A Day with Conrad Schumacher

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

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

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

Neck Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basics, Basics, Basics

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

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

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Anna and I during our session.

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

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

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

Correct Use of the Aids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Ride

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

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

Conrad Schumacher Clinic and 2015 IHSA Nationals 048

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

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

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

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Anna models her makeshift flash noseband.

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

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

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

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

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