Tag Archives: horses

Jochen Schleese: Understanding Better Saddle Fit

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.

img_1488
Jochen discusses the sweat marks and muscling of demo horse Santa Fe ISF, after he was warmed up in his usual tack.

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.

img_1500
Here, Jochen shows how the human pelvis is meant to be centered over the topline musculature.

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.

img_1494
Santa at the beginning of the “marking up” process.  You can see the bold “X” of two “no pressure” zones.

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.

img_1481
These tree points show a design which is common even in modern saddles; they can apply too much pressure to the sensitive region below the withers and near the shoulder cap.

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.
img_1485
Note the angle of the tree points.

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.

img_1458
Jochen began his three hour presentation with a Powerpoint supported lecture. I promise the students in the background were more interested than this photo might indicate!  🙂

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.

Advertisements

Book Review:  Making it Happen: The Autobiography

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”.

If you are looking for insight into the training techniques, horse selection criteria or the horsemanship philosophy of Hester…well, this is not your book. But if you are a person who wants to believe that someone from modest beginnings can really make it to the top of a wealth infused sport like dressage—then read on.

MakingitHappen
Ok, so my copy wasn’t “updated with a new postscript”…maybe this is the reference to the 2016 Games?

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.

4/5 stars

 

Ride a Reiner

As a New Englander, I have had rather minimal exposure to the western discipline;  as they say, I know just enough to be dangerous. In fact, it is mostly through my experience as a board member of the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA), which offers both hunt seat and western competition, that I have acquired my limited knowledge. It is also through the IHSA that I had the opportunity to meet the talented and hard working Kelli Wainscott, coach for the Mt. Holyoke western IHSA team.

This past March, Kelli organized a benefit clinic at Clark Performance Horses in Winchendon, Mass. in which participants got to “ride a reiner”. Instruction was provided by Karen Clark, who grew up riding English but transitioned over to the western disciplines as a young adult. I have not so secretly wanted to try out reining moves but had always figured that it would be rude to just call up a reining trainer and be like, “hey, so I want to come ride one of your highly trained horses.  I don’t want to do this full time, I just want to ride a spin and a slide.  Is that cool?”  Well, this sounded like my chance to do just that!  As an added bonus, I could help the Mt. Holyoke IHSA western team fundraise for their trip to the semi finals at the same time.

img_2454
Karen is explaining something to us with great animation. Also, taking cell phone photos while on horseback in the cold is not easy.

I have been intrigued by reining since first watching it in person at IHSA Nationals in 2011. Seeing the reining there was like listening to someone speak a foreign language; the rules were undecipherable to my English-trained mind and I watched intently for any discernible pattern or predictability to the scoring. To me, all of the riders and horses looked great, and I didn’t understand why sometimes a team would receive a “zero” score after doing what looked like the same thing as everyone else. Cheering is encouraged, but I could tell that the cheers were intentionally timed, and when we tried to get into the “wooping”, we never managed to do it when everyone else did.

So I packed up my English paddock boots, half chaps and Charles Owen helmet and made the drive out to western Massachusetts under cloudy gray skies. As the miles on my GPS ticked down, I felt a pit of nervous energy grow in my belly. I suspected I would be the only full time English rider there (I think I was right in that), I knew no one other than Kelli, and I began to worry about upsetting the owner or the horses with my lack of experience.

But I needn’t have worried.  Karen set me at ease with her cheerful personality and positive attitude. She was so extremely patient and answered the groups’ numerous questions with a smile, despite the fact that we were the second three hour group on a chilly March afternoon.

Karen assigned me to a sweet chestnut Quarter Horse mare named Whiz; her delicate ears and sculpted face are extremely feminine…I do love a good mare! As Karen’s assistant handed the reins to me, she mentioned I would probably need to take the cinch up a hole. A rider from the MHC IHSA team was kind enough to show me the mechanics of a western cinch. So began the afternoon—foreign tack, foreign aids, and foreign language. Who knew that after thirty plus years of tack time, it was still possible to feel so completely beginner?

img_2449
Whiz

Once the group was mounted up, Karen gave us a few moments to get acquainted with our mounts. Whiz is sensitive and “well broke”; she certainly knows her job. After watching a few moments, Karen called me over. “I think you’ll like her in some spurs,” she said.

I don’t know if Karen had been watching to see how well I rode before offering the spurs, and I don’t know if I was given them because I had positively impressed her (in the sense of having good control) or negatively (in the sense of, gosh, she is hopeless and without these spurs she’ll never get anything done.) She came over and affixed to my Dublin paddock boots the largest set of spurs that I have ever worn in my entire life—they were full on western horseback riding spurs: thick, engraved, spangly, roweled. The kind that jangle when you walk.

This is getting serious.

Disclaimer: What I write here I share with the intent of introducing other unfamiliar English riders to reining, but it is colored through my fairly inexperienced lens. Any mistakes or misunderstandings are wholly my own!

Reining patterns are comprised of a set of movements: big fast circles, slow small circles, spins, lead changes and sliding stops. These movements can be combined in various sequences, and for some movements, there are extremely specific requirements. For example, spins must rotate for an exact number of turns, and a spin which is under or over rotated will result in a penalty or elimination. Cheers can be used to help a rider know when they are approaching the end of a specific maneuver or pattern element.

Karen started us off with riding big fast circles. One at a time, we tracked left at the end of the ring, practicing keeping the inside leg off the horse (which is incredibly hard to do when you are used to having it on all the time) and encouraging our horses to fly around the circle. As it turned out, many of the riders in my group, while experienced at western riding, were also reining rookies. As pleasure or equitation riders, they were more accustomed to slower paces and staying fairly “poised” in the saddle, while reining encourages looseness (not sloppiness) and speed. When it was our turn to try, Whiz was, well, a whiz. She clearly loves to run and it was quite freeing to just zoom around the circle. I trusted Whiz from the get go, so much so that when someone suddenly opened a small door on the side of the ring, I didn’t tense in anticipation of a spook, as I would have with my own horse. When on the job, Whiz is all business. She was so comfortable to ride, and I was having so much fun, that I hardly noticed when the left stirrup came unclipped and fell off my saddle. It was another lap before I recognized that it was missing and stopped Whiz so it could be reattached.

img_2452
Whiz and I are watching a group mate practice their circles.

“Big fasts” are usually followed by “slow smalls”, and the transition from one to the other is done by stepping hard into the outside stirrup, not by using the rein. We practiced this transition several times, and I was really blown away by how readily responsive Whiz was to the shift in my weight.  “Hmm…” I thought. “Perhaps my dressage horse should be responsive like this? And what do I do with my outside leg in my own downward transitions?”

Part of the criteria for these movements is that the circles should actually be round, and trainer Karen frequently had to remind us to keep our eyes up and frame the circle evenly. I guess riding a round circle is a challenge no matter what discipline you ride!

Once each rider had a chance to practice the circles, Karen taught us about spinning. The spins and sliding stops are, in my opinion, the two most dramatic reining movements, and the Quarter Horse’s genetic ability to sit down on their hindquarters and coil their body like a cat is just one more example of the physical manifestation of the term “horse power”. In reining, a horse should spin a set number of times (as specified by the pattern), and like a dancer, the rider needs to keep their head spinning in order to stay centered and “spot” their starting point. If the spin is over or underrotated, there are point penalties up until ¼ of a turn; if the rider misses the mark by this amount or more, then the pair is eliminated.

 

Karen had us start from a halt, choosing a point out in front of our horse’s ears to use for focus.  To go left, you just had to step into the left stirrup, slide the right leg back a touch, then shift the rein left, giving a bump with the right leg. To go right, the rider reverses all those aids.  To stop, the rider brings the rein back to center. The entire movement is done with forward intention but the horse should be pivoting in place around one hind leg.

When I asked Whiz to initiate the first spin, I thought for a moment I was going to tip right off her side! She lowered her neck and shoulders and sunk into the movement in a manner which I both expected but was somehow not ready for. Then it felt like we were going about a million miles an hour—but when I watched the video afterwards, Whiz is clearly spinning with a “oh boy got a rookie here” level of energy. There is clearly much more power available in this creature!

 

After most of us were left feeling “well spun”, Karen allowed us to try out that most iconic of reining moves—the sliding stop. This was definitely the movement I was most excited about! We came down the quarter line on the left rein; just like my dressage horse might anticipate a leg yield, Whiz knew instantly what this turn meant. The key to a good sliding stop is to build the energy in the hindquarter, holding the horse back from their full run at first so that they don’t fall onto their forehand, then releasing all of that stored power. A good slide requires that the horse is thinking uphill.

Karen coached us to hold the horse until we were about half way down the long side, and then let them RUN. Whiz sure knew how to take this cue and the feeling of her haunches dropping down and driving into the surface was a form of horse power I’m not sure I have felt before. The fact that we were running at top speed directly towards the wall, on purpose, made it slightly disconcerting; this is the type of situation I am usually trying to avoid. And the especially hard part is you are supposed to actually let your hand go forward (which I can see in the video I failed to do, and in addition, I was holding the horn). The slide happens when the rider sits back and says “whoa”. When I gave the cue, Whiz’s hindquarters dropped away while her withers lifted up. It feels like the ultimate “throw down.” It is supremely cool.

 

After spending my three hours masquerading as a western rider, I made several observations which I would like to share, for what it’s worth:

  • Despite some of the similarities, I don’t quite agree with the notion that “reining is dressage in western tack”. It is its own “thing”. The similarities are the kinds of things which I believe all horse sports share, concepts like “the horse needs to be well balanced” and “the horse needs to engage the hindquarter”. Karen told us that good reining horses have a short career because they get too smart and start to anticipate all of the moves, leading to the kinds of mistakes which cause elimination. There are no “levels” in reining—from the beginning, all tests include all of the movements. English dressage is a progressive system of training with the goal of enhancing the natural gaits of the horse. While a dressage horse can certainly start to learn a specific test, ideally there is enough variety and change in the movements that it is possible for them to have a long, progressive career.
  • During our session, Karen rode a client’s green horse, who was working in a snaffle. Most of our “finished” horses were in a curb, though one was in a bosal/hackamore. In western riding, the use of a curb bit is the mark of an experienced, well-educated horse. I guess this is similar to the way in which an upper level dressage horse is able to be ridden in a double bridle for greater clarity of the aids and improved engagement. Probably in both disciplines, there are trainers who use the curb fairly and those who only use it to achieve forced submission. But when either of these tools is used fairly, the communication between horse and rider can be lighter and softer.
  • Most eventers are familiar with the concept of a “combined test”, in which the same horse and rider do dressage and show jumping, or a derby cross, which is a fusion of the jumping phases. At this clinic, I learned about a competition called “working cow horse”, which Karen said was a great outlet for a horse which understands the requirements of reining but lacks some of the necessary pizazz to be a real reining specialist. In this competition, riders first complete a reining pattern, and then when they indicate they are ready, a cow is released which the horse and rider must then “box”, meaning they move the cow along the fence and hold them there. At more advanced levels, the horse must also “work” the cow by making them move in a circle, with the horse on the outside. I thought it was interesting to learn that western riders have their own version of “combined test” in the working cow horse competition.

Overall, my “ride a reiner” experience was just what I had hoped it would be—a fun afternoon exploring an aspect of the equestrian world which I previously had known little about, and a chance to check off one of my “equine bucket list” items. I also have to think that those of us in other disciplines could be smart to take a page out of Karen’s notebook and offer introductory clinics to our discipline. How else are riders without access to horses trained for specific disciplines ever going to have the opportunity to try out something new? Who knows how many riders have gotten the “reining bug” after doing a clinic like this one? It is so easy to pigeonhole riders into one discipline and make assumptions about what and how they must ride and in so doing we create divisions in our equestrian community which do not need to exist.   I am so grateful to organizer Kellie and our patient teachers Karen and Whiz for offering us this opportunity.

 

The De-Feralization of Spring

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.

img_2182
The barn cats took over one of the horse stalls. They are not impressed with winter either.

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?!?!”

img_2496
Lee is making sure that I am aware that I have neglected to hang her hay bag.

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!”

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.”

img_2250-1

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.

img_2526
The riding arena in late April.

 

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.”

 

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.

img_2537
Spring is at least good for some stunning sun rises.  This is Izzy.

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.

img_2611
Rabbit, the polydactyl/slacker barn cat who did NOT catch the mouse who ate my bridle.

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.

img_2608
Lee’s first ride of 2018, sporting her stylish new biothane bridle.

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.

img_2677
Julia and I try a mounted selfie.  Yes it is May.  Yes I am still wearing a down vest.

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.

img_2653
Rabbit and Smokey are back in their usual “spring spot”.

 

 

Book Review: Training Horses the Ingrid Klimke Way

Training Horses the Ingrid Klimke Way by Ingrid Klimke

c 2016 Trafalgar Square Publishing, North Pomfret, VT. 163 pages.

ISBN 978-1-57076-826-2

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.

KlikmeTraining

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.

img_0961
I was inspired to build these cavaletti and incorporate their use more into my horses’ training after reading Klimke’s update of her father’s book. I try to set up a new arrangement each Monday.

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).

anna-at-verne-2016-050
Mastering the perfect warm up is an ever evolving process.  Anna, in December of 2016.

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.

4/5 stars

 

Using Work in Hand to Gymnastically Develop the Horse: an Introduction to Straightness Training

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.

MegandPaladin
Meg Brauch working with Paladin. Meg was kind enough to permit me to “borrow” photos from her Facebook for use with this blog.

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.

Cavesson.jpg
There is a good view of the cavesson here as Meg appears to be asking this horse for LFS.

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.

Understanding Asymmetry

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.

liberty
Meg working at liberty.

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
  • Haunches In
  • Renvers
  • Half Pass
  • Pirouette
  • Trot
  • Canter
Carolyn
I had to include this photo of my friend Carolyn, who seems to be practicing that pesky standstill!

Training Theory

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.

Demonstration

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.

Renfrew
Meg and her horse Renfrew.

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.

Take Aways

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.

 

 

Book Review:  Real Life Dressage: Training Advice from Novice to Grand Prix

Real Life Dressage: Training Advice from Novice to Grand Prix by Carl Hester and Polly Ellison

c 2004 Kenilworth Press Ltd. Addington, Buckingham, U.K. 120 pages.

ISBN 1-872119-49-2

After attending the NEDA Fall Symposium with Carl Hester in October of 2017, I became more interested in understanding some of the philosophy behind his training methods.  I came across his book, Real Life Dressage: Training Advice from Novice to Grand Prix, and thought the concept looked interesting; Hester would discuss the process of his training through the lens of his own horses, starting with expectations of a four or five year old and progressing through Grand Prix.  Hester described each of the horses as not being perfect, since the perfect horse does not exist.  Instead, he detailed how he planned to work through their unique challenges.

HesterCover

This concept related quite well to some of the ideas which Hester shared during the Symposium; to wit, to overcome a horse’s challenges one must use their strengths.  In the book’s introduction, Hester writes, “Difficult horses can become good horses….it is important not to give up until you are absolutely sure it’s not going to work.  If there is a glimmer of hope, it is worth persevering” (Hester, 2004, p. 9). All of the horses he highlights in the book, including his famous Escapado, his 2004 Olympic mount, are in training for the Grand Prix.

The most helpful chapter to me was number two: “Top Dressage Horses—Are They Born or Made?”, in which Hester details what he looks for in a young dressage horse.  In particular, he wants good gaits, with emphasis on the walk and canter, a good temperament, and rideability.  Many of Hester’s horses were purchased by him, either alone or in partnership, and developed through his program.  The man clearly has an eye for a horse, and he coaches that if one can find a quality horse young enough, a top flight horse might well be within the purchasing capacity of many riders.

Escapado at the 2004 Olympics

Throughout the book, I could clearly hear the repetition of themes which Hester is still preaching today. He discusses the importance of not drilling, especially on a youngster.  And that horses must be horses—they enjoy turn out and hacking and sometimes will spook, not to be naughty but because it is the prerogative of the species. One great quote was that overcoming this behavior is “…a matter of confidence, which is built up by repetition rather than reprimand” (Hester, 2004, p 43).

Since this book is nearly fifteen years old, it was interesting to Google the names of the horses which he describes and to learn the arc of their careers. Most were sold but had successful show careers through the FEI levels, some stood at stud, and some are now deceased. Reading a slightly older book like this feels like when you find a new TV series several years in; you can quickly scan ahead and find out what becomes of your favorite characters and decide whether you want to keep watching.

img_2335

Overall, this book is an easy read and I think if you take it for what it is—a quick snap shot into the training system of one trainer—then you will find it enjoyable and some comments perhaps useful.  If you are looking for something which is in depth, a robust analysis into a training system for “real life” horses—this book is not that. The horses Hester is working with are genetically blessed and the discussion of each is fairly basic.  The struggles they face surely mirror the same ones faced by riders on “normal” horses, but of course, the scale is tipped quite a bit in their favor.

3.5/5 Stars

 

 

Area I USEA Annual Meeting: Tik Maynard

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.

img_2339
Tik Maynard at the Area I Meeting.

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.”

img_2341

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.”

img_1345
Becoming exposed to unfamiliar stimuli should be like a game.

 

  • 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.”

img_0964
Learning to cross tie is one important basic skill which all horses should be taught.
  • 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.”

from-solstice-079
Lee says, “There is definitely something OVER THERE.”
  • 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.

 

 

Notes and Observations:  Carl Hester at the NEDA Fall Symposium 2017

The northeast dressage community was electrified by the announcement that British dressage superstar Carl Hester would headline the 2017 New England Dressage Association (NEDA) Fall Symposium, held October 14-15, 2017 at the picturesque Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, ME.

PinelandKurLeeNewCar 092
Abby Hardy riding Geoffrey and a previous symposium held at Pineland.

Hester’s influence on the sport of dressage in the UK has been pronounced, and includes leading the team to medals at the World Equestrian Games, Olympics and European Championships.  In fact, at the Rio Olympics in 2016, Hester not only rode (Nip/Tuck) but was the trainer of the other three members of the team:  Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro (who Hester co-owns), Fiona Bigwood and Atterupgaards Orthilia and Spencer Wilton and Super Nova II.

The recent success of the British team is refreshing, as it comes after years of harsh criticism of previous Dutch and German champions, many of whom were proponents of hyperflexion/rollkur.  These horses were criticized for being too tense, incorrect in their movement and otherwise not truly demonstrating the throughness, obedience and correctness necessary at the world class Grand Prix level.  By contrast, Hester is a clear proponent of adherence to classical training methods; he has an eye for a horse, frequently selecting his mounts as youngsters and training them through the levels himself.  His horses, and their riders, fairly dance through their performances.

union-jack-1027898_960_720.jpg

Hester spoke to a sold out house; I was only able to attend on day one, but even just spending just one day auditing was enough to grasp clear themes which emerged through demonstrations which began with a four year old and progressed all the way through to Grand Prix.

Here are my top eight take aways from this symposium.

  • Try to keep horses as naturally as possible.

Hester was originally an event rider, and so maybe this is why he still believes in actually turning horses out.  “If you want to keep your horses sound and happy and easy to ride—leave them out,” said Hester.  He notes that youngsters which are not turned out enough often end up being overworked because they are so high that it takes a long time to establish the necessary suppleness and relaxation.  As horses move up the levels and need more energy for their work, they might need to be kept in more.  But even Hester’s most elite horses enjoy time in turnout daily.

To this point, Hester also believes in regular out of the ring hacking for dressage horses, both for mental health and to develop fitness.  Young horses may only work for 20-30 minutes per session but should be warmed up by moving around outside of the ring.  “Horses must be fit, and if you are just riding them for twenty minutes they will not be fit enough,” said Hester.

img_2122-1
My own youngster, Izzy, clearly believes in the importance of sleeping and resting.  Especially when housekeeping has arrived to clean the paddock.
  •  Temperament, a good walk and a good canter are most important.

“I have been proven wrong many times by a horse with not the best movement but excellent temperament,” said Hester.

It is important for a dressage prospect to have as close to a perfect walk and canter as possible, because these gaits are much harder to improve than the trot.  However, a youngster with an unclear walk may simply need more strength. Horses with huge walks and a big overstep can be hard to collect. Riding zigzags up and down hills can help to improve the walk.

  • Less is more.

“All training goes like this,” said Hester, drawing a line in the air with his finger that resembled a rollercoaster.  Sometimes a horse will hit a phase of their training where they get more difficult, and this is not always a sign that the horse is being stubborn.  “Give them a break—a few weeks off,” said Hester.  “They can be tired or muscle sore.”

Hester repeated this theme in numerous ways during the day.  “Your horse isn’t born reading the dictionary—you must teach them the dictionary,” he said in regards to training youngsters.

“If the horse is not on the bit, do not force them,” said Hester. “The horse needs to work out where to put themselves.”  He reiterated this in several sessions.  “Do NOT be obsessed with the horse being ‘on the bit’,” said Hester.  “They will come onto the bit with correct work.”

During the work itself, horses need breaks when they become fatigued; a break can sometimes be as basic as taking a short diagonal while allowing the horse to lower their neck. “The rider must listen and feel for this request from the horse,” said Hester.

Make sure you finish a training session with work the horse finds easy.  Put the “meat” of your training towards the beginning or middle of your work.

img_1966
Hearing Hester’s words came at a perfect time for me, as work and school demands kept me from having as much time available for serious training.  Instead, I used the fall to focus on stretching, hacking, cavaletti work and strength building with my top horse, Anna.
  • Increase demands GRADUALLY 

Training must be systematic.  Youngsters should start by working on long straight lines and large circles.  They need to learn to turn from the outside aids of the rider, and be encouraged to reach through their topline in a long outline. A four-year-old might work just twenty to thirty minutes, four times per week, stretching in the walk, trot and canter, slowly building to the development of the ability to bend and straighten.  Once this foundation has been set, as a five-year-old the horse should work on smoother transitions, better balance, and increased lateral suppleness, using leg yield.

It takes time for horses to figure out what you want when you teach them something new.  On the first day, introduce the horse to the new skill; on day two review, then give them day three off.  On days four and five, repeat the lessons of days one and two.  Then go hacking on the weekend.

It. Takes. Time.

img_0724

  • TRANSITIONS 

Hester is obsessed with transitions.  He said he does “lots” of transitions per session—hundreds of them.  Big ones.  Small ones.  Between gaits, within gaits.

The trot to canter transition engages the inside hind, while canter to trot teaches the horse to come more forward into the rider’s hand and use their back more.  Canter-walk-canter will work towards getting the horse to truly sit behind and come off of their forehand.  “Listen for the sound of the front feet,” said Hester of this transition.  “You shouldn’t hear them.  These kinds of exercises build the strength to do the next level of collection.”

At the FEI levels, horses must be able to go from the trot or canter directly to the halt.  This starts by teaching a young horse to ride cleanly from trot-walk-halt.  Gradually, make the duration of the walk smaller until it goes away.  “Your piaffe-passage lives in the trot-halt transitions,” said Hester.  Hester recommends using a ground person to verify that each hind leg is squarely under the horse.  “This is how you ensure that each leg aid is activating the hind leg on that side,” said Hester.

For horses which come behind the leg, Hester recommends bringing them back as soon as they start to go forward, rather than waiting for them to slow down.  “You must take the leg off in between asks,” said Hester.  “Telling someone to ride forward when they don’t have the balance will not work.”

If you make it to Grand Prix, the transitions are the hardest part, especially from piaffe to passage and back.  “Good collection makes good extension,” said Hester.  At the lower levels, and for horses without a natural lengthening, asking for bigger strides on the circle can help to improve the gaits.

Jan Ebeling April 2017 038
Anna is a great example of a horse without much natural lengthening to her stride.  I have been trying to add “hundreds” of transitions to her work, ala Hester,  to try to develop more reach in her step.
  • Know your craft. Really, really know it.

Hester emphasized that all riders should understand the fundamentals of biomechanics and conditioning in the horse.  Riders should also choose a horse which suits their personality.

Self-carriage in the horse begins with teaching the horse to carry their own head and neck in the free walk on a long rein.  The rider should use their arms in a rowing fashion, pushing the neck down and forward.  Keeping the reins moving and looking for lightness in the hand is most important.

When tracking right, most horses bring their nose and haunches to the inside.  The rider must use more outside (left) rein to help keep the horse’s nose in front of their chest. When the horse tracks left, the rider can ask for more inside flexion to help stretch the chronically shortened right side. “When the nose and hips are to the right, the middle of the horse is out,” said Hester. “You need to bring the middle of the horse in.”

Hester made reference to an often misattributed quote of his student Dujardin, which goes something like “short reins win medals”.  “Short reins allow you to ride forward to the hand,” said Hester.  “Long reins will cause you to take back.  During the warm up, some horses will be very strong in the hand and some very light.  Do not mistake lightness for contact.”  The use of a driving rein position can be helpful for horses which curl in the neck in response to the rider’s hand.

Hester said that there is no hard and fast rule as to when introduce the double bridle.  “If the horse is not sure at first, I might hack out in it,” said Hester.  “But if the horse doesn’t go well to the snaffle then they won’t go to the bit in the double.  The horse must be in self carriage in the double bridle for it to work.”

Do not rely on your reins to create the shoulder in, rely on your legs.

To ride an accurate half pass, “put your destination in between your horse’s ears.”  Keep the rider’s weight on the inside seat bone.

Flying changes should be cued with a squeeze of the rider’s heel, not by drawing the entire leg back, especially on a dull horse.

Leg yield in canter can help to free up the horse within the gait; half pass in canter increases collection. In both movements, the horse’s shoulders should be leading slightly.

The half-halt is a forward aid.  “The half halt needs to feel like the horse is happy to go forward, not happy to stop,” said Hester.

Hester does not often use dressage whips.  “If you are going to ride with a whip, then the horse should not be best friends with it,” said Hester.  “But they also shouldn’t fear it.  The use of the whip should create a medium trot step instantly.”

“You ride for thirty to sixty minutes—do it right.”

Jan Ebeling April 2017 007

  • Be positive.

Training your horse should be like playing a game.  Make the work playful.  Reward often.  “Every time they give the correct reaction, offer a touch on the neck or a small pat with the inside rein,” said Hester.

The rider’s goal should be to put positive tension into their work, and afterwards stretch the horse and take a break.  “With the stretch, the horse shows relaxation,” said Hester.

To this end, rising trot can be a valuable tool.  “Rising trot is not just for amateurs and young horses,” said Hester.  “It can be helpful whenever you are asking the horse for more.  It can be used in the half pass, extended trot, etc.”

Always, always remember that horses are authentic.  “If the horse is difficult because he is stiff, he doesn’t do it to annoy you,” said Hester.  “He does it because he’s stiff, so you need to give him some time and work through it in a systematic way.”

anna-at-verne-2016-106
Sometimes your horse makes it very clear that they did not appreciate the way in which you asked for the flying change!
  • Dressage is not just about the movements.

Hester said that his older horses may work as much as two-three hours per day to develop the fitness necessary for elite dressage.  “But you are not just schooling the Grand Prix,” said Hester.  “You can’t do that. They must get fit through stretching, hacking and loosening.”

The hardest part of dressage, according to Hester, is attending to the care and health of your horse, and keeping them sound.  “It’s not what you invest in the horse, it is what you invest in training,” said Hester.  “Buy what you can afford; they might be two years old, but you can start here and train them.”

Hester said that it can be hard to stay inspired when working on your own.  “Everyone needs to find someone to work with,” said Hester.

anna-at-verne-2016-042
While I have taken inspiration from many coaches, it is Verne Batchelder’s assistance which has proven to be the most helpful with Anna.  

Final Thoughts

The content of this symposium was refreshing in its emphasis on correct, classical training and the emergence of the clear, horse friendly system that has led to Hester’s success.  There are no tricks or shortcuts, just a clever adherence to finding the joy in each individual horse, using their strengths to develop their weaknesses.  The horses chosen for demonstration were exceptional examples of the quality of work at each level.

img_2335

This won’t be a popular opinion—but for me, what was NOT refreshing about this symposium was all of the hoopla and rigmarole around it. Ex:  Tickets will go on sale at midnight, to NEDA members only.  Doors will open at 7:30 AM (symposium does not begin until 9:15). You will get a nametag to affix to your chair, no saving seats.  Dressage has a reputation for divas, for excessive wealth, for elitism.  This symposium did NOTHING to eliminate that perception; if anything, it enhanced it.  I don’t know how much came from Hester himself (for example, it is his request that no photographs are taken, out of respect for the training process and privacy of the riders) and how much came from NEDA.  Some of the demo horses came from Florida, Ohio and Maryland, for goodness sake. Of the over one hundred rider applicants, we couldn’t find animals from our membership’s base?  Where were the Irish horses, the OTTBs, the “native ponies”?  It is great to see these methods work well with the genetically blessed horses which were selected (again, I don’t know if Hester had final say and this was his design).  But I would suspect that most of the NEDA membership is not riding horses of this caliber, and it would have been inspirational to see even a modest transformation in a “normal” horse during the course of this symposium.  By the end of the day, I had had my fill of the “fussiness” of dressage.

With that being said, I am appreciative of the hard work and organization which went into the planning of this educational event, a process two years in the making.  We are lucky to have access to this caliber of education in the northeast and I am grateful for the hours of effort from the volunteers which put this together.

Hester closed day one with the following summary.  “Dressage is the art of putting a crooked person on a crooked animal and expecting them to be straight and then move to self-carriage,” said Hester.  “Self-carriage is having the horse balanced on all four legs.”

 

Book Review: Ridden: Dressage from the Horse’s Point of View

Ridden:  Dressage from the Horse’s Point of View by Ulrike Thiel

c 2013 Trafalgar Square Books: North Pomfret, VT. 225 pages.

ISBN 978-1-57076-558-2

Ridden: Dressage from the Horse’s Point of View is an intellectual read, part study of equine biomechanics, part reflection on training philosophy and part treatise on the essential need to commit to the classical principles in all work with horses.  Author Dr. Ulrike Thiel is a clinical psychologist, therapeutic and able-bodied riding instructor, and dressage devotee, and in this book she blends her education, experience and scientific analysis together in a manner which synthesizes a complex topic into a manageable narrative.

Riddencover

What Thiel does extremely well in this book is providing analogies, visuals and exercises which can help a rider to understand, in human terms, what a horse is experiencing under certain circumstances.  Through these means, Thiel helps the rider to have better empathy for how much most horses are willing to offer to us, despite muddled communication, improper balance and a host of other challenges.  She conscientiously takes the reader through the learning process which a horse and rider must undertake, including overcoming the predator/prey relationship by gaining a horse’s trust, confidence and respect.

Once Thiel has laid the framework for developing the horse/human relationship through mutual respect, she then delves deeper into the concepts espoused in classical dressage training, comparing the horse’s progression through the exercises to the process of learning to ski for a human (among her many hats, Thiel is also a certified ski instructor). Throughout, she emphasizes the fact that horses will forgive the mistakes of humans, but those mistakes must first be acknowledged to be rectified.  The consequences of failing to correct training missteps or rider issues can result in permanent physical damage to the horse.

dressage-training-pyramid.jpg
From the United States Dressage Federation

After painstakingly laying out this foundation, Thiel turns her analytical focus to what she calls “modern” training methods—rollkur, hyperflexion, or low, deep and round (LDR).  These controversial training methods have been promoted by several high profile European dressage stars (including Olympic medal winners) and Thiel takes direct aim at the methods, their perpetrators, and the FEI for not wholly condemning their use. To write this book and publish it in her native Netherlands must have taken supreme courage, as one of the most famous proponents of hyperflexion has been two time Olympic gold medalist Anky Van Grunsven, who is a house hold name in the country.

It seems clear that Thiel’s motivations are truly to promote humane horsemanship and training methods, in spite of the risk of drawing what surely is sharp criticism.  “The excesses associated with equestrian sports are in the crossfire of criticism…Ultimately, the question we all need to ask is whether the well-being of the horse is being considered as he is used in sports, for pleasure, as a therapy animal, or for other purposes…As it is so often when money, power, and competition play a role, ethics and human assumption of responsibility are left by the wayside” (Thiel, 2013, p. 209).  Further, “I think the horse awakens different needs within humans.  The horse can be used as a tool to fulfill our desire for power and success” (Thiel, 2013, p. 214).

I would recommend Ridden to any horseman who is interested in better understanding why the classical training methods have endured for centuries, and why this approach is still the best way to train the horse to be the most they can be.  I hope that most equestrians that consider themselves to be true horsemen are willing to constantly put themselves under the microscope, asking what they can do better.  Reading this book and taking time to honestly reflect on its content should allow for that opportunity for growth.

I applaud Thiel for being brave enough to write this book, and for taking the time to combine intellectual and emotional rationale—left brain/right brain balance—to advocate for why adherence to classical training concepts is essential for equine well-being.

5/5 stars