On Friday evening, as I was riding Izzy, I felt a subtle, but important shift in my thinking. I understand what is meant by a steady tempo, but I realized I haven’t really been trying to achieve one. For so long, riding Izzy has been about getting his back to loosen up so that I could get a longer stride. What I’ve been doing is getting the longer stride and then asking for more, and then more, and then even MORE. I am always pushing which keeps the tempo changing.
Over the past few weeks, Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, has been urging me to get a steady tempo. As I was riding on Friday evening, I wasn’t really interested in doing a whole lot, so I asked Izzy to just go long and low. He kept asking for a quicker tempo. I kept saying no. Suddenly, I started to connect some dots. It is only with a steady tempo that Izzy can begin to get a longer stride that is balanced. Sean has been instructing me to ask Izzy small questions like can you lengthen just a little bit, can you collect just a little bit? Now I get why asking for just a little bit is so important with this horse. When I ask for too much, he loses the tempo and his balance.
I didn’t get to this realization all by myself though. In my case, it truly does take a village. On Wednesday, “S” came out for a lesson. She didn’t tell me until we were all finished, but a few days prior, she had had to bail off when the horse she was riding got a bit crow hoppy while gearing up for a runaway. We’ve all faced that decision: do I ride it out, or do I bail early? I’ve done both. In S’s case, she chose to bail off.

When S was out with me the week before, she had been able to keep Speedy trotting with forward thinking energy. She had him moving so nicely that I asked if she were ready to canter. She said no, but assured me she would be ready the next time. For this lesson, she could not keep Speedy trotting, and in fact, after a single 20-meter circle, she needed a break. I knew that something was different, so I just kept encouraging S to keep working at it. In retrospect, I think there was some fear riding along with her.

Picture

Very short stride.

Like most conscientious riders will do, S kept apologizing for bouncing around on Speedy’s back. I assured her that he knows his job very well and is happy to be working. After shortening her stirrups, and after realizing that Speedy wasn’t going to do anything sudden, S started to relax. I had her look up and to where she was heading, and before S knew it, she was trotting circle after circle without the need to rest and rebalance. 

After the lesson, I sat down to thumb through the quick photos that I had taken. The photos showed Speedy with a very short stride until S began to relax and allow him to move forward. That visual helped me understand that when Izzy maintains a steady tempo, his stride will naturally lengthen as well. I don’t need to constantly push for it. Like I said, it takes a village.

Picture

More confident rider, longer stride.

While I no doubt hold some tension in my body, that’s not really what’s keeping Izzy from relaxing. He has plenty of tension to spare. I think it is going to make a big difference though if I keep the tempo steady while only asking for a tiny bit more. It doesn’t need to be for very long, just a few strides. Sean has mentioned Izzy’s balance a number of times. As Izzy gains more confidence and becomes better balanced, he will be able to hold the bigger stride for longer periods of time.

As for S, once she was confidently trotting the 20-meter circle, I talked her through the cues for a canter. I made sure that she asked for the canter as Speedy approached the corner. I wanted to make sure that if something were to go sideways, she would already have him bent which makes a horse easier to stop. It took a few tries before she got her aids organized, but once she did, Speedy stepped into a very polite canter with a slow and steady tempo. By the time S tried it on the other lead, the right, it took her only one ask to get Speedy to canter.

I am sure my jumping up and down while cheering looked ridiculous, but I was so proud of them both. ​Dressage is hard. It’s hard when you’re a grand prix rider, and it’s just as hard at Intro. It’s hard when your body is tense, Izzy – I am looking at YOU!, and it’s hard when you don’t have all the answers.

I don’t have all the answers, but right now, that answer is steady tempo.