Proper saddle fit is a topic which has garnered much attention as equestrians have gained a better understanding of the intersection between tack and performance. Jochen Schleese, of Saddlefit4Life, is a saddle maker who is inspired to educate riders, owners and trainers on the basic concepts of better saddle fit. He gave a lecture and demonstration on the subject at the University of New Hampshire Equine Program in September of 2017, and the following is a brief summary of his critical points.
Several trends in modern equestrian sport have influenced the needs we must address in the design and selection of saddles. First, most riders are female, and the structure of their pelvis is different than that of a male. Female hip sockets face more forward, a shorter tail bone brings the balance point of the pelvis further forward and the seat bones are wider. However, saddle design traditionally has been oriented towards what will suit a male pelvis; when women try to ride in saddles which do not allow them to naturally sit in a comfortable, supported position, they at a minimum feel like they ‘fight the tack’, or in the long term, can suffer health complications including pain in their back, hips and knees. And of course, a rider out of balance will negatively affect the horse as well.
Secondly, the shape of horses has changed, with modern breeds trending towards being more “sporty”. As trainers, we want to encourage the horse to lift their topline up underneath the weight of the saddle and rider. But as the horse lacks collar bones, and their entire trunk is hanging from their shoulder muscles, the sheer act of saddling and sitting on a horse causes the topline to be pushed down. Just as one size shoe does not fit all wearers, one size saddle does not suit all shapes of horse, and as the horse develops muscle, even what once fit well may need adjustments. If we want to have any chance of engaging the topline correctly, we must set the horse up to be able to lift.
Horses are remarkably tolerant, and most will try to do what is asked of them even if their tack is ill fitting. But we will see the physical effects of poor fit in myriad ways—subtle cues, such as a wrinkle in the nose, pinned ears, and wide eyes are a good place to start. More significantly, we can see severe impacts such as the development of subluxations, sacroiliac issues (like hunter’s bump), swayback, scoliosis, muscle wasting and more.
A well fitted saddle will help prevent these issues, but it must be appropriate for the physique of the horse in question. And we must be cognizant that the shape of the horse will change over time.
It is critical that the position and shape of the saddle do not interfere with the cap of cartilage which is located over the top of the shoulder blade. Equally important is that the saddle cannot sit on the horse’s spine. Most horsemen know this, but at the same time, may not be able to accurately assess the true width of the spine; just because the channel is clear doesn’t mean that the panels are as well. Sometimes it is necessary to map out the areas on the horse’s back which can carry weight versus those spots where it simply can’t.
Schleese explained that there are fourteen reflex points in and around the saddle area which cause a negative reaction if they are being pinched from a saddle. Think of a reflex point having sensitivity akin to hitting your funny bone; the response to pressure is involuntary. Some of these points are more sensitive than others; Schleese used the analogies of “lemon”, “grape” or “egg” pressure to help the audience understand the tolerable amount of force on a given area. Clearly, a lemon will absorb more pressure than an egg before it breaks.
If these areas are being pinched, riders will likely experience resistance in their warm up for at least twenty minutes; this is the amount of time it takes for the nerves to go numb.
Schleese emphasized that there are nine critical points to check when assessing saddle fit for the horse:
Saddle length: The shoulder and loin areas must be non-weight bearing. In addition, the tree must have the same angle as the shoulder of the horse. It is critical to correctly identify the end of the shoulder (usually in line with the end of the mane/front of the withers) and ensure that the saddle is not impeding it. This last point was emphasized repeatedly.
Balance: The saddle’s balance point should be parallel to the ground when it is correctly placed on the horse’s back. It is the distribution of a rider’s weight, rather than the actual amount of weight, which is critical. An asymmetrical rider can almost double their impact on the horse.
No Rotation/Shifting/Twisting: The saddle should not shift to the right or left when viewed from behind. The tree points must be behind the shoulder blades.
Wither clearance: You are looking for at least two to three fingers clearance above the withers, but should also look for two to three fingers on the sides to allow for lateral work. Note here that conformation matters; the saddle will be closer to a high withered horse and farther away from one with mutton withers. There should be no pressure at all four inches below the withers when the saddle is placed on the horse. Schleese says you should be able to take a BIC pen, place it under the D-ring, and then slide it down without resistance. Otherwise, when you add a pad and the weight of a rider, the pinch which the horse feels will replicate the bite of a stallion.
Spinal Clearance: This relates to the width of the gullet—you are looking for 3-5 fingers here, enough to ensure that the saddle isn’t interfering with the spinous processes or the musculature of the horse’s back.
Billet Alignment: The billets should hang perpendicular to the ground, and the girth should be centered, not tipped forward or backwards. The girth will always position itself at the narrowest point of the rib cage, behind the elbow.
Horizontal Panel: The panels should touch evenly on the horse’s back, all the way down their length. Avoid “bridging” or rocking, which distributes the pressure unevenly, causing the horse to hollow their back.
Tree angle: The tree angle should be parallel to the shoulder angle when the saddle is positioned properly.
Tree width: The tree must be wide enough to allow for shoulder rotation, especially when jumping, but not so wide that the saddle rocks or sits on the withers. Most owners are familiar with the concept of narrow, medium or wide trees, but not that the angles of these trees can vary. This explains why a medium width tree in one saddle might not fit the same as one made by a different manufacturer.
There are two styles of saddle fitting: static fitting is done while the horse is still, while dynamic fitting considers how the horse moves as part of the fitting process. “You must bring your horsemanship and common sense with you,” says Schleese.
Dynamic fitting can give the saddle expert more information. Schleese likes to watch the horse move on the longe line at the walk with no tack; he watches the horse’s eyes, ears, and mouth, as well as the manner in which they carry their topline. In particular, he notes the tail carriage, which is essentially an elongation of the spine. How the horse carries their tail is a reflection of the way in which they have been trained. Most horses carry their tails to the left (and interestingly, their manes fall right).
“When the tail goes to the left, they will track up more easily on the left side,” says Schleese.
Schleese next will watch the horse with a rider on board, wearing their saddle as positioned by the rider; he notes that dressage riders tend to set it too far back while jumping riders tend to set too far forward. When mounted, the horse should still track up evenly and the loins should remain soft and supple. Within eight circles, the horse should begin to salivate and chew the bit.
While it is normal for the saddle to shift slightly away from the direction of the horse’s bend, it should not move dramatically. Often, issues are more subtle. For example, a saddle which is jamming into the horse’s back on the right side of their spine will cause their tail to swing left.
Schleese’s mission is to educate as many equestrians as possible on the essential elements of saddle fit. It is clearly a complex process which requires practice to master, but by reviewing the basics, any horse owner should be able to do a basic evaluation on their own saddle to determine if expert guidance is required.
Making it Happen: The Autobiography by Carl Hester
c 2014 Orion Books: London, UK. 260 pages.
ISBN 978 1 409 14767 1
Autobiography, biography and memoir have almost always been “off” my reading list, but with an increased exposure recently to this nonfiction genre through my M.F.A. program, I have become more open minded. I picked up Making it Happen, the autobiography of Carl Hester, last fall after attending his NEDA Symposium. The book is written in Hester’s voice–and the text has the unpolished quality of someone who does not write professionally—but on the back inside cover jacket it indicates the book was co-authored by equestrian journalist Bernadette Hewitt, whom Carl affectionately refers to throughout as “Bernie”. While it is no literary masterpiece, this book delivers on its promise to tell “the incredible story of one of the world’s greatest equestrians”.
The opening chapter shows us Hester at the London Olympics, just moments before the British team clinches an historic gold medal on home turf. From this career high, Hester then takes readers on the journey from his youth on the Channel Island of Sark, to boarding school and on through his rise up the ranks of equestrian sport– detailing his apprenticeships, hard horses, risky gambles and sometimes tumultuous professional relationships– to become the king of British Dressage. In 2016, Hester became a five-time Olympian with his appearance in Rio; he also is or has been the coach of all the riders on both the 2012 and 2016 squads, including two time gold medalist Charlotte Dujardin, riding Hester’s own Valegro. Perhaps the story of the 2016 Games might become an appendix if there is ever an update to the 2014 edition.
At times irreverent, only vaguely self-reflective and greatly entertaining, Hester is a lively story teller. There are many, many occasions in this book where he makes reference to someone by their first name only, and I was frequently left feeling as though I had skipped a chapter or missed a page somewhere. His prose is suggestive of the one way dialogue of someone who has drank too much coffee, when the listener can do little more than nod and murmur “oh dear” or “of course” at relevant moments. In reading the chapters, I was left feeling somewhat out of breath by the rapid fire pace of transmission—but yet still felt compelled to turn the pages. Hester takes you along for the ride.
I am not one to believe that someone is inherently interesting just because they are a celebrity, and perhaps that is partially why this particular written genre has never really appealed to me. But it can be heartening for those of us in the trenches, as it were, to remember and recognize that even the greatest of riders are people too, and that we all make mistakes. In Making It Happen, Hester owns the errors of his past and reveals his moments of hubris in equal balance to those occasions in which his good choices were deliberate or he was able to stand firm to his principles despite detractors. Perhaps one of the hardest parts of writing memoir or autobiography is to reveal the warts and dark moments; in his book, Hester does not shy from them. As a both a writer and a human, I appreciated that.
I would recommend Making it Happen to any equestrian, but I think it will be the dressage enthusiast who enjoys this story the most. When the world of “penguin suited fancy prancers” can start to feel a little too much—pick this book up. And recognize that even one of the best in the world is able to not take themselves too seriously.
In late April, my friend Bethany shared a quote from Vonnegut which really resonated with me. I will loosely paraphrase here; Vonnegut contends that the reason we are often so frustrated with the weather in March and April is because we are falsely under the impression that it is spring. Instead, Vonnegut identifies six seasons, not four: January and February are still winter, but as nature wakes back up in March and April, this is not actually spring, but rather “unlocking”. Spring doesn’t actually happen until May and June, while summer hits in July and August and autumn in September and October. Then in November and December, another transition–“locking”, when nature and all of its creatures shut down, store up and settle in for the depths of winter.
This is sheer genius.
Inspired by Vonnegut, I would like to propose the Seasons of the New England Equestrian for the first third of the year: FREEZE, HOPE, DESPAIR, SPRING and DE-FERALIZATION. Here, I present an example of the inner monologue of an avid equestrian as she cycles through each of these seasons, inspired by my own experience:
January-February (FREEZE). “It is SO cold. The wind can’t blow any harder. Oh wait– it can.” [Pause to widen stance and reset wool hat]. “The water spigot froze and I have to carry water from the bathtub upstairs. My breath has frozen on my glasses. And the gate latch froze.” [Removes glove, exposing bare skin, in order to use body heat to thaw the latch]. “I am so lucky to have horses. I am so lucky to have horses. Repeat. WHY didn’t I go south like all my friends on Facebook?!?!”
March 1 (HOPE). “I see the bare earth! Just a small patch, and it is all mud, but I saw it. It still exists! I will start hacking and legging the horses up soon, maybe mid-month. We are going to get an early start on the season! It is going to be brilliant! We will be so fit and ready and it will be wonderful!”
Anna at her boarding stable during “hope”
The calm before the late March blizzard.
March 10 (DESPAIR). In the background, the meteorologist is happily announcing the largest named blizzard of the season.“There are three feet of snow out of my window and it is still snowing. This is never going to melt. Ever. And even if it does, it will be mud for the next six months. I will never ride again.”
April (SPRING) “I mean, it is pouring sideways, and the mud is now almost over the tops of my wellies, but the calendar says spring, right? So maybe I can start to ride?” It should be noted here that roughly 75% of the arena is still covered in snow and ice.
April 15 (SPRING, continued, after attempting to begin riding despite the conditions). “My horses have become completely, 100% feral. They scream when I separate them. They dance on the crossties like they have never been in the barn. Their girths don’t fit. One bridle was eaten by mice. I can’t find one glove. And now we have pulled a shoe.”
They left the browband and reins alone; these were from a different bridle and evidently less tasty leather.
A close up of my mouse-devoured bridle.
A close up of my mouse-devoured bridle.
They left the browband and reins alone; these were from a different bridle and evidently less tasty leather.
Oh spring. All winter, I yearn for it, for the return of fair weather, better footing, all my horses at home, and longer days with sunlight from the earliest hours of the morning until late evening. But somehow the initial reality never quite lives up to my ideal. Spring arrives with excess packaging: mud, tons of winter hair, lost muscling, and dust on all my gear despite efforts to keep up with cleanliness during the off season. And the worst part, for me, is the equine behavior. In order to get to the blissful days of summer, without fail, this next phase cannot be skipped. I call it DE-FERALIZATION. Like children who have been on summer vacation for too long, I find the first few weeks of transition from winter break to being working animals brings out some of the worst characteristics in my favorite equines.
I started the de-feralization in mid-March by bringing in each of the three horses which lived at Cold Moon Farm all winter for individual grooming sessions. Other than a few little whinnies (“I am in here…are you still out there?”), their attitudes stayed mostly calm and I was able to start shedding out the winter coats. I untangled tails and pulled manes, doing the youngster’s in small chunks since she is still not so sure about it and Lee’s during the late March blizzard when we were all stuck inside anyway. I began to see the horses under the hair. I thought, ‘wow, maybe de-feralization won’t be that bad this year.’
Insert diabolical laughter now.
I brought Anna home from the indoor on April 1. While I am SO grateful for having the ability to keep her close to home at a well maintained facility, I was also SO ready to bring her back. I knew that the first few weeks of April would be dicey as far as serious work went, so I was prepared to give Anna a few weeks’ light work upon her return home; hacking, light ring riding as the footing permitted, maybe some work in hand.
Here is a video of what happened when I turned her back out with Lee:
Anna’s first hack at home was with Marquesa; it was the older Morgan’s first ride since last year. Now 22, Marquesa has always been an old soul. Spooking just isn’t her thing; high necked Morgan alertness, yes, but spinning, wheeling, bucking, etc., nope. We thought we would take them for about twenty minutes across the power lines and around the back field, just a short walk to stretch legs.
We didn’t make it out of the backyard. I mean, everyone stayed on, but between the squealing and jigging from Anna and the snorting and blowing from Quesa…well, we considered the safe return to the barn after about ten minutes to be a success.
In early April, I bought a round pen. My ring is only partially fenced and given that Izzy is turning three this year and we might want to THINK about backing her at some point, I figured that a more complete perimeter was a good idea. We set it up mid-ring, straddling the snow which still covered half the arena.
I took Lee out to the round pen on the longe line to start her back into some sort of work. Last year, I was able to hack her out with Marquesa and another rider, which worked really well. But with Anna home a whole month earlier, I could only hack one horse at a time and Lee was relegated to second string status. Even at 19, Lee can be really reluctant to leave the farm by herself when she is out of practice and be cheeky in the ring, and so as a former trainer used to say, “the longe line is your friend.”
To my surprise and delight, Lee was completely civilized in the round pen. I started by just walking her—forced marching for 20-30 minutes with frequent direction changes—and she was so compliant and calm that I ended up just unclipping the line and practiced moving her around with my body language. Compared to the others, I think she has lost the most condition this winter. But at the same time, she is mostly Thoroughbred, and once she gets into work, she tends to come back to fitness fairly quickly.
Feeling overly ambitious, I also signed Izzy up to go to an in hand/ground work clinic with Tik Maynard in early May. I have heard Tik speak and read his articles, which all have impressed me, and I thought the opportunity was too good to pass up. But I knew that Izzy may have forgotten some of her lessons from last year after a winter off, and we had to be diligent about reviewing the basics. In addition, she taught herself a new skill this winter—how to buck—and though the bucks are without any malice and are performed with just the sheer joy of being young and agile and quick, I was less pleased with this addition to her repertoire. My helmet became constantly planted to my head and Izzy tested my determination to prep her for the clinic on an almost daily basis.
Then on April 15, it snowed. Again.
In order to get through the De-Feralization, what is needed is consistency. And between the weather, the footing, and my work schedule, what I didn’t seem to be finding was the one thing most necessary for success.
So this year, instead of getting overly frustrated during this time of transition, I tried to practice a different mantra: We’ve been through this before. We take baby steps. We always get through it, and once we do, the reward is worth the few weeks of challenge. This is perhaps the time of year beyond all other where we must simply acknowledge that patience is also a skill which requires practice. All you can ever do is your best, take small steps, and reward any forward progress.
Instead of being upset with myself that my work schedule wouldn’t permit me to give 110% attention to each horse, I divided my time. I recruited some helpers, who came to hack with me (thanks Julia and Nikki!), allowing two horses to get attention at once. I became satisfied with shorter work sets—even just 15 minutes for Izzy—knowing that a little was better than nothing and in time, we would build on this small foundation.
Now, on the cusp of June, I am finally enjoying truly glorious spring weather, with mostly compliant horses who have a baseline of fitness. De-feralization is complete, and true spring has officially arrived.
Training Horses the Ingrid Klimke Way by Ingrid Klimke
c 2016 Trafalgar Square Publishing, North Pomfret, VT. 163 pages.
If you have read any of my previous reviews of Klimke’s work (including her updates and revisions to her father’s original texts), it is no secret that I am an uber fan-girl of Ms. Klimke and really idolize the focus, talent, compassion and effectiveness she brings to her horsemanship. The fact that she also is a mother and wife, writes books and articles and seems to sometimes to also take vacations only adds to her superwoman status. So it is with the utmost respect and honor that I say that this particular book was not my favorite out of all of the Klimke collection.
That is not to say that it is a bad book. It just feels rather…unfocused. In less than two hundred pages, readers get an overview of her principles for training, a snap shot of each phase of work (broken down by warm up, each gait, cool down, cavalettis, etc.) and then offers a brief profile of each of her ten competition horses, revealing their specific training protocols based on their strengths, weaknesses and personalities. We also cover her mentors, support team, and preferred tack. It is a lot of content, and a broad range to cover, and I guess based on the title that is what the reader should be expecting.
The problem I had is that, after having read her other books, this one just seems to gloss over the most important concepts. I guess it isn’t possible to take the deep dive into a particular facet of training that we do when the whole book is dedicated to that particular topic; in Cavaletti, for example, Klimke is able to break down the steps to introduce cavaletti to a horse, and then details the systematic increase in demands which one can place on the horse through the use of ever evolving cavaletti and gymnastic exercises.
With all that being said—for someone who is looking for more of an overview to Klimke’s system, this book will certainly grant you that. It is wonderfully illustrated—the woman seems incapable of taking a bad picture—and each photo shows a joyful horse, well presented. Klimke’s tone is one of modesty and humbleness; she is always a student of the horse. Klimke, who was awarded the title of Riding Master by the German Equestrian Federation in 2012, says that to do justice to this status, “I train further, question myself, consider the views of others, and remain open to all riding styles. Anyone who cares to be a good rider must first of all work on herself: on her inner bearing, her general attitude toward horses, her physical readiness (of course), and on giving aids clearly and “with feel” for the horse” (Klimke, 2016, p xiii). In my opinion, this is an attitude which more American trainers would be wise to embrace.
As always, I still took away pearls from Klimke. For example, Klimke’s horses are all turned out every day, sometimes in groups—even her top mounts. It is an important part of their program to maintain their mental and physical health. “To me, it seems obvious that performance horses should be kept in the way that is most appropriate to their species. This means, they get to move freely every day, whether in a paddock or out at pasture. They need social contact or their herd, in order for them to feel safe and well….In my experience, horses that are turned out regularly rarely hurt themselves” (Klimke, 2016, p. 30-31).
Each chapter heading begins with a summary which is excellent in its brevity and clarity; it is like a little nugget which you could read before you ride just to keep your focus sharp, or pin to your computer to meditate on when taking a break from work. For example, in her chapter on “The Warm-Up Phase”, Klimke writes, “Take enough time to warm up and come together with your partner. This goes for horses of any age and is important both physically and mentally” (Klimke, 2016, p.56).
One of the other aspects of this book with I appreciated was the credit which Klimke gives to her own mentors and coaches, all of whom she considers part of her team and a critical key to her success, as well as her grooms, stable managers and equine health support team. She expresses gratitude to and offers credit to her horses’ owners for remaining steadfast through the inevitable ups and downs of the training process, and also acknowledges the support of her family. No one can reach the kinds of lofty aspirations which Klimke does without such a network, and it was quite refreshing to get a glimpse into that world for this rider.
So if you are interested in sweeping overview of Klimke’s approach to developing her horses, this book would be a great place to start. I know that some sections of the book are already out of date (for example, in 2017, Klimke retired one of her rising stars, SAP Escada FRH, due to injury; she describes Escada in the book as “absolutely the best horse I have had under saddle to date” (Klimke, 2016, p. 121)), but for most readers, these factors will do little to detract from the rest of the content.
Lately, my interest in broadening my understanding of various kinds of ground and in hand work has been growing, and I am enjoying learning about ways in which this work could be beneficial to both my training process and developing the relationship with my horses.
In mid February, I had the opportunity to visit Narnia Stables in Ashford, Conn., the home base for trainer Meg Brauch, who was offering a Straightness Training (ST) clinic with lecture and demo. The clinic’s title was “Using Work in Hand to Gymnastically Develop the Horse”, and photos promoting the event showed many happy horses in various stages of training. I was intrigued and roped my friend Sally into making the two and a half hour drive down for the afternoon start time.
Straightness Training is a system developed by Dutch equestrian Marijke de Jong. After one short afternoon session, I am far from qualified to fully discuss the system or its philosophies in any great length, but I did take away that it is inspired by the work of classical horsemen like Gueriniere, Baucher, and those of the Iberian peninsula, and that it is intended as a systematic and progressive system that focuses on developing a horse using humane methods.
Introduction to ST
Meg provided a basic overview of the ST system, where I recognized some clear areas of overlap with other, better-known-to me, training philosophies. First off, most of the unmounted work is done in a cavesson. I was quite impressed with the design of Meg’s cavesson. In my experience, finding correctly fitting cavessons is a real challenge; they usually do not conform well to the muzzle or sit evenly around the bones of the skull. The cavessons Meg uses are Baroque inspired and have a piece of padded chain over the nose; I am sure that some people will find this too harsh, and I am sure in the wrong hands it would be. But in truth, the shape of the noseband better conformed to the muzzle than most of the off the rack cavessons out there, and the weight of the noseband overall was much less than a regular cavesson. It had a greater degree of adjustability as well; one of the horses Meg used for demonstration later in the afternoon was an Anglo-Trakhener, heavy on the Thoroughbred blood, and his refined face seemed fit well in the cavesson. This style also has an option to fairly easily add a bit, which is a useful feature.
The ST system is based on its “five pillars”: groundwork, longeing, work in hand, riding and liberty work. The first two steps are done in a cavesson with a single line attached, and in these stages, the goal is to teach the horse how to carry themselves. The work in hand, which we were there to watch specifically, is done in a cavesson with a set of reins clipped to either side, as on a bridle. As horses become more advanced, a curb bit can be clipped to the cavesson along with a set of reins, and the horse is introduced to the concept of a double bridle.
Horses which are trained in the ST system will be introduced to many under saddle concepts prior to actually being backed; the exercises are meant to help develop the horse’s balance as well as to gymnastically work and develop the muscles. For a youngster, ST can help the horse to understand the rein aids and develop lightness. In the end, the horse should become confident, relaxed and supple in their work. Due to the mental and physical demands, ST should not be started before the horse’s third year. Lightness was a pervasive theme, both in the application of the aids and the weight of the horse in the hand.
For the handler, ST teaches a better feel for their mount’s natural asymmetry and body position in the lateral exercises, and also helps to improve their sense of timing. Meg promised that this improved “feel” transfers over to the ridden work.
Now, to really understand the importance of lateral work, you have to also appreciate that horses are naturally asymmetrical. Horses are narrower in the shoulders than the hips, and like humans, are “sided”, meaning one set of limbs tends to be in charge. In our usual handling practices, horsemen do little to improve the situation (when was the last time you led/untacked/mounted from the right or “off” side?).
ST teaches about “eight dimensions of asymmetry”. For me, there was nothing new here, but I really liked the way the concepts were organized. Meg presented the dimensions of asymmetry as follows:
Lateral bending (issues here are usually the easiest to correct)
Horizontal imbalance (horse naturally carries more weight on forehand)
Front legs (Handedness, as in, which leg does your horse prefer to lead with)
Hind Legs (the carrying hind leg is more flexible, and the pushing hind leg tends to be straighter, stronger and less flexible)
Front/back ratio (the wedge shape of the horse which I referred to earlier)
Diagonal (one diagonal pair will be dominant, and usually the pushing hind is diagonal to the dominant front)
Vertical (leaning in on an angle on corners)
Topline (we want the horse to stretch here and be longer and rounded).
In general, a right bended horse tends to be left forelimb dominant and usually has a pushing right hind. Their concave side is their right side. Reverse all of these for a horse which is left bended (which seems to be less common overall).
To improve the horse first requires awareness of the asymmetry on the part of the trainer. All beings are asymmetrical, but through thoughtful and steady work, improvement is always possible.
Use of the Aids in ST
The pillars of ST work which are done on the ground require the use of the handler’s body language and voice, but several other aids are also important. The first is mental focus—Meg used the expression “inner picture, inner feeling”, which basically means that before a trainer begins any exercise with their horse, they should have a sense of what it is they are trying to accomplish. Related to this is the concept of “energetic aids”, which basically is saying that the handler should be centered, grounded and present, with their full attention on the horse and the task at hand. Finally, for several pillars, artificial aids like a long whip (for driving, slowing or reinforcing) or rein (used similarly to the riding reins, with inside/outside and direct/indirect cues offered) are also included. A direct rein influences the horse’s poll while an indirect rein influences the shoulders, almost like having a lasso around the horse’s neck.
The demonstration section of this clinic was focusing on the work in hand, a pillar which comes after a horse already has a basic understanding of the ground work done with a cavesson on a single line, attached to the nose. Basic circle work and an introduction to the lateral movements should be established through ground work before progressing to work in hand, which is done with a set of reins clipped to either side of the cavesson, as on a bridle. During the ground work phase, the handler works on the inside of the horse. But during the in hand phase, the handler will transition to the outside of the horse.
The whip becomes a tool of refined communication, based primarily by its position. It can be used to activate the hind end, or when held in front of the chest, indicates a half halt. Held at the girth, it asks for more bend or forward intention. Pointed towards the opposite hip, it becomes an advanced aid to increase the angle of the haunches in. When kept down by the handler’s side, the whip is in neutral.
Progression of Exercises
In each stage of progression through the pillars, a series of specific exercises is introduced in order. During each exercise, the horse is encouraged to maintain “LFS”—lateral bend, a forward and downward tendency, while stepping under their center of mass with the hind leg.
Standstill: Meg says many folks new to ST work tend to gloss over this exercise, because it seems too easy or basic. But mastering the stand still, in which the horse halts with front feet square, head and neck lowered, while willingly flexing left and right, provides an important foundation. It also gives the horse a first introduction of the cavesson and its pressure, and helps to teach them to center their mass away from their dominant fore limb.
Circle: Usually done only in the walk, the circle is used to help establish LFS. “We don’t tend to do these in trot or canter, because it is hard to go from the circle to a straight line and keep the horse well balanced,” says Meg.
LFS on Straight Line, progressing to Shoulder In
When it comes down to it, what I witnessed at this clinic was the application of highly effective classical and operant training techniques. This is really at the root of most good animal training, whether you are talking about riding horses or training dogs or teaching some exotic zoo animal to engage in a medical exam. ST work is about applying the 3 R’s—Release, Reward, Relax. When the horse makes a move towards doing the thing you want, the handler offers a “bingo cue” (some sort of consistent sound), they release the pressure, and then immediately reward the horse with verbal or physical praise or a treat. There is then a short break to allow the horse to process what he just learned.
It is the timing and dosing of the pressure and release process which is most people’s downfall. Basically, handlers need to AVOID pressure which is held too much, too long, too often, too suddenly or too steadily, and EMBRACE release which is early, often, quickly administered, long and soon. Release more than you take. Through this process, the horse learns to carry the posture on his own.
There are three phases of the training process. The first phase is teaching the horse. In this phase, we are trying to help the horse begin to understand the exercise, and to develop the new neural pathways which will allow it to be performed. At this stage, the movement may lack gymnastic quality, or be in slow motion, similar to how we might learn a new dance step. In the optimizing phase, the trainer focuses on improving the quality of the movement and encourages the horse to work towards self-carriage in the body and mind. Finally, in the improvising phase, the exercise can now be used for a purpose or in a goal-oriented way.
Another way to look at the training and learning process is to understand that in doing any activity, there is the comfort zone (doing what you know and is familiar), the stretch zone (where you are trying something new that is out of your comfort zone but still attainable) and the stress zone (where what you are trying to teach is too much, too soon). Growth occurs in the stretch zone, but not every day can be a stretch day. And when we live in the stress zone… no training occurs.
Meg demonstrated the in hand techniques with two of her own horses. The first horse was a 6 year old Hanoverian gelding who has had a “slow start” in his training progress due to various injuries. She demonstrated that she held each rein through the thumb and forefinger, so the overall contact was quite light. The outside rein should cross the neck in front of the withers, but not be more than half way up the neck. The goal is to work towards holding the reins closer to the withers than the head, so that the horse is ultimately coming forward from the hindquarters and into the rein (similar to riding). However, when the trainer loses quality, they should move their hold closer to the cavesson until the necessary elements improve. The handler’s body should be positioned off of the girth; Meg explained that it is really easy to get out in front of the horse’s shoulder.
This particular horse usually struggles with the stand still, but today demonstrated the position with his feet even and square. Meg emphasized that under saddle, the horse must learn to wait to move until the rider’s cue, and this practice starts here. She encouraged the horse to stretch forward and down using gentle pressure on the front of the cavesson, and then flexed him to the left and right with pressure on the sides.
After a few moments in the stand still, Meg moved on to doing small circles, 8-10 meters in diameter, to encourage the bending of the horse, while still asking for the forward and downward tendency. When she asked for transitions to the halt, the effort is made mostly from the voice. The ultimate goal is to use little to no pressure on the reins in the halt, as the horse will usually tend to come up in the neck and lean into this pressure.
Because changing the bend while in motion is fairly difficult, Meg halted her horse and changed the reins over to the opposite side to work in the other direction.
She then proceeded to demonstrate the shoulder in (be sure to not draw the horse’s nose further in than their point of shoulder) and haunches in (the horse is taught to bend around the whip, which provides the cue).
Next, Meg brought in her 19 year old schoolmaster, Paladin, an Anglo-Trakehner. He came to her due to intermittent front end lameness which had ended his competitive career; through ST work to straighten his body, redevelop movement patterns and correct asymmetrical muscling, the lameness has all but resolved.
Meg worked through all of the same initial movements with Paladin, but then also showed us work in trot and canter. She explained that the classical masters would sometimes introduce half steps in hand before introducing the trot in order to develop balance and strength; in the faster gaits, it is best to do very short bursts to prevent the horse from losing balance. No matter the gait of the horse, the handler should always remain walking, not jogging, to keep up.
Teaching these progressive exercises in the walk and trot with a youngster can help them to understand what is wanted before trying to do the movements with a rider on board. The movements may also be done in the canter, but this requires more collection than a young horse will have; it is better to introduce the canter under saddle first and allow the horse to develop more strength before teaching these exercises in that gait.
When I signed up for this clinic, I was not expecting a full immersion into an organized training system. I am almost always initially skeptical of programs which promote a particular prescripted philosophy, special equipment (ex: buy this halter/video series/magic stick for just 99.95) or come with too many impassioned disciples who all function at only a very basic level. So before I “drink the Kool-Aid”, I like to try to learn a little more.
Straightness Training (http://straightnesstraining.com/) is a pretty comprehensive program. Its founder, Marijke de Jong, has created an ambitious and heavily trademarked/registered system of instruction, coaching, certification and support. Under the “FAQ’s” page on her website are some interesting threads on integrating ST work with “other types of riding” as well as what the difference is between classical riding and Straightness Training. Here, deJong compares the different schools of classical dressage training (German, Spanish, etc.) to the branches of a tree; while the specific approaches and techniques taught in these different schools may vary, they all have the same roots. deJong’s work is drawing off much of the in hand training approaches used by classical masters. She seems to have studied this subject far more deeply than I have ever attempted to, and it is beyond the scope of this blog for me to do any analysis on the connections here.
I think we as horsemen are all enthralled with the idea of having a horse which responds to our aids with lightness and sensitivity and to have the kind of relationship with our horse that is seemingly effortless and harmonious. Certainly in Meg’s demonstration she showed that with time and care, her work on the ground has allowed each of her horses to respond to quiet and soft aids as they worked through their lateral movements. Despite being distracted by outside stimuli and twenty auditors, both horses chose ultimately to focus on Meg, with a minimum of fuss and no force.
I think my major, most important take away from this clinic was a reminder that we must all reward more often and for less effort. It is so easy, especially in dressage or equitation work, to drill ourselves and our horses. In doing so, we fail to recognize the “try”, the little effort the animal or student puts forward to improve, because we are too focused on shaping the response to be what we want in a final performance. But in order to get to that evolved, confident and smooth answer, there are many small, incremental steps of growth and improvement. If we as teachers and trainers do not reward these steps, the progress and growth we specifically seek can be deterred.
I had the occasion to attend the US Eventing Association (USEA) Area I Annual Meeting out in Holyoke, MA on January 7, 2018. I try to make it every year to attend the event organizer’s meeting, and getting to stay to hear the guest lecture each year is an added bonus. I was quite enthused to learn that Canadian event rider Tik Maynard had been asked to speak at this year’s meeting. Recently, I read a piece Tik wrote for Practical Horseman about the ground work training he had used with his Retired Racehorse Project mount, Remarkable 54. I found the article well written and thoughtful, and had a sense from it that Tik was an educated, thinking horseman. In his presentation, which he called, “7 Big Picture Ideas to Get Along Better with your Horse”, he did not disappoint.
My overall impression of Tik as a horseman only improved upon hearing his introduction—the son of a show jumper and a dressage rider, he attended college in his native British Columbia before embarking on a quest for absolutely top of the line horsemanship education by spending nearly two years apprenticing with riders such as Ingrid Klimke, Johann Hinneman, Anne Kursinski and David and Karen O’Connor. The work was hard and sometimes he didn’t measure up—in fact, he was asked to leave Hinneman’s barn for “not being good enough”. He worked hard to spend time with some of the best in different disciplines, even though eventing became his main passion. At the O’Connors, he had his first exposure to natural horsemanship, which completely changed the way in which Tik approached horse training.
This experience inspired him to do a working student position in Texas with a western rider who specializes in training cow horses using natural horsemanship techniques. I may be getting the exact timeline wrong here, but you get the general idea. In working at this facility, Tik says that he didn’t learn so much about riding— he learned a lot about horses. He became more interested in the behavioral side of horses—how they think, how they respond, and how they process training.
Through his practical education, Tik developed the perspective that all trainers have a philosophy which is the result of the unique combination of their personal training in technique and theory combined with their own instinct or horse sense. Each trainer’s philosophy will be unique to them, which he thinks is a good thing. It is sort of his premise that a student becomes a sum total of their teachers, and every experience has something to teach us, even if what we learn is what doesn’t work well. It is only once a trainer has a solid foundation and philosophy of their own that they can begin to use their imagination to, in Tik’s words, “do something better than it has ever been done before.”
Tik’s personal philosophy would seem to prioritize a horse which is engaged in the learning process. He talks about “The Look”, the moment when the horse looks at the trainer with both eyes and ears focused, seemingly saying, “What are we doing today?” He emphasizes a difference between communication and control in training. And though he was told that there was no way that he would be able to combine natural horsemanship training with developing competition horses at the highest level, he has not allowed such negativity to dissuade him from his path.
In his presentation for the Area I Meeting, Tik highlighted seven concepts which he has found to be important in working with his horses in training.
Taming versus training. Tik argues that there are horses being ridden and shown which are barely tame, never mind trained. For example, when the horse is showing even a slight fear reaction to certain stimuli, or grossly overacts to a small stimulus, these can both be signs that the horse is not fully ok with what is going on. “It is like you have this horse simmering with energy just below the surface,” says Tik. “The horse reacts to the sound of a twig snapping, but that is not the cause of the horse’s tension.” Tik gave as an example of one of his horses, Carollina, who needed to be taught to really think forward.
“There are lots of ways to communicate with horses, but they only have two main ways to show how they feel—either more anxiety or more relaxation,” says Tik. “Too often people learn to compete before they learn how to ride, and before they learn how a horse thinks.”
Start with something you can Your goal may be huge (compete at Rolex) but to get there you must learn all the skills which come before. When training, start with the skills that your horse can do well—even if they are quite basic—and build from there. Tik used the example of teaching a horse to handle a bank. Start with: can my horse look at the bank? Get closer to the bank? Look across the bank and realize that there is someplace to go? “You must be patient,” says Tik. “For example, almost all water problems with horses are the result of someone pushing too hard with the horse’s first experience.”
When working with a horse which has lost confidence, it is important to take a step back and do many small things successfully before revisiting the thing which is hard. “People often get into trouble because they skip steps,” says Tik. “There is still an attitude out there that you ‘have to win’. You need to know that what you get into is something you can get out of. Do not have a battle. Back up to something you can do, and then repeat it.”
Make your session with your horse like a song. When working with a horse, your training session should contain moments at different levels of intensity. The warm up is gradual, and then you may progress to a new skill or lesson which is higher intensity, before the energy gradually comes down towards the end of the session. “All moments are not created equal,” says Tik.
Horses can only learn when they are relaxed. Tik says if there is a scale of tension, a horse must be under a level three in order to learn. “You need to be polite, and do little polite things to help the horse be more invested in you,” says Tik. “If you touch the neck on one side, touch the horse on the opposite side at the same time. Approach a crosstied horse with the same care as a hard to catch horse.”
Tik tries to end each training session by dismounting in the area where he rode, facing away from the barn. He then loosens the girth and might remove the bridle, and waits there until the horse lets go and takes a deep breath.
“Rule number one is the person is safe at the end,” says Tik. “Rule number two is the horse is safe. Rule number three is that the horse is more relaxed at the end of the ride than at the beginning.”
Make your horse’s world neutral.
There are stimuli which will attract your horse (positives) and those which will repel them (negatives). The trainer needs to shift the horse’s energy towards where they want it to go to. As an example, Tik spoke about acclimatizing his OTTB, Remarkable, to the coliseum in preparation for their freestyle performance at the Retired Racehorse Project. The ring was full of banners, which worried the horse. So Tik led the horse towards the banner, and had an assistant feed Remarkable a small treat from the opposite side of each banner until the horse began to relax.
Trainers need to make themselves be more interesting than anything else going on. This means that the lesson being taught must be more interesting; trainers must learn when and how to be big with their actions (body, waving a flag) and when to be more subtle. Which leads really well into Big Picture Idea #5….
Stop at the top of the bell curve.
As a horse progresses through their training, they will get better with a new skill and then often start to get worse—this is a sign that they are bored, frustrated or similar. Tik reminded the audience that “repetition is the mildest form of punishment”, so a better approach is to get to the top of the exercise and then stop, even if the horse gets there quickly. Continuing to repeat the exercise once the horse has already gotten the point of it for the day will mean that they are likely to end their lesson at an energy level higher than a 3 (see Big Picture Idea # 3).
Be a problem solver. Think.
Be creative. Seek help. Think laterally. “The more you do it, the better you get,” says Tik.
“Almost everything we do with horses is about communication or motivation.”
Tik says that the best trainers learn to think like a horse, and they also are aware of how they want the horse to be responding to them. “Dressage horses think about the rider the whole time, but for jumping horses we maybe only want them focusing on the rider during the turns,” says Tik. “Then they need to focus on the jump. So the horse needs to learn how to smoothly shift their focus.”
What are the Olympics of Everything?
Tik joked with the audience, “what if there were an Olympics for cross ties, for leading, for being caught, etc?” His point is that no matter what kind of interaction we have with the horse, we can always work to make it better. It is upon these smaller steps which big goals are achieved. “Have your end goal in mind but always stay in the present,” says Tik (seems relevant to so much in life, no?).
In listening to Tik’s presentation, as well as his responses to audience questions, I was struck by his calm demeanor. He seems humble and authentic. He did announce that he is working on a book with Trafalgar Square, scheduled for release in June 2018—I suspect that this text will be one to add to the library.
Anna and I finished our 2017 show season the last weekend of August at a close to home recognized USDF/USEF show, held at Longfellow Farm in Nottingham, NH. It was a beautiful afternoon, and the show organizers really worked hard to try to make the show a special experience for competitors. We each received a goody bag with magazines, lip balm, a box of sugar cubes and a gift certificate to a web site I cannot afford. There were real flowers in the port a potties. They had a mini trade fair and fresh food. Tons of my friends were there, riding, coaching and grooming, and the whole thing felt a little bit like an end of summer picnic where we were all trying to absorb the late season sun and fun.
As I was setting up my equipment, I listened to the women at the trailer next to mine go through their own preparations. At first, I wasn’t sure who was riding and who was coaching, but ultimately determined there were two rookie riders doing their first Opportunity classes, a conscientious horse owner, and one extremely patient trainer. The riders’ nervous energy was palpable as they struggled to pull up their new full seats, bemoaned the lack of pockets in same for sugar cubes, and valiantly figured out how to tack up their mounts while still remaining clean. A gentleman wearing a camera stood nearby, wisely far enough back from the action so as to not get caught up in it but close enough by to be showing support. When it came time to mount, neither could manage to do so off the top of a 5 gallon pail, the only mounting block available. So their trainer offered each of them a leg up.
Compared to these two, who as it turned out were riding in my ring, directly after me, I was the epitome of calm. I methodically went through my usual preparations, putting on the white base layer, the choker which fits a little too tightly, the hairnet which always leaves an indent on my forehead secured under my gray velvet helmet. My hand me down Pikeur jacket was an expensive purchase for its original owner; I acquired it for just $30 and spent an additional $35 spent to tailor it, though it still doesn’t feel like it fits me right. It is just a bit out of style and the collar has faded in the sun, which I’m sure no one notices but me. I felt no nerves, no worries. I tacked up Anna, mounted off the top of my own upturned 5 gallon pail, and headed to the warm up.
Anna and I performed Third Level Test 1 for the fourth time this season, and got yet another 58%. I somehow mistimed my warm up, leaving me a bit shortchanged in terms of the preparation, but at the end of the day I really don’t think it would have mattered all that much. While our performances have progressively improved, the scores have not. We have been rocking those 50’s (it sounds like a dance party, which would be a whole lot more fun): 57,55, 59, 58. Close but not quite there.
I do appreciate the comments from the judges. Judges have a challenging job; they must sit for hours, running “tapes” in their mind which include the purpose of the level and the expectations of a movement at that level, and then they translate these ideals promptly into a succinct statement which justifies their assigned score. I have sat and observed judges and scribed. I have graduated from the USDF “L” learner judge’s program. I have spent hours judging at schooling shows, watching many, many tests in which there was very little dressage going on, trying to figure out how to offer feedback which will be perceived as helpful but not overly negative. Judges are usually really trying to help the riders they are watching.
But that day at Longfellow, as I held my yellow sheet on which the judge noted “capable horse who is obedient in changes and must be rounder and better on bit and connected”, I just felt defeated. Like, what is the point of this? Dressage is such a dumb sport, to get all dressed up in these ridiculous uncomfortable penguin suits and go to shows where they put flowers in the port a potties and then we go and ride these redundant patterns, over and over again, hoping that for the FIVE MINUTES the judge sees our horse, we can meet some mystical expectation of “dressageyness”. Why am I wasting my time and energy doing this? Why did I spend an hour to bathe and braid my horse and load equipment into my trailer and then ship down here? For a 58%?
I have been teaching riding since I was eighteen years old, over half my life. I sure thought I knew everything when I first started, and it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I began to understand that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. I have at least five former students to whom I taught the absolute basics of how to put a horse on the bit, which have now ridden to Grand Prix and finished their USDF Gold Medals. There are probably another five who are riding at Prix St. George or Intermediare I. Meanwhile, I am over here still splashing around in the dressage kiddie pool, unable to get my swimmies off.
In the Chronicle of the Horse’s August 7 issue, there was a great article about an amateur rider named Elizabeth O’Connor. This spring, she finished her USDF Gold Medal riding a one eyed off track Thoroughbred which she trained herself. To say that the pair had overcome adversity to achieve this result is an understatement. It is a story meant to inspire, to remind readers that one doesn’t have to have the fancy warmblood and that with hard work, grit and determination, one can get to the big goal.
But what if that isn’t really true, most of the time? What if hard work and determination isn’t enough? When do you decide that maybe the judge’s comments are correct, and it is time to pack up and go home before the Dressage Police show up and throw you out?
I was still feeling pretty defeated when I brought Anna to the beautiful Chesley Brook Stables in Dover, NH, to ride with Verne Batchelder on Labor Day. I was tired emotionally and physically, having just ridden the two day 60 mile ride at GMHA with my Thoroughbred, Lee, finishing in the remnants of Hurricane Harvey on Sunday. Verne quickly picked up on the fact that I seemed…down.
A former classroom educator and lifelong equestrian, Verne is probably the best coach I have ever worked with in terms of getting the maximum performance out of Anna. He has seen me ride different horses, and he knows both me and this horse well. As professionals, there are certainly times when we need a kick in the backside but there are also times when we need a boost. Verne reminded me that sometimes the biggest complement that a teacher receives is when their student exceeds them. He also pointed out that I am doing Third Level on a somewhat lazy horse whose genetics do not automatically set her up for the job. Anna is trained. 58% is close. We are not in the 40’s.
“We are not going to become the masters of Third Level,” proclaimed Verne. “We are going to keep going. We are going to get this pony to FEI.”
I don’t know if we will or we won’t, but that is almost irrelevant. Everything Verne said was just what I needed to hear. I have made a conscious choice to own my own horses, to do my own training, and to commit to the process and animals I have. Giving up when you hit the hard spots can sometimes be the right choice, but at other times you have to just keep plugging away with the faith that with enough persistence, even the roughest of surfaces wear smooth. If my goal was simply to get to Grand Prix, or to finish a USDF Silver or Gold Medal, I could do that….but the fastest route would be a totally different path than the one I have taken. I haven’t chosen to lease a schoolmaster, or to buy a big mover, or even to devote my training energy and tack time 100% to dressage. And for these reasons, I have become (in my opinion) a more robust equestrian.
When I returned to my trailer at the Longfellow show, I was untacking and unbraiding Anna, who hungrily mowed down the grass of the field we were parked in. My neighbors returned, elated, victorious; they had finished their first ever dressage tests at a rated show. The horse owner saw me and said, “wow, I saw your test, and your horse was amazing! It was such a great ride!”
“Thanks,” I smiled, knowing even without having seen the results that it was probably just another 58%.
“We actually rode right after you in the same ring,” she continued, flushed with excitement. “And when we saw you cantering on the diagonal, and then doing one of those changes, we totally panicked, because that wasn’t the test we knew! Your horse is just beautiful.”
I guess I didn’t really hear her then, but in retrospect I appreciate the comments more now. Why are we doing this silly sport, this art, called dressage? It can’t be just for the score…because the score only represents one moment in time. You have to do it for the day to day victories, and for the incremental improvements which show that your horse is progressing. My horse does flying changes. And she half passes. And she is starting to understand the double bridle. We may be working on many elements still, but there are many others which she does well. She received 7’s on her walk pirouettes; Verne thinks they should be 8’s. My horse is a Third Level horse.
So while other people may be diving into the deep end, don’t mind me. I’ll just be over here in the shallow end, gradually creeping my way into the deeper water. A little better than marginal, but not quite yet sufficient.
A lifetime ago, when I was an undergraduate, I thought that I would be leading a very different type of life. I graduated with a B.S. in Environmental Conservation, with a specialty in Environmental Affairs, and I was really interested in environmental education. I wanted people to understand about the amazing beauty and balance in our natural world, hoping that such exposure would lead to an appreciation which would encourage conservation. While in school, I studied abroad at the School for Field Studies in Nairobi (Kenya), and interned at MASSPIRG in Boston (MA), the Seacoast Science Center in Rye (NH), and the New England Aquarium in Boston (MA). I stuffed envelopes, editing mailings, collected signatures and led tidepool tours, gave interpretive talks on Seacoast history and presented countless sessions on the mighty Homarus americanus (aka the American lobster). But on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, I served them on paper plates at the local seafood emporium in order to help pay for school.
Life is full of these little paradoxes and tradeoffs. “How is the swordfish tonight?” my customers would ask. “Oh, it’s endangered. Perhaps a nice salad?” I would reply with a laugh, as though I were kidding. My father still thinks that one of the funniest things I have ever said was that I served endangered species on paper plates to pay for my degree in conservation.
While I still love natural history, marine biology and believe in environmental conservation, my passion for horses and for riding has always been stronger. Upon graduation, I worked briefly in an elementary school but shortly after found myself managing a small horse farm and teaching some lessons. That led to other management positions and more teaching, and I never really looked back.
It is easy to disconnect from reality when you hang in the equine world for too long. Let’s face it—there are some facets of what we do which just smack of First World Privilege. It is something which from time to time has really bothered me—especially when clients get all worked up because Blaze is in the wrong colored blanket/boot set, or when I hear the amount of money which someone has dropped on a new horse, saddle or trailer. In the July/August 2017 issue of USDF Connection, Susan Reed of Albuquerque, NM, wrote in her letter to the editor, “…I cannot imagine life without my animals. However, when I see the amount of money that is spent on horses, equipment, training, and so on, I wonder at the value systems of those who choose that lifestyle….I taught school for 25-plus years and was distressed to see that my horses had better foot care, food and medical care than many of the kids in my classes…Where is the balance between making the world a better place for all creatures and being passionate about an art form, which to me is dressage? I haven’t found a good answer yet.” (Emphasis is mine).
I felt chills when I read Ms. Reed’s letter. Her sentiments echo the little voice in my own head, the one which I ignored for many years but which has become louder and louder in recent months. What have I done to make this world a better place?
When I moved to Cold Moon Farm two years ago, one of my goals was to make it a model of implementing sustainable practices in horse farm management. At the same time, I run on a shoestring budget, so I know that any progress would be gradual. What could be overwhelming can sometimes be easier to manage in smaller chunks. In the long term, I hoped that I could learn some “best practices” and then use media to help spread the word to more equestrians.
Progress has been slower than anticipated.
But slow progress is still progress, and this spring I took part in the New Hampshire Coverts Program, put on annually by UNH Cooperative Extension. This three day workshop is geared towards land owners, managers and conservationists to train them to promote wildlife habitat conservation and forest stewardship. I can’t believe how much information was packed into that workshop—I think most of us left feeling both overwhelmed and invigorated.
Becoming a Coverts Cooperator is exciting to me for several reasons. First, participating in the program allowed me to return to my “roots”, so to speak, and spend time with other conservation minded individuals. Secondly, it showed me that becoming an effective land steward doesn’t happen overnight, and that there are many resources available for support and assistance. Finally, I realized that it really is okay to try to manage this farm to meet my objectives; in other words, creating well placed riding trails, pastures and other horse areas is acceptable if that is what I want to do with my land. I can emphasize improved habitat opportunities in other places on the property, and by managing the “horse parts” of the farm well, I can reduce the negative impact they might otherwise have on local ecosystems.
After attending the workshop, I contacted Strafford County Extension Forester Andy Fast and set up an appointment for him to visit the farm. We walked all around the property but especially paid attention to the 26 acres which are in current use. Two of these acres are classified as “farmland” (aka, field) and the rest are woodlot. There are some basic trails out there but they need a brush hog and additional clearing to make them more usable for the horses. Andy was excited by the amount of white oak on the lot, reminding me that it is a valuable food source for many species. He recommended applying for funds through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to create a Forest Management Plan, which would allow for a possible small timber harvest. Well planned timber harvests can have many benefits, including improving forest health, increasing diversity, improving wildlife habitat, and possibly yielding a little income which could then be used to improve the trails.
I also participated in two further trainings. First, I have become a “Speaking for Wildlife” volunteer, another program coordinated through UNH Cooperative Extension. Groups such as senior centers, youth organizations, conservation commissions, libraries, etc., can sign up to have trained volunteers present a number of scripted slide shows on topics such as NH wild history, bat conservation, vernal pools and more. Our commitment is to try to give just one presentation per year, which seems pretty reasonable! I also attended a field workshop on managing shrub land and young forest lands for wildlife and bird species. We visited two different sites, identifying nearly ten species of birds and actually mist netting two.
For me, all of these actions have been tangible, rejuvenating steps which help to bring my life back into alignment with my core values. I love horses—that will never change, and I continue to be passionate about riding, coaching and training others. I will continue to take active steps towards achieving my personal goals with horses and for my business. But at the same time, it is equally important to me that I am working to make this world a better place, and to not get so all consumed in the accuracy of a ten meter circle that I forget to appreciate all of the beauty and open space around me.
Stay tuned for further updates on future actions which will help me to “live my values”.
The New Basic Training of the Young Horse by Ingrid and Reiner Klimke
c 2006 Trafalgar Square Publishing, North Pomfret, VT 208 pages
Accomplished horseman Ingrid Klimke has updated this classic text of her late father with great success. It has been years since I read the original, and I took advantage of being laid up while recovering from knee surgery to review the updated edition.
As she did with Reiner Klimke’s Cavaletti for Dressage and Jumping, Ingrid has refreshed the text and in particular the illustrations for the modern reader. I especially enjoyed images of a 5 year old Windfall, the Trakhener stallion who went on to represent the US at the Olympics in eventing, and several of a young Damon Hill. Many of the photos included in this updated edition are of Ingrid and her students riding three, four and five year olds; it is clear that the overall quality of animal in her stable is quite high, though, and so it was almost discouraging to see how wonderful these youngsters looked compared to how “normal” ones do, even at an older age. However, it is important to have a clear picture of what it is you are trying to achieve, and these photos certainly represent this ideal well.
As is Klimke’s hallmark, the book takes readers through a system of progressive education for the youngster starting with being brought into the “yard” right through to their first season of competition. While Klimke reminds readers that each horse is unique, and training must progress at an individual rate, it also seems clear that her horses progress fairly steadily and consistently. When an animal is genetically gifted with three good gaits, a willing temperament and a natural aptitude for the work, it is naturally going to be easier to develop them in the sport horse disciplines. I think it is important for those of us riding more “average” horses to bear in mind that some of the aspects of the process which come smoothly to Klimke on her string may necessarily take longer for the rest of us.
With that being said, The New Basic Training of the Young Horse still offers readers an in depth review of important concepts related to the training scale and those exercises which help to develop them, as well as entire chapters devoted to the horse’s basic education, longeing (on the line and free), cavaletti work, jumping and cross country skills. This sequence offers readers a glimpse into the progressive system which Klimke uses to develop her own horses; she emphasizes that youngsters should be trained on the flat, over fences and in the open before choosing to specialize in dressage or show jumping, if they show an aptitude here.
There are a few particular nuggets which I found especially meaningful. In fact, the text opens with a copy of a letter written to Ingrid by her father, in which he says, “We want to understand the nature of the horse, respect his personality and not suppress it throughout his training. Then we are on the right way” (Klimke, 2006, p.11). I think this is a meaningful mantra for all trainers and riders, regardless of their specialty. I might post it in my barn.
Klimke reminds us that “the aim of basic training for the young horse is to use a systematic method to create a solid foundation for future specialization in a given discipline…we want the young horse, with the weight of the rider on his back, to stay in balance and outline while retaining his natural movement” (Klimke, 2006, p. 16).
In her section on longeing, Klimke states “Correct longeing is as important as correct riding and requires a lot of experience and intuition” (Klimke, 2006, p. 38). I personally feel that longeing well is almost a lost art; I see far more incorrect, unsafe and unproductive longeing than the alternative, so I especially appreciated her further comments on this subject in this chapter. She also reminds us that “the quieter the trainer and assistant(s), the calmer the horse will be” (Klimke, 2006, p. 51). It can be hard when you get frustrated, but horsemen must learn to cultivate this type of mental calmness in themselves if they hope to achieve it in their horses. Klimke goes on to elaborate on the importance of longeing in helping to warm up the muscles of a young horse’s topline, as well as taking the edge off, prior to mounted exercises with the rider.
The next several chapters dissect the training scale and the application of its concepts to the basic training of the youngster. In particular, Klimke reminds trainers that “all exercises and movements should be ridden on the longest possible contact (with poll flexion) to improve the horse’s ability to work through the back” (Klimke, 2006, p. 67) (italics are the author’s). This is a truly classical response to those riders and trainers who choose to force a young horse to work with an extremely flexed poll and short neck.
Another quote which I thought was particularly important was in regards to making mistakes as a trainer. “It is unavoidable that we sometimes push the horse too hard; no trainer is perfect. However, experienced riders acknowledge that they are solely responsible for their mistakes. It is important to make the best of each situation” (Klimke, 2006 p. 71-72). And as with helping children to learn how to behave, “the horse should be rewarded for all exercises done well and ignored for the ones that were not” (Klimke, 2006, p. 72).
I found the chapters which focused on the basic ridden training to be an excellent, clearly written review of the fundamental concepts related to the training scale. Klimke details many basic exercises, including the proper use of the aids and the common mistakes made by horse and rider, as well as defines essential concepts, phrases and movements. She emphasizes the importance of cavaletti work in the basic training of a horse, saying that it offers an opportunity to overcome problems in all phases of training.
Klimke introduces the youngster to fences first with free jumping, proceeding to grids and small courses. I will admit that her progression is more ambitious than what I would be up for, but even spread out over a longer period, it certainly provides a clear framework for the process of training over fences. She also reminds readers that “jump training in the first year should only be done if the horse is willing” (Klimke, 2006, p. 152).
What I found especially refreshing about this book is Klimke’s emphasis that the basic training should be the same for all horses, regardless of their future discipline. In general, I believe that this is the most appropriate philosophy. Regardless of the rider’s discipline of choice, the horse that has a broader base of training will be more confident, more experienced and will be more likely to suit the needs of a future owner. I do not believe that specialization of a young horse (or young rider) provides them with the best foundation for future success.
Much like Klimke’s other written work, I think that The New Basic Training of the Young Horse should be required reading for any serious trainer or rider of sport horses.
Teaching Tips for Horseback Riding Instructors by Jo Struby
c 2013 Rose Dog Books Pittsburgh, PA, 94 pages
As a professional riding instructor, I always keep my eye out for new resources and reference materials which can help me to improve the quality of my work. Teaching Tips for Horseback Riding Instructors, by Jo Struby, was reviewed in a recent issue of Eventing USA, the publication of the US Eventing Association, and it caught my eye. Ms. Struby used to teach at Wetherbee Farm in Boxborough, MA, and while I am sure she doesn’t remember it we had several conversations while I was in high school. Struby is a former vice president of the former US Combined Training Association and also holds an M.A. in Education, which both have clearly influenced her perspective as an instructor.
This book is not intended to be read from cover to cover, though certainly one could do so. Instead, Struby envisions readers to use the book as a reference. She is specifically targeting instructors and teachers of horsemanship, stating in her forward that she hoped her book would fill a gap in the available literature by addressing the art of teaching horsemanship, rather than the specifics of riding and horsemanship itself. In this book, Struby has compiled over sixty “teaching tips”, which she originally wrote monthly and sold by subscription from 1996-2000.
Struby’s tips are arranged by category, ranging from philosophy of instruction to curriculum and lesson organization to teaching tools and techniques to student needs and desires. Instructors looking for insight or inspiration in a specific category can easily utilize the table of contents and locate short, succinct blocks of reference material on a given subject. Struby is clear that she is not intending to create a text book, and the format of the book feels very much like a collection of shorter articles than one longer, cohesive reference book. I believe that she was successful in achieving her aim.
The content in each of the segments is of decent quality and shows Struby’s background in the field of education. Her material addresses students’ unique learning styles and motivations, as well as how these can influence their progress as horsemen. For me, though, the delivery was sometimes tedious to process for several reasons. There are pervasive grammar and typographical errors throughout the text which impeded comprehension and lend an air of poor quality execution to the book. It is also completely text—visual learners always benefit from quality graphics and I feel there is no reason to not include them in any book.
I don’t have a sense that this book went into a widespread printing, and I had to contact the publisher directly to get a copy. For the motivated instructor, I think it is worth taking the effort to pick up a copy to use as a reference in order to better apply educational concepts to riding instruction. It is too bad that readers must be prepared to wade through some of the editing issues and somewhat low quality of production in order to access what is in reality quality content.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian