloods are the only way to go)

Sandra asked me some questions about my horse, our strengths and weaknesses, my riding history, why I like dressage, etc. Then we tacked up Wrangler and started the lesson.

Tacking up Wrangler - I didn't have time to take a more flattering photo
of her but you can see she's built pretty uphill for a quarter horse

We spent pretty much the whole lesson on a 20m circle in one end of the arena but worked on a number of things. We worked on improving the quality of the walk, and then trot, by keeping it active and constant rhythm. We worked on trot-walk transitions without losing energy. We worked on getting Wrangler on the bit by being playful/sponging with my hands and keeping active seat. When Wrangler is not on the bit she will stick her nose out in front with her neck down. Kachina on the other hand has a tendency to either giraffe or to curl behind the vertical, so this was certainly a change in feel for me.

We talked about stiff and hollow sides and worked on riding shoulder-fore in all three gaits. As Sandra was explaining it, I could really see from Wrangler's reactions how shoulder-fore is beneficial on both the stiff side and the hollow side but for different reasons. When the stiff side is to the inside, riding shoulder-fore helps to bend the whole body of the horse and therefore get the correct bend in the head and neck. When the hollow side is to the inside, riding shoulder-fore keeps the horse from pushing through the inside leg or leaning. This part of the lesson will be very relevant to bring back to Kachina as these are the problems we've been struggling with. Wrangler and Kachina even have the same stiff side (the left) so that simplifies things. We spiraled down to a 10m circle at the walk while maintaining shoulder-in, and then spiraled further down to make a 5m circle/walk pirouette.

Another thing we talked about was release of pressure. To keep a horse sensitive to my aids, I must release the pressure (either rein or leg) as soon as the horse responds correctly. Even if releasing means losing what you are asking for, it is better to release and then apply it again immediately. I've always known the importance of rewarding correct responses, but the particular idea about applying it again immediately was something to think about. I sometimes probably keep pressure on too long when trying to hold something for a couple steps but then keep the pressure off for too long after I give.

We did several walk to canter transitions. This was excellent practice for me to try out the "proper" canter aid I had learned from riding the simulator the day before (using inside leg, not just outside leg, being quieter with my seat, and returning my outside leg to the girth once we're in canter). With Kachina, I'm used to slowing her down in the trot before transitioning and then using a big obvious canter aid. It took a few tries for me to keep Wrangler active enough in the walk and using a subtle enough aid for us to get a good transition. It was amazing to feel what a good canter transition is supposed to be like though. It was very much "up" into canter instead of "forward". I've never really achieved that before. Working on the transitions also made me more aware of my hip position. Whenever I had the wrong hip forward it would confuse Wrangler. Maintaining the canter was a lot of work on Wrangler. To her stiff side I really had to keep my legs on Each.And.Every.Single.Stride. to keep her from breaking. And to her hollow side I really had to use inside leg to keep her from falling in. In either direction, the second I stopped actively riding she would go down to trot.

At the end of the lesson we did a couple of flying lead changes. Flying lead changes are something that I've never mastered. I had spent a fair bit of time working on them with my last horse Ellie, but it always felt like a bit of a chaotic mess and we could only get them successfully about 50% of the time. The aid for Wrangler to do a flying lead change is just to slide the old inside leg back (keeping pressure on while sliding). Even when my aid wasn't perfect, Wrangler knew what she was doing and gave me lovely uphill clean changes. She really did "jump" through the change. Sandra explained that changes have always been Wrangler's strength. I may not achieve changes that perfect on my own horse, but it still made me realize that every other change I've ever ridden was definitely too flat.

In regards to my position, the main thing Sandra was getting me to focus on was keeping my toes forward (sensing a theme for the weekend?). She worded it by telling me to "point my toes towards the horses ears". I find it fascinating how different ways of wording the same thing can make it click differently in your brain. Anyways, for some reason that idea of pointing my toes towards the horses ears really resonated with me and seemed to make it easier to act on.

We managed to squeeze a lot into a 40 minute lesson! Wrangler was the ideal schoolmaster ride, she was patient and never out of control, but she didn't do things automatically and so you had to ask correctly. She got lots of pats from me.

Another thing that I thought was nearly as cool as the lesson itself, was who I was sharing the arena with. It was a busy Saturday afternoon at the barn and a few upper level riders were riding at the same time as me. At home, my barn is pretty quiet, and the odd time I do end up sharing the arena, it's usually with a barrel racer or team roper. During Saturday's lesson, I was riding around horses doing canter half passes, full pirouettes, passage, etc. The horses themselves were gorgeous too. It was pretty awesome!

The arena, with the two high level riders who were working before my lesson started

As well as being a dressage instructor, Sandra is also a physiotherapist. She gave me a few stretches to do at home off the horse to help loosen my hips and allow me to keep my legs rotated in.

Overall it was a super educational lesson. I look forward to working with Sandra again soon with my own horse, and I hope to ride Wrangler again someday too.

Have you ever ridden a schoolmaster? What was your experience?


  1. Sounds like a beneficial ride! A good friend has a 4th level schoolmaster Trakehner gelding; he's completely retired now, but a few years ago, I took weekly lessons on him. She'd stick me on the longe line and have me ride without stirrups or reins and ask him for different gaits with my seat. It was VERY beneficial for me- I wish he was still available for me to ride!

    1. That sounds awesome. I didn't try any no-stirrup work myself, I never would have thought about doing that, but I can see how it would be beneficial to really feel the correct movement and figure out how to best use seat.
      Getting to ride a schoolmaster every week would be amazing! I hope you find a different schoolmaster you can ride some day.