Rio the dressage queen!

Truth:… I love dressage.  I don’t want to do a Heath or anything-yet, but I really do enjoy shifting around that 20 x 60 arena.  Rio, unfortunately hasn’t reached that whole appreciation level yet, he thinks it’s all a bit hard.  He does dressage like I do yoga- stiff and awkward but with potential!

First of all we had to adjust his feed program.  He hadn’t been in huge amounts of work and was doing very well on his Mitavite Breeda.  His workload was going to increase so to keep pace with this increase in energy demand we did the gradual progression over to the Mitavite Pro-Sport.  I probably wouldn’t jump most young thoroughbreds embarking on their competitive career over to this energy level straight up, but Rio certainly is different!  To get past that 20 minute then keel over and die rountine, he needed the Pro-Sport.  I figure that if it’s good enough for Groover, then my Groover wanna-be can start on it now.

So…how to move a very large uninspired giant, forward, straight and on the bit around such a tiny rectangular space…. Without falling over preferably.

Forward- this is usually very easy with your average ex-racehorse ,but not in this case.  Rio, god love him, thinks walk is the most animated one needs to be.  There was more to it in this case though, even though his response to the leg is dull, he is also crooked through the neck.  He was breaking, and tilting behind the poll in the third vertebrae. This gave a very “hand brake” feel to the whole thing.  This was worse on the right rein as he tilted his nose to the right and bulged out through the left, but although there was less of a bulge on the left rein, the outside was still left feeling blocked.  To unblock and soften this little concrete poll we bent to the outside until he was straight and soft and then brought him back to inside bend making sure we didn’t lose the straightness through the outside again.  Anytime that softness and straightness was lost, back to outside bend.

The whole time we were working on this straightness in front, the hindlegs were being activated when they were not traveling forward and left alone when we had forward!  Initially I was a little concerned about his back end, which was really weak.  He tended to drag his hind feet from his front end rather than push himself forward from his hindquarters and he didn’t step under himself particularly well.  We worked on this every day and he really improved getting much stronger behind.  To start with this was done in rising trot in a lower frame to encourage him to stretch through his whole body.  When he was really straight, pushing forward from behind and swinging over his back, he started to feel like a whole horse, not a big disjointed gumby, and guess what….I could sit trot!

Submission- Rio is well aware that he is a big strong strapping lad and he still thinks submission is an optional thing.  Luckily I am a big, strong strapping lassie, so when I say half-halt, I mean half-halt!  Sometimes though I have to admit when I say half-halt I go Marlin fishing!!  Rio has a big powerful back end (when we got it moving forward) which is lovely but now we need to start to engage that back end and get him through the back to take the pressure off the bridle.  We started baby leg yielding and shoulder-in, the challenge here to keep him very straight, and not allow that tilt or bulge back into the picture.  As he gradually starts to operate his hind legs in a more controlled manner we started to do the second half of the work in a higher frame.  The stronger he becomes the easier he finds it and the more he offers to carry himself.

It’s great to take the young horses out to a dressage day, and preferably a jump club if the calendar allows.  The dressage days are quieter and more relaxing for them, than the ODE’s and if your home environment isn’t very busy, they are good days to introduce them to a crowd.  Our home arena can get quite hectic with our crazy crowd yahooing around, and Rio doesn’t raise an eyebrow, but I was hoping for a bit of animation to inspire him a little when we got out!  We are really lucky in our area because we have 4 great local dressage clubs so we can get to a few comps quite easily.  In this case it was Dungog dressage and we entered the 1.1 and 1.3.  I really had to practice (and not just because Peter Stoop was going to be there with a camera), but Rebel, Sally and Josh were in my class!!!  I was pleasantly surprised when we worked through the tests at home.  It wasn’t too bad.  We lost a bit of balance in the corners, and my transitions were still a little scratchy but I thought I’d have those clowns covered.

The big day out- Well I have to say he looked just beautiful (thanks Josh).  Plaiting this horse is no easy job, he has the thick pony mane from hell.  Rio was his usual laid back self in his traveling and preparation, aside from having a big blokey hissy fit about having make-up put on.   Off to the warm-up and I don’t think I have ever had a horse trip over so many times.  His behavior was exemplary though, I was just worried he wasn’t going to stay on his feet.  When unbalanced young horses are used to working on perfectly flat sand arenas, adjusting to an uneven grass surface can be a struggle.  He was perfectly quiet and took no notice at all of Carol’s kids running up and down the grandstand!  We did the same warm-up but shortened it as we had the two tests to do.  We had a practice run through the test and it did feel a little ordinary in parts.  I tried to be honest with myself and limit us to a genuine (if imaginary) 20 x 60, but I think we expanded as we went along.  The canter transitions were shoddy initially, so we re-did those and after a few re-runs we were ready to go.

The 1.1-  What a champ! I was so impressed with Mr laid-back Lobo. It was like steering a bus around an obstacle course, and the corners were something we distantly passed by but apart from one rather large trip down the long side, he was wonderful.  The judge was happy, and he was 2nd with 66.67%.

The challenge now was to re-energise for the 1.3.  Rio thought his massive effort of staying upright on grass was enough for one day, and it felt like we were operating on the fumes of an empty fuel tank.  As he get’s tired he really takes a load off the hind legs and places it firmly on the forehand…short of bungy jumping over his hind quarters to create the world’s largest half halt, it was going to be a struggle to re-balance the big fella…We got a little lucky with a bit of action in the warm-up arena perking him up and we started the test well.  He started to tire out halfway through but we battled on and it was with a feeling of great relief, (and a stumble that nearly brought us to our knees) that we greeted the final halt.

Again the judge rewarded his calm and regular effort with a 67.2% and although his love of the forehand was noticed, he placed 2nd.

So now we know he can do a reasonable dressage test…. That’s step one!  I was really happy with his attitude, and although we have a lot of work ahead, I get the feeling that he will be good to work with on the flat. The challenge, of course, with this great sport is that we have 2 others to cover as well!

Strength and conditioning makes such a huge difference with these big, young horses, especially if they are a little weak like Rio.  Apart from the daily flatwork and jumping we incorporate some fitness work to address this and also to add a little variety to the work routine.  Hill work at trot and canter encourage him to strengthen and use his hindquarters.  Although I have never had any young horses that have required fitness work this early on, Rio certainly feels like he needs it.  It’s also good for him to get out and about in the big wide world on his own, big chicken!

So that’s the dressage wrap .Better get to work!  Our next aim is the fabulous Sydney ODE.


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