Sharing Strides – Two Minds, One Journey Part 3

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.

Many roads lead to Rome – Karen:

Had an early lesson today with Deb and Belle.  Deb wasn’t feeling that well, and Belle took advantage of the opportunity to be less than motivated.  Not bad, just not as freely forward as she can be.  So, for the warm-up, we stayed out of the dressage ring and in the grassy area next to the arena.  Lots and lots of bending and smooth changes of direction, taking advantage of all of the natural and man-made obstacles to circle around them, lengthen between them, making it playful and fun.  Working on stimulating Belle both mentally and physically to be a more active participant in the session.

Let’s talk about bending.  A bend is the laterally arced position in which the horse’s body “appears” to form a uniform curve from poll to tail.  Bending refers to the lateral (side-to-side) curvature of the spine.  The range of lateral motion is greatest at the neck and non-existent in the haunches where the sacral vertebrae are fused together.  Outward rotation of the ribcage plays a role in the perception of bending.

Bending is a function of several issues:

  • Adduction (bringing in toward the midline) of the inner hind leg and outer foreleg.
  • The lateral flexion and rotation of the spine.
  • The outward displacement of the ribcage.

The balanced horse initiates turns with the outside foreleg.

In watching Belle’s warm up, I noticed a tendency for the energy to escape out the outside shoulder.  We refocused Deb’s attention to riding the circles and bending lines with the outside foreleg defining the line of travel, and maintaining control of the hind legs.

Karen Abbattista Western DressageMoving into the arena, we began working on spiral in and out at the lope, continuing to focus on the bend, but with the smaller circles, asking for more engagement on that inside hind leg.  The purpose of the exercise was to improve the quality of the lope, but that can only be accomplished if the exercise is performed correctly.  This is a difficult exercise for Belle, and she would try to make it easier by falling over the outside shoulder, talking Deb into over bending her in the neck.  To help Deb concentrate on riding more with her seat, connecting the hind legs to her seat bones and aligning Belle’s shoulders with her shoulders, Deb put the reins in one hand and rode the exercise that way.  That eliminated the tendency to over bend the neck and encouraged her to find alternative ways in her own body to manage Belle’s evasions.

Still with the goal of lightening the forehand and controlling the shoulders, we moved on to quarter turns on the haunches.  These were not as good as they could be, so I had to think, why?  Belle was reluctant to take the weight behind.  OK, change of plan, and we did walk/trot/walk transitions down the centerline, stopping before the end and doing a half turn on the haunches to face back the other way.  The transitions got her thinking up and under with her hind legs and rocked her back to a balance that enabled easier turns on the haunches.

As the lesson neared an end, Deb asked if we could work on shoulder-in and I smiled.  That’s what we had been working up to the entire lesson.  What is the criteria for a shoulder-in?  The horse is ridden with a slight but uniform bend around the inside leg of the rider maintaining cadence at a constant angle of approx. 30 degrees.  The horse’s inside foreleg passes and crosses in front of the outside foreleg; the inside hind leg steps forward under the horse’s body following the same track as the outside foreleg, with a lowering of the inside hip.  What had we already accomplished?  We’d worked on bend, control of the outside foreleg, engagement of the inside hind leg.

Without having drilled the shoulder-in, Deb had now prepared Belle to ride a correct shoulder-in, and did!   Mission accomplished!


When you have the feeling a ride just might make you feel better, go with it!  Some days it takes Belle a few more minutes to get with the program however today it was my turn!

Karen was given the heads up that I probably needed to spend a bit of time to feel more connected and we used my “pasture playground” to good advantage. I have a set of four cavelletti set up so that each pole is set high on one and the other end is on the ground.  The angle is nice because we can trot all four and I can shoot for the middle or higher side for more activity from Belle. I also have another set of ground poles spaced further apart for lengthening’s.

Karen Abbattista Western Dressage

Not too far from there I have a small wooden bridge and a 12 by 12 square made from ground poles. THAT is a great multipurpose obstacle, the box can be side passed over, trotted through or around and used to have a square to stand in and practice turns on the forehand and haunches. We basically trotted around and over and through everything, throwing a few circles around trees in the mix and I forgot why I was “iffy feeling”… I was having way too much fun focusing on the correct bend and keeping Belle consistent.

What is fun about lessons with Karen is that there is always a new twist on an exercise to address an issue either Belle or I am having. Remember the hips and seat bones “I found” a few months back?  Well, in the lope spirals Karen asked us to perform a 20 meter to 15 to 10 and then out again.  I was having a problem with Belle falling out and I was totally getting suckered into using my reins more than I used to. Karen kindly suggested I use one hand with the reins and refocus on using my seat… and voila! I had to take a moment and think why I went back to using my hands as a crutch as the lope circle got smaller. It is an old habit, and like finally remembering “thumbs up!” without being told, it will eventually come with time.

As we transitioned to working on turns on the haunches we were less than stellar. Our normally precise turns were more like spaghetti! So again Karen changed it up and had us use the centerline for walk/trot transitions and then a turn on the haunches before the end to head back the other way. Fun, different and achieved the results we were looking for with Belle stepping under much better.

Now, dear reader, please understand… I LIKE riding dressage patterns and movements and being really precise with them. The art teacher in me likes the circles, angles, degrees and geometry of dressage. I get all geeky about it, like some folks are with their latest tech toy. So like an eager kid I asked Karen if we could work more on Belle’s shoulder in before we quit.  She grinned at me…”Deb… that’s what we were working up to!” Sigh… I love that she gets how excited I am about western dressage! Is it challenging? Oh Yes!

Was it worth NOT canceling my lesson because I was “feelin’ sort of iffy”? I wouldn’t have missed it for the world!

Stay Tuned for the next in this series…

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