Tag Archives: dressage

On Horsemanship and Sportsmanship

Most of us who are involved with horses and horse showing prefer to be seen as both good horsemen and good sports.  If you stay in this game long enough, you will learn that when your success is predicated on the cooperation of a 1000+ pound flight or flight animal that also has a seeming proclivity for self-destruction, it is important to stay humble and not become too greedy.

With that being said, doing your homework, carefully prepping, setting goals and hopefully achieving them are all totally reasonable expectations.  In fact, these qualities are probably ideal in terms of making any sort of progress at all.  It is pretty easy to be a good sport when things are going your way, and you feel successful.  But where you are really put to the test is when the deck is stacked against you or the outcome isn’t what you had hoped for.  It seems that for some people, the ability to persevere and to continue to demonstrate the highest levels of sportsmanship and horsemanship comes naturally; nature vs. nurture, maybe.  Others of us have to dig a little bit deeper and consciously choose to maintain our best selves in these difficult times.

I have been reading a stack of old Dressage Today magazines, and I came across an “On Deck” column in the November 2007 issue written by a young lady named Holly Bergay.  At the time, Holly was just 15 years old.  She wrote about her first experience competing as a junior at the NAJYRC.  Now, I know what you might be thinking (because my brain would go there too)—to make an NAJYRC team, riders have to be talented and have access to both high quality horses and coaching.  It is easy to assume that these riders enjoy a certain amount of support and privilege that others do not; that their path has been made easy for them.  But when you start really talking to each individual rider, you will quickly learn that for most, there is a veritable army of people helping, contributing, supporting, fundraising, loaning horses, offering coaching, etc.  Holly was one of these riders; based in Arizona at the time, the expense alone of shipping all the way to Virginia for the competition must have been daunting for her middle class family.

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Holly Bergay (photo credit Phelps Photos)

And there is one other detail about Holly.  She was born with no left arm below her elbow, making her “the first disabled rider to ever compete at NAJYRC against able-bodied riders” (her words).

Holly tells the story of her and her teammates’ experiences at the competition; she rode for Region 5, and all of her teammates came from the west coast (Colorado, Arizona and Utah).  Though they were used to competing against one another, the riders didn’t really get to know each other until the trip east.  You might think that the hard part was qualifying for the Championships and then making their long trek to Virginia.  But the Region 5 team’s challenges were far from over.

One rider never even got to make the trip because her horse colicked before leaving home.

Another horse failed the initial jog (fortunately only due to an abscess, but still, what rotten timing).

Yet another rider arrived for day one of the mounted competition to find that her horse had ripped his eyelid open on a bridle hook, necessitating medical treatment which precluded him from competing.

I am sure that for these riders, who had invested so much of themselves in getting to this point, these events were terrible disappointments.  Yet according to Holly, her teammates showed “phenomenal horsemanship” in dealing with these blows and “made us all truly appreciate the opportunity to show”.  They learned to cheer for those who were still riding in the competition, even though with only two Young Riders left, the region’s team was ineligible for awards.

Holly talks about the tremendous pressure she felt competing as a junior; she wanted to do well for her team, for her trainer and for her horse.  She had come in with the lowest qualifying score of the team and was afraid of having a bad show.  But Holly had an additional weight to carry:  “I felt that if I didn’t do well, I would be letting down not just myself but the entire disabled community.”

Can you imagine feeling that way, at just 15 years old?

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Holly and Lilly at the NAJYRC (taken from her Facebook)

Holly’s story goes on to relate her own personal success on her mare, Lilly, and her team’s joy over their seventh placed finish.  Her language frequently includes words like “accomplishment”, “opportunity”, “proud”, “excitement” and “privilege”. You would think that the team had all won gold, but in reality no one took home a medal.  Holly ended up placing the highest of any rider from her region, making the top ten for the junior freestyle.  But you have a sense that she was modest about the achievement, and took greater pride in the fact that she had set out to accomplish her main goal—showing that a disabled rider could hold their own at the NAJYRC.  And in her own words, “I did not medal in the competition, but I took back things that were much more valuable than just a medal.  I learned both horsemanship and sportsmanship.  I met amazing people.  I formed an even stronger bond with my horse and, most important, I proved that I am not limited by my disability.”

I found Holly’s voice refreshing and her attitude moving.  Interested to know where Holly was now, I Googled her name (isn’t the internet wonderful)—and what came up showed me that the young girl of fifteen has matured into an inspirational young adult of twenty four.  And in the years between her debut at the NAJYRC and now, she has faced her own share of highs and lows, success, challenges and disappointments.

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Holly and Grand Ballerina (taken from her Facebook page).

After returning to compete in the NAYRC in 2008, Holly became internationally ranked in para-equestrian; in 2012, she was named to the World Equestrian Games team on the horse Grand Ballerina.  The mare unfortunately went lame just prior to the competition and so she was unable to compete.  After the financial investment incurred during the qualification process, followed by the disappointment of having to withdraw, Holly gave up riding altogether for a period of time.

But she returned to the sport and with the assistance of owner Violet Jen, Holly began to ride and compete the Hanoverian stallion Rubino Bellissimo.  The team entered the 2014 Para-Equestrian National Championship ranked second in the nation, and were considered strong favorites for selection to the World Equestrian Games team set to compete in Normandy, France.

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Holly and Rubino Bellisimo (taken from her Facebook page).  

Over $10,000 was raised to get Rubino and Holly to the New Jersey competition.  Just days before they were set to compete, Rubino began to exhibit signs of discomfort.   According to a story in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Rubino’s condition quickly deteriorated and he was diagnosed with a malignant tumor that had begun to spread to muscles, nerves and bones.  With no hope of recovery and a rapidly declining quality of life, he was euthanized with Holly at his side.

Holly and Rubino’s last performance together.

I can’t even imagine going from the expectation of success and possibly achieving a dream such as qualifying to represent your country in international competition at that level to the devastating loss of a partner and friend in just a few days’ time.  It takes some kind of degree of sportsmanship and horsemanship and heck, just sheer grit, to keep pushing through that kind of challenging emotion.  And when you add to that the fact that your bank balance doesn’t rival that of a rock star or internet mogul, and you know just how much others have invested in your goals to support you—it weighs on you.

In the same Union-Tribune article, it says that Holly went to her family’s home in Colorado to grieve the loss.  Then she planned to return to her business in California, the San Diego Saddle Club, to regroup and possibly begin again.  She specifically mentioned the amazing community of horse people in the San Diego area, and that she either hoped to find a young horse to bring along or find another opportunity.  I can find no mention of her for 2015, so I have no idea where she stands today.

While you and I might not be on the short list for Rio, each one of us goes through some version of this struggle each and every day, don’t you think? Learning to take the highs and the lows, to make the best decisions for ourselves and our equine partners, and to do our very best to just be grateful that most of the time, we even have the opportunity to do the amazing things we do with our animals.  To try to find the balance between our competitive ambitions and the needs of our horses, and to know when it is ok to push a little harder versus when it is better to call it day.

I certainly admire Holly’s perseverance in the face of multiple challenges, and you just have to hope that if she can hang in there a bit longer, some of her fortunes will turn.  I have never met Holly, but perhaps if she ever reads this she will know that her story has touched another horseman and that I am rooting for her, wherever her equestrian pursuits might take her.  Our sport needs horsemen and sportsmen like Holly.

 

Tales of a Horse Show Organizer:  Chapter One

Whether as a volunteer or paid staff, I have been involved with the organization or management of hundreds of horse shows or clinics.  Whether large or small, sanctioned or schooling, public or “in house”, some similar themes always seem to apply.  At the same time, each gathering has the opportunity for new (mis)adventures.

This past weekend, I went up to the Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA) in South Woodstock, VT, to volunteer for the day in the show jumping phase of their spring horse trials.  I spend so much time organizing, judging or coaching at horse shows that on the few occasions that I can go be a regular volunteer, I am sort of picky about which job I am willing to do.  I offered to scribe for the show jump judge, a position from which you can watch the horses jump the course, but one that didn’t require running around on my feet all day.

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So as I was getting ready to head up on Saturday morning, I debated my footwear.  I mean, I wasn’t really going to be around the horses directly, or standing, so I could just wear something casual and comfortable, right?

Then I remembered Chapter One from my someday to be published book, “Tales of a Horse Show Organizer”.  And I threw my paddock boots in the car.

Chapter One: Consider Your Footwear

The University of New Hampshire Equine Program runs several sanctioned shows each year; at one point, we ran three US Eventing Association horse trials and two US Dressage Federation dressage shows.  My role at the dressage shows was usually more behind the scenes than the front and center one of manager for the horse trials; most often, I helped set up the arenas and then assisted with scoring during the show itself.

One particularly notable year, we were positively stuffed to capacity with entries.  Eighty stalls of temporary stabling were full, with overflow in the main UNH barn and even a few stashed at neighboring facilities.  To accommodate these riders, we set up a fourth dressage arena.  The facility layout is a little bit sprawling, with most of the show (secretary’s tent, scoring, awards, three arenas and one large warm up) clustered together; stabling is out of sight from this, around the corner and down the road.  Ring four was set adjacent to stabling, so for the competitors down there, I would imagine it felt like they were at a completely different horse show.  Though we had radio communication with the group up the road, for the most part we had little awareness of what, specifically, was going on down there.

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I was scoring as per usual; my two pugs and I were stationed in the air conditioned trailer, surrounded by computers, calculators, printers and white out.  Historically, our dressage shows seem to be plagued by high temps, humidity and sometimes disruptive thunderstorms.  While I wore my traditional khaki shorts and UNH polo, in deference to my scheduled role as scorer and the heat, I only had a pair of Crocs with me.  Not even Crocs– some sort of cheap knock off that I picked up at a discount store. Definitely not “Pony Club approved footwear”.

Sometime towards late morning on the first day of the show, we received a call that the EMT was urgently needed down at the warm up for Ring Four.  A rider had been bucked off and landed quite badly; I can’t remember if she was conscious or not, but was certainly concussed.  The speaker reported that the horse had headed down the road towards us at the main show at a pretty good gallop.

Everyone leapt into action; the EMT was mobilized, the TD notified, show staff buzzing here, there and everywhere.  I kept waiting to hear on the radio that the horse had been caught; the call never came.  The horse never appeared in our area of the show.  I picked up my own radio and asked if anyone had caught the horse or knew where the horse was.  No response.

I left the scoring booth to see that the secretary’s tent was now being staffed only by our intrepid secretary, Liz.  I asked her if she knew anything about the status of the horse.  We concluded that he/she was MIA, but had last been seen speeding towards the Dairy Facility…which borders busy intrastate Route 4.

The horse was loose.  No one was looking for the horse.  The horse was heading for a busy highway.

I hopped into Liz’s car while she stayed at the tent and sped off for the Dairy Facility.

When I arrived, I don’t even know that I closed her car door before one of the dairymen, all casual like, said to me (in a true New Englander accent), “We were a-wondrin when when ah you hoss ladies was gonna come looking”.

“So the horse came through here?”

“Ayuh.”

I glanced around and saw neither tracks nor a horse.

“Which way?”

“It upset the cows, ya know.”

“I am sorry about that.  Which way, please?”

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One of UNH’s dairy herd. I don’t know if she, specifically, was bothered by the horse in question.

They vaguely gestured off towards the edge of the facility, towards the wooded tree line.  I took off in that direction at a jog.  Somewhere in this process, I had thought to call our barn manager and have her notify the local police.  She was reluctant at first, but it was clear to me that we had a real public safety risk if the horse had managed to reach the highway.  As I neared the trees, I caught sight of horse tracks—the horse was clearly still moving at speed, and headed straight into the woods.  I plunged into the overgrown tree line, stomping down the underbrush, fronds poking through the holes of my Crocs.  I tried not to think about how much poison ivy I was running through or the scratches my bare legs were incurring from the brambles.

The path taken by the horse became quite clear once I picked up the trail.  He/she was breaking through footing that had been undisturbed by something as large and quick moving as a horse, and with some recent rain the track had easily yielded to the horse’s momentum.  The ground cover quickly changed from a leafy forested area to a bit of a wetland, replete with cattails and other associated swamp like features.  I was still running along the horse’s trail, hearing the sound of the highway increasing in proximity with each step.  I should add at this point that there are very few circumstances in which I will willingly run.  I am one of those people who, if you seem them running, you should too as likely something quite bad is coming behind me.

So there I am—running after a loose horse (which I still have not seen), towards the highway, in my Crocs, in a swamp. And all of a sudden I just sort of sunk in—my foot slid into a print from the horse and the next thing I knew I was stuck almost hip deep in the muck with one leg.  I managed to extricate both my leg and my trusty Croc, and soldiered along, slipping in a few more times.  I was totally covered in swamp mud.  My colleague Sarah had now caught up to me; she was a distance runner and had jogged the entire way over to the Dairy, catching up to the same farmer and then following me into the brush.  Together, we made our way out through the rest of the swamp and broke out onto the shoulder of Route 4.  It wasn’t clear which way the horse had turned, so we each headed in a different direction and began running.

I kept waiting to hear squealing brakes, or galloping feet, but instead, after a few minutes, I was instead approached by a cruiser with blue lights flashing.  Sarah was sitting in the passenger seat, and the officer rolled down his window.  “The horse has been caught, and I saw you two out here, so I figured I would give you a ride,” he said.  “Hop in”.  I slid into the back seat.  Fun fact:  the back seat of police cruisers is just a plastic shell, which worked out quite well for my “swamp creature” self.

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As the officer drove the cruiser towards the UNH exit, we came upon our naughty dressage horse—a beautiful, flashy chestnut with chrome, still in full tack (bridle, saddle, boots—and no, I never got the brand name of the products which stayed on through the horse’s jaunt through hill and dale)—BEING RIDDEN by a gentleman in his tennis shoes and shorts.  The man was clearly a horseman, and rode in the style of a saddleseat rider or similar.  The horse’s head was up and he was smartly stepping along as the gentleman purposefully trotted him along the side of the road.  We provided police escort to the pair all the way off the highway, down Main Street, and back to the Ring 4 warm up where the whole situation had begun.  The rider did not let up on the horse until they had reached the arena, where he smartly dismounted and took the reins over the head.

Sarah and the officer hopped out of the cruiser and headed towards the horse and rider.  An additional fun fact:  when you are in the back of a police cruiser, you cannot get out unless someone lets you out.  So I sat there, covered in swamp mud, in my UNH Equine polo shirt, waiting in the back of the cruiser to be released.  I sort of wondered if this would be the one occasion on which our Dean might arrive at one of our horse shows, to find me locked in the back of a cop car.

Eventually, the officer noticed my predicament and came to let me out.  I joined the group around the rider, who said he used to show Morgans and was actually the uncle of one of our students.  I told him that if he had liked the horse, he could probably get him for a quite reasonable price at that moment in time!  I also said that I thought he was quite brave, to get on a strange horse that was running loose alongside the highway, with no riding gear or helmet.  He looked at me quite strangely and said, “Well, I certainly wasn’t going to LEAD him off the road!”  To each his own.

The horse’s owner did end up receiving off site medical treatment, but her barn mates assumed possession of her horse and we broke up to continue our respective duties of show management or keeping the peace.  The advantage of my Croc attire was that with a good hosing, I looked moderately presentable and was only modestly stinky for the rest of my day in scoring.

But I will say that if I had to do the whole thing again, more sensible shoes would have been appropriate.  It doesn’t really matter what job you are supposed to be doing at the horse show, I guess there is always a chance you will need to catch a loose horse.

And this is why at GMHA this past weekend, I wore paddock boots for my non-horse involved volunteer role.

I still have the Crocs.

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PS: I stole the featured image (of the UNH dressage rings) for this blog from my friend Liz’s page, On the Bit Events, LLC!  She loves organizing horse shows so much she started her own business to do it! Check her company out!

Ya Gotta Know When to Hold ‘Em….and When to Fold ‘Em

I got on the Dark Mare (better known as Lee) today for our first ride since late December.  In the ten years we have been together, this is the first time I have ever let her “rough out” for the winter.  With our recent move and lifestyle change, though, allowing her some time for R/R seemed not just prudent but inevitable—what little tolerance I used to have for riding outside in the snow in sub zero temperatures wore off many years ago.

But spring is just around the corner, and ride entries for CTR’s are starting to come available, so I decided the time had come to get Lee back under tack.  All things considered, for a sensitive Thoroughbred mare who has had two months off…she was pretty well behaved.  I had planned to just walk around our fields for about an hour or so, but at the forty-five minute mark, her entire demeanor changed.  She became jiggy and more spooky, and I could tell that she was on the verge of one of her infamous meltdowns.  Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, we headed home.

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Lee and I out on the trails at the farm in late fall, 2015.

I was surprised when I untacked to discover that even with just that short bit of walking around, Lee had gotten a little sweaty on her hamstrings and under the saddle area.  I think her “unsettled” behavior was just her way of telling me that she was tired and it was time to stop for the day.  Knowing this, I will now adjust the plan for our next few weeks, taking shorter walks, with the goal of gradually working back up to one hour.

This experience reminded me of a fellow blogger’s post that I read just the other day.  Her theme was that in training animals, it is important to consider the day’s interaction from the animal’s perspective.  Specifically, she discusses that if you achieve your intended outcome for the day, but neglect to consider the quality of the interaction with the animal, then overall, your training has failed.  Animals which are forced to submit to training, or who are pushed beyond their capabilities or physical endurance, typically do not willingly seek out that interaction again in the future.   When considering your day’s work with the animal, the author asks, “Have you left the animal better off than before you interacted with him?”

Lately, I have been reading through some long archived copies of Dressage Today, and in the January 2007 issue, a reader “asked the expert” how they could better deal with resistance from their mount.  I thought to myself that I would have no idea how to answer that question without more information, but Becky Langwost-Barlow, a USDF certified trainer, did an admirable job of doing so.  Langwost-Barlow provided many excellent general thoughts in regards to resistance, but there were two paragraphs which I thought were just exceptional in regards to how the rider should handle resistance in their horse:

                “Every rider makes mistakes.  Some are small; some are huge; some last for seconds; some can continue for years.  Even misreading how the horse is feeling can be a huge mistake, taking the rider down the path of resistance….I also don’t go for a 150 percent every time I ride.  I try to break up the work and look for any sign of discontent.  If the horse is cranky in his stall and doesn’t want to come to me, I know he’s not happy, and I need to look for the soreness or back off in the training.”

Being a true horseman requires that you be in tune with your horse and how they are feeling on a given day.  During the summer I spent with Denny Emerson, he always reminded us that a rider cannot get on with an agenda, or be too earnest, because to do so usually meant that they rode without sensitivity or compassion for the horse which they were sitting on in the moment.  While we were working to re-establish Anna’s confidence over fences that summer, there were many days where I would warm up and literally jump ten fences, then go off for a hack.  It is far better to do too little in a work session than too much.  The horse must always finish feeling like they have been successful.

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Anna and I schooling at Tamarack, summer of 2014.

This is not to say that you should ride without goals, or fail to address disobedience or other issues.  However, such corrections must be done with mindfulness and compassion.  In the November 2006 issue of Dressage Today, author John Winnett offered a historical overview in an article titled “The Foreign Influences on American Dressage”.  This article discussed the role which many of the great cavalry officers played in shaping the development of riders in the US.  I had never before heard of Jean Saint-Fort Paillard, a retired cavalry officer from Saumer (France) who later relocated to California after competing at the highest levels in show jumping and dressage.  Paillard authored Understanding Equitation in 1974 and according to Winnett was known for his patient, humane approach to training.  In Paillard’s words:

“Let us try to remember for a moment what the atmosphere in the riding hall or around the show ring would be if the horses yelped whenever they were hurt as dogs do.  Wouldn’t certain jumping competitions be punctuated by howls of pain?  And wouldn’t certain dressage classes be punctuated by plaintive whimpers?  What a nightmare!”

I hope that this statement would give most thinking horsemen cause for pause; we certainly have all been witness to situations in which Paillard’s words might ring true. But in my opinion, a rider who overworks their horse, or who drills, or who doesn’t learn to feel enough to quit the day’s work before the horse is too tired or exhausted to argue, is just as guilty of being inhumane as the one who overuses whips, spurs, bits or various artificial contraptions.

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We are only human, and the reality is that sometimes we are going to make mistakes, misread our horse or a situation, or react inappropriately.  But the thinking horseman must recognize that they have erred and actively work to avoid doing so in the future.

In the memorable words sung by Kenny Rogers (and written by the much less well known Don Schlitz): “If you’re gonna play the game, boy, you gotta learn to play it right.  You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.”   In horse training, the thinking horsemen must learn when to push (know when to hold ‘em), when to quit for the day (know when to fold ‘em), when to end on a good note (know when to walk away) and when to abandon a training approach which isn’t working (know when to run).

 

 

A Day with Conrad Schumacher

In late March 2015, an invitation to ride locally in a clinic with dressage master Conrad Schumacher passed through my Facebook feed.  At first, I thought it might be a mistake, but sure enough the clinic was being held right down the road at Longfellow Dressage in Nottingham, NH, and there was one space left.  Almost before I knew what I was doing, I decided to sign up to ride with him on Annapony.

This forty-five minute session was PRICEY, and I was determined to get my money’s worth by spending the rest of the day auditing the other rides.  As my own ride was scheduled for the first session after the lunch break, I was able to have the equivalent of nine extra lessons by watching all of the others.

Schumacher spoke to several themes throughout the day.  These included neck control, good basics, correct use of the aids and taking time.

Neck Control

Even before participating in this clinic, I had read that Schumacher is known for his emphasis on ‘neck control’.  In fact, I had saved a 2004 article from the June Dressage Today in which he discussed various aspects of this concept, and I reviewed said document in preparation for the clinic.  So I was pleased to be able to hear more about this concept during several of the day’s sessions.

During the very first session of the day, Schumacher had the rider work on stretching the horse’s neck in the halt, which he said allows the horse to open up their jaw.  He commented that when the horse is not used to doing this, at first they will tend to lift the neck and become hollow.  The rider must wait until the horse begins to relax and for the neck to be good before moving forward.   If the horse moves away from the bit in the halt (backs up), the rider must be sure to keep their hips square, stay tall and push their heels down, thereby pushing the horse forward onto the bit.  In this moment, the rider may also keep the hands a little wide.  Never should the horse be punished for backing up.

Schumacher said that it should be a priority for the rider to achieve the correct flexion in the horse’s neck during the first fifteen minutes of the ride, which leaves thirty minutes or so to “do the work which needs to be done”.  Even something as seemingly simple as a transition is improved in quality when the horse is good in the neck.

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Conrad Schumacher puts a watchful eye on a horse/rider team.

Schumacher frequently used turn on the forehand as a tool to improve connection and engagement, as well as to increase the degree of neck control and obedience.  The exercise should never be used as a punishment, but may be used as a correction. He emphasized that it is very important that the rider not over flex the neck when doing a turn on the forehand; when there is too much flexion, the horse can escape the exercise.  Schumacher said that the neck can only flex properly when it is held vertically.  Flexion, when asked for correctly, should be nearly invisible.  The rider uses their inside hand a little bit diagonally towards the horse.  When executing a turn on the forehand, the rider’s aids should come and go, and the horse should stretch a little downward.

It is not appropriate for the horse to be working with a short neck unless they are working at a level where the movements (piaffe and passage, for example), require it.  While doing basic work, the horse should have a long neck.

Schumacher commented that, “Riding a horse with a proper neck is a bit more complicated but it is what dressage is about.  It’s not about the movements.  The movements are easy. When you have neck control, everything will be better.”

Basics, Basics, Basics

Another theme of Schumacher’s teaching was the importance of correct, classically applied basics.  It doesn’t matter how many times we hear this or read it—it seems like the importance of correct basics needs to be restated, because certainly we all bear witness to trainers and coaches who seem to favor short cuts.

Schumacher reminded riders to always go with the horse to the hand, not the other way around.  He said, “Everything in dressage that is difficult comes first.  The beginner in dressage has a big amount to learn, to correctly get the horse in the neck and to the bit.”

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Anna and I during our session.

Several horses in the clinic were schooling at levels requiring collected gaits.  Schumacher emphasized that even at the beginning stages of playing with collection, the horse must stay in the same rhythm.  “Do not let the horse slow down,” Schumacher reminded riders.  He emphasized that the concept of rhythm on the training pyramid is not just about the beats of the gait; it is also about the tempo.  Schumacher said that only by keeping the correct tempo in each gait can the rider work to develop relaxation, which is of course the next rung of the training pyramid.  Collection is based on throughness and relaxation.

“We can see collection when we stretch a horse and they don’t run,” said Schumacher.  “Collection begins with self carriage.”

With collected work comes the importance of realistic expectations.  “You cannot expect too much,” said Schumacher.  “You cannot go directly into the highest degree of collection.”

Correct Use of the Aids

Schumacher was particular about the rider’s position and their correct use of the aids, both natural and artificial, and gave tips for specific movements.

Riders need to remember to move the horse using the rider’s entire body, not just the legs and the reins.  Schumacher compared it to dancing—when you dance, you dance with your whole body, not just the arms and the legs.

He emphasized that the whip is never to be used as a punishment, but as a tool to improve communication.  It can be used to help to maintain the tempo of the gait.  Schumacher advised that it is better to not kick with the leg, but instead to tap with the whip if the horse is not forward enough.  Overall, the rider should try to do less with their aids.

Riders who are using the double bridle must be taught how to do so correctly.  The opposite hand should be used to shorten the snaffle rein when necessary, and care must be taken to not overtighten the curb.

Riders must remember to sit tall in the saddle and allow their arms to hang loosely.  Sitting tall should not translate into heaviness with the upper body.

When asking for the halt, the rider must step down and through their leg, bringing their pelvis forward.  All of this occurs before any weight is added into the rider’s hands.  The halt must come from the body of the rider, not the reins.  For the horse to halt, the rider must halt.

In the reinback, the rider should keep their lower leg a little bit back, and their upper body light, so that the horse’s back is free to move.

Schumacher commented that most riders know that their horse should be “on the outside rein”, but lack clarity about what that really means.  “People often think, ‘oh, I am holding the outside rein and so the horse is on it,’ but that is not correct,” said Schumacher.  “The rider needs to be able to give on the outside rein and the horse must go to it.  The rider must not hold on at all.”  To this end, when asking for lateral work, the rider’s outside hand must allow the horse to move into it.

Schumacher says that we say we want to get the horse on the outside rein, but we more correctly mean the outside aids—which includes the rider’s leg. In a properly ridden shoulder in, the rider’s inside leg is a little further forward than the outside. The rider’s seat must bend.  If the rider attempts a shoulder in without keeping the outside leg back, the horse will not be on the outside rein.  And when drawing the outside leg back, it should be moved from the hip, not just the knee.

Contact requires that the rider keep a fist which is shut.  The softness we riders seek comes from the arm and shoulder of the rider staying relaxed, which in turn allows the horse to give in their neck and shoulder as well.

Schumacher reminded riders that the biggest reward to the horse is when the rider does nothing.   Steadiness in the rider is paramount.  “See the big picture,” said Schumacher.  “Do not react to every little thing, especially when the horse is basically right.”

Taking Time

Schumacher is incredibly pro-horse and horse friendly.  Over and over he emphasized the importance of patience and not pushing the horse. “The only way we help them is to be nice to them,” said Schumacher.  “All the other ways do not help them. Don’t punish him, convince him.”

Schumacher believes that horses aren’t naughty so much as they are insecure.  The rider must be calm and not use their whip as a punishment; instead, it is a reminder, a cue saying, “hey, come on buddy.”

One rider rode a highly talented, young but sensitive, mare.  While challenging her by riding a ten meter circle followed by a transition to walk while approaching the wall, the mare became tense.  Schumacher said, “You must be brave and give a little bit.  Take the stress away by letting the horse stretch a little.”  Incorporating short bits of stretching into the mare’s work, followed by riding forward for a few strides, allowed the development of a more correct neck and longer, more swinging steps.

The rider must remember to reward their horse when the desired result has been achieved. Schumacher reminded riders that it takes time to build a horse’s muscles.  Especially when working on developing increased collection, the horse requires frequent breaks.

Horses which have been trained correctly and provided with good care can stay sound and happy for many years, as was testified by a lovely twenty year old Hanoverian who did many movements of the Grand Prix with his rider.  Schumacher said that with the increased quality of equine medical care, he sees more and more older horses which still move really well. “When they are sound and they enjoy their work, it is important that they keep moving,” said Schumacher.  “It doesn’t help them, though, to not be ridden well.”

Schumacher tied this back to the importance of correct basics.  “You do not go out and work the Grand Prix every day,” said Schumacher.  “It all depends on the basic work.  This works their body, keeps them healthy, and they stay fit.”

Emphasis was placed on the importance of taking time to prepare the horse’s body to do what the rider wants it to do.  “The horse may be willing but they must also be physically ready to do the work,” said Schumacher.

In a similar vein, the rider must finish the day’s work once the horse understands what is asked, but before he runs out of muscle strength and the gaits begin to deteriorate.

In working through movements, Schumacher asks for smoothness before expression.  “If you start with expression, everything falls apart,” said Schumacher.

My Ride

I have been quite lucky in my career to have had the opportunity to work with many VIPs of the equestrian community.  Usually, though, there isn’t much of an audience, and my Inner Critic (I am sure you have one, too) was in full force as the number of days leading to the ride dwindled in number.

As I have gotten older, I have developed a degree of performance anxiety, most typically in relation to jumping.  However, I will totally admit that I cannot remember the last time I was so nervous to ride in front of other people as I was when it came to this clinic.  After watching the morning sessions, my Inner Critic was in full battle cry:  your horse is too “normal”, you aren’t riding at a high enough level, the quality of your connection isn’t good enough, everyone watching is going to judge you…and on it went.  However, I retained the presence of mind to be able to remind myself that out of the dozens of spectators, only ten of us were actually riding on this day, and it is always much easier to sit in judgement than to sit in the saddle and be judged.

Conrad Schumacher Clinic and 2015 IHSA Nationals 048

I took advantage of the lunch break to loosen Anna up before our session started.  Riders in the clinic each wore an earpiece so Schumacher’s voice did not need to be projected so strongly; I have never ridden with one before, and one of the other riders helped me to get the technology properly situated.  When Schumacher returned to the ring and began to speak, I almost jumped out of the saddle.  It was as though I could feel his words in my head!

Schumacher asked me to continue to work for a few more moments, watching, and then asked me to stop.  To this point, I had only ridden Anna in a plain cavesson, not because of any strong opposition to flash nosebands but rather because it was what I owned that fit her. That being said, I believe that flash nosebands have a place in the training process, but I don’t necessarily feel that they are the right equipment for every horse.

However, in the German system, the flash noseband is de rigeur, and Schumacher commented that they are necessary in order to create complete neck control.  “You must ensure that horse doesn’t use an open mouth to evade the connection, or to figure out how to put the tongue over the bit,” said Schumacher.

Conrad Schumacher Clinic and 2015 IHSA Nationals 028
Anna models her makeshift flash noseband.

A flash noseband was found in the barn, and it was looped around our cavesson.   Consistency in the connection has been a challenge at times with Anna, and I was interested to see what her response to the flash would be.  But Schumacher wasn’t done adding equipment.   He requested a draw rein—certainly not classical equipment.  He called it a “supporting rein”, and ran it around the girth, between the front legs and then up and through the newly added flash noseband on Anna’s hollow side.  I held the rein as one would hold the curb rein on a double.  The rein only comes into play if the horse raises their head beyond a certain level, much like a martingale would.  Schumacher said that the supporting rein helps to create stability in the contact, and therefore is appropriate to use in a classical training system.

Our session focused heavily on neck control and improving the stability in the connection.  Schumacher had me ride a series of walk-halt-walk transitions, staying in the halt under the neck got rounder and then immediately stepping forward into the walk as a reward for responding.  Once we moved to the trot, we continued to work on transitions but incorporated smaller circles, timing the transition from trot to walk as we angled towards the wall.  In the trot, Schumacher had me use a slight yield of the haunches to the outside to increase the roundness, followed by riding straight and forward.

I think that all of the exercises worked well to improve Anna’s consistency in the connection and overall roundness.  The addition of the flash noseband was helpful, even though there were a few moments of pony rebellion against its slight restriction.  The supporting rein was not particularly helpful, in my opinion.  Since riding in this clinic, I have acquired a well fitting flash noseband, which I think has allowed the quality of our connection to increase.  I have not used the supporting rein again.

Overall, the ride was positive and I was left with several new ideas and exercises to “take to the lab” and experiment with.  It is always helpful to spend time listening to the training philosophy and techniques of individuals who work out of a clear, progressive system.  Whether riding or auditing, taking part in these sorts of experiences can only help to broaden our base of knowledge.

Consistency and Clarity with the Aids: Winter Break Tune Ups

The university equine program is just barely back in action after a hiatus of nearly six weeks.  Over the winter break, I took advantage of the quiet arena and more relaxed schedule to work on tuning up a few of our wonderful school horses.  Ironically, it was an “all mare” sort of break, and I found myself working with a rotation of four of my favorite horses:  Marquesa, Whisper, Fiona and Morocco, in addition to my own “girls”.

Marquesa
Spring Hollow Marquesa with her friend Emily.

These four horses couldn’t be more different, at first glance.  What they all have in common is that, for various reasons, they ended the fall semester not going all that well in class, and it was time for a little one on one time with the instructor for a tune up.

Having ridden most of the UNH herd at one point or another, I have firsthand knowledge of what will or will not work for each animal in terms of exercises and applications of the aids. Many of the riders I work with are at the stage of their riding career where they need to learn to modify the use of their aids to suit the individual mount they are sitting on.  The university calls our lessons “labs”, which I joke is because we are “experimenting” with figuring out which recipe of the aids will work best in a given situation.  Riders must learn what ratio to apply their aids in, and the timing, and sometimes the only way to get good at this is to play around, and to mess up a bit.  In this way, the riders are expanding their tool kit.

Fiona is a middle aged, Thoroughbred type mare.  In spite of being chestnut and a former eventer, she is hardly your stereotypical “chestnut TB mare”.  I wouldn’t describe her as hot, but I do consider her to be sensitive and the rider needs to use the aids tactfully. She is one of my most favorite horses that I have ever test ridden for UNH, and when the students started really struggling to get her connected this fall, I was kind of glad for an excuse to get back on her.  Fiona’s main issue is with suppleness—and it is chicken and the egg which she loses first, mental or physical, but once one is gone, so goes the other.

I recently read an old (September 2006) issue of Dressage Today, and there was a great article in there called, “In Search of Trust”, by Tuny Page with Beth Baumert.  I can’t find any access to it online at this point, but in the article Page is basically describing the process she went through to defuse tension in her FEI horse, Wild One.  One of her quotes is especially relevant here:

“I taught Wild One that when he blocked, the pressure from my driving aids would go on and stay on until his back relaxed, his head lowered and he started to breathe, whereupon, my driving leg aids instantly let go.”

What I realized when working with Fiona was that she and her riders had gotten into a vicious cycle of pressure/no response, as Page puts it.  When the rider would ask Fiona to step into the bridle by putting their leg on and taking light contact, Fiona tensed defensively and would raise her neck and drop her back, going almost lateral in the walk and canter and taking hectic and quick steps in the trot.  This highly tense response from the horse then caused the rider to take their leg off and try to force Fiona to lower her neck with the rein aids, which then just caused additional tension, increased hollowness, and less use of the rider’s leg.  Right from the moment the rider picked up contact, Fiona was defending herself against the rider’s aids, and the rider would play into it by removing them.

Fiona
Fiona, with her friend Emily.  A different Emily.  

To modify this response, I found that I had to do just the opposite of what might have instinctively seemed correct—I positioned Fiona to the inside with the bending aids, stayed soft and steady through the connection, and then just quietly waited with my leg on for the energy to come “through”.  There were definitely a few strides of unattractive movement each time, as Fiona processed that I wasn’t going to go away, or change my aids, or pull on her mouth.  But it took fewer and fewer strides each ride for Fiona to realize that she knew what I wanted, and she began to lower her head and neck, relax her topline, and then reach more correctly through her  back and into the bridle.  When she did so, the stride length immediately increased and the tempo stabilized.   The response to my leg, seat and rein aids became positive, and I could apply the aids and ride her from back to front.  Basically, as Page said above, I needed to keep my leg aids on until Fiona started to relax and go forward.  Not kicking or aggressively on—just patiently on, waiting.

Whisper is another of my favorite UNH horses, and it had been years since I sat on her.  She is nearly 19 years old now, and has been with the program for ten years.  In the past few semesters, it has been harder for the students to get Whisper working correctly over her back, and she has become stickier in her transitions, especially trot to canter.  I had attributed this to her advancing age and the fact that she has been a school horse for nearly a decade, but after watching her proceed to ignore most of the aids of a fairly strong rider last semester, I decided that I needed to feel for myself what was going on.

Whisper’s situation was different than Fiona’s, but as I suspected, it required a similar solution.  Left to her own choices, Whisper will travel in a long and flat outline, becoming disconnected by poking her nose out and blocking the hind end through stiffness in the muscles of the back, rather than through hollowness.  This mode of travel of course does her no favors, and when the students go to jump with Whisper, they quickly realize that they now lack the ability to adjust her canter at all. In my opinion, Whisper was a pretty easy horse to get connected—she has good training, and was always pretty willing to work correctly if you asked her to.  I thought that maybe time spent as a schoolie had caused her to become desensitized to the aids, and that this was why the students were struggling.

Whisper2
Whisper waiting to do show jumping at the UNH horse trials with her friend Rachel, an activity which in Whisper’s opinion is WAY more fun than dressage.

I quickly realized that this was not the case.  Within just a few moments on our first ride, Whisper was working willingly in a round and balanced outline, staying freely forward and reaching into the bridle.  She was adjustable laterally and longitudinally, would chew the reins forward and downward, and even easily offered the balance required to counter canter.  Hmm….all of the buttons were clearly still in place and functional.

I came to the conclusion that Whisper has simply gotten very good at teaching riders to accept the “pressure/no response, pressure/no response” approach to riding.  Again, from the Page article:

“Years ago, when I rode event horses, I learned about the dynamics of why kicking a horse doesn’t work…When a rider kicks, for every moment the legs and spurs are on, there’s a moment when they are away and getting ready to kick again.  So the horse experiences pressure/absence of pressure….and so on. ..This is bad training and doesn’t work.”

Page is specifically referring to why this approach is ineffective when trying to get a horse to pass a frightening object.  You cannot force a horse to trust you, and even if you are successful in getting them to go on one occasion, the rider will have done nothing to encourage better harmony or responsiveness to the aids in the future by simply being really aggressive and then letting go.

In Whisper’s case, riders have gotten into a cycle of asking her to do something—flex her neck to the inside, for example—and then being satisfied with a lackluster response.  They put the pressure on in the aids, but then they release it before the horse does.  Whisper has learned that she can just swing her head, wait, and in a second, the rider will most likely give up and let go, and then she can swing her head back to where it was.

It is the same with the leg aids.  If the rider has not developed the ability to isolate their leg and seat, they might apply a driving leg aid, but simultaneously be holding with the seat.  So Whisper only chooses to listen to the “whoa” from the seat.  Meanwhile, the rider is now kicking, and Whisper steadfastly ignores these ever increasingly insistent aids, while both rider and instructor become frustrated with the result.

The key with Whisper is to hold the rein aid just that moment longer, until she gives, and to maintain the soft lower leg with a following seat.  It literally just takes that little bit more of consistency, of the rider really knowing that what they are asking is correct and that it is going to work.  Whisper teaches the rider to be clear and consistent. In Whisper’s case, I need to teach better, to help the students to understand that it is not unfair or incorrect to give a clear, direct aid and expect a response.  In the same issue of Dressage Today, Lisa Wilcox was quoted as saying something along the lines that the “give and take” of a half halt should be more like “take a millimeter, give a millimeter” than anything more significant or dramatic.

UNHnew

Riding these horses was a valuable experience for me as an instructor.  It helped confirm for me that my suspicions regarding the root cause of some of these common challenges was accurate, and that confident, correct riding would resolve the problem.  I look forward to getting started with the semester in earnest so that we can continue to add to the students’ tool boxes.

Innie or Outie…or both?

Those who follow Denny Emerson’s Tamarack Hill Farm Facebook page may have caught his comments a few days back on the “innies” and “outies” of the horse world:

“In the great big world of riding, there are innies and outies, and this has nothing to do with belly buttons. Some riders love open spaces and no boundaries, while others find comfort and security within walls and arenas, with lots of technical requirements.

“And never the twain shall meet,” not quite literally, but how many times have you seen a dressage rider out fox hunting, or a trail rider showing a hunter?

Outie sports like fox hunting, where literally the riders have no idea, at any given moment, where the fox or coyote will lead them, or for how long, are far different from, say, show jumping, which has a specific track, and sequence of fences, and a specific start and finish, and a required time allowed.

It has been postulated that those who gravitate toward outie sports, like trail riding, fox hunting, point to point racing, and (sometimes) eventing have entirely different kinds of psychological profiles than those who prefer innie sports like dressage, show hunters and show jumping.

Outie sports tend to be less precise, exact and meticulous than innie sports. They are also often faster, perhaps more high risk, and less encumbered by rules and regulations.

Of these sports, eventing is perhaps the “swing’ sport, less outie than back in long format days, but still attracting both the innie and outie riders.

Which type of riding draws you in, the more precise, more specific innie sports, or the more “laissez faire” outie ones?”

I had to laugh a little after reading the post…because I seem to be living up to my Gemini nature and enjoy both worlds quite a bit. I have two horses right now—the distance horse that also does a bit of a dressage, and the “event horse who is becoming more of a dressage horse” who focuses much better on dressage days when we have the benefit of time spent outside of the ring in between.

I have successfully competed through 4th level in dressage, and even had the honor of owning a wonderful, big moving and super handsome Hanoverian gelding for five years who helped me finish my USDF Bronze Medal.  But to just ride around and around the arena six days per week, even on a fancy mover who can execute flawless changes, smooth half passes and extravagant lengthenings, for me, starts to become a little repetitive.  Worldly and I always hacked out a little bit—definitely with attention to the footing (wouldn’t want to lose an eggbar) and more frequent spooks at common objects, but I think the escape from the arena did a lot to keep his attention fresh and focus sharp when working on the precision, accuracy and submission that dressage requires.  It also helped us when we showed at Saugerties (NY) and had to hack from the absolute opposite side of the show grounds, over a bridge, through the Marshall and Sterling League Finals, to the dressage arenas where the NEDA Championships were being held.

 

WorldlyatReg8
Worldly (Weltinus, on the left) after winning the 2006 Region 8 Second Level Freestyle championships.  And yes, we were required to put white polos on the horses–I had to go buy a set!

But on the flip side of the coin, I wouldn’t want to always ride out on the trail, either, for several reasons.  It is one thing when a horse is totally retired, and they are basically being ridden to give them attention, companionship and light exercise.  For most riders, though, riding only out of the ring makes it too easy to become sloppy and complacent with position, and to also become accepting of asymmetry in both horse and rider.  Both partners will tend to favor their stronger side and do not have the same opportunity to address tightness, restriction and weakness on the less dominant side that those who work in the ring do. This kind of imbalance can, over time, contribute to uneven muscle development, saddle fit issues, pain and even lameness.   I also genuinely enjoy the process of developing a horse for various arena disciplines; the steady progression of exercises and application of training pyramid concepts appeals to my methodical, organized, intellectual side.

LeeBeach2008
Lee and I on a New Hampshire beach.

As in most things, a balance seems to be required.  Trail and distance horses, and their riders, certainly can benefit from the fundamentals of basic dressage to encourage suppleness, develop strength and improve the quality of communication.  Work over basic cavaletti or even small fences can help improve footwork, coordination, strengthen hindquarters and can also prove helpful when crossing downed trees or other trail obstacles. Arena horses, like hunters and dressage horses, can also improve their level of fitness (both mental and physical) but by spending time OUTSIDE of the ring.  The many balance checks required when going over uneven terrain on the trail can help to strengthen muscles and stabilize joints, hopefully helping to reduce the risk of injury from a misstep in the ring.

And just as one would not expect the trail horse to magically piaffe or clear a four foot spread in the ring, the arena horse would not be expected to handle the more significant terrain or speeds required of the competitive trail horse.  Each has a specialty and is just ‘dabbling’ in the other area.

Kitten and Wentworth Pace May 15 004
Anna and her friend Izzy show U of New Hampshire Wildcat pride at the Wentworth Hunt Hnter Pace in May.

As an instructor and coach, I have been struck by how many students enter our college riding program, many from a hunt seat background, having never ridden out in the open.  We are lucky to have an on campus cross country course, likely the only one of its kind in the country, where we run sanctioned events.  Students riding in the more advanced levels of riding class have the opportunity to go school out on the course, under supervision.  It is probably the most stressful week of riding instruction that I offer each semester, and a lot of what I have to do is manage the deep fear which many of these “arena riders” face in simply crossing the bridge to our course.

headingontocourse
Heading out on the UNH cross country course with two innocent students, hoping to infect them with a love of riding out in the open and the freedom of no boundaries.

Many of these riders have never experienced even basic terrain, and have no knowledge of how to balance their horse going up or downhill, or how to hold their own bodies to stay centered when the ground is not level.  They are not familiar with pulley reins, emergency dismounts or other techniques used to regain control of a fresh mount.  I must constantly remind them that their arena jumping techniques should come with them onto the course, that all of the good practice and methods they have used to control pace, balance and form when jumping in the ring also apply to fences out in the open.

At the end of a school, the riders almost always fall into one of two groups—the ones which have experienced the first adrenalin rush of cross country, hooked, ready to go again, and the ones who (sometimes literally) wipe away their tears, happy to have survived the experience, hoping that they may never have to do it again.  Denny was right—these are the outies and the innies.  I guess we all do sort of have a tendency towards one or the other.

Nevada and Eastern California 2012 582
I rode this cool Quarter Horse, Thunder, on a trip to the White Mountains of Nevada.

In the end, the question is whether you choose to accept your true nature, or whether you get brave, get disciplined, or some combination of the two, and step into the world which is less comfortable.  My guess is that even if you don’t choose to stay there, you will be a better horseman for the experience.

Book Review:  Conditioning Sport Horses

Conditioning Sport Horses by Hilary M. Clayton

c 1991 Sport Horse Publications, Mason, MI, 256 pages

ISBN 0-9695720-0-X

Still referred to by many as the “Bible” of equine conditioning principles, I picked up Clayton’s 1991 work, Conditioning Sport Horses, this past winter as I was beginning to think seriously about the demands of conditioning for long distance riding.  I was worried at first that the book might be a bit dry or too technical for me, a non-scientist, to understand.  However, Clayton is skilled at breaking down complex concepts into manageable pieces and I found it a fairly pleasurable read.

Dr. Hilary Clayton   Photo taken from her promotional poster.
Dr. Hilary Clayton Photo taken from her promotional poster.

Conditioning Sport Horses is divided into three chunks.  Part One looks at the major systems involved in the process of preparing a horse for athletic work and devotes full chapters to the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, energy production, muscles, thermoregulation and fluid and electrolyte balance.  Part Two delves into the “practical aspects of conditioning” and covers concepts such as general conditioning principles, cardiovascular conditioning, strength training, increasing suppleness, and managing these elements in a horse’s overall training program (including using a heart rate monitor and providing adequate nutrition).  Finally, Part Three shows how to use these concepts to prepare a horse for the specific demands of various disciplines; Clayton addresses the traditional sport horse disciplines but also several western sports as well as polo, endurance and chuck wagon racing (!).

These polo ponies show how much a horse will naturally lean onto the inside forelimb and shoulder when turning. Polo is a fast moving sport, requiring speed and agility (Clayton, 1991, p 229).  "Polo3-1-" by Ems (Emanuel Sanchez de la Cerda) - de.wikipedia.org: 18:50, 16. Mär. 2006 .. Ems .. 800×520 (292.111 Bytes) (* Bildbeschreibung: Sal. Oppenheim Cup Finale 2005 * Fotograf/Zeichner: Emanuel Sanchez de la Cerda (~~~) * Datum: 26.06.2005 18:00). Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0de via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Polo3-1-.jpeg#mediaviewer/File:Polo3-1-.jpeg
These polo ponies show how much a horse will naturally lean onto the inside forelimb and shoulder when turning. Polo is a fast moving sport, requiring speed and agility (Clayton, 1991, p 229).
“Polo3-1-” by Ems (Emanuel Sanchez de la Cerda) – de.wikipedia.org: 18:50, 16. Mär. 2006 .. Ems .. 800×520 (292.111 Bytes) (* Bildbeschreibung: Sal. Oppenheim Cup Finale 2005 * Fotograf/Zeichner: Emanuel Sanchez de la Cerda (~~~) * Datum: 26.06.2005 18:00). Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0de via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Polo3-1-.jpeg#mediaviewer/File:Polo3-1-.jpeg

I read this book much like I would a text book, underlining key concepts and passages and pasting sticky notes on others.  Doing so really helped me to dig into the material. While I have studied conditioning concepts in the past, I have never done so with the intensity or scrutiny that I have brought to my work this season, and Clayton’s writing included many important concepts and principles that I am not sure I have truly ever heard before, as well as reminded me of old favorites.

Conditioning Sport Horses, by Hilary M. Clayton (cover).
Conditioning Sport Horses, by Hilary M. Clayton (cover).

For example, we have all been told that we shouldn’t feed our horses immediately following a hard work because the blood supply has been shifted away from the digestive organs.  Clayton includes a graph which shows that during exercise, just over 75% of the cardiac output and distribution of blood flow is shifted to the horse’s muscles, and less than one quarter is dedicated to all of the other organs in the body.  A horse at rest is nearly opposite of these values.  Seeing the ratio so clearly visually depicted really drove the point home (see Clayton, 1991, page 14).

Another relevant question was answered in the chapter on thermoregulation.  Here in New Hampshire, winters can get downright frigid, and the question “when is it too cold to ride” is often raised, in particular in reference to whether or not conditions are safe for the horse.  Clayton settles the point clearly: “Compared with horses exercising at normal temperatures, horses undergoing strenuous exercise at -25* C(-13* F) have no significant changes in heart rate, lactate production, blood gas tensions, gait or lung tissue morphology” (Clayton, 1991, p 70).  So next winter when I choose to not ride when the temps are in the single digits, I will know that it is for me that I am staying in the warmth, not for my horse!

My horse, Carmel, after the New England Blizzard of 2015.
My horse, Carmel, after the New England Blizzard of 2015.

Perhaps one of the most interesting segments of Conditioning the Sport Horse is the section on general conditioning principles.  When most riders think of conditioning, it seems that their minds immediately go to the concept of “sets”; going out and riding at a certain speed or pace for a specific period of time, then allowing the horse to partially recover before completing another round.  I am not sure that riders in non-aerobic disciplines (dressage comes to mind) often think hard about their horse’s “conditioning plan”.  Clayton explains in great detail that the term conditioning encompasses far more than just improving the horse’s cardiovascular capacity; in fact, this system is the fastest one to improve with exercise, while other equally critical systems (such as the musculoskeletal system) lag behind.  If a rider fails to address each of the critical areas of conditioning, their equine athlete’s performance will be compromised (at best) or they will risk injury or breakdown (at worst).

There are three components to the volume of exercise which a horse is in:  intensity, duration and frequency.  Smart riders are able to gradually increase the horse’s capacity in each of these areas, though not in all three at once (Clayton, 1991, 80-81).  Strategically incorporating the various forms of conditioning with these principles will allow for the most consistent and safe increase in athletic capacity.

This book is full of practical and useful tips, everything from  how to make your own electrolytes (3 parts sodium chloride to one part potassium chloride—see page 72) to how to introduce fitness concepts to a green horse in any discipline to feeding strategies for animals in endurance sports which will maximize performance.  In the chapters on specific disciplines, Clayton provides clear and do-able formats for conditioning in each sport, attending to each of the major categories of conditioning.   I learned a lot from reading each chapter, even for those disciplines which are not my specialty.

If you are going to consider yourself a serious student of the correct and conscientious development of the equine athlete, you simply MUST have this book on your shelves.  Read it, underline it, dog ear it, and refer to it regularly as you create a conditioning plan for your athlete— and whether they are a dressage specialist, a reiner, a show jumper, or something else,  your horse will thank you.

5/5 stars

Creating a Musical Freestyle that WORKS: Tips from the Top

This past May, I had the opportunity to attend a two day musical freestyle symposium at The Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, ME. Day one focused primarily on the judge’s perspective (see my previous blog on this subject), while day two allowed participants to dissect the ingredients of a freestyle which will guarantee to impress the judges.  The weekend was facilitated by FEI judge Lois Yukins and Klassic Kur founder Terry Ciotti Gallo, who has designed for some of the best riders and horses in the world.

Lois Yukins
Lois Yukins
Terry Ciotti Gallo
Terry Ciotti Gallo

“Riding a freestyle is not just for the judge’s entertainment,” says Yukins.  “It is for you—the rider—and the audience.” Putting together a freestyle requires a great deal of time, creativity and patience, and it is important to enjoy the process as much as the performance.

Choosing Your Music

Perhaps the single most important aspect of making a freestyle that works is to choose the perfect music.  According to Gallo, the right music will match the footfalls of the trot and canter, is suitable for the horse and appeals to the taste of the rider. It is equally important that the selections for each gait are cohesive in genre, theme or instrumentation.  Once the perfect music is chosen, it will further enhance the quality of the freestyle by using seamless editing (either done professionally or on a home computer) so that the entire program sounds like it all goes together.

Gallo explained that in order to choose the correct music, it is important to know what the average tempo is for the horse for each gait, expressed as beats per minute (bpm).   This can be done by having someone take video of the horse performing the required movements at the level for later review or it can be done in live time.  Count the number of steps taken in sixty seconds; for the trot and walk, count the steps of each front leg, but for the canter, count only the leading leg of each stride.  Using a metronome can be a huge help, as the listener can set its pulse to the beat of the movement.  Many smart phones have free or inexpensive metronomes to download.  It is then easy to play the metronome set to the horse’s beats per minute against a prospective musical selection to determine its appropriateness.  In this way, the rider can easily test many more samples of music at once than by playing them with the live horse riding around the arena.

Doris Carlson worked with her Third Level mare on ascertaining tempo and creating choreography.
Doris Carlson worked with her Third Level mare on ascertaining tempo and creating choreography.

The basic gaits of most horses fall within a similar range.

Gait Range (in BPM) Average BPM
Trot 132-168 145
Walk 98-112 106
Canter 92-105 96
Passage 105-116 110

The horse’s tempo in each gait will change as they progress through their training, and may even vary through those movements which are still harder for the horse to execute correctly.  Therefore, Gallo recommends that riders set their horse’s tempo only when the horse is going the way they will in the competition arena.  If the horse seems to be between two tempos, use the lateral movements to help figure out which tempo is more appropriate.

Sometimes, the music’s tempo can act as a training tool, encouraging riders to ride their horses more steadily all the time.  As the horse gets stronger and the moment of suspension becomes more enhanced, the horse’s tempo will slow down, and music may need to be modified.  This is one of several reasons why the right music for a horse’s First Level freestyle may not be the right music for them at the FEI levels.

Notice also that there is some overlap in the average beats per minute for the walk, canter and even passage.  This means that it may be possible to use the same piece of music for both the walk and the canter, but something in the musical phrasing must express a change of gait.

Michelle Hirshberg worked with her Lusitano stallion on creating a consistent tempo which matched the music.  Gallo discussed how the type of music used could help to create greater consistency and more jump in the canter, elevating its quality.
Michelle Hirshberg worked with her Lusitano stallion on creating a consistent tempo which matched the music. Gallo discussed how the type of music used could help to create greater consistency and more jump in the canter, elevating its quality.

How do I find this “perfect music”?

For someone who truly enjoys music, mulling through various selections could provide hours upon hours of entertainment.  But it can be hard to know where to start, as the number of options seems limitless, and the best music might truly come from any genre.

Gallo says that it is important to keep an open mind—the best music for the horse might be a surprise. Your own personal music library is of course a great place to start, but don’t forget to ask friends for some of their favorites as well.  Gallo recommends checking the selections at college and public libraries, online stores such as iTunes or Amazon and also radio stations, especially those like satellite, Pandora, etc.  As you listen to a selection, try to feel the beat, or keep a metronome handy.  iTunes can be useful to pull up nearly every available version of a song, which can make it easier to find arrangements of favorite tunes recorded in a certain instrumentation or without words.  Pandora’s grouping feature will make it easy to search all of the music which sounds like a particular artist.

Music that is within ten beats of the horse’s usual beats per minute may be usable with the help of a good sound artist.  As you listen to selections, set up a catalogue to organize them by their beats per minute.  Notebooks, recipe cards or computer databases all work well for this.

Gallo mentioned that some music is recorded using a “click track”, which is a metronome that plays when musicians are recording.  These songs tend to have a consistent beat; music recorded without a click track can have a range in the beats per minute that makes it harder to follow.

Gallo helped Cyndy West and her Lippizan mare create Intermediare choreography which would suit previously edited music from a lower level freestyle.
Gallo helped Cyndy West and her Lippizan mare create Intermediare choreography which would suit previously edited music from a lower level freestyle.

Lower level horses generally are better suited to lighter music; many dance styles work well.  It requires the big and powerful movement of an upper level horse to carry off stronger musical selections or music played by a full orchestra.  Gallo mentioned that it is totally acceptable for younger riders to choose more modern musical selections.

Lyrics (words, voice) are permitted, but it is conventional wisdom that they are to be avoided when possible as they can distract from the performance.  Some music features vocals that sound more like instruments (ooh’s and aah’s), which may actually enhance the performance and should not be considered to be in the same category as full lyrics.  Gallo has chosen to carefully use vocals in select freestyles, but says it is like “sprinkling your latte with caramel as opposed to creating a crème brulee.”  Songs which heavily feature vocals may have versions available that are wholly or significantly instrumented, which might work better for freestyle design.

Gallo further cautions that heavily syncopated music is not always good, as it can be hard for riders to follow the beat.  “When the beat is very clean, it is an aid to the rider,” says Gallo.

Suitability and Cohesiveness

Just because a piece of music matches your horse’s tempo doesn’t make it the right or best choice to use in your freestyle.  Riders must consider suitability and cohesiveness as well.

Suitability means that the music enhances the horse’s way of going, and makes their movements appear to be light and effortless.  Big, powerful horses performing upper level movements can carry big, powerful music; lower level horses which lack some of that suspension and power will be better with lighter music that makes their movement appear to be lofty.  To check whether a piece of music is suitable, play it while you ride, and either video it or ask a friend to tell you how your horse looks.  Does the horse seem to be light or heavy?  Are their movements sluggish or frantic, or do they seem to be relaxed?  Does the horse seem happy, or burdened?  Each piece should suggest the gait that it is used for.

Paula Pierce's elegant and powerful Intermediate horse was able to carry off nearly any musical genre.
Paula Pierce’s elegant and powerful Intermediate horse was able to carry off nearly any musical genre.

Cohesiveness means that the music is all from the same genre—the selections have an obvious theme.  The instrumentation might match, or the sound between the pieces is similar.  Sometimes a single instrument is highlighted in each selection.  While you would never design a freestyle to one complete piece of music, you want your edited music to sound as if it could come from one piece.  The music used in a freestyle should overall be pleasing to the ear.

Of the three gaits, the walk is the most relaxed, and it is not critical that the beat of the music matches the footfalls—unless your horse has an 8 or 9 walk, in which case you should try to match them after all!  The walk is a section of the freestyle in which the rider can catch up to their music if needed.  While the music choice may be more relaxed, it should still have energy.

Riders can choose to have entry music or not.  The freestyle judging doesn’t officially begin until the first halt and salute, which must be performed somewhere on center line.  If the rider chooses to have entry music, it should come from within the program, be a fanfare related to the program or introduce the theme of the program.  Entry music must start within 45 seconds of the bell being rung, and the rider must enter the arena within 20 seconds of it starting to play.

Exit music is not allowed in competition freestyles.  The music must cease with the final salute.

Planning your Choreography

Choosing the right music is just one part of creating a winning freestyle.  Riders must also design a pattern for the ride which highlights the horse’s best qualities and showcases each of the required movements.  The results of this planning are scored by the judge under the artistic impression scores for choreography (for USDF tests, a coefficient of 4) and degree of difficulty (for USDF tests, a coefficient of 2, but x4 for FEI levels).  Gallo recommends designing the choreography first, in most cases, and then editing the music to suit the choreography.

Before the rider can begin to plan the choreography, they must know which movements are required for the level.  Note also those movements which must be performed on both reins.  Omitting a movement is just giving away a score.  Included on the lower left corner of each test sheet is a list of those movements which are considered “above the level”, which are not allowed.  While some riders might think that showing their horse’s talent for half pass in a Second Level freestyle would be an opportunity to increase the degree of difficulty, it is in fact a significant point penalty because the movement is above the level.  Riders must also consider that certain movements could be hard to interpret, depending on their placement; for example, shoulder in is virtually invisible to the judge at “C” when ridden on the short side of the arena.

Dinah Rojek listens intently to Gallo, who worked on helping her really feel the beat of various musical selections.
Dinah Rojek listens intently to Gallo, who worked on helping her really feel the beat of various musical selections.

Degree of difficulty is certainly a consideration when planning the choreography for a freestyle, but both Gallo and Yukins cautioned that riders must only do what they know they can really execute well—or else both the artistic and technical scores will suffer.  “Simple and correct always beats complicated and messy,” says Yukins.  “Don’t compromise the basics of the horse to add difficulty.”

Gallo says that the overall degree of difficulty is one of the first things she considers when designing choreography for a client; this mostly applies to the configuration of movements at the trot and canter, unless walk is being included in a transition.  With only a coefficient of 2 at the USDF levels, degree of difficulty is not as critical a factor as it is at the FEI levels.  Another important factor is the horse’s experience at the level.  The design and difficulty should not exceed what the horse can manage at that stage of their training.

Degree of difficulty is shown by doing things like performing a movement at a steeper angle than is required at a standard test of the same level, placing movements off the rail or on center line, doing demanding transitions (such as a canter lengthening to walk on the same line), challenging combinations of movements, reins in one hand, or tempi changes on a broken or curved line.

Another decision which must be made related to choreography is what order the gaits should be featured in.  The choice made here will ultimately affect the amount of editing required for the music.

Riders must consider the point of view when placing their movements in the competition arena.  Here is the chance to really highlight something your horse does well—a pirouette right on center line, close to the judge, for example.  The rider can also de-emphasize movements or transitions which are harder for the horse.  In most cases, movements can be completed moving towards or away from the judge; always consider, though, what the view looks like from “C”.  Half pass is usually most elegant when seen from the front.   Design cohesiveness is important; the judge should never be left wondering what a particular movement was meant to be.

Gallo helped Bryn Wash experiment with different musical selections for her Third Level mare, as well as tinker with some choreography ideas.
Gallo helped Bryn Wash experiment with different musical selections for her Third Level mare, as well as tinker with some choreography ideas.

Well-designed choreography uses the entire arena well; movements are spread out within the ring, and there is a sense of balance in terms of both time spent on each rein and where movements are placed.  One way to check this is to physically draw the movements out on paper; if the lines look all clumped together, then they will also appear that way in the ring.   These drawings can also be a helpful tool to ensure that all compulsory elements are included and that no “above level” movements are present.

dressage arena

Good choreography is creative and shows design cohesiveness.  Many riders get caught up in the idea that movements should not be “too test like”.  At the lower levels, however, it is challenging to come up with wholly new or unique ways of combining movements together.  Choreography should not closely replicate anything contained within a current USEF test, but it is acceptable to use combinations of movements that may have been included in previous editions of tests at that level.

Gallo suggests using direct and indirect combinations of movements to increase the creativity in the choreography.  A direct combination is when the pattern goes straight from one movement to the next, for example, from a lengthening to a 10 meter circle.  An indirect combination is when the choreography accommodates a few steps of rebalancing, straightening or regrouping to prepare for the next movement, such as when riding a lengthening to straightening to a shoulder in.

Try to shake off “riding a test rigor” and explore less common lines, such as riding from the rail to the center line, shorter diagonals and using the quarter line.  Asymmetry in freestyle design is acceptable; you don’t have to do exactly the movements on each rein, so long as you are keeping the patterns logical and clear.

Reading the regular tests from First Level through Grand Prix can help to familiarize with existing common patterns.  It can also help to watch other freestyles at shows or on video to get ideas.  Being “creative” doesn’t mean that you are the first person to ever think of the combination or pattern of movements; it means that you are putting the movements together in a unique way that highlights your own mount.

The only way to know if an idea on paper will work for your horse is to get into the ring and experiment with it.  Olympian Michael Poulin, who demonstrated a Grand Prix freestyle on day one of the symposium, commented that it is critical to take your time and not over do the horse during the creation of the choreography.  “Do part of your regular training, then play with a part of the choreography,” says Poulin.  “Do this a few times.  Don’t try to do it all in one day.”

Abby Hardy rode the impressive Geoffrey through intermediare movements to modern dance/pop music.
Abby Hardy rode the impressive Geoffrey through intermediare movements to modern dance/pop music.

Considering Musical Interpretation

The concept of “interpretation” as it relates to freestyles is that the choreography expresses the phrasing and dynamics (loudness vs softness) of the music.  When the rider is able to coordinate transitions and movements with these musical elements, the performance becomes more like a dance performance, as the movements “go” with the music.

In the early stages of learning to design and ride freestyles, it can be an additional challenge to consider interpretation in the performance.  However, working towards improvement in this area is a sure way to improve the overall artistic score, and it is a “must have” when riders enter the upper levels.

Judges are trained to reward riders who are able to coordinate the following moments specifically with their music:

  • Initial halt/salute
  • First change of phrase
  • Trot lengthening/mediums/extensions (depending on level)
  • Canter lengthening/mediums/extensions (depending on level)
  • Gait transitions
  • Final halt/salute

Part of scoring well in the area of interpretation (which is worth a coefficient of 3 at the national levels) comes from having chosen appropriate music which suggests the horse’s gaits.  When the music plays, the beat should suggest the energy of a walk, trot or canter.  The next step is learning to ride with those beats.  During the practical portion of the clinic, when Gallo and Yukins worked directly with horses and riders, a common theme was how strongly the tempo of the music playing would influence the rider.  Riders can unwittingly speed up or slow down their horse’s tempo to match the music.

Gallo provides her own "musical interpretation".
Gallo provides her own “musical interpretation”.

Know Your Rules—the official and the unwritten

It is easy to review the rules and general guidelines for the musical freestyle available through the USEF or USDF website.  Failure to adhere to the rules when planning the freestyle at the outset can create more work or lower scores in the long run.  Here is a short list of official rules that competitors should be mindful of:

  • The minimum and maximum time allowed (FEI: 4:30 minimum, 5:00 Maximum (except for Grand Prix and para); USDF: no minimum but 5:00 maximum)
  • The halt/salute can be performed anywhere on center line, but must be done facing judge at “C”
  • It is required that the rider demonstrates straight strides into and out of the pirouettes
  • Movements that are at or below the level are allowed
  • Movements “above the level” are forbidden

In addition to the stated rules above, there are some “unwritten rules” which will help to improve the quality of the freestyle.

  • Extended trot must be performed on a straight line. It will be considered a medium trot if performed on a curve or circle.  Medium trot may be performed on a straight or curved line.
  • Transitions do not have to be at letters (best if they are with musical phrases)
  • Lateral movements must cover twelve meters minimum (but eighteen meters is better)
  • Show a minimum of twenty continuous meters of walk
  • Avoid “embellished” entrances
  • Don’t include long lines of trot or canter with no purpose
  • Asymmetry is acceptable

G Clef

Final Thoughts

Musical freestyles are amongst the most popular rides at a show, and inspire riders and non-riders alike.  They provide the ideal means to highlight the artistry that goes into the performance and execution of dressage.  But like any artistic endeavor, having a strong understanding of the technical aspects of the craft will enhance the quality of the final product, and can result in a freestyle that appears harmonious and effortless.

Judging Musical Freestyles with Terry Ciotti Gallo and Lois Yukins: Understanding Artistic Impression

The musical freestyle is by far the most accessible display of the sport of dressage; even non riders can appreciate the harmony, joy and majesty of the horse and rider partnership when it is set to music.  A well-designed freestyle is truly a work of art, melding athletic performance with creativity in ways limited only by the rules of the USEF or FEI.

The Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms (the facility itself is a thing of beauty) in New Gloucester, ME, hosted a continuing education weekend for judges focused on the musical freestyle on May 30-31, 2015.  Led by longtime USDF Freestyle Committee member and Klassic Kur founder Terry Ciotti Gallo and supported by USEF “S” judge Lois Yukins, day one of the clinic covered in comprehensive detail a system by which judges can objectively assess the elements on the artistic side of the scoresheet.

Terry Ciotti Gallo
Terry Ciotti Gallo
Lois Yukins
Lois Yukins

This program is just one of several being offered across the country; the goal is to help to create a more consistent standard of evaluation for the freestyle by giving judges an objective method of evaluating a subjective performance.  In addition, it is hoped that riders will be inspired to work towards the creation of better, more effective freestyles—or perhaps even to try it out for the first time!

In this blog, I will review the elements of the artistic impression score, as considered by the judge.  Information about creating a freestyle, the focus of clinic day two, will be handled separately. There was so much content shared over this weekend that it is simply too much for one article!

Five Categories of Assessment

For the USEF levels, there are five categories of assessment on the artistic impression side of the musical freestyle scoresheet.  They are (in order on the scoresheet):

  • Harmony between horse and rider
  • Choreography (design cohesiveness, use of arena, balance and creativity)
  • Degree of Difficulty
  • Music (suitability, seamlessness, cohesiveness)
  • Interpretation (music expresses gaits, use of phrasing and dynamics)

For FEI freestyles, each category has a coefficient of 4 (and they combine music and interpretation into one mark, and add a category for rhythm, energy and elasticity), but for the national test levels, the coefficients vary.  Understanding that the biggest coefficient score will come from choreography can help riders to prioritize this score over degree of difficulty.  While “harmony between horse and rider” might sound like something which should be on the technical side of the scoresheet, it is scored artistically in USEF tests because harmony reflects the “artistry of the rider”.

Artistic Impression

Understanding the score for “Music”

In presenting the analysis for each category, Gallo chose to begin with music, as this has to do with selection and preparation, factors which are taken care of before the show.  This score is the only artistic impression mark which should not be affected by the technical execution of the freestyle, unless a horse is feeling so naughty that they don’t demonstrate their basic gaits. The score for choice of music should not be influenced by the personal likes or dislikes of the judge, but rather by evaluating the suitability, cohesiveness and seamlessness of the music chosen.

Suitability is the most important aspect of the evaluation, and in judging methodology it represents the basic element for the score; the other qualities can modify the score higher or lower.  Suitability means that the music enhances the horse’s way of moving, and should fit the character of the horse.  Gallo says that a wide range of genres of music can be suitable -dance music, not surprisingly, can work well for many horses- but it must be level appropriate.  Lower level horses are going to be overwhelmed by big, powerful music better suited for pirouettes, half pass or tempi changes.  Yukins used the analogy of a supermodel that could look good wearing anything, including a burlap sack, but the average woman must more carefully consider cut and fit.   Some horses are so expressive, so beautiful, that nearly any music will work.  However, for a more average horse or one that is a flatter mover, well-chosen music can elevate the performance.  If the musical selection is suitable, the score for the mark should start at a 7.

Cohesiveness is a modifier to the base score for music, and it means that the pieces of music chosen for each gait have a unified feel.  This may be due to genre (all one style, like jazz, classical, rock and roll, etc.), theme (an underlying quality or idea, like all Elvis, all children’s music, and so on) or instrumentation (all pieces are played on piano, or with full symphony, etc).  Yukins and Gallo both emphasized the importance of not making the theme too hard to understand—judges have too much to analyze during the five minute performance of the freestyle to make more obscure associations.  As Gallo put it, when the theme is so obvious that the judge doesn’t have to think about it, the score goes up; she encouraged judges to give the rider the benefit of the doubt if the music seems sort of cohesive but the judge isn’t sure why.

Seamlessness is the final music score modifier, and this has to do with the editing of the music.  The music must flow together, with no jarring shifts which disturb the ear.  Editing can be done within a song, or between songs, and is needed in order to have appropriate music for each gait.  Basic editing can be done with the use of downloadable software or riders can work with professional editors.  Abrupt cuts and overly long fades should be avoided, but short fades can be helpful to create smooth transitions between pieces for each gait.  Gallo advises against using a fade out on the final center line, preferring instead to end the freestyle with a closing note or chord in the music.

If all three aspects of the music score are done well, the final mark should be above an 8. The mark for music carries a coefficient of 3.

freestylescoresheet

Understanding the score for “Interpretation”

The score for interpretation of the music is largely determined by what happens during the performance itself.  Considered in this mark is how well the music expresses the horse’s gaits, as well as if the rider has coordinated movements with the phrasing and dynamics within the music.  Getting a good mark for interpretation requires both advance planning and on pointe execution.  It also requires the understanding of some basic musical terminology.

The term beat is used to describe the underlying pulse of the music; it is what your foot wants to tap to as you listen, if you are so inclined.  In a horse’s gait, the beat is a footfall.  Most riders understand that the walk has four beats, the trot two and the canter three (though for freestyle planning it only has one, which I will discuss in my next blog).   Rhythm in musical terms is a repeated pattern of sounds, while for the horse rhythm is the timing and sequence of the footfalls.  Tempo is the rate or speed of the beat in music or the rate of the repetition of the rhythm for the horse.

In my second blog related to this weekend, I will discuss how knowing the tempo of your horse’s gaits is related to choosing appropriate music.

When you hear each piece of music, its rhythm and tempo should suggest the gait which it is being used for.  While neither the FEI nor the USDF require that riders match the beats of the music to their horse’s footfalls, Gallo says that the smart rider will try hard to do so.  That being said, it can be hard to stay right with the beat of the music, especially at the lower levels, as the horses here lack the strength to stay off the ground in the new movements introduced at each level (the leg yield at First Level or the shoulder in at Second Level, for examples).  Gallo says that music must at least suggest the gait which it is being used for to get a good mark for interpretation.

If the music is well chosen, it will have clear phrasing and dynamics.  Phrasing is a musical unit; at the end of a phrase, the music changes in some way.  Dynamics relates to the loudness or the softness of the music; Gallo explained that a forte or crescendo of louder music would indicate a bigger movement (like a lengthening or extension) while softer music suggests circles or pirouettes.

To help judges, Gallo presented the minimum requirement of “Six Point Phrasing”.  Basically, a rider who demonstrates their initial halt or salute, their first movement change, their trot and canter lengthenings or extensions, their gait changes and their final halt or salute with musical phrase changes should get at least a 7 for interpretation.  Judges should try to note each time the rider goes beyond these six basic points and can add to the score accordingly. If the rider executes the six point phrasing and also matches the footfalls to the beat of the music, the score should be at least an 8.  If the rider can also take advantage of the dynamics, then the judge should add a few more tenths of a point.  The score for interpretation carries a coefficient of 3.

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Understanding the score for “Degree of Difficulty”

The degree of difficulty mark is only worth a coefficient of 2 for the USEF tests First-Fourth, and a coefficient of 1 for Training level, for a reason:  attempting to add difficulty that results in poor technical execution makes for bad freestyles.  Gallo and Yukins both emphasized how important it is to be totally confident that your choreography will work well for your own horse.  “Consider carefully,” says Yukins.  “Only do what you can do reliably and well.”

Gallo reminded judges that in a freestyle for a specific level, they should expect to see transitions and movements which correlate to the requirements for the highest test of that level; she even suggested reviewing this test before watching the freestyle.  It then is easier to evaluate whether the freestyle performance reflected what the judge was expecting to see (“met” expectations for the level) or exceeded them.

One thing which riders need to be aware of is that they cannot use movements “above the level” to increase degree of difficulty. Judges must be mindful of this and deduct 4 points for any above level movements which are intentionally executed.  However, there may be movements which are not traditionally included in standard tests that are permissible for that level of freestyle.  On the lower left of each scoresheet, there is a list of movements which are allowed for that level; note that some of these lists changed for 2015.

Examples of ways to increase the difficulty include:  a movement at a steeper angle than for a standard test at that level; unusual placement of movements (like a shoulder in off the rail or movements on the center line); demanding transitions (like a canter lengthening to the walk on the same line); challenging combinations (such as a leg yield zig zag); reins in one hand; tempis on a broken or curvilinear line; doing greater than the required number of flying changes.

In terms of scoring, a freestyle that matches the basis for the level should receive a 6 for degree of difficulty.  If the freestyle matches the highest standard for the level (such as the movements in the highest test), the score should be a 7.  The judge can then add to the score for each element which exceeds their expectations.

Remember that the score for degree of difficulty is linked to the quality of the execution.  If a rider tries to do something ambitious and does it well, then they will receive both a high technical mark and a high mark for degree of difficulty.  Passable execution will result in no deduction but also no credit.  However, if the rider tries for something complex and the quality of the performance falls apart, they will receive penalties in several areas.

Borrowed from "The Chronicle of the Horse" Image uncredited.
Borrowed from “The Chronicle of the Horse” Image uncredited.

Understanding the score for “Choreography”

The choreography relates to the “construction of the patterns”, according to Gallo.  There are four criteria which fall under this score:  design cohesiveness, use of arena, balance and creativity.  Of these four, design cohesiveness is the most important and is the basic score.

Design cohesiveness relates to the clarity and logic of the movements used in the freestyle.  It does not need to be symmetrical, but the design should never leave the judge wondering, “what was that?”.  If there is clarity in design, the score for choreography should start at 7.

Use of the arena is a modifier to the score.  The choreography should use the arena in its entirety, distributing movements around the ring.  Freestyles which have all the elements at the far end, for example, are not using the arena well.

Balance in this case refers to the relative equality of movements on the left versus right rein.

Creativity is a modifier which many judges and riders think is the main criteria. Creativity is important, and it refers to combining the elements in interesting ways, or using uncommon lines.  Creative choreography is imaginative and not test-like.  This does not mean, though, that the choreography is brand new/one of a kind/totally unique.  “Not test-like” means that the choreography is not like the movement configurations of any tests currently being used at that level.  It does NOT mean that a configuration that was part of a test at that level in years past is off the table.  Let’s face it—at the lower levels, there are just not that many movements required and there are only so many ways to put them together.

Choreography really is one of the areas in which both judges and riders need to release their usual concerns regarding test riding and learn to think creatively.  Transitions should be made with musical phrases, not at letters.  The halt and salute can be done anywhere on the center line so long as they are facing the judge at C.  Gallo likes doing diagonal lines that end on centerline, which then allow riders to turn in either direction.

Gallo says that the relationship between the execution of the movements and the score for choreography is indirect.  Riders must show lateral movements over a minimum of 12 continuous meters (18 is better); trot extensions must be done on a straight line (mediums may be done on a 20 meter circle) and canter pirouettes must have straight strides into and out of the movement.  The only time where execution can really detract from choreography is when a horse has a strong reaction and the judge cannot tell what they did. It is also important to make sure than in an attempt to show creativity, a movement does not appear to be ‘above the level’ (haunches in on a diagonal line looks much like half pass, for example).

dressage arena

Understanding the score for “Harmony between Horse and Rider”

Harmony is something which every dressage rider should aspire to, and watching a well-made freestyle in which horse and rider appear to seamlessly dance to the music can give you chills.  The score for harmony reflects the trust between the horse and rider, and the horse’s confidence in both the rider and his own ability to execute the demands of the test.

Getting a high mark for harmony requires that the horse stays calm and attentive and that the performance shows ease and fluidity.  This is actually another area in which the FEI and USEF differ—the FEI considers harmony to be about the submission to the aids but the USEF considers it an artistic criterion because it goes into the relationship between the horse and rider.

Harmony takes into consideration the challenges of a good freestyle: staying to the beat of the music, aiming for musical interpretation, the extra demands of increased difficulty and the great number of adjustments that riders must make relative to a standard test.   To quote Gallo, “judges should truly appreciate and reward a harmonious freestyle”.

Click on the link above for a visual representation of “harmony between horse and rider”.

Tips for Judges

Gallo and Yukins both emphasized that evaluating the artistic impression of a freestyle is not a matter of simply taking a percentage of the technical mark and calling it good.  Judges must use the same kind of system by which to fairly evaluate a ride and arrive at consistent scores that they do to judge regular tests. The “L” program teaches learner judges that to arrive at a score, one must use a formula:

Basics + criteria +/- modifiers= score

By using this same methodology, even something seemingly subjective like artistic impression can be evaluated in a more objective manner.

The artistic impression scores are interrelated with each other, but not all of them relate to the technical performance.  Harmony and degree of difficulty are directly linked to the quality of the technical execution.  Choreography and interpretation of the music are independent of but modified by execution.  Only the music score is not affected at all by the execution of the test.

Judges must be mindful of a few critical rules that pertain to freestyles.  For Training through Fourth levels, rides have no minimum time but cannot exceed five minutes.  Any movements performed after the time ends are not judged, and a one point penalty is taken from the artistic impression score.

Gallo has a few words of advice for judges.  First, in regards to “creativity”, it is important to remember that even if a combination of movements has been done before, or is done the same way by a number of riders, it can still receive positive marks for creativity.  The idea is to compare each rider’s performance to what is seen in regular tests, not to what is seen in other freestyles.    Secondly, Gallo hopes that judges will continue to learn more about using a standardized system to assess the freestyle.  She points out that most judges are experts in dressage first, and have had to learn about freestyle after the fact, and so are going to need time to adjust to a new system.

Yukins cautioned that the judge’s comments on artistic impression are really important, as they will help to shape the future of freestyle.  She reminded participants that the role of the judge is extremely difficult, as they have so much to consider.  “Judges have six minutes to evaluate a product which riders could have been working on for years,” says Yukins.

Gallo suggests that judges practice their freestyle judging skills by utilizing videos on You Tube.    Judges should work to develop a note taking system which allows them to keep track of phrasing and other artistic elements without losing track of the technical score.   Another technique is to create a personal “cheat sheet” which can help the judge to keep track of the various elements.

Next up:  Creating a Musical Freestyle: Tips from the Top

Book Review: Cavaletti for Dressage and Jumping

Cavaletti for Dressage and Jumping by Ingrid and Reiner Klimke

c 2014 J.A. Allen London, UK, 151 pages

ISBN 978-1-908809-19-3

Cavalletti.indd

The name “Klimke” is, I am pretty sure, the German word for “amazing horseman”.  The late Reiner Klimke is regarded as a legend, and the written work he left behind after his untimely passing in 1999 remains as relevant today as it did when first published.  Daughter Ingrid has carried on in the family tradition and today successfully trains horses to the highest international levels in both eventing and dressage.

The 2014 English translation of Cavaletti for Dressage and Jumping is an updated version of the 1969 publication of the same name written by R. Klimke. Ingrid has modernized the illustrations as well as the phrasing of the original text.  I believe she has also inserted her own perspective here and there, though it is clear that her father’s work serves as the main inspiration.

As I planned to be stuck in the indoor for the foreseeable future (as I write this we are experiencing yet another round of 8”-10” of snow), I picked up Cavaletti in order to better understand how these exercises could be used to improve my horses’ strength, spring and suppleness as well as to break up the monotony of the indoor.  Klimke’s book takes the reader through how cavaletti work is incorporated into her training regime from start to finish, to the point where the text could be used as a template for any training program.

Klimke’s training philosophy is based on classical principles, and what I really appreciated in this book was how often the importance of slow, gradual and incremental increases in the horse’s training program was emphasized.  I have read in other articles by Klimke that she always begins and ends each training session with at least ten minutes of walk on the buckle; I have been trying to be religious about giving my horses a solid ten minute free walk prior to beginning work, which I think has been beneficial.  This practice allows the rider time to become focused and present, and allows the horse to limber and loosen their body prior to being asked to complete any real work.  I notice that it is at about the seven or eight minute point in the walk that my horses begin to, of their own initiative, swing more freely through their topline and reach with a longer stride.  For each stage of the training program, Klimke reminds the reader that the horse must also have a period of “working in” before being expected to tackle new tasks.

Ingrid with her now retired Olympic eventing horse, FRH Butts Abraxxas.  Her love of horses is evident here, I think.  Photo has been taken from her website, www.klimke.org
Ingrid with her now retired Olympic eventing horse, FRH Butts Abraxxas. Her love of horses is evident here, I think. Photo has been taken from her website, http://www.klimke.org

Another aspect of this book that appealed to me was the emphasis on the importance of having a methodical, organized, planned progression to training, which includes consideration for the mental health of your horse.  “Many training problems can be solved far more easily if you do not rely solely on riding experience, but have a plan for how to go about the training before you start it…In addition, you must take responsibility for the wellbeing of your horse.  Only a healthy horse, whose condition and musculature have been carefully developed, can reach his full potential,” (Klimke, 2014, p. 11).

No matter what the intended discipline, Klimke says that cavaletti work can benefit all horses as part of their basic training.  Through modifications in the exercises, training challenges unique to specific disciplines can be addressed.

In Cavaletti, detailed discussion is included regarding free longeing in general as well as the use of cavaletti work during free longeing.  Klimke also discusses cavaletti exercises which are appropriate for the horse on the longe line.  The illustrated diagrams which are provided for basic to advanced cavaletti set ups are such that anyone with a tape measure and the basic required equipment can assemble the exercises.  Included are ridden exercises both on straight lines and circles.

The examples of ridden cavaletti exercise ideas show how a horse can be taught to move with a longer or a loftier stride, as well as how they can be taught to think about where to place their feet by removing a rail from a sequence.  As Klimke reminds us, “the aim of dressage is that the horse, through systematic gymnastic training, is made more beautiful and powerful and his natural movement is improved” (Klimke, 2014, p. 58).  That is the purpose of utilizing many of these exercises, as far as the horse is concerned.

This photo shows one of the exercises which has had a cavaletti removed.  It is designed to help improve the horse's concentration. Photo by Julia Rau/Hindernisbau Rumann
This photo shows one of the exercises which has had a cavaletti removed. It is designed to help improve the horse’s concentration. Photo by Julia Rau/Hindernisbau Rumann

Finally, Klimke provides an excellent overview of the introduction and progression through basic gymnastic jumping exercises, something which should only be presented to the horse once a basic foundation has been firmly established.  Klimke states that gymnastic jumping is not just for the jumping horse, “Gymnastic jumping is excellent for improving the relationship between rider and horse. It covers a wide variety of schooling areas that are relevant to all the disciplines—dressage, show jumping and eventing—and for both horses and riders” (Klimke, 2014, p. 71).   Klimke also emphasizes the importance of tailoring the jump exercises to the individual horse and rider, which is true of the cavaletti work as well.  The distances included throughout the book are meant to be guidelines but of course should be edited to suit the stride length of the specific animal you are working with.

I must say that Klimke is a far more creative grid setter than I have ever been, and I look forward to introducing some of her layouts in my classes and personal schooling sets.

The book concludes with three model outlines for four to six week training schedules for three types of horse: for a horse in basic training, for a dressage horse and for a jumping horse.  These schedules provide a glimpse into how these exercises can be incorporated into a more comprehensive training plan.

Overall, I think this book is destined to become a true classic text and is a worthy addition to any sport horse trainer or rider’s library.  You can read it cover to cover then leave it handy to serve as reference for specific exercises or phases in training.

5/5 Stars

For more information about Ingrid, her schedule and her training program, you can visit her website at http://www.klimke.org/