Tag Archives: Linden Woods Farm

Exploring Fundamental Horsemanship with Kip Fladland

“A bad day with your horse is still better than a good day doing most anything else”~ Kip Fladland

                During a heat wave in early June, I had the opportunity to participate in a three-day clinic focusing on groundwork and foundational horsemanship with Kip Fladland at Linden Woods Farm in Durham, New Hampshire. I first heard about the clinic during the depths of our New England winter and decided it sounded like the perfect opportunity to get my rising 6-year-old Connemara/Thoroughbred cross, DRF Isabela, off farm for an educational outing.

                As the owner/trainer of two younger horses (Izzy and her stablemate, the 4-year-old Morgan mare Spring Hollow Or Noir), I have been increasingly interested in understanding how effective groundwork can play a role in giving green horses a solid foundation. I think what most attracts me to these techniques is seeing how horses properly trained through effective groundwork tend to be sensitive yet sane, confident and connected to their handler, yet also respectful of boundaries. The training becomes almost a series of puzzles for the horse to solve, and it engages them as a partner rather than forcing submission.

 Note that I said “properly trained”; when it comes to groundwork, most of the time what I actually see are (middle-aged) women with their rope halters waving around their arms ineffectually while their horses proceed to walk all over them. I am sure this behavior is not these owners’ intended outcome, but they as of yet lack the finesse, feel or practice to get the timing right with their body language, with the end result being a confused and slightly feral horse.

JEF Anna Rose and I on day one. Note our elegant homemade flag and her non-matching bell boots. This is definitely the first time I have ever put her in a rope halter.

                Lest you think I am being unnecessarily harsh toward middle-aged women and their rope halters, I now resemble that remark. Izzy’s rope halter arrived in the mail only about ten days before the clinic and my “flag” was made from an old dressage whip whose lash had broken off, a faded blue bandana, and a rubber band that came with my asparagus. And when I began trying to use said flag at the clinic to effect certain responses from my horse, while also maintaining particular body positioning, it felt like learning a new dance with the instructions coming in an unfamiliar language. I frequently felt awkward, overconfident, briefly successful, then full of questions.

                Since returning home, I have continued to practice the techniques I learned over these three days. I am confident that I have forgotten more than I remember, despite my notes and application in practice. However, I do feel that playing with some of these basic techniques has resulted in positive changes, particularly with my young horses.

DRF Isabela looking a little alert at the start of the clinic on day two.

                With the pandemic curtailing our travel plans last year, I looked forward to taking Izzy out in public and start exposing her to the world beyond Cold Moon Farm at this clinic. As it goes with horses, circumstances dictated that I needed to bring my veteran halfbred Connemara, JEF Anna Rose, for day one, but Izzy was able to make the trip for days two and three.  

                Here are a few of my top take-aways from this experience:

  1. Controlled flag handling is key. Learning to handle the flag effectively is probably one of the most important pieces in terms of communicating your intent and desire to the horse. The flag can be used to direct them forward, turn them and encourage more activity from the hindquarters, but it can also be used to reassure them and give them confidence. The horse has to become what I would call “positively de-sensitized” to the flag, much like they do with dressage wands or longe whips. In other words, your horse should respond to the flag, but not fear it.

On day one, I had no further finished explaining that Anna tended to be rather dull and non-responsive to aids when she reacted to the flag as though I chased her with a flaming arrow. Kip watched as she spun around and around in an effort to get away from the flag’s presence near her haunches with a rather dry comment: “And you say you ride this one?”. I laughed and replied that if Anna were half as electric under saddle as she was toward that flag, we might have gotten a little further in our dressage work. By the end of the session, she tolerated the flag on her, near her and touching her pretty much anywhere.

You will see that Anna fairly quickly acclimated to the flag and became her usual rather non-reactive self.

On day two, a new horse joined our group who was rather impressively reactive to the flag. Leslie Ann McGowan, trainer at Double A Equestrians and a long time student of Kip’s, stepped in to handle the horse. Despite the horse’s honest fear and confusion, Leslie Ann remained calm and simply consistently exposed him to the flag until he started to settle. Throughout the clinic, horses had occasional big responses to the aids, or misunderstandings of the aids, to which Kip replied at one point, “She’s not a teacup and you aren’t gonna break her.” As with humans, sometimes for the horse to learn, they must make mistakes and express frustration and confusion before understanding what is expected of them. As trainers, we can’t be afraid of these messy moments if we hope to help our horse learn.

The flag is held like a tennis racket, and there are four ways to change the flag from one hand to the other, each of which will achieve an increasing degree of engagement in the hocks. When your flag changes hands, the horse usually is also changing direction. One important note is that you should never switch the flag on the ground through the blind spot in front of the horse’s nose. If you do this, the movement can scare them and some horses will strike with their forelegs.

It would appear that here I am attempting to send Izzy forward but have perhaps failed to open the forehand first. Sigh. So much to learn.

The position of your opposite arm combines with the flag to direct the horse. If using the flag to send the horse forward, the hand should be in a leading position. If rubbing the horse with the flag to reassure them, your opposite hand should drop toward your thigh.

  • Reward the try but also don’t wait for perfection before you ask for more.

Whatever you are asking the horse to do: move away, turn, yield in the poll, etc., it is important to recognize the smallest effort by releasing the pressure as soon as you sense the horse is yielding to what you have asked. One of the most common ways that trainers go wrong is they hold too long, or expect too much, and the horse begins to resist rather than try.

At the same time, if we wait for every piece to be perfect before moving on, we will never get anywhere at all. As with most training, we must accept the try, and a result that is a little bit better than before, rather than nitpick doggedly until the horse is perfect.

A nice scratch on the forehead for a good effort.

One of our first tasks was to ask our horses to step out and away from us, leading with their outside foreleg. Kip called this “opening”; if you are “opening” to the left, the horse’s right fore will step out and the horse tracks left. To initiate the movement, we raised our hands toward the horse’s head and neck and without contact (at first), applied pressure to ask the horse to move. At first, in response, horses may raise their head, step into the handler, back up, move forward, or simply not move at all. The handler must hold her ground and not back up; the horse must learn to move out of the handler’s space. Through all of those little mistakes from the horse (‘do you want me to go this way? Or this way? How about this?) the handler must remain calm, clear in her mind of what she is looking for, and ready to release as soon as the hoof moved out.

Our next task was to open the forehand and then, using the flag, send the horse out on a small circle around us. We were to keep the horse actively moving, slightly bent to the inside through their body and with the legs moving “united”; Kip describes this as when the left legs are on the same track as each other and the right legs on their own matching track. The flag can be used to create the energy, encourage the horse to step away, or to reassure them; if the horse has become too desensitized to it, the handler will need to use the flag assertively to once again elicit a positive response. Once the horse marched several circles united and with correct bend, we asked them to halt by stepping toward the hindquarter and raising the lead diagonally toward the withers. The horse’s hindquarters should step out (crossing over with inside hind) and their neck bend in. Kip called this “disengaging” the hind quarter, though he doesn’t love that term.

Working on the active, bent circle.

In doing some of these movements, I was struck (not for the first time) by how much overlap there is between some of these concepts and the fundamentals of dressage. My former coach, Verne Batchelder, had a movement he called “the circle of submission”, in which the rider actively executed a volte and asked the horse to step the hindquarters out for several strides while maintaining the inside bend and position of the neck. However you say it–asking the horse to yield their hips, engage their hocks, move their feet—ultimately requires that the horse be willing to allow their bodies to be manipulated and their toplines to begin to relax and stretch. It is simple biomechanics; a horse cannot reach further under his body with the hind legs if his back is tight.

Kip taught a mounted session in the afternoons; I was able to make it back to observe a few hours of day two’s lesson. He emphasized that all of the flag exercises he does on the ground, he also does while mounted. Though I didn’t get to see much of how he incorporates the flag into mounted work, he mentioned that at the end of day one, he backed a leggy 2-year-old warmblood that was in our group; by the end of that first ride (which was a very low stress experience, from what I was told), he was riding with the flag.

Each session, Kip worked with a horse with whom he could demo the various skills and techniques. I was floored to learn that this calm, elegant Quarter Horse mare of Karen Bishop’s was only 4 years old! She demoed in the morning set and then was ridden in the afternoon. Truly wise beyond her years!

  • I should ask my horses to back more often and with more intention.

Kip introduced several ways of asking the horse to back in hand which can then be translated to work under saddle. The most basic option requires the horse to back to the end of the lead rope from a rather light flick of the line; we also played with asking the horse to back with poll flexion off of noseband pressure from the halter (from each side) as well as backing on a straight line off a short shank (also from each side). This last form of backing can easily be added onto a yield of the haunches.

Practicing backing up in hand. Here, you should have your hand upside down on the knot of the halter, as opposed to right side up like I have it here. That way you can use your elbow to keep the horse’s head away from you if they swing it up! Kip had us apply side to side pressure on the noseband using the knot under the chin, with the goal of the horse softly flexing in the poll and smoothly stepping back.

In later sessions, we also learned how to add neck flexion in time with the lift of the foreleg on the outside, which caused the horse to back onto an arc. We later played with backing parallel to the wall, then timing a flick of the flag with the “about to step” movement of any individual limb. This causes the horse to balance back and then push forward with more power. With four distinct limbs to focus on, there is plenty to practice.

On days two and three, when Izzy was with me, we also played with backing under saddle. Until that day, I had never asked Izzy to back even a single step with me on board, and Kip wanted us to start with five steps on a soft feel, then add a bend in the horse’s neck and back on a quarter turn! I can’t say we were the most successful pair in the ring, but thinking about our work on the ground helped with the intention under saddle. When Izzy expressed confusion, Kip had me break down the movement so it became one step back, one step bend.

Watching Kip demonstrate asking the horse to yield the neck in either direction at the halt. Depending on whether a leg aid is applied, the horse should either simply move their neck or also yield their haunches.

One of Kip’s overall themes was to never waste an opportunity to move your horse’s feet with intention. This could be as simple as opening the forehand or yielding the haunches, or as elaborate as walking on a straight line of your choosing with the horse walking half circles in each direction in front of you.

Despite three, three hour long sessions and the opportunity to audit two hours of a second group’s mounted lesson, I know that this clinic has only allowed me to scratch the surface of a skill set that Kip says has taken him twenty-five years of hard work to earn. Since the clinic, I have been playing with these tools fairly consistently with both Izzy and Nori, and in general most of the movements are starting to feel easier and better coordinated on my end. However, I do find myself wondering what I am doing wrong—because I am certain I have already forgotten about some important detail related to timing, posture or position—but I think Kip might say that it is better to try a little than not at all. You certainly don’t get any better at new skills by just daydreaming about them.

Practicing is important but sometimes it is also necessary to stop and listen to the instructions!

And in terms of my initial and main motivation—to take Izzy off farm for a positive outing—this clinic was a great success. She trailered on her own like a veteran, and upon arrival did nothing sassier than a few nervous whinnies. There were so many firsts for her—first time being ridden off farm, first time being ridden in a group, first time being ridden in an indoor, first time seeing mirrors—and I think in any other setting I would have been even more nervous than she was. But by the time we had finished an hour and a half of ground work each day, getting on board for the second half of each set was basically a non-event. Izzy came home from the clinic more confident and more mature than she went into it—which means the experience was a success, even if I still need more practice on the timing with my flag or position of my body when opening the forehand.

Kip Fladland grew up in Montana and worked on several cattle ranches before meeting legendary horseman Buck Brannaman. Inspired by Brannaman’s teachings, Fladland began working for him in 1996 and traveled with him for five years. Since 2004, he has conducted his own clinics across the country as well as started/re-started thousands of horses for clients. I found Fladland to be patient, firm, clear and consistent—exactly the type of temperament necessary for success with horses, or let’s be honest, people in general. To learn more, visit his website: https://www.kipfladlandhorsemanship.com/

As always, gracious thanks to our clinic organizers, Karen Bishop and Leslie Ann McGowan of Linden Woods Farm. Thank you for continuing to bring top caliber clinicians to our area and for welcoming the local community to your lovely facility so that we all can expand our education.

The Soul of the Horse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A slightly better moment in trot.

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

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

I think this is one of those nicer moments.

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

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

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

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

Anna and I in silhouette.

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

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

Anna with her Ranger 100 Mile Challenge Medal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Totally Transitions: A Clinic with Jeremy Steinberg

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

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

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Jeremy Steinberg

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

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

I wasn’t disappointed!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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There were plenty of moments like these….

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…interspersed with rounder moments like this. Anna has always struggled with lifting her back in the canter!

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

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

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But roundness with no bracing IS an option!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Clinic with Jan Ebeling:  Keep the Details Clear

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

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Jan Ebeling

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

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

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

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

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Emily Staley on Gatsby work on their free walk.

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

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

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

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

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Anna and I during our set.

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

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

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I must have liked something about this transition with that smile on my face!

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

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

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Practicing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A little further along…contact is getting more consistent.

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

Some transitions.

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

Serpentine work.

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

Some nice walk work and then some tired trot!

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