Dressage with Dusty

On Sunday, Dusty and I went to our second dressage show together. This was my third time ever competing in ridden classes and I made the decision to try my first prelim test as well as an intro test.

Until about three weeks ago Dusty and I had only been working in walk and trot, so if we were going to do a prelim I had to start cantering again pretty quickly! I wasn’t entirely sure how he would react to cantering again, so to begin with I put him in his hacking bridle to give me better brakes should he become too strong.

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(His hacking bridle at the time had a Waterford mouthpiece – this is a metal chain with beads on it – this basically means that he can’t lean on the bit and pull. Recently his owner has been experimenting with different bits for his hacking, but I may do another blog post about that soon as there is too much to write in here.)

The first canter was fine, but when I began cantering him in the snaffle I did start to feel that he was getting away from me a bit. However I found that my posture was really affecting him (I’m still trying to break my habit of hunching over as I ask for canter) and if I sat up and pushed my shoulders back I could control the pace without having to use my hands so much.

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By the time the competition came around, both of us had got used to cantering again and I was starting to be able to ask Dusty for a little bit more of an outline in this pace. I felt fairly confident that we would be fine to do the prelim.

On the morning of the show I headed down to the field to prepare Dusty… and promptly realised that I couldn’t remember either of my tests… cue me jogging round the field pretending to be Dusty!

Our intro test was at around eleven so we headed over to the venue in plenty of time in order to get Dusty warmed up properly. Whilst he was good in the warm up, Dusty really switched on once we were in the ring. It is amazing how much more he is prepared to give when he is on a proper surface!

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He did spook when we first went in (benches are really scary apparently) and this took me by surprise and distracted me, so when we had completed the test I wasn’t sure that I had ridden as well as I would have liked. However seeing the video from this test made me feel much better and I am actually really pleased with how it went.

We received some lovely comments from the judge, who said that we were a ‘super combination’ and that we worked well together. There were three circles on the left rein in this test, and we got marks of 7.0, 8.0 and 8.0 for them – this was particularly pleasing as Dusty used to really struggle to bend on the left rein: he would turn his head but the rest of his body never followed through – but since his back surgery he has improved so much and seems a lot more comfortable with working over his back.

Our overall score for this test was 70% and I am thrilled to announce that we placed first! This marks the end of us doing intro tests now I think, as I need to challenge myself and am hoping to start moving up the levels.

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Due to my choice of classes, there was a four hour gap in between the two tests so we took Dusty back to his field for a couple of hours and I was able to walk Rusty and grab some lunch before we returned to the venue in the afternoon.

Our warm up began well, but as soon as I asked Dusty to canter I realised that things weren’t quite right. He started doing little hops and bucks accompanied by him throwing his head in the air – it was nothing major but he doesn’t usually react in that manner. His owner got on and asked him to canter several times with the same results.

In the end we decided that I would still go into the ring but explained to the judge beforehand that I may not ask him to canter in the test. I was a little disappointed about this as I had been looking forward to completing my first prelim, but there will be other opportunities and we have to figure out what is best for Dusty.

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We discussed the situation afterwards and have come to the conclusion that he may still need to build up more strength over his back, and after having a break for a couple of hours he may have stiffened up and become a little sore.

For the next couple of weeks we will take things easy and will continue to build his strength up. At the next competition we will go straight in for a prelim test and will just do the one (or two if they are close together and we can keep him moving in between).

Thank you for reading today’s post on Wild Call – I have more things to share over the next few weeks but in the meantime you can find me on YouTube and Instagram for more regular updates.

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Dusty – kissing spines update

Some of the people who have been following my blog for a while may remember that I help out with a horse called Dusty. Last year he was diagnosed with kissing spines – this is where the spinous processes are too close together, causing pain for the horse.

As a result of the kissing spines, Dusty had several problems in his ridden work. These included him being reluctant to work in a proper outline (he would lower his head but wouldn’t actually be working over his back), he would struggle to bend and pick up canter on the left rein and would often trip up.

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Last Summer he had steroid injections in his back to alleviate the pain: these worked for a while and I think his owner made quite a bit of progress with him out hacking (I was still struggling with learning how to ride him properly!) However, after a few months the effects of this treatment wore off, so at the end of February this year Dusty went back to the vets to have his back operated on.

Initially I thought that the surgery would involve pieces of bone being cut away to create more space between the spinous processes (and I think this is what was originally suggested) but Dusty actually had a different type of surgery where the ligament in between the close spinous processes is cut.

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After his operation, Dusty then stayed at a yard in Burnham Market for six weeks of rehabilitation. This began by him going on the horse walker every day for four weeks (and yes, apparently he was bored by the end of it!), followed by him being lunged each day for two weeks. He was then ridden a couple of times at the yard before returning to the field.

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However, the rehabilitation does not stop there! It is important that Dusty now realises that he isn’t in pain anymore – he still has habits such as tossing his head and lifting a back leg when I go to tighten his girth, but seeing as he often does this before I’ve even started to do it up I think that this may be a learned response to the old pain.

I have been schooling him in the field since he returned home: he isn’t really allowed to canter yet but I’ve had so much to work on in walk and trot that I haven’t minded at all. We’ve been doing lots of circles of varying sizes – from large 20m circles to tiny loops around tyres laid on the ground. I also set out a variety of trotting pole exercises – as well as ordinary trotting poles in a straight line, I’ve had some at angles so that I can ask him to bend over them. Spacing the poles in an irregular fashion encourages him to think about where he is putting his feet more, which is also good for him.

Despite all of this (and my best efforts to correct the bad habits which I know have crept back into my riding) I still felt that I wasn’t quite ‘getting it’ – that he was still just putting his head in a pretty position and not actually working over his back.

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In an attempt to fix this, I had a lesson with Dusty yesterday at the field. The lady that taught me is a ‘ride with your mind’ instructor. It may sound a bit strange (or at least that’s what I thought when Dusty’s owner first told me about it) but since I had my first lesson a year ago it’s completely transformed the way I ride.

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Having begun my journey with horses in a riding school, I was constantly told ‘heels down, shoulders back and sit up’. This was fine when I started out, but when I wanted to learn more than how to go forwards, steer and stop it suddenly wasn’t enough and despite lots of help from various different people, I still really felt like there was something lacking in the way I rode.

I’m still a long way from where I want to be, but the ride with your mind techniques have brought me so much closer and as I discovered yesterday, when I am riding properly Dusty is able to work over his back correctly, without me fiddling with his mouth or kicking him.

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Over the next few weeks I am going to continue to practice what I learnt in my lesson and I will try to gather some more videos to share. The video below was taken two days before the lesson, so there are a few mistakes in there which I am going to work on but it shows some of what we’ve been up to…

Thanks for reading!