Interesting Lesson

I spent my winter break in Seattle this year - about 1000 miles from my horses. I missed some terrific riding weather but I did get a chance to try something just a bit different. I have been interested in French style dressage for a while and have watched some of Philippe Karl's and Lisa Maxwell's DVDs but I don't know of anyone in the LA area who teaches this style of dressage so I haven't really had a chance to try it myself. So while I was in Seattle, I took at riding lesson with Craig Stevens at The National School of Academic Equitation.

I hadn't seen either of the school's DVDs so I wasn't sure what to expect. We discussed a couple of options. I originally found out about the school while looking for resources for training in hand; Ansel has been retired for a couple of years with navicular but he still likes to get out and play so I have been looking for things to do with him other than ride. So one option was to do a lesson on in-hand work. Another option would have been an introduction to their exercises for developing an independent seat. From one of the lessons I got to observe later in the day, that might have been quite interesting and useful. However it is not as fundamentally different from Germanic dressage as the French use of aids. So Mary Anne Campbell suggested I have 'a centaur lesson'.

A centaur lesson refers to Craig working the horse in hand while a rider is mounted. As an introduction to the French use of the aids - especially the hand aids - the centaur lesson is ideal. Craig described their system of rein aids - the direct and indirect rein and the half-halt and reverse half-halt. Then he used each to ask Strut for his response. I was very impressed with Strut's trained response. Just as described, the opening, direct rein, shifted Strut's weight onto his inside foreleg and he did a turn on the forehand. Then Craig lifted the rein up and towards Strut's neck and Strut shifted his weight and did a turn on the haunches around his outside hind. Then Craig let me try it myself. Nearly the same response even from a stranger's hand. Impressive. Light to the hand, no leg aids needed. I had a little more trouble figuring out the circular motions of the half-halt and reverse half-halt - but I think that was just me, not Strut.

So what are the take home lessons? First, horses are really quite adaptable. Nearly every riding method will claim that it's system of aids is natural for the horse - even if it is completely opposite of how some other method asks you to communicate with your horse. I have been taking dressage lessons for a more than a decade, all the time trying to learn to ride more from my legs and seat. I am asked to take some light contact with the horse's mouth but in general to do as much as possible with my leg and weight aids. By contrast Craig was asking me to use my hand exclusively and remain as neutral as possible with my seat and legs.

Second, Craig and Mary Anne are doing something right: Strut is 30 years old and still giving lessons. And not just toddling around. He is a little horse, at least compared to my 16 handers, but he has a nice swinging stride. So even though a lot of the work looked small and cramped to me - a lot of small circles, turns on the forehand, turns on the haunches - Strut didn't feel cramped or tight to me and his back had a fair amount of movement in it.

The swing in Strut's back came as kind of a surprise to me because I have a hard time reconciling that with the one thing I did not like about this new style: deliberately asking the head to come up with the half-halt rein aid. I have spent the last 2+ years asking Red and then Disco to stretch forward and down with their head and neck so as to raise their back and get it to swing more freely. Red used to lift his head, suck back, and chomp his teeth together, which made is back hollow and tight and his gaits terribly uncomfortable. So I associate a horse lifting his head with a tight back. And am used to wanting to see the muscle under a horse's neck atrophy. But the horses at NSAE had well developed muscles on the undersides of their necks but were not tight in the back and their joints were nice and mobile. I am not sure I really saw any of them 'use their back' in the way I am used to wanting to see a horse use it's back - but if the point of a lifted back is to free the legs to move expressively, perhaps I am looking for the wrong thing since the horses at NSAE had nice mobility in their limbs.

I definitely got a taste of a very different way of riding and of schooling a horse. Is it one I am going to pursue? I am not sure. There are some aspects that I like and some I am ambivalent about. But I respect this different style of schooling enough to think that it would be better to try it on it's own (in a more pure form) rather than try to take what I like from it without embracing the entire system.

Published January 1, 2014