Successful Lateral Work

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If you are finding that you lose impulsion, balance and cadence as soon as you start riding a lateral movement it might be because your focus is on how to ride the movement and not on the gait that you are riding it in. Internalising the movement means practicing it on as many horses as possible, maybe going for a schoolmaster lesson with a good coach, and getting to the point where you can ride that movement in your sleep. You might already be there and not realise it. Many riders keep focusing on the how to, or the how to not go wrong, for far longer than they really need to.

Getting your mind off of the movement, trusting yourself to know what to do, is really important to riding it really well. What makes all the difference to the quality of the movement and therefore the score that you are likely to get is the horse’s way of going. It is the quality of the walk, trot or canter that reflects success in both the competition arena and daily training.

Key Stages of Learning

A key factor for success is to recognise where you are on the scale from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence. For anyone unfamiliar with this, there are four stages:

  1. unconscious incompetence – eg: when I knew what a Half Pass was but did not really know that I lacked the skills to ride Half Pass. A lovely pupil of mine told me that when she began learning to ride she anticipated learning all of the dressage movements in around six months. I met her three years after that and eleven years after that she could ride Grand Prix!
  2. conscious incompetence – eg: when I realised that I did not have those skills but wanted to acquire them. When it looks easy but you discover it isn’t!
  3. conscious competence – eg: when I could ride a Half Pass if I focused consciously on what aids to give the horse.
  4. unconscious Competence – eg: when I could breeze into a Half Pass and focus on keeping the trot expressive, the tempo regular and the horse loose over his back.

Which stage are you at?

If you are at the first or second stage with a particular movement then this is a wonderful phase of learning too. In discovering dressage as a sport what you have really discovered is a process, a whole load of valuable things to learn and to teach your horse. Approach each at the right time, with the help of a good coach. You will be able to establish the skills you need to ride the movement, practice them and move in turn from riding them competently to riding them beautifully.

When you are learning a new movement you will be at the third stage and holding there for a while. That is valid and necessary; don’t be in too much of a hurry to move on from competent to spectacular just yet. Get it fluent, become familiar with how the movement feels at all training levels by riding different horses. The Shoulder In of a young horse will feel very different to that of a fully schooled horse. That of a pony will feel different to that of a Thoroughbred or Iberian horse. Gain lots of diverse experience and hone your skills.

It can be difficult to know when you have become unconsciously competent, because you remain always consciously competent too. I know innately that I can ride a Pirouette but naturally I know it consciously too. One key shift can be determined in the way you describe how to do something. If asked how to ride some movement that I have a level of unconscious competence in I will have a sensory memory pop up, which I then have to put into words. When I was at the stage of conscious competence I would have been more likely to think in words rather than in memories. If someone asks you how you ride Shoulder In and your mind supplies a strong memory, a muscular memory then you are almost certainly already there.

If you suspect that you are one of those many riders who might be getting stuck at the third stage then the message in this post is most of all aimed at helping you. Sometimes we stick at that stage out of sheer habit or because we are too self -critical. Can a dressage rider be too self-critical? Yes, I think they can in this case. If you are getting a sub-optimal result it could be the result of over thinking the movement itself. So trust yourself, let go of analysing the aids you are giving because your body already knows what to do. Success will follow when you get your focus onto the beautiful walk, trot or canter that you could be in.

When you know that you know, you can relax into the movement and really set your horse up to shine!

If you would like more help with your lateral work then check out these articles in the #BetterDressage series:

Riding Renvers & Travers.

Better Dressage – Shoulder In

Better Dressage – Exercises for improving lateral work.

Better Dressage – Key Skills for Lateral Work

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