Please check out my latest article, published in the March 2014 issue of the Equine Journal!
January 2014 marked my official one year anniversary as a student of yoga. Our instructors (at 3 Bridges Yoga in Durham and Portsmouth, NH, and York, ME) are kind enough to call us “yogis”, which I have always understood to mean someone who is a master of yoga—and I am far from that! But for simplicity’s sake I will use the term “yogi” in this blog when referring to myself and fellow students at our studio.
“But we thought this blog was about horses, and riding, and all of that,” says You the Reader. “Why are you talking about yoga?”
Well, because the more I learn about yoga, the more I like it, and the more connections I can make to the pursuit of equestrian interests. In fact, some people (and especially my ex) have told me for years that I really should try yoga. “Yoga would be so good for your tight hamstrings.” “Yoga can really help you to relax; you are always so wound up.” “Yoga is a really good work out, not like going to the gym at all.” But if you know me at all, pretty much the best way to guarantee that I WON’T do something is to tell me it is just the thing I should do. I thought yoga would be a bunch of overly positive and bendy people sitting on mats, breathing and sweating. What I found is that there are in fact lots of positive people at yoga, as well as bendy ones, and you do breathe and sweat. But yoga HAS been good for my tight hamstrings, and to help me relax, and to cross train muscles that I don’t use in other aspects of my life. Gosh darn if my ex wasn’t right…wonder what else he was right about…but I digress!
There are many physical benefits to the body from doing yoga. For equestrians in particular, yoga improves flexibility and suppleness across the board, but especially in the hips, shoulders and spine. You will expand your ability to center and balance. You can increase your core strength and stability. And yoga is low impact, so it doesn’t wear out important joints like your knees or jar your back. For these reasons alone, yoga is good for equestrians.
But what especially surprised me was how much you can learn about the psychology of riding effectively through the practice of yoga. So, here are five important insights I have learned from yoga, and how they relate to my world as an equestrian.
Insight # 1: Be Present
One of the best things about yoga is its emphasis on “being present”. I have often seen this phrase printed on t-shirts and stickers and thought “that’s a good sentiment, but who has time?” When you come to the yoga studio, ‘being present’ is a real and actual thing which you strive to do. I can get so busy, sometimes it feels like I am just frantically running from one activity to the next, valiantly trying to extinguish one fire before it ignites something else. My mind is always racing, full of random thoughts about this and that, to the point that I have taken to carrying around a “Take a Note Notebook”, where I can at least jot down the random thoughts which pop into my head while I am doing one thing that have nothing to do with that thing at all. In this way I can let go of the thoughts and try to focus on what I am supposed to be doing.
In the practice of yoga, the best teachers acknowledge the fact that we all have a stream of thoughts running through our head that has nothing to do with what we are doing and which draw our focus and attention away from the moment at hand. So while you are reading this blog, you might also be thinking, “oh, I needed to pick up some bread” or “gee whiz, I never got the laundry done”. Another example, and more significant: how many times have you been in conversation with someone, and all you are doing is thinking about your response to what they are saying, rather than listening? Our yoga teachers would just tell us to acknowledge those random thoughts and then send them on their way.
Yoga practice at our studio begins with a few moments of “arriving on your mat”. We sit in a comfortable seat, close our eyes, and send those miscellaneous thoughts out of our minds. Instead, you concentrate on your breath, and on how your body is feeling that day. Now, I used to think that this was all yoga was—sitting still, breathing in and out, occasionally doing a movement. But this quiet and focused breathing is just the beginning— and also the essence, as when the practice becomes too much or you have lost your way, you return to the breath.
Unfortunately, this same mental chatter follows me onto my horses when I ride. For me, riding is the best part of my day—getting to the barn is the first thing I want to do, and I would always prefer to ride early in the day, when my energy is highest and my focus most clear. But it is not always possible. When my mind is busy, and I do not focus on what I am feeling in the horse, the quality of my communication immediately deteriorates. Riding with a distracted mind is probably as unsuccessful as when we ride with a strong agenda. The Dark Mare (Lee) is especially sensitive to my lack of focus.
Yoga has increased my ability to send those extraneous thoughts out of my mind. I realize that now, when my mind starts to get distracted and I have circled the ring without focus, I am more quickly aware of the fact and able to return to the present moment. In riding, it is also easy to only concentrate on the long term goal, and in so doing, we miss all of the present moments which help us to get there. But even more significantly, if we cannot learn to focus on the minute to minute of the day to day, we may be less likely to get to the ultimate goal we are aiming for.
Insight # 2: Find your Edge
Yoga is an individual practice. We are encouraged to keep our focus on our own mats, meaning that you are not letting your eyes wander around the room to see how and what everyone else is doing. By maintaining focus on your own mat, you become more aware of how a pose or posture is feeling within your own body, and you are able to focus on your own breath. When I am able to maintain this focus, the rest of the room sort of disappears, and I am able to acknowledge how I am feeling that day and at that moment.
Each pose has variations. Each pose has levels of difficulty, which is a uniquely personal quality to define. What I find easy you may find quite difficult. It is up to each yogi to find her or his “edge”. This is the place where the pose becomes a little bit challenging but is not unattainable. The goal is never to outdo your neighbor or to reach/stretch/bend/twist until you are in pain. The goal is to find that place where it is a little bit hard but you can still challenge yourself to focus on your breath and stay present in the moment and just be. A powerful and related concept is that our minds will give up before our body does. So when things get hard, that pesky voice starts up again, saying “you can’t do this”. It is a practice to learn to silence that voice, or to teach it to say “this is hard but I can breathe and I can do my best” instead.
How ISN’T this concept relevant to us as equestrians? If you hope to develop new skills, increase your feel, better your timing and coordination—you have to find your edge. This is the place where the demands are high but the outcome is still attainable. You have to learn new skills and gradually push yourself out of your personal comfort zone. We have to pay attention to our own riding, and not compare our progress to those around us who are on their own journey. We have to stay attuned to our own horse, body and situation, and use our strengths to help support our weaknesses.
No one finds all aspects of yoga or riding to be easy or simple. Some poses will be easier and some will be harder. Some parts of being a horseman will come smoothly and others will take time.
“When the student is ready, the Teacher will appear.” The Buddha
Insight # 3: Return to the Breath
So what happens when we get to our edge? Well, if you are like me, you begin to tense up both mentally and physically. You think, “This is hard. Can I do this? I can’t do this. But I want to do this. I have to try to do this.” And so many of us manifest this mental resistance with physical—we grit our teeth, we tense our muscles, we hold our breath.
Vinyasa yoga (the style which I have been practicing) is a Sanskrit term which essentially means “breath synchronized with movement”. So when you move through the poses, generally there is an inhale phase followed by an exhale. Coordinating your movement with this steady breath allows you to flow through the postures.
When a yogi finds their edge, they focus on the breath. In. Out. You quiet your mind of all of the negative thoughts. And you breathe. We breathe something like 28,800 times a day—we ought to be fairly good at it.
When we find our edge as riders, we too should return to the breath. This could be as literal as that simple action—remembering to breathe in and out, allowing our nerves and tension to leave the body and permitting the body to return to its neutral and ready state, so it can do those physical movements that we have worked so hard to master. Or if we consider that breath is the foundation to yoga, we could think about a rider returning to the basics of correct riding and training—remaining balanced over the horse’s center, the Training Pyramid, or even just the concept of taking things down a notch and returning to a skill that we have mastered when things start to not go as smoothly as we had hoped.
Insight # 4: Honor your Body
There are days where I have to drag myself to yoga. I know I should go, but I am feeling tired or overwhelmed with other obligations; sometimes I am just being lazy. Most of the time, I can motivate myself when I feel this way, and I am glad for having gone to practice. Sometimes I go anyway, but I don’t push myself as hard as I might on another day. And, I am still learning that it is okay sometimes to acknowledge that some days it is just too much to ask of yourself to always push through; on those days I just go home.
There is a pose in yoga called “child’s pose”. The yogi is close to the ground with bent knees pressed wide. You reach your arms forward and press your forehead to the mat. Its name is well suited, as you can easily imagine a small child positioned in this way. It is a pose of rest, and you are encouraged to come here when you lose your breath, when the practice has become too hard, when you just need a break. There is no judgment, only encouragement to ‘honor your body’ when it tells you that it needs to be in child’s pose.
Shouldn’t we all have permission to take a “child’s pose” when we need it? To acknowledge that today was a hard day, and I am physically and mentally tired, and so in my ride tonight, I will need to listen to that and not push too hard? Or to give ourselves permission to do what we need to do to be comfortable: stretch, to take a walk break, to go for a hack instead of work in the arena. You don’t have to train for the Olympics every day.
I think our horses need permission to be in ‘child’s pose’ as much as we do. They are beings too, and they do not feel the same from one day to the next. The day all of the snow is sliding off the roof might make them be jumpy and nervous and unfocused on your aids, and so you cannot demand as much from them in the work. The ride after a hard school or one where they learned a new skill might need to be lighter, easier or emphasize things which they do well. Horses cannot be expected to be the same from day to day any more than we can expect that of ourselves.
We can’t all go at 110% all the time. We have to honor our bodies and respect that each day is different.
Insight # 5: Find Gratitude
At the beginning of class, while we are still settling our minds and trying to become present in the moment, our teachers often ask us to take a moment to set an intention for class. The intention could be a goal (today I will stay present), it could simply be to honor your body and all that it does for you or it could even be to focus on a person or other special element of your life to which you wish to send energy.
Maybe this last statement sounds a bit “out there” and is too touchy feely for you, and if so, that’s okay. But what I find comes to me, over and over and over, is to have gratitude for the good things going my way. For how lucky I am to have my horses, and the freedom and time to ride them. For how lucky I am to have a body which allows me to still do the things I love to do. It is so, so easy to focus on what we don’t have or where we are wishing we were, and in doing so, we lose sight of the awesome things we all have around us in the here and now. Okay, that sounds super cheesy and Hallmark card worthy, and I realize that sentiments like that are expressed all the time. I guess we all need to come to our own realization of that fact, and the practice of yoga has helped to do that for me.
The question of “mental toughness” as it pertains to equestrian sport is one which has been of increasing interest to me in recent years, for several reasons. First, as the coach of an intercollegiate riding team, I have often noticed that what seems to separate those who win from the rest is not simply equitation skills; of course, you must find your fences, but equally important is the rider’s ability to maintain focus and self-confidence. Secondly, as an instructor, I have seen so many riders whose progress is stifled because either they don’t believe that they are capable of being better than they are, or they don’t care to be better than they are. Finally, “mental toughness” is an area that I find that I now personally struggle with as a competitor. Nerves plague me far more today than they ever did when I was younger, and these jitters sometimes turn into a level of anxiety which causes me to feel utterly exhausted before I have even set foot in the stirrup. The question of how to build a rider’s “mental game” is one which has intrigued me and prompted me to begin investigating the topic further.
This summer, I was fortunate to be able to participate as a rider in a clinic focusing on “pressure proofing your riding” with equestrian coach and sports psychologist Daniel Stewart. The clinic was hosted by Lauren Atherton Eventing and was held at our facilities at UNH in Durham, NH.
Prior to the clinic, I was moderately familiar with Stewart (he has been a frequent guest speaker at the USPC Annual Meeting) and had read his first book, Ride Right, which focused a bit more on combining physical exercises with mental imagery. His new book, Pressure Proof Your Riding, was just released this fall, and after riding in the clinic, I found myself pre-ordering a copy.
As it happens, the book arrived as the fall semester was beginning, and it was moved to the shelf, waiting for that mystical “free time” in which I would “focus” and “really absorb” the book. Hmm….
A few weekends ago, I was able to hear Stewart speak again, this time at the Area I Annual Meeting in Northampton, MA. The lecture he gave was similar to the one he provided at the clinic this summer (and a hearty “atta boy” to Stewart for being able to maintain the same high octane energy level and enthusiasm he did presenting this lecture, which he must have given at this point on countless occasions), but it did help me to reconnect with some of the important concepts that I learned about in July. As we continue to move forward into the Year of Gratitude, it seems like a good opportunity to “focus” and “really absorb” some of his key concepts, even if I don’t actually get to that “free time” where I will sit and read the book from cover to cover.
Developing a Solution Focused Mindset
One of Stewart’s first points is that being nervous means that you care about what you are doing, and overall, nerves are a good thing! However, nerves can get out of control, so learning to manage your nerves is a critical skill to master. To quote Stewart, “Perfect position won’t help you if you can’t focus”.
Stewart also discussed learning to develop a “solution focused mindset”, as opposed to a problem focused mindset. Of course, this can sometimes be easier said than done. Therefore, he proposes several unique yet interconnected strategies to help riders learn to control their arousal level and thereby maximize their performance.
We all know that music can affect our emotional state—so why not use this to our advantage? Stewart suggests choosing several songs which you personally find “pump you up” (if you need that type of encouragement) or “calm you down” (if you are someone who tends to get hyper under pressure). Look up those songs’ lyrics—do any of them contain motivational messages? You are basically looking for positive affirmation sentences within the lyrics. Stewart then says you should narrow your play list down to just one or two songs whose anthems really help you get into a positive and focused mental state.
Listen to your music at the beginning of the week before an important ride or competition, and imagine yourself having the ride you are hoping for. Stewart likens this to creating your “personal highlight reel”. You can listen to the music on your way to the barn or in the aisle as you groom. Spend some time really feeling your ride as you let the positive motivational messages seep into your psyche.
Stewart points out that when under pressure, it is easy to forget what it is you are supposed to be doing—does anyone remember watching David O’Connor looking for the next jump when the Olympic gold medal was on the line? He calls this “stress induced amnesia”.
We all know that there are certain pieces of our riding that require extra focus—maybe you need to keep more weight into your heels, or look where you are going, or establish a forward canter with your horse before the first jump. But add a bit of pressure, whether as intense as competition or as basic as someone you want to impress starts to watch you ride, and those skills go out the window.
To help riders stay focused and motivated, Stewart suggests coming up with a personalized “cue word”. A cue word is a three to five letter acronym which triggers your long term memory about important information. He gave several examples—STAR (Sit Tall And Release), LUCKY (Look Up Cluck Kick Yell), there were more… but you get the idea. This cue word will help you to remember the one or two most important physical or mental things you can do to ensure your success. Most of the words he gave as examples also carried a positive message or image in and of themselves.
Stewart says that a “stress stopper” is a pre-competition ritual that can be used to regain focus when you have lost concentration. It puts your attention back onto something that you can control, and helps to stop the perception of stress. Apparently professional athletes in more conventional sports do this all the time—a particular dribble of the basketball before taking a foul shot, knocking the bat against a cleat before matching up with a top pitcher, etc.
In riding, a stress stopper can be as basic as taking deep breaths and smelling the “aura” of a horse or stroking a ‘lucky’ braid, even wearing a special pair of socks. It really is a personal ritual or action that you find gives your brain something to do, to calm down and re-focus when needed. Many of these rituals are almost superstitious, but they allow us to take our brain’s focus off of the pressure or nerves and onto something else.
An interesting concept that comes up a lot in sports psychology (and education, as well) is “flow”. When someone is in a state of “flow”, they are totally immersed in whatever task they are doing, and it is as though no time passes at all. They are focused, intense, and wholly engulfed in the work at hand. Stewart spoke of “flow” and that it is important for a rider athlete to be in a state of flow in order to “get in the zone”. When a rider is “in the zone”, they are able to focus on the present, and to identify solutions to problems by being aware of the skills that they have and what they are good at. The ride at this point becomes automatic.
“Targeting” is when you use an auditory target to help achieve a state of flow. In horseback riding, Stewart says that focusing on repetitive sounds such as you or your horse’s breathing, or the sound of the horse’s footfalls, works really well. This is a form of “cadence training”, where you focus your attention on the rhythm of your horse’s gaits (one-two, one-two), which can help you to achieve harmony with the movement of the horse.
Stewart explained that this type of auditory cue can almost become like a chant, a positive affirmation or a mantra that can help riders to maintain focus.
Focus for a rider really is everything—humans are not good at “mental multi-tasking”, says Stewart, meaning that in spite of what we might think, we cannot focus on two things at once. I know that I can’t watch TV and also attend to the person on the phone (so don’t expect an answer if I am watching one of my favorite shows), and I also know that I can’t focus on my placing in a class and my show jumping course, or wonder what score the judge just gave my centerline while still riding a balanced and flowing corner. The rider must choose what she wants to focus on, and that is why these techniques which can help us to “stay in the zone” become so critical.
Building Your Brand
Stewart’s final theme of the lecture was on “building your brand”, and my take away is that this is a way of combining all that you have been working on into one effective strategy to gain control of your focus. Actually, writing this blog is part of my own “building my brand” process. Stewart reminded us that up to 80% of what we hear in a day will be forgotten; to just sit in the lecture and not do anything with the material will not allow the listener to really absorb it. However, we DO remember 90% of what we teach to others—so in listening to the lecture twice and now summarizing it for you, I definitely feel as though I personally am beginning to internalize Stewart’s message. Whether you, gentle reader, will do the same is up to you!
To “build your brand”, Stewart says that you must take your four pieces of homework (music motivation, cue words, stress stoppers and cadence training) and connect them together. He gave many examples of how previous clients had done this; the only one that I really remember was the LUCKY girl, whose horse’s name was Lucky, she rubbed a horse shoe for luck before mounting, had the word “lucky” in her music, etc. By making all four of your pieces “fit” together, they become a system which is easy to remember and to apply.
Laugh Learn Love
In spite of our best mental preparation, things do not always go the way we had hoped for. And so, a final message from Stewart—and so relevant in this Year of Gratitude—is to remember to LAUGH (even if you don’t feel the laugh for real, faking it with ‘strategic laughter’ will still release feel good hormones, and since your brain can’t focus on two things at once it will respond as though you meant it), LEARN (when things don’t go your way, figure out what went wrong and look for the solution) and finally, LOVE—there is a reason we do this sport, after all, and I doubt for most of us it is for a $2.00 ribbon.
So what is my “brand”? I am not quite sure yet; actually, I don’t even have a clue. I do think that much of what Stewart is teaching really makes sense to me—and some of his concepts are ones which I have already (unwittingly) used. For me, it is all about being able to push the other thoughts aside and to find that state of ‘flow’; those moments when it is just you and your horse, and you aren’t worrying about what people think about your style of riding or whether you are going to embarrass yourself or make your horse look bad. I guess these are some of the worries that go through my mind, anyway. When I can just feel my horse, feel the rhythm, and really ride, all the rest of that goes away.
I have just returned from Ocala, FL, where I participated in a Winter Training Session. No, not one of THOSE training sessions—a more personal one, targeted for someone whose ambitions are currently a bit less lofty than those on the High Performance List.
Over the past year and change, I have had the opportunity to reconnect with clinician Verne Batchelder of River House Hanoverians in Williston, FL (formerly of Piermont, NH). Along with wife Jeanie Hahn and daughter Nora, he runs a successful breeding and training business whose products are competing successfully through the Grand Prix level in dressage and elite levels in show jumping, eventing and hunters as well. We are lucky to have a lovely mare named Morocco in our program at UNH who is by their former stallion, Maronjo.
The trainers at River House regularly incorporate schooling on the longe, on long lines and in hand into their horses’ training programs, and in our lessons Verne has frequently made reference to how one technique or another would be of assistance to me. I feel quite proficient with single line longeing, and have used it somewhat regularly with the Dark Mare (Lee) to help better develop the strength in her topline, the swing in her back and self-carriage. However, my exposure to other techniques, such as double longeing or long lining, has been relatively limited. When my schedule caused me to be in the Ocala area anyway, I invited myself over to their farm in order to learn more about how these trainers use unmounted training techniques to improve under saddle performance.
I should preface this discussion by saying that any errors contained within are likely mine, and also that I believe this subject to be one of those on which horsemen tend to be divided, depending on your training philosophy. So please take these comments at their face value; not gospel but rather my observation and notes.
Verne explained that the development of a horse’s ground training is progressive, and begins as you might imagine at the most basic level when you teach a youngster how to lead. Young stock should be regularly handled from both the left and the right hand sides, though Verne admits that at a busy breeding operation this can be hard to monitor. He jokes that the easiest way to ensure that babies learn to lead from both sides is to lead two at a time, and to trade off on which horse is on which side! I think that to do that you need to be a bit braver than I am.
The next step is to teach the young horse to safely longe on the single line. There are many well established and effective techniques for doing this, but at a fairly early age (less than two full years old) the young horse should be able to wear a cavesson and surcingle and be able to maintain their rhythm on a longe circle. Side reins can be introduced but not until the youngster has some concept about what is being expected of them, and they are not used to force a frame in the neck. In many training programs, this will mark the end of a horse’s ground training, which closes the door on other opportunities to develop the horse.
An interesting note here—Verne insists that all of his youngsters are longed off of a cavesson or even a tightly fitted halter, either on their own or over a bridle. He feels it is of paramount importance that when they make a “young horse mistake”, such as slipping, scooting, shying, etc, that they are not then jerked hard in the mouth. Even once the bit has been introduced, a halter or cavesson is worn over it and the line attached here rather than the bit directly. River House’s young stallion, Spot, is currently just beginning his under saddle training, and while Verne rides him off of a snaffle bit, the horse wears a halter over the bridle, with a second rein attached to it where the crossties would go, which he uses to stop Spot if he gets scared. Of course, safety is paramount, and if the young horse is behaving in a dangerous manner, then a stronger means of control may be needed and the bit can be used.
I had the opportunity to watch Nora longe River House’s two and half year old colt; he had had several days off. I was impressed with his overall good behavior on the line, especially given the impending arrival of the ‘polar vortex’, which was bringing rapidly dropping temps and strong winds to the area. This horse was able to stay quite steady walk, trot, and canter and was confident with his side reins, which were attached to a halter worn over his bridle.
Sometime in the two year old year, most horses are ready to begin “double longeing”. Double longeing is similar to long lining, except that for the most part the demands and expectations are more basic, and the horse remains on the circle. Using two longe lines, you attach one to the inside ring of your cavesson or bit (depending on the horse’s experience) and one to the outside. Your horse must become accustomed to feeling of the outside line around their haunches, but once they do, this technique is quite effective in helping them to understand the concept of an inside and an outside rein. This technique can also be used to help review this concept with horses that resist the connection.
Double longeing is helpful for other purposes as well. I observed Verne work with a client’s mare on the double longe, and his goals for her were to use the ground work to improve the quality of her rhythm, increase the activity of the hindquarters and to increase the horse’s overall level of suppleness. Having used this as a warm up, when he began the day’s work under saddle, the horse was ready to work at a higher level of activity and engagement. In addition, work on the double longe can help to increase the horse’s submission.
Long lining is a logical extension from double longeing, and can begin to be introduced from a horse’s three year old year on. The River House trainers sometimes use side reins with their long lines, which helps to increase the horse’s degree of straightness, but for other horses only the lines are used. I was only to get a taste of long lining during my stay, but the ladies were kind enough to show me work on the lines with three quite different horses, all of whom are schooling Grand Prix. So basically in terms of long lining training, we went right to the college level!
Prior to beginning their work on the long lines, the horses were each longed on the single line in side reins to allow them to warm up their bodies. Long line work can be quite concentrated and focused, and as I learned, timing is everything—timing in giving the right aid at the right time, timing in terms of ensuring that the work is long enough but not too long. Knowing to quit when you are ahead is a mantra that all excellent trainers subscribe to, but unfortunately sometimes the ability to recognize that moment only comes from having missed the moment at other times.
Each horse was worked with Jeanie at the head, holding a lead line clipped to the bit, while Nora expertly managed the long lines and the driving whip. The long liner stands much closer to the horse than they would as a longer; most of the time she walked just off the horse’s flank, where the contact could be maintained quite steadily and the whip used as a tactful aid. This trainer team works all of the upper level horses on the long lines weekly, and it was clear that they have developed quite a partnership.
The first horse, in retrospect, seemed to be the least confirmed in his work, though this could just be my impression, as I did not see any of these horses go under saddle during my stay. On the lines, Nora explained that they were mainly focusing on trying to develop better rhythm in the passage work. On this day, they had left him in shorter side reins, a technique which had worked well on their previous school. Today, however, this horse still seemed confused and wanted to swing the haunches or get ‘hovery’ in his movement, rather than maintaining his rhythm. “Oh well,” shrugged Nora. “Back to the drawing board.”
The second horse they brought out was a lovely, refined, tending towards hot mare who is aiming to show in the developing Grand Prix this year. The difference in her level of confidence and focus from the first horse was remarkable, and her ability to truly sit to collect herself in this work was impressive. The ladies worked the mare in both directions, not more than ten or fifteen minutes total, and through the work there was a clear improvement in quality. I noticed here that the handler at the head tended to bounce in the rhythm she was looking for from the horse, whether consciously or not I don’t know!
The third horse they worked was a big, expressive mover. In his work, the trainers emphasized the development of increased rhythm, impulsion and straightness, as well as the quality of transitions in and out of each movement. Some work was done with transitions between the movements, as well as transitions from the walk. This horse at times showed his power by trying to push away from the women, who needed to quickly coordinate their efforts to steady him but also provide a release from the pressure. As he came to a better place in terms of clarity, impulsion and cadence, the trainers stopped work for the day, even though they had only gone in one direction. Mentally and physically, the work had taken him to the edge and he had found his way back, so it was the moment to “quit while you were ahead”.
Overall I was quite impressed by the quality of the team work and the accuracy of the timing demonstrated by Jeanie and Nora. As Jeanie later emphasized during a lesson, the most important aid a trainer can give is the release. How many times have we heard this, and how hard is it to always effectively do it?
The pinnacle of the ground work is the work ‘in hand’, which Nora demonstrated as a warm up with their stallion, Bretone (Tony to his friends). Using just a cluck, a dressage type wand and a light feel of the reins, Nora showed Tony’s piaffe and passage; he is clearly quite well schooled in this work and knows what is expected, and it was an excellent demonstration of the fact that these movements initiate with the hindquarters, not the reins.
I had the opportunity to work Tony in hand myself the next day, which was quite a thrill. Tony is a big fellow, but quite a gentleman and rather tolerant of my attempts to tell him what I wanted him to do. Working the horse in hand should not be begun prior to their 5 year old year. It requires a fair degree of coordination on the part of the handler. You carry the whip (which is a longer, driving style whip) in your dominant hand, and hold the lead line close to the bit, all while walking backwards. Using your lead, it is possible to half halt the horse as well as elevate the poll, while the whip cues the hindquarters. Ultimately, though, the majority of the cues should come from the handler’s body language and the length of your step. We began with the piaffe, which you initiate with a touch of the whip at the hock and a cluck. To transition to the passage, the whip is raised and can touch the horse at the point of hip, along with an increase in the handler’s length of step.
A few notes on side reins—the adjustment in terms of both length and height is quite important, and the trainer should not hesitate to adjust them as necessary. For younger horses, the side reins should be set higher on their sides, while more advanced horses can handle the lines being set lower. The horses at River House that I watched work all warmed up in their side reins on the longe, a technique that I myself prefer, though I can imagine many scenarios in which this would not be safe or sensible. Clearly, these horses are accustomed to their ground work and are conditioned both mentally and physically to the use of the side reins.
Another useful piece of equipment that the River House trainers use (we used it on Tony, in fact, during my in hand practice), is what Verne nicknamed the homemade Willi Schulteis bridle. This is a basic cavesson to which a bridoon sliphead (what the snaffle bit on a double hangs off of) is added. It is then possible to easily add a bit to your cavesson, which then allows much flexibility in the training along with a close fit.
I am most grateful to Verne, Jeanie and Nora for taking time out of their busy schedules to accommodate me and my questions and for sharing a glimpse of their training with me. If you want to learn more about them, visit their website at www.rhhanoverians.com.
I will admit that I have a demanding personality. I have high expectations of myself in terms of performance, commitment and excellence, and I tend to push these expectations onto those around me, including my horses. Sometimes this level of focus is an asset, but I am beginning to realize that sometimes I need to take a step back, take a deep breath, and let go.
This fall, I had a less than stellar run of events with Annapony. We took August off from competition, but I noticed that even in training sets she wasn’t her usual willing self. I felt like when I asked for “more”, whether it was more impulsion, more roundness, more suppleness, more, her response was, “meh”. At the end of the month, we had the fabulous opportunity to clinic with upper level rider Kim Severson. But my pony was just not a willing participant, and Kim’s insistence that we repeat each exercise until it was fluid and forward just created frustration in me and resistance in Anna. I perceived that Kim didn’t think I was trying enough, but I felt like I was riding harder, not smarter, and my horse didn’t appreciate it.
The next weekend, Anna was entered at King Oak, an event where last fall we had done just our second novice and finished on a 24.4. Dressage went great; I tried to stay elastic through the elbow, utilized counter canter in the warm up to loosen her topline and focused on keeping her forward and loose in the ring, and we came out with a 24.0. But stadium was a different story—she felt okay in warmup, but not outstanding, not like she was really taking me to the fences. In the arena, the strong wind that day was causing décor to ripple and flow, and Anna was uncharacteristically spooky. She startled at the judge, ignored my leg when I asked her to “go”, but in spite of this clocked around the first five fences. Then, abruptly, she refused at fence six. It nothing about the fence; her attention had left the ring and was focused on an eliminated horse/rider leaving the cross country course in front of us. I kicked her over on the second attempt, only to have her stop at the next fence, when her focus went to the undulating brush in the box beneath it. It quickly dawned on me that I had only one stop left—and the only remaining obstacle was the combination, which hadn’t been schooling well at home. I admit it—I rode into it half-heartedly, expecting the stop which inevitably came. I returned to my stall, secretly relieved that I wasn’t going to have to try to kick her around the cross country course that day.
On the drive home that day, I wondered why this was all happening—I had been doing everything “right”, after all. I ride five or six days a week; each week a careful balance of work in the ring on the flat and over fences and work out in the open conditioning or hacking. My horses receive excellent feed, regular farrier/vet care, I have excellent coaching—why wasn’t it all coming together? I began making plans to scratch my final entry of the season for Stoneleigh Burnham, just two weeks away. I didn’t care about losing the entry fee; I couldn’t face the thought of being eliminated again and I didn’t see any way that anything else was going to happen.
[Before I continue this story, I will add here that I did have concerns during this time that something was physically wrong with Anna—I had my vet out and she did a thorough work up, including lameness exam, blood work, Lyme’s test, Vitamin E/Selenium levels, etc—and everything came back negative. To paraphrase Dr. C, “I believe you that you feel like something is wrong, but medically I can’t explain it”. With this knowledge in hand, I had to conclude that the problem was likely a training issue and moved forward from there.]
I found myself in the days after King Oak feeling angry. I mean, FirstWorldProblem here, but I was angry—angry that my horse had been eliminated, angry that I had felt like a failure not just at the event but at the clinic the week before, and angry that I felt I was working so hard but spinning in circles like a hamster on her wheel. Needless to say, training rides were not outstanding in these days—I was unable to remain focused on what the overall horse was telling me she needed, and instead only concentrated on the fact that she wasn’t doing what I wanted. I wanted to scratch from SBS, but I also didn’t want to end the season with an elimination. I thought maybe if I could just somehow ride even harder, I could make it better in time.
The week in between King Oak and SBS, three of us went schooling on our bay mares at historic Ledyard Farm in Massachusetts. Three different horses, three different goals. One friend was preparing to compete at the UNH Horse Trials at the end of the month on a talented mare that needed more exposure to ditches (the mare happily loped over the various Ledyard ditches with nary a hesitation); the other was prepping for the novice three day at Waredaca on her draft cross. And me—well, we were just trying to get our mojo back.
Anna was a superstar nearly everywhere—she jumped coops, the trakhener, a ditch/wall, bounced up and down banks and drops without batting an eye. She begrudgingly dropped into the water and jumped out. But nothing with was done with a tremendous amount of fanfare—just enough effort to get the job done. Not a drop more.
But even so, I started to feel a little better. Here was my sensible horse, the one who didn’t stop at fences she wasn’t scared of, the one who was willing to at least try. We were nearing the end of our schooling set—we had been on for over an hour—and our coach encouraged us to try a narrowish log fence between two trees. It had at one time been a more solid looking stone wall framed by the wood, but time had caused the definition of the fence to erode. No matter—it looked jumpable, and a good test of going a bit from light to dark.
I went first with Anna. Or I should say, attempted first. She headed to the fence willingly, but as we came to the takeoff zone it was like she suddenly couldn’t tell where the fence was. She scrambled a bit, ending up kneeling on top of the fence with one front leg while the other was extended over it. She slithered back off the jump, but not without catching her hoof on a rock as she did so. Thankfully she was physically okay, but with that one mistake, my tentative feeling of confidence and fun evaporated. I felt like I had let her down by asking her to jump the fence, as though I had tricked her.
In an effort to end with something more positive, we returned to a basic coop fence that we had jumped earlier, and she willingly jumped it. I knew I should be happy with that but I still felt like the whole ride had been undone by the one mistake. Perfectionism can be a horrible disease.
Still, we headed off to SBS the following weekend. Stoneleigh Burnham is a place that holds a soft spot in my heart. I attended the Bonnie Castle Riding Camp there in the summers of 1989 and 1990; I rode in my first “A” rated horse show there, on SBS’s mount Fudge Ripple, and I still have the treasured 3rd place ribbon we earned in the Novice Equitation class. It is also where I had my first actual exposure to eventing, given that I was a hunter/jumper kid from upstate New York at the time. I was given the (I thought) privileged job of holding up the rope during the road crossing for cross country for the SBS summer event in 1990. I felt so important, because I had seen people doing the same job at the Olympics on TV. For various reasons, I have never been able to compete in the event there until this fall, and I at least looked on the opportunity to do so as a “coming home” of sorts.
My goal for the event, to be quite honest, was just to finish. I had no expectations other than that, or so I thought. The courses looked straightforward and inviting, and I felt the energy of warm childhood memories invigorating me to ride assertively and confidently.
Dressage is a consistent phase for Anna; while she occasionally pulls out scores in the 20’s, she normally lands between 33 and 36. Steady and consistent, but nothing flashy or extravagant. Her test felt willing and fairly fluid, good enough this day for a 31.0. Hey, at least I can do lower level dressage fairly well, if nothing else.
At SBS, riders show jump first and then go directly on to cross country. This format actually works pretty well for Anna, being the energy conservationist that she is. Enough time to catch your breath but not so much that you have to fully warm up twice. I warmed up for show jumping with a clear plan; she was to stay forward off of my leg, go through several transitions within gaits, and jump enough to be tuned up but not so much that the efforts became blasé. As my turn approached, the wind picked up again, a la King Oak, and I noticed that the taping which designated the show jump area was beginning to flutter and sway in the wind. “Great,” I found myself thinking. “Now she is going to spook at that.” But I quickly shut down the chatter (something I am pretty good at doing, in the moment) and instead acknowledged that it was a variable I was going to have to ride through.
Anna and I made it around the show jumping course at SBS, but it sure wasn’t pretty. She took down two rails, both due to her being more attentive to her environment than to me, and had a stop at an oxer, again due to spooking. But unlike at King Oak, where the surprise of finding myself in that situation caused me to be slow to react, this time I was ready. I rode like a “crazy banshee woman”, an expression my students will likely recognize. In all reality, I overrode. But at that point, I didn’t care, so long as she jumped the d@&n jumps. I have to admit it didn’t feel satisfying to finish the course; I was embarrassed about having to ride that hard and that overtly and was vaguely grateful to not know many of the spectators lining the arena’s edge. I looked away from Judge Nancy Guyotte as I exited, too mortified by the ride to acknowledge that we knew each other.
Cross country was a similar story. Usually I can ride out of the box and pump Anna up, and she goes from there. But this day, I felt like I couldn’t take my foot off the accelerator for even a stride. She just never found her rhythm. She handled most of the tricky stuff fine, including a bigger/wider option ditch and some turning questions in an open field. But then, at a Helsinki, again, a stop. I had decelerated coming through the water crossing just before it, and failed to get the response to my leg that I needed coming up to the fence. I could feel the stop coming and simultaneously that nothing that I did at that point was going to matter. Still, I wasn’t going down without a fight. Whack, whack, whack. Kick, kick, kick. Whack, whack, whack. I knew my three slap rule and used it.
On attempt two, Anna went over the fence (her issue was not with the fence itself, apparently), but I rode the rest of the course with one hand on the reins and one hand using the whip behind my leg off the ground. We came through the finish just one second below optimum time, my horse literally dripping with sweat on a cool September day. We had done it—we had finished the event. That was what I had set as our goal for the weekend, what I wanted to do. Or so I thought.
Because the truth is, even though we finished the event that day, it wasn’t a finish where I felt a sense of connection with my horse or a feeling of pride in a job well done. I felt as though she had done what I asked, begrudgingly, and that I had had to coerce her to give me the effort that she did. This is not how I want to ride or train, and this is not the kind of relationship that I have had with this horse for the previous three years.
It was time to take a BIG step back and to re-evaluate. I realized that without a willing partner, reaching your goals is next to impossible. And more than finishing an event, or attaining the next level of competitive success, I wanted my willing partner back. This is a horse that, previous to this fall, has always been so willing to try, from the very first time I sat on her. From her first jump in the arena, to her first cross country fence, it was unusual to ever have more than one stop at something, and then only if she didn’t understand the question. I looked forward to riding this horse each day more than any other horse I have ridden in the past few years, because she was just so much fun. Somewhere, we had lost that.
I put away the spurs. I parked the horse trailer. And for the next three months, we mostly hacked, did some light ring work, and then hacked some more. Instead of riding with a “hard mind”, focused only on the end goal (I want to get my dressage scores down, I want to have her going solidly in Second Level work, I want, I need, I expect), I tried to think about riding with gratitude. With a sense of thanks— for how lucky am I to have the opportunity to work with this animal, to enjoy her presence, to hack through the woods and enjoy the local farmlands, to even have the opportunity to be upset that everything wasn’t perfect. These are privileges, and I needed to start paying more attention to what my horse was offering me than to what she wasn’t.
With the onset of winter here in New England, we have begun our annual pilgrimage to the local indoor for training. Again, as much as having to hitch up the trailer to go ride every day is an inconvenience, I try to focus on gratitude, that an indoor right down the road is available for our use. This transition also has marked the start of a new beginning. I have been slowly increasing the workload, rebuilding muscle and trying to stay completely in tune with Anna’s mood and responses to the increased work. I am trying to respond to resistance not as, “I won’t” but “I can’t”; it is then for me to determine whether the cause is physical (she needs more strength or suppleness) or mental (I don’t understand what you want).
I still can’t shake the thought that something was physically bothering Anna this fall. She grows an incredibly heavy and thick winter coat; perhaps metabolically while this transition occurs she feels lower in energy, and as a naturally quiet horse this makes mustering extra “go” difficult. So next year I will plan to clip her earlier in the season. Perhaps it has to do with her going into anestrous, though she is not a particularly ‘marish’ mare. I wonder if she tweaked a muscle somewhere in her topline or hindquarter, not enough to make her lame but enough to make her reluctant to go. So I moving forward, I will be doubly careful to ensure that she is well conditioned and work to bring her into the season with a higher level of fitness.
But more than anything, I will try to remember that even though it is important, even essential, to have big goals on your ‘to do’ list, it is the day to day rides that make up the bulk of your relationship with your horse. “Riding with gratitude” will be my mantra for the 2014 season as I try to remember that being the best horseman I can be is not measured in the competitive arena but in the respect and relationship that I have with my horse.
Thank you for stopping to visit! This blog will mark my first attempt to explore the world of online journaling, and I expect that it will be a work in progress. I aim to post updates weekly, but I anticipate that will fluctuate at various times of the year! All topics will relate to horses and the equine industry but I expect content will range from current events to teaching/training topics to summaries of my personal experience within the industry. I hope that you will find something that speaks to you, wherever you are at in your journey as a horseman. Enjoy!