Tag Archives: dressage

Somewhere Between Marginal and Sufficient

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.

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Anna at a show at the Tack Shack in Fremont, NH, in July.

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.

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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%?

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Anna doing what she does best at the Longfellow show.  Nom nom nom.

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.

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UNH June show.

 

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.

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Schooling with Verne at Chesley Brook in July.  Thanks Lauren for the photo!

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.”

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Warm up at UNH show in June. 

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.”

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She is kind of 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.

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This was after finishing our first ever Third Level test.  I have to remember it is the journey which matters most!

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.

 

 

 

 

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A Clinic with Jan Ebeling:  Keep the Details Clear

In mid April, 2017, Linden Woods Farm in Durham, NH hosted a two day clinic with Olympian Jan Ebeling.  A serious rider and competitor, Ebeling brought his attention to detail and clear training system to the east coast, to the benefit of horses and riders ranging from First Level through FEI.

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Jan Ebeling

I was only able to attend day two of the clinic due to work commitments, but felt fortunate to be able to audit several sessions before taking my own lesson on Annapony at the end of the day.  As I watched Ebeling work with a series of different types of horse, several themes emerged.  In particular, Ebeling emphasized POSITIVE ENERGY, CLEAR EXPECTATOINS, MINIMAL BEND and CLARITY IN THE AIDS, regardless of the level of training of the horse or movement being executed. Calm and systematic riding was the order of the day.

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Ebeling “debriefs” with clinic rider Kara Riley-King, who rode Zamiro.

Ebeling told the audience that he always starts his training sessions the same way, with a progressive warm up.  “I start by establishing a steady tempo and use larger circles and changes on the diagonals,” said Ebeling.  “Nothing too tight.”

Ebeling reminded riders that all horses have an easier side, which is usually tracking to the left.  This is the best direction to start both the warm up phase of a ride as well as to introduce new figures and movements.  He recommends spending three to four minutes on each side, then adding in some work at the canter, before offering the horse a short break.

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Emily Staley on Gatsby work on their free walk.

“Once the horse has had a warm up, they are ready for a more collected tempo and sitting work,” says Ebeling.  For all horses save the most green, Ebeling believes in the rider working out of the sitting trot post warm up.  For a greener horse, Ebeling says that he might stay in the posting trot a bit longer, especially if the contact and connection become less consistent in the sitting work.

For the greener horses, Ebeling emphasized the critical importance of riding with positive energy, which he says prevents the horse from thinking that a slower tempo is acceptable. At the same time, the rider must be careful to not ask for more tempo than the horse is able to keep balanced.   “Most horses are pretty happy to go forward if you make it their habit,” says Ebeling.  “If you have inconsistency in the frame, add a little bit of tempo, keep riding forward, and keep the hand the same.”

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Jan Ebeling raved about Leslie Ann Guilbault’s young mount, Belfast (owned by a sponsor), saying, “He is a great horse.  A talented horse.  I am looking for weaknesses.  Mostly he needs to be stronger still.”

Establishing consistency in the expectations and performance was a theme which Ebeling returned to frequently.  The free walk is another area in which Ebeling emphasized this idea.  “The free walk should always go to the buckle and the rider must make the habit of always expecting a brisk, energetic walk,” says Ebeling.  “When there is a transition from free walk to medium walk, the steps and frame become shorter but the rhythm and energy stay the same.”

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Anna and I during our set.

The use of transitions between and within gaits was another theme which ran amongst the sessions.  When riders do transitions on green horses, the exercises serve to tune up the horse’s understanding of the aids.  It is important that the rider keep their aids consistent and clear.  One example Ebeling brought forward was the position of the rider’s outside leg in the canter.  “You must be super clear with your leg aid in the transitions, bending your knee and bringing the leg back,” says Ebeling.  “Keep the outer leg back in the canter, not just for the transition, but also to support the gait.  It must stay in place—no exceptions.”

Ebeling used transitions in many ways with riders throughout the day.  Some horses did trot-walk-trot transitions in fairly quick succession, sometimes with only three strides in between each.  With others, he shortened the timing so that the transition became more of an “almost walk” transition, or instead asked the horse to go into a short lengthening.  Ebeling asked one rider to send her horse forward on the short side and then collect them through the shoulder in into an “almost walk” transition, and then ride forward into a ten meter volte.   These frequent transitions challenged the horse’s balance and encouraged them to respond promptly to rider’s aids. For greener horses, Ebeling likes to use a little voice in the transitions.  If the horse makes mistakes, such as coming above the bit or choosing the wrong lead, Ebeling reminded riders to not get into a battle with their horse; instead, just make them do the transition again.

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I must have liked something about this transition with that smile on my face!

Throughout the day, horses and riders both made mistakes.  Ebeling reminded all that this is a necessary part of learning, but emphasized that it is important to not give the horse a break on a poor transition or movement.  Ebeling says that when the horse repeatedly makes the same mistake on a figure, it is up to the rider to figure out how to change the cycle.  This may mean making the exercise easier for the horse, overexaggerating an aid, or appreciating that at the moment, the exercise may require more strength than the horse has developed.  “Even when the mistake is repeated, remind yourself that it is just a phase,” says Ebeling.  “It can be frustrating, but don’t panic.  It is just a matter of practicing.”

Ebeling also spoke of the importance of doing movements and transitions at different places within the arena.   This can also be helpful when a horse starts to anticipate an exercise.   “The same exercise, done at a different place in the arena, isn’t really the same exercise,” says Ebeling.  “The goal is to get the horse to do the things you want so that you are able to praise them…you are always looking for the moment where you can praise them for doing the right thing.”

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Practicing.

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

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

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

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In my ride with Ebeling on Anna, these themes came forward yet again.  I was a bit nervous going into the ride, as I was dealing with a knee injury which prevented me from effectively closing my right leg aids.  And though she sported a trace clip, Anna definitely felt that this early spring afternoon was warmer than she liked given the amount of winter coat she was still wearing. In spite of these variables, we tried our best to step up to Ebeling’s program.

Here is some video of Anna early in our set with Jan Ebeling.

In our ride, Ebeling worked to help me keep Anna more positively forward (yes, the entire Story of Our Lives).  He reminded me to watch the balance between the inside and the outside rein, particularly when tracking right, and that I need to be more steadfast in the consistency in the outside rein.  One easy tip he offered was to increase the tension of my ring finger on the reins.  Most riders will grip more tightly with their index and middle fingers, but increasing the tension of the ring finger will allow the rein contact and connection to remain steady yet not become restrictive.  Ebeling had me ride Anna virtually straight into each corner, and then ask for only about two to three strides of bend in the corner itself.

A little further along…contact is getting more consistent.

Ebeling also had me ride many trot canter transitions to sharpen her response to the leg aid.  In the upward transition, I had to make sure to not allow my shoulders to tip forward and to remain soft in the rein contact without letting go.  For the downward transition, Ebeling wanted me to use virtually no rein pressure at all but instead use seat and voice aids…then immediately ride steady and forward.

Some transitions.

While I felt that the quality of our connection improved through the set, I was a little disappointed in Anna’s overall lackluster response to the forward aids.  In my opinion, she got a bit hot and tired and would have done better with a few shorter/intense sets rather than longer ones.  I found it really difficult to keep her stepping up into the bridle, and in reviewing the photos and videos after the ride, she looks like she is barely round.  Ebeling as well seemed a little flummoxed by her lackadaisical nature, and suggested that it might be helpful to treat her like an event horse again by taking her out for some gallop sets (not an option till my knee heals, I am afraid!).   He also suggested looking at her feeding regimen to see if there is a way to feed increased energy without increasing her weight.

Serpentine work.

While I was a bit disappointed by the quality of my own performance, overall I really enjoyed watching Ebeling teach the other clinic participants and appreciated the consistency in his message.  I would definitely come audit again, and perhaps ride once I am healed up!

Some nice walk work and then some tired trot!

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I would like to thank my friend Mikaela for coming along with us!  She was the best coffee getter, pony holder, photo taker and all around cheer leader ever!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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Anna performing lateral work with Verne Batchelder in December 2016.

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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

Book Review: Suffering in Silence

Suffering in Silence by Jochen Schleese

c 2012 Trafalgar Square North Pomfret, VT, 187 pages

ISBN 978-1570766534

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.

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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.

Jochen Schleese discusses the importance of saddle fit

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.

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Schleese draws areas important for saddle fit consideration on this horse; this image is used both in their text and on Saddlefit 4 Life’s website.  Unable to find an official credit but go to Saddlefit 4 Life for more!

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.

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My mare Lee demonstrates how poorly her old saddle really fit her…and she did a 100 mile ride in this!

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.

5/5 stars

December Clinic Weekend

Notes on Sessions with Verne Batchelder and Cindy Canace

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

Verne Batchelder and the “Circle of Submission”

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

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

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One of our many “circles of submission”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I love that this exact moment is caught on film.

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

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

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

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

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Schooling haunches in.

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

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

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I just love this moment in the canter!

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

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

Cindy Canace:  “Be a Better Backpack”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the Laboratory

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

Adelinde Cornelissen and the Arm Chair Quarterback

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.

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Parzival was disqualified from the 2010 World Equestrian Games after blood appeared in his mouth. 

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.

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Photos like this one, easy to find on the internet, do not do much to ease Cornelissen’s public image. 

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?

Adelinde Cornelissen and Parzival FEI World Cup 2009

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.

 

A Clinic with Cindy Canace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Horsemanship and Sportsmanship

Most of us who are involved with horses and horse showing prefer to be seen as both good horsemen and good sports.  If you stay in this game long enough, you will learn that when your success is predicated on the cooperation of a 1000+ pound flight or flight animal that also has a seeming proclivity for self-destruction, it is important to stay humble and not become too greedy.

With that being said, doing your homework, carefully prepping, setting goals and hopefully achieving them are all totally reasonable expectations.  In fact, these qualities are probably ideal in terms of making any sort of progress at all.  It is pretty easy to be a good sport when things are going your way, and you feel successful.  But where you are really put to the test is when the deck is stacked against you or the outcome isn’t what you had hoped for.  It seems that for some people, the ability to persevere and to continue to demonstrate the highest levels of sportsmanship and horsemanship comes naturally; nature vs. nurture, maybe.  Others of us have to dig a little bit deeper and consciously choose to maintain our best selves in these difficult times.

I have been reading a stack of old Dressage Today magazines, and I came across an “On Deck” column in the November 2007 issue written by a young lady named Holly Bergay.  At the time, Holly was just 15 years old.  She wrote about her first experience competing as a junior at the NAJYRC.  Now, I know what you might be thinking (because my brain would go there too)—to make an NAJYRC team, riders have to be talented and have access to both high quality horses and coaching.  It is easy to assume that these riders enjoy a certain amount of support and privilege that others do not; that their path has been made easy for them.  But when you start really talking to each individual rider, you will quickly learn that for most, there is a veritable army of people helping, contributing, supporting, fundraising, loaning horses, offering coaching, etc.  Holly was one of these riders; based in Arizona at the time, the expense alone of shipping all the way to Virginia for the competition must have been daunting for her middle class family.

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Holly Bergay (photo credit Phelps Photos)

And there is one other detail about Holly.  She was born with no left arm below her elbow, making her “the first disabled rider to ever compete at NAJYRC against able-bodied riders” (her words).

Holly tells the story of her and her teammates’ experiences at the competition; she rode for Region 5, and all of her teammates came from the west coast (Colorado, Arizona and Utah).  Though they were used to competing against one another, the riders didn’t really get to know each other until the trip east.  You might think that the hard part was qualifying for the Championships and then making their long trek to Virginia.  But the Region 5 team’s challenges were far from over.

One rider never even got to make the trip because her horse colicked before leaving home.

Another horse failed the initial jog (fortunately only due to an abscess, but still, what rotten timing).

Yet another rider arrived for day one of the mounted competition to find that her horse had ripped his eyelid open on a bridle hook, necessitating medical treatment which precluded him from competing.

I am sure that for these riders, who had invested so much of themselves in getting to this point, these events were terrible disappointments.  Yet according to Holly, her teammates showed “phenomenal horsemanship” in dealing with these blows and “made us all truly appreciate the opportunity to show”.  They learned to cheer for those who were still riding in the competition, even though with only two Young Riders left, the region’s team was ineligible for awards.

Holly talks about the tremendous pressure she felt competing as a junior; she wanted to do well for her team, for her trainer and for her horse.  She had come in with the lowest qualifying score of the team and was afraid of having a bad show.  But Holly had an additional weight to carry:  “I felt that if I didn’t do well, I would be letting down not just myself but the entire disabled community.”

Can you imagine feeling that way, at just 15 years old?

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Holly and Lilly at the NAJYRC (taken from her Facebook)

Holly’s story goes on to relate her own personal success on her mare, Lilly, and her team’s joy over their seventh placed finish.  Her language frequently includes words like “accomplishment”, “opportunity”, “proud”, “excitement” and “privilege”. You would think that the team had all won gold, but in reality no one took home a medal.  Holly ended up placing the highest of any rider from her region, making the top ten for the junior freestyle.  But you have a sense that she was modest about the achievement, and took greater pride in the fact that she had set out to accomplish her main goal—showing that a disabled rider could hold their own at the NAJYRC.  And in her own words, “I did not medal in the competition, but I took back things that were much more valuable than just a medal.  I learned both horsemanship and sportsmanship.  I met amazing people.  I formed an even stronger bond with my horse and, most important, I proved that I am not limited by my disability.”

I found Holly’s voice refreshing and her attitude moving.  Interested to know where Holly was now, I Googled her name (isn’t the internet wonderful)—and what came up showed me that the young girl of fifteen has matured into an inspirational young adult of twenty four.  And in the years between her debut at the NAJYRC and now, she has faced her own share of highs and lows, success, challenges and disappointments.

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Holly and Grand Ballerina (taken from her Facebook page).

After returning to compete in the NAYRC in 2008, Holly became internationally ranked in para-equestrian; in 2012, she was named to the World Equestrian Games team on the horse Grand Ballerina.  The mare unfortunately went lame just prior to the competition and so she was unable to compete.  After the financial investment incurred during the qualification process, followed by the disappointment of having to withdraw, Holly gave up riding altogether for a period of time.

But she returned to the sport and with the assistance of owner Violet Jen, Holly began to ride and compete the Hanoverian stallion Rubino Bellissimo.  The team entered the 2014 Para-Equestrian National Championship ranked second in the nation, and were considered strong favorites for selection to the World Equestrian Games team set to compete in Normandy, France.

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Holly and Rubino Bellisimo (taken from her Facebook page).  

Over $10,000 was raised to get Rubino and Holly to the New Jersey competition.  Just days before they were set to compete, Rubino began to exhibit signs of discomfort.   According to a story in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Rubino’s condition quickly deteriorated and he was diagnosed with a malignant tumor that had begun to spread to muscles, nerves and bones.  With no hope of recovery and a rapidly declining quality of life, he was euthanized with Holly at his side.

Holly and Rubino’s last performance together.

I can’t even imagine going from the expectation of success and possibly achieving a dream such as qualifying to represent your country in international competition at that level to the devastating loss of a partner and friend in just a few days’ time.  It takes some kind of degree of sportsmanship and horsemanship and heck, just sheer grit, to keep pushing through that kind of challenging emotion.  And when you add to that the fact that your bank balance doesn’t rival that of a rock star or internet mogul, and you know just how much others have invested in your goals to support you—it weighs on you.

In the same Union-Tribune article, it says that Holly went to her family’s home in Colorado to grieve the loss.  Then she planned to return to her business in California, the San Diego Saddle Club, to regroup and possibly begin again.  She specifically mentioned the amazing community of horse people in the San Diego area, and that she either hoped to find a young horse to bring along or find another opportunity.  I can find no mention of her for 2015, so I have no idea where she stands today.

While you and I might not be on the short list for Rio, each one of us goes through some version of this struggle each and every day, don’t you think? Learning to take the highs and the lows, to make the best decisions for ourselves and our equine partners, and to do our very best to just be grateful that most of the time, we even have the opportunity to do the amazing things we do with our animals.  To try to find the balance between our competitive ambitions and the needs of our horses, and to know when it is ok to push a little harder versus when it is better to call it day.

I certainly admire Holly’s perseverance in the face of multiple challenges, and you just have to hope that if she can hang in there a bit longer, some of her fortunes will turn.  I have never met Holly, but perhaps if she ever reads this she will know that her story has touched another horseman and that I am rooting for her, wherever her equestrian pursuits might take her.  Our sport needs horsemen and sportsmen like Holly.

 

Tales of a Horse Show Organizer:  Chapter One

Whether as a volunteer or paid staff, I have been involved with the organization or management of hundreds of horse shows or clinics.  Whether large or small, sanctioned or schooling, public or “in house”, some similar themes always seem to apply.  At the same time, each gathering has the opportunity for new (mis)adventures.

This past weekend, I went up to the Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA) in South Woodstock, VT, to volunteer for the day in the show jumping phase of their spring horse trials.  I spend so much time organizing, judging or coaching at horse shows that on the few occasions that I can go be a regular volunteer, I am sort of picky about which job I am willing to do.  I offered to scribe for the show jump judge, a position from which you can watch the horses jump the course, but one that didn’t require running around on my feet all day.

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So as I was getting ready to head up on Saturday morning, I debated my footwear.  I mean, I wasn’t really going to be around the horses directly, or standing, so I could just wear something casual and comfortable, right?

Then I remembered Chapter One from my someday to be published book, “Tales of a Horse Show Organizer”.  And I threw my paddock boots in the car.

Chapter One: Consider Your Footwear

The University of New Hampshire Equine Program runs several sanctioned shows each year; at one point, we ran three US Eventing Association horse trials and two US Dressage Federation dressage shows.  My role at the dressage shows was usually more behind the scenes than the front and center one of manager for the horse trials; most often, I helped set up the arenas and then assisted with scoring during the show itself.

One particularly notable year, we were positively stuffed to capacity with entries.  Eighty stalls of temporary stabling were full, with overflow in the main UNH barn and even a few stashed at neighboring facilities.  To accommodate these riders, we set up a fourth dressage arena.  The facility layout is a little bit sprawling, with most of the show (secretary’s tent, scoring, awards, three arenas and one large warm up) clustered together; stabling is out of sight from this, around the corner and down the road.  Ring four was set adjacent to stabling, so for the competitors down there, I would imagine it felt like they were at a completely different horse show.  Though we had radio communication with the group up the road, for the most part we had little awareness of what, specifically, was going on down there.

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I was scoring as per usual; my two pugs and I were stationed in the air conditioned trailer, surrounded by computers, calculators, printers and white out.  Historically, our dressage shows seem to be plagued by high temps, humidity and sometimes disruptive thunderstorms.  While I wore my traditional khaki shorts and UNH polo, in deference to my scheduled role as scorer and the heat, I only had a pair of Crocs with me.  Not even Crocs– some sort of cheap knock off that I picked up at a discount store. Definitely not “Pony Club approved footwear”.

Sometime towards late morning on the first day of the show, we received a call that the EMT was urgently needed down at the warm up for Ring Four.  A rider had been bucked off and landed quite badly; I can’t remember if she was conscious or not, but was certainly concussed.  The speaker reported that the horse had headed down the road towards us at the main show at a pretty good gallop.

Everyone leapt into action; the EMT was mobilized, the TD notified, show staff buzzing here, there and everywhere.  I kept waiting to hear on the radio that the horse had been caught; the call never came.  The horse never appeared in our area of the show.  I picked up my own radio and asked if anyone had caught the horse or knew where the horse was.  No response.

I left the scoring booth to see that the secretary’s tent was now being staffed only by our intrepid secretary, Liz.  I asked her if she knew anything about the status of the horse.  We concluded that he/she was MIA, but had last been seen speeding towards the Dairy Facility…which borders busy intrastate Route 4.

The horse was loose.  No one was looking for the horse.  The horse was heading for a busy highway.

I hopped into Liz’s car while she stayed at the tent and sped off for the Dairy Facility.

When I arrived, I don’t even know that I closed her car door before one of the dairymen, all casual like, said to me (in a true New Englander accent), “We were a-wondrin when when ah you hoss ladies was gonna come looking”.

“So the horse came through here?”

“Ayuh.”

I glanced around and saw neither tracks nor a horse.

“Which way?”

“It upset the cows, ya know.”

“I am sorry about that.  Which way, please?”

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One of UNH’s dairy herd. I don’t know if she, specifically, was bothered by the horse in question.

They vaguely gestured off towards the edge of the facility, towards the wooded tree line.  I took off in that direction at a jog.  Somewhere in this process, I had thought to call our barn manager and have her notify the local police.  She was reluctant at first, but it was clear to me that we had a real public safety risk if the horse had managed to reach the highway.  As I neared the trees, I caught sight of horse tracks—the horse was clearly still moving at speed, and headed straight into the woods.  I plunged into the overgrown tree line, stomping down the underbrush, fronds poking through the holes of my Crocs.  I tried not to think about how much poison ivy I was running through or the scratches my bare legs were incurring from the brambles.

The path taken by the horse became quite clear once I picked up the trail.  He/she was breaking through footing that had been undisturbed by something as large and quick moving as a horse, and with some recent rain the track had easily yielded to the horse’s momentum.  The ground cover quickly changed from a leafy forested area to a bit of a wetland, replete with cattails and other associated swamp like features.  I was still running along the horse’s trail, hearing the sound of the highway increasing in proximity with each step.  I should add at this point that there are very few circumstances in which I will willingly run.  I am one of those people who, if you seem them running, you should too as likely something quite bad is coming behind me.

So there I am—running after a loose horse (which I still have not seen), towards the highway, in my Crocs, in a swamp. And all of a sudden I just sort of sunk in—my foot slid into a print from the horse and the next thing I knew I was stuck almost hip deep in the muck with one leg.  I managed to extricate both my leg and my trusty Croc, and soldiered along, slipping in a few more times.  I was totally covered in swamp mud.  My colleague Sarah had now caught up to me; she was a distance runner and had jogged the entire way over to the Dairy, catching up to the same farmer and then following me into the brush.  Together, we made our way out through the rest of the swamp and broke out onto the shoulder of Route 4.  It wasn’t clear which way the horse had turned, so we each headed in a different direction and began running.

I kept waiting to hear squealing brakes, or galloping feet, but instead, after a few minutes, I was instead approached by a cruiser with blue lights flashing.  Sarah was sitting in the passenger seat, and the officer rolled down his window.  “The horse has been caught, and I saw you two out here, so I figured I would give you a ride,” he said.  “Hop in”.  I slid into the back seat.  Fun fact:  the back seat of police cruisers is just a plastic shell, which worked out quite well for my “swamp creature” self.

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As the officer drove the cruiser towards the UNH exit, we came upon our naughty dressage horse—a beautiful, flashy chestnut with chrome, still in full tack (bridle, saddle, boots—and no, I never got the brand name of the products which stayed on through the horse’s jaunt through hill and dale)—BEING RIDDEN by a gentleman in his tennis shoes and shorts.  The man was clearly a horseman, and rode in the style of a saddleseat rider or similar.  The horse’s head was up and he was smartly stepping along as the gentleman purposefully trotted him along the side of the road.  We provided police escort to the pair all the way off the highway, down Main Street, and back to the Ring 4 warm up where the whole situation had begun.  The rider did not let up on the horse until they had reached the arena, where he smartly dismounted and took the reins over the head.

Sarah and the officer hopped out of the cruiser and headed towards the horse and rider.  An additional fun fact:  when you are in the back of a police cruiser, you cannot get out unless someone lets you out.  So I sat there, covered in swamp mud, in my UNH Equine polo shirt, waiting in the back of the cruiser to be released.  I sort of wondered if this would be the one occasion on which our Dean might arrive at one of our horse shows, to find me locked in the back of a cop car.

Eventually, the officer noticed my predicament and came to let me out.  I joined the group around the rider, who said he used to show Morgans and was actually the uncle of one of our students.  I told him that if he had liked the horse, he could probably get him for a quite reasonable price at that moment in time!  I also said that I thought he was quite brave, to get on a strange horse that was running loose alongside the highway, with no riding gear or helmet.  He looked at me quite strangely and said, “Well, I certainly wasn’t going to LEAD him off the road!”  To each his own.

The horse’s owner did end up receiving off site medical treatment, but her barn mates assumed possession of her horse and we broke up to continue our respective duties of show management or keeping the peace.  The advantage of my Croc attire was that with a good hosing, I looked moderately presentable and was only modestly stinky for the rest of my day in scoring.

But I will say that if I had to do the whole thing again, more sensible shoes would have been appropriate.  It doesn’t really matter what job you are supposed to be doing at the horse show, I guess there is always a chance you will need to catch a loose horse.

And this is why at GMHA this past weekend, I wore paddock boots for my non-horse involved volunteer role.

I still have the Crocs.

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PS: I stole the featured image (of the UNH dressage rings) for this blog from my friend Liz’s page, On the Bit Events, LLC!  She loves organizing horse shows so much she started her own business to do it! Check her company out!

Ya Gotta Know When to Hold ‘Em….and When to Fold ‘Em

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.

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Lee and I out on the trails at the farm in late fall, 2015.

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.

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Anna and I schooling at Tamarack, summer of 2014.

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.

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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).