In the downtime between our two semesters at the University of New Hampshire, I always try to tune up a few school horses or work with some of our newer herd members to get to know them a little bit better. Increased tack time is always good for the soul (even if the cheeks end up a little chapped from the cold!) and I appreciate the opportunity to work with different horses. There are so many lessons to be learned.
I think school horses are simply some of the most amazing horses on the planet. They tolerate all manner of riders and need to decipher their aids. The riders who sit on them are, by definition, students, which means that those aids may lack refinement, finesse and sophistication. It is the exceptional school horse that can absorb all of this without ill effect, and it is my opinion that they deserve having one consistent person work with them for a period of time every now and then. The horse and rider have a chance to connect more deeply, and if the rider is experienced enough, they can help to break through any blocks or defensiveness that the horse may have installed in an effort to absorb some of the confusion in the aids.
During the recent winter break, I worked with three horses which are used in our dressage-only classes: Fiona, Otto and Tino. Despite all being dressage specialists, they each require a different kind of ride to elicit their best performance. Riding each horse helped to remind me of details which I then applied to my usual dressage ride, Anna.
Fiona is a chestnut Thoroughbred type mare who has been with our program for several years at this point. Of all the many horses I have tried out for the program, Fiona is by far one of my favorites. She is “my type” of ride; slender, athletic, a little sensitive, and of course, a mare. I always enjoy reconnecting with her during our breaks.
It has been almost one year since I last sat on Fiona, and I was a bit disconcerted at first by how much more defensive she felt this year than last. By “defensive”, I mean that her initial reaction to any soft contact was to brace and become hollow, and she was also reluctant to actively reach with her hind legs. It was my sense that Fiona was protecting herself, but the question was, from what?
I started by re-checking her tack, which by and large looked ok. She was definitely due for a re-shoe, so we had that taken care of. I then started a program which encouraged Fiona to begin to reach through her entire topline and stretch into the connection. While this idea is a key principle of dressage, it seemed to me as though she had a little bit lost her faith in that concept.
I very rarely warm up a horse at the trot completely off contact (although I always start with a ten minute or so free walk on a loose rein). But with Fiona, I had to break my own rules. First, Fiona absolutely needed the walking in phase; if I had a shorter than usual period of time to ride her, this was not an area where I could cut corners. Once I moved on to the warm up trot, I didn’t shorten my reins at all, instead allowing Fiona to warm up while carrying her topline wherever she felt like she needed to with a completely floppy rein. I didn’t ask her to align her shoulders and hips or even do more than the most basic of soft bend in the corners. I kept all of the turns sweeping and wide and changed direction regularly. After a few minutes like this, I very, very tactfully shortened the reins until I had a delicate, soft, pushing-toward-the-mouth contact, and I stepped Fiona into a canter.
For this horse, at this time, it is the canter which does the best job of loosening her up and encouraging her to let go. The left lead seems to be more comfortable for her than the right, so I usually started there. I never forced her to connect but instead encouraged it. In the canter, Fiona is more willing to reach underneath herself with the hind leg while also allowing the rider to maintain a soft, steady, elastic feeling in the reins. But the nanosecond that the rider gets greedy and holds too much in the rein or blocks with the seat, Fiona hollows again. The rider must practice patience.
I went through this slow, gentle warm up with Fiona every single ride. It honestly would take ten minutes of walking and twenty of trotting and cantering before she started to feel even remotely soft or fluid. If you pushed her harder before then, she would quite literally stop, or kick out at the leg—a sign that the question was ‘too much’. It would be easy to label her as being resistant (“this horse won’t connect”) but I think it was much more an example of ‘this horse can’t’. She had been blocking her body to such a degree for so long that every exercise session was only dedicated to unlocking her muscles again.
By the end of a ride, Fiona was loose, supple, forward and through. She stayed soft in the jaw, chewing the bit and generating the “lipstick” that we like to see in a dressage horse. Her responsiveness to the aids improved dramatically; Fiona at the end of a ride was like a completely different horse.
Fiona is not as young as she used to be, and she tends to be hard on herself out in turnout, so my sense is that all of these factors, plus her inherent personality, are simply starting to add up in creating this level of “block” in her body. I think the lessons which I took away from working with Fiona this winter were 1) that the rider can always be more patient 2) sometimes you have to throw your usual “rules” out the window and experiment to figure out what works best—the horse is always right! And of course, riding Fiona reinforced a rule that we always can be reminded of: force will get you nowhere.
Otto is a wonderful little petite Ferrari of a horse, who joined our program late this summer. He is trained through Third Level, and having seen him go a few times, I just knew that I would enjoy riding him. As I work towards bringing Anna up to Third Level, I thought it would be helpful to take advantage of the chance to ride a schooled horse through some of those movements again.
Otto is half Arabian, and he has a tremendous “go” button. I made the mistake on our first ride of carrying a dressage wand; it was so not needed! The students had told me that he gets heavy in the hand, and I had personally observed him tending to tuck his nose in towards his chest and get stuck in the kind of power trot that is flashy to watch but not much fun to ride. While still a connection issue, this is at least a different variety than the one I am used to dealing with!
Otto came to us wearing a Baucher bit. Many people mistakenly believe that this bit uses poll pressure in its action, but this is not the case. In fact, if you put your fingers under the crown piece and then have a friend apply pressure on the rein, you will feel that there is no poll action. A Baucher does raise the bit slightly higher against the corners of the lips and holds it steadier in the horse’s mouth; it seems to appeal most to horses which dislike any kind of fussiness in the connection. In my experience, though, most horses just lean on it, and that is what I felt in Otto. My colleague helped switch out the Baucher for a basic jointed loose ring, which gives him more to chew on and definitely helped to improve the softness of his jaw.
The biggest key with Otto, and horses like him, is that you have to take a leap of faith and give the rein when you want to take. On the days when I would get on Otto with an agenda, and maybe too much tension in my muscles, I could feel him tend to take a bit more feel on me in return. This is the start of that inevitable cycle of pull and tug—you pull on me, I tug on you. I remember my mentor from many years ago, Beth Adams, saying, “It takes two to pull.” So whenever I felt that weight increasing, I pushed the rein forward towards the corners of Otto’s mouth. Sure, he sometimes accelerated, and then I would circle or leg yield (or both!) and take advantage of the energy to help Otto become better balanced and engaged through the use of my diagonal aids.
Otto was simply so much fun to play with. We did a million transitions within and between gaits, worked the half pass in trot and canter, and played with his flying changes. The entire time, I kept thinking, “give”. The softer I stayed, the softer Otto stayed, with a more correct neck and improved connection.
This lesson was especially helpful to bring forward onto Anna, who is sort of the opposite in terms of her connection issues—she tends to be above the bit and lacks thrust. On her, finding the right blend of steadiness in the rein (to encourage her to connect) versus give (to encourage her to stretch) is tricky. Riding Otto reminded me that I can always offer Anna the opportunity to develop better roundness by my becoming a bit more elastic and giving for a few steps. When I apply this concept, it is nine times out of ten that Anna softens back. Funny how that is….
Tino is by far one of our most elegant and well bred school horses, and we are lucky to have such a lovely animal in our program. It actually hadn’t been my intention to work with him over the break, but when he is out of work, he becomes a bit sassy for the crew to handle, so back to work he went.
Like Otto, Tino has been shown through Third level, but he has much bigger gaits, and these can make him quite challenging to ride correctly. The sheer power of his movement can throw the rider far out of the saddle and off balance in the trot, and I think it is because of this that most of his riders hesitate to send him correctly forward. When this happens, Tino gets stuck in a “passage trot”, which is of course horribly incorrect and not good for his muscling and long term comfort levels.
Tino has had some excellent schooling in his past, and I wanted to make sure that I did right by this horse. I took some video of him and sent it off to a trusted friend for some feedback. She supported my initial instinct, which was that Tino needed to come more freely forward and respond to the rider’s leg aid by reaching forward and under, rather than higher and loftier. As with all my rides, I started each session with Tino with ten minutes of a marching free walk, and then warmed him up in the trot and canter while encouraging him to stretch through his topline and reach forward into a soft contact, all without dropping his shoulder or getting too heavily onto the forehand.
Tino’s canter is pretty gosh darn amazing. It is rhythmical and cadenced, and I found that using forward and back adjustments in the counter canter during the warm up phase really helped Tino to loosen his topline, making more correct movement in the trot easier afterwards.
Once he was warmed up, I did a lot—and I mean a lot—of lateral work with him, working on getting a more correct and sharper response to the leg aids. We did shoulder in, travers, renvers and tons of half pass. As the strength of his topline returned, we added in more work with adjustable gaits, and I encouraged him to lengthen his stride, then come back to a shorter yet still reaching step. I also played a lot with his changes; they are easy for him, and as my “consultant” said, “I have yet to meet a horse who was hurt because of doing the flying changes. If they are easy, they are fun for him.”
I am thrilled with the progress Tino made over the break. He is a powerful, athletic animal, and thankfully he is generally good natured and doesn’t use any of those qualities against us! That being said, I think he is a really challenging school horse for riders to figure out. To get the best work from him (as it is with any horse), the rider must ride forward. And once Tino is really going forward, you have A L O T of horse underneath you. That is pretty intimidating– but SO much fun.
Riding Tino reminded me what it is like to experience the talents of an animal who is simply bred to do their job. The “movements” are easy. What is important to remember, especially with a horse like Tino, is that when the quality of the gaits decline, we have forgotten the purpose of dressage, which is (simply put), “to enhance the natural gaits of the horse”. There are certainly moments when the horse is learning a new movement during which they may lose quality, but we need to remember that if this becomes the norm, it is time to take a different tack in our training.
On an even more basic level, riding Tino reminded me that I have to stay back with my upper body. I have always had a tendency to tip forward, left over from my hunter/jumper days, and on most horses I get away with it. On Tino, if I tipped forward, I immediately felt off balance due to his big movement. I also had to make sure to keep my eyes up and forward, for the same reason. With great power comes great responsibility, grasshopper—in this case, the responsibility to maintain one’s own position.