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Retraining Saddlebred for dressage

From: Ruth

hi jessica. this list is a welcome source of information! i'm learning from reading your responses to the problems other folks are having, and hope someone else can learn from mine, which is: i have a 12 yo gelding, a former saddle seat horse. he has a great heart and lots of drive. however, in the manner of his former discipline (i've retired him to start dressage work with him) he still sometimes wants to go periscope up with his neck, trot around our tiny arena like a motorcycle, leaning in, revving his motor, bent any which way. we have days when he just folds onto the bit and stays in a rainbow silhouette, but the last two rides have been very difficult. i don't know what triggers that behavior or whether i'm causing it or whether it's because of the rain. i mean, i just don't know. i have managed to remind him of what we've learned about long and low, staying steady, bending around my leg, but it took a full half hour last ride. any suggestions? TIA!

Hi Ruth! First, thank you, and I'm glad you're enjoying horse-sense.

Now, about your horse: at twelve, he's spent most of his life as a saddle-seat horse, which means that he has been trained to carry himself and move in a way that is very different to the way in which a dressage horse should carry himself and move. He has long-standing habits, he has many years of experience during which he was rewarded for doing what he does, and he also has muscular development and neuromuscular reflexes that make it easy for him to do what he does. If he is a reasonably sound horse with reasonably balanced conformation, he CAN learn a new way of moving and develop the muscles and reflexes to match!

All of this will take time, though. You'll have to be patient with him, and with yourself. It is much more difficult for a horse -- or a human -- to learn a different way to do something he already does, than to learn something completely new. He has habits and patterns, and he needs to develop new ones, and you'll have to help him along.

You may find that his worst days -- the ones when he reverts to his previous way of going (head high, back low, hind legs out behind his body) are the days that follow his very good days, when he does everything you ask, engages, stretches, lifts his back, and carries himself well. THAT'S NORMAL. He's made an extra effort, stretched a litle more than before, and 24 or 48 hours later, his muscles are sore and contracting. He's a little stiff and uncomfortable, so he moves in a way that doesn't stress those muscles in the same way -- and that's when you get the high-headed, leaning-in-instead-of-bending, motorcycle horse! Moving well is not comfortable when he's stiff and sore, so he uses his old muscles and his old patterns of movement.

Try this: every time you have a really wonderful session, BE AWARE that he will be a little stiff and sore in the following day or two. Don't come out on Tuesday and Wednesday demanding an even better ride than you had when he was so good on Monday. Instead, turn him loose, free-school him for fifteen minutes or so, or longe him at a quiet trot. Then take him out for a trail ride, and know that the next day, he'll be much more comfortable and you can go back to work. Dressage, especially for a horse this age and with this background, is like body-building -- you're really trying to remake this horse in an entirely new shape. And any body-builder will tell you that it's NOT useful to stress the same muscles every day; you'll get better results alternating days. If you go on a program of every other day schooling, and do trail rides and long slow work on the other days, he'll make faster progress and develop his muscles more quickly (really!) and you'll both be happier.

- Jessica

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