Tag Archives: dressage

Totally Transitions: A Clinic with Jeremy Steinberg

On what was possibly the hottest and most humid weekend of July, Anna and I visited the lovely Linden Woods Farm in Durham, N.H., to clinic with USEF High Performance rider and former Dressage Youth Coach Jeremy Steinberg.

I enjoy reading Steinberg’s column in The Chronicle of the Horse and have the impression that, although a successful competitor, he also truly enjoys training horses to become the best version of themselves. To me, this is an important distinction, because I have found that when you simply enjoy being around horses, taking the time to solve their riddles is handled with a great deal more compassion than when their resistance is perceived as an impediment to reaching a goal. It also challenges you to be more creative in finding solutions, rather than insisting that each horse conform to a set formula. Steinberg’s mentors, Dietrich von Hopffgarten and Paul Belasik, are both regarded as dressage philosophers and advocates for humane, classical dressage training. Finally, Steinberg’s first Grand Prix horse was an OTTB whom he developed himself. As someone who favors riding non-traditional breeds in the dressage arena, I was excited for the opportunity to work with him directly.

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Jeremy Steinberg

For me, the pandemic has been an important period of resetting, reassessing and simply improving the bond with my horses. I wasn’t sure that Anna and I were truly ready for a clinic, particularly with someone of Steinberg’s caliber, but I assumed that if he was as horse-friendly in practice as he seemed to be in his writing, we would get something positive out of the ride.

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Anna and I have been doing a lot more hacking than usual this summer…but that will be for another blog!

I wasn’t disappointed!

Steinberg spends a good chunk of his time on the road—his website says that he gives an average of 48 clinics per year—and he explained that the first thing he always considers while watching a horse warm up is their conformation, and how it will impact their work.

Anna is flat in the poll, making it easy for her to lock both there and in her lower jaw when asked to connect. Steinberg’s (simple but not so simple) solution? Transitions. So many transitions.

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Anna is quite experienced at bracing in her poll and jaw. In this moment I am trying to just be steady without manipulating her neck. So much easier said than done!

After a basic warm up (during which Steinberg encouraged me to use my fingers and wrists quite actively to massage the bit but to keep Anna’s neck completely still), we started riding trot-halt-trot transitions. Steinberg had me hold my elbows to my sides to stabilize the contact into and out of the transition, and to ride a bit of medium trot into the halt. This is not your show ring halt, but instead a training tool to help encourage the horse to start rounding their back, while yielding the poll and croup. These trot-halt-trot transitions are, intentionally, a bit abrupt.

“Resist the urge in the halt to supple her,” Steinberg coached. “Make the hand and elbow more fixed, so that the contact is less negotiable, and when she comes to the halt the contact is solid.”

Not shockingly, at first Anna braced in her poll and jaw, particularly into the downward transition. Overall, the transitions were somewhat…ugly.

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There were plenty of moments like these….
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…interspersed with rounder moments like this. Anna has always struggled with lifting her back in the canter!

“You are trying to get the horse’s lower back to tip in the hip and pelvis,” says Steinberg. “Think more like a sliding stop. You want the horse to tuck under a bit.”

It was important to not allow walk steps in or out of the transitions (as this will cause the horse to avoid tucking the hip), and for a horse such as Anna (who is not always the most prompt to the driving aids), you cannot be afraid to really pop the whip if she is not responsive.

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But roundness with no bracing IS an option!

“Let the horse make mistakes,” says Steinberg. “Let them learn that you are not going to carry them along, and if they make a mistake, be corrective.”

The more transitions I did, focusing on promptness and really rooting my elbows to my sides, the hotter Anna became to my leg and the softer and rounder she became in the connection. By staying steady and tolerating Anna’s tendency to brace (for now), I was increasing the pressure on her to become rounder. The idea is that you are giving the horse a choice—they can continue to resist, which is uncomfortable, or they can choose to become rounder in their back and relieve the pressure.

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Lateral movements such as shoulder fore, shoulder in, travers and renvers are all allowed– just so long as you don’t wrestle with the neck.

“Do fifteen of them,” says Steinberg of the transitions. “If the horse braces, do three more.”

This work is meant to be done in many short bursts; we worked trot-halt-trot transitions on each rein, and then moved on to canter-walk-canter. I applied the same concepts to these latter transitions, with the aim of taking no more than one or two steps of walk in between each stretch of canter.

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During the walk strides of the canter-walk-canter transition, Steinberg wanted me to stabilize my elbows (holding onto the mane if necessary) and resist the urge to ask Anna to give. He wanted her to make the connection softer by sitting more behind, rather than lowering the poll. It is much harder than you would think to tolerate the resistance until the horse figures it out!

“Almost as soon as you walk, you want to go back to the canter,” says Steinberg. “It is the difference between doing a sit up and a crunch.”

The canter-walk-canter transitions help the horse to lower the croup and lighten the forehand. Steinberg compared the horse to an imperfectly balanced teeter totter—one that has a boulder (the forehand) in front of its fulcrum (the withers), with a rider sitting behind them both.

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Progress is made in fractions of an inch, not feet.

“As soon as you get on, you can feel this weight,” says Steinberg. “If you can raise the front end, the boulder will roll back. But if the forehand goes down, you have to pull on the reins to stop the boulder from rolling forward more.”

All of these prompt transitions help to create greater activity in the hindquarters, by putting a certain degree of pressure on the horse’s body and not giving them much choice in how to respond to that pressure. In Anna’s case, she needed to hit the wall of the rider’s hand. The true origin of her bracing is not in her jaw, it is in her back– but because I feel the weight in my hands, I (like most riders on similar horses) try to manipulate her back by positioning her neck.

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I love this moment. She looks so proud of herself.

“I want to manipulate the back with transition work,” says Steinberg. “The bracing is [the horse] wanting to stay tight in the back. But if I give in to the brace or try to soften the brace, I never give the horse the opportunity to soften the back.”

What I found quite remarkable was that despite the heat, the humidity, and the pressure, Anna really stepped up to the exercise. The sets were short but intense; Steinberg counseled to ignore the things which were not perfect, and after one or two quality transitions, give the horse a break. Many times throughout the day, after a period of increased pressure for the horse, I heard Steinberg tell the rider to reassure the horse that “mom still loves them”.  During a walk break in a later set, Steinberg had this to say about adding pressure for the horse:

“When you are fairly confident that the horse is capable of doing the work—they are a correct mover, appropriate conformation, etcetera—you can put the pressure on,” says Steinberg. “You will sometimes need to be intentional like this, to help the horse really understand how to use their body.”

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Jeremy Steinberg watching Leslie Ann McGowan warm up her own Woody.

As the horse begins to understand stepping into the downward transitions with roundness and softness, Steinberg will add a driving aid—perhaps just a tap of the whip—to teach the horse that the roundness comes from the hind end.

“You must take a leap of faith and know that you will have some of those bad transitions,” says Steinberg. “This is how you can offer a correction, and how they can learn. There is a consequence for making the mistake, and this consequence can be just the feeling of the horse hitting the rider’s aids.”

This was by far one of the most productive and positive clinics I have had with Anna, and I have incorporated this exercise into my regular routine with great success. I am so grateful to facility owner Karen Bishop and her daughter Leslie Ann McGowan for coordinating the clinic and opening their property to outside riders despite the pandemic, and to Steinberg for making the trip up from Aiken, S.C.! Thanks, too, to Fay Morrison for coming by to help me with Anna and taking such great pictures of our ride.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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In 2019, Equestrians Need to “Do Better”

About a year ago, I attended a board meeting for an equestrian group; its leadership is populated with well intentioned, yet overextended, equine enthusiasts. We had set lofty goals for ourselves that season, few of which we had managed to attain. Our running theme throughout the meeting was that in the upcoming year, our new goal moving forward was simply to “do better”. It became both an excuse and a plan of attack.

As a result, the notion of “doing better” was something I thought about all last year, in a broader context. Many of the most pervasive and pressing issues facing the equine industry at this time boil down to needing better education, better awareness and better advocacy. In order to move towards resolution on messy, complicated problems such as the unwanted horse crisis, loss of open space, unqualified instructors, ignorant but well-intentioned horse owners and an overall lack of understanding of horses by non-horse people, we as equestrians must do better, in many facets and iterations of the concept.

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I could probably do a better job of grooming Nori.

And here we are, already nearly a third of the way through 2019, and for various reasons I am left still ruminating on the same theme. At the US Equestrian Federation meeting in January, I attended a panel discussion focusing on the needs of the grassroots. Most at the table defined “grassroots” as being riders who have some experience, maybe compete at local level shows, and who see issues such as cost, exclusivity and accessibility as being barriers to their participation in competitive sport at a higher level. As leaders of the USEF, it is not surprising that their definition of the grassroots is competition centric.

But I would like to take it even further.

Turning to Google Dictionary, the definition of “grassroots” is as follows: “the most basic level of an activity or an organization; ordinary people regarded as the main body of an organization’s membership.” Using this definition of grassroots, are we not talking about the vast majority of horse people?

Most equine groups draw a pyramid to represent their membership; a very small percentage of members are at the elite level represented by the narrowest part of the triangle at the top, while the vast majority is competing, training or enjoying their horses at levels closer to the bottom. I don’t like the word bottom though—I think a better word is “foundation”. Because without these riders, horse lovers, trainers, coaches and fans, THERE IS NO ELITE EQUESTRIAN.  It simply cannot exist.

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Nothing beats a ride with good friends.

I firmly believe that as a sport, as an industry, equestrians are in trouble, because the base is no longer on steady ground. There are several reasons for this: constantly increasing expense, loss of equestrian lands and expanded gentrification are surely a huge part of it. But I also think that equestrians as a group still continue to allow the differences between our disciplines to divide us, rather than work towards allowing our mutual love and admiration for the horse to unite us.

In 2017, the American Horse Council repeated its economic impact study of the horse industry, and they came up with some impressive figures. $50 billion direct impact to the U.S. economy. 32 million acres of land owned and 49 million acres of land leased for horse-related uses. 7.2 million horses in the U.S. But perhaps even more telling is that of those 7.2 million, almost half (3,141,449 to be exact) are used for recreation.  If we were drawing that pyramid, here is our industry’s base. Our foundation.

But how many horse owners and horse lovers are finding themselves priced out of the industry? Even on a shoestring, keeping a horse is not cheap. For many grassroots horse owners, there is sacrifice and choice involved in owning their animals. I have a lot of respect for that, because that has been my personal experience too. In order to make horse ownership a reality, I have always been in some combination of management, rough board or working boarder situation. I also have been blessed to know some exceedingly generous farm owners who were willing to let me and my horses into their lives and barns. “Where there’s a will there’s a way” may be cliché, but in my experience that plus a little bit of luck and a willingness to work hard has made opportunities happen.

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It can be hard to clean up the paddock when its resident insists on sleeping in the poo.

I know firsthand the passion which many of those at the grassroots bring to their equestrianism. And I would like to respectfully suggest that as horsemen, we do a better job of acknowledging that any time a horse is in a situation where he is well cared for, sheltered and loved, it really doesn’t matter whether they are an elite athlete or not, whether they are living up to someone else’s agenda, whether they are wearing mismatched bellboots and a hand me down blanket. It doesn’t matter if the owner’s goal for the season is to make it to the area finals, to go to a schooling show series, to attend clinics/lessons/camps, to learn to canter, to hack on the trails or to simply spend time with their horse and work on the ground. It doesn’t matter. We need to do a better job of recognizing that what all equestrians bring to the table should be a love of the horse.

I would like to humbly propose a list of ways in which we can “do better” — for ourselves, for each other, and for our horses. I bet you can add some other ideas too; please post them in the comments.

Do Better Personally

When it comes to doing better, there is no easier place to start than with ourselves. Doing better could be as simple as finding an instructor you connect with and taking a weekly lesson. It could be committing to riding three days per week. Cleaning your tack more often. Prioritizing your riding and your goals and learning what that means for scheduling your life around this objective.

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Simply spending time with your (muddy, heavily shedding) horse can be its own reward.

Join a horse club. Pick one that means something to you—a breed society, a discipline organization, the local trails group. Contribute to groups which keep trails open, allow horse camping, protect open space. Support a rescue whose work makes sense to you. Donate your unused equipment and supplies to someone in need. Be a part of the broader equine community.

Commit to your own continuing education. Even the best in the world do this so we mortals are certainly not exempt. Read a book (check out my many book reviews for some inspiration!). Watch a video. Follow someone on YouTube. Go to a clinic. Keep your mind open. If you are a coach or trainer, question your credentials. Get certified. Become a mentor. Be a role model that a developing equestrian can look up to. Always, always respect the animal.

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I make it a goal to attend as many clinics as I can each year, about a range of topics. Here, Jochen Schleese discusses saddle fit. 

When you are at the barn, put your phone away. Don’t be checking your social media and emails when you are supposed to be enjoying your horse and his company. That’s just rude.

Stop waiting for someone else to show you the way, to organize the trail ride, to get you to a clinic or show. Smile at the child who wants to pet your horse and teach them how to do so safely. Set your goals, break them down, and start achieving your dreams.

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Do Better Regionally

This year in New Hampshire, a local state representative proposed a bill which would have required that animal owners, including equestrians, clean up any waste left when in a state park or forest. This is not the first time a “poop bill” has been proposed in our state, and as a result, there are already administrative rules in place that mandate the cleanup of trail heads and other common areas. Trails, though, are exempt. Equestrians and dog mushers banded together in opposition, and the proposal died in committee at the beginning of this month.

I was actively involved in letter writing, petition signing and otherwise trying to get the word out to local equestrians about the risk posed by this bill to reasonable trail access. And there were two things which really struck me as a result of this process—first, the disconnect between horseback riders and non-horse people is continuing to grow. Second, equestrians need to become more proactive in advocating for ourselves, and this means not sitting back and waiting for someone else to lead the charge. Are you an equestrian? Then the someone who needs to do something is YOU.

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For any horse related event or activity to occur, there are hours spent in preparation, usually by volunteers. Be sure to take your turn!

In online forums and in response to newspaper articles discussing the proposed bill, non-equestrian comments ranged from mildly indifferent to scathing. I was disturbed to read a number of comments which tended towards sentiments such as “equestrians need to get off their high horse and clean up their s&%t” or “equestrians are entitled and just think everyone else should have to deal with their manure”. Other common themes reflected an overall lack of understanding of horses and the logistics of riding in the open, such as the challenges associated with mounting and dismounting safely on trail, horses’ general aversion to wearing poop bags, and the difficulty of carrying clean up equipment on horseback.

We defeated the bill, this time, but I know it will be back. And I fear that there will come a time when due to a continued shift in demographics, a sense complacency in the equine community and/or other unforeseen factors, that we will not be able to win. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

As equestrians, we need to do better to unite with other trail users (snowmobilers, mountain bikers, hikers), land trusts, conservation commissions and state land protection agencies. We need to educate them about what horses are and are not, and we need to do so from a place of compassion. We need to volunteer to maintain trails and police other equestrians who use them.

If competition is more your thing—then become active with a regional show organization. Volunteer. Thank your organizers. Support local and regional shows. I have a lot of thoughts on this subject too—you can review them here.

The bottom line is, we need to do better in reaching out to our local communities to educate them about the amazing benefits which horses can bring to an area. Therapeutic programs offer recreation and cognitive, physical and emotional benefits to the differently abled, victims of trauma, and our veterans. Lesson programs give young people and adults an opportunity for wholesome fun, exercise, the chance to be outdoors and all the many benefits which come from learning to be a horseman. Farm owners contribute to the local economy both directly and through support industries like veterinary medicine, farriery, hay production and more. Horse farms help to preserve open land.

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Most people are not raised around horses anymore. Sometimes they have unusual ideas of what it means to be a horseman. Yet in the American Horse Council study, 31% of American households identified as having a horse lover within them. Horses still possess a mystique, a unique draw which calls humans to them like no other species. We need to do better to encourage those horse lovers to stay connected and to allow for opportunities for community members to safely interact with our animals. Humans instinctively fear or oppose things which they do not understand.

All it takes is one positive interaction for someone to have a new level of understanding and appreciation for the horse.

Doing Better for our Horses

If this blog feels a little preachy, or a little bit soap boxy, well, I suppose it is. But for me what it comes down to, always, is our horses. I want to see our industry continue to thrive decades into the future, beyond my lifetime. I want so much to know that all horse crazy young people will have a realistic chance to enjoy all that comes with interacting with these amazing creatures, that the privilege will not become reserved only for those whose resources already allow them access to everything else. I want to ensure that we will all continue to have places to ride, both in and out of the arena, which are safe and beautiful. I want to believe that horses will continue to have a place to exist and be a part of our ever-evolving world, one where they are valued simply for being horses, not because of what they represent in status or competitive success or ego.

So again, I ask you, I ask myself, I ask all equestrians—what can we do better in 2019? And in the years to come?

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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?”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

 

Using Work in Hand to Gymnastically Develop the Horse: an Introduction to Straightness Training

Lately, my interest in broadening my understanding of various kinds of ground and in hand work has been growing, and I am enjoying learning about ways in which this work could be beneficial to both my training process and developing the relationship with my horses.

In mid February, I had the opportunity to visit Narnia Stables in Ashford, Conn., the home base for trainer Meg Brauch, who was offering a Straightness Training (ST) clinic with lecture and demo. The clinic’s title was “Using Work in Hand to Gymnastically Develop the Horse”, and photos promoting the event showed many happy horses in various stages of training. I was intrigued and roped my friend Sally into making the two and a half hour drive down for the afternoon start time.

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Meg Brauch working with Paladin. Meg was kind enough to permit me to “borrow” photos from her Facebook for use with this blog.

Straightness Training is a system developed by Dutch equestrian Marijke de Jong. After one short afternoon session, I am far from qualified to fully discuss the system or its philosophies in any great length, but I did take away that it is inspired by the work of classical horsemen like Gueriniere, Baucher, and those of the Iberian peninsula, and that it is intended as a systematic and progressive system that focuses on developing a horse using humane methods.

Introduction to ST

Meg provided a basic overview of the ST system, where I recognized some clear areas of overlap with other, better-known-to me, training philosophies. First off, most of the unmounted work is done in a cavesson. I was quite impressed with the design of Meg’s cavesson.  In my experience, finding correctly fitting cavessons is a real challenge; they usually do not conform well to the muzzle or sit evenly around the bones of the skull.  The cavessons Meg uses are Baroque inspired and have a piece of padded chain over the nose; I am sure that some people will find this too harsh, and I am sure in the wrong hands it would be.  But in truth, the shape of the noseband better conformed to the muzzle than most of the off the rack cavessons out there, and the weight of the noseband overall was much less than a regular cavesson. It had a greater degree of adjustability as well; one of the horses Meg used for demonstration later in the afternoon was an Anglo-Trakhener, heavy on the Thoroughbred blood, and his refined face seemed fit well in the cavesson. This style also has an option to fairly easily add a bit, which is a useful feature.

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There is a good view of the cavesson here as Meg appears to be asking this horse for LFS.

The ST system is based on its “five pillars”: groundwork, longeing, work in hand, riding and liberty work. The first two steps are done in a cavesson with a single line attached, and in these stages, the goal is to teach the horse how to carry themselves. The work in hand, which we were there to watch specifically, is done in a cavesson with a set of reins clipped to either side, as on a bridle. As horses become more advanced, a curb bit can be clipped to the cavesson along with a set of reins, and the horse is introduced to the concept of a double bridle.

Horses which are trained in the ST system will be introduced to many under saddle concepts prior to actually being backed; the exercises are meant to help develop the horse’s balance as well as to gymnastically work and develop the muscles.  For a youngster, ST can help the horse to understand the rein aids and develop lightness. In the end, the horse should become confident, relaxed and supple in their work. Due to the mental and physical demands, ST should not be started before the horse’s third year. Lightness was a pervasive theme, both in the application of the aids and the weight of the horse in the hand.

For the handler, ST teaches a better feel for their mount’s natural asymmetry and body position in the lateral exercises, and also helps to improve their sense of timing. Meg promised that this improved “feel” transfers over to the ridden work.

Understanding Asymmetry

Now, to really understand the importance of lateral work, you have to also appreciate that horses are naturally asymmetrical. Horses are narrower in the shoulders than the hips, and like humans, are “sided”, meaning one set of limbs tends to be in charge. In our usual handling practices, horsemen do little to improve the situation (when was the last time you led/untacked/mounted from the right or “off” side?).

ST teaches about “eight dimensions of asymmetry”. For me, there was nothing new here, but I really liked the way the concepts were organized. Meg presented the dimensions of asymmetry as follows:

  • Lateral bending (issues here are usually the easiest to correct)
  • Horizontal imbalance (horse naturally carries more weight on forehand)
  • Front legs (Handedness, as in, which leg does your horse prefer to lead with)
  • Hind Legs (the carrying hind leg is more flexible, and the pushing hind leg tends to be straighter, stronger and less flexible)
  • Front/back ratio (the wedge shape of the horse which I referred to earlier)
  • Diagonal (one diagonal pair will be dominant, and usually the pushing hind is diagonal to the dominant front)
  • Vertical (leaning in on an angle on corners)
  • Topline (we want the horse to stretch here and be longer and rounded).

In general, a right bended horse tends to be left forelimb dominant and usually has a pushing right hind. Their concave side is their right side.  Reverse all of these for a horse which is left bended (which seems to be less common overall).

To improve the horse first requires awareness of the asymmetry on the part of the trainer. All beings are asymmetrical, but through thoughtful and steady work, improvement is always possible.

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Meg working at liberty.

Use of the Aids in ST

The pillars of ST work which are done on the ground require the use of the handler’s body language and voice, but several other aids are also important. The first is mental focus—Meg used the expression “inner picture, inner feeling”, which basically means that before a trainer begins any exercise with their horse, they should have a sense of what it is they are trying to accomplish. Related to this is the concept of “energetic aids”, which basically is saying that the handler should be centered, grounded and present, with their full attention on the horse and the task at hand. Finally, for several pillars, artificial aids like a long whip (for driving, slowing or reinforcing) or rein (used similarly to the riding reins, with inside/outside and direct/indirect cues offered) are also included. A direct rein influences the horse’s poll while an indirect rein influences the shoulders, almost like having a lasso around the horse’s neck.

The demonstration section of this clinic was focusing on the work in hand, a pillar which comes after a horse already has a basic understanding of the ground work done with a cavesson on a single line, attached to the nose. Basic circle work and an introduction to the lateral movements should be established through ground work before progressing to work in hand, which is done with a set of reins clipped to either side of the cavesson, as on a bridle. During the ground work phase, the handler works on the inside of the horse.  But during the in hand phase, the handler will transition to the outside of the horse.

The whip becomes a tool of refined communication, based primarily by its position.  It can be used to activate the hind end, or when held in front of the chest, indicates a half halt. Held at the girth, it asks for more bend or forward intention. Pointed towards the opposite hip, it becomes an advanced aid to increase the angle of the haunches in. When kept down by the handler’s side, the whip is in neutral.

Progression of Exercises

In each stage of progression through the pillars, a series of specific exercises is introduced in order. During each exercise, the horse is encouraged to maintain “LFS”—lateral bend, a forward and downward tendency, while stepping under their center of mass with the hind leg.

  • Standstill: Meg says many folks new to ST work tend to gloss over this exercise, because it seems too easy or basic. But mastering the stand still, in which the horse halts with front feet square, head and neck lowered, while willingly flexing left and right, provides an important foundation. It also gives the horse a first introduction of the cavesson and its pressure, and helps to teach them to center their mass away from their dominant fore limb.
  • Circle: Usually done only in the walk, the circle is used to help establish LFS. “We don’t tend to do these in trot or canter, because it is hard to go from the circle to a straight line and keep the horse well balanced,” says Meg.
  • LFS on Straight Line, progressing to Shoulder In
  • Haunches In
  • Renvers
  • Half Pass
  • Pirouette
  • Trot
  • Canter
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I had to include this photo of my friend Carolyn, who seems to be practicing that pesky standstill!

Training Theory

When it comes down to it, what I witnessed at this clinic was the application of highly effective classical and operant training techniques. This is really at the root of most good animal training, whether you are talking about riding horses or training dogs or teaching some exotic zoo animal to engage in a medical exam. ST work is about applying the 3 R’s—Release, Reward, Relax. When the horse makes a move towards doing the thing you want, the handler offers a “bingo cue” (some sort of consistent sound), they release the pressure, and then immediately reward the horse with verbal or physical praise or a treat. There is then a short break to allow the horse to process what he just learned.

It is the timing and dosing of the pressure and release process which is most people’s downfall.  Basically, handlers need to AVOID pressure which is held too much, too long, too often, too suddenly or too steadily, and EMBRACE release which is early, often, quickly administered, long and soon.  Release more than you take. Through this process, the horse learns to carry the posture on his own.

There are three phases of the training process.  The first phase is teaching the horse.  In this phase, we are trying to help the horse begin to understand the exercise, and to develop the new neural pathways which will allow it to be performed. At this stage, the movement may lack gymnastic quality, or be in slow motion, similar to how we might learn a new dance step.  In the optimizing phase, the trainer focuses on improving the quality of the movement and encourages the horse to work towards self-carriage in the body and mind.  Finally, in the improvising phase, the exercise can now be used for a purpose or in a goal-oriented way.

Another way to look at the training and learning process is to understand that in doing any activity, there is the comfort zone (doing what you know and is familiar), the stretch zone (where you are trying something new that is out of your comfort zone but still attainable) and the stress zone (where what you are trying to teach is too much, too soon). Growth occurs in the stretch zone, but not every day can be a stretch day. And when we live in the stress zone… no training occurs.

Demonstration

Meg demonstrated the in hand techniques with two of her own horses.  The first horse was a 6 year old Hanoverian gelding who has had a “slow start” in his training progress due to various injuries. She demonstrated that she held each rein through the thumb and forefinger, so the overall contact was quite light.  The outside rein should cross the neck in front of the withers, but not be more than half way up the neck. The goal is to work towards holding the reins closer to the withers than the head, so that the horse is ultimately coming forward from the hindquarters and into the rein (similar to riding).  However, when the trainer loses quality, they should move their hold closer to the cavesson until the necessary elements improve. The handler’s body should be positioned off of the girth; Meg explained that it is really easy to get out in front of the horse’s shoulder.

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Meg and her horse Renfrew.

This particular horse usually struggles with the stand still, but today demonstrated the position with his feet even and square. Meg emphasized that under saddle, the horse must learn to wait to move until the rider’s cue, and this practice starts here. She encouraged the horse to stretch forward and down using gentle pressure on the front of the cavesson, and then flexed him to the left and right with pressure on the sides.

After a few moments in the stand still, Meg moved on to doing small circles, 8-10 meters in diameter, to encourage the bending of the horse, while still asking for the forward and downward tendency.  When she asked for transitions to the halt, the effort is made mostly from the voice.  The ultimate goal is to use little to no pressure on the reins in the halt, as the horse will usually tend to come up in the neck and lean into this pressure.

Because changing the bend while in motion is fairly difficult, Meg halted her horse and changed the reins over to the opposite side to work in the other direction.

She then proceeded to demonstrate the shoulder in (be sure to not draw the horse’s nose further in than their point of shoulder) and haunches in (the horse is taught to bend around the whip, which provides the cue).

Next, Meg brought in her 19 year old schoolmaster, Paladin, an Anglo-Trakehner. He came to her due to intermittent front end lameness which had ended his competitive career; through ST work to straighten his body, redevelop movement patterns and correct asymmetrical muscling, the lameness has all but resolved.

Meg worked through all of the same initial movements with Paladin, but then also showed us work in trot and canter.  She explained that the classical masters would sometimes introduce half steps in hand before introducing the trot in order to develop balance and strength; in the faster gaits, it is best to do very short bursts to prevent the horse from losing balance. No matter the gait of the horse, the handler should always remain walking, not jogging, to keep up.

Teaching these progressive exercises in the walk and trot with a youngster can help them to understand what is wanted before trying to do the movements with a rider on board. The movements may also be done in the canter, but this requires more collection than a young horse will have; it is better to introduce the canter under saddle first and allow the horse to develop more strength before teaching these exercises in that gait.

Take Aways

When I signed up for this clinic, I was not expecting a full immersion into an organized training system. I am almost always initially skeptical of programs which promote a particular prescripted philosophy, special equipment (ex: buy this halter/video series/magic stick for just 99.95) or come with too many impassioned disciples who all function at only a very basic level. So before I “drink the Kool-Aid”, I like to try to learn a little more.

Straightness Training (http://straightnesstraining.com/) is a pretty comprehensive program.  Its founder, Marijke de Jong, has created an ambitious and heavily trademarked/registered system of instruction, coaching, certification and support. Under the “FAQ’s” page on her website are some interesting threads on integrating ST work with “other types of riding” as well as what the difference is between classical riding and Straightness Training. Here, deJong compares the different schools of classical dressage training (German, Spanish, etc.) to the branches of a tree; while the specific approaches and techniques taught in these different schools may vary, they all have the same roots. deJong’s work is drawing off much of the in hand training approaches used by classical masters. She seems to have studied this subject far more deeply than I have ever attempted to, and it is beyond the scope of this blog for me to do any analysis on the connections here.

I think we as horsemen are all enthralled with the idea of having a horse which responds to our aids with lightness and sensitivity and to have the kind of relationship with our horse that is seemingly effortless and harmonious. Certainly in Meg’s demonstration she showed that with time and care, her work on the ground has allowed each of her horses to respond to quiet and soft aids as they worked through their lateral movements.  Despite being distracted by outside stimuli and twenty auditors, both horses chose ultimately to focus on Meg, with a minimum of fuss and no force.

I think my major, most important take away from this clinic was a reminder that we must all reward more often and for less effort. It is so easy, especially in dressage or equitation work, to drill ourselves and our horses. In doing so, we fail to recognize the “try”, the little effort the animal or student puts forward to improve, because we are too focused on shaping the response to be what we want in a final performance. But in order to get to that evolved, confident and smooth answer, there are many small, incremental steps of growth and improvement. If we as teachers and trainers do not reward these steps, the progress and growth we specifically seek can be deterred.

 

 

Book Review:  Real Life Dressage: Training Advice from Novice to Grand Prix

Real Life Dressage: Training Advice from Novice to Grand Prix by Carl Hester and Polly Ellison

c 2004 Kenilworth Press Ltd. Addington, Buckingham, U.K. 120 pages.

ISBN 1-872119-49-2

After attending the NEDA Fall Symposium with Carl Hester in October of 2017, I became more interested in understanding some of the philosophy behind his training methods.  I came across his book, Real Life Dressage: Training Advice from Novice to Grand Prix, and thought the concept looked interesting; Hester would discuss the process of his training through the lens of his own horses, starting with expectations of a four or five year old and progressing through Grand Prix.  Hester described each of the horses as not being perfect, since the perfect horse does not exist.  Instead, he detailed how he planned to work through their unique challenges.

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This concept related quite well to some of the ideas which Hester shared during the Symposium; to wit, to overcome a horse’s challenges one must use their strengths.  In the book’s introduction, Hester writes, “Difficult horses can become good horses….it is important not to give up until you are absolutely sure it’s not going to work.  If there is a glimmer of hope, it is worth persevering” (Hester, 2004, p. 9). All of the horses he highlights in the book, including his famous Escapado, his 2004 Olympic mount, are in training for the Grand Prix.

The most helpful chapter to me was number two: “Top Dressage Horses—Are They Born or Made?”, in which Hester details what he looks for in a young dressage horse.  In particular, he wants good gaits, with emphasis on the walk and canter, a good temperament, and rideability.  Many of Hester’s horses were purchased by him, either alone or in partnership, and developed through his program.  The man clearly has an eye for a horse, and he coaches that if one can find a quality horse young enough, a top flight horse might well be within the purchasing capacity of many riders.

Escapado at the 2004 Olympics

Throughout the book, I could clearly hear the repetition of themes which Hester is still preaching today. He discusses the importance of not drilling, especially on a youngster.  And that horses must be horses—they enjoy turn out and hacking and sometimes will spook, not to be naughty but because it is the prerogative of the species. One great quote was that overcoming this behavior is “…a matter of confidence, which is built up by repetition rather than reprimand” (Hester, 2004, p 43).

Since this book is nearly fifteen years old, it was interesting to Google the names of the horses which he describes and to learn the arc of their careers. Most were sold but had successful show careers through the FEI levels, some stood at stud, and some are now deceased. Reading a slightly older book like this feels like when you find a new TV series several years in; you can quickly scan ahead and find out what becomes of your favorite characters and decide whether you want to keep watching.

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Overall, this book is an easy read and I think if you take it for what it is—a quick snap shot into the training system of one trainer—then you will find it enjoyable and some comments perhaps useful.  If you are looking for something which is in depth, a robust analysis into a training system for “real life” horses—this book is not that. The horses Hester is working with are genetically blessed and the discussion of each is fairly basic.  The struggles they face surely mirror the same ones faced by riders on “normal” horses, but of course, the scale is tipped quite a bit in their favor.

3.5/5 Stars

 

 

Notes and Observations:  Carl Hester at the NEDA Fall Symposium 2017

The northeast dressage community was electrified by the announcement that British dressage superstar Carl Hester would headline the 2017 New England Dressage Association (NEDA) Fall Symposium, held October 14-15, 2017 at the picturesque Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, ME.

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Abby Hardy riding Geoffrey and a previous symposium held at Pineland.

Hester’s influence on the sport of dressage in the UK has been pronounced, and includes leading the team to medals at the World Equestrian Games, Olympics and European Championships.  In fact, at the Rio Olympics in 2016, Hester not only rode (Nip/Tuck) but was the trainer of the other three members of the team:  Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro (who Hester co-owns), Fiona Bigwood and Atterupgaards Orthilia and Spencer Wilton and Super Nova II.

The recent success of the British team is refreshing, as it comes after years of harsh criticism of previous Dutch and German champions, many of whom were proponents of hyperflexion/rollkur.  These horses were criticized for being too tense, incorrect in their movement and otherwise not truly demonstrating the throughness, obedience and correctness necessary at the world class Grand Prix level.  By contrast, Hester is a clear proponent of adherence to classical training methods; he has an eye for a horse, frequently selecting his mounts as youngsters and training them through the levels himself.  His horses, and their riders, fairly dance through their performances.

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Hester spoke to a sold out house; I was only able to attend on day one, but even just spending just one day auditing was enough to grasp clear themes which emerged through demonstrations which began with a four year old and progressed all the way through to Grand Prix.

Here are my top eight take aways from this symposium.

  • Try to keep horses as naturally as possible.

Hester was originally an event rider, and so maybe this is why he still believes in actually turning horses out.  “If you want to keep your horses sound and happy and easy to ride—leave them out,” said Hester.  He notes that youngsters which are not turned out enough often end up being overworked because they are so high that it takes a long time to establish the necessary suppleness and relaxation.  As horses move up the levels and need more energy for their work, they might need to be kept in more.  But even Hester’s most elite horses enjoy time in turnout daily.

To this point, Hester also believes in regular out of the ring hacking for dressage horses, both for mental health and to develop fitness.  Young horses may only work for 20-30 minutes per session but should be warmed up by moving around outside of the ring.  “Horses must be fit, and if you are just riding them for twenty minutes they will not be fit enough,” said Hester.

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My own youngster, Izzy, clearly believes in the importance of sleeping and resting.  Especially when housekeeping has arrived to clean the paddock.
  •  Temperament, a good walk and a good canter are most important.

“I have been proven wrong many times by a horse with not the best movement but excellent temperament,” said Hester.

It is important for a dressage prospect to have as close to a perfect walk and canter as possible, because these gaits are much harder to improve than the trot.  However, a youngster with an unclear walk may simply need more strength. Horses with huge walks and a big overstep can be hard to collect. Riding zigzags up and down hills can help to improve the walk.

  • Less is more.

“All training goes like this,” said Hester, drawing a line in the air with his finger that resembled a rollercoaster.  Sometimes a horse will hit a phase of their training where they get more difficult, and this is not always a sign that the horse is being stubborn.  “Give them a break—a few weeks off,” said Hester.  “They can be tired or muscle sore.”

Hester repeated this theme in numerous ways during the day.  “Your horse isn’t born reading the dictionary—you must teach them the dictionary,” he said in regards to training youngsters.

“If the horse is not on the bit, do not force them,” said Hester. “The horse needs to work out where to put themselves.”  He reiterated this in several sessions.  “Do NOT be obsessed with the horse being ‘on the bit’,” said Hester.  “They will come onto the bit with correct work.”

During the work itself, horses need breaks when they become fatigued; a break can sometimes be as basic as taking a short diagonal while allowing the horse to lower their neck. “The rider must listen and feel for this request from the horse,” said Hester.

Make sure you finish a training session with work the horse finds easy.  Put the “meat” of your training towards the beginning or middle of your work.

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Hearing Hester’s words came at a perfect time for me, as work and school demands kept me from having as much time available for serious training.  Instead, I used the fall to focus on stretching, hacking, cavaletti work and strength building with my top horse, Anna.
  • Increase demands GRADUALLY 

Training must be systematic.  Youngsters should start by working on long straight lines and large circles.  They need to learn to turn from the outside aids of the rider, and be encouraged to reach through their topline in a long outline. A four-year-old might work just twenty to thirty minutes, four times per week, stretching in the walk, trot and canter, slowly building to the development of the ability to bend and straighten.  Once this foundation has been set, as a five-year-old the horse should work on smoother transitions, better balance, and increased lateral suppleness, using leg yield.

It takes time for horses to figure out what you want when you teach them something new.  On the first day, introduce the horse to the new skill; on day two review, then give them day three off.  On days four and five, repeat the lessons of days one and two.  Then go hacking on the weekend.

It. Takes. Time.

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  • TRANSITIONS 

Hester is obsessed with transitions.  He said he does “lots” of transitions per session—hundreds of them.  Big ones.  Small ones.  Between gaits, within gaits.

The trot to canter transition engages the inside hind, while canter to trot teaches the horse to come more forward into the rider’s hand and use their back more.  Canter-walk-canter will work towards getting the horse to truly sit behind and come off of their forehand.  “Listen for the sound of the front feet,” said Hester of this transition.  “You shouldn’t hear them.  These kinds of exercises build the strength to do the next level of collection.”

At the FEI levels, horses must be able to go from the trot or canter directly to the halt.  This starts by teaching a young horse to ride cleanly from trot-walk-halt.  Gradually, make the duration of the walk smaller until it goes away.  “Your piaffe-passage lives in the trot-halt transitions,” said Hester.  Hester recommends using a ground person to verify that each hind leg is squarely under the horse.  “This is how you ensure that each leg aid is activating the hind leg on that side,” said Hester.

For horses which come behind the leg, Hester recommends bringing them back as soon as they start to go forward, rather than waiting for them to slow down.  “You must take the leg off in between asks,” said Hester.  “Telling someone to ride forward when they don’t have the balance will not work.”

If you make it to Grand Prix, the transitions are the hardest part, especially from piaffe to passage and back.  “Good collection makes good extension,” said Hester.  At the lower levels, and for horses without a natural lengthening, asking for bigger strides on the circle can help to improve the gaits.

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Anna is a great example of a horse without much natural lengthening to her stride.  I have been trying to add “hundreds” of transitions to her work, ala Hester,  to try to develop more reach in her step.
  • Know your craft. Really, really know it.

Hester emphasized that all riders should understand the fundamentals of biomechanics and conditioning in the horse.  Riders should also choose a horse which suits their personality.

Self-carriage in the horse begins with teaching the horse to carry their own head and neck in the free walk on a long rein.  The rider should use their arms in a rowing fashion, pushing the neck down and forward.  Keeping the reins moving and looking for lightness in the hand is most important.

When tracking right, most horses bring their nose and haunches to the inside.  The rider must use more outside (left) rein to help keep the horse’s nose in front of their chest. When the horse tracks left, the rider can ask for more inside flexion to help stretch the chronically shortened right side. “When the nose and hips are to the right, the middle of the horse is out,” said Hester. “You need to bring the middle of the horse in.”

Hester made reference to an often misattributed quote of his student Dujardin, which goes something like “short reins win medals”.  “Short reins allow you to ride forward to the hand,” said Hester.  “Long reins will cause you to take back.  During the warm up, some horses will be very strong in the hand and some very light.  Do not mistake lightness for contact.”  The use of a driving rein position can be helpful for horses which curl in the neck in response to the rider’s hand.

Hester said that there is no hard and fast rule as to when introduce the double bridle.  “If the horse is not sure at first, I might hack out in it,” said Hester.  “But if the horse doesn’t go well to the snaffle then they won’t go to the bit in the double.  The horse must be in self carriage in the double bridle for it to work.”

Do not rely on your reins to create the shoulder in, rely on your legs.

To ride an accurate half pass, “put your destination in between your horse’s ears.”  Keep the rider’s weight on the inside seat bone.

Flying changes should be cued with a squeeze of the rider’s heel, not by drawing the entire leg back, especially on a dull horse.

Leg yield in canter can help to free up the horse within the gait; half pass in canter increases collection. In both movements, the horse’s shoulders should be leading slightly.

The half-halt is a forward aid.  “The half halt needs to feel like the horse is happy to go forward, not happy to stop,” said Hester.

Hester does not often use dressage whips.  “If you are going to ride with a whip, then the horse should not be best friends with it,” said Hester.  “But they also shouldn’t fear it.  The use of the whip should create a medium trot step instantly.”

“You ride for thirty to sixty minutes—do it right.”

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  • Be positive.

Training your horse should be like playing a game.  Make the work playful.  Reward often.  “Every time they give the correct reaction, offer a touch on the neck or a small pat with the inside rein,” said Hester.

The rider’s goal should be to put positive tension into their work, and afterwards stretch the horse and take a break.  “With the stretch, the horse shows relaxation,” said Hester.

To this end, rising trot can be a valuable tool.  “Rising trot is not just for amateurs and young horses,” said Hester.  “It can be helpful whenever you are asking the horse for more.  It can be used in the half pass, extended trot, etc.”

Always, always remember that horses are authentic.  “If the horse is difficult because he is stiff, he doesn’t do it to annoy you,” said Hester.  “He does it because he’s stiff, so you need to give him some time and work through it in a systematic way.”

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Sometimes your horse makes it very clear that they did not appreciate the way in which you asked for the flying change!
  • Dressage is not just about the movements.

Hester said that his older horses may work as much as two-three hours per day to develop the fitness necessary for elite dressage.  “But you are not just schooling the Grand Prix,” said Hester.  “You can’t do that. They must get fit through stretching, hacking and loosening.”

The hardest part of dressage, according to Hester, is attending to the care and health of your horse, and keeping them sound.  “It’s not what you invest in the horse, it is what you invest in training,” said Hester.  “Buy what you can afford; they might be two years old, but you can start here and train them.”

Hester said that it can be hard to stay inspired when working on your own.  “Everyone needs to find someone to work with,” said Hester.

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While I have taken inspiration from many coaches, it is Verne Batchelder’s assistance which has proven to be the most helpful with Anna.  

Final Thoughts

The content of this symposium was refreshing in its emphasis on correct, classical training and the emergence of the clear, horse friendly system that has led to Hester’s success.  There are no tricks or shortcuts, just a clever adherence to finding the joy in each individual horse, using their strengths to develop their weaknesses.  The horses chosen for demonstration were exceptional examples of the quality of work at each level.

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This won’t be a popular opinion—but for me, what was NOT refreshing about this symposium was all of the hoopla and rigmarole around it. Ex:  Tickets will go on sale at midnight, to NEDA members only.  Doors will open at 7:30 AM (symposium does not begin until 9:15). You will get a nametag to affix to your chair, no saving seats.  Dressage has a reputation for divas, for excessive wealth, for elitism.  This symposium did NOTHING to eliminate that perception; if anything, it enhanced it.  I don’t know how much came from Hester himself (for example, it is his request that no photographs are taken, out of respect for the training process and privacy of the riders) and how much came from NEDA.  Some of the demo horses came from Florida, Ohio and Maryland, for goodness sake. Of the over one hundred rider applicants, we couldn’t find animals from our membership’s base?  Where were the Irish horses, the OTTBs, the “native ponies”?  It is great to see these methods work well with the genetically blessed horses which were selected (again, I don’t know if Hester had final say and this was his design).  But I would suspect that most of the NEDA membership is not riding horses of this caliber, and it would have been inspirational to see even a modest transformation in a “normal” horse during the course of this symposium.  By the end of the day, I had had my fill of the “fussiness” of dressage.

With that being said, I am appreciative of the hard work and organization which went into the planning of this educational event, a process two years in the making.  We are lucky to have access to this caliber of education in the northeast and I am grateful for the hours of effort from the volunteers which put this together.

Hester closed day one with the following summary.  “Dressage is the art of putting a crooked person on a crooked animal and expecting them to be straight and then move to self-carriage,” said Hester.  “Self-carriage is having the horse balanced on all four legs.”

 

Book Review: Ridden: Dressage from the Horse’s Point of View

Ridden:  Dressage from the Horse’s Point of View by Ulrike Thiel

c 2013 Trafalgar Square Books: North Pomfret, VT. 225 pages.

ISBN 978-1-57076-558-2

Ridden: Dressage from the Horse’s Point of View is an intellectual read, part study of equine biomechanics, part reflection on training philosophy and part treatise on the essential need to commit to the classical principles in all work with horses.  Author Dr. Ulrike Thiel is a clinical psychologist, therapeutic and able-bodied riding instructor, and dressage devotee, and in this book she blends her education, experience and scientific analysis together in a manner which synthesizes a complex topic into a manageable narrative.

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What Thiel does extremely well in this book is providing analogies, visuals and exercises which can help a rider to understand, in human terms, what a horse is experiencing under certain circumstances.  Through these means, Thiel helps the rider to have better empathy for how much most horses are willing to offer to us, despite muddled communication, improper balance and a host of other challenges.  She conscientiously takes the reader through the learning process which a horse and rider must undertake, including overcoming the predator/prey relationship by gaining a horse’s trust, confidence and respect.

Once Thiel has laid the framework for developing the horse/human relationship through mutual respect, she then delves deeper into the concepts espoused in classical dressage training, comparing the horse’s progression through the exercises to the process of learning to ski for a human (among her many hats, Thiel is also a certified ski instructor). Throughout, she emphasizes the fact that horses will forgive the mistakes of humans, but those mistakes must first be acknowledged to be rectified.  The consequences of failing to correct training missteps or rider issues can result in permanent physical damage to the horse.

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From the United States Dressage Federation

After painstakingly laying out this foundation, Thiel turns her analytical focus to what she calls “modern” training methods—rollkur, hyperflexion, or low, deep and round (LDR).  These controversial training methods have been promoted by several high profile European dressage stars (including Olympic medal winners) and Thiel takes direct aim at the methods, their perpetrators, and the FEI for not wholly condemning their use. To write this book and publish it in her native Netherlands must have taken supreme courage, as one of the most famous proponents of hyperflexion has been two time Olympic gold medalist Anky Van Grunsven, who is a house hold name in the country.

It seems clear that Thiel’s motivations are truly to promote humane horsemanship and training methods, in spite of the risk of drawing what surely is sharp criticism.  “The excesses associated with equestrian sports are in the crossfire of criticism…Ultimately, the question we all need to ask is whether the well-being of the horse is being considered as he is used in sports, for pleasure, as a therapy animal, or for other purposes…As it is so often when money, power, and competition play a role, ethics and human assumption of responsibility are left by the wayside” (Thiel, 2013, p. 209).  Further, “I think the horse awakens different needs within humans.  The horse can be used as a tool to fulfill our desire for power and success” (Thiel, 2013, p. 214).

I would recommend Ridden to any horseman who is interested in better understanding why the classical training methods have endured for centuries, and why this approach is still the best way to train the horse to be the most they can be.  I hope that most equestrians that consider themselves to be true horsemen are willing to constantly put themselves under the microscope, asking what they can do better.  Reading this book and taking time to honestly reflect on its content should allow for that opportunity for growth.

I applaud Thiel for being brave enough to write this book, and for taking the time to combine intellectual and emotional rationale—left brain/right brain balance—to advocate for why adherence to classical training concepts is essential for equine well-being.

5/5 stars

Anna and the Adventures of the Double Bridle

The 2017 season marked Anna’s debut at Third Level; while we certainly didn’t make anyone nervous, as my former coach used to say, we also didn’t get arrested by the Dressage Police, so it would seem that enough of our movements were recognizable at the level that they allowed us to go on our way.

Making the jump from Second to Third level is a significant step forward in the horse’s training.  The purpose of Third Level (as is stated at the top of the test) is as follows: “To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and having begun to develop an uphill balance at Second Level, now demonstrates increased engagement, especially in the extended gaits.  Transitions between collected, medium and extended gaits should be well defined and performed with engagement.  The horse should be reliably on the bit and show a greater degree of straightness, bending, suppleness, throughness, balance and self-carriage than at Second Level.”

Oh gee, is that all?

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But in all honesty, what I have found when the average dressage rider is debating moving up to Third Level is that they are worried about two things.  1) Will my horse do a flying change?  2) Can I ride in a double?

The double bridle, also known as the full bridle, is a somewhat controversial piece of equipment.  Third Level is the first time its use is permitted under USEF rules.  As its name implies, it has two bits—a snaffle, known as the “bridoon,” and a curb, also called a “Weymouth.” The bits serve different purposes.  The snaffle helps to achieve lateral and longitudinal flexion, as well as encourages elevation in the frame.  It is also used to help position the neck left or right, and encourages the horse to open the frame when necessary.  The curb’s role is to increase longitudinal flexion, helping to “close” the frame by bringing the head more towards vertical.  The correct use of a double bridle requires that the horse is classically trained; the rider’s hands should initiate but not force the horse’s head and neck into the correct position.

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Anna’s double.  The curb is pretty flat, with minimal port, and used to belong to my Hanoverian, Worldly.

It is the use of the curb which makes the double bridle both so helpful and also potentially so harmful.  For centuries, the curb was used alone and often one handed, by knights and soldiers needing immediate control and submission from their mounts. The double bridle was not commonly used until the close of the 1700’s, likely due to the influence of French masters Pluvinel and de la Guerniere. Each horseman taught that the curb bit could be used to enable the rider to achieve a higher level of communication with the horse, not simply domination. By employing two sets of reins, the rider could use the snaffle and curb bits separately or in combination, which allowed a greater degree of refined control for military maneuvers.

The curb must be carefully chosen and fit to the horse; when used appropriately, it can allow extremely refined communication between horse and rider.  It is a leverage bit and applies pressure to the poll and chin groove, as well as to the bars, tongue and the neck; any force applied to its rein will be magnified on the horse.

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A close up of Anna’s current bits.  Talk to me in a year and we shall see what she is wearing!

The strength of the curb depends on several factors.  The overall length of the cheek of the bit is important, but so is the length of cheek above the mouthpiece versus below it.  This ratio effects the way the leverage is applied to the horse.  The tightness and fit of the curb chain is also significant, with the ideal being that when the curb chain is engaged, the lower shank is brought to 45 degrees relative to the bars of the mouth. It may require some adjustment in the curb chain tension to find just the right setting. Ideally, two fingers fit between the curb chain and the chin. Finally, the shape of the mouth piece itself influences the severity of the curb.  The unique size and shape of the horse’s tongue, bars and palate all must be considered.  Usually, the length of the shank is about the same as the width of the mouthpiece; the curb should be a minimum of 5 mm wider at each side of the mouth to avoid the lips being squeezed between the shanks.  But a too wide curb will cause muddled signals to the horse.

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What I like in this photo, from our Third Level debut, is that she is soft in the jaw, properly using the muscles of her upper neck and is slightly in front of the vertical with her forehead.  I think we are about to ride a volte here, and she needs to be better supple on the right side and more engaged with elevation in the shoulders.  I also have NO contact to speak of on the curb rein.  It is an ongoing process!

de la Guerniere said, “The mouthpiece has to be chosen based on the inner construction of the horse’s mouth, the levers in relation to his neck and the curb chain based on the sensitivity of his chin.”

Of course, as with any bit, its severity is directly related to the skill of the user.  For example, while one might assume that a shorter shanked curb is less severe, its effects are felt more quickly and so it is not ideal for someone with unsteady hands.

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Anna at a show in July– here you can see that I have too much contact on the curb, and the adjustment has brought the bit almost to horizontal.  This isn’t right either!  Good thing Anna is tolerant.  What I like in this photo though is that she is well engaged, reaching over her back, and is closer to level balance.  When you are not genetically blessed with uphill carriage, it takes quite a bit of weightlifting to get there.  This lovely photo is from MKM Equine.

I soon found that fitting the bits correctly, including consideration of the placement of the noseband, is almost an art form.  I still don’t think I have the adjustment just right, as will be seen in some of the photos here.

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Anna after a summer ride in which she did some of her first tempi changes! Thank you to the double for our more refined control!

I have ridden in doubles before, but it was only over the course of this season that I realized how little I really understood about the bridle, its use, and its effects.  The horse is only ready to begin using a double when they have developed a degree of collection and self-carriage.  When the hindquarter is properly engaged, the horse is then better able to lift their withers and base of the neck.  The curb uses even pressure to cause the horse to yield with relaxation in their lower jaw.

I was really on the fence about whether or not Anna was ready to start working in the double, because of our ongoing connection issues.  But after a session with my dear friend Jen Verharen in March, I felt sufficiently confident to at least start asking her to hack around in the double and get used to carrying two bits in her mouth.  Anna’s first ride in the double was only remarkable in that it was utterly unremarkable.  “Ho hum,” she seemed to say.  Just another day at the office.

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After her first ride in the double.  Please do not judge me for the extremely disorganized cheekpieces.  I promise that they got sorted out for the next ride! And it was raining that day– this isn’t all sweat.  🙂

I began riding Anna in her double once per week, usually on days when I was mostly doing stretching work.  Even before I started to take a greater feel through the curb rein, I noticed an improvement in the shape of her topline and neck, which I attribute (perhaps falsely) to the style of her bridoon.  Anna’s usual snaffle is a medium thickness KK loose ring with a lozenge; the bridoon on her double is a thin single jointed loose ring.  I wonder if the simplicity of the bridoon is more comfortable for her; of course, I haven’t actually gotten around to swapping out her regular snaffle to determine this! Perhaps this is a project for the winter season.

Gradually, I began to take more feel on the curb rein and introduced Anna to gentle pressure from the leverage bit.  I found that it was important to make sure that she was sufficiently loosened first, and already reaching through her back, before I took this additional contact.  When I attended a clinic with Jan Ebeling in April, I brought the double with me, but I didn’t feel confident enough yet to actually bring it out in such a public venue.

So when I took Anna down centerline for the first time at Third Level in June, I had had no direct coaching with her in the double.  However, I felt that its use sufficiently improved Anna’s outline and way of going such that it justified its use.  In reviewing the photos, I can tell that the curb helped to improve her elevation in the trot work, but I was not fully utilizing its benefits to help her in the canter. I knew I was still being too tentative.

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In this photo from Anna’s Third Level debut, you can see that I am not really using the curb rein.

Thankfully, I was able to work with Verne Batchelder over five sessions in July, August and September, which helped us to make excellent progress and gave me better insight into the use of the double during this horse’s training.  Verne encouraged me to ride Anna in the double more frequently, citing its positive effects on achieving a more correct shape through her topline and especially in her neck.  “Do not go into battle without your gear,” he laughed, as he also encouraged me to picture Anna working more towards Third Level Test 3 than Test 1.

Most of our sessions focused on positioning Anna’s neck such that she was unable to use it to block the flow of energy.  Usually this involved taking her nose slightly past the degree of flexion in her neck, waiting for her to relax, then gently straightening her by using my outside elbow.  Verne emphasizes the need to be able to swivel the horse’s head and neck at the poll; this helps to develop the muscles of the upper neck to the degree where it actually draws up and refines the area around the throatlatch.

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So I keep struggling with the adjustment of the curb chain; here you can see that the shank of Anna’s curb tends to align too much with her lips.  It should be closer to 45 degrees in relation to her bars.

Anna has quite a good walk, and really is capable of achieving scores of “8” or higher on these movements, and so we played with some walk exercises which also would help to further improve her connection. We did a series of half turns in the walk, all the while asking her to take a rounder outline through her topline and neck, more towards an FEI level of carriage, for short periods.  These turns were larger than competition sized, and we worked towards shorter, quicker steps.  This technique should help to develop greater activity in the half pass. Afterwards, we returned to forward riding on lines and larger circles.

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Anna is at her winter headquarters at High Knoll Equestrian Center this year. 

Flying changes are actually quite easy for Anna, and these are also an opportunity for higher scores in the show ring.  Verne worked with us on riding changes with greater elevation of the forehand, so that they could become bigger and more expressive.  He encouraged a gentle lift of the inside snaffle rein during the change to coincide with the leg cue; this will lay the foundation for a prompter response to a subtle aid in tempi changes later on.

Finally, we spent some time working on developing Anna’s medium trot.  The medium gaits are defined by their uphill tendency, which is of course the result of better engagement, self-carriage and true collection.  The horse should lift their shoulders and withers, not just flick the front feet. If the rider only thinks about power, most often the horse will do a lengthening and instead fall to their forehand.  In the double, Verne reminded me to keep my elbows bent and to focus on riding Anna’s shoulders up.  We increased the thrust for a few steps at a time, using these as building blocks to develop strength and carrying power.

Verne feels that the double bridle is a valuable training tool for a horse like Anna, who lacks natural elevation.  “The double bridle helps with elevation of the shoulder and neck in horses which are not naturally elevated,” says Verne.  “The withers follow the reins, but the rider cannot just lift the hand.  They must keep an active half halt and the connection into their elbow.”  I learned too that it is extremely important to keep a steady feel on the snaffle, not pulling just holding, whenever Anna was pushing towards a higher degree of balance and throughness.

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Doing some stretching work in the snaffle.

I always like to give Anna a little down time as I transition back to full time work in the fall, so in September we hung the double up for a few months and focused on stretching in the snaffle and hacking on the trails.  Even without the influence of the curb, it is clear that the work we have done in the double has helped to improve the shape and correctness of Anna’s topline.

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And when we go out hacking, it is usually in a mechanical hackamore, which is what she is wearing here, though I guess it is hard to tell!

There has been some debate in recent years regarding whether the double bridle should remain mandatory equipment at the FEI levels; when showing nationally, American riders can choose to ride FEI tests in a snaffle alone.  There seems to be some belief that those who can do Grand Prix in a snaffle are better riders.  But in the right hands, the double bridle should be regarded as “an instrument of finest understanding between horse and rider” (Rottermann, Eurodressage 11/3/14). A correctly trained horse will probably do well no matter which type of bridle they are wearing.

As far as Anna and I go, we of course need to continue to improve the quality of our communication.  I am sure there are some riders and trainers who will judge me for choosing to work this horse in a double bridle before every bit and piece of Third Level work was fully confirmed.  But truthfully, it seems like it was the right choice for this horse, and using this tool tactfully has helped to further her training and improved her strength and suppleness.

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Happy Holidays from Annapony and I! 

Sources

Edwards, E. Hartley.  Saddlery. London: JA Allen and Co, Ltd.  1987.

Politz, Gerhard.  “History of Bits, Evolution of the Double Bridle”. Posted 7/17/2008 (www.equisearch.com/articles/double_bridle_071708)

Rottermann, Silke. “The Double Bridle: An Instrument of Understanding”. Posted 11/3/2014. (www.euroressage.com/equestrian/2014/11/03/double-bridle-instrument-understanding)

 

 

Somewhere Between Marginal and Sufficient

Anna and I finished our 2017 show season the last weekend of August at a close to home recognized USDF/USEF show, held at Longfellow Farm in Nottingham, NH.    It was a beautiful afternoon, and the show organizers really worked hard to try to make the show a special experience for competitors.  We each received a goody bag with magazines, lip balm, a box of sugar cubes and a gift certificate to a web site I cannot afford.  There were real flowers in the port a potties.  They had a mini trade fair and fresh food. Tons of my friends were there, riding, coaching and grooming, and the whole thing felt a little bit like an end of summer picnic where we were all trying to absorb the late season sun and fun.

As I was setting up my equipment, I listened to the women at the trailer next to mine go through their own preparations.  At first, I wasn’t sure who was riding and who was coaching, but ultimately determined there were two rookie riders doing their first Opportunity classes, a conscientious horse owner, and one extremely patient trainer.  The riders’ nervous energy was palpable as they struggled to pull up their new full seats, bemoaned the lack of pockets in same for sugar cubes, and valiantly figured out how to tack up their mounts while still remaining clean.  A gentleman wearing a camera stood nearby, wisely far enough back from the action so as to not get caught up in it but close enough by to be showing support.  When it came time to mount, neither could manage to do so off the top of a 5 gallon pail, the only mounting block available.  So their trainer offered each of them a leg up.

Compared to these two, who as it turned out were riding in my ring, directly after me, I was the epitome of calm.  I methodically went through my usual preparations, putting on the white base layer, the choker which fits a little too tightly, the hairnet which always leaves an indent on my forehead secured under my gray velvet helmet.  My hand me down Pikeur jacket was an expensive purchase for its original owner; I acquired it for just $30 and spent an additional $35 spent to tailor it, though it still doesn’t feel like it fits me right.  It is just a bit out of style and the collar has faded in the sun, which I’m sure no one notices but me. I felt no nerves, no worries.  I tacked up Anna, mounted off the top of my own upturned 5 gallon pail, and headed to the warm up.

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Anna at a show at the Tack Shack in Fremont, NH, in July.

Anna and I performed Third Level Test 1 for the fourth time this season, and got yet another 58%. I somehow mistimed my warm up, leaving me a bit shortchanged in terms of the preparation, but at the end of the day I really don’t think it would have mattered all that much.  While our performances have progressively improved, the scores have not.  We have been rocking those 50’s (it sounds like a dance party, which would be a whole lot more fun): 57,55, 59, 58.  Close but not quite there.

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I do appreciate the comments from the judges.  Judges have a challenging job; they must sit for hours, running “tapes” in their mind which include the purpose of the level and the expectations of a movement at that level, and then they translate these ideals promptly into a succinct statement which justifies their assigned score.  I have sat and observed judges and scribed.  I have graduated from the USDF “L” learner judge’s program.  I have spent hours judging at schooling shows, watching many, many tests in which there was very little dressage going on, trying to figure out how to offer feedback which will be perceived as helpful but not overly negative.  Judges are usually really trying to help the riders they are watching.

But that day at Longfellow, as I held my yellow sheet on which the judge noted “capable horse who is obedient in changes and must be rounder and better on bit and connected”, I just felt defeated.  Like, what is the point of this?  Dressage is such a dumb sport, to get all dressed up in these ridiculous uncomfortable penguin suits and go to shows where they put flowers in the port a potties and then we go and ride these redundant patterns, over and over again, hoping that for the FIVE MINUTES the judge sees our horse, we can meet some mystical expectation of “dressageyness”.  Why am I wasting my time and energy doing this? Why did I spend an hour to bathe and braid my horse and load equipment into my trailer and then ship down here? For a 58%?

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Anna doing what she does best at the Longfellow show.  Nom nom nom.

I have been teaching riding since I was eighteen years old, over half my life.  I sure thought I knew everything when I first started, and it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I began to understand that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.  I have at least five former students to whom I taught the absolute basics of how to put a horse on the bit, which have now ridden to Grand Prix and finished their USDF Gold Medals. There are probably another five who are riding at Prix St. George or Intermediare I.  Meanwhile, I am over here still splashing around in the dressage kiddie pool, unable to get my swimmies off.

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UNH June show.

 

In the Chronicle of the Horse’s August 7 issue, there was a great article about an amateur rider named Elizabeth O’Connor.  This spring, she finished her USDF Gold Medal riding a one eyed off track Thoroughbred which she trained herself.  To say that the pair had overcome adversity to achieve this result is an understatement.  It is a story meant to inspire, to remind readers that one doesn’t have to have the fancy warmblood and that with hard work, grit and determination, one can get to the big goal.

But what if that isn’t really true, most of the time?  What if hard work and determination isn’t enough?  When do you decide that maybe the judge’s comments are correct, and it is time to pack up and go home before the Dressage Police show up and throw you out?

I was still feeling pretty defeated when I brought Anna to the beautiful Chesley Brook Stables in Dover, NH, to ride with Verne Batchelder on Labor Day.  I was tired emotionally and physically, having just ridden the two day 60 mile ride at GMHA with my Thoroughbred, Lee, finishing in the remnants of Hurricane Harvey on Sunday.  Verne quickly picked up on the fact that I seemed…down.

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Schooling with Verne at Chesley Brook in July.  Thanks Lauren for the photo!

A former classroom educator and lifelong equestrian, Verne is probably the best coach I have ever worked with in terms of getting the maximum performance out of Anna.  He has seen me ride different horses, and he knows both me and this horse well.  As professionals, there are certainly times when we need a kick in the backside but there are also times when we need a boost.  Verne reminded me that sometimes the biggest complement that a teacher receives is when their student exceeds them.  He also pointed out that I am doing Third Level on a somewhat lazy horse whose genetics do not automatically set her up for the job.  Anna is trained.  58% is close.  We are not in the 40’s.

“We are not going to become the masters of Third Level,” proclaimed Verne.  “We are going to keep going.  We are going to get this pony to FEI.”

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Warm up at UNH show in June. 

I don’t know if we will or we won’t, but that is almost irrelevant.  Everything Verne said was just what I needed to hear.  I have made a conscious choice to own my own horses, to do my own training, and to commit to the process and animals I have.  Giving up when you hit the hard spots can sometimes be the right choice, but at other times you have to just keep plugging away with the faith that with enough persistence, even the roughest of surfaces wear smooth.  If my goal was simply to get to Grand Prix, or to finish a USDF Silver or Gold Medal, I could do that….but the fastest route would be a totally different path than the one I have taken.  I haven’t chosen to lease a schoolmaster, or to buy a big mover, or even to devote my training energy and tack time 100% to dressage. And for these reasons, I have become (in my opinion) a more robust equestrian.

When I returned to my trailer at the Longfellow show, I was untacking and unbraiding Anna, who hungrily mowed down the grass of the field we were parked in.  My neighbors returned, elated, victorious; they had finished their first ever dressage tests at a rated show.  The horse owner saw me and said, “wow, I saw your test, and your horse was amazing!  It was such a great ride!”

“Thanks,” I smiled, knowing even without having seen the results that it was probably just another 58%.

“We actually rode right after you in the same ring,” she continued, flushed with excitement. “And when we saw you cantering on the diagonal, and then doing one of those changes, we totally panicked, because that wasn’t the test we knew!  Your horse is just beautiful.”

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She is kind of beautiful.  🙂

I guess I didn’t really hear her then, but in retrospect I appreciate the comments more now.  Why are we doing this silly sport, this art, called dressage?  It can’t be just for the score…because the score only represents one moment in time. You have to do it for the day to day victories, and for the incremental improvements which show that your horse is progressing.  My horse does flying changes.  And she half passes.  And she is starting to understand the double bridle.  We may be working on many elements still, but there are many others which she does well.  She received 7’s on her walk pirouettes; Verne thinks they should be 8’s.  My horse is a Third Level horse.

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This was after finishing our first ever Third Level test.  I have to remember it is the journey which matters most!

So while other people may be diving into the deep end, don’t mind me.  I’ll just be over here in the shallow end, gradually creeping my way into the deeper water. A little better than marginal, but not quite yet sufficient.