The New Basic Training of the Young Horse by Ingrid and Reiner Klimke
c 2006 Trafalgar Square Publishing, North Pomfret, VT 208 pages
Accomplished horseman Ingrid Klimke has updated this classic text of her late father with great success. It has been years since I read the original, and I took advantage of being laid up while recovering from knee surgery to review the updated edition.
As she did with Reiner Klimke’s Cavaletti for Dressage and Jumping, Ingrid has refreshed the text and in particular the illustrations for the modern reader. I especially enjoyed images of a 5 year old Windfall, the Trakhener stallion who went on to represent the US at the Olympics in eventing, and several of a young Damon Hill. Many of the photos included in this updated edition are of Ingrid and her students riding three, four and five year olds; it is clear that the overall quality of animal in her stable is quite high, though, and so it was almost discouraging to see how wonderful these youngsters looked compared to how “normal” ones do, even at an older age. However, it is important to have a clear picture of what it is you are trying to achieve, and these photos certainly represent this ideal well.
As is Klimke’s hallmark, the book takes readers through a system of progressive education for the youngster starting with being brought into the “yard” right through to their first season of competition. While Klimke reminds readers that each horse is unique, and training must progress at an individual rate, it also seems clear that her horses progress fairly steadily and consistently. When an animal is genetically gifted with three good gaits, a willing temperament and a natural aptitude for the work, it is naturally going to be easier to develop them in the sport horse disciplines. I think it is important for those of us riding more “average” horses to bear in mind that some of the aspects of the process which come smoothly to Klimke on her string may necessarily take longer for the rest of us.
With that being said, The New Basic Training of the Young Horse still offers readers an in depth review of important concepts related to the training scale and those exercises which help to develop them, as well as entire chapters devoted to the horse’s basic education, longeing (on the line and free), cavaletti work, jumping and cross country skills. This sequence offers readers a glimpse into the progressive system which Klimke uses to develop her own horses; she emphasizes that youngsters should be trained on the flat, over fences and in the open before choosing to specialize in dressage or show jumping, if they show an aptitude here.
There are a few particular nuggets which I found especially meaningful. In fact, the text opens with a copy of a letter written to Ingrid by her father, in which he says, “We want to understand the nature of the horse, respect his personality and not suppress it throughout his training. Then we are on the right way” (Klimke, 2006, p.11). I think this is a meaningful mantra for all trainers and riders, regardless of their specialty. I might post it in my barn.
Klimke reminds us that “the aim of basic training for the young horse is to use a systematic method to create a solid foundation for future specialization in a given discipline…we want the young horse, with the weight of the rider on his back, to stay in balance and outline while retaining his natural movement” (Klimke, 2006, p. 16).
In her section on longeing, Klimke states “Correct longeing is as important as correct riding and requires a lot of experience and intuition” (Klimke, 2006, p. 38). I personally feel that longeing well is almost a lost art; I see far more incorrect, unsafe and unproductive longeing than the alternative, so I especially appreciated her further comments on this subject in this chapter. She also reminds us that “the quieter the trainer and assistant(s), the calmer the horse will be” (Klimke, 2006, p. 51). It can be hard when you get frustrated, but horsemen must learn to cultivate this type of mental calmness in themselves if they hope to achieve it in their horses. Klimke goes on to elaborate on the importance of longeing in helping to warm up the muscles of a young horse’s topline, as well as taking the edge off, prior to mounted exercises with the rider.
The next several chapters dissect the training scale and the application of its concepts to the basic training of the youngster. In particular, Klimke reminds trainers that “all exercises and movements should be ridden on the longest possible contact (with poll flexion) to improve the horse’s ability to work through the back” (Klimke, 2006, p. 67) (italics are the author’s). This is a truly classical response to those riders and trainers who choose to force a young horse to work with an extremely flexed poll and short neck.
Another quote which I thought was particularly important was in regards to making mistakes as a trainer. “It is unavoidable that we sometimes push the horse too hard; no trainer is perfect. However, experienced riders acknowledge that they are solely responsible for their mistakes. It is important to make the best of each situation” (Klimke, 2006 p. 71-72). And as with helping children to learn how to behave, “the horse should be rewarded for all exercises done well and ignored for the ones that were not” (Klimke, 2006, p. 72).
I found the chapters which focused on the basic ridden training to be an excellent, clearly written review of the fundamental concepts related to the training scale. Klimke details many basic exercises, including the proper use of the aids and the common mistakes made by horse and rider, as well as defines essential concepts, phrases and movements. She emphasizes the importance of cavaletti work in the basic training of a horse, saying that it offers an opportunity to overcome problems in all phases of training.
Klimke introduces the youngster to fences first with free jumping, proceeding to grids and small courses. I will admit that her progression is more ambitious than what I would be up for, but even spread out over a longer period, it certainly provides a clear framework for the process of training over fences. She also reminds readers that “jump training in the first year should only be done if the horse is willing” (Klimke, 2006, p. 152).
What I found especially refreshing about this book is Klimke’s emphasis that the basic training should be the same for all horses, regardless of their future discipline. In general, I believe that this is the most appropriate philosophy. Regardless of the rider’s discipline of choice, the horse that has a broader base of training will be more confident, more experienced and will be more likely to suit the needs of a future owner. I do not believe that specialization of a young horse (or young rider) provides them with the best foundation for future success.
Much like Klimke’s other written work, I think that The New Basic Training of the Young Horse should be required reading for any serious trainer or rider of sport horses.
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.
I was only able to attend day two of the clinic due to work commitments, but felt fortunate to be able to audit several sessions before taking my own lesson on Annapony at the end of the day. As I watched Ebeling work with a series of different types of horse, several themes emerged. In particular, Ebeling emphasized POSITIVE ENERGY, CLEAR EXPECTATOINS, MINIMAL BEND and CLARITY IN THE AIDS, regardless of the level of training of the horse or movement being executed. Calm and systematic riding was the order of the day.
Ebeling 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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
Jen suggested that I ride Anna with minimal to no bend, especially in the canter, because of her tendency to bend more in the neck than in the body. Anna is super compact, and like most horses, her neck is her most flexible area. But when the neck overbends to the inside, the opposite shoulder pops out. By riding her in a straighter alignment from poll to tail, it is easier to narrow the space between the inside hind and outside fore. This further allowed me to adjust the position of her head at the poll. I noticed the benefit of riding this way most clearly at the canter, which is the gait at which we have had the greatest degree of challenge in terms of keeping steady connection. As I practiced this over the next few months, I have seen a huge improvement in the quality of the canter in general. It also was a theme which came up during a clinic I took with Jan Ebeling in April (more on this in a future blog, I promise!).
Jen told me that she wanted to throw as many exercises at me as possible so that I would have several new tools to use to improve the quality of Anna’s movement and connection. I was impressed by how much softer, rounder and steadier Anna became through the course of our ride (did I mention that it was maybe 18 degrees??), and she developed both lipstick and soft eyes and ears. Without ever doing a single “forward” transition, Anna had become much more willing and supple off the leg, and had developed a much increased ‘hot’ response to the forward aids.
Jen recommended that I continue to play with the exercises which she offered for the next month or so, and if they seemed solid at that point, it would be time to add greater adjustability within the movements and gaits. The goal of the work is to continue to improve her balance, so that she is able to engage the hind leg better and develop connection with a soft lower back.
Jen is such a positive and enthusiastic coach, and she really helped me with some fresh eyes on Anna’s training program. Of course she lives on the West Coast, as all my favorite teachers seem to be as far from NH as you can get and still be in the US! I asked Jen if she thought that introducing the double bridle would be appropriate, and she encouraged me to go ahead and try it; some horses do simply go better in the double, even with a light curb contact (as it turns out, Anna seems to be one of those horses, too…more on this later as well!). Finally, she encouraged me to change my mind set about Anna; instead of thinking, “she will go Third level”, Jen told me to start saying to myself and others that Anna is “working at Third Level”. By thinking of her as a Third Level horse, I will come to each training session with a different attitude and set of expectations, which will more than likely help Anna to continue to step into the role.
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!
Teaching Tips for Horseback Riding Instructors by Jo Struby
c 2013 Rose Dog Books Pittsburgh, PA, 94 pages
As a professional riding instructor, I always keep my eye out for new resources and reference materials which can help me to improve the quality of my work. Teaching Tips for Horseback Riding Instructors, by Jo Struby, was reviewed in a recent issue of Eventing USA, the publication of the US Eventing Association, and it caught my eye. Ms. Struby used to teach at Wetherbee Farm in Boxborough, MA, and while I am sure she doesn’t remember it we had several conversations while I was in high school. Struby is a former vice president of the former US Combined Training Association and also holds an M.A. in Education, which both have clearly influenced her perspective as an instructor.
This book is not intended to be read from cover to cover, though certainly one could do so. Instead, Struby envisions readers to use the book as a reference. She is specifically targeting instructors and teachers of horsemanship, stating in her forward that she hoped her book would fill a gap in the available literature by addressing the art of teaching horsemanship, rather than the specifics of riding and horsemanship itself. In this book, Struby has compiled over sixty “teaching tips”, which she originally wrote monthly and sold by subscription from 1996-2000.
Struby’s tips are arranged by category, ranging from philosophy of instruction to curriculum and lesson organization to teaching tools and techniques to student needs and desires. Instructors looking for insight or inspiration in a specific category can easily utilize the table of contents and locate short, succinct blocks of reference material on a given subject. Struby is clear that she is not intending to create a text book, and the format of the book feels very much like a collection of shorter articles than one longer, cohesive reference book. I believe that she was successful in achieving her aim.
The content in each of the segments is of decent quality and shows Struby’s background in the field of education. Her material addresses students’ unique learning styles and motivations, as well as how these can influence their progress as horsemen. For me, though, the delivery was sometimes tedious to process for several reasons. There are pervasive grammar and typographical errors throughout the text which impeded comprehension and lend an air of poor quality execution to the book. It is also completely text—visual learners always benefit from quality graphics and I feel there is no reason to not include them in any book.
I don’t have a sense that this book went into a widespread printing, and I had to contact the publisher directly to get a copy. For the motivated instructor, I think it is worth taking the effort to pick up a copy to use as a reference in order to better apply educational concepts to riding instruction. It is too bad that readers must be prepared to wade through some of the editing issues and somewhat low quality of production in order to access what is in reality quality content.
In the downtime between our two semesters at the University of New Hampshire, I always try to tune up a few school horses or work with some of our newer herd members to get to know them a little bit better. Increased tack time is always good for the soul (even if the cheeks end up a little chapped from the cold!) and I appreciate the opportunity to work with different horses. There are so many lessons to be learned.
I think school horses are simply some of the most amazing horses on the planet. They tolerate all manner of riders and need to decipher their aids. The riders who sit on them are, by definition, students, which means that those aids may lack refinement, finesse and sophistication. It is the exceptional school horse that can absorb all of this without ill effect, and it is my opinion that they deserve having one consistent person work with them for a period of time every now and then. The horse and rider have a chance to connect more deeply, and if the rider is experienced enough, they can help to break through any blocks or defensiveness that the horse may have installed in an effort to absorb some of the confusion in the aids.
During the recent winter break, I worked with three horses which are used in our dressage-only classes: Fiona, Otto and Tino. Despite all being dressage specialists, they each require a different kind of ride to elicit their best performance. Riding each horse helped to remind me of details which I then applied to my usual dressage ride, Anna.
Fiona is a chestnut Thoroughbred type mare who has been with our program for several years at this point. Of all the many horses I have tried out for the program, Fiona is by far one of my favorites. She is “my type” of ride; slender, athletic, a little sensitive, and of course, a mare. I always enjoy reconnecting with her during our breaks.
It has been almost one year since I last sat on Fiona, and I was a bit disconcerted at first by how much more defensive she felt this year than last. By “defensive”, I mean that her initial reaction to any soft contact was to brace and become hollow, and she was also reluctant to actively reach with her hind legs. It was my sense that Fiona was protecting herself, but the question was, from what?
I started by re-checking her tack, which by and large looked ok. She was definitely due for a re-shoe, so we had that taken care of. I then started a program which encouraged Fiona to begin to reach through her entire topline and stretch into the connection. While this idea is a key principle of dressage, it seemed to me as though she had a little bit lost her faith in that concept.
I very rarely warm up a horse at the trot completely off contact (although I always start with a ten minute or so free walk on a loose rein). But with Fiona, I had to break my own rules. First, Fiona absolutely needed the walking in phase; if I had a shorter than usual period of time to ride her, this was not an area where I could cut corners. Once I moved on to the warm up trot, I didn’t shorten my reins at all, instead allowing Fiona to warm up while carrying her topline wherever she felt like she needed to with a completely floppy rein. I didn’t ask her to align her shoulders and hips or even do more than the most basic of soft bend in the corners. I kept all of the turns sweeping and wide and changed direction regularly. After a few minutes like this, I very, very tactfully shortened the reins until I had a delicate, soft, pushing-toward-the-mouth contact, and I stepped Fiona into a canter.
For this horse, at this time, it is the canter which does the best job of loosening her up and encouraging her to let go. The left lead seems to be more comfortable for her than the right, so I usually started there. I never forced her to connect but instead encouraged it. In the canter, Fiona is more willing to reach underneath herself with the hind leg while also allowing the rider to maintain a soft, steady, elastic feeling in the reins. But the nanosecond that the rider gets greedy and holds too much in the rein or blocks with the seat, Fiona hollows again. The rider must practice patience.
I went through this slow, gentle warm up with Fiona every single ride. It honestly would take ten minutes of walking and twenty of trotting and cantering before she started to feel even remotely soft or fluid. If you pushed her harder before then, she would quite literally stop, or kick out at the leg—a sign that the question was ‘too much’. It would be easy to label her as being resistant (“this horse won’t connect”) but I think it was much more an example of ‘this horse can’t’. She had been blocking her body to such a degree for so long that every exercise session was only dedicated to unlocking her muscles again.
By the end of a ride, Fiona was loose, supple, forward and through. She stayed soft in the jaw, chewing the bit and generating the “lipstick” that we like to see in a dressage horse. Her responsiveness to the aids improved dramatically; Fiona at the end of a ride was like a completely different horse.
Fiona is not as young as she used to be, and she tends to be hard on herself out in turnout, so my sense is that all of these factors, plus her inherent personality, are simply starting to add up in creating this level of “block” in her body. I think the lessons which I took away from working with Fiona this winter were 1) that the rider can always be more patient 2) sometimes you have to throw your usual “rules” out the window and experiment to figure out what works best—the horse is always right! And of course, riding Fiona reinforced a rule that we always can be reminded of: force will get you nowhere.
Otto is a wonderful little petite Ferrari of a horse, who joined our program late this summer. He is trained through Third Level, and having seen him go a few times, I just knew that I would enjoy riding him. As I work towards bringing Anna up to Third Level, I thought it would be helpful to take advantage of the chance to ride a schooled horse through some of those movements again.
Otto is half Arabian, and he has a tremendous “go” button. I made the mistake on our first ride of carrying a dressage wand; it was so not needed! The students had told me that he gets heavy in the hand, and I had personally observed him tending to tuck his nose in towards his chest and get stuck in the kind of power trot that is flashy to watch but not much fun to ride. While still a connection issue, this is at least a different variety than the one I am used to dealing with!
Otto came to us wearing a Baucher bit. Many people mistakenly believe that this bit uses poll pressure in its action, but this is not the case. In fact, if you put your fingers under the crown piece and then have a friend apply pressure on the rein, you will feel that there is no poll action. A Baucher does raise the bit slightly higher against the corners of the lips and holds it steadier in the horse’s mouth; it seems to appeal most to horses which dislike any kind of fussiness in the connection. In my experience, though, most horses just lean on it, and that is what I felt in Otto. My colleague helped switch out the Baucher for a basic jointed loose ring, which gives him more to chew on and definitely helped to improve the softness of his jaw.
The biggest key with Otto, and horses like him, is that you have to take a leap of faith and give the rein when you want to take. On the days when I would get on Otto with an agenda, and maybe too much tension in my muscles, I could feel him tend to take a bit more feel on me in return. This is the start of that inevitable cycle of pull and tug—you pull on me, I tug on you. I remember my mentor from many years ago, Beth Adams, saying, “It takes two to pull.” So whenever I felt that weight increasing, I pushed the rein forward towards the corners of Otto’s mouth. Sure, he sometimes accelerated, and then I would circle or leg yield (or both!) and take advantage of the energy to help Otto become better balanced and engaged through the use of my diagonal aids.
Otto was simply so much fun to play with. We did a million transitions within and between gaits, worked the half pass in trot and canter, and played with his flying changes. The entire time, I kept thinking, “give”. The softer I stayed, the softer Otto stayed, with a more correct neck and improved connection.
This lesson was especially helpful to bring forward onto Anna, who is sort of the opposite in terms of her connection issues—she tends to be above the bit and lacks thrust. On her, finding the right blend of steadiness in the rein (to encourage her to connect) versus give (to encourage her to stretch) is tricky. Riding Otto reminded me that I can always offer Anna the opportunity to develop better roundness by my becoming a bit more elastic and giving for a few steps. When I apply this concept, it is nine times out of ten that Anna softens back. Funny how that is….
Tino is by far one of our most elegant and well bred school horses, and we are lucky to have such a lovely animal in our program. It actually hadn’t been my intention to work with him over the break, but when he is out of work, he becomes a bit sassy for the crew to handle, so back to work he went.
Like Otto, Tino has been shown through Third level, but he has much bigger gaits, and these can make him quite challenging to ride correctly. The sheer power of his movement can throw the rider far out of the saddle and off balance in the trot, and I think it is because of this that most of his riders hesitate to send him correctly forward. When this happens, Tino gets stuck in a “passage trot”, which is of course horribly incorrect and not good for his muscling and long term comfort levels.
Tino has had some excellent schooling in his past, and I wanted to make sure that I did right by this horse. I took some video of him and sent it off to a trusted friend for some feedback. She supported my initial instinct, which was that Tino needed to come more freely forward and respond to the rider’s leg aid by reaching forward and under, rather than higher and loftier. As with all my rides, I started each session with Tino with ten minutes of a marching free walk, and then warmed him up in the trot and canter while encouraging him to stretch through his topline and reach forward into a soft contact, all without dropping his shoulder or getting too heavily onto the forehand.
Tino’s canter is pretty gosh darn amazing. It is rhythmical and cadenced, and I found that using forward and back adjustments in the counter canter during the warm up phase really helped Tino to loosen his topline, making more correct movement in the trot easier afterwards.
Once he was warmed up, I did a lot—and I mean a lot—of lateral work with him, working on getting a more correct and sharper response to the leg aids. We did shoulder in, travers, renvers and tons of half pass. As the strength of his topline returned, we added in more work with adjustable gaits, and I encouraged him to lengthen his stride, then come back to a shorter yet still reaching step. I also played a lot with his changes; they are easy for him, and as my “consultant” said, “I have yet to meet a horse who was hurt because of doing the flying changes. If they are easy, they are fun for him.”
I am thrilled with the progress Tino made over the break. He is a powerful, athletic animal, and thankfully he is generally good natured and doesn’t use any of those qualities against us! That being said, I think he is a really challenging school horse for riders to figure out. To get the best work from him (as it is with any horse), the rider must ride forward. And once Tino is really going forward, you have A L O T of horse underneath you. That is pretty intimidating– but SO much fun.
Riding Tino reminded me what it is like to experience the talents of an animal who is simply bred to do their job. The “movements” are easy. What is important to remember, especially with a horse like Tino, is that when the quality of the gaits decline, we have forgotten the purpose of dressage, which is (simply put), “to enhance the natural gaits of the horse”. There are certainly moments when the horse is learning a new movement during which they may lose quality, but we need to remember that if this becomes the norm, it is time to take a different tack in our training.
On an even more basic level, riding Tino reminded me that I have to stay back with my upper body. I have always had a tendency to tip forward, left over from my hunter/jumper days, and on most horses I get away with it. On Tino, if I tipped forward, I immediately felt off balance due to his big movement. I also had to make sure to keep my eyes up and forward, for the same reason. With great power comes great responsibility, grasshopper—in this case, the responsibility to maintain one’s own position.
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”.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Cindy Canace: “Be a Better Backpack”
After our two days with Verne, Anna had a much needed Sunday off, giving me the opportunity to audit several sessions with USEF “S” judge and USDF Gold Medalist Cindy Canace. Cindy came up from New Jersey to spend two days working with riders at the University of New Hampshire Equine Program. Anna and I had worked with Cindy back in June, and we had a session scheduled again for Monday.
Watching Cindy work with our riders allowed me to observe certain themes to her teaching. She is incredibly detail oriented, and works hard to help riders to both understand important concepts and to feel the horse underneath them. Cindy expects the rider to keep their hands together and in front of their body, allowing the horse to reach to the bit to seek contact. She also works to correct posture and alignment issues in the rider which impact the horse. One of my favorite quotes of the day was that the riders needs to “be a better back pack”, in reference to the fact that our horses must essentially relearn to balance under our weight. It is incumbent upon us to try to make that burden as easy to bear as possible.
Cindy 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.
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 few months back, I was reading some older issues of Practical Horseman, and I pulled an article titled “Learning from Olympic Pressure”, by Melissa Roddy Wright, from its May 2012 issue. The article was about a talented and ambitious young professional, Clark Montgomery, who had seen himself short listed but ultimately unsuccessful in making the team for the 2008 Beijing Games. At the time of this article, he was working towards the goal of being selected for the 2012 London team. If you follow eventing, you will know that he wasn’t—he made the short list again—but just a few weeks ago was named to the squad for Rio on his longtime partner, Loughan Glen.
I have read many “spotlight” articles on riders from different disciplines, and I almost never find the stories so captivating that I save the article for future review. But this one about Montgomery was different, and when I saw that he was chosen for the 2016 Rio team, it seemed a fitting opportunity to tell you why I found his story compelling.
Montgomery was just 26 when he was on the short list for Beijing; he had enjoyed a great deal of success early in his career, including completing Rolex. His top horse at the time, Up Spirit, was green at the upper levels but had been consistent enough to place well at certain key events. According to the article, Montgomery recognized that his horse was greener than others, and he “pushed through the summer to make Up Spirit faster across country.” (All of the quotes included herein come from the article.)
“Instead, their Olympic bid ended with a cross-country runout at the Barbury Castle International Horse Trials CIC*** in England, a mandatory early summer outing for the American short listed riders. The following spring, Up Spirit’s season and potentially his upper level career ended with a fall at The Fork Horse Trials CIC*** in North Carolina.”
While all riders and trainers make mistakes, not all learn from them. It seems like for Montgomery, missing out on the team and then experiencing a fall which resulted in a serious injury to his mount caused him to reassess his entire training philosophy.
“I tried to make [Up Spirit] gain more experience and get better than he was over the summer. It fried his brain, and he lost his trust in me. Up until then, I’d never really lied to him about a distance or pushed him for a quicker pace than he was comfortable with. But I decided he needed to get faster cross country; I started putting my leg on him, and he started putting on the brakes.”—Clark Montgomery
We all encounter resistance in our mounts occasionally, and one of the hardest parts of training is knowing when to push more, when to back off, and when to stay the course. When you add into the mix a goal—and most equestrians I know are goal oriented people—or a deadline, you have a recipe for pushing too hard, too fast or too much. If you are lucky, your horse forgives you for your momentary loss of sensitivity or intuition, but more often we end up creating a really engrained training problem. And worse, we diminish the relationship which we have with our horse.
With Up Spirit injured and a few other setbacks at home, Montgomery says “Suddenly I had a lot of time to sit around and think how I got to that point. I decided pushing a horse for competition isn’t worth it….Before, I think what I loved was competing, but now, I love the horses more. It’s a beautiful thing to have a relationship with a horse, so they can go cross country with a bond and with trust. That’s how I’ve approached riding from late 2009 forward.”
I personally am nowhere near as driven or competition oriented as those riders with international ambitions. But if I am honest I have still struggled with this balance with my own horses. Anna will hopefully make her Second Level debut next week; her medium gaits lack uphill balance and need better engagement, her connection is not steady enough, especially in the canter, and she could be more supple. We have been consistently in the 60’s at First Level for two years, though, and I just feel like it is time for us to move on and to push to demonstrate the requirements of the next level. The perfectionist part of me wants to wait until all the details are in place. The practical part of me says that you have to get your feet wet sometime, and in dressage, usually the worst that happens is you get a low score.
Ultimately, I decided to go for it—because I think that for Anna, increasing the challenge improves her focus and her willingness to try. In preparing her for harder work, it is necessary to really wake her up a bit, but she is never resentful or shows any signs of stress or being overpressured. We are still working to figure out exactly what routine works best to initiate her forward thinkingness, and it is clear that some of the approaches which work well with other horses don’t work with her. She has challenged us to be more creative and me to be better about how I use my aids and where I sit.
“The most important thing you can do as a rider is try to understand your horse both physically and mentally, and base your training on that horse’s natural abilities…Treating each horse as an individual also means understanding that you may need to experiment with several different paths to the same training goal.”—Clark Montgomery
With Lee, I am still aiming for the long term/big goal of completing the three day 100 mile ride at GMHA in early September. We didn’t have the early spring prep that I had hoped for, with a stone bruise, a cancelled ride, and a longer than expected period of adjustment to the arrivals of new equine residents to our farm this spring. I had to regroup and reassess, and while I am still hoping to try for the 100, I am fully prepared to stand down and refocus if she requires it. We are entered in the two day fifty in Vermont in early August, which will be our final competitive ride before the 100. Again, it has been and will continue to be critical to watch her behavior and demeanor to see if she is responding well to the increased demands in fitness. Montgomery says, “In day to day life, that means watching each horse carefully for the signals they send, both under saddle and in the barn.” A true horseman knows their mounts inside and out.
“You do have to put enough pressure on horses when you are moving them forward to make them better, but not too much that you lose the trust…You have to have goals, yes, and put pressure on horses to get better, but you can only go so far with that. The horse has to enjoy being worked, enjoy being pushed. If it isn’t, then you have to back off. That may mean not going to the Olympics this summer, but at least I’ll still have a horse in the fall.” – Clark Montgomery
So while I am not on the hunt for an Olympic berth, it was really inspiring to read how such a talented and seemingly reflective professional at that level was able to learn from his mistakes in a way which allowed him to find a better path. I guess it doesn’t matter whether your goals are international or local in nature, all horsemen have an obligation to do their best by their horses. Treat your horse as an individual. Have goals but be ready to revise them. Try to really listen to what your horses are saying. They are only horses, after all. Our ambitions are not theirs. But their willingness to cooperate with us to reach our goals is a pretty amazing and special gift, if you really think about it.
Literally while I was writing this blog, I received an update on Facebook about the current standings at Great Meadow International CIC0***. Read here to learn more.
I got on the Dark Mare (better known as Lee) today for our first ride since late December. In the ten years we have been together, this is the first time I have ever let her “rough out” for the winter. With our recent move and lifestyle change, though, allowing her some time for R/R seemed not just prudent but inevitable—what little tolerance I used to have for riding outside in the snow in sub zero temperatures wore off many years ago.
But spring is just around the corner, and ride entries for CTR’s are starting to come available, so I decided the time had come to get Lee back under tack. All things considered, for a sensitive Thoroughbred mare who has had two months off…she was pretty well behaved. I had planned to just walk around our fields for about an hour or so, but at the forty-five minute mark, her entire demeanor changed. She became jiggy and more spooky, and I could tell that she was on the verge of one of her infamous meltdowns. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, we headed home.
I was surprised when I untacked to discover that even with just that short bit of walking around, Lee had gotten a little sweaty on her hamstrings and under the saddle area. I think her “unsettled” behavior was just her way of telling me that she was tired and it was time to stop for the day. Knowing this, I will now adjust the plan for our next few weeks, taking shorter walks, with the goal of gradually working back up to one hour.
This experience reminded me of a fellow blogger’s post that I read just the other day. Her theme was that in training animals, it is important to consider the day’s interaction from the animal’s perspective. Specifically, she discusses that if you achieve your intended outcome for the day, but neglect to consider the quality of the interaction with the animal, then overall, your training has failed. Animals which are forced to submit to training, or who are pushed beyond their capabilities or physical endurance, typically do not willingly seek out that interaction again in the future. When considering your day’s work with the animal, the author asks, “Have you left the animal better off than before you interacted with him?”
Lately, I have been reading through some long archived copies of Dressage Today, and in the January 2007 issue, a reader “asked the expert” how they could better deal with resistance from their mount. I thought to myself that I would have no idea how to answer that question without more information, but Becky Langwost-Barlow, a USDF certified trainer, did an admirable job of doing so. Langwost-Barlow provided many excellent general thoughts in regards to resistance, but there were two paragraphs which I thought were just exceptional in regards to how the rider should handle resistance in their horse:
“Every rider makes mistakes. Some are small; some are huge; some last for seconds; some can continue for years. Even misreading how the horse is feeling can be a huge mistake, taking the rider down the path of resistance….I also don’t go for a 150 percent every time I ride. I try to break up the work and look for any sign of discontent. If the horse is cranky in his stall and doesn’t want to come to me, I know he’s not happy, and I need to look for the soreness or back off in the training.”
Being a true horseman requires that you be in tune with your horse and how they are feeling on a given day. During the summer I spent with Denny Emerson, he always reminded us that a rider cannot get on with an agenda, or be too earnest, because to do so usually meant that they rode without sensitivity or compassion for the horse which they were sitting on in the moment. While we were working to re-establish Anna’s confidence over fences that summer, there were many days where I would warm up and literally jump ten fences, then go off for a hack. It is far better to do too little in a work session than too much. The horse must always finish feeling like they have been successful.
This is not to say that you should ride without goals, or fail to address disobedience or other issues. However, such corrections must be done with mindfulness and compassion. In the November 2006 issue of Dressage Today, author John Winnett offered a historical overview in an article titled “The Foreign Influences on American Dressage”. This article discussed the role which many of the great cavalry officers played in shaping the development of riders in the US. I had never before heard of Jean Saint-Fort Paillard, a retired cavalry officer from Saumer (France) who later relocated to California after competing at the highest levels in show jumping and dressage. Paillard authored Understanding Equitation in 1974 and according to Winnett was known for his patient, humane approach to training. In Paillard’s words:
“Let us try to remember for a moment what the atmosphere in the riding hall or around the show ring would be if the horses yelped whenever they were hurt as dogs do. Wouldn’t certain jumping competitions be punctuated by howls of pain? And wouldn’t certain dressage classes be punctuated by plaintive whimpers? What a nightmare!”
I hope that this statement would give most thinking horsemen cause for pause; we certainly have all been witness to situations in which Paillard’s words might ring true. But in my opinion, a rider who overworks their horse, or who drills, or who doesn’t learn to feel enough to quit the day’s work before the horse is too tired or exhausted to argue, is just as guilty of being inhumane as the one who overuses whips, spurs, bits or various artificial contraptions.
We are only human, and the reality is that sometimes we are going to make mistakes, misread our horse or a situation, or react inappropriately. But the thinking horseman must recognize that they have erred and actively work to avoid doing so in the future.
In the memorable words sung by Kenny Rogers (and written by the much less well known Don Schlitz): “If you’re gonna play the game, boy, you gotta learn to play it right. You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” In horse training, the thinking horsemen must learn when to push (know when to hold ‘em), when to quit for the day (know when to fold ‘em), when to end on a good note (know when to walk away) and when to abandon a training approach which isn’t working (know when to run).
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
The university equine program is just barely back in action after a hiatus of nearly six weeks. Over the winter break, I took advantage of the quiet arena and more relaxed schedule to work on tuning up a few of our wonderful school horses. Ironically, it was an “all mare” sort of break, and I found myself working with a rotation of four of my favorite horses: Marquesa, Whisper, Fiona and Morocco, in addition to my own “girls”.
These four horses couldn’t be more different, at first glance. What they all have in common is that, for various reasons, they ended the fall semester not going all that well in class, and it was time for a little one on one time with the instructor for a tune up.
Having ridden most of the UNH herd at one point or another, I have firsthand knowledge of what will or will not work for each animal in terms of exercises and applications of the aids. Many of the riders I work with are at the stage of their riding career where they need to learn to modify the use of their aids to suit the individual mount they are sitting on. The university calls our lessons “labs”, which I joke is because we are “experimenting” with figuring out which recipe of the aids will work best in a given situation. Riders must learn what ratio to apply their aids in, and the timing, and sometimes the only way to get good at this is to play around, and to mess up a bit. In this way, the riders are expanding their tool kit.
Fiona is a middle aged, Thoroughbred type mare. In spite of being chestnut and a former eventer, she is hardly your stereotypical “chestnut TB mare”. I wouldn’t describe her as hot, but I do consider her to be sensitive and the rider needs to use the aids tactfully. She is one of my most favorite horses that I have ever test ridden for UNH, and when the students started really struggling to get her connected this fall, I was kind of glad for an excuse to get back on her. Fiona’s main issue is with suppleness—and it is chicken and the egg which she loses first, mental or physical, but once one is gone, so goes the other.
I recently read an old (September 2006) issue of Dressage Today, and there was a great article in there called, “In Search of Trust”, by Tuny Page with Beth Baumert. I can’t find any access to it online at this point, but in the article Page is basically describing the process she went through to defuse tension in her FEI horse, Wild One. One of her quotes is especially relevant here:
“I taught Wild One that when he blocked, the pressure from my driving aids would go on and stay on until his back relaxed, his head lowered and he started to breathe, whereupon, my driving leg aids instantly let go.”
What I realized when working with Fiona was that she and her riders had gotten into a vicious cycle of pressure/no response, as Page puts it. When the rider would ask Fiona to step into the bridle by putting their leg on and taking light contact, Fiona tensed defensively and would raise her neck and drop her back, going almost lateral in the walk and canter and taking hectic and quick steps in the trot. This highly tense response from the horse then caused the rider to take their leg off and try to force Fiona to lower her neck with the rein aids, which then just caused additional tension, increased hollowness, and less use of the rider’s leg. Right from the moment the rider picked up contact, Fiona was defending herself against the rider’s aids, and the rider would play into it by removing them.
To modify this response, I found that I had to do just the opposite of what might have instinctively seemed correct—I positioned Fiona to the inside with the bending aids, stayed soft and steady through the connection, and then just quietly waited with my leg on for the energy to come “through”. There were definitely a few strides of unattractive movement each time, as Fiona processed that I wasn’t going to go away, or change my aids, or pull on her mouth. But it took fewer and fewer strides each ride for Fiona to realize that she knew what I wanted, and she began to lower her head and neck, relax her topline, and then reach more correctly through her back and into the bridle. When she did so, the stride length immediately increased and the tempo stabilized. The response to my leg, seat and rein aids became positive, and I could apply the aids and ride her from back to front. Basically, as Page said above, I needed to keep my leg aids on until Fiona started to relax and go forward. Not kicking or aggressively on—just patiently on, waiting.
Whisper is another of my favorite UNH horses, and it had been years since I sat on her. She is nearly 19 years old now, and has been with the program for ten years. In the past few semesters, it has been harder for the students to get Whisper working correctly over her back, and she has become stickier in her transitions, especially trot to canter. I had attributed this to her advancing age and the fact that she has been a school horse for nearly a decade, but after watching her proceed to ignore most of the aids of a fairly strong rider last semester, I decided that I needed to feel for myself what was going on.
Whisper’s situation was different than Fiona’s, but as I suspected, it required a similar solution. Left to her own choices, Whisper will travel in a long and flat outline, becoming disconnected by poking her nose out and blocking the hind end through stiffness in the muscles of the back, rather than through hollowness. This mode of travel of course does her no favors, and when the students go to jump with Whisper, they quickly realize that they now lack the ability to adjust her canter at all. In my opinion, Whisper was a pretty easy horse to get connected—she has good training, and was always pretty willing to work correctly if you asked her to. I thought that maybe time spent as a schoolie had caused her to become desensitized to the aids, and that this was why the students were struggling.
I quickly realized that this was not the case. Within just a few moments on our first ride, Whisper was working willingly in a round and balanced outline, staying freely forward and reaching into the bridle. She was adjustable laterally and longitudinally, would chew the reins forward and downward, and even easily offered the balance required to counter canter. Hmm….all of the buttons were clearly still in place and functional.
I came to the conclusion that Whisper has simply gotten very good at teaching riders to accept the “pressure/no response, pressure/no response” approach to riding. Again, from the Page article:
“Years ago, when I rode event horses, I learned about the dynamics of why kicking a horse doesn’t work…When a rider kicks, for every moment the legs and spurs are on, there’s a moment when they are away and getting ready to kick again. So the horse experiences pressure/absence of pressure….and so on. ..This is bad training and doesn’t work.”
Page is specifically referring to why this approach is ineffective when trying to get a horse to pass a frightening object. You cannot force a horse to trust you, and even if you are successful in getting them to go on one occasion, the rider will have done nothing to encourage better harmony or responsiveness to the aids in the future by simply being really aggressive and then letting go.
In Whisper’s case, riders have gotten into a cycle of asking her to do something—flex her neck to the inside, for example—and then being satisfied with a lackluster response. They put the pressure on in the aids, but then they release it before the horse does. Whisper has learned that she can just swing her head, wait, and in a second, the rider will most likely give up and let go, and then she can swing her head back to where it was.
It is the same with the leg aids. If the rider has not developed the ability to isolate their leg and seat, they might apply a driving leg aid, but simultaneously be holding with the seat. So Whisper only chooses to listen to the “whoa” from the seat. Meanwhile, the rider is now kicking, and Whisper steadfastly ignores these ever increasingly insistent aids, while both rider and instructor become frustrated with the result.
The key with Whisper is to hold the rein aid just that moment longer, until she gives, and to maintain the soft lower leg with a following seat. It literally just takes that little bit more of consistency, of the rider really knowing that what they are asking is correct and that it is going to work. Whisper teaches the rider to be clear and consistent. In Whisper’s case, I need to teach better, to help the students to understand that it is not unfair or incorrect to give a clear, direct aid and expect a response. In the same issue of Dressage Today, Lisa Wilcox was quoted as saying something along the lines that the “give and take” of a half halt should be more like “take a millimeter, give a millimeter” than anything more significant or dramatic.
Riding these horses was a valuable experience for me as an instructor. It helped confirm for me that my suspicions regarding the root cause of some of these common challenges was accurate, and that confident, correct riding would resolve the problem. I look forward to getting started with the semester in earnest so that we can continue to add to the students’ tool boxes.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian