Tag Archives: Connemara

Winter Training and Spring Renewals

This is not the blog post I was hoping to be writing right now. What I had hoped to do in this post was to proudly proclaim that after a winter of hard work and rebuilding, Anna and I had triumphantly returned to the show ring at Third Level with scores solidly in the 60’s. But that is not what happened. The truth is much less glamorous—because after a winter of hard work and rebuilding, our 2019 competitive debut was somewhat…lackluster.

Last June, I rather overambitously moved Anna up to Fourth Level, mostly because there was a show in my area that was permanently going off the calendar, and it had just seemed like a weekend of beginnings and endings and so I thought, ‘what the heck let’s just do it.’ The ride was sort of a disaster. But unlike moving up in eventing or jumpers when you are not quite ready, the risks to do so in dressage seem low. Or so I thought.

img_3205
Creeping on Anna this winter at High Knoll Equestrian Center (Rochester, NH)

Here’s the thing. I know that this level of dressage is a reach for Anna—she is an average mover and has less than average forward intention. But I do really believe that she can do it, to a modest degree. And right now she is the best horse I have, and I enjoy riding her. There was a little tagline I read somewhere a long time ago, which has always stuck with me:

“Not every champion has to cost a whole lot. You do the best that you can with the best that you’ve got.”

When I compete Anna, I don’t go out hoping to best everyone in the class. My personal goal is to feel that I have shown the horse off to the best of our combined/mutual ability on that given day, and if the score comes back mediocre, at least I can still feel good knowing that we put our best selves forward. My tangible goal, always, is to break 60%. I don’t have 100% control of this, of course, but if I can deliver a consistent test that has some highlights (for Anna at Third Level, this is usually the walk work and the flying changes, some of which are coefficient scores), I feel like I don’t give the judge a choice but to award us the (often dreaded) score of 6: satisfactory.

But after our failed attempt at Fourth Level last summer, I hit pause. Clearly what I was doing wasn’t working, and if I wanted this little horse to be her best, I needed to change something about my strategy.

img_3172
A barefoot Anna on a sunny and warm(ish) day this winter.

 

The first thing I changed was a bit unconventional—I pulled her shoes. Every summer for the past five years, the quality and integrity of her hoof wall just seemed to go downhill, until they were cracked and thin and hard to keep shoes on. Her hind feet have NEVER been shod, and the hoof wall is great. She was barefoot her first few seasons under saddle, and I only added the shoes when I sensed a little tentativeness in her stride when I began adding more intense conditioning sets for eventing. So pulling her shoes wasn’t maybe quite as odd of an idea as it might sound. I added Farrier’s Formula for about six months, and within just a shoeing cycle or two her walls were thickened and tougher. She never took a single “funny” step.

I also decided that I needed more consistent eyes on the ground. I began working with a local trainer whose riding and training I admire very much, and admitted that I felt out of touch with the expectations of the level I was trying to compete at. We started working together in August, and immediately went totally back to the basics. I put away the double bridle, and we worked to develop a better stretch through Anna’s topline, with more correct and consistent connection.

img_3090-1
Anna post-workout this winter. Yes, she sweat. Can you see the little bit of wrinkled/damp hair on her neck?

 

Going back to these essential foundation concepts was both humbling and eye opening. In previous blogs, I have noted that just driving Anna forward with whip/spur is not effective in creating forward intention. She has to be supple to go forward. I know this—but sometimes I forget, or because she is pretty much the only horse I ride, I don’t keep my expectations of her suppleness high enough, and I become complacent in what I accept from her.

The idea is simple but the execution takes finesse and correct timing and practice. You cannot push a horse forward into a block, whether the block is in the topline, the jaw or the under neck. Instead, separate out your aids a bit—ask the horse to chew the bit with a rein aid, and reward any response from them which is in the direction of reaching forward and downward. Just like anything with horses, you must ask little, reward often, and recognize any small attempt to move towards the outcome you are looking for.

img_3156
This isn’t Anna– it is Bailey, a sweet and hard working Gypsy Vanner cross who is on the team at UNH. I worked with him a bit over our Winter Break, developing better stretch in his topline as well. Such a fun little dude!

For months, all I did was ride Anna is a long and low outline, doing leg yields in the stretching frame, even working towards a stretching canter. As the stretch became more consistent, I began to do a little bit of shoulder fore or shoulder in, but always with the stretch. The second I lost the stretch, it was back to the basics. As the stretchy shoulder in became more reliable, the next challenge was to change to renvers without losing the stretch. For quite awhile I ran out of long side before I had really established the new position in Anna’s body.

I boarded Anna at a local indoor in the winter. I mostly rode early in the AM or at night after work, when the ring was empty, diligently working on the stretch. It can be hard to motivate in New Hampshire in the winter, in the dark and the cold, but I was committed. And slowly, little by little, things got better, and more consistent, and without force, Anna’s energy levels improved. Her shape changed, with more correct muscling through the neck and a thinner throatlatch. While my social media feed was full of friends enjoying the warmer climates of North Carolina or Florida, I was diligently doing my homework, and truthfully looking forward to a payoff come spring and summer.

img_3085-1
And this little fellow is Otto, an Arabian/Oldenburg who is also part of the UNH crew. I was asked to work with him a little over break, too (though I can’t remember why right now)– and guess what we worked on? I wish Anna had a third of Otto’s natural “oomph”!

Because here is the thing—Anna is going much better. She is doing work now in the snaffle that I couldn’t have touched a year ago in the double. And more importantly, most of the time, she seems happy in the work. Is everything perfect? Of course not. Am I expecting 7’s and 8’s on most movements? Not even close…but this is part of the art of dressage, to show off the movements and elements that are your horse’s forte, and to support them in the moments which are not as easy. Most horses (except maybe Valegro) find some components of a level easier than others.

So I was pretty crushed when I took Anna to our first 2019 show at Beland Stables in Lakeville, Mass., and she scored a 59%. Yes, it was below my 60% threshold. But more frustratingly, the test was so not representative of how she has been schooling. She warmed up well but the second I started circling the arena I knew I was in trouble. Anna felt like she was stuck in the mud—the sand footing of the arena felt deep and I had no response to my leg at all. We made it through the test but it was a royal struggle, with Anna completely blowing off the walk-canter transition (which she NEVER does), and I feel as though I owe the judge a fruit basket or something for her generosity of spirit in the scoring.

img_3352
Anna at Beland, looking much more interested in the geese on the pond and the grass field than having her photo taken. Yes, we rode in the double. No, I do not (in hind sight) think it was the best choice. We won the warm up though, I promise!

Our next show was just about a week later, much closer to home at Longfellow Dressage in Nottingham, N.H. We had several decent schools during the week and I was prepared to chalk up the performance at Beland to the deep footing and warm temperatures that day. Longfellow has high quality GGT footing and a relaxed environment, and I knew there would be no environmental excuses. We had scored a 59% at Beland with a lackluster performance. Surely Longfellow would go better.

But instead, we went down two points, to a 57%. The first four movements were 7’s, and then we hit the first trot half pass left, and it was like someone put Anna on pause. Once again, I felt like I had no horse at all throughout the entire test, and she totally blew me off in the second flying change, usually one of her most reliable movements. By the end I was just kicking helplessly while my glasses slid down my nose. The judge’s only comment at the end of the test? “So much kicking…he [sic] just shut off.”

Ugh.

img_3359
Getting ready to head off to Longfellow. Isn’t she adorable?

Here is the thing I have come to believe about horses. They are pretty authentic. They don’t scheme against us or plot to ruin our day. They live in the moment, and if they are content or unhappy, confident or nervous, you see it in their behavior.  Horses just are. But they do have long memories and if they have had an association with something from the past, good or bad, it can influence them in the moment.

I am left wondering what Anna is trying to tell me. She schools well but clearly isn’t maintaining that ethic in the show ring. I wonder if moving up last year did more damage than just adding a low score to our resume. I wonder if it left Anna feeling that when she goes into the large arena, she is going to be asked to do something she can’t do. Maybe moving up before you are ready, even in dressage, can cause damage you don’t see.

img_3361
And yes, we went with the double AGAIN at Longfellow. It does help with the canter work. But I think it is at least also a little part of the loss of forward. 

My challenge now is to try to figure out how to change the equation, and to learn what (if anything) will motivate Anna to turn on her best self in the show ring. Since Longfellow, I have already had our vet out and done a thorough once over; we will make a few minor edits in her physical care but I am reassured that there is nothing obvious in her physical body causing this problem.

While I am disappointed that I can’t write the triumphant blog post that I was hoping to, I realize now that despite this current set back, the truth is we are still further ahead than we were a year ago. Most of the time, Anna is working more correctly, with a better topline and better balance. She is sound and healthy and I think our rides are more harmonious now. I have a clearer picture of what it is I am looking for from her, and as a result I think I can do a better job of riding her to that end, even if we don’t yet maintain it in the show ring.

Plus, taking the time to review the basics has also made me a better instructor, in my opinion. I have begun looking at every horse I work with through a more specific lens, one which is focusing on the fundamental correctness of the connection. Staying true to these foundation elements is the only correct way to move forward. There are no short cuts.

So for now we will continue to lay down strength and suppleness and go hacking and try to keep our focus positive and fun. If I want my horse to feel like a partner I need to try hard to figure out what she needs from me right now. Scores and showing and the rest cannot be the main motivation. At the end of the day it is all about the relationship with the horse, and knowing that you have done your best by the animal.

img_3077

 

Izzy Goes to School: a clinic with Tik Maynard

So keeping up my record as “world’s slowest blogger”, I wanted to give everyone an update on Izzy’s first official off-farm outing, which happened way back in May. Better late than never, I suppose!

DRF Isabela, better known as Izzy to her friends, just turned three at the end of May. Last year, she learned the basics of longeing, went on short trail walks ponied off her friend Marquesa, and practiced wearing a bridle and surcingle. She had the winter off, and for this year, my goals were to build on this foundation by solidifying her longeing skills, introducing a saddle, working on long lining, and maybe, if all went well, getting on and doing a few short walk abouts by the time school started in the fall.

img_1301
Izzy ponying with Marquesa summer of 2017

So this spring, when I started the process of getting her back into a routine of being regularly handled, I was quite surprised to find that she had gone rather feral. Leading her had become like trying to walk a dragon.  She wasn’t being mean or naughty per se, just overly joyful. It was as though she had learned to leap and buck over the winter and wanted to show off her new skills.

The problems for me were several. 1) Most of the time, I work with Izzy alone, and I didn’t want to get hurt. 2) My arena is only partially fenced, and I wasn’t confident I could hold onto her. 3) Winter hung on a LONG time this year, and the ice and snow didn’t officially clear out of my partially fenced ring until the very end of April, meaning that even if #1 and 2 weren’t issues, I didn’t have great footing to work with.

img_2526
My ring in late April, featuring a newly purchased round pen (the acquisition of which was motivated by Izzy’s joyful behavior).

All of which left me SERIOUSLY QUESTIONING my mid-March decision to sign up for an in-hand clinic to be held at the very beginning of May with eventer and natural horsemanship trainer Tik Maynard. I much enjoyed Tik’s presentation at the Area I Annual Meeting in January, and when I saw that Fox Hill Equestrians in Barnstead, N.H., would be hosting him, I was immediately interested. Tik is based in Florida, and so opportunities to work with him for a northerly based equestrian are not likely to happen often, and Fox Hill is an easy twenty minutes up the road (as in, I turn right out of my driveway and then right onto the street with the farm, more or less). It seemed like the perfect first ‘off the farm’ outing for my youngster.

Tik was offering a lecture on horsemanship theory each morning, followed by private and small group in hand sessions and jumping lessons in the afternoon. I decided the sensible plan was to audit day one through at least the morning session, then bring Izzy for day two.

Despite her joie de vivre, I went ahead with my plan to bring her to the clinic, and I am so grateful that I stuck with it, as we both learned a great deal.

Lecture Summary: Day One

The horsemanship lecture focused on the theme of how horses learn best and gave an overview of Tik’s training philosophy. One of the main components is that humans must learn to think like a horse; when one can do that, it is easier to set up questions which horses are willing to answer.

Horses have evolved to quickly evaluate which stimuli are worthy of response, and which can safely be ignored. Only those animals which have correctly and efficiently solved this riddle survive, and we must respect that our domestic animals retain these wild traits.

img_1345
Here is Izzy, demonstrating that she is not all that concerned about crinkly tarps. This is her friend Devyn, who has given us a great deal of assistance as a second set of hands!

To this end, horses pick up on visual cues and details that we miss, and they may react to them in unanticipated ways. We all have been guilty of responding to these behaviors defensively or angrily, but the truth is that getting emotional in this situation doesn’t do much to improve the relationship or communication between you and the horse.

The things which motivate horses to do a certain behavior, including ignoring an unpleasant or unfamiliar stimulus, are not the same things which motivate humans. Horses seek safety, food, comfort and play, in that order. Smart trainers use these motivators in their work.

Because horses seek comfort, creating situations which increase a horse’s comfort when they provide the desired behavior automatically reinforce that outcome.  A common example of this in practice is the use of the rider’s leg; the pressure is slightly uncomfortable, but when the horse goes forward and the pressure goes away, the horse’s comfort level increases. Praise itself doesn’t mean much to a horse, but the release of pressure does.

img_2715
Izzy learned to wear a saddle this June.

Horses are scared or nervous of things which act predatory; this includes anything which comes running towards them and things which are going fast, being loud, or behaving erratically. They prefer to be approached slowly, which might not be the way we enter the paddock when our minds are preoccupied with catching a horse for a lesson—explaining why a normally cooperative horse might refuse to be caught.

Tik encouraged us to think in a positive frame of mind when asking the horse to do something. For example, think “Let’s do this” instead of “Stop doing that”.

One of our goals is to encourage our horses to play. To this end, ground work is like creating a series of puzzles for the horses to solve through trial and error. Just as with humans, horses respond to these types of mental challenge differently. “There are those which already know the answers, those which try to solve the puzzle, and those which wait to be told the answer,” said Tik. “Problem solving gets inspired when they are young.”

img_2759
Hey, can I help you with the weedwhacking?

Solvable puzzles introduce to the horse a little bit of pressure; some pressure is needed for growth and learning, but finding the right amount is key. Too little and no learning occurs, too much and the horse may become so anxious they can’t learn at all. Because horses seek comfort, they are going to look for the release of pressure, whether that pressure is physical or mental. “Pressure motivates but the release of pressure teaches,” said Tik.

Day One Ground Work Sessions

With these thoughts in mind, we moved into the hands on portion of the morning. My friend Hilary brought her bay Thoroughbred, Tom, and Tik took the line from her. “When I first work with a horse, I want to know how interested in me he is,” said Tik. “Does he like me?”

img_2646
Hilary and Tom

Tik approached Tom at a slight angle, reaching a hand out and waiting for the horse to touch him first. Then he began to rub Tom’s head, neck and rump, which the horse seemed to enjoy. “Some right from the get go want to play and run, and some want to snuggle,” said Tik. “You need to play to their strengths but address their weaknesses.”

Tom wanted to be a little too much in the handler’s space, so Tik spent a few moments working on teaching Tom to back up from a soft pressure. He showed us how to use the rope as a cue in three levels of intensity: first, you flick it with your wrist; if there is no response, you then flick it with your elbow, and finally with your shoulder. Every cue with the rope starts with body language.  “You may need to go through all three levels, but stop when you get the result you want,” said Tik. “When the horse is learning, go through the levels slowly and in sequence. Only once the horse knows how to do something is it OK to skip a level or two in your signals, otherwise you will desensitize the horse. Try to get BIG without getting MAD.”

img_2650
Tik works with one of the group horses.

When Tom gave the right response, Tik angled his body slightly away, shifted his weight onto one leg, and exhaled. They took a break. The pressure was released.

“There are three parts to this that the handler must understand,” said Tik. “There is your body language and intention. There is the handling of pressure changes. And then there is the timing of the release.”

For ground work, Tik prefers a rope halter, a heavy, dense, long rope, and a sturdy stick similar to Parelli’s Carrot Stick.  Depending on the situation, Tik might choose a rope that is 12’, 22’ or even 45’ long.

img_2647
Practicing waiting while not being in each others’ space. 

Tik emphasized that consistency is key. Handlers should always start at level one in terms of pressure, and add to that baseline as needed. The only exception is in the case of dangerous behavior. “When the horse is checking out mentally, you need to get their attention back on you through the use of an exercise which you have established in a quiet time,” said Tik. “There are three goals I have for any training session: the human is safe at the end, the horse is safe at the end, and the horse is more relaxed at the end than at the beginning.”

The next set was a group lesson with five horses working in hand at once. The animals were at different stages of training as well as mental focus, which gave Tik the opportunity to speak to a variety of exercises and possible outcomes. But he started with having the horses get comfortable with their handlers standing about six feet away from them, with slack in the lead rope.  “On the ground, you sometimes want the horse’s eyes and ears towards the handler but sometimes you want to direct them and their attention elsewhere,” said Tik.

One young handler and her sweet steady eddie type schoolmaster worked on learning to give from pressure on the nose. “For a lesson horse or a kid’s horse, you need to think about how sensitive you really want that animal to be,” said Tik.

img_2648
My friend Sarah works on sending her Thoroughbred, NASA, over the tarp. He is for sale, by the way!

Several horses in this group played with a tarp that had been laid out in the arena. “There are a few different ways you can ask the horse to cross the tarp,” said Tik. “It is like asking a riddle. You can lead them over, send them over, draw them over or back them over, if you have it secured down.”

Turk, an elegant bay Thoroughbred gelding, tended to speed up once in motion on the circle and needed to slow down and refocus on his handler; Tik helped her to cross his front feet and back feet over each other. “At first, it is about moving the whole horse forward, backwards, and then on a circle,” said Tik. “After this is established then we start to move the front half relative to the back.”

Horses can be responsible for four things: to maintain their speed and gait, to maintain their direction, to be looking where they are going, and to act like a partner. As trainers, we should not be doing these jobs for the horse. “But horses must be taught how to do these things,” said Tik.

Izzy’s Session

Other than going for short trailer rides around the block last summer, Izzy has not left our farm since her arrival on a bitterly cold morning in March of 2017. I am not sure who was more nervous for the outing—Izzy or me! Two of my students, Julia and Nikki, tagged along for moral support, education and extra hands if needed.

IzzyVideo1_Moment.jpg
Izzy is enjoying a “release” moment after getting a riddle right. Note Tik’s unevenly weighted feet and relaxed arms.

I don’t think anyone else brought an animal as young as Izzy; I held her in the barn aisle while Tik wrapped up his morning lecture on day two, and although she danced and jigged a bit while waiting her turn, I felt she was really trying to be good. That said, I had no idea what to expect from her when we got into the ring. I think Tik fairly quickly assessed that her brain and energy needed to be redirected, and so he came back a little early from his post-lecture break to get started.

“Do you mind if I work with her for a few minutes?” he asked. I was so relieved! Yes, please!

The first thing he did was swapped out my long line for the sturdier rope line he had been using on other horses.  He then let Izzy move out onto the end of the rope, where she leaped and ran and displayed the athleticism which I hope will be used for good things in the future. He wasn’t expecting her to be totally focused on him all the time; in fact, that day he said that he would be happy if she was with him 30% of the time.

Izzy Video 4_Moment.jpg
Izzy is actively backing away from Tik in this video grab. 

“I am looking for the moment where she wants to stay still and relax,” said Tik. “I am not punishing her at all for her loss of attention or focus. Instead, I give her something else to do.”

It was truly amazing to watch Tik work with Izzy, who he had just met, in such a respectful yet constructive manner. She had moments of simply moving around him at the end of the line, and other moments of youthful behavior. He could halt her and turn her. They went and checked out the mirror together. As she started to visibly relax and become more mentally calm, Tik led her to the tarp and a wooden bridge which had been used in previous sessions. She inquisitively just walked right up to and over both objects. I was not surprised that she handled them so well, as this has been her typical response to something new, but it was lovely to see that she had the same attitude in a new place once the zoomies were behind her.

Izzy Video 2_Moment.jpg
Once Izzy became more relaxed in her environment, Tik was able to enjoy some snuggle time with her. She is clearly miserable.

Tik wrapped up his work with Izzy by playing with some halt, walk, halt, back up transitions, teaching her to cue into his body language. He tipped his shoulders forward to encourage her to walk, squared them over his hips for the halt, and inclined them slightly backwards to cue her to back up.

After this, I took over for a few moments, practicing the same in hand transitions, and finally ending with her just hanging out all the way at the end of the long lead, while I turned my back to her and stood weighted more on one leg. I’m told she did lots of yawning, but of course I wasn’t allowed to peek!

Izzy 1
I’m trying so hard to not look at her while audience members asked Tik questions about our session.

“The more emotional something is for the horse to learn, the longer the break they get,” said Tik.

While he described his work with Izzy as being a “typical three-year-old session”, he also acknowledged that she was a pretty self-confident animal, as was evidenced by her overall response to the new situation and stimuli. “Horses like this which are clever and smart and brave are great but also a challenge,” said Tik. “You must find ways to help them learn and stay interested.”

Coming to this clinic, as mentally stressful as it was for me to do it, was absolutely the right choice to make at this stage of her training. Izzy was like a changed woman after interacting with Tik, and both his feedback and watching how he used his body language to interact with her helped to give me the confidence to do what I had sort of suspected she needed me to do—get a longer line and really send her forward when she wanted to act up. So long as your response to her is fair—I am sending you away to work a little bit not because I’m mad but because we have a job to do—she responds positively, and rather quickly settles down.

IMG_2839.JPG
Izzy has learned the basics of long lining this summer. This project was definitely not do-able until after our clinic! Thanks Devyn for the photo.

I have continued to play with some of these techniques this summer, but I will admit that I have much more to learn. It was a fascinating opportunity to do something totally different with one of the horses, and I am pleased that it was such a positive experience!

 

A Clinic with Jan Ebeling:  Keep the Details Clear

In mid April, 2017, Linden Woods Farm in Durham, NH hosted a two day clinic with Olympian Jan Ebeling.  A serious rider and competitor, Ebeling brought his attention to detail and clear training system to the east coast, to the benefit of horses and riders ranging from First Level through FEI.

IMG_0671
Jan Ebeling

I was only able to attend day two of the clinic due to work commitments, but felt fortunate to be able to audit several sessions before taking my own lesson on Annapony at the end of the day.  As I watched Ebeling work with a series of different types of horse, several themes emerged.  In particular, Ebeling emphasized POSITIVE ENERGY, CLEAR EXPECTATOINS, MINIMAL BEND and CLARITY IN THE AIDS, regardless of the level of training of the horse or movement being executed. Calm and systematic riding was the order of the day.

IMG_0694
Ebeling “debriefs” with clinic rider Kara Riley-King, who rode Zamiro.

Ebeling told the audience that he always starts his training sessions the same way, with a progressive warm up.  “I start by establishing a steady tempo and use larger circles and changes on the diagonals,” said Ebeling.  “Nothing too tight.”

Ebeling reminded riders that all horses have an easier side, which is usually tracking to the left.  This is the best direction to start both the warm up phase of a ride as well as to introduce new figures and movements.  He recommends spending three to four minutes on each side, then adding in some work at the canter, before offering the horse a short break.

IMG_0679
Emily Staley on Gatsby work on their free walk.

“Once the horse has had a warm up, they are ready for a more collected tempo and sitting work,” says Ebeling.  For all horses save the most green, Ebeling believes in the rider working out of the sitting trot post warm up.  For a greener horse, Ebeling says that he might stay in the posting trot a bit longer, especially if the contact and connection become less consistent in the sitting work.

For the greener horses, Ebeling emphasized the critical importance of riding with positive energy, which he says prevents the horse from thinking that a slower tempo is acceptable. At the same time, the rider must be careful to not ask for more tempo than the horse is able to keep balanced.   “Most horses are pretty happy to go forward if you make it their habit,” says Ebeling.  “If you have inconsistency in the frame, add a little bit of tempo, keep riding forward, and keep the hand the same.”

IMG_0699
Jan Ebeling raved about Leslie Ann Guilbault’s young mount, Belfast (owned by a sponsor), saying, “He is a great horse.  A talented horse.  I am looking for weaknesses.  Mostly he needs to be stronger still.”

Establishing consistency in the expectations and performance was a theme which Ebeling returned to frequently.  The free walk is another area in which Ebeling emphasized this idea.  “The free walk should always go to the buckle and the rider must make the habit of always expecting a brisk, energetic walk,” says Ebeling.  “When there is a transition from free walk to medium walk, the steps and frame become shorter but the rhythm and energy stay the same.”

Jan Ebeling April 2017 034.JPG
Anna and I during our set.

The use of transitions between and within gaits was another theme which ran amongst the sessions.  When riders do transitions on green horses, the exercises serve to tune up the horse’s understanding of the aids.  It is important that the rider keep their aids consistent and clear.  One example Ebeling brought forward was the position of the rider’s outside leg in the canter.  “You must be super clear with your leg aid in the transitions, bending your knee and bringing the leg back,” says Ebeling.  “Keep the outer leg back in the canter, not just for the transition, but also to support the gait.  It must stay in place—no exceptions.”

Ebeling used transitions in many ways with riders throughout the day.  Some horses did trot-walk-trot transitions in fairly quick succession, sometimes with only three strides in between each.  With others, he shortened the timing so that the transition became more of an “almost walk” transition, or instead asked the horse to go into a short lengthening.  Ebeling asked one rider to send her horse forward on the short side and then collect them through the shoulder in into an “almost walk” transition, and then ride forward into a ten meter volte.   These frequent transitions challenged the horse’s balance and encouraged them to respond promptly to rider’s aids. For greener horses, Ebeling likes to use a little voice in the transitions.  If the horse makes mistakes, such as coming above the bit or choosing the wrong lead, Ebeling reminded riders to not get into a battle with their horse; instead, just make them do the transition again.

Jan Ebeling April 2017 007.JPG
I must have liked something about this transition with that smile on my face!

Throughout the day, horses and riders both made mistakes.  Ebeling reminded all that this is a necessary part of learning, but emphasized that it is important to not give the horse a break on a poor transition or movement.  Ebeling says that when the horse repeatedly makes the same mistake on a figure, it is up to the rider to figure out how to change the cycle.  This may mean making the exercise easier for the horse, overexaggerating an aid, or appreciating that at the moment, the exercise may require more strength than the horse has developed.  “Even when the mistake is repeated, remind yourself that it is just a phase,” says Ebeling.  “It can be frustrating, but don’t panic.  It is just a matter of practicing.”

Ebeling also spoke of the importance of doing movements and transitions at different places within the arena.   This can also be helpful when a horse starts to anticipate an exercise.   “The same exercise, done at a different place in the arena, isn’t really the same exercise,” says Ebeling.  “The goal is to get the horse to do the things you want so that you are able to praise them…you are always looking for the moment where you can praise them for doing the right thing.”

Jan Ebeling April 2017 025.JPG
Practicing.

Being effectively able to apply the aids requires that the rider understand what the correct aids should be, and then to experiment with the intensity of each aid to determine the optimal application.  One rider struggled with her half pass.  Ebeling reminded her that it was important to keep the shoulder fore position as she turned her horse onto the line of the half pass, then to ride sideways through the use of the inner leg and outside rein; he said the half pass is basically two movements in one.  But too much outside leg causes the haunches to lead, and too little will prevent the forward and sideways movement from developing.  The rider must find the balance in the aids for success.

Ebeling reminded riders that keeping their position consistent is one of the quickest and most efficient ways to get the horse to understand the aids.  “You must be very disciplined,” says Ebeling.

Ebeling told several riders (me included!) to be careful with their bending aids.  It is easy to get the horses over bent to the inside, but the aid which needs to be emphasized is the outside rein.  “Bend only a little and then get light,” says Ebeling.  “Backing off on the rein aids doesn’t mean dropping them, it is like a softening.  When you think to give, it is not necessary to move the arm, just relax the muscles.  Finish every half halt with a release.”

Jan Ebeling April 2017 030.JPG

In my ride with Ebeling on Anna, these themes came forward yet again.  I was a bit nervous going into the ride, as I was dealing with a knee injury which prevented me from effectively closing my right leg aids.  And though she sported a trace clip, Anna definitely felt that this early spring afternoon was warmer than she liked given the amount of winter coat she was still wearing. In spite of these variables, we tried our best to step up to Ebeling’s program.

Here is some video of Anna early in our set with Jan Ebeling.

In our ride, Ebeling worked to help me keep Anna more positively forward (yes, the entire Story of Our Lives).  He reminded me to watch the balance between the inside and the outside rein, particularly when tracking right, and that I need to be more steadfast in the consistency in the outside rein.  One easy tip he offered was to increase the tension of my ring finger on the reins.  Most riders will grip more tightly with their index and middle fingers, but increasing the tension of the ring finger will allow the rein contact and connection to remain steady yet not become restrictive.  Ebeling had me ride Anna virtually straight into each corner, and then ask for only about two to three strides of bend in the corner itself.

A little further along…contact is getting more consistent.

Ebeling also had me ride many trot canter transitions to sharpen her response to the leg aid.  In the upward transition, I had to make sure to not allow my shoulders to tip forward and to remain soft in the rein contact without letting go.  For the downward transition, Ebeling wanted me to use virtually no rein pressure at all but instead use seat and voice aids…then immediately ride steady and forward.

Some transitions.

While I felt that the quality of our connection improved through the set, I was a little disappointed in Anna’s overall lackluster response to the forward aids.  In my opinion, she got a bit hot and tired and would have done better with a few shorter/intense sets rather than longer ones.  I found it really difficult to keep her stepping up into the bridle, and in reviewing the photos and videos after the ride, she looks like she is barely round.  Ebeling as well seemed a little flummoxed by her lackadaisical nature, and suggested that it might be helpful to treat her like an event horse again by taking her out for some gallop sets (not an option till my knee heals, I am afraid!).   He also suggested looking at her feeding regimen to see if there is a way to feed increased energy without increasing her weight.

Serpentine work.

While I was a bit disappointed by the quality of my own performance, overall I really enjoyed watching Ebeling teach the other clinic participants and appreciated the consistency in his message.  I would definitely come audit again, and perhaps ride once I am healed up!

Some nice walk work and then some tired trot!

MikaelaAnnaLinden
I would like to thank my friend Mikaela for coming along with us!  She was the best coffee getter, pony holder, photo taker and all around cheer leader ever!

 

Improving Balance in the Non Traditional Dressage Horse: a ride with Jen Verharen

I might be the world’s slowest blogger but I suppose better late than never!  This blog is the summary of my notes from a lesson I took with my dear friend Jen Verheran, who visited us here in NH in early March on what turned out to be the most frigid weekend of our entire winter. Jen is an accomplished rider and trainer, as well as the founder and principal at Cadence Coaching, Inc.  Jen is also a fellow Connemara lover, and I was really interested to hear her thoughts on Anna.  We were able to squeeze one ride in together around the sessions she did for the UNH Equestrian Team.

If you follow my blog, you will no doubt recognize that Anna is not known for being the most forward thinking of mounts.  While she is pretty willing to do whatever is asked, she does not naturally possess a high degree of “forward intention”.  I showed her lightly at Second Level last season with decent scores, and she currently schools most of the Third Level movements.  But impulsion is always the variable which seems to be lacking, and coming up with new ways to inspire and motivate her is a real challenge.  I don’t frequently get the opportunity for feedback from ‘eyes on the ground’, either, and I was interested in Jen’s honest opinion in regards to where Anna stood against the expectations for Third Level.

JenV1
It was too cold for anyone to get photos of Anna and I, but here is a bundled up Jen coaching members of the UNH Equestrian team the same weekend!

Jen has a lot of experience with Connemaras and Connemara crosses, having owned several during her career.  While the breed is known for being quite versatile and athletic, they are not typically big movers.  Despite being half Trakehner, Anna seems to primarily display the traits of her Irish ancestors. Most principles of dressage training come from the German school, which favors warmblood type horses; the German training philosophy emphasizes riding the horse actively forward into the hand.  This is an excellent approach, and it works really well on horses which either naturally go forward or who are easily able to be motivated forward.  It does not work so well when you have a horse whose response to nearly any driving aid is…meh.

I will sidebar here to note that Anna has been this way since the get-go.  She isn’t desensitized.  She was never sensitized to begin with.  The very first time I carried a dressage whip with her, she didn’t respond in any way.  Not negative, not positive…just non responsive. You can really wallop her to no effect.  So louder or harder leg or whip aids just do not work.  I have never met a horse like her in that regard.

Jen told me that in working with her Connemaras, she took a lot of inspiration from the techniques of the French school.  This training philosophy favors Baroque and Thoroughbred type horses.  While these two varieties of horse might not seem similar at first, they both are types which seem to develop more correct forward activity when they are ridden first into a steady balance.  Baroque type horses tend to be better at collected movement than they are at moving with ground covering strides, whereas Thoroughbreds can cover ground but tend to be heavily downhill.  Asking either of these types of horse to go more forward, without first establishing better balance, is usually an exercise in frustration for all involved.  Specifically, the rider needs to do exercises which encourage the horse to better use the loin area just behind the saddle until the horse feels that they are moving within their own balance.  Only then can the rider expect greater forward energy.

Jen V 2

Jen introduced me to a series of exercises geared towards loosening Anna’s body, as well as lateral movements specifically to improve the softness of her loin area.  After a basic walk/trot/canter warm up, I returned to an active medium walk and put Anna into a shoulder in, then shortened stride and rode a turn on the forehand.  We then did a variation on this, where I put Anna into renvers (haunches out), and then rode turn on the forehand again from this position.  While it felt a bit ‘backwards’ at first, this exercise helped increase Anna’s suppleness pretty quickly.

From there, we moved onto the trot and began working on a series of transitions between trot and walk on a twenty meter circle.  During the trot strides, the focus was on keeping the trot bouncy; rather than just moving more forward, it was about creating more spring.  Once Anna’s trot started to develop a more consistent degree of spring and energy, I began to go large.  We then rode a sequence of movements, starting with a ten meter circle at the top of the long side, into shoulder fore going straight ahead, then establishing counter flexion and leg yielding in from the rail, finishing in shoulder fore.  This exercise was completed all down one long side, and it was super at keeping Anna focused. The frequent transitions helped to keep the trot lively and the connection clear.

anna-at-verne-2016-050
Anna performing lateral work with Verne Batchelder in December 2016.

Jen suggested that I ride Anna with minimal to no bend, especially in the canter, because of her tendency to bend more in the neck than in the body.  Anna is super compact, and like most horses, her neck is her most flexible area.  But when the neck overbends to the inside, the opposite shoulder pops out.  By riding her in a straighter alignment from poll to tail, it is easier to narrow the space between the inside hind and outside fore.  This further allowed me to adjust the position of her head at the poll.  I noticed the benefit of riding this way most clearly at the canter, which is the gait at which we have had the greatest degree of challenge in terms of keeping steady connection.  As I practiced this over the next few months, I have seen a huge improvement in the quality of the canter in general.  It also was a theme which came up during a clinic I took with Jan Ebeling in April (more on this in a future blog, I promise!).

JenV3
Jen definitely received the “hardy solider” award for coaching through an absolutely FRIGID weekend!

Jen told me that she wanted to throw as many exercises at me as possible so that I would have several new tools to use to improve the quality of Anna’s movement and connection.  I was impressed by how much softer, rounder and steadier Anna became through the course of our ride (did I mention that it was maybe 18 degrees??), and she developed both lipstick and soft eyes and ears.  Without ever doing a single “forward” transition, Anna had become much more willing and supple off the leg, and had developed a much increased ‘hot’ response to the forward aids.

Jen recommended that I continue to play with the exercises which she offered for the next month or so, and if they seemed solid at that point, it would be time to add greater adjustability within the movements and gaits.   The goal of the work is to continue to improve her balance, so that she is able to engage the hind leg better and develop connection with a soft lower back.

JenV4

Jen is such a positive and enthusiastic coach, and she really helped me with some fresh eyes on Anna’s training program.  Of course she lives on the West Coast, as all my favorite teachers seem to be as far from NH as you can get and still be in the US! I asked Jen if she thought that introducing the double bridle would be appropriate, and she encouraged me to go ahead and try it; some horses do simply go better in the double, even with a light curb contact (as it turns out, Anna seems to be one of those horses, too…more on this later as well!).  Finally, she encouraged me to change my mind set about Anna; instead of thinking, “she will go Third level”, Jen told me to start saying to myself and others that Anna is “working at Third Level”.  By thinking of her as a Third Level horse, I will come to each training session with a different attitude and set of expectations, which will more than likely help Anna to continue to step into the role.

AnnaDouble.jpg
Anna after her first ride in her double bridle.  “Ho Hum” she says.  We have since fixed the cheekpiece conundrum seen here….

Jen’s lesson was a perfect bridge between some of the concepts and techniques which we have worked on with Verne Batchelder in the past and those used by Jan Ebeling at our session in April.  It is always nice to see the pieces connect together!

December Clinic Weekend

Notes on Sessions with Verne Batchelder and Cindy Canace

Annapony and I enjoyed an educational weekend in mid-December, riding twice with Verne Batchelder and once with Cindy Canace, within four days.  I have had the opportunity to work with both of these talented clinicians before, so I was excited to get some new exercises and feedback as we head into the indoor schooling season.

Verne Batchelder and the “Circle of Submission”

My two sessions with Verne came first, and were held at the lovely Fresh Creek facility in Dover, NH, home to Chesley Brook Stables.  Their insulated indoor was a welcome haven from the unseasonably cold temperature and omnipresent wind, and the GGT footing made Anna feel positively springy.

I hadn’t had the chance to connect with Verne for almost a year, and he was super positive about the progress which Anna has made in that time.  She tends to always be more forward thinking at a new venue, which is helpful, but Verne noticed that she was also moving with a greater degree of acceptance and throughness since the last time he had seen her go.  After I had done a little warm up at the basic gaits, we started to work Anna on what Verne calls “the circle of submission”.

Anna at Verne 2016 009.JPG
One of our many “circles of submission”.

The “circle of submission” is a tool which Verne frequently uses to help horses to unlock, to improve connection and to get better acceptance of the outside rein.  Usually, it is done either at the walk or trot, on a smallish (in our case ten meter) circle.  With Anna, I asked for an exaggerated flexion in her neck to the inside, and then asked her to turn her chest towards the middle of the circle, while keeping my outside elbow bent but giving.  I continued to ride her forward and encouraged her to engage the inside hind leg so it reached further over and under.  Once she started to soften her jaw, I increased the straightness by taking more bend into my outside elbow and following with the inside hand.

Anna at Verne 2016 013.JPG

When riding the “circle of submission”, one of the important end goals is being able to swivel the horse’s head at the poll, with a response of willing acceptance from the horse. In Anna’s case, the circle allowed her to connect more consistently to the outside rein.  I rode a 10 meter circle, then rode out of the circle in a lovely uphill shoulder in for several strides down the long side, then straightened her and rode forward in the rising trot.  After moving through this sequence, Anna was better able to carry her weight over the topline and actively push into the consistent connection.

The “circle of submission” can be returned to at any point the rider feels they have lost the requisite degree of connection, and/or the ability to swivel the horse at the poll.

Anna at Verne 2016 026.JPG

We then moved on to some work with haunches in and half pass. After riding a ten meter circle, I rode down the long side in haunches in.  In both the shoulder in and haunches in work, Verne cautioned against developing too much angle.  Because my goal with Anna next season is to show Third Level, Verne also reminded me that the haunches in is a preparation for the half pass. “Don’t work to perfect the haunches in,” he said, as this movement is not required above Second Level.  “Use it to develop your half pass.”

Anna at Verne 2016 028.JPG

We did several sequences of ten meter circle to haunches in on a diagonal line (which is essentially half pass).  I was thrilled to feel Anna fluidly move forward and sideways with a consistent connection and lifted shoulder.  She felt like a “big” horse!

In the canter work, we touched on the flying changes.  On my own, I have been working quite a bit with the counter canter to develop greater strength and straightness.  Anna learned clean changes through her jumping work and tends to throw them in, unasked, during the counter canter.  Verne said that in terms of laying the groundwork for Third Level, it would be appropriate to begin asking for the flying change more frequently. Using the ten meter circle again as preparation, I then rode the short diagonal and asked for a change on the line.  Verne emphasized that the short diagonals were better than long at this point, so that there are fewer strides for the horse to begin to anticipate the change.

Despite the short distance, Anna still anticipated her change, and gave one fairly exuberant effort from right to left, during which she actually kicked the bottom of my left boot!  I think we have some homework to do in terms of “calm acceptance” of this movement.

Anna at Verne 2016 106.JPG
I love that this exact moment is caught on film.

We ended the first day’s session by playing with adjustability within the gaits.  Within the trot or the canter, Anna needed to get bigger or get smaller, but always while keeping her nose in—if I allowed the reins to slip, she would slightly poke her nose forward, causing me to lose a degree of the connection and the ability to swivel the poll.

We covered a lot of ground during this session, and I left feeling thrilled by Anna’s performance.  I had felt a degree of connection, thrust and throughness which I have not experienced with her before. Verne was highly complementary of both the progress since last year and the work during our session, and I very much looked forward to day two.

Anna at Verne 2016 050.JPG

The next morning was one of the coldest so far of the season, which only meant that Anna was even more energetic, despite her hard work the day before.  We started again working with the “circle of submission”.  Verne added to his description from day one that depending on the horse, the rider can think of riding shoulder in on the circle, or ride it more like a moving turn on the forehand, or even a leg yield out of the haunches.  He emphasized, again, that no matter how you approach the “circle of submission”, its purpose is to get the hind end of the horse active and free, to get the inside hind leg under the horse’s body, and to take the horse’s neck out of the cycle of resistance.

From here, we moved onto work with haunches in and half pass in the trot.  Verne cautioned again against creating too much angle in the haunches in, which causes the horse to lose their forward intention.  In the half pass, Verne reminded me to keep a bent elbow on the outside, and to allow Anna’s shoulders to move ahead of the diagonal line first, and then to put the haunches in on the diagonal.

Anna at Verne 2016 031.JPG
Schooling haunches in.

Allowing the shoulders to come out ahead of the line was a new idea for me, and I found that it helped Anna to say more up into the outside rein during the half pass.  By focusing first on the shoulders and then adding the haunches in, the half pass became even more fluid and effortless. We have a lot of work to do to strengthen and improve her reach and carrying power, but we definitely have some new tools to use to develop the movement this winter.

In the canter work, we worked on a twenty meter circle and played with the idea of increasing pressure, then backing off. Because horses naturally tend to carry their haunches to the inside of the circle, we allowed Anna to start this way, while simultaneously increasing the activity in her hind end and increasing the weight in my outside elbow.  I then straightened Anna’s body for a few strides, allowing her to increase the collection, then softened and let the haunches slide back in.  The idea here is to just touch on the increased collection without asking for it for too many strides in a row.

Anna at Verne 2016 124.JPG
I just love this moment in the canter!

Overall, I was so excited and encouraged by the work Anna offered during our time working with Verne.  I came away with new tools to play with this winter, and Anna has shown me how much more she is capable of doing in this work.  On to Third Level we go!

anna-at-verne-2016-042
Thanks to Cayden for coming with us on Day 1 and taking all of these great photos!

Cindy Canace:  “Be a Better Backpack”

After our two days with Verne, Anna had a much needed Sunday off, giving me the opportunity to audit several sessions with USEF “S” judge and USDF Gold Medalist Cindy Canace.  Cindy came up from New Jersey to spend two days working with riders at the University of New Hampshire Equine Program.  Anna and I had worked with Cindy back in June, and we had a session scheduled again for Monday.

Watching Cindy work with our riders allowed me to observe certain themes to her teaching.  She is incredibly detail oriented, and works hard to help riders to both understand important concepts and to feel the horse underneath them.  Cindy expects the rider to keep their hands together and in front of their body, allowing the horse to reach to the bit to seek contact.  She also works to correct posture and alignment issues in the rider which impact the horse.  One of my favorite quotes of the day was that the riders needs to “be a better back pack”, in reference to the fact that our horses must essentially relearn to balance under our weight.  It is incumbent upon us to try to make that burden as easy to bear as possible.

CindyCanaceFall16.jpg
Cindy works with two of my students, riding UNH’s horses Morocco and Ticco.  Photo from the UNH Equine Program Facebook Page

Cindy has judged me on Anna several times in competition, in addition to working with us this summer, so she has a decent idea of her strengths and weaknesses.  In our Monday session, Cindy wanted to work on helping Anna to lift more in her shoulders and truly elevate her poll.  The exercises we did were perhaps not the most interesting for the auditors, but Cindy’s laser beam focus on excellence in the basics helped Anna to show some good progress.

Cindy first had me dramatically slow down Anna’s walk, making each step extremely deliberate, by slowing down my seat while keeping a following, elastic elbow.  She then had me execute a series of walk to halt transitions.  In each downward transition I made sure to keep my leg on, and then I released Anna from the halt by pressing with the seat bones and softening the leg and hand.  Cindy only allowed us to take two walk steps before I asked Anna to halt again.  We remained in the halt, with my leg on, until Anna began to soften in the jaw and raised her shoulders.  Cindy encouraged me to give Anna a gentle tap on the shoulder with my dressage wand to get a better response to my request for elevation or if she was inattentive.

From this work, we moved into a turn on the forehand.  Just as in the earlier exercise, Anna was allowed to take two walk steps and then I asked her to halt, holding it as before.  Cindy was particular that to initiate the turn, I needed to press with the calf muscle, not my spur, and once Anna began moving, I needed to keep the march of my seat in a walking rhythm to follow.  Cindy reminded me that even though we are emphasizing the responsiveness of the horse to the inside leg in this exercise, my outside leg and seat bone are also important and must remain active.  Ideally, in the turn on the forehand, it should take four steps to get the horse facing the opposite direction.

lizandcindy
Cindy worked this summer with my colleague Liz Johnson, here riding Santa Fe ISF.  Liz coordinated Cindy’s whirlwind visit to the frigid north for all of us.  Thank you Liz!

After working on the turn on the forehand, we did a few turns on the haunches, which Anna executed with a more elevated shoulder than before. I also noticed that she had developed a degree of “lipstick”, one of the visual indicators that the horse has begun to soften the jaw.  I hope the auditors saw that Anna had become softer in the jaw as the result of the work we had done to improve responsiveness in the hind end and lift in the shoulder, and not because we had done anything at all to manipulate or pull her into a position.

We then moved on to work in the trot and canter, and Cindy helped me work with the position of my left leg.  Due to now chronic knee pain, I have a great deal of trouble keeping my left leg fully internally rotated, with the knee and toe pointing forward.  Instead, my toe tends to angle out, and I have a difficult time keeping my left spur off Anna’s side without hurting my knee.  After so many months of knee pain, I have really developed some compensatory behaviors with the left leg, especially when I am tracking left and need to use the inside leg to position Anna correctly.  Cindy had me try bringing my left heel down and forward, allowing my left knee to rotate off the saddle slightly.  She then had me rotate my shoulders slightly toward the right in order to engage my outside hip.  This positioning of course felt somewhat unnatural but it did allow me to keep Anna correctly bent without my spur ending up stuck on her side.

Cindy had me do many transitions, especially walk-trot-walk and trot-halt-trot.  In each transition, Anna needed to stay up in the shoulder.  Cindy had me ride a slight step of leg yield out in each transition to help engage the inside hind and keep Anna into the outside rein (a little bit of a similar concept to the “circle of submission” discussed above).

Back to the Laboratory

After our super educational weekend, I have plenty of new material to work with for the next several months in the indoor.  I appreciate having fresh eyes on our progress and to come away with ever increasing clarity as to next steps.  Now we go “back to the lab” to experiment with our new exercises and tools.  Stay tuned for further developments….

A Clinic with Cindy Canace

I have been lucky enough to know Cindy Canace, a USDF Gold Medalist and USEF “S” dressage judge from New Jersey, for many years.  However, this past week was my first opportunity to actually ride with Cindy in a clinic setting, and it was a great occasion to learn more about her training philosophies.

Cindy has made a career out of working with difficult, spoiled or otherwise challenging horses that others would not, and turning them into successful and happy performers.  In order to do this, she has established a system which she adheres to in terms of use of the aids, rider position, and progressive exercises.  By being clear and consistent, her horses respond with increased confidence to the rider’s aids.

Cindy Canace Clinic 034.JPG

Annapony and I had just ridden several tests in front of Cindy at the recent University of New Hampshire dressage show, so she had a current picture in her mind’s eye of where things were at with us in the competition arena.  Cindy pointed out that a clinician’s main job is to provide a fresh set of eyes, and not to usurp the place of a regular instructor.  Specifically for Anna, Cindy wanted to challenge the honesty of her connection to the bit and work to achieve increased throughness.

For a horse competing at First Level, Cindy says that she would rather see a more open position in the neck with good energy and balance than a horse which has been pulled into too tight or restricted of a shape in the neck.  This is probably one of the reasons why Anna has scored well in front of Cindy, but as we are working towards moving to Second Level, it is necessary to achieve a greater degree of roundness and uphill balance.  Anna would prefer to be too open in the throatlatch if left to her own choices; because the purpose of Second Level is partially to confirm that the horse is “reliably on the bit”, we will need to work to erase this.

Cindy Canace Clinic 055.JPG

Cindy had me move my hands closer together along Anna’s crest and ride with a much shorter rein than where I would tend to carry it.  “Put the bit where you want your horse to go” was a message repeated many times during the session.  She emphasized that the rider needs to keep her arms elastic, her shoulders down, her neck soft and her hands forward.  Cindy wants the horse to truly be seeking contact with the bit; it is the horse’s job to reach towards the bit all the time, rather than the rider taking the bit back towards their own body.

One of my greatest challenges is that most of the time I ride on my own; when you do this for too long, it is easy to pick up little bad habits.  One of my current ones is using too much inside rein, which blocks the inside hind and causes too much neck bend.  To help “reprogram” my aids, Cindy had me ride a diamond shape.  Imagine a square set within a circle, with points placed on the center line and equidistant from these points on the walls in between.  To turn Anna at each corner of the diamond, it was important to keep the inside leg at the girth and to bring the outside leg slightly back, pushing her around primarily with the outside aids.  I then used the inside leg to stop the turn and pushed Anna slightly out towards the outside aids again while aiming for the next point. We did this at the trot and the canter, decreasing the size of the circle as we became more proficient.

Cindy Canace Clinic 026.JPG
Can you tell how awkward I feel with my hands this forward?

For me, the hardest part was to keep my hands out and ahead of me (‘put the bit where you want your horse to go’), even when Anna became less round or didn’t turn as crisply as I wanted.  The thing is, when your horse has gotten used to you supporting them in a particular way and you stop doing that, it takes them a few repetitions to sort things out for themselves.

Many horses have learned to balance on their inside reins; therefore, they can be taught to balance on the outside rein instead.  However, the correction takes time and dedication on the part of the rider.  “Keep your hands together and think forward,” said Cindy.  “The horse must step up to this.  Think of always pushing the reins out there.”

Cindy Canace Clinic 058.JPG

Cindy reminded me that whenever I am tempted to pull on the inside rein that I needed to engage my inside leg instead.  At this, I had to chuckle—I must give this instruction myself many times per week, but it is good to know that even we instructors need reminders! Cindy also had me use a little sense of leg yield into the downward transitions to increase the connection to the outside rein, another technique which I like to use regularly. It is always good to know that your instincts are on the right track.

Cindy is wonderfully complimentary towards the rider’s horse; having ridden in many clinics, I think this is an important quality. Clinicians only get a snap shot of a horse and rider, and it is nice to hear what their immediate impressions are of the partnership.  While I usually think of Anna as not being super forward thinking, Cindy commented that my pony has a good overstep in the walk and trot; the more elastic and forward thinking that I keep my arm, the better Anna reaches through her topline and into the bit and the better the overstep gets.

Cindy Canace Clinic 079.JPG

While discussing the importance of overstep (when the landing of the hind hoof reaches past the print of the front hoof on the same side), Cindy reminded auditors that there is a difference between fast and forward.  She says that in her judging, she sees too many horses which are being ridden so energetically that they move with a fast, quick tempo, causing the quality of the horse’s balance to literally go downhill.  While activity in the hind end is required to get true reach through the horse’s back, it cannot be accomplished at the cost of balance.

“We all like to micromanage,” said Cindy.  “Remember to ride the horse with leg and seat to create the bending.  Really use the outside rein to turn, even to the point of pushing the inside rein towards the horse’s ears.”

Cindy Canace Clinic 062.JPG

Cindy’s overall theme was one of consistency and clarity in terms of expectations for the horse and intended outcomes.  When the horse is trying to sort out what it is that the rider wants, she emphasized that staying steady was of the highest priority.  It is much less confusing for the horse than if the rider suddenly switches her aids before the horse has answered the original question.   “Don’t change the rules of the game,” said Cindy.  “Don’t trade one problem for another—keep your aids consistent until you get the correct answer.”

Many thanks to On the Bit Events and the University of New Hampshire Equine Program for co-hosting this clinic!

Riding Your Own Ride

When we were kids in school, most of us were told to keep our eyes on our own papers.  Ostensibly, this was a punitive measure for not studying, designed to prevent us from getting a leg up from the students around us who we perceived to be smarter than ourselves or more likely to have the correct answer.  However, it is quite often the case that we in fact do know the right answer, and keeping our eyes on our own papers is a means to demonstrate our own skills, knowledge and strengths.

I have long struggled with feeling insecure about my riding, probably because it is the one thing above almost anything else which is tied to my self-identity.  Riding is a humbling sport, in so many ways.  How many times have we equestrians said that horses are our best teachers?  Every single day, we can learn new things about ourselves, our own horses, and about horses in general, if only we are willing and able to listen.  But sometimes our eyes stray, and we take in the movement of another horse, the skills of another rider, the amenities of a different facility, and we begin to doubt the value of what we have in front of us.

Annapony and Dark Mare (Lee)
Annapony and Dark Mare (Lee) at Tamarack Hill Farm last summer.

This happens to me all the time.  But I am slowly learning the value and technique of riding your own ride.

This spring has been a time of real growth for the dark mare, Lee.  As we progress towards our season’s goal of completing the three day 100 mile ride at GMHA in early September, I have been gradually stepping up her competitive distances.  This May, we rode our first one day thirty mile ride.  It was full of new adventures—we had to camp the night before, with Lee spending the night in a three sided cow stall at a fairground in rural Maine, while I slept in my horse trailer (the part the horse rides in, not a tack room or LQ).  We didn’t know anyone there, but the other riders and organizer went out of their way to be helpful and friendly to the rookie rider and horse.  The morning of the ride was cold, in the thirties, and as I hand grazed Lee before the ride started she was leaping about at the end of the line.  I am sure that some who witnessed her behavior wondered how the rookies were going to fare that day.

Lee enjoyed the cow-free cow barn in Maine.
Lee enjoyed the cow-free cow barn in Maine.

We rode out with another rider, a gentleman on a lovely Dutch Harness Horse who was doing day one of the three day eighty mile ride.   Lee has overall gotten much better about going out on her own, but has a hard time leaving other horses if they are around.  So for the first several miles, we stuck with the gray gelding and his veteran rider.

As both horses began to loosen up and get moving forward, they seemed to be staying at a steady pace consistent with the training rides I had been doing with Lee.  The terrain on this ride was mostly flat, which meant that it was easy to sort of just motor along.  This rider told me that he had more recently been doing endurance competitions (which is essentially a race) and so was needing to readjust his sense of pace to suit competitive trail, which requires riders to finish within a set window, neither too slow or too fast.  He used a combination of trot and canter, and for a while I kept pace with him.

But then I looked at my watch, and I realized we were averaging five minute miles.  I knew that this was not a pace that Lee could sustain, nor was it necessary to do so to finish the ride on time. So I gradually held Lee back, allowing the gray horse to push further and further ahead, eventually leaving our field of vision altogether.  For the first time in her competitive trail career, Lee and I were riding alone.

Looking forward.
Between the ears– riding Lee in Vermont summer of 2014.

Without a friend to lead her, Lee was a little less confident, spooking or shying more than usual, but she gradually settled into her own rhythm and continued steadily forward.  We continued like this for nearly ten miles, and as we traveled along, I reflected on the truth of needing to do what is right for your own horse.  In endurance riding, the tag line is, “to finish is to win”, and experienced riders talk about the importance of building a horse up for years before they get to the level of strength and experience that they can actually race and attempt to win at rides.  Competitive trail is assessed by more subjective criteria than endurance, but the overarching theme is that your horse must be well taken care of before, during and after the ride if you are going to achieve a good result.  That means that you, the rider, must make good choices for your horse in terms of when and how hard you push them onwards, which requires that you have an excellent awareness of both their fitness level and condition as well as how they are handling the ride that day.

Lee and I caught up to other riders at the half way hold, including our friend on the gray.  She quickly pulsed down to recovery criteria and continued on in good form.  But I don’t think this would have been the case if I had tried to keep up with the other horse.  It wasn’t a question of his horse being ‘better’ than mine, or he being a savvier rider.  She simply wasn’t as fit as he was, because the two horses are currently on different training paths. The gray horse’s pace was inappropriate for Lee.  It was important for me to stick to what I knew was right for my own horse, and to ride my own ride.

Lee went on to win the Maine 30 CTR with a perfect score of 100.
Lee went on to win the Maine 30 CTR with a perfect score of 100.

This June, I had the amazing opportunity to officiate in the Connemara division at the Upperville Colt and Pony Show, held in the heart of Virginia horse country.  This year was the 162nd anniversary of the show, and my first time officiating as a licensed USEF judge.  No big deal—just one of the most prestigious “AA” shows in the country, and the largest sanctioned Connemara division.   I admit I was nervous to be a part of such a cultured history in horse showing.

The show grounds are incredible, and overall the quality of the horses there matches the atmosphere.  One doesn’t bring the average workaday hunter to compete at Upperville. This is a land of quality breeding, high end care and all the accoutrements that go along with it.  There are classes running on both sides of the street, countless vendors, spectators everywhere and golf carts galore.  The evenings each feature some sort of marquee class, one night a grand prix, the next a $25,000 Hunter Derby.  Ringside parties are attended by richly dressed members of the social elite; the old money just oozes off of them, in the most non ostentatious way possible.   I am confident that the amount that most competitors spent on their week of showing would send a family of four on a decent vacation.

http://www.upperville.com/

It would be so easy to become jealous of the riders there, to long for a pair of their custom field boots (made by someone whose name I can’t pronounce), to covet their high end tack, their amazing, highly trained jumper (the one who TOTALLY ignored their cues to leave a stride out at the combination and who instead smartly touched their feet down just so and carried that rider straight into the jump off).

But instead, I am learning to ride my own ride.

Instead of getting overwhelmed by the sheer affluence of the horse show, I found myself able to look at it with new perspective. We can spend our time bemoaning the “things” or the assets which we haven’t got, or we can spend that same life energy focused on using our resources to their best advantage.  My pocket book may not be anywhere near as deep as that of the average Upperville competitor, but that doesn’t mean that I am not making steady progress towards my own goals.  Being a successful rider means different things to different people, and for me, my own success is not dictated by the caliber of the competition which I am able to afford to attend.  We each have to set those goals which make the most sense given our unique set of variables.  We need to know which goals are most important to us, and by identifying the destinations which matter the most, we can better prioritize whatever resources we have at our disposal towards reaching that goal.

Anna and her friend Izzy show U of New Hampshire Wildcat pride at the Wentworth Hunt Hnter Pace in May.
Anna and her friend Izzy show U of New Hampshire Wildcat pride at the Wentworth Hunt Hnter Pace in May.

Finally, I have a sneaking feeling that there are people who I know, who I am friends with on Facebook, who I see out and about, who are looking at me and saying, “gee, I wish I had what Chris has…she is really living the dream”.  I have two horses, a truck and trailer, a great job which allows me the freedom to pursue some of my own equestrian goals as well as the opportunity to be doing “horse things” for my paid work.  I appreciate how truly fortunate I have been to get to where I have gotten to, with the support of so many friends and family members that I couldn’t even begin to name names.  Sometimes I wasn’t as grateful to them as I should have been, for which I am sorry but I am trying to be better. And I am trying to be better about keeping in perspective the fact that there are aspiring riders who would love to be standing in my shoes.

So the next time you find yourself saying, “if only…” stop and ask yourself instead why you think that what the other person has or is doing is better than you.  Consider if the answers you have put down on your own paper are, in fact, valid and correct for you.

Ride your own ride.