Sharing Strides – Two Minds, One Journey Part 2

Written by Deb Herbert & Karen Abbattista

Welcome to a different kind of blog from WDAA! The purpose of this post is to allow the reader “into the heads” of both a trainer/judge/competitor, Karen Abbattista and her student, Deborah Herbert, a Florida WDAA member. We would like to share with you some moments in Deb’s journey as she pursues her riding goals with her AQHA mare “GenuineArcticSpring”, barn name “Belle”.

Please enjoy as you follow along with these posts that we consider interesting or challenging moments on their journey with Western Dressage.


westerndressage ride-a-test-7874You might not know it by looking at my house these days, but I prefer things to be neat and organized.  That’s one of the reasons why I love dressage so much.  It’s a systematic, progressive method of training whose classical principles can enhance and improve the natural way of going of the Western horse.  These principles are illustrated in the Pyramid of Training (the Training Scale).  It’s so essential to the correct schooling of the horse that we have it hanging on the outside of Deb’s barn, facing the dressage arena.

We’ve been doing a lot of work on Deb lately, and today’s lesson shifted the focus back on Belle.  Using the Training Scale as a guide, let’s analyze our progress:

  • Rhythm (with Energy and Tempo) – We have a pure walk, a pure jog/trot, and a pure lope/canter.  Deb and I play around with Tempo, making sure she is controlling the tempo, and that it is consistent throughout, that Belle neither speeds up nor slows down, but remains freely forward in all three gaits.
  • Relaxation (with Elasticity and Suppleness) – Belle has learned to accept the influence of Deb’s aids without becoming tense.  We are able to bend laterally, and lengthen and shorten her frame, although this is a work in progress.  She shows the correct response when asked to chew the reins out of Deb’s hands, executing a proper stretchy circle.
  • Connection (Acceptance of the Bit through Acceptance of the Aids) – The contact with the bit must be elastic and adjustable.  The energy generated in the hindquarters must flow through the whole body of the horse and be received and regulated by the rider’s hands.  That’s one of the reasons why we had been working on awareness of the seat bones, to focus on the driving aids even as we work on connection.  We want to drive Belle forward and have her stretch over her topline into the bridle.  We do NOT want to use backward, pulling reins to create a frame.  The focus has to be on riding back to front.
  • Impulsion (Increased Energy and Thrust) – And, this is where we are focused at the moment.  We have reached a place where we can start thinking about engagement.  Impulsion is thrust, it’s the release of energy stored by engagement.  It’s associated with a phase of suspension that exists in trot and canter, but does not exist in the walk.

One of my favorite ways to work on Impulsion which is fun for both horse and rider is with trot poles or caveletti.  In the warm up, Deb trots through poles which force Belle to lift her feet.  Having her go through poles spaced close together, and then through poles spaced a little farther apart, teaches Belle to lengthen on her own.

We moved on to some head-to-the wall leg yield at the walk, keeping the angle at 35 degrees so Belle had to move both forward and sideways.

And then, what I really wanted to work on…  Down centerline in trot, leg-yield to the rail, immediately pick up the canter, down the centerline again in canter and leg-yield in canter out to the rail.  Belle has to think about her legs; Deb has to focus on keeping Belle’s body parallel to the long side.  The quality of the gait is absolutely critical, if at any time it starts to deteriorate, then Deb is to ride forward and straight.  We vary it up with some forward and back down the long side in both trot and canter.

So, what am I looking for?  Suppleness, Belle to be more forward of the leg, for her to learn to pick her feet up in the canter and improve the suspension (remember, you must have suspension to have impulsion), to increase the engagement.  Was it difficult for Belle, yes, you could see her thinking and processing the work but not getting resistant or tense.  And, the canter got better and better.

Finished with a beautiful stretchy circle and Q & A.   I love my job


Deb-and-Belle-March-ShowI was warming Belle up trotting around the “playground” I have set up….(a box made with 8 foot poles on the ground, a small bridge, and two sets of cavaletti set up with one end of each pole higher than the other so the horse can be directed over a higher or lower part of the pole).  Karen had us go over the poles several times in each direction, and FORWARD!

Now folks…I am a pick-up truck kind of gal, but not the four wheeling type. So when she says “forward!” I get a little nervous because I prefer to motor around on level ground…sigh. But we obliged and Belle starting lifting nicely through her back and her gait improved.

After that Karen had us working with shoulder-in…which I am LOVING!  We did it several times at the walk and then shazam! As I turned from the short side to the long side to shoulder-in keeping the bend with my hips it became a fluid seamless movement! I locked in that feel and it became so much easier at the trot as well.  Not letting me gloat, Karen had something else in mind entirely for the focus of this lesson.

Karen said, “ok… now for canter work”.   In the past that statement would have struck fear in my heart! It wasn’t too long ago that I was terrified of cantering. But that’s another story (we all have one…right?)

Karen is relentless about improving the quality of Belle’s lope/canter. We have had better lateral movement of late because I am more aware of the influence of my hips, so she asked me to come down center line and leg yield to the wall and immediately pick up the canter. Then come around to centerline maintaining the canter and leg yield AT THE CANTER to the rail and then a fluid jog/trot transition!  I was so busy following the directions and focusing on each stride I was grinning from ear to ear when we completed it. Whoa Boy! It was fun!

We worked on that combo with both leads and also lengthened and shortened her stride within the gaits. I was having a total blast and I could tell Belle was not anxious in any way. Then, to end up our ride, I asked her to chew the reins out and down and we jogged around in steady 20 meter figure eights only using my seat as we both relaxed.  Gosh that was a fun lesson!

Stay Tuned for the next in this series…

In the meantime, visit our other Western Dressage blogs located at The Hitching Post

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