Barns are reopening their doors, clinics are being scheduled, and shows are starting to creep back onto the calendar. But whether showing is a thing you’re going to participate in or not, and whether you’re a beginner or an international level rider, there’s a huge opportunity to make the most of time out of the show ring and practice basic skills. I had Olivia Lagoy-Weltz, Katherine Bateson-Chandler, Sabine Schut-Kery and Becca Hart on my little Virtual Cocktail Party show recently, and I asked them what they were up to with their horses, with so much up in the air on their Olympic trajectories. The things they talked about resonated not just with me, as someone working towards their level, but also as someone who teaches riders of all levels.
Here are some questions we all should be addressing, from green to Grand Prix.
1. Can you halt square, every time? The halt is the first movement we show a judge. A solid, square one leaves a fantastic impression and sets us up for a good test. If you can’t, it’s time to start practicing. Start on the ground and teach your horse to move one leg at a time from the touch of a whip or piece of bamboo. Use that to square your horse up in hand and then reward. Apply the same tools under saddle and from all three gaits.
2. Can you ride a balanced, organized corner? The corner is where all the prep for the next movement happens, and it is a crucial place for rebalancing. If they need work, start by making a downward transition from trot to walk five steps before the corner. Walk two steps, trot and then turn. Repeat until your horse starts to anticipate the downward transition, and then, when he does, add leg and maintain the trot.
3. Can you pick up the canter without the haunches swinging in? If you have to bury your outside leg back into your horse’s stifle to get him to canter, or if you have to ask so hard that his bum goes flying to the inside, it’s time to make him more honest. And if he’s just confirmed at swinging his bum in when asked to canter, ride renvers (haunches out) into the canter transition until he develops the ability for straightness.
4. If your horse does flying changes, can you do them into no contact without your horse running off? If not, it’s time to learn. Big half halt, uberstreichen (give both hands forward, with a loop in the reins), change. If your horse scoots off, bring him back to walk and ask again.
5. Can you sit the trot, really sit it, without stirrups? No time like the present to start learning. If it’s something you struggle with, drop them for five one-minute sets, interrupted by walk breaks. The next day, six, and so on, up to 10; then start with five two-minute trot sets. It won’t be fun, but it’ll be worth it.
6. Lastly, can you make transitions exactly when and how you want? Are they immediate and organized, or do they take multiple steps to happen? Are they on your horse’s terms and not yours? Make a 20-meter circle and make a transition between gaits every 10 steps. Then every eight, and then every six.
As hard as it can be right now, with so much that is fluid and evolving, to find the good, see this as a moment for good. This is a moment where we have the time to focus on the things that we don’t necessarily find the time for easily. In addition to the good dressage we’re always doing at my house, we’re doing things like trailer loading practice, cavaletti, and even thinking of building an obstacle course to play with. We have the time for making our basic work better. Let’s take it!
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s Guernsey Elvis, Beverley Thomas and her Ellington, and her own Gretzky RV and Ojalá with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Read more about her at SprieserSporthorse.com, or follow Lauren Sprieser on Facebook and Instagram.