Category Archives: Clinic Reports

Area I USEA Annual Meeting: Tik Maynard

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.

Tik Maynard at the Area I Meeting.

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.”

Becoming exposed to unfamiliar stimuli should be like a game.


  • 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.”

Learning to cross tie is one important basic skill which all horses should be taught.
  • 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.”

Lee says, “There is definitely something OVER THERE.”
  • 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.




Notes and Observations:  Carl Hester at the NEDA Fall Symposium 2017

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.

PinelandKurLeeNewCar 092
Abby Hardy riding Geoffrey and a previous symposium held at Pineland.

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.

My own youngster, Izzy, clearly believes in the importance of sleeping and resting.  Especially when housekeeping has arrived to clean the paddock.
  •  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.

Hearing Hester’s words came at a perfect time for me, as work and school demands kept me from having as much time available for serious training.  Instead, I used the fall to focus on stretching, hacking, cavaletti work and strength building with my top horse, Anna.
  • 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.

Jan Ebeling April 2017 038
Anna is a great example of a horse without much natural lengthening to her stride.  I have been trying to add “hundreds” of transitions to her work, ala Hester,  to try to develop more reach in her step.
  • 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.”

Jan Ebeling April 2017 007

  • Be positive.

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.”

Sometimes your horse makes it very clear that they did not appreciate the way in which you asked for the flying change!
  • 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.

While I have taken inspiration from many coaches, it is Verne Batchelder’s assistance which has proven to be the most helpful with Anna.  

Final Thoughts

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.”


Anna and the Adventures of the Double Bridle

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.

Anna’s double.  The curb is pretty flat, with minimal port, and used to belong to my Hanoverian, Worldly.

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.

A close up of Anna’s current bits.  Talk to me in a year and we shall see what she is wearing!

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.

Anna Third Level Debut 027
What I like in this photo, from our Third Level debut, is that she is soft in the jaw, properly using the muscles of her upper neck and is slightly in front of the vertical with her forehead.  I think we are about to ride a volte here, and she needs to be better supple on the right side and more engaged with elevation in the shoulders.  I also have NO contact to speak of on the curb rein.  It is an ongoing process!

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.

Anna at a show in July– here you can see that I have too much contact on the curb, and the adjustment has brought the bit almost to horizontal.  This isn’t right either!  Good thing Anna is tolerant.  What I like in this photo though is that she is well engaged, reaching over her back, and is closer to level balance.  When you are not genetically blessed with uphill carriage, it takes quite a bit of weightlifting to get there.  This lovely photo is from MKM Equine.

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.

Anna after a summer ride in which she did some of her first tempi changes! Thank you to the double for our more refined control!

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.

After her first ride in the double.  Please do not judge me for the extremely disorganized cheekpieces.  I promise that they got sorted out for the next ride! And it was raining that day– this isn’t all sweat.  🙂

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.

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In this photo from Anna’s Third Level debut, you can see that I am not really using the curb rein.

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.

So I keep struggling with the adjustment of the curb chain; here you can see that the shank of Anna’s curb tends to align too much with her lips.  It should be closer to 45 degrees in relation to her bars.

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.

Anna is at her winter headquarters at High Knoll Equestrian Center this year. 

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.

Doing some stretching work in the snaffle.

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.

And when we go out hacking, it is usually in a mechanical hackamore, which is what she is wearing here, though I guess it is hard to tell!

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.

Happy Holidays from Annapony and I! 


Edwards, E. Hartley.  Saddlery. London: JA Allen and Co, Ltd.  1987.

Politz, Gerhard.  “History of Bits, Evolution of the Double Bridle”. Posted 7/17/2008 (

Rottermann, Silke. “The Double Bridle: An Instrument of Understanding”. Posted 11/3/2014. (



Bernie Traurig: a Solution to Every Problem

Clinicians that have trained and competed at the elite levels in multiple disciplines, have a depth of knowledge and experience that is the accumulated wisdom from countless types of horse and mentors.  Bernie Traurig, founder of, is just such a clinician, and he has made it his mission to give back to equestrian sport by improving access to top notch instruction, exercises and lessons.

Traurig recently gave a three day jumping clinic at Ridgeway Stables in Dover, NH, where he engaged auditors, riders and even his ring crew with tips, theory, questions and feedback.  Regardless of the level of horse or rider, Traurig’s advice and instruction centered on the importance of correct basics, equine responsiveness to appropriately applied aids, selecting the best equipment for the job and of course, always thinking like a horseman.

Here are five of the recurring themes Traurig emphasized throughout sessions which ranged from 2’9” to 3’6”.

#1: Basic Bitting is Best

Traurig believes that the best bit for each horse is the one which will offer the rider sufficient control and effectiveness in the aids in the mildest way possible.  “I don’t care what bit you have in the horse’s mouth, so long as it isn’t abrasive and works for the horse,” said Traurig.  “School in the mildest bit suitable for the horse and rider.  The horse has to accept pressure in a comfortable way.”

In fact, Traurig travels with a ‘bit bag’ and made frequent adjustments throughout the weekend to many horses’ equipment.  Every change was made on an experimental basis, with a willingness to adjust again if the change wasn’t working.

“I like to start with a single jointed bit and see how the horse responds,” Traurig said.  “If the horse has an extremely low palate, they may need a double joint.  I don’t like when [riders] just go to the gadget.  People tend to go wrong with gadgets and sharp or thin bits.”

While Traurig is not opposed to the use of leverage bits when they are required, he thinks there is a real art in finding what level of pressure a horse is happiest with on their bars.  “Stick with classical bits,” said Traurig.  “Tack rooms and tack stores should have walls and walls of Bert de Nemethy bits, not walls and walls of whatever the latest bitting fad is.”


#2 Constantly Improve Responsiveness

Regardless of experience level, each group’s warm up began with a period of establishing an energetic and active walk.  “This is the first step in putting the horse on the aids,” said Traurig. “Your horse must always march forward from your leg, with their nose reaching forward.  The rider must have a soft contact, not loose reins.  There are two ways to walk—totally off the contact or on a correct rein.  When going between them, you do not want to disturb the walk or the movements of the neck.”

Traurig reminded riders that their leg must always be on the horse’s “go” button, and that the horse’s response to forward is most important. “Never increase the pressure from your leg unless you want a response, whether asking the horse to move forward or sideways,” said Traurig.  “Otherwise, your leg should hang passively.”

In their warm up, most groups performed a variation of an exercise which helped to improve the horse’s responsiveness to both their rein and leg aids.  At the trot, Traurig had them perform a “shoulder yield”, guiding the front of the horse towards the rail with an opening outside rein away from the neck and an indirect inside rein at the neck.   Both hands were taken out to the side, in the direction to which the shoulders should move.  “Use very little leg,” coached Traurig.  “This is mostly a rein cue.  You are looking to displace the shoulders. ”

The more riders practiced the rein yield, the more subtle their aids became.  “Eventually the horse responds so well that you don’t see the aids, and you can use a subtle opening rein to shift the horse’s line without slowing them down,” said Traurig.  “This is excellent for a hunter class.”

Traurig reminded riders that the inside rein shapes the horse’s neck.  “Inside leg to outside rein is good but there is no shape in the neck,” said Traurig.  “Every book you read says indirect rein goes to the opposite hip.  But Littauer says that this depends on the effect desired.  When used toward the outside hip the indirect rein affects the whole body, but when used towards the other hand it only affects the head and neck.  The rein aids and the leg aids must be blended together.  You have two legs and two hands.  They all have to work together.”


Riders next performed a leg yield away from the rail, then back to the rail, first in the walk and then the trot.  “Sitting trot works best for this,” saidTraurig.  “If you feel you can’t use your leg, then drop your stirrups.”

Traurig reminded riders that how their mount responded to the aids on the flat would translate into the jumping.  “You have to know if you see a forward distance that your horse will react,” said Traurig.  “The horse has to be in front of the leg.  If your horse ignores the aids, it’s okay to be a bit firmer once in a while.”

#3 Constantly Improve Position

“You should fix your position flaws not because of ‘good equitation’ but for correct basics,” said Traurig.

Traurig gave riders well balanced feedback, quick to offer praise even when some elements of an exercise went wrong.  In particular, he helped the riders to learn to feel when their positions were hindering their ride.

“The goal in the walk is to have elastic arms, allowing the horse to accept a soft feel and reach long over their backs,” said Traurig.  Several riders struggled at first to find the right balance between holding the reins too much or not enough, and Traurig helped them to find the middle ground.

In the warm up work, riders were told to stretch out at the two point in the trot, creating a 30 degree angle in the hip. Many riders felt their lower legs slide back when they transitioned into two point.  “When the leg goes back too far, you have to exaggerate holding it too far forward for at least thirty days,” said Traurig.  “Then it will be normal.”


Traurig helped riders to become more aware of their release style.  “A crest release on a hunter is fine, and the long crest release is fashionable, but it has a longer recovery time when you need to correct the line,” said Traurig.  “The automatic release allows more refined use of the rein aids in the air.  Riders can start using an opening rein to take their horse out to the rail before they even land.”

Even experienced riders can benefit from position checks.   On day two, Traurig challenged the most advanced riders to warm up without their irons in the counter canter.  He then had them raise their outside arm above their head, then drop the arm to hang behind their knee, all while maintaining the counter canter.  After returning to sitting trot, the riders were told to use their inside hand to grab the pommel to really pull their seat down.  Finally, they were asked to post without their irons for ten feet, then hold two point for ten feet, continuing this around the arena.

“When I was on the Team, we were each longed at least once per week,” said Traurig.  “Longeing is the best way to develop increased independence in the seat, and daily longeing will help make anyone a better rider.”


#4 Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

A lot of becoming an effective rider is about knowing what to do and when, in just the right amount.  To achieve this end requires hours of practice; but as we all know, only correct practice will build the long term responses we want in horse and rider.

One young horse became hot and excited when approaching the fences.  “Repetition of schooling exercises which decrease anxiety and the aggressive approach to the jump are in order,” said Traurig.  “It is tedious, but necessary.”

For this horse, Traurig prescribed trotting jumps with plenty of halts after fences, with an emphasis on a gradual rather than abrupt transition.  “Take a few strides,” said Traurig. “As you practice it more, you can expect the halt to become more prompt.”

Once the horse jumped more quietly, he was allowed to canter a few fences, followed by a halt.  Eventually this would build to cantering into a line and trotting out.  “Be a horseman,” said Traurig.  “Always quit when the horse has been good, especially when they are young and green and have done well.”

Another experienced horse had a habit of stopping at new fences.  Traurig told the rider that she must carry a crop that is “worthy of a correction”.  “Do not change how you ride at a show,” said Traurig.  “Do not be intimidated by the crowd.  If the horse stops, you must give the correction.  Ride your horse absolutely quiet unless they stop.  Then you make the correction.  And then you ride like they are the best horse in the world.  You cannot ride a stopper aggressively.”


#5 Details Matter

To be a truly excellent horseman, the rider must always pay attention to the smallest elements of precision, whether it is in terms of care, tack adjustment, or ridden performance.

Traurig’s sharp eye missed no detail and gave all participants a sense of the type of attention required.  For one example, he reminded everyone that spurs must be worn on the spur rest, or else it is not possible for the rider to apply their leg without using the spur.


In another correction, Traurig told riders that they must be precise with the timing for the flying change.  “Do not do the change on a curved line,” coached Traurig.  “Hold them straight.  There are three fundamentals to riding a good change.  First, you need impulsion which you can balance, straightness produced by holding the line with an opening rein on the outside, and the correct timing and intensity of the leg aid, which is determined by who you are riding.  If the horse is hot or sensitive, you may have to stay in half seat to help them stay quiet.

If a horse has not yet learned the flying change, and especially when there is little room on the recovery side of a fence, riders should plan to trot at the corner no matter what.  “It is better to do this than to allow the horse to start swapping in front without changing behind,” said Traurig.

Knowing what is expected for your specific jumping discipline also falls in this category.  “For example, if there is a bending line on your hunter course, most of them are smooth so both holding the counter canter or doing a change is acceptable,” said Traurig.  “In lower level equitation, the same is true, but in higher levels you must either land on your new lead or do the flying change.”


Even knowing how to ride a line well comes down to details.  “See your jump first, then look beyond it,” said Traurig.  “Approach management is key.  For example, knowing where to come to on the in of your bending line to effect the distance is a skill.  The trick is to hold your line on the landing so as to not put you on a half stride.”

Traurig told riders that for any line which requires a turn, the best technique is to look for the approach to the second fence first, then back up the line to where you have to make the turn from.  “Whenever you don’t see [a distance], stay out further and shorten the stride a little to buy some time,” said Traurig.

Finally, Traurig reminded riders that every horse has their own “right” canter, a speed at which they jump the best out of.  “You can jump any course in the world with good track control and the ability to adjust the length of stride,” said Traurig.

Final Take Aways

Traurig is an attentive and enthusiastic educator, passionate about communicating with all present the fundamental basics which underlay any successful equestrian performance.  Blending a commitment to correct basics with his precise ability to customize exercises and tools to suit each unique pair, Traurig is a master at giving riders the information they need to know, right when they need to hear it.

Traurig’s final piece of advice?  “The most important part of your body when you ride is your brain,” said Traurig.

This blog was previously posted on Horse Network.  Thanks for sharing!




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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.”

Jan Ebeling April 2017 034.JPG
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.

Jan Ebeling April 2017 007.JPG
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.”

Jan Ebeling April 2017 025.JPG

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.”

Jan Ebeling April 2017 030.JPG

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!

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!


Improving Balance in the Non Traditional Dressage Horse: a ride with Jen Verharen

I might be the world’s slowest blogger but I suppose better late than never!  This blog is the summary of my notes from a lesson I took with my dear friend Jen Verheran, who visited us here in NH in early March on what turned out to be the most frigid weekend of our entire winter. Jen is an accomplished rider and trainer, as well as the founder and principal at Cadence Coaching, Inc.  Jen is also a fellow Connemara lover, and I was really interested to hear her thoughts on Anna.  We were able to squeeze one ride in together around the sessions she did for the UNH Equestrian Team.

If you follow my blog, you will no doubt recognize that Anna is not known for being the most forward thinking of mounts.  While she is pretty willing to do whatever is asked, she does not naturally possess a high degree of “forward intention”.  I showed her lightly at Second Level last season with decent scores, and she currently schools most of the Third Level movements.  But impulsion is always the variable which seems to be lacking, and coming up with new ways to inspire and motivate her is a real challenge.  I don’t frequently get the opportunity for feedback from ‘eyes on the ground’, either, and I was interested in Jen’s honest opinion in regards to where Anna stood against the expectations for Third Level.

It was too cold for anyone to get photos of Anna and I, but here is a bundled up Jen coaching members of the UNH Equestrian team the same weekend!

Jen has a lot of experience with Connemaras and Connemara crosses, having owned several during her career.  While the breed is known for being quite versatile and athletic, they are not typically big movers.  Despite being half Trakehner, Anna seems to primarily display the traits of her Irish ancestors. Most principles of dressage training come from the German school, which favors warmblood type horses; the German training philosophy emphasizes riding the horse actively forward into the hand.  This is an excellent approach, and it works really well on horses which either naturally go forward or who are easily able to be motivated forward.  It does not work so well when you have a horse whose response to nearly any driving aid is…meh.

I will sidebar here to note that Anna has been this way since the get-go.  She isn’t desensitized.  She was never sensitized to begin with.  The very first time I carried a dressage whip with her, she didn’t respond in any way.  Not negative, not positive…just non responsive. You can really wallop her to no effect.  So louder or harder leg or whip aids just do not work.  I have never met a horse like her in that regard.

Jen told me that in working with her Connemaras, she took a lot of inspiration from the techniques of the French school.  This training philosophy favors Baroque and Thoroughbred type horses.  While these two varieties of horse might not seem similar at first, they both are types which seem to develop more correct forward activity when they are ridden first into a steady balance.  Baroque type horses tend to be better at collected movement than they are at moving with ground covering strides, whereas Thoroughbreds can cover ground but tend to be heavily downhill.  Asking either of these types of horse to go more forward, without first establishing better balance, is usually an exercise in frustration for all involved.  Specifically, the rider needs to do exercises which encourage the horse to better use the loin area just behind the saddle until the horse feels that they are moving within their own balance.  Only then can the rider expect greater forward energy.

Jen V 2

Jen introduced me to a series of exercises geared towards loosening Anna’s body, as well as lateral movements specifically to improve the softness of her loin area.  After a basic walk/trot/canter warm up, I returned to an active medium walk and put Anna into a shoulder in, then shortened stride and rode a turn on the forehand.  We then did a variation on this, where I put Anna into renvers (haunches out), and then rode turn on the forehand again from this position.  While it felt a bit ‘backwards’ at first, this exercise helped increase Anna’s suppleness pretty quickly.

From there, we moved onto the trot and began working on a series of transitions between trot and walk on a twenty meter circle.  During the trot strides, the focus was on keeping the trot bouncy; rather than just moving more forward, it was about creating more spring.  Once Anna’s trot started to develop a more consistent degree of spring and energy, I began to go large.  We then rode a sequence of movements, starting with a ten meter circle at the top of the long side, into shoulder fore going straight ahead, then establishing counter flexion and leg yielding in from the rail, finishing in shoulder fore.  This exercise was completed all down one long side, and it was super at keeping Anna focused. The frequent transitions helped to keep the trot lively and the connection clear.

Anna performing lateral work with Verne Batchelder in December 2016.

Jen suggested that I ride Anna with minimal to no bend, especially in the canter, because of her tendency to bend more in the neck than in the body.  Anna is super compact, and like most horses, her neck is her most flexible area.  But when the neck overbends to the inside, the opposite shoulder pops out.  By riding her in a straighter alignment from poll to tail, it is easier to narrow the space between the inside hind and outside fore.  This further allowed me to adjust the position of her head at the poll.  I noticed the benefit of riding this way most clearly at the canter, which is the gait at which we have had the greatest degree of challenge in terms of keeping steady connection.  As I practiced this over the next few months, I have seen a huge improvement in the quality of the canter in general.  It also was a theme which came up during a clinic I took with Jan Ebeling in April (more on this in a future blog, I promise!).

Jen definitely received the “hardy solider” award for coaching through an absolutely FRIGID weekend!

Jen told me that she wanted to throw as many exercises at me as possible so that I would have several new tools to use to improve the quality of Anna’s movement and connection.  I was impressed by how much softer, rounder and steadier Anna became through the course of our ride (did I mention that it was maybe 18 degrees??), and she developed both lipstick and soft eyes and ears.  Without ever doing a single “forward” transition, Anna had become much more willing and supple off the leg, and had developed a much increased ‘hot’ response to the forward aids.

Jen recommended that I continue to play with the exercises which she offered for the next month or so, and if they seemed solid at that point, it would be time to add greater adjustability within the movements and gaits.   The goal of the work is to continue to improve her balance, so that she is able to engage the hind leg better and develop connection with a soft lower back.


Jen is such a positive and enthusiastic coach, and she really helped me with some fresh eyes on Anna’s training program.  Of course she lives on the West Coast, as all my favorite teachers seem to be as far from NH as you can get and still be in the US! I asked Jen if she thought that introducing the double bridle would be appropriate, and she encouraged me to go ahead and try it; some horses do simply go better in the double, even with a light curb contact (as it turns out, Anna seems to be one of those horses, too…more on this later as well!).  Finally, she encouraged me to change my mind set about Anna; instead of thinking, “she will go Third level”, Jen told me to start saying to myself and others that Anna is “working at Third Level”.  By thinking of her as a Third Level horse, I will come to each training session with a different attitude and set of expectations, which will more than likely help Anna to continue to step into the role.

Anna after her first ride in her double bridle.  “Ho Hum” she says.  We have since fixed the cheekpiece conundrum seen here….

Jen’s lesson was a perfect bridge between some of the concepts and techniques which we have worked on with Verne Batchelder in the past and those used by Jan Ebeling at our session in April.  It is always nice to see the pieces connect together!

Metabolic Management of your Endurance Athlete

Notes from a lecture presented by Dr. Susan Garlinghouse at the ECTRA Winter Getaway 2017

For horses covering long distances, the management of metabolic health is of the highest priority.  For the competitive distance rider, attention paid to these specific parameters can spell the difference between a completion and a pull (or retirement, for riders used to other disciplines). Distance riding is a sport whose mantra is the phrase, “to finish is to win”.  Most distance riders want to have a fun and successful weekend, which means that they are bringing home a healthy horse; to this end, they are always working to learn how to better care for their mounts.

Dr. Susan Garlinghouse (photo from AERC)

Dr. Susan Garlinghouse presented “Beating the Metabolic Pull” at the Eastern Competitive Trail Ride Association (ECTRA) Winter Getaway in Boxborough, MA in early February, offering attendees instruction and strategies based on the most current of scientific evidence.

Dr. Garlinghouse is an endurance rider and has completed the grueling Tevis Cup no less than three times.  She has ridden her Tennessee Walking Horse John Henry over 2,800 endurance miles.  Garlinghouse referenced John Henry many times during her talks throughout the weekend, as her insights into metabolic management have been influenced by the additional challenge posed by preparing a horse with a dense build for strenuous competition.  She is a well-known authority on many of the unique health and maintenance issues faced by the distance horse.

Garlinghouse emphasized that during a ride there are three primary factors which must be managed to ensure the horse’s wellbeing:  hydration, gut motility and energy balance.  They are listed here in their relative order of importance, and we will explore each one now in a little more detail.


Garlinghouse says that 90% of metabolic issues come from hydration loss.  The line between “sufficient hydration” and a horse at risk is incredibly narrow.  Horses sweat at the rate of 1.5-3.75 gallons per hour, and may produce over forty gallons of sweat during a 50 mile ride.  During heavy exercise, horses may lose 5-6% of their body weight, with about 4-5 gallons of net fluid loss.

Dehydration during heavy work can affect equine athletes in all disciplines, and the effects come on quickly, beginning with 2-3% dehydration rates.   Health concerns escalate rapidly from there.  At 6% dehydration, capillary refill time and heart rate are elevated.  At 8%, capillary refill time will be 2-3 seconds (normal is under 1), with dry mucous membranes, dry or mucous covered feces, and decreased urine output.  At 10% dehydration, capillary refill time will be over three seconds, and the horse will have a high, hanging heart rate with weakness and cold extremities; this horse is in serious trouble.  At 12%, the horse is close to death.


The difference between 4 to 8% hydration in a 1000 pound horse is only 4-5 gallons of water.

Some riders believe that the horse will naturally consume water sufficient to replace this lost fluid, but this is a myth.  According to research done on fluid balance in endurance horses conducted at UC Davis, the horse will only replace about 2/3 of fluid loss through voluntary drinking.  For example, if ten gallons of fluid have been lost, the horse will only voluntarily consume 6-7 gallons.  Equally concerning is that this same research showed that over 60% of the horses starting at the 100 mile endurance rides where the studies were being conducted were already dehydrated to some extent, prior to starting the ride.  Another 20% were at the high end of normal.  Just 10% of the starters began the ride at optimal hydration.

Therefore, it becomes incumbent to create situations in which the horse will stay at a higher rate of hydration before and during the ride.

Garlinghouse offered several strategies to help with this.  Even for the non-distance rider, some of these practices could help enhance their performance horse’s well-being, especially before intense work or competition.  First, Garlinghouse recommends feeding lots and lots of hay—horses will drink 1.5-2 gallons of water for every five pounds of hay that they consume. She also reminded the audience that the rate of passage from the mouth to the hind gut is relatively slow. What you feed your horse on Thursday becomes their source of energy on Saturday.

Roughage should always be at least 50% of your horse’s ration, and for a distance horse, more is better.

Feeding soluble fibers, like beet pulp or soybean hulls, can also increase the fluid reservoir available to the horse during a ride.  These feed stuffs help to retain fluid and electrolytes which the horse can pull from during exertion.

The manner in which we feed our horses is also important to consider.  Garlinghouse explained that there are fluid shifts in the body associated with the consumption of large (over 4.5 pounds), episodic (fed more than 2-3 hours apart) meals.  When we feed on this schedule, as much as 5-6 gallons of fluid shifts from the plasma and tissues and into the gastrointestinal tract, leading to a 15-24% reduction in plasma volume.  The effect is transient, lasting two to three hours.

If your horse is at rest, this isn’t a big deal.  But if your horse is teetering on the edge of being dehydrated, and then there is this huge fluid shift…well, that is not good.

To prevent this, riders must ensure that their horse has something going into their digestive system more frequently than every two hours.  Garlinghouse emphasized that the quantity doesn’t have to be great—grazing, some carrots or apples, a baggie of soaked beet pulp—will all do just fine.

Soaked beet pulp.  Photo credit:

On a related note, Garlinghouse cautioned riders about the common practice of syringing large doses of electrolytes into the horse’s mouth, as this draws fluids from the plasma and into the digestive tract in a similar way to large servings of food.  The effect can be minimized or eliminated by giving electrolytes in small but frequent doses, preferably after the horse has been drinking.  So eight, 2 ounce doses is preferable to two, 8 ounce doses.  Garlinghouse also recommends mixing electrolytes with a buffer like kaolin pectin to help reduce the risk of ulcers.

Another cause of excess dehydration is feeding high amounts of protein.  Garlinghouse recommends feeding distance horses at a 10% protein rate.  Protein fed at higher rates will be used for energy production, but processing protein in this manner results in waste heat, almost 3-6 times as much as what is produced through the processing of fats or carbohydrates.

Garlinghouse’s “Fast Facts” on Hydration:

  • Maximize your horse’s forage intake for 2-3 days before the big ride to increase their reservoir of fluids and electrolytes
  • Provide small, frequent meals throughout the ride rather than a few large ones
  • Minimize the amount of protein in the diet

Gut Motility

While dehydration is responsible for 90% of metabolic problems, gut motility can be one of the first accurate indicators of stress.  Gut motility slows down when blood supply is reduced, which can happen anytime the horse’s systems are under excessive demand somewhere else.  This is because the gastrointestinal system is the last in line in terms of the “pecking order” amongst the horse’s body systems; vital organs like the brain, heart and lungs come first, followed by the muscles of locomotion, then skin surfaces for heat dissipation…and then the GI tract.  This chain of command stems from the horse’s prey animal status; if you are about to be eaten, it is more important that you can effectively run away than that you can digest your breakfast.

Equine digestive system.  Photo credit:

For the well-being of the horse, it is important to actively monitor and stimulate GI activity during a ride.  Garlinghouse recommends carrying a high quality stethoscope and have a vet teach the rider how to check all four quadrants.  Improving motility can be as simple as keeping small amounts of feed in the stomach, which triggers a hormonal release thereby increasing motility.  Another strategy is to occasionally slow down, which will reduce heat production and therefore the demand on the skin surfaces to release excess heat.   The nature of distance riding can cause a horse’s body to think is constantly being chased.  Slowing down will reverse this effect.

Garlinghouse cautions against feeding pellets or cubes at a ride, both of which require extra fluids to process.  Instead, feed soaked products, including hay.  The better the horse’s overall hydration, the more efficiently he will circulate his blood and therefore improve his gut motility.

Energy Balance

A distant third to hydration and gut motility in terms of managing the horse’s metabolism during a ride is energy balance.  There are many different strategies related to effectively managing a horse’s feed ration leading up to and during a ride.  Garlinghouse helped to dispel some common misconceptions and offered some practical tips to help ensure adequate energy reserves for the endurance horse.

There are two primary sources of energy for exercise:  fats and glucose (from carbohydrates).  Fats are more energy dense, offering 2.25 times the energy of an equivalent amount of carbohydrate, and the body can store fats in much greater quantities.  Glucose is generated from the breakdown of carbs; limited amounts are stored as glycogen in the muscle and liver, but glucose is the limiting substrate in fatigue.  Therefore, the thoughtful rider should be trying to maintain glycogen stores by balancing the diet with fat.

Garlinghouse suggests a ration with 10-12% fat in a commercial grain is acceptable, so long as horses are given time to get used to it.  Fats are calorically dense and help to maintain the horse’s body weight.  They also have a glycogen sparing effect.  Additionally, Garlinghouse recommends supplementing with a glucose source throughout the ride.  Riders should not provide extra fats during a ride, as the horse cannot process fat that quickly.  A horse in good body condition already has all the fat they need for the day’s energy requirements.  Horses should not arrive at the ride so thin that ribs are visible, as they do not have an adequate fat reserve.

My distance horse, Lee, has been running on ProForce Fuel for the past three seasons.  It is 12% protein/13% fat.

One of Garlinghouse’s most important messages related to energy balance was that horses should not receive a large grain meal within four hours of their ride.  Feeding grain causes an increase in blood pressure, triggers insulin release and inhibits the utilization of fat.   In the distance athlete, this is particularly troublesome because the horse will experience something similar to a ‘sugar high’; the transient effects of the grain meal will cause the horse to be hyper to start the ride but then they will experience a ‘crash’.  Most grain digestion occurs in the small intestine, and the stresses of the ride will cause some of the grain to spill into the cecum undigested.  The bacteria which live in the cecum are not able to process grain, and this can cause GI stress.

Garlinghouse again emphasized that horses should be fed a meal with a high glycogen index (like a sloppy beet pulp meal) not later than midnight before a ride.  On the ride morning, horses should receive unlimited hay and then small, frequent meals throughout the ride day, which will minimize the insulin response while maintaining gut motility.

Final Thoughts

There is certainly always more to learn when it comes to managing a horse’s well being during a long distance ride.   Garlinghouse gave attendees plenty to think about and apply to their own horse’s feeding and management strategies as we move into the 2017 season.



December Clinic Weekend

Notes on Sessions with Verne Batchelder and Cindy Canace

Annapony and I enjoyed an educational weekend in mid-December, riding twice with Verne Batchelder and once with Cindy Canace, within four days.  I have had the opportunity to work with both of these talented clinicians before, so I was excited to get some new exercises and feedback as we head into the indoor schooling season.

Verne Batchelder and the “Circle of Submission”

My two sessions with Verne came first, and were held at the lovely Fresh Creek facility in Dover, NH, home to Chesley Brook Stables.  Their insulated indoor was a welcome haven from the unseasonably cold temperature and omnipresent wind, and the GGT footing made Anna feel positively springy.

I hadn’t had the chance to connect with Verne for almost a year, and he was super positive about the progress which Anna has made in that time.  She tends to always be more forward thinking at a new venue, which is helpful, but Verne noticed that she was also moving with a greater degree of acceptance and throughness since the last time he had seen her go.  After I had done a little warm up at the basic gaits, we started to work Anna on what Verne calls “the circle of submission”.

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One of our many “circles of submission”.

The “circle of submission” is a tool which Verne frequently uses to help horses to unlock, to improve connection and to get better acceptance of the outside rein.  Usually, it is done either at the walk or trot, on a smallish (in our case ten meter) circle.  With Anna, I asked for an exaggerated flexion in her neck to the inside, and then asked her to turn her chest towards the middle of the circle, while keeping my outside elbow bent but giving.  I continued to ride her forward and encouraged her to engage the inside hind leg so it reached further over and under.  Once she started to soften her jaw, I increased the straightness by taking more bend into my outside elbow and following with the inside hand.

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When riding the “circle of submission”, one of the important end goals is being able to swivel the horse’s head at the poll, with a response of willing acceptance from the horse. In Anna’s case, the circle allowed her to connect more consistently to the outside rein.  I rode a 10 meter circle, then rode out of the circle in a lovely uphill shoulder in for several strides down the long side, then straightened her and rode forward in the rising trot.  After moving through this sequence, Anna was better able to carry her weight over the topline and actively push into the consistent connection.

The “circle of submission” can be returned to at any point the rider feels they have lost the requisite degree of connection, and/or the ability to swivel the horse at the poll.

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We then moved on to some work with haunches in and half pass. After riding a ten meter circle, I rode down the long side in haunches in.  In both the shoulder in and haunches in work, Verne cautioned against developing too much angle.  Because my goal with Anna next season is to show Third Level, Verne also reminded me that the haunches in is a preparation for the half pass. “Don’t work to perfect the haunches in,” he said, as this movement is not required above Second Level.  “Use it to develop your half pass.”

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We did several sequences of ten meter circle to haunches in on a diagonal line (which is essentially half pass).  I was thrilled to feel Anna fluidly move forward and sideways with a consistent connection and lifted shoulder.  She felt like a “big” horse!

In the canter work, we touched on the flying changes.  On my own, I have been working quite a bit with the counter canter to develop greater strength and straightness.  Anna learned clean changes through her jumping work and tends to throw them in, unasked, during the counter canter.  Verne said that in terms of laying the groundwork for Third Level, it would be appropriate to begin asking for the flying change more frequently. Using the ten meter circle again as preparation, I then rode the short diagonal and asked for a change on the line.  Verne emphasized that the short diagonals were better than long at this point, so that there are fewer strides for the horse to begin to anticipate the change.

Despite the short distance, Anna still anticipated her change, and gave one fairly exuberant effort from right to left, during which she actually kicked the bottom of my left boot!  I think we have some homework to do in terms of “calm acceptance” of this movement.

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I love that this exact moment is caught on film.

We ended the first day’s session by playing with adjustability within the gaits.  Within the trot or the canter, Anna needed to get bigger or get smaller, but always while keeping her nose in—if I allowed the reins to slip, she would slightly poke her nose forward, causing me to lose a degree of the connection and the ability to swivel the poll.

We covered a lot of ground during this session, and I left feeling thrilled by Anna’s performance.  I had felt a degree of connection, thrust and throughness which I have not experienced with her before. Verne was highly complementary of both the progress since last year and the work during our session, and I very much looked forward to day two.

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The next morning was one of the coldest so far of the season, which only meant that Anna was even more energetic, despite her hard work the day before.  We started again working with the “circle of submission”.  Verne added to his description from day one that depending on the horse, the rider can think of riding shoulder in on the circle, or ride it more like a moving turn on the forehand, or even a leg yield out of the haunches.  He emphasized, again, that no matter how you approach the “circle of submission”, its purpose is to get the hind end of the horse active and free, to get the inside hind leg under the horse’s body, and to take the horse’s neck out of the cycle of resistance.

From here, we moved onto work with haunches in and half pass in the trot.  Verne cautioned again against creating too much angle in the haunches in, which causes the horse to lose their forward intention.  In the half pass, Verne reminded me to keep a bent elbow on the outside, and to allow Anna’s shoulders to move ahead of the diagonal line first, and then to put the haunches in on the diagonal.

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Schooling haunches in.

Allowing the shoulders to come out ahead of the line was a new idea for me, and I found that it helped Anna to say more up into the outside rein during the half pass.  By focusing first on the shoulders and then adding the haunches in, the half pass became even more fluid and effortless. We have a lot of work to do to strengthen and improve her reach and carrying power, but we definitely have some new tools to use to develop the movement this winter.

In the canter work, we worked on a twenty meter circle and played with the idea of increasing pressure, then backing off. Because horses naturally tend to carry their haunches to the inside of the circle, we allowed Anna to start this way, while simultaneously increasing the activity in her hind end and increasing the weight in my outside elbow.  I then straightened Anna’s body for a few strides, allowing her to increase the collection, then softened and let the haunches slide back in.  The idea here is to just touch on the increased collection without asking for it for too many strides in a row.

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I just love this moment in the canter!

Overall, I was so excited and encouraged by the work Anna offered during our time working with Verne.  I came away with new tools to play with this winter, and Anna has shown me how much more she is capable of doing in this work.  On to Third Level we go!

Thanks to Cayden for coming with us on Day 1 and taking all of these great photos!

Cindy Canace:  “Be a Better Backpack”

After our two days with Verne, Anna had a much needed Sunday off, giving me the opportunity to audit several sessions with USEF “S” judge and USDF Gold Medalist Cindy Canace.  Cindy came up from New Jersey to spend two days working with riders at the University of New Hampshire Equine Program.  Anna and I had worked with Cindy back in June, and we had a session scheduled again for Monday.

Watching Cindy work with our riders allowed me to observe certain themes to her teaching.  She is incredibly detail oriented, and works hard to help riders to both understand important concepts and to feel the horse underneath them.  Cindy expects the rider to keep their hands together and in front of their body, allowing the horse to reach to the bit to seek contact.  She also works to correct posture and alignment issues in the rider which impact the horse.  One of my favorite quotes of the day was that the riders needs to “be a better back pack”, in reference to the fact that our horses must essentially relearn to balance under our weight.  It is incumbent upon us to try to make that burden as easy to bear as possible.

Cindy works with two of my students, riding UNH’s horses Morocco and Ticco.  Photo from the UNH Equine Program Facebook Page

Cindy has judged me on Anna several times in competition, in addition to working with us this summer, so she has a decent idea of her strengths and weaknesses.  In our Monday session, Cindy wanted to work on helping Anna to lift more in her shoulders and truly elevate her poll.  The exercises we did were perhaps not the most interesting for the auditors, but Cindy’s laser beam focus on excellence in the basics helped Anna to show some good progress.

Cindy first had me dramatically slow down Anna’s walk, making each step extremely deliberate, by slowing down my seat while keeping a following, elastic elbow.  She then had me execute a series of walk to halt transitions.  In each downward transition I made sure to keep my leg on, and then I released Anna from the halt by pressing with the seat bones and softening the leg and hand.  Cindy only allowed us to take two walk steps before I asked Anna to halt again.  We remained in the halt, with my leg on, until Anna began to soften in the jaw and raised her shoulders.  Cindy encouraged me to give Anna a gentle tap on the shoulder with my dressage wand to get a better response to my request for elevation or if she was inattentive.

From this work, we moved into a turn on the forehand.  Just as in the earlier exercise, Anna was allowed to take two walk steps and then I asked her to halt, holding it as before.  Cindy was particular that to initiate the turn, I needed to press with the calf muscle, not my spur, and once Anna began moving, I needed to keep the march of my seat in a walking rhythm to follow.  Cindy reminded me that even though we are emphasizing the responsiveness of the horse to the inside leg in this exercise, my outside leg and seat bone are also important and must remain active.  Ideally, in the turn on the forehand, it should take four steps to get the horse facing the opposite direction.

Cindy worked this summer with my colleague Liz Johnson, here riding Santa Fe ISF.  Liz coordinated Cindy’s whirlwind visit to the frigid north for all of us.  Thank you Liz!

After working on the turn on the forehand, we did a few turns on the haunches, which Anna executed with a more elevated shoulder than before. I also noticed that she had developed a degree of “lipstick”, one of the visual indicators that the horse has begun to soften the jaw.  I hope the auditors saw that Anna had become softer in the jaw as the result of the work we had done to improve responsiveness in the hind end and lift in the shoulder, and not because we had done anything at all to manipulate or pull her into a position.

We then moved on to work in the trot and canter, and Cindy helped me work with the position of my left leg.  Due to now chronic knee pain, I have a great deal of trouble keeping my left leg fully internally rotated, with the knee and toe pointing forward.  Instead, my toe tends to angle out, and I have a difficult time keeping my left spur off Anna’s side without hurting my knee.  After so many months of knee pain, I have really developed some compensatory behaviors with the left leg, especially when I am tracking left and need to use the inside leg to position Anna correctly.  Cindy had me try bringing my left heel down and forward, allowing my left knee to rotate off the saddle slightly.  She then had me rotate my shoulders slightly toward the right in order to engage my outside hip.  This positioning of course felt somewhat unnatural but it did allow me to keep Anna correctly bent without my spur ending up stuck on her side.

Cindy had me do many transitions, especially walk-trot-walk and trot-halt-trot.  In each transition, Anna needed to stay up in the shoulder.  Cindy had me ride a slight step of leg yield out in each transition to help engage the inside hind and keep Anna into the outside rein (a little bit of a similar concept to the “circle of submission” discussed above).

Back to the Laboratory

After our super educational weekend, I have plenty of new material to work with for the next several months in the indoor.  I appreciate having fresh eyes on our progress and to come away with ever increasing clarity as to next steps.  Now we go “back to the lab” to experiment with our new exercises and tools.  Stay tuned for further developments….

A Clinic with Cindy Canace

I have been lucky enough to know Cindy Canace, a USDF Gold Medalist and USEF “S” dressage judge from New Jersey, for many years.  However, this past week was my first opportunity to actually ride with Cindy in a clinic setting, and it was a great occasion to learn more about her training philosophies.

Cindy has made a career out of working with difficult, spoiled or otherwise challenging horses that others would not, and turning them into successful and happy performers.  In order to do this, she has established a system which she adheres to in terms of use of the aids, rider position, and progressive exercises.  By being clear and consistent, her horses respond with increased confidence to the rider’s aids.

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Annapony and I had just ridden several tests in front of Cindy at the recent University of New Hampshire dressage show, so she had a current picture in her mind’s eye of where things were at with us in the competition arena.  Cindy pointed out that a clinician’s main job is to provide a fresh set of eyes, and not to usurp the place of a regular instructor.  Specifically for Anna, Cindy wanted to challenge the honesty of her connection to the bit and work to achieve increased throughness.

For a horse competing at First Level, Cindy says that she would rather see a more open position in the neck with good energy and balance than a horse which has been pulled into too tight or restricted of a shape in the neck.  This is probably one of the reasons why Anna has scored well in front of Cindy, but as we are working towards moving to Second Level, it is necessary to achieve a greater degree of roundness and uphill balance.  Anna would prefer to be too open in the throatlatch if left to her own choices; because the purpose of Second Level is partially to confirm that the horse is “reliably on the bit”, we will need to work to erase this.

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Cindy had me move my hands closer together along Anna’s crest and ride with a much shorter rein than where I would tend to carry it.  “Put the bit where you want your horse to go” was a message repeated many times during the session.  She emphasized that the rider needs to keep her arms elastic, her shoulders down, her neck soft and her hands forward.  Cindy wants the horse to truly be seeking contact with the bit; it is the horse’s job to reach towards the bit all the time, rather than the rider taking the bit back towards their own body.

One of my greatest challenges is that most of the time I ride on my own; when you do this for too long, it is easy to pick up little bad habits.  One of my current ones is using too much inside rein, which blocks the inside hind and causes too much neck bend.  To help “reprogram” my aids, Cindy had me ride a diamond shape.  Imagine a square set within a circle, with points placed on the center line and equidistant from these points on the walls in between.  To turn Anna at each corner of the diamond, it was important to keep the inside leg at the girth and to bring the outside leg slightly back, pushing her around primarily with the outside aids.  I then used the inside leg to stop the turn and pushed Anna slightly out towards the outside aids again while aiming for the next point. We did this at the trot and the canter, decreasing the size of the circle as we became more proficient.

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Can you tell how awkward I feel with my hands this forward?

For me, the hardest part was to keep my hands out and ahead of me (‘put the bit where you want your horse to go’), even when Anna became less round or didn’t turn as crisply as I wanted.  The thing is, when your horse has gotten used to you supporting them in a particular way and you stop doing that, it takes them a few repetitions to sort things out for themselves.

Many horses have learned to balance on their inside reins; therefore, they can be taught to balance on the outside rein instead.  However, the correction takes time and dedication on the part of the rider.  “Keep your hands together and think forward,” said Cindy.  “The horse must step up to this.  Think of always pushing the reins out there.”

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Cindy reminded me that whenever I am tempted to pull on the inside rein that I needed to engage my inside leg instead.  At this, I had to chuckle—I must give this instruction myself many times per week, but it is good to know that even we instructors need reminders! Cindy also had me use a little sense of leg yield into the downward transitions to increase the connection to the outside rein, another technique which I like to use regularly. It is always good to know that your instincts are on the right track.

Cindy is wonderfully complimentary towards the rider’s horse; having ridden in many clinics, I think this is an important quality. Clinicians only get a snap shot of a horse and rider, and it is nice to hear what their immediate impressions are of the partnership.  While I usually think of Anna as not being super forward thinking, Cindy commented that my pony has a good overstep in the walk and trot; the more elastic and forward thinking that I keep my arm, the better Anna reaches through her topline and into the bit and the better the overstep gets.

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While discussing the importance of overstep (when the landing of the hind hoof reaches past the print of the front hoof on the same side), Cindy reminded auditors that there is a difference between fast and forward.  She says that in her judging, she sees too many horses which are being ridden so energetically that they move with a fast, quick tempo, causing the quality of the horse’s balance to literally go downhill.  While activity in the hind end is required to get true reach through the horse’s back, it cannot be accomplished at the cost of balance.

“We all like to micromanage,” said Cindy.  “Remember to ride the horse with leg and seat to create the bending.  Really use the outside rein to turn, even to the point of pushing the inside rein towards the horse’s ears.”

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Cindy’s overall theme was one of consistency and clarity in terms of expectations for the horse and intended outcomes.  When the horse is trying to sort out what it is that the rider wants, she emphasized that staying steady was of the highest priority.  It is much less confusing for the horse than if the rider suddenly switches her aids before the horse has answered the original question.   “Don’t change the rules of the game,” said Cindy.  “Don’t trade one problem for another—keep your aids consistent until you get the correct answer.”

Many thanks to On the Bit Events and the University of New Hampshire Equine Program for co-hosting this clinic!

Riding Aside

A Day with Side Saddle Expert Rhonda Watts-Hettinger

Considering the diversity of disciplines available for the modern rider, side saddle may seem like it would have become relegated to the annals of history, an antique style without merit to a contemporary equestrienne.  But a devoted community of side saddle riders keeps the technique alive, regularly competing aside in nearly every discipline, from eventing and fox hunting to dressage and even western.

Sure, Boyd Martin does it once, a photo gets posted and now all the groupies are fawning over how cool he is for trying it out.  But all of us normal folks also had a chance to get to know more about riding side saddle, thanks to a wonderful clinic with Rhonda Watts Hettinger at Fox Brook Farm in Berlin, MA, in early April.  The clinic was organized by volunteer extraordinaire Susan Goldfischer to benefit the Old North Bridge Hunt, of which both women are members.

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Rhonda and her homebred mare, Cricket, give a brief demonstration.

Rhonda gave us an over view of “side saddle 101” and then many in attendance gave riding aside a try, either on their own horse or one generously provided by facility owner and host, Ginny Zukatynski.

I remembered seeing Rhonda riding side saddle while competing her horse at the UNH horse trials back when I was an undergrad.  I thought eventing was hard enough without sitting side ways but she sure made it look easy, and with her formal attire she and her horse cut a sharp image.  So it was kind of cool to see her again so many years later and share her extreme passion and commitment to this traditional, feminine style of riding.

Saddle Fit

Rhonda started her presentation by informing the audience that most anything we already knew about riding astride applies to side saddle as well, and this theme certainly recurred throughout the day.

Side saddles are clearly unique from other English style saddles, with a broad, flat seat and just one stirrup, traditionally on the left, or “near” side.  The horns are also on the left; the top horn is called the ‘top pommel’ while the lower one enjoys the more colorful title of ‘leaping horn’.  Most saddles seem to fasten with whatever your chosen style is of traditional English girth, though Rhonda mentioned that the old fashioned three fold leather girths are still considered a standard appointment and are coveted by modern side saddle riders.  Unique to a side saddle is the ‘balance strap’, an additional thin strip of leather which increases the security and stability of the saddle on the right, or “off”, side. The balance strap prevents the saddle from lifting up or pitching back and forth.

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Side saddles come in many shapes and sizes.

Rhonda commented that the unfastened side saddle is particularly precarious and can easily slip due to the weight of the horns, which can be damaged should the saddle fall.  Otherwise, though, fitting a side saddle is much like fitting any other saddle.  The saddle should fit well over the withers and have clearance through the gullet; the seat should be level and bridging should be avoided.  To help support the horns on the left, side saddles usually have a longer tree point on the left side, so this area must be carefully checked to ensure it isn’t digging into the horse’s shoulder.  When padding is added to improve the fit of a side saddle, it is usually done so on the right side in order to keep the saddle centered.

The stirrup of a side saddle is considered part of the rider, not a part of the saddle, and the rider should detach it when she dismounts.  The stirrups do not run up and feature a quick release mechanism, allowing them to snap free if caught.

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A variety of different styles of stirrup.

Rhonda commented that many of the best side saddles still available are older antique models; however, many of these were made to fit Thoroughbred types and so have narrower trees.  This can provide a fit challenge when working with a modern horse, which also is typically better fed than its more historic counterpart.

Rider Attire and Styling

Most everyone that I know who has gotten into side saddle has done so because they thought that the formal habits just looked smashing, and therefore needed an excuse to wear one.  At our clinic, Rhonda was dressed in ratcatcher style, also known as informal attire to foxhunters.   However, several versions of habit were on display and ranged from historical recreations to fancy ladies’ dress.

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Cricket models her side saddle.

Rhonda offered some practical tips on attire for the aspiring side saddle rider.  Side saddle boots are cut short, especially for the right leg, so that the rider isn’t nipped behind the knee by their boot.  Riders can get away with wearing paddock boots while they are getting started.  Rhonda suggests wearing britches that match the color of your habit; apparently wearing light pants with a dark habit can be quite suggestive!

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Side saddle riders have used a safety skirt or safety apron since the early 1900’s; this skirt is specially cut so that the rider’s outer legs are covered, but the seat of the rider and off side have only a minimal amount of fabric hanging down.  This makes it easier for the rider to come free should she start to fall, without risking getting tangled in her skirts.   Riding trousers were introduced in the 1800’s to be used underneath the skirt, and today are replaced for most women with regular riding breeches.

For a rider interested in showing side saddle, the various appointments are important and could take up a whole article in and of themselves.  It would be important to consult with the rules regarding your specific discipline to be sure that you are not in violation. For example, carrying a cane on the off side is permitted in some sports but not others.

Tips and Technique

Unlike most English disciplines, side saddle riders spend most of their time sitting.  But just like when a rider sits astride, it is important to ensure correct alignment and posture, and equal balance on both seat bones.  If anything, the evenness of the rider’s seat becomes even more critical because the weight of the rider becomes an essential component of communication with the horse.  Because of the amount of sitting work, horse should not be started in side saddles until they are four to six years old and already have a base of fitness on them.

When riders first mount, they do so in the traditional manner—on the left side, by stepping the left foot into the stirrup, swinging the right leg over, and settling onto both sit bones astride.  The rider should settle here until she has her weight centered.  From there, the rider will lift her hands on the reins and bring the right leg up and in front of her, settling it on the top horn.   It is important to not shift the seat bones when the rider makes this transition; at first, most riders will find that they have to slide back.

The rider uses the right leg to support themselves, pulling the heel towards the shin of the left leg while simultaneously pointing the toe down.  There should only be a small gap behind the rider’s right knee.  The position of the saddle causes the rider to sit a little higher and further back than in a regular saddle; the reins will also need to be kept a little longer.

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Sitting aside for the first time. Balance strap adjustment!

Clearly, the rider’s weight will have a tendency to shift to the left, since this is where her legs are positioned.  In fact, back in the day when ladies rode because it was fashionable to do so, rather than because they really wanted to, many were only taught how to walk and canter on the right lead, because turning right helped to keep the rider more centered and balanced.

Because it is easier to turn right, Rhonda started each of the clinic participants out in this direction.  Most riders have been trained to look where they want to go, and so tracking right causes the rider to shift her eye—and therefore her weight—to the right.  This also allows for a secure contact of the leg on the horns.  The rider should try to keep an equal distance from her last rib to the top of the hips on both sides of their body.

Rhonda told us that anytime you get into trouble in a side saddle, the best thing to do is to pull the right shoulder back, which will automatically snug the rider into the horn.

The First Person Experience

For my first side saddle experience, I had the pleasure of riding Betty Boop, an OTTB owned by Ginny’s daughter.  Boop’s first side saddle ride had been with Rhonda in preparation for the clinic, and her second ride was with yours truly.  A seasoned hunt horse, Boop was rather unconcerned with the whole affair.

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Boop waiting for her saddle.  Her owner looks on.  Thanks for sharing her!  

As with the other riders, we started tracking right, and by keeping my eyes to the right and pulling back the right shoulder, my alignment fell into place.  I quickly determined that to be a dedicated side saddle rider, one would develop a fairly good degree of body awareness.  I tried to emulate my best yoga posture, but at first this translated into a bit of rigidity.  Rhonda reminded me to relax my shoulders and arms enough to follow the horse, which seemed quite obvious— once she pointed it out.

We soon progressed to a little trot.  We started in the sitting trot, which feels pretty easy and natural in this saddle.  The ‘post’ of a side saddle rider is much less distinct that when riding astride.  We practiced this too—a sort of shifting of the rider’s weight from the seat bones onto the thigh.  The rider never really comes out of the saddle, but the process does give horse and rider some of the benefits of posting.

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Since things seemed to be going well, Rhonda let us try a bit of canter.  Here I felt the least secure but I tried to remember what Rhonda had said about keeping the eyes and shoulder to the right.  As it turns out, after thirty plus years of riding, my body seems to know what to do on a cantering horse—even if one of my legs is hooked over funny!

Rhonda let us try a little bit of walk, trot and canter to the left as well.  She instructed me to keep focusing the eyes to the right, even though we were tracking left, in order to keep the legs secure.  Going to the left while focusing to the right may seem counterintuitive, but isn’t super different than other “counter” dressage movements, so it didn’t feel as awkward as one might imagine.  The canter to the left definitely was the most difficult of the phases, and it was here that I felt the least balanced.

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Having one’s right leg hooked over the front of the saddle does mean that the rider really has to be intuitive about how they are using their seat bones.  Rhonda said that the flying change, for example, can be achieved just by a shift in the weight and swing of the seat.  This should be true in any well trained horse, but for a side saddle horse, there is no hiding behind a leg aid.  Riders can carry a cane on the off side, and Rhonda let me carry one with Boop.  But to cue the canter, I thought more about using the inside seat bone and a little kiss sound.

Final Thoughts

Going into the day with limited knowledge of side saddle riding, I found that I have come away with quite a newfound appreciation for this unfamiliar discipline and its supporters.  Like Rhonda said, most everything you know about riding astride is also true aside, but I further feel that trying side saddle can only improve a rider’s sense of balance, feel for alignment and coordination while riding astride.

Many thanks to Rhonda, Susan, Ginny and the rest of the crew who helped put this clinic on!

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