Training Horses the Ingrid Klimke Way by Ingrid Klimke
c 2016 Trafalgar Square Publishing, North Pomfret, VT. 163 pages.
If you have read any of my previous reviews of Klimke’s work (including her updates and revisions to her father’s original texts), it is no secret that I am an uber fan-girl of Ms. Klimke and really idolize the focus, talent, compassion and effectiveness she brings to her horsemanship. The fact that she also is a mother and wife, writes books and articles and seems to sometimes to also take vacations only adds to her superwoman status. So it is with the utmost respect and honor that I say that this particular book was not my favorite out of all of the Klimke collection.
That is not to say that it is a bad book. It just feels rather…unfocused. In less than two hundred pages, readers get an overview of her principles for training, a snap shot of each phase of work (broken down by warm up, each gait, cool down, cavalettis, etc.) and then offers a brief profile of each of her ten competition horses, revealing their specific training protocols based on their strengths, weaknesses and personalities. We also cover her mentors, support team, and preferred tack. It is a lot of content, and a broad range to cover, and I guess based on the title that is what the reader should be expecting.
The problem I had is that, after having read her other books, this one just seems to gloss over the most important concepts. I guess it isn’t possible to take the deep dive into a particular facet of training that we do when the whole book is dedicated to that particular topic; in Cavaletti, for example, Klimke is able to break down the steps to introduce cavaletti to a horse, and then details the systematic increase in demands which one can place on the horse through the use of ever evolving cavaletti and gymnastic exercises.
With all that being said—for someone who is looking for more of an overview to Klimke’s system, this book will certainly grant you that. It is wonderfully illustrated—the woman seems incapable of taking a bad picture—and each photo shows a joyful horse, well presented. Klimke’s tone is one of modesty and humbleness; she is always a student of the horse. Klimke, who was awarded the title of Riding Master by the German Equestrian Federation in 2012, says that to do justice to this status, “I train further, question myself, consider the views of others, and remain open to all riding styles. Anyone who cares to be a good rider must first of all work on herself: on her inner bearing, her general attitude toward horses, her physical readiness (of course), and on giving aids clearly and “with feel” for the horse” (Klimke, 2016, p xiii). In my opinion, this is an attitude which more American trainers would be wise to embrace.
As always, I still took away pearls from Klimke. For example, Klimke’s horses are all turned out every day, sometimes in groups—even her top mounts. It is an important part of their program to maintain their mental and physical health. “To me, it seems obvious that performance horses should be kept in the way that is most appropriate to their species. This means, they get to move freely every day, whether in a paddock or out at pasture. They need social contact or their herd, in order for them to feel safe and well….In my experience, horses that are turned out regularly rarely hurt themselves” (Klimke, 2016, p. 30-31).
Each chapter heading begins with a summary which is excellent in its brevity and clarity; it is like a little nugget which you could read before you ride just to keep your focus sharp, or pin to your computer to meditate on when taking a break from work. For example, in her chapter on “The Warm-Up Phase”, Klimke writes, “Take enough time to warm up and come together with your partner. This goes for horses of any age and is important both physically and mentally” (Klimke, 2016, p.56).
One of the other aspects of this book with I appreciated was the credit which Klimke gives to her own mentors and coaches, all of whom she considers part of her team and a critical key to her success, as well as her grooms, stable managers and equine health support team. She expresses gratitude to and offers credit to her horses’ owners for remaining steadfast through the inevitable ups and downs of the training process, and also acknowledges the support of her family. No one can reach the kinds of lofty aspirations which Klimke does without such a network, and it was quite refreshing to get a glimpse into that world for this rider.
So if you are interested in sweeping overview of Klimke’s approach to developing her horses, this book would be a great place to start. I know that some sections of the book are already out of date (for example, in 2017, Klimke retired one of her rising stars, SAP Escada FRH, due to injury; she describes Escada in the book as “absolutely the best horse I have had under saddle to date” (Klimke, 2016, p. 121)), but for most readers, these factors will do little to detract from the rest of the content.
Lately, my interest in broadening my understanding of various kinds of ground and in hand work has been growing, and I am enjoying learning about ways in which this work could be beneficial to both my training process and developing the relationship with my horses.
In mid February, I had the opportunity to visit Narnia Stables in Ashford, Conn., the home base for trainer Meg Brauch, who was offering a Straightness Training (ST) clinic with lecture and demo. The clinic’s title was “Using Work in Hand to Gymnastically Develop the Horse”, and photos promoting the event showed many happy horses in various stages of training. I was intrigued and roped my friend Sally into making the two and a half hour drive down for the afternoon start time.
Straightness Training is a system developed by Dutch equestrian Marijke de Jong. After one short afternoon session, I am far from qualified to fully discuss the system or its philosophies in any great length, but I did take away that it is inspired by the work of classical horsemen like Gueriniere, Baucher, and those of the Iberian peninsula, and that it is intended as a systematic and progressive system that focuses on developing a horse using humane methods.
Introduction to ST
Meg provided a basic overview of the ST system, where I recognized some clear areas of overlap with other, better-known-to me, training philosophies. First off, most of the unmounted work is done in a cavesson. I was quite impressed with the design of Meg’s cavesson. In my experience, finding correctly fitting cavessons is a real challenge; they usually do not conform well to the muzzle or sit evenly around the bones of the skull. The cavessons Meg uses are Baroque inspired and have a piece of padded chain over the nose; I am sure that some people will find this too harsh, and I am sure in the wrong hands it would be. But in truth, the shape of the noseband better conformed to the muzzle than most of the off the rack cavessons out there, and the weight of the noseband overall was much less than a regular cavesson. It had a greater degree of adjustability as well; one of the horses Meg used for demonstration later in the afternoon was an Anglo-Trakhener, heavy on the Thoroughbred blood, and his refined face seemed fit well in the cavesson. This style also has an option to fairly easily add a bit, which is a useful feature.
The ST system is based on its “five pillars”: groundwork, longeing, work in hand, riding and liberty work. The first two steps are done in a cavesson with a single line attached, and in these stages, the goal is to teach the horse how to carry themselves. The work in hand, which we were there to watch specifically, is done in a cavesson with a set of reins clipped to either side, as on a bridle. As horses become more advanced, a curb bit can be clipped to the cavesson along with a set of reins, and the horse is introduced to the concept of a double bridle.
Horses which are trained in the ST system will be introduced to many under saddle concepts prior to actually being backed; the exercises are meant to help develop the horse’s balance as well as to gymnastically work and develop the muscles. For a youngster, ST can help the horse to understand the rein aids and develop lightness. In the end, the horse should become confident, relaxed and supple in their work. Due to the mental and physical demands, ST should not be started before the horse’s third year. Lightness was a pervasive theme, both in the application of the aids and the weight of the horse in the hand.
For the handler, ST teaches a better feel for their mount’s natural asymmetry and body position in the lateral exercises, and also helps to improve their sense of timing. Meg promised that this improved “feel” transfers over to the ridden work.
Now, to really understand the importance of lateral work, you have to also appreciate that horses are naturally asymmetrical. Horses are narrower in the shoulders than the hips, and like humans, are “sided”, meaning one set of limbs tends to be in charge. In our usual handling practices, horsemen do little to improve the situation (when was the last time you led/untacked/mounted from the right or “off” side?).
ST teaches about “eight dimensions of asymmetry”. For me, there was nothing new here, but I really liked the way the concepts were organized. Meg presented the dimensions of asymmetry as follows:
Lateral bending (issues here are usually the easiest to correct)
Horizontal imbalance (horse naturally carries more weight on forehand)
Front legs (Handedness, as in, which leg does your horse prefer to lead with)
Hind Legs (the carrying hind leg is more flexible, and the pushing hind leg tends to be straighter, stronger and less flexible)
Front/back ratio (the wedge shape of the horse which I referred to earlier)
Diagonal (one diagonal pair will be dominant, and usually the pushing hind is diagonal to the dominant front)
Vertical (leaning in on an angle on corners)
Topline (we want the horse to stretch here and be longer and rounded).
In general, a right bended horse tends to be left forelimb dominant and usually has a pushing right hind. Their concave side is their right side. Reverse all of these for a horse which is left bended (which seems to be less common overall).
To improve the horse first requires awareness of the asymmetry on the part of the trainer. All beings are asymmetrical, but through thoughtful and steady work, improvement is always possible.
Use of the Aids in ST
The pillars of ST work which are done on the ground require the use of the handler’s body language and voice, but several other aids are also important. The first is mental focus—Meg used the expression “inner picture, inner feeling”, which basically means that before a trainer begins any exercise with their horse, they should have a sense of what it is they are trying to accomplish. Related to this is the concept of “energetic aids”, which basically is saying that the handler should be centered, grounded and present, with their full attention on the horse and the task at hand. Finally, for several pillars, artificial aids like a long whip (for driving, slowing or reinforcing) or rein (used similarly to the riding reins, with inside/outside and direct/indirect cues offered) are also included. A direct rein influences the horse’s poll while an indirect rein influences the shoulders, almost like having a lasso around the horse’s neck.
The demonstration section of this clinic was focusing on the work in hand, a pillar which comes after a horse already has a basic understanding of the ground work done with a cavesson on a single line, attached to the nose. Basic circle work and an introduction to the lateral movements should be established through ground work before progressing to work in hand, which is done with a set of reins clipped to either side of the cavesson, as on a bridle. During the ground work phase, the handler works on the inside of the horse. But during the in hand phase, the handler will transition to the outside of the horse.
The whip becomes a tool of refined communication, based primarily by its position. It can be used to activate the hind end, or when held in front of the chest, indicates a half halt. Held at the girth, it asks for more bend or forward intention. Pointed towards the opposite hip, it becomes an advanced aid to increase the angle of the haunches in. When kept down by the handler’s side, the whip is in neutral.
Progression of Exercises
In each stage of progression through the pillars, a series of specific exercises is introduced in order. During each exercise, the horse is encouraged to maintain “LFS”—lateral bend, a forward and downward tendency, while stepping under their center of mass with the hind leg.
Standstill: Meg says many folks new to ST work tend to gloss over this exercise, because it seems too easy or basic. But mastering the stand still, in which the horse halts with front feet square, head and neck lowered, while willingly flexing left and right, provides an important foundation. It also gives the horse a first introduction of the cavesson and its pressure, and helps to teach them to center their mass away from their dominant fore limb.
Circle: Usually done only in the walk, the circle is used to help establish LFS. “We don’t tend to do these in trot or canter, because it is hard to go from the circle to a straight line and keep the horse well balanced,” says Meg.
LFS on Straight Line, progressing to Shoulder In
When it comes down to it, what I witnessed at this clinic was the application of highly effective classical and operant training techniques. This is really at the root of most good animal training, whether you are talking about riding horses or training dogs or teaching some exotic zoo animal to engage in a medical exam. ST work is about applying the 3 R’s—Release, Reward, Relax. When the horse makes a move towards doing the thing you want, the handler offers a “bingo cue” (some sort of consistent sound), they release the pressure, and then immediately reward the horse with verbal or physical praise or a treat. There is then a short break to allow the horse to process what he just learned.
It is the timing and dosing of the pressure and release process which is most people’s downfall. Basically, handlers need to AVOID pressure which is held too much, too long, too often, too suddenly or too steadily, and EMBRACE release which is early, often, quickly administered, long and soon. Release more than you take. Through this process, the horse learns to carry the posture on his own.
There are three phases of the training process. The first phase is teaching the horse. In this phase, we are trying to help the horse begin to understand the exercise, and to develop the new neural pathways which will allow it to be performed. At this stage, the movement may lack gymnastic quality, or be in slow motion, similar to how we might learn a new dance step. In the optimizing phase, the trainer focuses on improving the quality of the movement and encourages the horse to work towards self-carriage in the body and mind. Finally, in the improvising phase, the exercise can now be used for a purpose or in a goal-oriented way.
Another way to look at the training and learning process is to understand that in doing any activity, there is the comfort zone (doing what you know and is familiar), the stretch zone (where you are trying something new that is out of your comfort zone but still attainable) and the stress zone (where what you are trying to teach is too much, too soon). Growth occurs in the stretch zone, but not every day can be a stretch day. And when we live in the stress zone… no training occurs.
Meg demonstrated the in hand techniques with two of her own horses. The first horse was a 6 year old Hanoverian gelding who has had a “slow start” in his training progress due to various injuries. She demonstrated that she held each rein through the thumb and forefinger, so the overall contact was quite light. The outside rein should cross the neck in front of the withers, but not be more than half way up the neck. The goal is to work towards holding the reins closer to the withers than the head, so that the horse is ultimately coming forward from the hindquarters and into the rein (similar to riding). However, when the trainer loses quality, they should move their hold closer to the cavesson until the necessary elements improve. The handler’s body should be positioned off of the girth; Meg explained that it is really easy to get out in front of the horse’s shoulder.
This particular horse usually struggles with the stand still, but today demonstrated the position with his feet even and square. Meg emphasized that under saddle, the horse must learn to wait to move until the rider’s cue, and this practice starts here. She encouraged the horse to stretch forward and down using gentle pressure on the front of the cavesson, and then flexed him to the left and right with pressure on the sides.
After a few moments in the stand still, Meg moved on to doing small circles, 8-10 meters in diameter, to encourage the bending of the horse, while still asking for the forward and downward tendency. When she asked for transitions to the halt, the effort is made mostly from the voice. The ultimate goal is to use little to no pressure on the reins in the halt, as the horse will usually tend to come up in the neck and lean into this pressure.
Because changing the bend while in motion is fairly difficult, Meg halted her horse and changed the reins over to the opposite side to work in the other direction.
She then proceeded to demonstrate the shoulder in (be sure to not draw the horse’s nose further in than their point of shoulder) and haunches in (the horse is taught to bend around the whip, which provides the cue).
Next, Meg brought in her 19 year old schoolmaster, Paladin, an Anglo-Trakehner. He came to her due to intermittent front end lameness which had ended his competitive career; through ST work to straighten his body, redevelop movement patterns and correct asymmetrical muscling, the lameness has all but resolved.
Meg worked through all of the same initial movements with Paladin, but then also showed us work in trot and canter. She explained that the classical masters would sometimes introduce half steps in hand before introducing the trot in order to develop balance and strength; in the faster gaits, it is best to do very short bursts to prevent the horse from losing balance. No matter the gait of the horse, the handler should always remain walking, not jogging, to keep up.
Teaching these progressive exercises in the walk and trot with a youngster can help them to understand what is wanted before trying to do the movements with a rider on board. The movements may also be done in the canter, but this requires more collection than a young horse will have; it is better to introduce the canter under saddle first and allow the horse to develop more strength before teaching these exercises in that gait.
When I signed up for this clinic, I was not expecting a full immersion into an organized training system. I am almost always initially skeptical of programs which promote a particular prescripted philosophy, special equipment (ex: buy this halter/video series/magic stick for just 99.95) or come with too many impassioned disciples who all function at only a very basic level. So before I “drink the Kool-Aid”, I like to try to learn a little more.
Straightness Training (http://straightnesstraining.com/) is a pretty comprehensive program. Its founder, Marijke de Jong, has created an ambitious and heavily trademarked/registered system of instruction, coaching, certification and support. Under the “FAQ’s” page on her website are some interesting threads on integrating ST work with “other types of riding” as well as what the difference is between classical riding and Straightness Training. Here, deJong compares the different schools of classical dressage training (German, Spanish, etc.) to the branches of a tree; while the specific approaches and techniques taught in these different schools may vary, they all have the same roots. deJong’s work is drawing off much of the in hand training approaches used by classical masters. She seems to have studied this subject far more deeply than I have ever attempted to, and it is beyond the scope of this blog for me to do any analysis on the connections here.
I think we as horsemen are all enthralled with the idea of having a horse which responds to our aids with lightness and sensitivity and to have the kind of relationship with our horse that is seemingly effortless and harmonious. Certainly in Meg’s demonstration she showed that with time and care, her work on the ground has allowed each of her horses to respond to quiet and soft aids as they worked through their lateral movements. Despite being distracted by outside stimuli and twenty auditors, both horses chose ultimately to focus on Meg, with a minimum of fuss and no force.
I think my major, most important take away from this clinic was a reminder that we must all reward more often and for less effort. It is so easy, especially in dressage or equitation work, to drill ourselves and our horses. In doing so, we fail to recognize the “try”, the little effort the animal or student puts forward to improve, because we are too focused on shaping the response to be what we want in a final performance. But in order to get to that evolved, confident and smooth answer, there are many small, incremental steps of growth and improvement. If we as teachers and trainers do not reward these steps, the progress and growth we specifically seek can be deterred.
Real Life Dressage: Training Advice from Novice to Grand Prix by Carl Hester and Polly Ellison
c 2004 Kenilworth Press Ltd. Addington, Buckingham, U.K. 120 pages.
After attending the NEDA Fall Symposium with Carl Hester in October of 2017, I became more interested in understanding some of the philosophy behind his training methods. I came across his book, Real Life Dressage: Training Advice from Novice to Grand Prix, and thought the concept looked interesting; Hester would discuss the process of his training through the lens of his own horses, starting with expectations of a four or five year old and progressing through Grand Prix. Hester described each of the horses as not being perfect, since the perfect horse does not exist. Instead, he detailed how he planned to work through their unique challenges.
This concept related quite well to some of the ideas which Hester shared during the Symposium; to wit, to overcome a horse’s challenges one must use their strengths. In the book’s introduction, Hester writes, “Difficult horses can become good horses….it is important not to give up until you are absolutely sure it’s not going to work. If there is a glimmer of hope, it is worth persevering” (Hester, 2004, p. 9). All of the horses he highlights in the book, including his famous Escapado, his 2004 Olympic mount, are in training for the Grand Prix.
The most helpful chapter to me was number two: “Top Dressage Horses—Are They Born or Made?”, in which Hester details what he looks for in a young dressage horse. In particular, he wants good gaits, with emphasis on the walk and canter, a good temperament, and rideability. Many of Hester’s horses were purchased by him, either alone or in partnership, and developed through his program. The man clearly has an eye for a horse, and he coaches that if one can find a quality horse young enough, a top flight horse might well be within the purchasing capacity of many riders.
Throughout the book, I could clearly hear the repetition of themes which Hester is still preaching today. He discusses the importance of not drilling, especially on a youngster. And that horses must be horses—they enjoy turn out and hacking and sometimes will spook, not to be naughty but because it is the prerogative of the species. One great quote was that overcoming this behavior is “…a matter of confidence, which is built up by repetition rather than reprimand” (Hester, 2004, p 43).
Since this book is nearly fifteen years old, it was interesting to Google the names of the horses which he describes and to learn the arc of their careers. Most were sold but had successful show careers through the FEI levels, some stood at stud, and some are now deceased. Reading a slightly older book like this feels like when you find a new TV series several years in; you can quickly scan ahead and find out what becomes of your favorite characters and decide whether you want to keep watching.
Overall, this book is an easy read and I think if you take it for what it is—a quick snap shot into the training system of one trainer—then you will find it enjoyable and some comments perhaps useful. If you are looking for something which is in depth, a robust analysis into a training system for “real life” horses—this book is not that. The horses Hester is working with are genetically blessed and the discussion of each is fairly basic. The struggles they face surely mirror the same ones faced by riders on “normal” horses, but of course, the scale is tipped quite a bit in their favor.
I had the occasion to attend the US Eventing Association (USEA) Area I Annual Meeting out in Holyoke, MA on January 7, 2018. I try to make it every year to attend the event organizer’s meeting, and getting to stay to hear the guest lecture each year is an added bonus. I was quite enthused to learn that Canadian event rider Tik Maynard had been asked to speak at this year’s meeting. Recently, I read a piece Tik wrote for Practical Horseman about the ground work training he had used with his Retired Racehorse Project mount, Remarkable 54. I found the article well written and thoughtful, and had a sense from it that Tik was an educated, thinking horseman. In his presentation, which he called, “7 Big Picture Ideas to Get Along Better with your Horse”, he did not disappoint.
My overall impression of Tik as a horseman only improved upon hearing his introduction—the son of a show jumper and a dressage rider, he attended college in his native British Columbia before embarking on a quest for absolutely top of the line horsemanship education by spending nearly two years apprenticing with riders such as Ingrid Klimke, Johann Hinneman, Anne Kursinski and David and Karen O’Connor. The work was hard and sometimes he didn’t measure up—in fact, he was asked to leave Hinneman’s barn for “not being good enough”. He worked hard to spend time with some of the best in different disciplines, even though eventing became his main passion. At the O’Connors, he had his first exposure to natural horsemanship, which completely changed the way in which Tik approached horse training.
This experience inspired him to do a working student position in Texas with a western rider who specializes in training cow horses using natural horsemanship techniques. I may be getting the exact timeline wrong here, but you get the general idea. In working at this facility, Tik says that he didn’t learn so much about riding— he learned a lot about horses. He became more interested in the behavioral side of horses—how they think, how they respond, and how they process training.
Through his practical education, Tik developed the perspective that all trainers have a philosophy which is the result of the unique combination of their personal training in technique and theory combined with their own instinct or horse sense. Each trainer’s philosophy will be unique to them, which he thinks is a good thing. It is sort of his premise that a student becomes a sum total of their teachers, and every experience has something to teach us, even if what we learn is what doesn’t work well. It is only once a trainer has a solid foundation and philosophy of their own that they can begin to use their imagination to, in Tik’s words, “do something better than it has ever been done before.”
Tik’s personal philosophy would seem to prioritize a horse which is engaged in the learning process. He talks about “The Look”, the moment when the horse looks at the trainer with both eyes and ears focused, seemingly saying, “What are we doing today?” He emphasizes a difference between communication and control in training. And though he was told that there was no way that he would be able to combine natural horsemanship training with developing competition horses at the highest level, he has not allowed such negativity to dissuade him from his path.
In his presentation for the Area I Meeting, Tik highlighted seven concepts which he has found to be important in working with his horses in training.
Taming versus training. Tik argues that there are horses being ridden and shown which are barely tame, never mind trained. For example, when the horse is showing even a slight fear reaction to certain stimuli, or grossly overacts to a small stimulus, these can both be signs that the horse is not fully ok with what is going on. “It is like you have this horse simmering with energy just below the surface,” says Tik. “The horse reacts to the sound of a twig snapping, but that is not the cause of the horse’s tension.” Tik gave as an example of one of his horses, Carollina, who needed to be taught to really think forward.
“There are lots of ways to communicate with horses, but they only have two main ways to show how they feel—either more anxiety or more relaxation,” says Tik. “Too often people learn to compete before they learn how to ride, and before they learn how a horse thinks.”
Start with something you can Your goal may be huge (compete at Rolex) but to get there you must learn all the skills which come before. When training, start with the skills that your horse can do well—even if they are quite basic—and build from there. Tik used the example of teaching a horse to handle a bank. Start with: can my horse look at the bank? Get closer to the bank? Look across the bank and realize that there is someplace to go? “You must be patient,” says Tik. “For example, almost all water problems with horses are the result of someone pushing too hard with the horse’s first experience.”
When working with a horse which has lost confidence, it is important to take a step back and do many small things successfully before revisiting the thing which is hard. “People often get into trouble because they skip steps,” says Tik. “There is still an attitude out there that you ‘have to win’. You need to know that what you get into is something you can get out of. Do not have a battle. Back up to something you can do, and then repeat it.”
Make your session with your horse like a song. When working with a horse, your training session should contain moments at different levels of intensity. The warm up is gradual, and then you may progress to a new skill or lesson which is higher intensity, before the energy gradually comes down towards the end of the session. “All moments are not created equal,” says Tik.
Horses can only learn when they are relaxed. Tik says if there is a scale of tension, a horse must be under a level three in order to learn. “You need to be polite, and do little polite things to help the horse be more invested in you,” says Tik. “If you touch the neck on one side, touch the horse on the opposite side at the same time. Approach a crosstied horse with the same care as a hard to catch horse.”
Tik tries to end each training session by dismounting in the area where he rode, facing away from the barn. He then loosens the girth and might remove the bridle, and waits there until the horse lets go and takes a deep breath.
“Rule number one is the person is safe at the end,” says Tik. “Rule number two is the horse is safe. Rule number three is that the horse is more relaxed at the end of the ride than at the beginning.”
Make your horse’s world neutral.
There are stimuli which will attract your horse (positives) and those which will repel them (negatives). The trainer needs to shift the horse’s energy towards where they want it to go to. As an example, Tik spoke about acclimatizing his OTTB, Remarkable, to the coliseum in preparation for their freestyle performance at the Retired Racehorse Project. The ring was full of banners, which worried the horse. So Tik led the horse towards the banner, and had an assistant feed Remarkable a small treat from the opposite side of each banner until the horse began to relax.
Trainers need to make themselves be more interesting than anything else going on. This means that the lesson being taught must be more interesting; trainers must learn when and how to be big with their actions (body, waving a flag) and when to be more subtle. Which leads really well into Big Picture Idea #5….
Stop at the top of the bell curve.
As a horse progresses through their training, they will get better with a new skill and then often start to get worse—this is a sign that they are bored, frustrated or similar. Tik reminded the audience that “repetition is the mildest form of punishment”, so a better approach is to get to the top of the exercise and then stop, even if the horse gets there quickly. Continuing to repeat the exercise once the horse has already gotten the point of it for the day will mean that they are likely to end their lesson at an energy level higher than a 3 (see Big Picture Idea # 3).
Be a problem solver. Think.
Be creative. Seek help. Think laterally. “The more you do it, the better you get,” says Tik.
“Almost everything we do with horses is about communication or motivation.”
Tik says that the best trainers learn to think like a horse, and they also are aware of how they want the horse to be responding to them. “Dressage horses think about the rider the whole time, but for jumping horses we maybe only want them focusing on the rider during the turns,” says Tik. “Then they need to focus on the jump. So the horse needs to learn how to smoothly shift their focus.”
What are the Olympics of Everything?
Tik joked with the audience, “what if there were an Olympics for cross ties, for leading, for being caught, etc?” His point is that no matter what kind of interaction we have with the horse, we can always work to make it better. It is upon these smaller steps which big goals are achieved. “Have your end goal in mind but always stay in the present,” says Tik (seems relevant to so much in life, no?).
In listening to Tik’s presentation, as well as his responses to audience questions, I was struck by his calm demeanor. He seems humble and authentic. He did announce that he is working on a book with Trafalgar Square, scheduled for release in June 2018—I suspect that this text will be one to add to the library.
The northeast dressage community was electrified by the announcement that British dressage superstar Carl Hester would headline the 2017 New England Dressage Association (NEDA) Fall Symposium, held October 14-15, 2017 at the picturesque Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, ME.
Hester’s influence on the sport of dressage in the UK has been pronounced, and includes leading the team to medals at the World Equestrian Games, Olympics and European Championships. In fact, at the Rio Olympics in 2016, Hester not only rode (Nip/Tuck) but was the trainer of the other three members of the team: Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro (who Hester co-owns), Fiona Bigwood and Atterupgaards Orthilia and Spencer Wilton and Super Nova II.
The recent success of the British team is refreshing, as it comes after years of harsh criticism of previous Dutch and German champions, many of whom were proponents of hyperflexion/rollkur. These horses were criticized for being too tense, incorrect in their movement and otherwise not truly demonstrating the throughness, obedience and correctness necessary at the world class Grand Prix level. By contrast, Hester is a clear proponent of adherence to classical training methods; he has an eye for a horse, frequently selecting his mounts as youngsters and training them through the levels himself. His horses, and their riders, fairly dance through their performances.
Hester spoke to a sold out house; I was only able to attend on day one, but even just spending just one day auditing was enough to grasp clear themes which emerged through demonstrations which began with a four year old and progressed all the way through to Grand Prix.
Here are my top eight take aways from this symposium.
Try to keep horses as naturally as possible.
Hester was originally an event rider, and so maybe this is why he still believes in actually turning horses out. “If you want to keep your horses sound and happy and easy to ride—leave them out,” said Hester. He notes that youngsters which are not turned out enough often end up being overworked because they are so high that it takes a long time to establish the necessary suppleness and relaxation. As horses move up the levels and need more energy for their work, they might need to be kept in more. But even Hester’s most elite horses enjoy time in turnout daily.
To this point, Hester also believes in regular out of the ring hacking for dressage horses, both for mental health and to develop fitness. Young horses may only work for 20-30 minutes per session but should be warmed up by moving around outside of the ring. “Horses must be fit, and if you are just riding them for twenty minutes they will not be fit enough,” said Hester.
Temperament, a good walk and a good canter are most important.
“I have been proven wrong many times by a horse with not the best movement but excellent temperament,” said Hester.
It is important for a dressage prospect to have as close to a perfect walk and canter as possible, because these gaits are much harder to improve than the trot. However, a youngster with an unclear walk may simply need more strength. Horses with huge walks and a big overstep can be hard to collect. Riding zigzags up and down hills can help to improve the walk.
Less is more.
“All training goes like this,” said Hester, drawing a line in the air with his finger that resembled a rollercoaster. Sometimes a horse will hit a phase of their training where they get more difficult, and this is not always a sign that the horse is being stubborn. “Give them a break—a few weeks off,” said Hester. “They can be tired or muscle sore.”
Hester repeated this theme in numerous ways during the day. “Your horse isn’t born reading the dictionary—you must teach them the dictionary,” he said in regards to training youngsters.
“If the horse is not on the bit, do not force them,” said Hester. “The horse needs to work out where to put themselves.” He reiterated this in several sessions. “Do NOT be obsessed with the horse being ‘on the bit’,” said Hester. “They will come onto the bit with correct work.”
During the work itself, horses need breaks when they become fatigued; a break can sometimes be as basic as taking a short diagonal while allowing the horse to lower their neck. “The rider must listen and feel for this request from the horse,” said Hester.
Make sure you finish a training session with work the horse finds easy. Put the “meat” of your training towards the beginning or middle of your work.
Increase demands GRADUALLY
Training must be systematic. Youngsters should start by working on long straight lines and large circles. They need to learn to turn from the outside aids of the rider, and be encouraged to reach through their topline in a long outline. A four-year-old might work just twenty to thirty minutes, four times per week, stretching in the walk, trot and canter, slowly building to the development of the ability to bend and straighten. Once this foundation has been set, as a five-year-old the horse should work on smoother transitions, better balance, and increased lateral suppleness, using leg yield.
It takes time for horses to figure out what you want when you teach them something new. On the first day, introduce the horse to the new skill; on day two review, then give them day three off. On days four and five, repeat the lessons of days one and two. Then go hacking on the weekend.
It. Takes. Time.
Hester is obsessed with transitions. He said he does “lots” of transitions per session—hundreds of them. Big ones. Small ones. Between gaits, within gaits.
The trot to canter transition engages the inside hind, while canter to trot teaches the horse to come more forward into the rider’s hand and use their back more. Canter-walk-canter will work towards getting the horse to truly sit behind and come off of their forehand. “Listen for the sound of the front feet,” said Hester of this transition. “You shouldn’t hear them. These kinds of exercises build the strength to do the next level of collection.”
At the FEI levels, horses must be able to go from the trot or canter directly to the halt. This starts by teaching a young horse to ride cleanly from trot-walk-halt. Gradually, make the duration of the walk smaller until it goes away. “Your piaffe-passage lives in the trot-halt transitions,” said Hester. Hester recommends using a ground person to verify that each hind leg is squarely under the horse. “This is how you ensure that each leg aid is activating the hind leg on that side,” said Hester.
For horses which come behind the leg, Hester recommends bringing them back as soon as they start to go forward, rather than waiting for them to slow down. “You must take the leg off in between asks,” said Hester. “Telling someone to ride forward when they don’t have the balance will not work.”
If you make it to Grand Prix, the transitions are the hardest part, especially from piaffe to passage and back. “Good collection makes good extension,” said Hester. At the lower levels, and for horses without a natural lengthening, asking for bigger strides on the circle can help to improve the gaits.
Know your craft. Really, really know it.
Hester emphasized that all riders should understand the fundamentals of biomechanics and conditioning in the horse. Riders should also choose a horse which suits their personality.
Self-carriage in the horse begins with teaching the horse to carry their own head and neck in the free walk on a long rein. The rider should use their arms in a rowing fashion, pushing the neck down and forward. Keeping the reins moving and looking for lightness in the hand is most important.
When tracking right, most horses bring their nose and haunches to the inside. The rider must use more outside (left) rein to help keep the horse’s nose in front of their chest. When the horse tracks left, the rider can ask for more inside flexion to help stretch the chronically shortened right side. “When the nose and hips are to the right, the middle of the horse is out,” said Hester. “You need to bring the middle of the horse in.”
Hester made reference to an often misattributed quote of his student Dujardin, which goes something like “short reins win medals”. “Short reins allow you to ride forward to the hand,” said Hester. “Long reins will cause you to take back. During the warm up, some horses will be very strong in the hand and some very light. Do not mistake lightness for contact.” The use of a driving rein position can be helpful for horses which curl in the neck in response to the rider’s hand.
Hester said that there is no hard and fast rule as to when introduce the double bridle. “If the horse is not sure at first, I might hack out in it,” said Hester. “But if the horse doesn’t go well to the snaffle then they won’t go to the bit in the double. The horse must be in self carriage in the double bridle for it to work.”
Do not rely on your reins to create the shoulder in, rely on your legs.
To ride an accurate half pass, “put your destination in between your horse’s ears.” Keep the rider’s weight on the inside seat bone.
Flying changes should be cued with a squeeze of the rider’s heel, not by drawing the entire leg back, especially on a dull horse.
Leg yield in canter can help to free up the horse within the gait; half pass in canter increases collection. In both movements, the horse’s shoulders should be leading slightly.
The half-halt is a forward aid. “The half halt needs to feel like the horse is happy to go forward, not happy to stop,” said Hester.
Hester does not often use dressage whips. “If you are going to ride with a whip, then the horse should not be best friends with it,” said Hester. “But they also shouldn’t fear it. The use of the whip should create a medium trot step instantly.”
“You ride for thirty to sixty minutes—do it right.”
Training your horse should be like playing a game. Make the work playful. Reward often. “Every time they give the correct reaction, offer a touch on the neck or a small pat with the inside rein,” said Hester.
The rider’s goal should be to put positive tension into their work, and afterwards stretch the horse and take a break. “With the stretch, the horse shows relaxation,” said Hester.
To this end, rising trot can be a valuable tool. “Rising trot is not just for amateurs and young horses,” said Hester. “It can be helpful whenever you are asking the horse for more. It can be used in the half pass, extended trot, etc.”
Always, always remember that horses are authentic. “If the horse is difficult because he is stiff, he doesn’t do it to annoy you,” said Hester. “He does it because he’s stiff, so you need to give him some time and work through it in a systematic way.”
Dressage is not just about the movements.
Hester said that his older horses may work as much as two-three hours per day to develop the fitness necessary for elite dressage. “But you are not just schooling the Grand Prix,” said Hester. “You can’t do that. They must get fit through stretching, hacking and loosening.”
The hardest part of dressage, according to Hester, is attending to the care and health of your horse, and keeping them sound. “It’s not what you invest in the horse, it is what you invest in training,” said Hester. “Buy what you can afford; they might be two years old, but you can start here and train them.”
Hester said that it can be hard to stay inspired when working on your own. “Everyone needs to find someone to work with,” said Hester.
The content of this symposium was refreshing in its emphasis on correct, classical training and the emergence of the clear, horse friendly system that has led to Hester’s success. There are no tricks or shortcuts, just a clever adherence to finding the joy in each individual horse, using their strengths to develop their weaknesses. The horses chosen for demonstration were exceptional examples of the quality of work at each level.
This won’t be a popular opinion—but for me, what was NOT refreshing about this symposium was all of the hoopla and rigmarole around it. Ex: Tickets will go on sale at midnight, to NEDA members only. Doors will open at 7:30 AM (symposium does not begin until 9:15). You will get a nametag to affix to your chair, no saving seats. Dressage has a reputation for divas, for excessive wealth, for elitism. This symposium did NOTHING to eliminate that perception; if anything, it enhanced it. I don’t know how much came from Hester himself (for example, it is his request that no photographs are taken, out of respect for the training process and privacy of the riders) and how much came from NEDA. Some of the demo horses came from Florida, Ohio and Maryland, for goodness sake. Of the over one hundred rider applicants, we couldn’t find animals from our membership’s base? Where were the Irish horses, the OTTBs, the “native ponies”? It is great to see these methods work well with the genetically blessed horses which were selected (again, I don’t know if Hester had final say and this was his design). But I would suspect that most of the NEDA membership is not riding horses of this caliber, and it would have been inspirational to see even a modest transformation in a “normal” horse during the course of this symposium. By the end of the day, I had had my fill of the “fussiness” of dressage.
With that being said, I am appreciative of the hard work and organization which went into the planning of this educational event, a process two years in the making. We are lucky to have access to this caliber of education in the northeast and I am grateful for the hours of effort from the volunteers which put this together.
Hester closed day one with the following summary. “Dressage is the art of putting a crooked person on a crooked animal and expecting them to be straight and then move to self-carriage,” said Hester. “Self-carriage is having the horse balanced on all four legs.”
Ridden: Dressage from the Horse’s Point of View by Ulrike Thiel
c 2013 Trafalgar Square Books: North Pomfret, VT. 225 pages.
Ridden: Dressage from the Horse’s Point of View is an intellectual read, part study of equine biomechanics, part reflection on training philosophy and part treatise on the essential need to commit to the classical principles in all work with horses. Author Dr. Ulrike Thiel is a clinical psychologist, therapeutic and able-bodied riding instructor, and dressage devotee, and in this book she blends her education, experience and scientific analysis together in a manner which synthesizes a complex topic into a manageable narrative.
What Thiel does extremely well in this book is providing analogies, visuals and exercises which can help a rider to understand, in human terms, what a horse is experiencing under certain circumstances. Through these means, Thiel helps the rider to have better empathy for how much most horses are willing to offer to us, despite muddled communication, improper balance and a host of other challenges. She conscientiously takes the reader through the learning process which a horse and rider must undertake, including overcoming the predator/prey relationship by gaining a horse’s trust, confidence and respect.
Once Thiel has laid the framework for developing the horse/human relationship through mutual respect, she then delves deeper into the concepts espoused in classical dressage training, comparing the horse’s progression through the exercises to the process of learning to ski for a human (among her many hats, Thiel is also a certified ski instructor). Throughout, she emphasizes the fact that horses will forgive the mistakes of humans, but those mistakes must first be acknowledged to be rectified. The consequences of failing to correct training missteps or rider issues can result in permanent physical damage to the horse.
After painstakingly laying out this foundation, Thiel turns her analytical focus to what she calls “modern” training methods—rollkur, hyperflexion, or low, deep and round (LDR). These controversial training methods have been promoted by several high profile European dressage stars (including Olympic medal winners) and Thiel takes direct aim at the methods, their perpetrators, and the FEI for not wholly condemning their use. To write this book and publish it in her native Netherlands must have taken supreme courage, as one of the most famous proponents of hyperflexion has been two time Olympic gold medalist Anky Van Grunsven, who is a house hold name in the country.
It seems clear that Thiel’s motivations are truly to promote humane horsemanship and training methods, in spite of the risk of drawing what surely is sharp criticism. “The excesses associated with equestrian sports are in the crossfire of criticism…Ultimately, the question we all need to ask is whether the well-being of the horse is being considered as he is used in sports, for pleasure, as a therapy animal, or for other purposes…As it is so often when money, power, and competition play a role, ethics and human assumption of responsibility are left by the wayside” (Thiel, 2013, p. 209). Further, “I think the horse awakens different needs within humans. The horse can be used as a tool to fulfill our desire for power and success” (Thiel, 2013, p. 214).
I would recommend Ridden to any horseman who is interested in better understanding why the classical training methods have endured for centuries, and why this approach is still the best way to train the horse to be the most they can be. I hope that most equestrians that consider themselves to be true horsemen are willing to constantly put themselves under the microscope, asking what they can do better. Reading this book and taking time to honestly reflect on its content should allow for that opportunity for growth.
I applaud Thiel for being brave enough to write this book, and for taking the time to combine intellectual and emotional rationale—left brain/right brain balance—to advocate for why adherence to classical training concepts is essential for equine well-being.
The 2017 season marked Anna’s debut at Third Level; while we certainly didn’t make anyone nervous, as my former coach used to say, we also didn’t get arrested by the Dressage Police, so it would seem that enough of our movements were recognizable at the level that they allowed us to go on our way.
Making the jump from Second to Third level is a significant step forward in the horse’s training. The purpose of Third Level (as is stated at the top of the test) is as follows: “To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and having begun to develop an uphill balance at Second Level, now demonstrates increased engagement, especially in the extended gaits. Transitions between collected, medium and extended gaits should be well defined and performed with engagement. The horse should be reliably on the bit and show a greater degree of straightness, bending, suppleness, throughness, balance and self-carriage than at Second Level.”
Oh gee, is that all?
But in all honesty, what I have found when the average dressage rider is debating moving up to Third Level is that they are worried about two things. 1) Will my horse do a flying change? 2) Can I ride in a double?
The double bridle, also known as the full bridle, is a somewhat controversial piece of equipment. Third Level is the first time its use is permitted under USEF rules. As its name implies, it has two bits—a snaffle, known as the “bridoon,” and a curb, also called a “Weymouth.” The bits serve different purposes. The snaffle helps to achieve lateral and longitudinal flexion, as well as encourages elevation in the frame. It is also used to help position the neck left or right, and encourages the horse to open the frame when necessary. The curb’s role is to increase longitudinal flexion, helping to “close” the frame by bringing the head more towards vertical. The correct use of a double bridle requires that the horse is classically trained; the rider’s hands should initiate but not force the horse’s head and neck into the correct position.
It is the use of the curb which makes the double bridle both so helpful and also potentially so harmful. For centuries, the curb was used alone and often one handed, by knights and soldiers needing immediate control and submission from their mounts. The double bridle was not commonly used until the close of the 1700’s, likely due to the influence of French masters Pluvinel and de la Guerniere. Each horseman taught that the curb bit could be used to enable the rider to achieve a higher level of communication with the horse, not simply domination. By employing two sets of reins, the rider could use the snaffle and curb bits separately or in combination, which allowed a greater degree of refined control for military maneuvers.
The curb must be carefully chosen and fit to the horse; when used appropriately, it can allow extremely refined communication between horse and rider. It is a leverage bit and applies pressure to the poll and chin groove, as well as to the bars, tongue and the neck; any force applied to its rein will be magnified on the horse.
The strength of the curb depends on several factors. The overall length of the cheek of the bit is important, but so is the length of cheek above the mouthpiece versus below it. This ratio effects the way the leverage is applied to the horse. The tightness and fit of the curb chain is also significant, with the ideal being that when the curb chain is engaged, the lower shank is brought to 45 degrees relative to the bars of the mouth. It may require some adjustment in the curb chain tension to find just the right setting. Ideally, two fingers fit between the curb chain and the chin. Finally, the shape of the mouth piece itself influences the severity of the curb. The unique size and shape of the horse’s tongue, bars and palate all must be considered. Usually, the length of the shank is about the same as the width of the mouthpiece; the curb should be a minimum of 5 mm wider at each side of the mouth to avoid the lips being squeezed between the shanks. But a too wide curb will cause muddled signals to the horse.
de la Guerniere said, “The mouthpiece has to be chosen based on the inner construction of the horse’s mouth, the levers in relation to his neck and the curb chain based on the sensitivity of his chin.”
Of course, as with any bit, its severity is directly related to the skill of the user. For example, while one might assume that a shorter shanked curb is less severe, its effects are felt more quickly and so it is not ideal for someone with unsteady hands.
I soon found that fitting the bits correctly, including consideration of the placement of the noseband, is almost an art form. I still don’t think I have the adjustment just right, as will be seen in some of the photos here.
I have ridden in doubles before, but it was only over the course of this season that I realized how little I really understood about the bridle, its use, and its effects. The horse is only ready to begin using a double when they have developed a degree of collection and self-carriage. When the hindquarter is properly engaged, the horse is then better able to lift their withers and base of the neck. The curb uses even pressure to cause the horse to yield with relaxation in their lower jaw.
I was really on the fence about whether or not Anna was ready to start working in the double, because of our ongoing connection issues. But after a session with my dear friend Jen Verharen in March, I felt sufficiently confident to at least start asking her to hack around in the double and get used to carrying two bits in her mouth. Anna’s first ride in the double was only remarkable in that it was utterly unremarkable. “Ho hum,” she seemed to say. Just another day at the office.
I began riding Anna in her double once per week, usually on days when I was mostly doing stretching work. Even before I started to take a greater feel through the curb rein, I noticed an improvement in the shape of her topline and neck, which I attribute (perhaps falsely) to the style of her bridoon. Anna’s usual snaffle is a medium thickness KK loose ring with a lozenge; the bridoon on her double is a thin single jointed loose ring. I wonder if the simplicity of the bridoon is more comfortable for her; of course, I haven’t actually gotten around to swapping out her regular snaffle to determine this! Perhaps this is a project for the winter season.
Gradually, I began to take more feel on the curb rein and introduced Anna to gentle pressure from the leverage bit. I found that it was important to make sure that she was sufficiently loosened first, and already reaching through her back, before I took this additional contact. When I attended a clinic with Jan Ebeling in April, I brought the double with me, but I didn’t feel confident enough yet to actually bring it out in such a public venue.
So when I took Anna down centerline for the first time at Third Level in June, I had had no direct coaching with her in the double. However, I felt that its use sufficiently improved Anna’s outline and way of going such that it justified its use. In reviewing the photos, I can tell that the curb helped to improve her elevation in the trot work, but I was not fully utilizing its benefits to help her in the canter. I knew I was still being too tentative.
Thankfully, I was able to work with Verne Batchelder over five sessions in July, August and September, which helped us to make excellent progress and gave me better insight into the use of the double during this horse’s training. Verne encouraged me to ride Anna in the double more frequently, citing its positive effects on achieving a more correct shape through her topline and especially in her neck. “Do not go into battle without your gear,” he laughed, as he also encouraged me to picture Anna working more towards Third Level Test 3 than Test 1.
Most of our sessions focused on positioning Anna’s neck such that she was unable to use it to block the flow of energy. Usually this involved taking her nose slightly past the degree of flexion in her neck, waiting for her to relax, then gently straightening her by using my outside elbow. Verne emphasizes the need to be able to swivel the horse’s head and neck at the poll; this helps to develop the muscles of the upper neck to the degree where it actually draws up and refines the area around the throatlatch.
Anna has quite a good walk, and really is capable of achieving scores of “8” or higher on these movements, and so we played with some walk exercises which also would help to further improve her connection. We did a series of half turns in the walk, all the while asking her to take a rounder outline through her topline and neck, more towards an FEI level of carriage, for short periods. These turns were larger than competition sized, and we worked towards shorter, quicker steps. This technique should help to develop greater activity in the half pass. Afterwards, we returned to forward riding on lines and larger circles.
Flying changes are actually quite easy for Anna, and these are also an opportunity for higher scores in the show ring. Verne worked with us on riding changes with greater elevation of the forehand, so that they could become bigger and more expressive. He encouraged a gentle lift of the inside snaffle rein during the change to coincide with the leg cue; this will lay the foundation for a prompter response to a subtle aid in tempi changes later on.
Finally, we spent some time working on developing Anna’s medium trot. The medium gaits are defined by their uphill tendency, which is of course the result of better engagement, self-carriage and true collection. The horse should lift their shoulders and withers, not just flick the front feet. If the rider only thinks about power, most often the horse will do a lengthening and instead fall to their forehand. In the double, Verne reminded me to keep my elbows bent and to focus on riding Anna’s shoulders up. We increased the thrust for a few steps at a time, using these as building blocks to develop strength and carrying power.
Verne feels that the double bridle is a valuable training tool for a horse like Anna, who lacks natural elevation. “The double bridle helps with elevation of the shoulder and neck in horses which are not naturally elevated,” says Verne. “The withers follow the reins, but the rider cannot just lift the hand. They must keep an active half halt and the connection into their elbow.” I learned too that it is extremely important to keep a steady feel on the snaffle, not pulling just holding, whenever Anna was pushing towards a higher degree of balance and throughness.
I always like to give Anna a little down time as I transition back to full time work in the fall, so in September we hung the double up for a few months and focused on stretching in the snaffle and hacking on the trails. Even without the influence of the curb, it is clear that the work we have done in the double has helped to improve the shape and correctness of Anna’s topline.
There has been some debate in recent years regarding whether the double bridle should remain mandatory equipment at the FEI levels; when showing nationally, American riders can choose to ride FEI tests in a snaffle alone. There seems to be some belief that those who can do Grand Prix in a snaffle are better riders. But in the right hands, the double bridle should be regarded as “an instrument of finest understanding between horse and rider” (Rottermann, Eurodressage 11/3/14). A correctly trained horse will probably do well no matter which type of bridle they are wearing.
As far as Anna and I go, we of course need to continue to improve the quality of our communication. I am sure there are some riders and trainers who will judge me for choosing to work this horse in a double bridle before every bit and piece of Third Level work was fully confirmed. But truthfully, it seems like it was the right choice for this horse, and using this tool tactfully has helped to further her training and improved her strength and suppleness.
Edwards, E. Hartley. Saddlery. London: JA Allen and Co, Ltd. 1987.
From Birth to Backing by Richard Maxwell with Johanna Sharples
c 1998 Trafalgar Square Publishing, North Pomfret, VT. 148 pages.
From Birth to Backing provides a glimpse into the training philosophies of Richard “Max” Maxwell, a UK based horse trainer whose methods are strongly influenced by Californian ‘horse whisperer’ Monty Roberts. The text is logically arranged into age-appropriate chapters, with an overarching theme woven throughout that each step is essential and must be taken in sequence. Therefore, Maxwell’s methods are useful to consider even if you are working with an older animal whose performance requires taking a step (or two or three) back.
Maxwell takes readers through his step by step process, which begins with an overview of imprinting a foal, to introducing basic handling, to developing respect and trust in humans, to ultimately accepting the introduction of equipment and a rider. While his methods are grounded in the philosophy of Roberts’ “join up”, there are no gimmicks here—no special halters, patented flags on a stick, etc. All the methods and techniques which Maxwell describes could be executed by any educated and conscientious horse owner, using equipment they already own.
Maxwell is clear to emphasize throughout the book that to be the trainer of a young horse requires confidence and consistency; he recommends seeking outside help if the natural behaviors of a youngster trying to figure out the correct answer will be intimidating to the handler. However, reading this book is still helpful for those not able to undertake the whole process themselves, for understanding the importance of both a clear methodology and calm, consistent handling could assist the owner of a young horse in selecting an appropriate trainer to establish the basics.
What readers may appreciate the most about this book is that the layout is quite intuitive. Not only is each chapter focused on the particular skills most appropriate for a certain age range, but within each chapter, shorter segments help to break down the content into easy to comprehend chunks. The text is filled with ample illustrations which help to reinforce the main themes.
While most of the concepts put forth in this book are familiar, one which I found rather unique was that Maxwell does not believe in using a lead horse when starting to hack out the youngster, as he feels that the horse should look exclusively to the rider for their confidence and safety. Maxwell says, “Very often, riding out with an older horse is an emotional crutch for the rider rather than the youngster. In my experience it doesn’t actually work that well either—I’ve never found that having an older horse there will stop a young horse bolting or misbehaving if he wants to” (Maxwell, 1998, p. 113). Instead, he proposes taking your youngster out on solo hacks, and exposing them to as many potentially frightening stimuli as possible, preferably while the horse is still learning their balance under a rider—that way, their resistance will likely be minimal and their confidence in the rider increased from the very beginning.
Overall From Birth to Backing is a fairly easy read, and its concepts clearly articulated and illustrated. One of the amazing things about publishing is how quickly a text can start to feel stale, and at almost twenty years old, this book’s photos could use an update. However, this should not take away at all from the essential message of the book: establish a trusting relationship with your horse from the very beginning, and from there nearly anything is possible.
I am cheering with my whole heart and soul, screaming really, my throat becoming raw, jumping up and down, urging the beautiful bay filly to keep surging forward. She is stunning—raw power, gleaming coat, the crooked stripe on her forehead and bright yellow of her jockey’s silks distinguishing her from her older, more sedately adorned rival. They are in a tight duel—they have led the pack since leaving the starting gate—and now as they crest the top of the stretch, my favorite has started to pull out in front. I am yelling and kicking and riding my own ride down the stretch, as though my life depended on it, as though by sharing my own energy I can help her to cross the finish line in front.
I am in my parent’s living room, hundreds of miles from Belmont Park in New York, where the Breeder’s Cup is being held. It is October 27, 1990 and I am 14. My cheers and encouragement are heard only by my mother and my cat, who quickly left the room as soon as she felt the pulse of my frenetic and overly wired energy. Until that summer, we had lived just outside of Saratoga Springs, NY, and I had spent many blissful August days standing track side, admiring Thoroughbreds, learning about pedigrees, and cheering for my favorites. I dressed as a jockey every Halloween, wearing handmade pale yellow and purple silks. I kept scrapbooks of newspaper clippings about anything Thoroughbred, each article I found about horse racing carefully filed and labelled in a series of big red books which lived in my closet. On major stakes race days, I listened to the call on WGNA AM radio, religiously watched every Thoroughbred race televised on NBC, and in the age of the VCR, dutifully recorded the Triple Crown series every year, a true disciple of the sport waiting for a return of the king who would once again wear the Triple Crown.
I am watching the 1990 Breeder’s Cup Distaff, a race for champion fillies and mares aged 3 and up. The race was largely billed as a showdown between the race’s defending champion, Bayakoa, the six year old phenom and two time American Champion Older Female Horse, and Go for Wand, who had already been voted the recipient of the 1990 Eclipse Award for Outstanding Three Year Old Filly. It was Go for Wand who I was pulling for—and with just about 100 yards left in the race, it looked like she had it. She had a nose in front and was still pushing forward.
And in a split second, her forehand dropped, her neck rolled, and she flipped over, throwing her jockey Randy Romero to the ground before standing and trying to limp her way down the track.
And in that same split second, as surely as I had ever known anything in my whole fourteen years, I knew that I had just watched a horse sign her own death certificate on national television. Bayakoa went on to win; Go for Wand suffered an open fracture to her right cannon bone.
My screams of enthusiasm became screams of horror, and I felt something come from deep inside my chest which I had never felt before. I thought my insides were actually going to come out like a scene in Poltergeist— I was screaming and crying and shaking and wanted to throw things. I was so, so, so angry and on the verge of losing control. My mother came running, turned off the TV and tried to understand what had happened. But I just couldn’t speak.
I know now that what I had felt that day was rage. The flame burned so intense and so hot that after the emotion quelled, I realized that it had taken from me any desire to ever watch a live horse race again. In one fateful moment, I went from being a devoted fan of the sport to someone who could no longer watch a horse race without first knowing that all of the horses made it back to the barn at the end.
Refusing to watch has prevented me from seeing more contemporary horrors like Barbaro break his right hind leg in the 2006 Preakness, or Eight Belles fall at the end of the 2008 Kentucky Derby, the result of the same exact type of fracture as Barbaro but in both front fetlocks. But not watching has not prevented me from hearing about these horrible tragedies and then once again replaying the fall and death of Go for Wand where it is seared into my memory.
This might not be a popular opinion right now, but I have felt the same way about upper level eventing for years. I have been an event rider since 1997 and have organized at least two USEA horse trials per year since 2006. But I am tired of trying to defend the sport when it feels like every time there is a major international contest, one of the participants does not come home. I have never competed at preliminary level or higher, and I never want to. I am in no way a part of the upper level eventing community; I can barely even be called a passing fan. But I am a member of the greater eventing community, and so the loss this past weekend of the talented Thoroughbred cross gelding Crackerjack, and subsequent online civil war about both that specific situation and the greater questions of safety in the sport of eventing, affects me too.
In recent years, I have spent a lot of time ruminating on what is fair for us to ask our equine partners to do, and how far we should push them. I am sure I still don’t know the answer. Horses are amazing, powerful, strong and yet so fragile. People will offer trite clichés when a horse or rider dies in the course of sport such as, “well, at least they were doing what they loved.” But these are hollow and empty words, and are just a way to fill the void left when a vibrant, athletic and enthusiastic spirit departs us in a shocking and sudden manner. Does anyone really take comfort in them? I doubt it.
People also like to point out that horses have a propensity to harm themselves even in what seem to be the safest of environments; everyone (including me) can tell the story of a horse fatally injured at pasture or in a stall. But can we agree that there is some sort of difference between losing a horse through a freak barnyard mishap and an accident in competition? I think so.
It might seem like a stretch to believe that one incident can change someone from loving a horse sport to hating it. So if I am honest about my feelings regarding Thoroughbred racing, the seeds were there before Go for Wand’s death. I had seen horses go down before, and their memories still haunt me. In fourth grade, I wrote a short story about one, Foundation Plan, a dark bay colt foaled in 1982, who died at Saratoga while I watched from the rail. Seeds can sit and wait for the right set of variables to present themselves so that they can grow into a fully formed thought or emotion. Maybe value-driven emotions need to germinate for a while before they can come to flower. When the conditions are right, your true beliefs will appear before you in their full intensity.
In an October 29, 1990 New York Times article titled, “Breeders Cup: Track Life Goes On After a Day of Death”, writer Steven Crist notes that that year’s races claimed the lives of three horses and caused the forced retirement of a fourth, Adjudicating, who finished the Sprint but was found to have a repairable fracture later that night. From the article:
“Go for Wand’s trainer, Billy Badgett, was inconsolable immediately after the death of what he called the “horse of a lifetime” but spoke about it yesterday morning. “She had never been challenged that way,” he said. “She just tried too hard.”
Earlier in the piece, Crist notes: “Casual fans, who had come to Belmont on a rare outing or tuned into the national telecast of the $10 million racing card out of curiosity, were left seeking explanations, while industry insiders tried to explain that this was a horrible concentration of a rare aspect of the sport.”
Twenty seven years later and not much seems different. While immediate connections grieve, the greater community recoils in horror. And an industry is left trying to pick up the pieces.
Anna and I finished our 2017 show season the last weekend of August at a close to home recognized USDF/USEF show, held at Longfellow Farm in Nottingham, NH. It was a beautiful afternoon, and the show organizers really worked hard to try to make the show a special experience for competitors. We each received a goody bag with magazines, lip balm, a box of sugar cubes and a gift certificate to a web site I cannot afford. There were real flowers in the port a potties. They had a mini trade fair and fresh food. Tons of my friends were there, riding, coaching and grooming, and the whole thing felt a little bit like an end of summer picnic where we were all trying to absorb the late season sun and fun.
As I was setting up my equipment, I listened to the women at the trailer next to mine go through their own preparations. At first, I wasn’t sure who was riding and who was coaching, but ultimately determined there were two rookie riders doing their first Opportunity classes, a conscientious horse owner, and one extremely patient trainer. The riders’ nervous energy was palpable as they struggled to pull up their new full seats, bemoaned the lack of pockets in same for sugar cubes, and valiantly figured out how to tack up their mounts while still remaining clean. A gentleman wearing a camera stood nearby, wisely far enough back from the action so as to not get caught up in it but close enough by to be showing support. When it came time to mount, neither could manage to do so off the top of a 5 gallon pail, the only mounting block available. So their trainer offered each of them a leg up.
Compared to these two, who as it turned out were riding in my ring, directly after me, I was the epitome of calm. I methodically went through my usual preparations, putting on the white base layer, the choker which fits a little too tightly, the hairnet which always leaves an indent on my forehead secured under my gray velvet helmet. My hand me down Pikeur jacket was an expensive purchase for its original owner; I acquired it for just $30 and spent an additional $35 spent to tailor it, though it still doesn’t feel like it fits me right. It is just a bit out of style and the collar has faded in the sun, which I’m sure no one notices but me. I felt no nerves, no worries. I tacked up Anna, mounted off the top of my own upturned 5 gallon pail, and headed to the warm up.
Anna and I performed Third Level Test 1 for the fourth time this season, and got yet another 58%. I somehow mistimed my warm up, leaving me a bit shortchanged in terms of the preparation, but at the end of the day I really don’t think it would have mattered all that much. While our performances have progressively improved, the scores have not. We have been rocking those 50’s (it sounds like a dance party, which would be a whole lot more fun): 57,55, 59, 58. Close but not quite there.
I do appreciate the comments from the judges. Judges have a challenging job; they must sit for hours, running “tapes” in their mind which include the purpose of the level and the expectations of a movement at that level, and then they translate these ideals promptly into a succinct statement which justifies their assigned score. I have sat and observed judges and scribed. I have graduated from the USDF “L” learner judge’s program. I have spent hours judging at schooling shows, watching many, many tests in which there was very little dressage going on, trying to figure out how to offer feedback which will be perceived as helpful but not overly negative. Judges are usually really trying to help the riders they are watching.
But that day at Longfellow, as I held my yellow sheet on which the judge noted “capable horse who is obedient in changes and must be rounder and better on bit and connected”, I just felt defeated. Like, what is the point of this? Dressage is such a dumb sport, to get all dressed up in these ridiculous uncomfortable penguin suits and go to shows where they put flowers in the port a potties and then we go and ride these redundant patterns, over and over again, hoping that for the FIVE MINUTES the judge sees our horse, we can meet some mystical expectation of “dressageyness”. Why am I wasting my time and energy doing this? Why did I spend an hour to bathe and braid my horse and load equipment into my trailer and then ship down here? For a 58%?
I have been teaching riding since I was eighteen years old, over half my life. I sure thought I knew everything when I first started, and it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I began to understand that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. I have at least five former students to whom I taught the absolute basics of how to put a horse on the bit, which have now ridden to Grand Prix and finished their USDF Gold Medals. There are probably another five who are riding at Prix St. George or Intermediare I. Meanwhile, I am over here still splashing around in the dressage kiddie pool, unable to get my swimmies off.
In the Chronicle of the Horse’s August 7 issue, there was a great article about an amateur rider named Elizabeth O’Connor. This spring, she finished her USDF Gold Medal riding a one eyed off track Thoroughbred which she trained herself. To say that the pair had overcome adversity to achieve this result is an understatement. It is a story meant to inspire, to remind readers that one doesn’t have to have the fancy warmblood and that with hard work, grit and determination, one can get to the big goal.
But what if that isn’t really true, most of the time? What if hard work and determination isn’t enough? When do you decide that maybe the judge’s comments are correct, and it is time to pack up and go home before the Dressage Police show up and throw you out?
I was still feeling pretty defeated when I brought Anna to the beautiful Chesley Brook Stables in Dover, NH, to ride with Verne Batchelder on Labor Day. I was tired emotionally and physically, having just ridden the two day 60 mile ride at GMHA with my Thoroughbred, Lee, finishing in the remnants of Hurricane Harvey on Sunday. Verne quickly picked up on the fact that I seemed…down.
A former classroom educator and lifelong equestrian, Verne is probably the best coach I have ever worked with in terms of getting the maximum performance out of Anna. He has seen me ride different horses, and he knows both me and this horse well. As professionals, there are certainly times when we need a kick in the backside but there are also times when we need a boost. Verne reminded me that sometimes the biggest complement that a teacher receives is when their student exceeds them. He also pointed out that I am doing Third Level on a somewhat lazy horse whose genetics do not automatically set her up for the job. Anna is trained. 58% is close. We are not in the 40’s.
“We are not going to become the masters of Third Level,” proclaimed Verne. “We are going to keep going. We are going to get this pony to FEI.”
I don’t know if we will or we won’t, but that is almost irrelevant. Everything Verne said was just what I needed to hear. I have made a conscious choice to own my own horses, to do my own training, and to commit to the process and animals I have. Giving up when you hit the hard spots can sometimes be the right choice, but at other times you have to just keep plugging away with the faith that with enough persistence, even the roughest of surfaces wear smooth. If my goal was simply to get to Grand Prix, or to finish a USDF Silver or Gold Medal, I could do that….but the fastest route would be a totally different path than the one I have taken. I haven’t chosen to lease a schoolmaster, or to buy a big mover, or even to devote my training energy and tack time 100% to dressage. And for these reasons, I have become (in my opinion) a more robust equestrian.
When I returned to my trailer at the Longfellow show, I was untacking and unbraiding Anna, who hungrily mowed down the grass of the field we were parked in. My neighbors returned, elated, victorious; they had finished their first ever dressage tests at a rated show. The horse owner saw me and said, “wow, I saw your test, and your horse was amazing! It was such a great ride!”
“Thanks,” I smiled, knowing even without having seen the results that it was probably just another 58%.
“We actually rode right after you in the same ring,” she continued, flushed with excitement. “And when we saw you cantering on the diagonal, and then doing one of those changes, we totally panicked, because that wasn’t the test we knew! Your horse is just beautiful.”
I guess I didn’t really hear her then, but in retrospect I appreciate the comments more now. Why are we doing this silly sport, this art, called dressage? It can’t be just for the score…because the score only represents one moment in time. You have to do it for the day to day victories, and for the incremental improvements which show that your horse is progressing. My horse does flying changes. And she half passes. And she is starting to understand the double bridle. We may be working on many elements still, but there are many others which she does well. She received 7’s on her walk pirouettes; Verne thinks they should be 8’s. My horse is a Third Level horse.
So while other people may be diving into the deep end, don’t mind me. I’ll just be over here in the shallow end, gradually creeping my way into the deeper water. A little better than marginal, but not quite yet sufficient.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian