Tag Archives: dressage

On Teaching Horsemanship: Thoughts inspired by the work of Charles deKunffy

When the student is ready, the Teacher will appear.”

                This Buddhist quote has been on my mind recently, as I reflect on my own roles as both a student and teacher of horsemanship. In particular, I have been considering how riders within the same lesson may come to process their instructor’s guidance differently. Ultimately, it is not just the rider’s ability to interpret her coach’s directions, no matter how talented and skilled the teacher, that will lead to her further growth. It is also, perhaps more importantly, about her willingness to truly hear what the teacher has to say. 

Some years ago, I read a Dressage Today article written by master horseman Charles deKunffy on the subject of the role teachers and judges play in promoting horsemanship as a living art. DeKunffy is internationally known for his dedication to classical dressage, a passion he has shared through his roles as trainer, coach, clinician and author. His words were so inspirational that I have reread the DT piece countless times, and continue to share it with those who aspire to become teachers themselves.

Charles deKunffy, taken from his official Facebook page

In the article, deKunffy says that the teacher’s obligation is to the art he teaches, a dedication demonstrated through total commitment to teaching correct classical principles. He believes that a teacher must teach all students as if they are a future Olympian—in his words, “to conduct a lesson impeccably as if it were given to the greatest rider, deserving of the greatest attention in the finest way, suitable to the horse and the rider at that particular time. This concept must be your guiding light.”

Clearly, not every horse or rider is capable of reaching elite levels of equestrian sport. Yet the fundamental concepts of horsemanship are the foundation to that work, and should guide the education of every equestrian. Therefore, the teacher who helps every rider learn the art of compassionate, empathetic, thoughtful and progressive training; who rigorously schools every rider in correct equitation, until the student has developed the necessary suppleness and strength in her body and tact and empathy in her aids, will positively impact the countless horses those students will go on to ride.

My late mentor, Verne Batchelder, always believed that every horse and rider was capable of great things. Here he helps me with JEF Anna Rose.

DeKunffy goes on to say that “The ethic of teaching—the job of teaching—is to stick up for what you know is right.” A horse that has been properly trained stands the best chance of remaining sound and useful for as long as possible. And we all know that when times get tough, a trained, sound horse has a greater probability of finding a caring home than one that is unsound in mind or body. While the teacher has a responsibility to her student, ultimately she has a greater responsibility to the horse.

I took advantage of some quiet moments recently to read two of deKunffy’s books, The Ethics and Passions of Dressage (1993) and Dressage Principles Illuminated (2002). These two works offer a great deal of insight into deKunffy’s philosophy of teaching and training horses and riders. If I had tried to read either of these books when they were first published, I am certain I would have tossed them aside. As a student of horsemanship then, I would not have been ready for this teacher. But in reviewing them now, decades later, I continue to find inspiration and confidence in deKunffy’s words.

Published in 1993 by Half Halt Press (ISBN 0-939481-33-2 and reissued by Xenophon Press in 2013.

The Ethics and Passions of Dressage reads like a series of short essays, almost an annotated “FAQ” of classical horsemanship (please forgive me if that sounds flippant). In particular, I appreciated the chapters detailing deKunffy’s definition of Baroque art and why horsemanship is part of that tradition. I especially valued a chapter explaining why classical horsemanship and competitive horsemanship should be synonymous terms. Let me explain why this last chapter was so meaningful.

When I first began seriously studying dressage, it was just after several elite international competitors were seen using a “new technique” called hyperflexion during their warm ups. These horses then went on to give winning performances in the competition arena. Now called rollkur and formally prohibited by the FEI, the use of this practice ignited a firestorm of passionate debate that ultimately drove a wedge between “competitive” and “classical” dressage riders.

At the time, my barnmates and I bristled whenever we heard someone say (often in a haughty manner) that they were a classical dressage rider, seemingly looking down their nose at those of us who enjoyed competition. In defense, we interpreted the term classical to mean ‘those riders too scared to test their skills in the show ring’, and wrote them off as irrelevant.

I have held onto nearly every completed dressage test I have ever ridden. One afternoon, I read back through some twenty years of comments. I would not recommend doing this.

But in Ethics, deKunffy points out that there are not and should never be two kinds of dressage. Instead, the purpose bred sport horses of the modern era require an even greater commitment to the art of horsemanship, an art form that can only survive if its students are taught the correct fundamentals. A former FEI and USEF “S” dressage judge, deKunffy looks to these organizations and their judges to protect classical dressage in the competitive arena.

 But he is equally adamant that competition is not the only, or even the best, way for a rider to prove her skills. He explains that the rules of classical horsemanship have been tested by thousands of riders on millions of horses. Following these rules should lead to success, and success should be defined as ‘elevating a horse to the level of art’. Whether that happens in a competition arena or at home in the schooling ring is ultimately irrelevant.  

In Dressage Principles Illuminated (currently being updated), deKunffy shares his insights on the “how-to” aspect of classical horsemanship. This book is divided into three parts and covers classical philosophy and exercises for developing horse and rider in some detail. It is illustrated with photos of dancing horses, clearly light and happy in their work, who have soft mouths and eyes, lowered haunches and rounded backs.

Originally published in 2002 by Trafalgar Square Publishers (ISBN 1-57076-233-3; Xenophon Press expects to release an “expanded” edition Spring 2021.

Dressage Principles is full of quotes that I want to print and post in my barn and tack room so that I must remember them constantly. Here are a few of my favorites:

“Learning from horses is compulsory for riders, and those who resist it must suffer the consequences of ignorance through pain and damage.” (pg. 5)

“Competition can be a rewarding tool for goal orientation and discipline…Competition sharpens riders by focusing them on improved equitation and by making them aware that they are public performers.” (pg. 29)

“The horse is a perfect creature, an evolutionary wonder, without the rider. However, there can be no rider without a horse. To be an equestrian is to take a position in life dedicated to the well-being of horses in terms of their needs.” (pg. 119)

There are so many more. But again, when this book was first published, I am sure that I would have been in too much of a hurry to thoughtfully hear what the Teacher had to say.

I recognize that as a riding coach, I take my time and preach a more conservative approach than perhaps some others I know. I believe that it is always faster to go slowly. The rider who has committed to developing a strong and supportive lower leg, centered balance and an empathetic hand in the long run will be safer, more horse-friendly and have more fun that one who has not. It is my role as teacher to meet my students wherever they are and help them to achieve this goal.

As students, we can all be too greedy to show tangible progress. As teachers, it can be tempting to give in to the student and let her jump a larger fence, or move up a competitive level, especially if you worry she will leave and go to another teacher if you say no. But it is essential that the teachers of horsemanship maintain their principles in order to protect both the student and the horse.

We live in a world where everything moves so quickly and we have come to expect near instant gratification of our desires and responses to our requests. Horsemanship is not, and should never become, that type of pursuit. The true horseman understands that “It is a meditative art. You are a student of the horse.” (deKunffy, in the Chronicle article cited below).

It is perhaps only when a student shifts her thinking in this way that her Teacher will appear.

Charles deKunffy was born in Hungary and survived Nazi occupation before fleeing Soviet rule in the 1950s and emigrating to the US. He attributes his status as an elite equestrian for saving his life, literally and figuratively, both in those dark days and the years to come. He has dedicated his life to “advocating on behalf of the animal that saved him, acting as a link between the prestigious training he received in classical dressage from the masters in Europe and students of today.” (“Charles deKunffy: Saved by Horses, by Jennifer B. Calder, The Chronicle of the Horse June 5&12, 2017)

Defining Excellence in a New Year

Ah, the New Year. While there is nothing inherently special in the change of a calendar number, there is perhaps a certain logic in taking a few moments to reflect on the year that was and the year yet to come. Particularly here in the northeast, the New Year ushers in the height of winter, a time when even Mother Nature herself is primarily hibernating, resting and still. It is a time when many of us instinctively turn inward.

I believe that it is impossible—and perhaps irresponsible—to come out of the experience that was 2020 without a greater appreciation for all of the many positive elements in our lives, and to carry this perspective with us into the future. For me, I believe one of 2020’s greatest lessons was in being reminded that reshaping goals to suit your individual circumstances is not a form of failure. In fact, it may be a mark of “excellence”.

Anna on a wintry day at High Knoll Equestrian center, several years ago.

I recently came across a column titled “Defining Excellence” that originally ran in the October 2016 issue of Dressage Today, written by Dr. Jenny Susser, a sports psychologist. Particularly on the cusp of a new year, in an era of continued long-term uncertainty, her thoughts really resonated with me.

“What is excellence?” Dr. Susser asks. “Many of us see excellence as a distant, intangible phenomenon reserved for someone else…something that has nothing to do with us as individuals…I believe that we are all excellent, not just periodically or on a special occasion, but daily.”

This is a strange winter for me, because it marks the first time in over twenty years that I have not stabled or had access to an indoor arena to keep my horses in work. Even stranger, to not go indoors was a deliberate and conscious choice, made for many valid reasons (pandemic, finances, horse needed a break). But despite the logic behind it, for the first several weeks after the ground froze and ice and snow made hacking unpleasant and the horses were truly on vacation for the foreseeable future, I found myself feeling extremely unsettled. I saw photos and videos on social media of friends and acquaintances schooling, training and even competing. I saw snowbird equestrians prepping for their southern migration, and those who have already permanently moved to more temperate climates fairly reveling in that choice.  And I thought to myself—I want to be doing that. I am just wasting time right now. I will never get to where I want to go if I take all these months off.

Oh, for some lovely summer days right about now…

“If you are spending a lot of energy comparing yourself, your horse, your progress, your ability or your results to anyone else, that is basically swimming in someone else’s lane,” says Dr. Susser, who was a competitive swimmer. “Staying in yours is a way of sticking to your strengths, minimizing your weaknesses and performing to plan.

Ride your own ride. This is a mantra I share with students all the time. But I need to give myself permission to practice this philosophy when it comes to my own goals. The progress I make must be measured against only one metric—my own. Are my horses and I doing a little better than the week before? The day before? Do we finish the day’s activity—whether it is a ride or groundwork session or even just grooming on the crossties—safe, happy and relaxed? Is my horse better off after my interaction with her than she was before it?

Lee and Anna on trail. It was an excellent ride.

“Excellence is not only relative but is highly personal,” writes Dr. Susser. “Sadly, this sentiment is not typically embraced, especially in our dressage culture, where nothing ever seems to be good enough. If you think about it, we see excellence every day but perhaps miss the opportunity to celebrate because we are stuck on a definition of excellence that seems like it will forever exclude us.”

A new frame: My choice to give all of my mares the winter off is one of excellence. Rest gives bodies and minds time to heal and recover from the micro and macro stresses of harder work. Rest gives a break from the routine of work, which can sometimes become too stagnant or repetitive. In preparing for a distance ride, the rest days are as important as the conditioning days, if not more so. Rest is part of a plan to achieve excellence not just in the present moment but in the future as well.

“…if we begin to move our measure of excellence to ourselves, then something becomes possible,” says Dr. Susser. “Create lots of ways to assess your excellence and make them highly personal and relative to you, your horse and your goals.”

One of the best parts of the day is hanging out with the horses while the sun rises over their breakfast.

Looking forward into a new year, I am going to strive to keep this as my main objective: to achieve excellence every day. Excellence is achieved in small details, in making gradual progress toward larger objectives, and yes, in tangible outcomes such as competitive success as well. But perhaps the best mark of excellence is returning a relaxed horse to the paddock after a satisfying work set—and knowing that both horse and rider will be excited to do it all again the next day.

Virtual Horse Shows: Affordable and Fun!

                Horse shows are an essential aspect of the equine industry. According to the 2017 Economic Impact of the US Horse Industry Report, produced by the American Horse Council, over 1.2 million horses are used in competitive events annually and the four largest organizations sanction nearly 6,000 competitive opportunities, supporting 241,000 jobs and adding $11.8 billion in direct value to the national economy. What this report doesn’t capture, though, is the percentage of equestrians that might want to compete, or compete more often, but are limited by any number of factors. What if I told you that, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, most if not ALL of those limitations can be overcome?

JEF Anna Rose competing at a USDF dressage show several years ago.

Skeptical? I wouldn’t have believed me either, until the pandemic forced me to rethink content for a university course I teach, “Principles of Horse Trials Management”. Normally, students in this course play an integral role in the production and administration of our US Eventing Association sanctioned horse trials, held right on campus. But this fall, campus and local restrictions precluded us from being able to welcome outside guests to our facility and the trials were cancelled. I needed a meaningful, hands on, real world activity that would challenge students to learn, grow and experience some of the skills, tasks and problem-solving required in traditional competition management— all while maintaining social distancing and density rules.

The student-managed show jumping committee for a pre-COVID UNH Horse Trials.

Enter (figuratively and literally) the virtual horse show.

Prior to this year, I had heard of virtual shows but never thought much about them. But thanks to COVID, opportunities to compete in virtual horse shows have increased, with many organizations—ours included– making their first forays into the genre.

At first, I didn’t know quite where to start, so I decided to conduct some research. By which I mean, I entered a virtual show.

Dressage Show Online offers both virtual show management for groups/individuals as well as hosts shows of their own. There is no membership fee required to join; just create a profile, add your mount’s info, and then you can start competing. Tests cost just $30 (in total; no add on fees are required, and this includes the shipping for prizes). Once entered, riders film their test—in one take, from start to finish—and then upload it to the site before the deadline. Within a few days, the judge scores and provides comments on the test electronically and uploads a pdf of the score sheet. The judges range from USDF “L” graduates to USEF “S” judges—so this is legitimate scoring and feedback, just like you would expect at a traditional in person show.

DRF Isabela‘s first official horse show ribbon for Introductory Test C.

The UNH Virtual Dressage Show that my students organized was inspired by this experience, but we put our own ‘Wildcat twist’ on the process. Entries were divided into an open division and a lesson horse division (where “serviceably sound” would be overlooked in the judging and protective boots allowed), and offered a “best turned out” award. And since we lacked a fancy website for competitors to upload to, we asked them to send videos via YouTube links that we compiled into a playlist for our judge.

I had no idea what kind of interest, if any, equestrians would have in entering the UNH Virtual Dressage Show. After purchasing ribbons and hiring USEF “r” judge Leslie deGrandmaison, I calculated that if we came up with 42 entries, we would at least break even.

Swag for the UNH Virtual Show. We also offered high score and reserve for the Lesson Horse Division, as well as for professional/adult amateur/junior rider categories within the Open Division.

Nearly 100 entries later, I learned that not only would people enter, they would do so with enthusiasm. What impressed me most, though, was the wide range of reasons that riders gave for doing so.

Some riders were UNH grads, wanting to compete at their alma mater one more time; others were regular competitors who had chosen not to travel to shows this season. Some belonged to barn or scholastic equestrian teams and had made a day of filming everyone’s videos, offering each other encouragement and support, a fun facsimile of a day at a regular horse show. But I was especially surprised by how many entrants were riders that in general lacked other opportunities to compete: they had no trailer, or their horse didn’t trailer well. Their horse was a lease, not allowed to leave the property. Their horse was older, and going to regular shows was too stressful. Yet they all wanted feedback and the opportunity to dress themselves and their horses up a little bit and show off their skills.

DRF Isabela practicing for her first dressage test. Entering the virtual show also motivated me to finally mount and install a set of arena letters I had been given nearly two years ago!

From an organizational perspective, a virtual show is more work behind the scenes than you might think. Once those videos started rolling in…well, there was a lot of detail-oriented work in making sure that each one played for us, was saved correctly and then added in the right order to the playlist. Like any show, you have your usual last minute hiccups; horses with abscesses needing to be substituted by a stablemate, entrants that ran out of time to video and needed to scratch, people who were overambitious in signing up for a higher level that wanted to change their entry. We also used paper tests that had to be copied, labelled, put in order, and mailed to our judge, so these late changes were harder to accommodate. But now that I have done it all once, I know better how to do it again. As with managing any horse show, the more you do it, the savvier you become.

From a competitor’s perspective—I was pleasantly impressed by my virtual show experience, and I am planning to enter again next season. The best part (well, besides the $30 entry fee) is that the feedback I received related to my young horse’s performance in her usual ring, under typical conditions. Truthfully, this is in many ways more helpful right now than comments I might get at an offsite show, where she will likely be more tense, anxious, or distracted than usual (she is just 5 years old, after all). Through the virtual show, I received a mini lesson from one of the best in the business; it helped to confirm that my training was on track and challenged me to put all the pieces together sequentially, under a little bit of pressure (aka, my videographer was not going to tolerate me asking for multiple re-takes). Entering a few shows next season will allow me to track progress in the training and provide me with areas to focus on next. Some virtual show platforms (such as Dressage Show Online) even offer championships and year end and performance awards.

Our submission to the September Dressage Show Online competition. We also submitted a video for the UNH Virtual Show as an “hors concours” entry.

But from an industry perspective, these unique competitions are serving the needs of an audience that traditional shows can’t reach, as well as providing an outlet for traditional competitors looking for additional feedback. At a time when the costs of traditional (especially sanctioned) competition are ever increasing, virtual shows eliminate much of the expense while maintaining the fun and achievement of competition. Riding at shows puts us—and our skills—under pressure, and can serve as a litmus test of how secure we are in our work. Whether we are riding for a judge in the booth or one behind the screen, we all want to put our best hoof forward.

Virtual competition is available in many disciplines besides dressage. The Athletic Equestrian League’s unique objective scoring criteria lent itself especially well to a virtual format, and the organization was able to offer its spring 2020 National Championship virtually. This fall, the UNH Equestrian team competed in AEL Virtual Collegiate Competition.

Post-pandemic, I hope to see the virtual horse show community continue to thrive, because I believe that moving forward, we need to increase inclusive opportunities for our sport. Virtual shows fill an important niche within our community by offering affordable, accessible competitive opportunities for equestrians at all levels.

The Soul of the Horse

On an unseasonably warm day in mid-October, I hauled JEF Anna Rose to beautiful Linden Woods Farm in Durham, N.H., for one final educational outing of the season—a clinic with Jeremy Steinberg. Anna and I rode with Jeremy earlier this summer, and the experience was both positive and helpful. But this fall, most of my arena sets with Anna had left me frustrated. We have a decade-long partnership, but yet it feels as if we are always dealing with the same fundamental issue, namely, generating positive forward energy. This fall, every ride was a struggle, and I found myself losing enthusiasm for doing much in the arena with her at all.  I think she felt exactly the same way.

As I attempted to get the earpiece sorted out at the start of my ride, I told Jeremy a bit of what I had been experiencing with her: The lackluster response to any forward driving aid. The blocked right jaw. The dull and non-adjustable feeling in the contact, because without energy and thrust from the hindquarters, there wasn’t anything to actually adjust. I told him that I didn’t feel like very much of a horse trainer, that Anna didn’t even feel like a Training Level horse (never mind a Third Level horse) and that I really hated having to ride so aggressively for such a minimal response. He nodded along with my comments, listening thoughtfully before he replied.

“Remove your emotion from this—it is not you. Some horses are this way. It is just the soul of this horse,” Jeremy said kindly.

I am sure I subconsciously chose an all dark outfit for a reason….

As I blinked away unexpected tears, Jeremy proceeded to tell me about several horses from his past, horses who like Anna had many wonderful qualities—temperament, genetics, beauty— but who didn’t have much ‘get up and go’, who lacked the inner fire that would allow them to easily climb the ladder in dressage.

The thing of it is, to the external viewer, it looks as if these horses should be able to do the work. The viewer concludes it is the rider who is simply not doing enough, or perhaps not riding well enough, to get the horse to perform to his full potential.

 Jeremy recalled a time when he was working with one of these horses under the tutelage of his mentor. His mentor kept offering feedback but nothing seemed to be improving the horse’s performance. Not wanting to be disrespectful but also becoming increasingly frustrated, Jeremy finally asked the mentor to get on and feel for himself.

“And then he understood it!” Jeremy explained triumphantly. Even the mentor couldn’t get the horse to perform.

At the clinic that day, we spent the entire ride simply focused on sending Anna forward. It was not pretty, and it was not fun. Jeremy advised that I establish in my own mind a ‘minimum tempo’, and if she dropped below that pace even a whisker, I was to firmly, forcefully, apply all of my driving aids. Hard. Even if we ended up in a gallop (which admittedly still took a few solid kicks with the spur and a strong whack with the wand). The emphasis was all on the upward transition.

Even Anna’s “gallop” is really just a somewhat faster canter.

In the moments where the energy was better, I tried to stay quiet and still while maintaining a steady contact, even if only for one stride. The perpetual issues I experience with Anna’s poll and jaw stem from her stalled engine; get the engine moving again, and the connection issues usually take care of themselves.

A slightly better moment in trot.

“Leave your brain out of the ring—be instinctive,” Jeremy offered by way of explaining the reaction time required. “When she dies in the tempo, then she must go, even if it is up to the gallop.”

For forty-five minutes or so, this is what we did. Me, kicking and using the dressage whip assertively, until I felt as if I were back on a cross country course desperately trying to make time. Anna, offering a few strides of a positive gait. The inevitable slow down. And repeat. Over and over and over.

I think this is one of those nicer moments.

Eventually, when Anna did offer a few consistent strides in minimum tempo, we added in a little shoulder in or a ten meter circle. Inevitably, I had to ride out of the movement with assertive aids yet again. There were a few nicer moments, but mostly it felt like one of us was working a whole lot harder than the other. And also, as if I had taken this exact lesson so very many times before.

While I rode, I kept hearing Jeremy’s voice on repeat: Some horses are just this way. It is the soul of this horse.

After our lesson, I stayed to watch a few more riders. In particular I wanted to see Leslie Ann McGowan, Linden Wood’s resident trainer, schooling the warmblood gelding Belfast, because this horse just makes me smile. I first saw this talented duo at a clinic with Jan Ebeling in 2017; the gelding was perhaps 6 years old then, new to Leslie Ann and quite green, yet everything he did looked easy. Effortless. Joyful. Now showing at the FEI levels, Belfast and Leslie Ann spent the day’s set working on canter pirouettes. Even when the pressure increased and the work became a little more demanding, the horse never quit or backed down.

The difference between his effort and Anna’s hit me like a fist. The soul of this horse was dancing. He was happy being an elite dressage horse. She is not.

Anna and I in silhouette.

I bought Anna from her breeder as a green broke 6-year-old who had never even been cantered under saddle. The breeder described the mare’s personality by saying she “was pretty content to just watch”. Over the years, I have repeatedly been reminded of her breeder’s insight whenever I have challenged Anna to increase her performance level. Anna has always done whatever it is I have asked of her. But I have often had to ask with emphasis.

As a team, we have done and seen and accomplished a lot. She took me around my first (and only) Groton House Horse Trials and to two double clean cross country trips at the Fitch’s Corner Area I Eventing championships. She spent three months with me at Denny Emerson’s Tamarack Hill Farm, where we solidified our partnership over fences and hacked in the Vermont countryside. She received my first (and only) high score of the day at a dressage competition (back at Training Level) and she has earned scores over 60% all the way to Third Level Test 3. This fall, she and I completed the Ranger 100 Mile Challenge, tackling those miles in bite sized pieces along the trails in our backyard.

Anna with her Ranger 100 Mile Challenge Medal.

When I started concentrating on dressage with her, I had hoped that maybe she would make it to FEI. Perhaps that was too lofty of a goal; I knew she would never be a high scorer there but I hoped to finally have a chance to canter down centerline in tails, on a horse I trained myself. A few years ago, I could imagine riding Anna to what would be a pinnacle in my equestrian career.

                But more recently, I have downgraded my goals for her—from FEI to Fourth. From Fourth to really solid Third. Most recently, I hoped to collect the last two scores I need for the USDF Bronze Bar in the Third Level Musical Freestyle. We spent a whole season chasing them. The closest we came was still two points too low.

                It would mean so much to me to finish that long-term project with this horse, and then call it a day for her dressage career. But not if the cost is having to ride Anna so hard that she is completely miserable, and all the joy has left her. Not at the cost of her soul.

                When we got home from the clinic, I put up her dressage saddle and haven’t taken it off the rack since. Instead, we have hit the trails, and I have let her mane grow long and coat thick and fuzzy. Anna will stay home this winter and once the weather turns, for the first time since the age of 6, she will have a few months off to just be a horse.

                It is a fine line we tread sometimes, as stewards of these magnificent animals, to know when to push them through resistance in their training and when they have given us enough. It is equally difficult to come so close to your destination and then choose to turn back. But ultimately riding requires a partnership; two hearts working together as a team.

                I do not know what is next for Anna and I. But whatever comes, I must honor the soul of this special horse, and not force her to be someone she is not.

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