Category Archives: Clinic Reports

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 www.equestriancoach.com, 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.”

img_1077

#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.”

img_1071

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.”

img_1076

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.”

img_1061

#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.”

img_1066

#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.

img_1082

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.”

img_1069

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!

 

 

 

Advertisements

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.

IMG_0671
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.

IMG_0694
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.

IMG_0679
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.”

IMG_0699
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
Practicing.

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

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

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

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!

MikaelaAnnaLinden
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.

JenV1
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-at-verne-2016-050
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!).

JenV3
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.

JenV4

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.

AnnaDouble.jpg
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.

SGarlinghouse2014.jpg
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.

Hydration

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.

dehydration.jpg

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.

fall-2016-037
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.

beetpulp
Soaked beet pulp.  Photo credit:  www.equinenutritionnerd.com

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.

dg-pic-1
Equine digestive system.  Photo credit: http://www.threeoaksequine.com

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.

proforce-fuel
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”.

Anna at Verne 2016 009.JPG
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.

Anna at Verne 2016 013.JPG

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.

Anna at Verne 2016 026.JPG

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.”

Anna at Verne 2016 028.JPG

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.

Anna at Verne 2016 106.JPG
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.

Anna at Verne 2016 050.JPG

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.

Anna at Verne 2016 031.JPG
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.

Anna at Verne 2016 124.JPG
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!

anna-at-verne-2016-042
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.

CindyCanaceFall16.jpg
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.

lizandcindy
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.

Cindy Canace Clinic 034.JPG

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.

Cindy Canace Clinic 055.JPG

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.

Cindy Canace Clinic 026.JPG
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.”

Cindy Canace Clinic 058.JPG

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.

Cindy Canace Clinic 079.JPG

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.”

Cindy Canace Clinic 062.JPG

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.

Zones 2016 and Side Saddle 021
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.

Zones 2016 and Side Saddle 010.JPG
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.

Zones 2016 and Side Saddle 008.JPG
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.

Zones 2016 and Side Saddle 013.JPG
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!

Zones 2016 and Side Saddle 012.JPG

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.

Zones 2016 and Side Saddle 094.JPG
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.

Zones 2016 and Side Saddle 085.JPG
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.

Zones 2016 and Side Saddle 097.JPG

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.

Zones 2016 and Side Saddle 120.JPG

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!

Zones 2016 and Side Saddle 132.JPG

 

 

 

 

 

A Day with Conrad Schumacher

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

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

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

Neck Control

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

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

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

Conrad Schumacher Clinic and 2015 IHSA Nationals 010
Conrad Schumacher puts a watchful eye on a horse/rider team.

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

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

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

Basics, Basics, Basics

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

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

Conrad Schumacher Clinic and 2015 IHSA Nationals 017
Anna and I during our session.

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

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

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

Correct Use of the Aids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Ride

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

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

Conrad Schumacher Clinic and 2015 IHSA Nationals 048

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

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

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

Conrad Schumacher Clinic and 2015 IHSA Nationals 028
Anna models her makeshift flash noseband.

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

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

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

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

Motivating the Lazy Equine Athlete

Further Learnings from the Area I Scholarship

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

Verne Batchelder:  Using Double Longeing to Improve Suppleness and Impulsion

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

RiverHouse

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a video of some double longeing.

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

Denny Emerson: Jumping Fences off a Forward Stride

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

Keim-C-090714-3765
Anna at King Oak Farm, September 2014. Photo courtesy of Flatlandsfoto/Joan Davis and used with permission.

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

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

IMG_5190

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

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

BankTHF14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THFAug4

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

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

THFAug5
Finally getting it right!  Photos by Denny Emerson.

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

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

Hilary Clayton:  Biomechanical Interactions Amongst the Rider, the Tack and the Horse

Dr. Clayton shares her thoughts at the University of New Hampshire Equine Program on October 27, 2015

There is no doubt that how we ride our horses, the tack we use on them and the manner in which the horses carry themselves has a cumulative effect on their well-being over time.  Whether that effect is positive or negative is one of the questions considered in the study of equine biomechanics, which combines the disciplines of physics and physiology to study how forces and work affect the body of the horse.  Dr. Hilary Clayton is well known for the work she has done in this field, and she visited the University of New Hampshire in October of 2015 to share her thoughts on some of the more common interactions which occur amongst the horse, the rider and the tack.

HilaryClaytonPortrait
Dr. Hilary Clayton (Photo taken from her promotional poster.)

Equine Topline Mechanics 101

Clayton started her presentation with an overview of the structure of a horse’s vertebral column and how it works.  Just like in humans, the horse’s spine is made up of bone, ligaments, muscles and discs; equine discs are relatively thin compared to a human’s, and therefore horses don’t suffer from slipped discs and disc pain like humans can.  Even though the horse’s spine is horizontal, it loads similarly to a human’s in that it compresses together when force is applied.

Arabian_horse_skeleton
In this skeleton of an Arabian, it is easy to see the difference in the bones of the cervical and thoracic spine.  Note also the proximity of the spinous processes.

Each intervertebral joint has a small degree of mobility; when taken in totality, this allows for considerable movement along the entire length of the horse’s spine.  The degree and type of movement which the topline displays varies with each gait. In the walk, there is some bending and rotation in the topline, but little flexion or extension.  At the trot, there is more flexion and extension and the back is stabilized.  At the canter and the gallop, there is a great deal of flexion and extension, particularly in the lumbosacral joint, and the back is stabilized.

The Horse in Motion by Eadweard Muybridge

Instructors and trainers will often tell their clients that their horses need to move with a swinging back.  Clayton explained that this statement is not wholly accurate.  When in locomotion, the horse’s back must actually remain stable in order to support the horse’s weight and to transmit propulsive forces from the limbs. Clayton says that when the horse moves at liberty, they are not actively moving their back.  The back movement we see is due to gravity, inertia and the propulsive forces of the hind leg. In fact, excessive mobility of the bones in the spine during motion is never the goal—it is the muscles which need to be supple into order to control the movement of the spine.

Charlotte_DUJARDIN_JEM2014
Charlotte Dujardin and the incomparable Valegro.  Photo by Florence Skowron, via Wikimedai Commons.

Clayton compared the structure of the articulated vertebrae of the horse’s spine to a beam which has a support at each end.  In the horse’s case, the “beam” tends to sag a bit in the middle, due to the weight of the internal organs and other viscera.  When we add the weight of a saddle and rider to this region, we increase the hollowing of the spine and the “dip” in the middle of the beam.  Clayton explains that with a rider, the range of flexion and extension is the same but the entire cycle of the motion is more extended.

Through the above description, it should be immediately apparent that the weight of the rider is inherently causing stress on the horse’s topline.  More troubling, though, is that when the horse’s back is hollowed as result of this weight, the dorsal spinous processes are approximated, which can lead to the development of the degenerative condition known as kissing spines.  Clayton’s research has shown that far more horses are affected with kissing spines than just those which show overt symptoms; however, even at a subclinical level, the syndrome can cause the horse discomfort and reduce the quality of their performance.  The good news is that when the back is rounded, the opposite effect occurs—the spinous processes are spread out. Therefore, regardless of your discipline, you horse should learn to work with a round topline.

kissingspines
In this image borrowed from a fellow wordpress user, the kissing spines can be clearly seen.

Round Backs and Development of the Horse’s Core

Clayton compared the mechanism which causes the horse’s back to be round to a “bow and string”.  The “string” is comprised of the muscles on the underside of the bones of the back, in this case the abdominal and sublumbar muscles.  The “bow” is therefore made up of the muscles located above the vertebrae.  Rounding their back requires the coordinated action of the horse’s core muscles.

Athletes of all species can achieve more optimal performance with a strong core.  These muscles are important both for balanced movement and coordinated stabilization.  Clayton divided the muscles of the horse’s core into three groups:  the back muscles, the sublumbar muscles and the abdominal muscles, and the groups work in concert to achieve the maximum mobility of the horse’s spine.

horsereactiontoweight
Image from http://www.equinechronicle.com

The back muscles make the topline hollow, round or bend right and left.  The sublumbar muscles flex the lumbosacral joint and the pelvis, which helps to bring the hind legs forward and underneath the body.  Finally, the abdominal muscles wrap all around the horse’s belly, running many different directions.  This group of muscles includes the transverse abdominal, the obliques and the rectus abdominus.  Collectively, they literally help hold the horse’s ‘guts’ in place, as well as stabilize the spine and assist with lateral bending.

Clayton explained the function of the back muscles in more specific detail. First, she discussed the longissimus and iliocostalis muscles, which are the long mobilizing muscles of the back.  They are made up of long fibers and cross many joints. These muscles are able to move the entire back of the horse.

The multifadi muscles serve the function of stabilizing the horse’s back.  These muscles are located right against the spinous processes and are comprised of short fibers which cross only a few joints; therefore, they work on only a limited area of the horse’s spine.  However, the condition of these muscles can have a profound effect on the shape of the back in a specific area.  More will be said on this later.

horse_anatomy_the_muscles_by_wiggle_chicken
Image from jenpenjen.deviantart.com

Clayton pointed out that most muscles work in pairs or layers; therefore, the deep stabilizing muscles are as important as the long mobilizing muscles, as they help to prevent vibration in the horse’s bones.  They also have a low activation threshold, which means that they will contract (along with the transverse abdominal muscle) simply in anticipation of locomotor activity.  They then serve to stabilize the horse’s spine as the limbs move.

Limited research has been done on the many effects of the horse’s stabilizing muscles on the spine.  However, research done on humans has shown that chronic back pain is often associated with atrophy of the deep stabilizing muscles, as joints then become too mobile.  Impaired spinal stabilization is an important risk factor and a predictor of recurrent back pain in humans.  Based on her research, Clayton extrapolates that a similar connection exists in horses.

core.stability.muscles
Notice how the same muscles provide stability to the human spine.  Image found on http://www.appliedpostureriding.com.au

Human research has also shown that even when back pain is resolved, the deep stabilizing muscles do not resume normal activity on their own.  Physiotherapy exercises are necessary to re-train the pre-activation of the stabilizing muscles.  In human patients who underwent this therapy, the one year recurrence rate of pain reduced from 80% to 30%.

When it comes to back pain, Clayton says that horses go through a similar cycle to humans.  When the back hurts, the deep stabilizing muscles become inactive, resulting in atrophy.  This causes the long mobilizing muscles to compensate, but since they are not equipped to stabilize the spine, these muscles spasm and cause further pain.  Therapeutic exercises are needed to reactivate the deep stabilizing muscles and to break the cycle of compensation and pain.

Developing Your Horse’s Core with Dynamic Mobilization Exercises

Clayton has developed a series of core strengthening exercises and sequences through her research, and she goes into illustrated depth about these in her book, Activate Your Horse’s Core (Sport Horse Publications, 2008). She gave a brief synopsis during her presentation.

Dynamic Mobilization Exercises are those in which the horse follows a controlled movement pattern which strengthens the muscles that move and stabilize the back.  They are comprised of rounding exercises and bending exercises.  In the rounding exercises, most of the flexion comes from the poll (high position) or the base of the neck (low position).  In the bending exercises, most of the movement comes at the base of the neck.

pilatesmobile1
Image from http://www.horseyard.com.au, from an article related to Dr. Clayton’s work.  

Clayton described a protocol which provided positive results in several “couch potato” school horses.  Using small bits of carrot to motivate the horse, they did three rounding exercises (chin to chest, chin between the carpi (knees) and chin between the fetlocks) and three lateral bending exercises (chin to girth, chin to hip, chin to hind fetlock).  For the lateral bending exercises, the human stood next to the horse, making them bend their neck around the human.  Horses did five repetitions/day and on left and right sides, if appropriate.  The exercises were repeated five days/week for three months.  Even with these stretches as the only form of exercise, the horses showed a positive development in their deep stabilizing muscles.

One of the benefits of these exercises is that the horse will only stretch as far as they are comfortable.  Ideally, the handler should encourage the horse to hold the stretch for as long as possible, but even stretching for a short period will help improve the strength of the multifidus muscle.   The best benefits are seen when these exercises are performed before the horse works each day; regular inclusion of them in a training program will help equine athletes throughout their career.  In addition, these exercises can be used in youngsters to help develop the deep stabilizing muscles before they begin under saddle training and are also especially beneficial for horses recovering from colic surgery, with appropriate approval from the attending veterinarian.

Transverse-Abdominus
Image from http://www.classicphysiotherapy.co.uk

The Role of Equipment and Rider in Equine Back Pain

When it comes to saddle selection and fit, it is clear that both the horse and the rider must be comfortable.  While the rider can simply vocalize their discomfort, the horse must express it in other ways, and it is important for riders and trainers to remain sensitive to this communication.  Unfortunately, the manner in which horses display the existence of back pain is as variable as the causes.  However, both the saddle and the rider can contribute to discomfort in the horse’s topline, and certain issues are almost sure predictors of pain in the horse.

horse-and-rider

Clayton has made extensive use of an electronic pressure mat which sits on the horse’s back in her research on saddles.  This specialized mat has 256 sensors (128 on each side of the spine) which measure force distribution on the horse’s back.  Her research has shown that the total force placed on the horse’s back varies with the size and weight of the rider and saddle as well as the gait of travel.

For example, in the trot, the suspension phase has minimal pressure, while the stance phase of each stride has the maximum force.  This is when the horse’s body is starting to rise up, but the weight of the rider is still down.  The mean force placed on the horse is at least equal to the rider’s weight in the walk; in the trot, it is two times the rider’s weight and in the canter it is three times.

equetrian-market-01
This image, taken from http://www.sensorprod.com, shows the pressure profile of a rider’s buttocks and thighs on the saddle.  Clayton’s tools offer her similar insight into the intensity, duration and location of pressure when a horse is in motion. 

Clayton says that she is frequently asked to quantify how much weight a given horse can fairly be asked to carry, but she says that this is a complex question to answer.  Variables such as the height, weight, conformation, fitness and soundness of the horse all play a role.  For example, a horse with a short and broad loin coupling can likely carry more weight than a horse of similar size with a long or narrow loin.  As far as the rider goes, variables such as weight, fitness, symmetry, balance, postural control and health issues all influence the impact they have on a given horse. Also important is the activity the horse is being asked to do—what type of work and on what kind of footing or terrain.

Finally, the saddle itself can have a positive or negative impact on a horse’s comfort level.  Each saddle is unique in terms of its load-bearing area, fit and suitability for a given horse, rider and job.   Soft tissues compress when pressure is applied.  The larger the area the force is spread over, the less overall pressure there will be.  This is one of the reasons why more modern saddles have long, broad panels.

Saddle-Panel-Diagram1-1024x501
Image from http://www.totalsaddlefit.com

Pressure is calculated via force divided by area.  Therefore, the pressure increases if the force is larger or if the contact area is smaller.  Areas of deep pressure can be very harmful, causing ulcers or necrosis of the tissue due to increased capillary pressure.  On a less extreme level, pressure can cause discomfort through abrasions.  Clayton says that it is the magnitude and duration of pressure which are most important.  Muscles in particular are easily damaged by pressure.

If you see dry spots under your saddle after work, these are areas of increased pressure which prevent the sweat glands from working and are cause for concern.

dryspot
In this photo, it is clear where there has been an area of increased pressure and therefore inhibition of the sweating mechanism. 

Interesting Saddle Trivia

In her research, Clayton has had cause to investigate a number of different areas in which saddles might impact the horse, and she shared some of her findings with the audience.

One of the first questions she looked at was whether a saddle is truly necessary.  Most riders prefer to use a saddle for the stability and security it provides them on the horse’s back, and as it turns out, horses seem to prefer that their riders use saddles, too.  Without a saddle, the pressure of the rider is distributed over a smaller area, and the focal points of that pressure are over the rider’s seat bones.  (Interestingly, Clayton found similar results when she looked at one brand of treeless saddle, as well).  Clayton found that in general, a saddle which fits the shape of the horse’s back and the shape of the rider’s pelvis will provide stability to the rider’s position, and as a result, the pressure is more evenly distributed.  She also mentioned that within a breed, 80-90% of animals will have a similar back shape.

Correct saddle fit is of course of paramount importance.  Correctly fitted saddles are more stable, which increases horse and rider harmony.   The rigid parts of the tree, including the gullet plate, the points and the bars, can cause increased areas of pressure on the horse’s back.   It is important to consider the width of the gullet plate and length of the tree’s points in relation to the position of the scapula and related muscles.  When the horse extends their forelimb, the scapula rotates back and down on its back side, and rotates a little bit up in front.  This causes the back edge of the scapula to actually slide underneath the saddle in this moment of the stride.  A well fitting saddle should allow for free movement of the scapula when the forelimb is protracted.

Dia-2-Saddle-Fit
From http://www.equilibriumproducts.com

Clayton says that the width of the tree is equally important.  The correct width allows the load to be evenly distributed over a large area.  Ideally, the contact area is long and wide, with no focal points of high pressure.  A tree which is too wide may cause the gullet to put direct pressure on the withers and/or cause high pressure along the panels close to the spine.  In addition, the saddle often tips forward and down.  A tree which is too narrow is one of the most common causes of bridging; there is more pressure at the front and the back of the panels, and the saddle tips backwards.  Clayton says that bridging is the most common saddle fit problem, and it must be evaluated with the rider on board and while the horse is in motion.

bridging
Image from http://www.saddlemakers.org.  

More nuanced aspects of saddle fit include assessing the width of the gullet and slope and shape of the panels.  A wider gullet is usually better, because it allows mobility of the spine without causing it to hit the edge of the panels.  The slope of the panels must also suit the shape of the horse’s back. Panels come in a variety of widths and curvatures, and it is important that the type chosen suits the individual animal.

Finally, Clayton emphasized that saddle pads cannot compensate for the deficiencies of a poorly fitting saddle.  However, they may increase the horse’s comfort if the saddle is essentially the correct size and shape.  Clayton says that pads made with natural fibers, such as sheepskin, seem to have a better degree of resiliency and spring.

Girths and Slipping Saddles

Girth design has evolved considerably in recent years, and Clayton touched briefly on the subject at the end of her talk.  She said that the highest pressure beneath the girth occurs just behind the elbow in the moment when the forelimb contacts the ground. In her research, contoured girths seem to do the best job in terms of reducing both force and pressure.

Finally, Clayton discussed saddles which seem to constantly slip to one side.  She says that it is important to determine if the cause of the slip is the horse, the rider or the fit of the saddle.  Subtle hind limb lameness can be blamed for the cause of many slipping saddles, particularly when the slip occurs consistently to one side and with a variety of different riders on board.  In 60% of these cases, the saddle slips towards the side of the lame/more significantly lame hind limb.  The slip will go away when the lameness is eliminated through the use of nerve or joint blocks.  Clayton commented that rider crookedness is more likely to be an effect than the cause of saddle slipping.  Clearly if the cause of the saddle slip is lameness, this issue must be addressed before the problem will go away.

Final Thoughts

Clayton’s presentation covered a broad range of topics, but one theme was quite clear—riders have an obligation to their horses to ride them in as correct of a manner as possible, in the best fitting tack possible.  In this way, riders and trainers can actively contribute to the preservation of the horse’s long term soundness and promote their well-being.

Cadre_noir_-_saut_au_piquet.jpg
With good training and attention to correct tack and conditioning, horses are truly capable of amazing feats.  “Cadre-noir-saut au piquet” by Alain Laurioux