In November, I received a grant from my local GMO and attended a two-day clinic, with Shawna
Lewis of Dressage Naturally. The clinic was titled, Finding the Sweet Spot of Healthy Biomechanics. I’ve attended similar clinics given by Dressage Naturally founder, Karen Rohlf, which ranged from 3 - 6 days. Several years have passed since I attended one of those clinics with Karen, and after two days with Shawna, the burning question in my mind was: What do we get from 45 minutes?
The typical dressage lesson or even clinic (given by an outside instructor) is set up in 45 -60 minute, private (single rider) time slots. Why? I don’t know, and I’ve been having lessons like this for thirty years! When I began riding, I often rode in groups, and I do remember having afternoon group jumping lessons that were two hours. Nowadays, riding for more than an hour and with any other riders seems rare. Every time I do participate in a group clinic, even if it is only one day, I can see the enormous benefit for everyone involved. Just being able to watch other riders, see various techniques, hear different problems, and have time to practice, practice, practice, is invaluable. We can practice, practice, practice at home, but then that professional eye is not there to say, “YES!! That was it!” So, we often just keep doing movements because we don’t even know we got it right and then neither does our horse, and since horses learn from the release of pressure……..Right, we just did a not so great job of trying to teach them an exercise.
Shawna designed this clinic to focus on the conversations of relaxation, energy, and balance. The PRIMARY ELEMENTS we need for great dressage work, and the core principles behind the Dressage Naturally program. There were six horse/rider pairs in the clinic. The clinic was held in a lovely, huge indoor arena that contained probably six carriages. The arena was also open to the barn area on the one side. We started with horses on-line, giving them a chance to familiarize with the surroundings and to do some concentrated work on the three principles of the clinic. Listening to Shawna work through each rider’s challenges with relaxation (some were very obvious, and some were not) was informative. Then we worked on conversations about balance, using lateral work and simple yields to achieve straighter, more supple horses. Simple yields not only help create balance and straightness they can help achieve a deeper relaxation. In contrast, yields might create tension at first, so returning to the relaxation conversation improves the lateral work. Throughout the morning we worked on energy, some pairs needed more and some less. Sometimes a horse’s energy level would change and they would need help with the opposite energy level, but the horses were always expected to return to a state of relaxation. Throughout the morning, the horses and riders had plenty of time to practice and then to dwell (happily) on their successes. Shawna explained how this break time or “dwell” (as it is often called by natural horsemanship people) is very important to the horses, giving them time to contemplate what they’ve just performed.
The afternoons were dedicated to riding and getting very specific with what each pair needed to develop. Shawna was excellent at watching each pair work and then working with them one on one. Again, we concentrated on relaxation, energy, and balance. Transitions were used to regulate the horse’s energy. Always with the thought of returning to a state of relaxation and often coming down to a halt, letting the horse dwell, and praising them for a job well done. We used a circle created by cones to work on balance and straightness. The object was for each horse to make the circle traveling in between the cones with little direction from the rider. It was interesting to see how each horse had their own pattern of crookedness on the circle. We also used the cones as points on the circle to make transitions, again working on energy and impulsion with the added challenge of balancing between the cones. Again, riders had ample time to practice, dwell, practice again, watch other pairs, and ask questions. Progress was very evident by the end of the session, and riders could end on the positive note of their choosing.
The second day was the same theme and mostly the same exercises, with evolutions of difficulty for those that were ready to move on. It was lovely to see the calm, happy progress by all of the horses and riders. It was also nice to leave the clinic feeling like we had a toolbox of ideas to work with after witnessing, discussing, and sometimes even helping our fellow riders work through challenges. While I still enjoy the occasional 45-minute training session, I’ve learned that I take so much more away from multi-day, group learning experiences. I leave feeling empowered to make positive changes, in my horse and, in my own riding. I also feel like the lessons being taught have a chance to be evaluated, and the movement patterns established, unlike a brief feeling of accomplishment during a 45-minute session. Which, ultimately, leaves you feeling unsure of the result you want to achieve on your own.