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Back in the saddle

October 18, 2011

After an indulgent two weeks in South East Asia it’s been quite tough getting back to riding fitness, but I’m biting the bullet and I’m entered for Norton Heath this weekend.

I thought I’d try and stay fit while we were away and do some jogging on the treadmill and I have to say it hasn’t worked one iota for riding fitness at all. I was still huffing and puffing after my first canter on Rokke. Bobby has been expertly schooling him for two weeks so he was ‘up for it’ to say the very least.

Then came another very welcome arrival while we were away. My made-to-measure Konig Favorit boots have been delivered from The Netherlands, beautifully crafted to fit like a glove by Jo Viehoff. I’m a very lucky lady indeed but have had to go through a week of ugly-sister-slipper torture, bruised shins and blistered feet – not to mention the moaning.

It was worth it, they now feel great and it’s the first time in my life that I have ever had a pair of riding boots that fit properly. There’s no stepping back to squeaky leather Mark Todd field boots or Nora Batty Ariat Bromonts now. I’ll be strutting up the centre line at the weekend like SJP in a pair of Manolo Blahniks.

So it’s back to the drawing board with dressage. I’ve got to say that, as well as my lessons, the lateral movement ‘shoulder in’ has been a good ‘fixer’. I remember my friend and Eve’s previous owner, Amanda, saying ‘never underestimate the usefulness of shoulder in’. She is totally right. As an all-round correctional technique it works wonders. Especially with us lop-sided riders – you have to make sure that your shoulders are in line with your horse’s shoulders for the ‘in’ bit of the exercise, or it doesn’t happen.

The trick (in theory) is that the horse flexes through his body so that his legs are working across three imaginary tramlines. That’s the outside hind leg on the normal track, the inside hind and outside shoulder on an invisible middle tramline and the inside shoulder in the third, innermost line (still with me?). The Classical Dressage website gives a great technical, textbook-style explanation.

This nifty little bit of lateral work helps with everything. The horses’ hindquarters have to be engaged and stepping under or it’s impossible – you’ll feel like you are riding a pantomime horse instead. The horse has to work through his rib cage so it can eradicate stiffness in all other work (for us this is the right canter). The neck has to be soft to get a little bit of bend (but not too much, as the bend is through the body), which will help with suppleness.  For the rider it’s all about straightness, control, balance – all the boxes are ticked.

But Rokke is a sensitive boy, which teaches me a lot. There are several ways to set up and start a ‘shoulder in’. One of the most obvious is to ride as if you are starting a circle to position the horse and then continue with this bend along the track. This doesn’t work for us as we end up shooting halfway across the arena.

My trainer Gill’s ‘tea tray’ analogy is much more subtle and totally foolproof – especially for riders like myself who need every technique explained in metaphor. Think of it as a little bit of ladylike deportment.

You simply pick up an imaginary tea tray with your hands (in the real world they are holding the reins evenly with thumbs up) and place the tea tray to the inside. You are carrying fine bone China so you have to be light with your hands. The action keeps your hands in position and it moves your body subtly so that the horse takes the movement. Get the tea trays out girls!


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