There was a discussion recently on COTH (Chronicle of the Horse) forums when someone asked “Now that I have this new, giant WB…should I expect every ride to be a sweat bath?” At one point, the poster asked do I need “to really hit the gym?” I laughed, because I could relate. Last year, as we trained through Second Level I remember an awful lot of rides where I got off Cardoon absolutely drenched in sweat wondering why this was so bloody hard.
Let me be perfectly clear – dressage is hands down, the most physically demanding riding I’ve ever done.
I’ve always been a reasonably active person. I grew up riding jumpers and equitation. I do yoga, some strength training, and train pretty regularly for half marathons. And for crying out loud, now we have a farm which comes with its own set of physical challenges. In short, most people see me as a pretty physically fit person.
That’s what I thought too, until I started really riding Cardoon and aiming at Third Level.
There is a kind of strength and fitness that I’ve realized is needed to ride well at the higher levels. Although we shouldn’t be holding our horses up with our arms and shoulders, or constantly squeezing with a vice-like grip to keep them going forward, there’s a rolling application of hands, leg, seat, and core that is hard to describe to a non-rider. The combination of continually adjusting, tightening, and flexing each of those components to achieve greater collection, better bend, or that engaged flying change can be physically taxing, and that’s when its all going well.
Of course when you’re training, things rarely go well all the time. As Cardoon and I began to learn collection, I found that our particular bugaboo was Cardoon’s willingness to move forward energetically into the contact – and stay there. Many of those sweat drenched rides were because I was suckered into pushing, holding and gripping for all my legs were worth. I forgot much of the time that my horse can feel a fly land on him. He doesn’t need 50 pounds of pressure from my leg AT ALL TIMES.
We worked diligently on making him hot off my leg by asking nicely the first time, and using a sharp smack with the whip if he didn’t respond with alacrity. Fortunately, it didn’t take much, and at our last show, he was even a little too hot off my leg – he actually jigged in the walk! (Success!)
To test his response to my leg, Lauren often in lessons tells me to take my leg OFF, then put it back on. Then take it off again. He should keep going forward, and he should jump a little when I put my leg back on. I need to always get a response.
With that lesson learned though, we’re still working hard. Cardoon can move off my leg without a constant, nagging leg, but how to capture that energy and utilize it for the collection we’ll need for the pirouette? It’s important to capture that energy through the horse’s back, and use it to bring the horse “up” and not let the energy escape out the front. Creating and, more importantly, maintaining energy for collection requires a different kind of strength than almost anything I can think of. My abs can tell you that capturing the energy you create with the leg cycles though the seat, core and hand. After a great ride just the other day, where we worked on collected canter to very collected canter and back, I woke up with some aching abs the next day.
Must be time to hit the plank position a little more, and maybe resign myself to participating in No Stirrups November.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to train hard – both on and off the horse – and scowl at people who suggest that riding is easy because the horse is doing all the work.