The suppling of Dayo

For the past few months, Dayo and I have struggled with straightness, particularly to the left. Dayo likes to bulge her shoulder out and resist the bit. When I teach, I teach my students that a horse that the way to correct the bulge is to open across the shoulders, lift the inside shoulder, sponge with the inside hand while keeping the outside rein steady and supporting, and apply the inside leg at the girth. The key to this is the lifted shoulder, which prevents the rider from dropping weight onto the inside leg while applying the inside leg aid. It’s sophisticated, and for riders who do not have an independent seat, difficult to achieve. Dayo falls apart completely to the left, falling to the inside, and because she is not respecting the left leg, I have committed the cardinal sin of applying pressure with the right rein for balance, something she now relies on.

Realizing this is delaying our progress, I enlisted the help of a dressage coach to sort us out. Yesterday was our first session, and it involved walking, trotting, then cantering in a circle. Dayo is exceptional to the right, and an absolute frustration to the left.

We started the lesson by asking Dayo to respond to leg aids by first asking her to turn off the outside leg. This was a new experience for me, and one that required a surprising amount of concentration, particularly to the left (see tendency to balance off the right hand above). To achieve it, I had to take my feet out of the stirrups and really apply my leg until Dayo listened. What was remarkable was how it felt when it started to work. It felt like I could turn her with my knee.

Once we had established a basic respect for leg, we incorporated rein use to encourage her to stop resisting with her neck and give to the bit. First to the outside, then to the inside. Each time, the opposite rein was used as a supporting rein, and I stabilized that hand by holding on to the edge of my saddle pad. When Dayo gave to the rein, pressure was released. A full give meant a full release, a slight give meant a slight release.

As I worked on this, I discovered a lot about my own riding. I realized that I tend to ride almost completely off the right, regardless of direction, and a great deal of Dayo’s weakness to the left is also mine. I tend to balance off my right hand as well, and had a habit of letting the right rein, when it was the supporting rein, slide through my fingers. This was because I had a hard time holding the support to the right – it was so much more work on the left than I was used to.

We worked on circles, small to large, then large to small, largely using the leg to reduce or expand the circle’s circumference. Dayo has mastered several evasive tactics – one of them is a tendency to lean on the reins so they slide through my hands. This is a huge issue for us in the jumper ring, because that slide means I have less control and my hands have difficulty maintaining contact through the release over fences. Attempts to correct it are met with a dramatic and immediate increase in speed, followed by an argument as I try to slow her down. To counter this, I was told to squeeze my hands until they felt “white-knuckled” but to avoid bracing against the bit by making sure my elbows remained elastic. Once Dayo understood that the reins remained elastic and the contact steady, she began to stop leaning on the bit, relaxing into it instead. We ended with a beautiful canter, and the best downward transition we have ever had.

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