My First Dressage Lesson

Does this look like a dressage lesson?

A few days ago I had my first ever dressage lesson.  It was all that I hoped it would be, and I couldn’t be more thankful for my instructor.  Dominique Jones met me where I am at in my riding ability with graciousness, she accepted my pony, my tack, and my ‘facility,’ all of which look nothing like conventional dressage trappings!  Like me she is versed in natural horsemanship, so she was able to instruct me using ideas that I understood.  I hope she’ll travel to this remote corner of the world again after I’ve done my homework!  Dominique owns Willowtrail Winter Lad and will be bringing Laddie along next year as he turns four for a career in dressage, among other things.

By far the biggest learning experience from my lesson with Dominique was about contact, especially with my hands through the reins and with my legs on the flank.  I realize that up until now I’ve been ‘taking a break’ between instructions to my ponies about what I want them to do, effectively losing contact with them between instructions.  Dominique taught, though, that constant contact is necessary.  Over the years I have learned that equines learn from a release of pressure, and I have gotten pretty good at rewarding my ponies with context-appropriate releases when they do what I ask.  My ‘taking a break’ was a release.  Now I have to do what Dominique calls micro-releases, just enough release of contact that it can be perceived without contact being lost completely.  She described it as release with a word instead of a paragraph.  Lots for me to contemplate there!

I love synchronicities.  The night after my lesson I read the following in Caroyln Resnick’s book Naked Liberty about her experiences learning from wild horses:  “I became aware that communication between the horses was not an occasional or sporadic occurrence….  [While] I saw the horses as orderly and harmonious, beneath the surface I soon discovered constant dynamics of communication between horses.  Ear flicks and tail swishes were part of a communication system.  One horse even slightly shifting position conveyed an important message to nearby horses.  I learned that harmony among horses is maintained by a constant undercurrent of communication and herd interaction.  I eventually saw that for the herd to be in the most harmonious state, communication between the horses must be at its peak.” (1)  I know many people hold the view that dressage is the ultimate horsemanship endeavor.  If dressage is about communication between rider and horse resulting in harmonious, fine, and precise movement, all of which echoes Resnick’s observations of horses in their natural environment, then I can see how dressage could indeed be seen that way.  On the other hand, I know draft horse people who aim to achieve the same harmonious, fine, and precise movement in a totally different venue.  What is consistent is the constant communication, through contact in some way, with the horse.

While the homework Dominique gave me was small scale and very doable, I have assigned myself other study topics including how to sit correctly and comfortably.  I can’t quite figure out what to do with my pelvis to get the desired straight line through shoulder, hip and heel, for instance.  I’ve been studying a lot of yoga and core strengthening, and I know there’s a connection with proper seat, but I haven’t found it yet.  Dominique told me to focus on contact through my legs (and maybe shortening my stirrups), so I’ll start there.  Another synchronicity:  I read the following about stirrup length at lunch the day after my lesson:  “It’s often a surprise at how much we shorten rider’s stirrups – our record is 8 holes shorter!  When you take your feet out of the stirrups, your stirrup should sit just at or just below the ankle knobble.  The longer the stirrup, the more unbalanced the rider – especially in speed sports – but the pleasure rider also puts more weight on the horse’s back with a longer stirrup.” (2)  Obviously sitting properly with correct stirrup length results in a more harmonious connection between rider and horse.

This was my first riding lesson in decades.  I have taken numerous lessons in horsemanship and horse training, but this was the first time since I was a child that I took a lesson about sitting on a horse properly.  Nonetheless, my brain was working overtime on my training techniques.  Am I preparing my ponies adequately?  Do I need to be training them differently to prepare them for the fine communication required in dressage?  I’ve come to the conclusion that I have a lot more to learn about dressage before I know enough to critically assess my fundamentals training.  Fortunately Dominique told me she felt my fundamentals training was pretty much on target, so I can take my time learning what I need to know.

In the past few months I’ve read a number of articles by women who have begun their dressage career in their late fifties.  They give me hope that my first lesson has not come too late in my life and that there’s still plenty of time to learn.  In addition, I know people who have had demoralizing dressage lessons from their trainers, so I feel extra fortunate to have such a patient, like-minded, and natural teacher in Dominique.

1)      Resnick, Carolyn.  Naked Liberty:  Memoirs of My Childhood.  Los Olivos, California:  Amigo Publications, Inc., p. 2005, p. 149.
2)      Kelly, Colleen.  “The Three Secrets to Good Balance,” Savvy Times, Issue 36, August 2012.  Pagosa Springs, Colorado:  Parelli Natural Horsemanship,  p.74.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2012

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About workponies

Breeder of Fell Ponies, teamster of work ponies, and author of Feather Notes, Fell Pony News, and A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies. Distributor of Dynamite Specialty Products for the health of our planet and the beings I share it with.
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