Real Life Dressage: Training Advice from Novice to Grand Prix by Carl Hester and Polly Ellison
c 2004 Kenilworth Press Ltd. Addington, Buckingham, U.K. 120 pages.
After attending the NEDA Fall Symposium with Carl Hester in October of 2017, I became more interested in understanding some of the philosophy behind his training methods. I came across his book, Real Life Dressage: Training Advice from Novice to Grand Prix, and thought the concept looked interesting; Hester would discuss the process of his training through the lens of his own horses, starting with expectations of a four or five year old and progressing through Grand Prix. Hester described each of the horses as not being perfect, since the perfect horse does not exist. Instead, he detailed how he planned to work through their unique challenges.
This concept related quite well to some of the ideas which Hester shared during the Symposium; to wit, to overcome a horse’s challenges one must use their strengths. In the book’s introduction, Hester writes, “Difficult horses can become good horses….it is important not to give up until you are absolutely sure it’s not going to work. If there is a glimmer of hope, it is worth persevering” (Hester, 2004, p. 9). All of the horses he highlights in the book, including his famous Escapado, his 2004 Olympic mount, are in training for the Grand Prix.
The most helpful chapter to me was number two: “Top Dressage Horses—Are They Born or Made?”, in which Hester details what he looks for in a young dressage horse. In particular, he wants good gaits, with emphasis on the walk and canter, a good temperament, and rideability. Many of Hester’s horses were purchased by him, either alone or in partnership, and developed through his program. The man clearly has an eye for a horse, and he coaches that if one can find a quality horse young enough, a top flight horse might well be within the purchasing capacity of many riders.
Throughout the book, I could clearly hear the repetition of themes which Hester is still preaching today. He discusses the importance of not drilling, especially on a youngster. And that horses must be horses—they enjoy turn out and hacking and sometimes will spook, not to be naughty but because it is the prerogative of the species. One great quote was that overcoming this behavior is “…a matter of confidence, which is built up by repetition rather than reprimand” (Hester, 2004, p 43).
Since this book is nearly fifteen years old, it was interesting to Google the names of the horses which he describes and to learn the arc of their careers. Most were sold but had successful show careers through the FEI levels, some stood at stud, and some are now deceased. Reading a slightly older book like this feels like when you find a new TV series several years in; you can quickly scan ahead and find out what becomes of your favorite characters and decide whether you want to keep watching.
Overall, this book is an easy read and I think if you take it for what it is—a quick snap shot into the training system of one trainer—then you will find it enjoyable and some comments perhaps useful. If you are looking for something which is in depth, a robust analysis into a training system for “real life” horses—this book is not that. The horses Hester is working with are genetically blessed and the discussion of each is fairly basic. The struggles they face surely mirror the same ones faced by riders on “normal” horses, but of course, the scale is tipped quite a bit in their favor.
The northeast dressage community was electrified by the announcement that British dressage superstar Carl Hester would headline the 2017 New England Dressage Association (NEDA) Fall Symposium, held October 14-15, 2017 at the picturesque Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, ME.
Hester’s influence on the sport of dressage in the UK has been pronounced, and includes leading the team to medals at the World Equestrian Games, Olympics and European Championships. In fact, at the Rio Olympics in 2016, Hester not only rode (Nip/Tuck) but was the trainer of the other three members of the team: Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro (who Hester co-owns), Fiona Bigwood and Atterupgaards Orthilia and Spencer Wilton and Super Nova II.
The recent success of the British team is refreshing, as it comes after years of harsh criticism of previous Dutch and German champions, many of whom were proponents of hyperflexion/rollkur. These horses were criticized for being too tense, incorrect in their movement and otherwise not truly demonstrating the throughness, obedience and correctness necessary at the world class Grand Prix level. By contrast, Hester is a clear proponent of adherence to classical training methods; he has an eye for a horse, frequently selecting his mounts as youngsters and training them through the levels himself. His horses, and their riders, fairly dance through their performances.
Hester spoke to a sold out house; I was only able to attend on day one, but even just spending just one day auditing was enough to grasp clear themes which emerged through demonstrations which began with a four year old and progressed all the way through to Grand Prix.
Here are my top eight take aways from this symposium.
Try to keep horses as naturally as possible.
Hester was originally an event rider, and so maybe this is why he still believes in actually turning horses out. “If you want to keep your horses sound and happy and easy to ride—leave them out,” said Hester. He notes that youngsters which are not turned out enough often end up being overworked because they are so high that it takes a long time to establish the necessary suppleness and relaxation. As horses move up the levels and need more energy for their work, they might need to be kept in more. But even Hester’s most elite horses enjoy time in turnout daily.
To this point, Hester also believes in regular out of the ring hacking for dressage horses, both for mental health and to develop fitness. Young horses may only work for 20-30 minutes per session but should be warmed up by moving around outside of the ring. “Horses must be fit, and if you are just riding them for twenty minutes they will not be fit enough,” said Hester.
Temperament, a good walk and a good canter are most important.
“I have been proven wrong many times by a horse with not the best movement but excellent temperament,” said Hester.
It is important for a dressage prospect to have as close to a perfect walk and canter as possible, because these gaits are much harder to improve than the trot. However, a youngster with an unclear walk may simply need more strength. Horses with huge walks and a big overstep can be hard to collect. Riding zigzags up and down hills can help to improve the walk.
Less is more.
“All training goes like this,” said Hester, drawing a line in the air with his finger that resembled a rollercoaster. Sometimes a horse will hit a phase of their training where they get more difficult, and this is not always a sign that the horse is being stubborn. “Give them a break—a few weeks off,” said Hester. “They can be tired or muscle sore.”
Hester repeated this theme in numerous ways during the day. “Your horse isn’t born reading the dictionary—you must teach them the dictionary,” he said in regards to training youngsters.
“If the horse is not on the bit, do not force them,” said Hester. “The horse needs to work out where to put themselves.” He reiterated this in several sessions. “Do NOT be obsessed with the horse being ‘on the bit’,” said Hester. “They will come onto the bit with correct work.”
During the work itself, horses need breaks when they become fatigued; a break can sometimes be as basic as taking a short diagonal while allowing the horse to lower their neck. “The rider must listen and feel for this request from the horse,” said Hester.
Make sure you finish a training session with work the horse finds easy. Put the “meat” of your training towards the beginning or middle of your work.
Increase demands GRADUALLY
Training must be systematic. Youngsters should start by working on long straight lines and large circles. They need to learn to turn from the outside aids of the rider, and be encouraged to reach through their topline in a long outline. A four-year-old might work just twenty to thirty minutes, four times per week, stretching in the walk, trot and canter, slowly building to the development of the ability to bend and straighten. Once this foundation has been set, as a five-year-old the horse should work on smoother transitions, better balance, and increased lateral suppleness, using leg yield.
It takes time for horses to figure out what you want when you teach them something new. On the first day, introduce the horse to the new skill; on day two review, then give them day three off. On days four and five, repeat the lessons of days one and two. Then go hacking on the weekend.
It. Takes. Time.
Hester is obsessed with transitions. He said he does “lots” of transitions per session—hundreds of them. Big ones. Small ones. Between gaits, within gaits.
The trot to canter transition engages the inside hind, while canter to trot teaches the horse to come more forward into the rider’s hand and use their back more. Canter-walk-canter will work towards getting the horse to truly sit behind and come off of their forehand. “Listen for the sound of the front feet,” said Hester of this transition. “You shouldn’t hear them. These kinds of exercises build the strength to do the next level of collection.”
At the FEI levels, horses must be able to go from the trot or canter directly to the halt. This starts by teaching a young horse to ride cleanly from trot-walk-halt. Gradually, make the duration of the walk smaller until it goes away. “Your piaffe-passage lives in the trot-halt transitions,” said Hester. Hester recommends using a ground person to verify that each hind leg is squarely under the horse. “This is how you ensure that each leg aid is activating the hind leg on that side,” said Hester.
For horses which come behind the leg, Hester recommends bringing them back as soon as they start to go forward, rather than waiting for them to slow down. “You must take the leg off in between asks,” said Hester. “Telling someone to ride forward when they don’t have the balance will not work.”
If you make it to Grand Prix, the transitions are the hardest part, especially from piaffe to passage and back. “Good collection makes good extension,” said Hester. At the lower levels, and for horses without a natural lengthening, asking for bigger strides on the circle can help to improve the gaits.
Know your craft. Really, really know it.
Hester emphasized that all riders should understand the fundamentals of biomechanics and conditioning in the horse. Riders should also choose a horse which suits their personality.
Self-carriage in the horse begins with teaching the horse to carry their own head and neck in the free walk on a long rein. The rider should use their arms in a rowing fashion, pushing the neck down and forward. Keeping the reins moving and looking for lightness in the hand is most important.
When tracking right, most horses bring their nose and haunches to the inside. The rider must use more outside (left) rein to help keep the horse’s nose in front of their chest. When the horse tracks left, the rider can ask for more inside flexion to help stretch the chronically shortened right side. “When the nose and hips are to the right, the middle of the horse is out,” said Hester. “You need to bring the middle of the horse in.”
Hester made reference to an often misattributed quote of his student Dujardin, which goes something like “short reins win medals”. “Short reins allow you to ride forward to the hand,” said Hester. “Long reins will cause you to take back. During the warm up, some horses will be very strong in the hand and some very light. Do not mistake lightness for contact.” The use of a driving rein position can be helpful for horses which curl in the neck in response to the rider’s hand.
Hester said that there is no hard and fast rule as to when introduce the double bridle. “If the horse is not sure at first, I might hack out in it,” said Hester. “But if the horse doesn’t go well to the snaffle then they won’t go to the bit in the double. The horse must be in self carriage in the double bridle for it to work.”
Do not rely on your reins to create the shoulder in, rely on your legs.
To ride an accurate half pass, “put your destination in between your horse’s ears.” Keep the rider’s weight on the inside seat bone.
Flying changes should be cued with a squeeze of the rider’s heel, not by drawing the entire leg back, especially on a dull horse.
Leg yield in canter can help to free up the horse within the gait; half pass in canter increases collection. In both movements, the horse’s shoulders should be leading slightly.
The half-halt is a forward aid. “The half halt needs to feel like the horse is happy to go forward, not happy to stop,” said Hester.
Hester does not often use dressage whips. “If you are going to ride with a whip, then the horse should not be best friends with it,” said Hester. “But they also shouldn’t fear it. The use of the whip should create a medium trot step instantly.”
“You ride for thirty to sixty minutes—do it right.”
Training your horse should be like playing a game. Make the work playful. Reward often. “Every time they give the correct reaction, offer a touch on the neck or a small pat with the inside rein,” said Hester.
The rider’s goal should be to put positive tension into their work, and afterwards stretch the horse and take a break. “With the stretch, the horse shows relaxation,” said Hester.
To this end, rising trot can be a valuable tool. “Rising trot is not just for amateurs and young horses,” said Hester. “It can be helpful whenever you are asking the horse for more. It can be used in the half pass, extended trot, etc.”
Always, always remember that horses are authentic. “If the horse is difficult because he is stiff, he doesn’t do it to annoy you,” said Hester. “He does it because he’s stiff, so you need to give him some time and work through it in a systematic way.”
Dressage is not just about the movements.
Hester said that his older horses may work as much as two-three hours per day to develop the fitness necessary for elite dressage. “But you are not just schooling the Grand Prix,” said Hester. “You can’t do that. They must get fit through stretching, hacking and loosening.”
The hardest part of dressage, according to Hester, is attending to the care and health of your horse, and keeping them sound. “It’s not what you invest in the horse, it is what you invest in training,” said Hester. “Buy what you can afford; they might be two years old, but you can start here and train them.”
Hester said that it can be hard to stay inspired when working on your own. “Everyone needs to find someone to work with,” said Hester.
The content of this symposium was refreshing in its emphasis on correct, classical training and the emergence of the clear, horse friendly system that has led to Hester’s success. There are no tricks or shortcuts, just a clever adherence to finding the joy in each individual horse, using their strengths to develop their weaknesses. The horses chosen for demonstration were exceptional examples of the quality of work at each level.
This won’t be a popular opinion—but for me, what was NOT refreshing about this symposium was all of the hoopla and rigmarole around it. Ex: Tickets will go on sale at midnight, to NEDA members only. Doors will open at 7:30 AM (symposium does not begin until 9:15). You will get a nametag to affix to your chair, no saving seats. Dressage has a reputation for divas, for excessive wealth, for elitism. This symposium did NOTHING to eliminate that perception; if anything, it enhanced it. I don’t know how much came from Hester himself (for example, it is his request that no photographs are taken, out of respect for the training process and privacy of the riders) and how much came from NEDA. Some of the demo horses came from Florida, Ohio and Maryland, for goodness sake. Of the over one hundred rider applicants, we couldn’t find animals from our membership’s base? Where were the Irish horses, the OTTBs, the “native ponies”? It is great to see these methods work well with the genetically blessed horses which were selected (again, I don’t know if Hester had final say and this was his design). But I would suspect that most of the NEDA membership is not riding horses of this caliber, and it would have been inspirational to see even a modest transformation in a “normal” horse during the course of this symposium. By the end of the day, I had had my fill of the “fussiness” of dressage.
With that being said, I am appreciative of the hard work and organization which went into the planning of this educational event, a process two years in the making. We are lucky to have access to this caliber of education in the northeast and I am grateful for the hours of effort from the volunteers which put this together.
Hester closed day one with the following summary. “Dressage is the art of putting a crooked person on a crooked animal and expecting them to be straight and then move to self-carriage,” said Hester. “Self-carriage is having the horse balanced on all four legs.”
Ridden: Dressage from the Horse’s Point of View by Ulrike Thiel
c 2013 Trafalgar Square Books: North Pomfret, VT. 225 pages.
Ridden: Dressage from the Horse’s Point of View is an intellectual read, part study of equine biomechanics, part reflection on training philosophy and part treatise on the essential need to commit to the classical principles in all work with horses. Author Dr. Ulrike Thiel is a clinical psychologist, therapeutic and able-bodied riding instructor, and dressage devotee, and in this book she blends her education, experience and scientific analysis together in a manner which synthesizes a complex topic into a manageable narrative.
What Thiel does extremely well in this book is providing analogies, visuals and exercises which can help a rider to understand, in human terms, what a horse is experiencing under certain circumstances. Through these means, Thiel helps the rider to have better empathy for how much most horses are willing to offer to us, despite muddled communication, improper balance and a host of other challenges. She conscientiously takes the reader through the learning process which a horse and rider must undertake, including overcoming the predator/prey relationship by gaining a horse’s trust, confidence and respect.
Once Thiel has laid the framework for developing the horse/human relationship through mutual respect, she then delves deeper into the concepts espoused in classical dressage training, comparing the horse’s progression through the exercises to the process of learning to ski for a human (among her many hats, Thiel is also a certified ski instructor). Throughout, she emphasizes the fact that horses will forgive the mistakes of humans, but those mistakes must first be acknowledged to be rectified. The consequences of failing to correct training missteps or rider issues can result in permanent physical damage to the horse.
After painstakingly laying out this foundation, Thiel turns her analytical focus to what she calls “modern” training methods—rollkur, hyperflexion, or low, deep and round (LDR). These controversial training methods have been promoted by several high profile European dressage stars (including Olympic medal winners) and Thiel takes direct aim at the methods, their perpetrators, and the FEI for not wholly condemning their use. To write this book and publish it in her native Netherlands must have taken supreme courage, as one of the most famous proponents of hyperflexion has been two time Olympic gold medalist Anky Van Grunsven, who is a house hold name in the country.
It seems clear that Thiel’s motivations are truly to promote humane horsemanship and training methods, in spite of the risk of drawing what surely is sharp criticism. “The excesses associated with equestrian sports are in the crossfire of criticism…Ultimately, the question we all need to ask is whether the well-being of the horse is being considered as he is used in sports, for pleasure, as a therapy animal, or for other purposes…As it is so often when money, power, and competition play a role, ethics and human assumption of responsibility are left by the wayside” (Thiel, 2013, p. 209). Further, “I think the horse awakens different needs within humans. The horse can be used as a tool to fulfill our desire for power and success” (Thiel, 2013, p. 214).
I would recommend Ridden to any horseman who is interested in better understanding why the classical training methods have endured for centuries, and why this approach is still the best way to train the horse to be the most they can be. I hope that most equestrians that consider themselves to be true horsemen are willing to constantly put themselves under the microscope, asking what they can do better. Reading this book and taking time to honestly reflect on its content should allow for that opportunity for growth.
I applaud Thiel for being brave enough to write this book, and for taking the time to combine intellectual and emotional rationale—left brain/right brain balance—to advocate for why adherence to classical training concepts is essential for equine well-being.
The 2017 season marked Anna’s debut at Third Level; while we certainly didn’t make anyone nervous, as my former coach used to say, we also didn’t get arrested by the Dressage Police, so it would seem that enough of our movements were recognizable at the level that they allowed us to go on our way.
Making the jump from Second to Third level is a significant step forward in the horse’s training. The purpose of Third Level (as is stated at the top of the test) is as follows: “To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and having begun to develop an uphill balance at Second Level, now demonstrates increased engagement, especially in the extended gaits. Transitions between collected, medium and extended gaits should be well defined and performed with engagement. The horse should be reliably on the bit and show a greater degree of straightness, bending, suppleness, throughness, balance and self-carriage than at Second Level.”
Oh gee, is that all?
But in all honesty, what I have found when the average dressage rider is debating moving up to Third Level is that they are worried about two things. 1) Will my horse do a flying change? 2) Can I ride in a double?
The double bridle, also known as the full bridle, is a somewhat controversial piece of equipment. Third Level is the first time its use is permitted under USEF rules. As its name implies, it has two bits—a snaffle, known as the “bridoon,” and a curb, also called a “Weymouth.” The bits serve different purposes. The snaffle helps to achieve lateral and longitudinal flexion, as well as encourages elevation in the frame. It is also used to help position the neck left or right, and encourages the horse to open the frame when necessary. The curb’s role is to increase longitudinal flexion, helping to “close” the frame by bringing the head more towards vertical. The correct use of a double bridle requires that the horse is classically trained; the rider’s hands should initiate but not force the horse’s head and neck into the correct position.
It is the use of the curb which makes the double bridle both so helpful and also potentially so harmful. For centuries, the curb was used alone and often one handed, by knights and soldiers needing immediate control and submission from their mounts. The double bridle was not commonly used until the close of the 1700’s, likely due to the influence of French masters Pluvinel and de la Guerniere. Each horseman taught that the curb bit could be used to enable the rider to achieve a higher level of communication with the horse, not simply domination. By employing two sets of reins, the rider could use the snaffle and curb bits separately or in combination, which allowed a greater degree of refined control for military maneuvers.
The curb must be carefully chosen and fit to the horse; when used appropriately, it can allow extremely refined communication between horse and rider. It is a leverage bit and applies pressure to the poll and chin groove, as well as to the bars, tongue and the neck; any force applied to its rein will be magnified on the horse.
The strength of the curb depends on several factors. The overall length of the cheek of the bit is important, but so is the length of cheek above the mouthpiece versus below it. This ratio effects the way the leverage is applied to the horse. The tightness and fit of the curb chain is also significant, with the ideal being that when the curb chain is engaged, the lower shank is brought to 45 degrees relative to the bars of the mouth. It may require some adjustment in the curb chain tension to find just the right setting. Ideally, two fingers fit between the curb chain and the chin. Finally, the shape of the mouth piece itself influences the severity of the curb. The unique size and shape of the horse’s tongue, bars and palate all must be considered. Usually, the length of the shank is about the same as the width of the mouthpiece; the curb should be a minimum of 5 mm wider at each side of the mouth to avoid the lips being squeezed between the shanks. But a too wide curb will cause muddled signals to the horse.
de la Guerniere said, “The mouthpiece has to be chosen based on the inner construction of the horse’s mouth, the levers in relation to his neck and the curb chain based on the sensitivity of his chin.”
Of course, as with any bit, its severity is directly related to the skill of the user. For example, while one might assume that a shorter shanked curb is less severe, its effects are felt more quickly and so it is not ideal for someone with unsteady hands.
I soon found that fitting the bits correctly, including consideration of the placement of the noseband, is almost an art form. I still don’t think I have the adjustment just right, as will be seen in some of the photos here.
I have ridden in doubles before, but it was only over the course of this season that I realized how little I really understood about the bridle, its use, and its effects. The horse is only ready to begin using a double when they have developed a degree of collection and self-carriage. When the hindquarter is properly engaged, the horse is then better able to lift their withers and base of the neck. The curb uses even pressure to cause the horse to yield with relaxation in their lower jaw.
I was really on the fence about whether or not Anna was ready to start working in the double, because of our ongoing connection issues. But after a session with my dear friend Jen Verharen in March, I felt sufficiently confident to at least start asking her to hack around in the double and get used to carrying two bits in her mouth. Anna’s first ride in the double was only remarkable in that it was utterly unremarkable. “Ho hum,” she seemed to say. Just another day at the office.
I began riding Anna in her double once per week, usually on days when I was mostly doing stretching work. Even before I started to take a greater feel through the curb rein, I noticed an improvement in the shape of her topline and neck, which I attribute (perhaps falsely) to the style of her bridoon. Anna’s usual snaffle is a medium thickness KK loose ring with a lozenge; the bridoon on her double is a thin single jointed loose ring. I wonder if the simplicity of the bridoon is more comfortable for her; of course, I haven’t actually gotten around to swapping out her regular snaffle to determine this! Perhaps this is a project for the winter season.
Gradually, I began to take more feel on the curb rein and introduced Anna to gentle pressure from the leverage bit. I found that it was important to make sure that she was sufficiently loosened first, and already reaching through her back, before I took this additional contact. When I attended a clinic with Jan Ebeling in April, I brought the double with me, but I didn’t feel confident enough yet to actually bring it out in such a public venue.
So when I took Anna down centerline for the first time at Third Level in June, I had had no direct coaching with her in the double. However, I felt that its use sufficiently improved Anna’s outline and way of going such that it justified its use. In reviewing the photos, I can tell that the curb helped to improve her elevation in the trot work, but I was not fully utilizing its benefits to help her in the canter. I knew I was still being too tentative.
Thankfully, I was able to work with Verne Batchelder over five sessions in July, August and September, which helped us to make excellent progress and gave me better insight into the use of the double during this horse’s training. Verne encouraged me to ride Anna in the double more frequently, citing its positive effects on achieving a more correct shape through her topline and especially in her neck. “Do not go into battle without your gear,” he laughed, as he also encouraged me to picture Anna working more towards Third Level Test 3 than Test 1.
Most of our sessions focused on positioning Anna’s neck such that she was unable to use it to block the flow of energy. Usually this involved taking her nose slightly past the degree of flexion in her neck, waiting for her to relax, then gently straightening her by using my outside elbow. Verne emphasizes the need to be able to swivel the horse’s head and neck at the poll; this helps to develop the muscles of the upper neck to the degree where it actually draws up and refines the area around the throatlatch.
Anna has quite a good walk, and really is capable of achieving scores of “8” or higher on these movements, and so we played with some walk exercises which also would help to further improve her connection. We did a series of half turns in the walk, all the while asking her to take a rounder outline through her topline and neck, more towards an FEI level of carriage, for short periods. These turns were larger than competition sized, and we worked towards shorter, quicker steps. This technique should help to develop greater activity in the half pass. Afterwards, we returned to forward riding on lines and larger circles.
Flying changes are actually quite easy for Anna, and these are also an opportunity for higher scores in the show ring. Verne worked with us on riding changes with greater elevation of the forehand, so that they could become bigger and more expressive. He encouraged a gentle lift of the inside snaffle rein during the change to coincide with the leg cue; this will lay the foundation for a prompter response to a subtle aid in tempi changes later on.
Finally, we spent some time working on developing Anna’s medium trot. The medium gaits are defined by their uphill tendency, which is of course the result of better engagement, self-carriage and true collection. The horse should lift their shoulders and withers, not just flick the front feet. If the rider only thinks about power, most often the horse will do a lengthening and instead fall to their forehand. In the double, Verne reminded me to keep my elbows bent and to focus on riding Anna’s shoulders up. We increased the thrust for a few steps at a time, using these as building blocks to develop strength and carrying power.
Verne feels that the double bridle is a valuable training tool for a horse like Anna, who lacks natural elevation. “The double bridle helps with elevation of the shoulder and neck in horses which are not naturally elevated,” says Verne. “The withers follow the reins, but the rider cannot just lift the hand. They must keep an active half halt and the connection into their elbow.” I learned too that it is extremely important to keep a steady feel on the snaffle, not pulling just holding, whenever Anna was pushing towards a higher degree of balance and throughness.
I always like to give Anna a little down time as I transition back to full time work in the fall, so in September we hung the double up for a few months and focused on stretching in the snaffle and hacking on the trails. Even without the influence of the curb, it is clear that the work we have done in the double has helped to improve the shape and correctness of Anna’s topline.
There has been some debate in recent years regarding whether the double bridle should remain mandatory equipment at the FEI levels; when showing nationally, American riders can choose to ride FEI tests in a snaffle alone. There seems to be some belief that those who can do Grand Prix in a snaffle are better riders. But in the right hands, the double bridle should be regarded as “an instrument of finest understanding between horse and rider” (Rottermann, Eurodressage 11/3/14). A correctly trained horse will probably do well no matter which type of bridle they are wearing.
As far as Anna and I go, we of course need to continue to improve the quality of our communication. I am sure there are some riders and trainers who will judge me for choosing to work this horse in a double bridle before every bit and piece of Third Level work was fully confirmed. But truthfully, it seems like it was the right choice for this horse, and using this tool tactfully has helped to further her training and improved her strength and suppleness.
Edwards, E. Hartley. Saddlery. London: JA Allen and Co, Ltd. 1987.
Anna and I finished our 2017 show season the last weekend of August at a close to home recognized USDF/USEF show, held at Longfellow Farm in Nottingham, NH. It was a beautiful afternoon, and the show organizers really worked hard to try to make the show a special experience for competitors. We each received a goody bag with magazines, lip balm, a box of sugar cubes and a gift certificate to a web site I cannot afford. There were real flowers in the port a potties. They had a mini trade fair and fresh food. Tons of my friends were there, riding, coaching and grooming, and the whole thing felt a little bit like an end of summer picnic where we were all trying to absorb the late season sun and fun.
As I was setting up my equipment, I listened to the women at the trailer next to mine go through their own preparations. At first, I wasn’t sure who was riding and who was coaching, but ultimately determined there were two rookie riders doing their first Opportunity classes, a conscientious horse owner, and one extremely patient trainer. The riders’ nervous energy was palpable as they struggled to pull up their new full seats, bemoaned the lack of pockets in same for sugar cubes, and valiantly figured out how to tack up their mounts while still remaining clean. A gentleman wearing a camera stood nearby, wisely far enough back from the action so as to not get caught up in it but close enough by to be showing support. When it came time to mount, neither could manage to do so off the top of a 5 gallon pail, the only mounting block available. So their trainer offered each of them a leg up.
Compared to these two, who as it turned out were riding in my ring, directly after me, I was the epitome of calm. I methodically went through my usual preparations, putting on the white base layer, the choker which fits a little too tightly, the hairnet which always leaves an indent on my forehead secured under my gray velvet helmet. My hand me down Pikeur jacket was an expensive purchase for its original owner; I acquired it for just $30 and spent an additional $35 spent to tailor it, though it still doesn’t feel like it fits me right. It is just a bit out of style and the collar has faded in the sun, which I’m sure no one notices but me. I felt no nerves, no worries. I tacked up Anna, mounted off the top of my own upturned 5 gallon pail, and headed to the warm up.
Anna and I performed Third Level Test 1 for the fourth time this season, and got yet another 58%. I somehow mistimed my warm up, leaving me a bit shortchanged in terms of the preparation, but at the end of the day I really don’t think it would have mattered all that much. While our performances have progressively improved, the scores have not. We have been rocking those 50’s (it sounds like a dance party, which would be a whole lot more fun): 57,55, 59, 58. Close but not quite there.
I do appreciate the comments from the judges. Judges have a challenging job; they must sit for hours, running “tapes” in their mind which include the purpose of the level and the expectations of a movement at that level, and then they translate these ideals promptly into a succinct statement which justifies their assigned score. I have sat and observed judges and scribed. I have graduated from the USDF “L” learner judge’s program. I have spent hours judging at schooling shows, watching many, many tests in which there was very little dressage going on, trying to figure out how to offer feedback which will be perceived as helpful but not overly negative. Judges are usually really trying to help the riders they are watching.
But that day at Longfellow, as I held my yellow sheet on which the judge noted “capable horse who is obedient in changes and must be rounder and better on bit and connected”, I just felt defeated. Like, what is the point of this? Dressage is such a dumb sport, to get all dressed up in these ridiculous uncomfortable penguin suits and go to shows where they put flowers in the port a potties and then we go and ride these redundant patterns, over and over again, hoping that for the FIVE MINUTES the judge sees our horse, we can meet some mystical expectation of “dressageyness”. Why am I wasting my time and energy doing this? Why did I spend an hour to bathe and braid my horse and load equipment into my trailer and then ship down here? For a 58%?
I have been teaching riding since I was eighteen years old, over half my life. I sure thought I knew everything when I first started, and it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I began to understand that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. I have at least five former students to whom I taught the absolute basics of how to put a horse on the bit, which have now ridden to Grand Prix and finished their USDF Gold Medals. There are probably another five who are riding at Prix St. George or Intermediare I. Meanwhile, I am over here still splashing around in the dressage kiddie pool, unable to get my swimmies off.
In the Chronicle of the Horse’s August 7 issue, there was a great article about an amateur rider named Elizabeth O’Connor. This spring, she finished her USDF Gold Medal riding a one eyed off track Thoroughbred which she trained herself. To say that the pair had overcome adversity to achieve this result is an understatement. It is a story meant to inspire, to remind readers that one doesn’t have to have the fancy warmblood and that with hard work, grit and determination, one can get to the big goal.
But what if that isn’t really true, most of the time? What if hard work and determination isn’t enough? When do you decide that maybe the judge’s comments are correct, and it is time to pack up and go home before the Dressage Police show up and throw you out?
I was still feeling pretty defeated when I brought Anna to the beautiful Chesley Brook Stables in Dover, NH, to ride with Verne Batchelder on Labor Day. I was tired emotionally and physically, having just ridden the two day 60 mile ride at GMHA with my Thoroughbred, Lee, finishing in the remnants of Hurricane Harvey on Sunday. Verne quickly picked up on the fact that I seemed…down.
A former classroom educator and lifelong equestrian, Verne is probably the best coach I have ever worked with in terms of getting the maximum performance out of Anna. He has seen me ride different horses, and he knows both me and this horse well. As professionals, there are certainly times when we need a kick in the backside but there are also times when we need a boost. Verne reminded me that sometimes the biggest complement that a teacher receives is when their student exceeds them. He also pointed out that I am doing Third Level on a somewhat lazy horse whose genetics do not automatically set her up for the job. Anna is trained. 58% is close. We are not in the 40’s.
“We are not going to become the masters of Third Level,” proclaimed Verne. “We are going to keep going. We are going to get this pony to FEI.”
I don’t know if we will or we won’t, but that is almost irrelevant. Everything Verne said was just what I needed to hear. I have made a conscious choice to own my own horses, to do my own training, and to commit to the process and animals I have. Giving up when you hit the hard spots can sometimes be the right choice, but at other times you have to just keep plugging away with the faith that with enough persistence, even the roughest of surfaces wear smooth. If my goal was simply to get to Grand Prix, or to finish a USDF Silver or Gold Medal, I could do that….but the fastest route would be a totally different path than the one I have taken. I haven’t chosen to lease a schoolmaster, or to buy a big mover, or even to devote my training energy and tack time 100% to dressage. And for these reasons, I have become (in my opinion) a more robust equestrian.
When I returned to my trailer at the Longfellow show, I was untacking and unbraiding Anna, who hungrily mowed down the grass of the field we were parked in. My neighbors returned, elated, victorious; they had finished their first ever dressage tests at a rated show. The horse owner saw me and said, “wow, I saw your test, and your horse was amazing! It was such a great ride!”
“Thanks,” I smiled, knowing even without having seen the results that it was probably just another 58%.
“We actually rode right after you in the same ring,” she continued, flushed with excitement. “And when we saw you cantering on the diagonal, and then doing one of those changes, we totally panicked, because that wasn’t the test we knew! Your horse is just beautiful.”
I guess I didn’t really hear her then, but in retrospect I appreciate the comments more now. Why are we doing this silly sport, this art, called dressage? It can’t be just for the score…because the score only represents one moment in time. You have to do it for the day to day victories, and for the incremental improvements which show that your horse is progressing. My horse does flying changes. And she half passes. And she is starting to understand the double bridle. We may be working on many elements still, but there are many others which she does well. She received 7’s on her walk pirouettes; Verne thinks they should be 8’s. My horse is a Third Level horse.
So while other people may be diving into the deep end, don’t mind me. I’ll just be over here in the shallow end, gradually creeping my way into the deeper water. A little better than marginal, but not quite yet sufficient.
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!
c 2012 Trafalgar Square North Pomfret, VT, 187 pages
I first read an excerpt of Jochen Schleese’s book, Suffering in Silence: the Saddle-Fit Link to Physical and Psychological Trauma in Horses, in an old issue of Dressage Today magazine. The segment provided there included information regarding the natural asymmetry of the horse, detailing how this condition develops, and how this asymmetry impacts saddle fit. I was struck by the technical precision in the writing and the clear passion which Schleese had for the subject. I immediately ordered a copy of the book to review in more depth.
Schleese is a Certified Master Saddler and Saddle Ergonomist, and Schleese Saddles are known as being “ergonomically correct” for female riders. In this book, Schleese goes into a great deal of detailed explanation regarding the how’s and why’s of his theory of saddle fitting. In particular, he highlights the personal research he has done into the differences between male and female pelvic anatomy, and how this can impact each gender’s relative position in the saddle. What was even more interesting to me, though, were his thoughts on the ideal fit of the saddle to the horse.
I have struggled to find the ideal saddle fit for two of my own horses; one is a distance horse who has completed two 100 mile competitive trail rides, and the other is a Connemara cross who does mostly dressage (each has their own tack). In the past, I have had certified saddle fitters adding pads, shims and all manner of other manipulations to make saddles fit. After experiencing years of frustration, I began working with someone new, who identified some basic issues, such as an inappropriate tree width, as being part of my problem. Still, the process of finding a correctly fitting saddle can make someone feel like the princess and the pea.
Schleese emphasizes that a well fitting saddle for the horse must be a priority, as this variable, more than many others, can influence a horse’s long term soundness. In this book, he describes the horse’s saddle support area, with detailed discussion of the muscles, ligaments and tendons involved. Schleese uses clear descriptions as well as outstanding illustrations and diagrams to help the reader to see and understand where the saddle should be placed, the interaction of the saddle, girth and the biomechanics of the horse, and the importance of clearing the equine scapula. I can’t say enough about the quality of this discussion, and I think it is something which every horseman should read and absorb. I simply haven’t seen it done better, anywhere.
I have since learned that Schleese is somewhat of a controversial figure in the saddle fitting/making community. There are some who feel that his “saddles for women” theme is just a gimmick to sell saddles; one saddler I spoke with said that if you want to sell saddles in the modern market, they “all better fit women”. Schleese also is a proponent of rear-facing gullet plates, a design which is counter to the principles espoused by the Society of Master Saddlers, a large certifying organization based in the U.K. However, there are many other saddlers who consider Schleese’s work to be inspirational; one local saddler says that his work is in fact what inspired her to become a certified saddle fitter.
With all that being said, I don’t consider this book to be a sales pitch, but rather the outcome of one man’s passion for promoting greater awareness of the critical importance of saddle fit for horse and rider. The text is clear and accessible to any conscientious horseman, the book is incredibly well illustrated through diagram and photograph, and many additional resources are provided where readers can learn more.
I was so inspired by reading this book that I have actually reached out to Schleese’s company, Saddlefit 4 Life, and we will be hosting a seminar with him at the University of New Hampshire Equine Program on September 20, 2017. Visit www.equine.unh.edu fore more information.
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….
During the Rio Olympics, my Facebook feed was utterly blowing up with comments regarding Dutch dressage rider Adelinde Cornelissen, and her choice to retire mid-test on her veteran partner, Parzival. Just a day or so earlier, Parzival had been found with a fever and swollen jaw, determined to be the result of a bite from some foreign bug. Under the supervision of FEI veterinarians, the horse was treated with fluids; as the swelling and fever reduced, Parzival was given clearance to compete. However, Cornelissen felt that her horse did not feel right and that it was inappropriate to continue to push him to complete the demanding Grand Prix test.
Initially, Cornelissen was lauded as a hero for putting the needs of her horse ahead of medal aspirations. But quickly the backlash began. Accusations of horse abuse were rampant. Implications that the true cause of the swelling was a hairline fracture of the jaw as the result of Cornelissen’s training methods became a common chant.
Cornelissen and Parzival have been staples on the Dutch international team for years. They were the alternates for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and at the 2012 London Games her team earned the bronze and Cornelissen, the individual silver. They have had numerous other successes in the international ring, but also some lows. The most notable of these occurred at the 2010 World Equestrian Games, when the pair was eliminated due to blood in the mouth, allegedly the result of the horse biting his tongue. The 2016 Rio Games were almost certainly intended to be the 19 year old horse’s final competition.
I am not a huge follower of international equestrian sport, but I watch and see enough that I usually know the key players and the major events. Since the days of the great rivalry between Van Grunsven and Werth, the Dutch riders have frequently been criticized for the use of rollkur in their training system. Of course, the Dutch say that the method they use is different than rollkur—I think they call it “low, deep and round”—and for people who live in that world, the similarities and differences between the two techniques could be debated for hours. For the greater equestrian community, the 98% of us who do not exist in the world of elite dressage performance, the line between the two methods is very, very blurry. The FEI was finally forced to take a firm stance against the use of rollkur largely as the result of public pressure. Low, deep and round is still allowed, within certain parameters; this ruling still rankles some within the equestrian community.
From what I understand, Cornelissen has been frequently accused of using rollkur, and many negative statements have been made specifically in regards to her riding style and performances with Parzival. Given the quite passive and osmosis-like manner in which I absorb information about most of these elite riders, I do feel that it is significant that the impression I have always had of her is that she perhaps uses less than classical training methods. I have utterly no foundation on which to base the impression other than the trickle of comments which come through social media, bulletin boards and occasional articles. But yet, the impression is there.
So when the whole situation in Rio started to unfold, I initially noted that this particular rider was making (negative) headlines again. But it wasn’t until nearly every other post on my Facebook timeline was deriding her that I began to look more closely at the details. And the more I learned, the more I scratched my head over the kinds of comments I was seeing—strong, vicious statements such as, “I hate her” and “She shouldn’t be called a hero. She has been abusing that horse for years.”
Wait a minute here. Regardless of anything you might have thought or do think about this rider….she felt as though the horse was not right. She stopped performing her test. It is almost a certainty that her decision to retire put the Netherlands out of medal contention as well. She chose to retire anyway—and I am sure the pressure to produce a winning test was extremely high, given that the Netherlands is a nation which actually enjoys and follows equestrian sports. In spite of all of this…she stopped. How could this one decision alone not be considered a heroic act?
The video of Cornelissen and Parzival’s test up until she withdrew seems to have vanished from the internet. It was out there for a bit, and I watched it with great interest, because apparently some of the Armchair Quarterbacks know far more about dressage than I do, and I wanted to see what they saw: “You can tell from the minute he entered the ring that he was lame.” (What? He looked sound to me.) “He is obviously unhappy. Look at how much foam is coming out of his mouth.” (Yes, he was a bit more foamy than average, but certainly I have seen other horses look similarly and no one is saying that those horse are unhappy; some foam is actually considered a good thing. The person commenting wouldn’t know the difference.) “He just looks miserable. I feel so bad for him.”
I must say, I wish that I could take a clinic or lesson with some of these Armchair Quarterbacks. Because I will freely admit that I just didn’t see all of these horrible things that everyone else did in the video I watched. The horse is in good weight, muscle and tone. He appears healthy and willing. He was not swishing his tail, pinning his ears, visibly sucking back or showing other signs of overt resistance. I understand that at some point in the video, Parzival does start to stick out his tongue—this is a classic symptom of a contact/connection issue, and it certainly can indicate an unhappy horse. However, I was unable to see that in the footage I watched. I have seen some photos of him from Rio with his tongue out; they were all taken after the horse had left the ring.
I saw a lovely horse performing the Grand Prix, whose rider sensed was not himself, and who was pulled up. We know he had had something wrong with his face before the competition– a fact that Cornelissen doesn’t deny and in fact shared freely with fans. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation why the horse was not at his best, especially in the connection. Let’s not forget, he was cleared to compete by some of the best vets in the world.
I must really not know much about horses or dressage. But these Armchair Quarterbacks really do seem to know EVERYTHING about the training, management and performance capability of this foreign based pair. I found the amount of energy spent condemning Cornelissen to be, frankly, disappointing. One woman actually is threatening to sue Cornelissen over her alleged abuse of Parzival. I wish I was making this up.
There is an article which I use in one of my classes called, “Can Horse Sports Face the Central Park Test?”. The article looks at common practices within several prominent equine disciplines through the frame of a comment from former US Equestrian Federation president and current US Eventing Team Coach, David O’Connor. “Could I go through the middle of Central Park with an NBC camera following me around as I get my horse ready to go into a competition?” O’Connor asks. “Will you show anybody anything you’re doing? If you can’t, there’s a problem.”
This article really resonated for me, because in my years in the industry I have certainly heard tales of “those things which happen behind the barn”. The stuff that no one talks about but people know about. It happens in all equine sports, at all levels. And it is not right, and just because it is the “norm” in a certain sphere doesn’t make these activities ok. This isn’t about saying one discipline is better than another. This is about good, basic, horsemanship.
Is it possible that Cornelissen has inappropriately used rollkur, or strong bits, or other less than ideal methods to achieve a training end with Parzival? Sure. I don’t know one way or the other, because I have never spent time watching her work, or touring her facility. But I do know that the horse at 19 was sound enough in brain and body to be chosen for the Dutch squad and then flown half way around the world to represent them. So I surmise that he must have a pretty good crew of people taking care of him to get to that point—Cornelissen included.
If you want to pick on Olympic riders, maybe we should condemn all of them, and our federations while we are at it, for choosing to bring their horses to compete at a Games in an area with an active glanders outbreak? Certainly exposing some of the best in the world to this nearly unheard of disease is worthy of outrage?
Years ago, as a working student for Lendon Gray, she would really get after me for using a “half way aid”. She argued that it was far kinder to a horse to make your point once—give them a clear aid with a particular expectation of a response—than it was to nag, and nag, and nag. This lesson has really stuck with me. The fact is that daily training can be cruel too—too tight nosebands, excessive or uneducated use of spurs, aggressive use of training aids like draw reins or bigger, harsher bits, heck, even ill fitting saddles, can all cause pain and frustration in our equine partners. And let’s be honest—a rider who chooses to show mid level dressage but can hardly sit the trot, someone who wants to jump but refuses to learn to see a distance, the pleasure rider who doesn’t bother to learn about basic conditioning…are these not their own forms of cruelty to our beloved horses?
The honest to gosh truth is that if you really feel fired up and want to make a TRUE and IMPACTFUL difference to the lives of animals…start with yourself. Educate yourself. Learn from the best that you can afford. Practice. Eat healthy. Stay fit. Reach out to your friends, your neighbors, your colleagues and your clients….help them to be the best that they can be too.
There are absolutely examples of truly heinous training methods which are employed by riders to extract a certain performance from their horse. But for the Armchair Quarterbacks to vilify someone the way they did Cornelissen, without first taking a good, hard look in the mirror, is to me as much of a crime.
I only can hope that this vocal contingent can take some of that energy and direct it closer to home—where it can make a real, meaningful difference.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian