Motivating the Lazy Equine Athlete

Further Learnings from the Area I Scholarship

In 2015, I was lucky enough to be one of ten recipients of an Area I Eventing Scholarship.  In my application, I indicated that I planned to focus on training rather than competing Annapony this season.  I used funds from the scholarship to pay for lessons with Verne Batchelder, Denny Emerson and Nancy Guyotte (see Another Clinic with Nancy Guyotte).  Throughout each session, one theme became abundantly clear:  Anna is a capable, but somewhat lazy, athlete, and nagging her for “more” will get you nowhere. My lesson with Nancy focused mostly on show jumping, while Verne tackled dressage and Denny, cross country.  In this blog, I will discuss the main exercises and techniques learned in the sessions with Verne and Denny.

Verne Batchelder:  Using Double Longeing to Improve Suppleness and Impulsion

Verne Batchelder of River House Hanoverians in Williston, FL, gives clinics regularly in New Hampshire.  I have really enjoyed working with him over the past several years both with Anna and Lee.  One of Verne’s great strengths is his ability to find many different approaches to correcting deficiencies, all while staying within a clear training system and progression.  Verne is also an expert with work in hand, including double longeing and long lining; he regularly includes such techniques in the training programs of his own horses, which I had the opportunity to witness on a visit to his farm several years ago (see Winter Training Sessions: Mini-Pro Style).

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Having worked with Verne a number of times previously, he is well familiar with Anna’s tendency to be generally lacking in impulsion.  Some of this he attributes to her inherent mellow nature, but some of it is due to a lack of suppleness.    We have worked on improving her suppleness in a variety of ways, including improved neck control, the use of traditional lateral exercises such as shoulder fore, leg yield and haunches in, as well as longitudinal stretching work like long and low or lengthenings.

This spring, Verne decided for the first time to incorporate some work on the double longe into our session. His intention was to provide increased support through the outside turning aids while improving control of the curvature of her neck.    I remained mounted while Verne ran two lines; the outside line was simply attached to the bit ring and ran over my leg and around Anna’s hindquarters, while the inside line was set up as a sliding longe.  This meant that the line ran through the inside bit ring and then attached to a loop on the girth, underneath my inside foot.  With the sliding longe, the ground handler can smoothly achieve correct inside flexion.  The outside line allows for a clear and consistent support through the entire arc of the horse’s body while also providing a mechanism to apply a traditional half halt.

Here is a video which shows a little bit of basic long lining.

It is quite a strange feeling to essentially have one’s horse ridden from the ground while one remains mounted!  Anna has longed only a little bit, and I was definitely mildly (well, greatly) concerned that she might not be a model citizen when put into these boundaries.  My job was to essentially hold the reins evenly and to remain centered, adding leg to support Verne’s body position and voice.  At first, Anna was somewhat resistant to the idea of accepting the newly imposed limits.  It is important for a trainer to remember that resistance is only the horse’s way of expressing their displeasure.  If the question the trainer is asking the horse is fair given their physical condition and previous training, and the aids are appropriate, usually the rider’s best response is to simply ignore the resistance and remain consistent in using the aids to ask the appropriate question.  In fairly short order, Anna relaxed into the new parameters established by the double longe and began to more actively engage the muscles of her topline as well as increase the degree of thrust from her hindquarters.  In addition, the connection further stabilized and the quality of the bend improved.

After this session with Verne, I incorporated the use of about ten minutes of warm up on the double longe with Anna on dressage days, with the inside line set up as a sliding longe.  When the horse is unmounted, side reins set just a little bit on the longer side will help to maintain straightness; as always, they should not be adjusted in such a way that the horse’s head is forced down or in. In working with this technique independently, I noticed that Anna could find her own balance and begin to develop looseness throughout her back more rapidly than when warmed up under saddle.  When I rode her after this style of warm up, she was much more willing to stay “hotter” off my leg and therefore I could use a much quieter forward driving aid.

Here is a video of some double longeing.

One of the other huge benefits of using the sliding longe technique to warm up was that the overall work session could remain “short and sweet”.  Because she had already loosened up her muscles, it was possible to keep the actual “work” session much more focused and organized.  I think this is super important with all horses, but especially those which don’t have an unlimited reserve of energy.  If you can get in the ring, do what you need to do, and then go out for a hack, the horse’s attitude will stay fresher and more enthusiastic than when they anticipate a long session of drill work.

Denny Emerson: Jumping Fences off a Forward Stride

Anna and I spent the summer of 2014 up at Tamarack Hill Farm, where we worked hard to rebuild our confidence over fences (see The Tamarack Chronicles: Vol III).  We left in August with a renewed sense of harmony and assurance in our jumping work and completed the fall season with placings at King Oak and Stoneleigh Burnham Horse Trials.

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Anna at King Oak Farm, September 2014. Photo courtesy of Flatlandsfoto/Joan Davis and used with permission.

Overall, I was able to continue to apply the techniques I had learned at Denny’s to our regular schooling routine and keep Anna’s jumping skills tuned up while working on my own over the winter.  In general, I keep the fences low enough that “mistakes” are not a big deal.  I have focused a lot of energy on further refining my jumping “eye” and improving the quality and consistency of Anna’s jumping canter.

Denny always says that when under pressure, all riders will show a tendency to either “choke” or “chase” their eye.  What he means is that we all have a preference for pushing a horse to lengthen their stride, perhaps leaving a bit too long, or to overly compress the horse, causing them to jump from a deep spot.  While either option might be the best one in a given circumstance, neither is ideal as a method of riding to every fence; this is why most of us have to develop,  through practice, the ability and habit of organizing the horse’s canter to arrive at the  “ideal” take off spot.  It is my opinion that horses, too, have a tendency to prefer to leave long or to jump deep, and they also need to be conditioned to be able to jump from a variety of different reasonable points.

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Anna would be a “choker”.  She can be carrying a decent amount of energy and power in the canter, and then in the final few strides before the fence, drop behind the leg, compress her stride, and calmly decelerate to the base with increasingly shorter strides.  It isn’t quite the same as a “chip”, which is when the horse will squish one extra small stride right in front of the fence.  With Anna, it is a steady deceleration which allows balanced but small strides to be fit into the space where a few longer strides would have been better.  She is simply more comfortable jumping from a slightly tighter distance off a shorter stride.

For a long time, I have allowed Anna to manage her fences in this way, as it seemed to be the place from which she was most confident.  It is also incredibly difficult to prevent her from doing it, and when I try to address the issue, I feel like I am beating her with my legs and/ or crop to keep the canter going.  I have participated in clinics (most notably with Kim Severson) where the entire focus became trying to eliminate this change in the canter, to get Anna to jump more “out of stride”, but I always end up feeling like both Anna and I are frustrated.  She also will begin to shut down if you really push her on it—her response seems to be, “hey, I jumped your fence, lady, what more do you want?”

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The major issue is that there are some fences which simply do not ride as well when jumped from this tighter spot, including upright verticals like planks and wider oxers.  In addition, she will often quit when faced with this deep distance and a tough question.  Yet when I push her to maintain the same canter to avoid this situation, she will obstinately ignore my aids and put herself into the not ideal take off point.  It is just yet another manifestation of her tendency to not stay in front of the leg.  Story of our lives!

So if I rode like Michael Jung or Ingrid Klimke or any of the other equestrian elite, my horse would never have gotten to this point.  But as I am a mere mortal, and have made a ‘deal’ with my horse, I am now faced with trying to change the terms of our established contract.

My session with Denny started in the show jumping arena.  After a brief warm up on the flat, I began popping over a few of the smaller fences in the ring.  Anna was obedient but also performing her signature “I change my canter on the approach” maneuver.  Denny decided that the focus of our session was going to be keeping her much more forward overall, but especially in those critical last few strides before the fence.

JumpingtheCows
In this lesson at Tamarack in summer of 2014, we were racing an impending storm– the energy in the air came through into the pony and we finally found some forward intention!

Still in the show jumping ring, Denny had me kick Anna up into a cross country style canter—as much of a gallop as Anna will do under saddle (have I mentioned that she is not a very forward thinking animal?).  My job was to do whatever it took—growl, flail, kick like a D2 Pony Clubber—to keep her not just in a jumping canter but a forward, cross country canter, to each and every fence I aimed at.  I really did feel just like a 10 year old whose legs don’t clear the saddle flaps, both in technique and overall effectiveness.  For her part, Anna did stay much more forward, but it wasn’t coming from within her—it was the result of my motivation.

So in spite of seeing this glimmer of improvement, Denny decided that we needed to go out onto the cross country course to seek more energy.  Most horses show an intrinsic improvement in their forward intention when they are out in the open, and the terrain of Vermont would also provide some assistance.  Denny hoped that by adding in these variables, Anna would begin to better ‘self-motivate’ in her approach to the fences.

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Working on a similar exercise at Tamarack in the summer of 2014, we had jumped up a bank and then were looking for a bounce to this vertical.  I must be trying to pick her up off the ground here!

The exercise seemed simple—pick up a positive canter at the bottom of a slope, kick on up the hill, then ride a gradual turn over the crest of the hill and allow the momentum of the descent to carry us forward down to a tire jump at the bottom.  The objective?  To maintain the positive, forward energy up to and across the fence, with no change in step.

It was really, really hard to not “check” Anna on the descent down the hill.  The tire fence we were tackling at the base was small, and so no matter where we came to, Anna would be more than able to cope with getting us up and over.  In spite of that, it took everything in my power to not try to come to a specific take off point.  For the first several attempts, I did pretty well at the roll down the hill but when Anna began her typical slow down at the base, I did little to prevent it.  It was truly amazing how effortlessly she could check all of that forward energy and then insert her little microstrides in before the jump.

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I ended up having to channel that inner ten year old girl again, and basically kick and flail and feel like we just galloped down the hill, before Anna FINALLY jumped the tire fence directly out of stride.

Left to my own devices, I don’t think I would ever have been brave enough to ride Anna so aggressively.  I still have hunter equitation roots, where aids such as visible kicking or moving out of harmony with the horse are certainly frowned upon.  I think I would also have worried too much about getting her out of balance and causing her to make a dangerous mistake.  But Denny made two comments regarding these thoughts:  1) The fences MUST be kept low and straightforward, so that jumping them is a given almost regardless of the horse’s balance and 2) he almost never ever coaches riders to ride like this either.  Anna is just that lazy!

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Finally getting it right!  Photos by Denny Emerson.

My major take home from this session was that no matter what, I NEED to practice remaining assertive and positive with the forward driving aids up to and away from each and every fence.  I don’t think that I have been passive with my aids at all; it is just clear that in some circumstances with some horses, it is possible to be even bigger and louder with your aids than you might think is appropriate!

I would really to thank the members of the Area I Scholarship for choosing me as one of the 2015 recipients.  I feel that I definitely benefitted from the instruction I gained from the scholarship, and I hope that through these blogs, other riders with lazy horses might gain some additional ideas or insights into techniques which can help them, too!

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One thought on “Motivating the Lazy Equine Athlete”

  1. o But as I am a mere mortal, and have made a ‘deal’ with my horse, I am now faced with trying to change the terms of our established contract – I can definitely relate to this one, especially with a ‘lazy’ horse. Sometimes the ‘deals’ are subconscious, I just realized.
    o Anna did stay much more forward, but it wasn’t coming from within her—it was the result of my motivation – I clearly remember feeling this moment with Dillon for the first time (once I had figured him out, of course)
    o it is possible to be even bigger and louder with your aids than you might think is appropriate! – this is comforting to hear that in the particular situation, this is acceptable. This post was so relatable!

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