Blog posts about competition riding
TEAM BLEEKMAN, FROM DEVON TO GELDERLAND AND BEYOND
A VISIT TO TEAM BLEEKMAN
When I walk into the kitchen of the Bleekman family, the first thing my eye catches are the wooden shoes of Edward. Also I still wear them regularly in the yard, although I have learned the hard way they're no good on slippery muddy hills.
It has been a while since my last visit, when Edward helped me patiently with his stories, of the beginnings of the KWPN horse, for my book 'The Farmer, The Coal Merchant, The Baker...'.
But Team Bleekman is a work in progress and they have had a great year, so it was certainly time for another visit.
After the international event in Boekelo in Holland I wrote a blog for Dutch equine magazine the 'Hoefslag' and here, for the 'Bleekman groupies', is the translation.
A SMALL PIECE OF GELDERLAND IN DEVON
Whorridge Farm became Whorridge Stud after Edward and Clissy started life together and what began with some four or five stallions, among whom Grannex, Mayhill and Karandasj, has gradually become a stud where the rolling fields are filled with some fantastic young stock, from carefully selected parents.
It always added something extra when in the past dropping my broodmares off with Edward. Talking our own language with the charming dialect of Gelderland floating through it. As much as I feel at home in Cornwall, a part of my heart stayed where I was born and bred.
But of course the main reason was those wonderful stallions. For my halfbreds Mark Todd's Mayhill, who he had competed internationally, was particularly interesting. This was nearly thirty years ago and there were not that many proven stallions around at that time. Also, to know my mares were in the safe and experienced hands of Edward made the choice extremely easy.
A YOUNG ENTERPRIZE
You felt it at the time, when you were there; this was a young enterprize run by two people who knew what they wanted and now, some thirty years later, Clissy has come back with her oldest daughter, Alfie, from the Boekelo event in the Netherlands, just in time to prepare for Aldon.
There are the three of them, three daughters, Althea (Alfie), Janou (Nui) and Katie, who all are naturals on the back of a horse.
Alfie had been to Boekelo three times before with mixed results, so she is pleased as punch to have had a great ride, a proper confidence giver. The only nine year-old mare Dasj had one refusal x-country and a pole down show-jumping and that is quite an achievement for a horse so young and inexperienced. Not a surprise therefore that Alfie is more than ready for and looking forward to next season.
HOME BRED AND PRODUCED
Of course Edward gives me a smug grin when I congratulate him with this great achievement -Dasj being one of their homebreds-, at the same time pointing at the wall where there is a smart picture of Bintang II, also bred by Edward. Bintang, together with his rider Laura Renwick, is proving himself to be a top quality show-jumper with a great future still ahead of him. Both Bintang and Dasj have the same granny -probably not a coincidence, knowing Edward- who is by Grannex, whose name keeps on turning up during my visit.
Grannex stood at Whorridge stud for several years and there is still sperm available, as is also still from Mayhill and Karandasj. Edward tells me Grannex is particularly useful in the mare lines.
Karandasj came from the Venderbosch family (jointly owned with well known equine veterinarian Jan Greve), which yet again proves the importance of their close connection. This is where Edward learned to be an expert at handling stallions from the great character, Freriks, possibly one of the greatest stallion handlers Holland has ever known.
When Alfie joins us at the table and I ask her about the decision to ride for the Netherlands, she is very quick to stop her dad, who only just managed to say, 'not my decision...'. She wants to make very clear that it was her idea and her decision to use the fact that she has a Dutch passport as well as an English one.
She explains that, as a young rider, she had a very lovely and brave horse, which unfortunately was not super fast. With the enormous amount of young riders available in England on expensive and often ready-made horses, she wouldn't have stood a chance to ever qualify for a team, which is what she so desperately wanted. So it was an easy decision: Holland did want them and at the Venderbosch family there was always a bed and a stable.
JOHAN VENDERBOSCH IS LIKE A DAD
Go back fourty years or so, when Edward and his uncle would drive into the now internationally famous stud 'De Radstake', owned by Johan Venderbosch, on many a Sunday afternoon, which soon became Edward's second home.
Not only his second home but also where he learned every trick of the trade. 'Johan was like a father for Edward, still is', Clissy says.
At that very moment grandson Bjinse Venderbosch walks into the kitchen. He came back with them from the European Young Riders Eventing Championships at Millstreet in Ireland having competed there for the Dutch Junior team. Nui, together with Granntevka Prince (Hah, there's Grannex again!), got a grand bronze in the Young Riders Section. Bjinse stayed on with the Bleekman family for the rest of the competition season. Obviously the love between the two families goes both ways.
I AM NOT THE ONLY ONE
Alfie continues, 'I am not the only one and so don't feel vulnerable because of it. There are so many foreign riders based here in England. The availability of good courses is so great and relatively easy to get to. Can't compare it to anywhere else, really.'
'I may not speak the Dutch language, but I feel as Dutch as I do English and our life style, with our second home with the Venderbosch family in Holland and all the international events we go to, I have friends all over the world.' (Oh dear, Mrs. May, shot through my head at that moment, what are you doing!)
Both girls (Alfie and Nui, Katie wasn't home) do indeed have a very direct 'Dutchness' about them, although, their mother's genes could have helped that along a bit, too. I can imagine that at that lovely big kitchen table there will be the occasionally heated discussion.
However, democracy certainly reigns in the Bleekman household, with room for everyone's opinion. Nui and Alfie get help from different trainers. Nui has chosen to train with Mark Todd and dressage rider Anna Ross, whereas Alfie visits Lucinda Green and Ferdie Eilberg. Together they do share show-jump trainer Allen Fazakerley when he is coming their way.
BOEKELO: TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE...
For Clissy every year at Boekelo is a 'trip down memory lane'. It was the great Dutch trainer Roeli Bril who got Edward on Clissy's lorry some thirty years ago, Clissy being a regular there. Edward had to be on a flight from Heathrow to Los Angeles for a horse transport where he worked in the racehorse world in the States at the time.
Well... and then this horrible gale arrived and kept them a bit longer at Boekelo because the ferry didn't run...
Clissy puts a huge bag with pictures on the kitchen table.
UNBELIEVABLE, MARK TODD THEN AS WELL!
Loads of pictures, loads of great and also very funny moments. A very young Mark Todd who, during one of the first events at Boekelo went straight through a little bridge of railroad sleepers, with horse and all! The time was stopped, the bridge rebuilt and Mark continued. It was early days for the Dutch to be involved in the sport of eventing and the quality of course building has improved since then!
That was somewhere during the eighties. Now, a full generation later, there Mark was, this time in the same section as daughter Alfie who is becoming as much a regular as her mother.
When, during my visit, Alfie led the small but ever so brave Dasj out of her stable for the picture, I could not help but think of Mark Todd's very special Charisma, who once stole everyone's heart. 'Yes, Mark certainly has a soft spot for her', Alfie says.
EDWARD HOLDING THE FORT
And Edward, he stayed behind holding the fort. There are to many valuable steeds roaming the fields for all to up sticks. Seven mares in foal; 22 competition horses of which half of them home bred. Plenty of youngsters, among which two stallions which Edward particularly likes. But he is a Gelderland man, born and bred, so he is sparse with his his words.
A SMALL HORSE FACTORY
All in all this is a small but extremely efficient functioning horse factory where all involved are fully committed and no unnecessary luxuries permitted. Every penny goes to where those pennies are most needed. Which are the dreams and goals of and Edward, and Clissy, and their three enthousiastic daughters. Because you can feel that in their kitchen with a cup of coffee in front of you, the desire to move forward and think big by young and old.
Like Alfie said, ‘we do not have the money to buy expensive horses, so we have to breed and make them ourselves.’ Well, they certainly have the best mum and dad for that!
A HAPPY DRIVE BACK HOME
I left the Bleekman household and Whorridge Stud with a happy feeling. It was a wild ride back. When I left home the clouds were yellow and the sun an eerie orange. In six hours back and forth with hurricane Ophelia breathing in my neck. But, I have heard the wooden shoes clump through the yard and the familiar Achterhoek dialect from my beloved Gelderland. Back to Cornwall, home away from home...
You can order my book 'The Farmer, The Coal Merchant, The Baker..' on Amazon for only £7.50
It tells the story how the Gelderland horse helped to make the KWPN horse internationally famous. Interspersed with the great anecdotes from Johan Venderbosch, founder of Stud De Radstake and Henk Nijhof of Team Nijhof among others. They were once farmers, coal merchants and bakers, hence the title.
Top picture: Team Bleekman, from left to right: Clissy, Edward, Dasj, Alfie, Nui
Middle: One of the Mayhill offspring I bred with her mum Bodrigan, the mare Claire Daniels show-jumped so very successfully into Grade A. The best foal I ever bred, but unfortunately died of a colic.
Bottom: Mark Todd on Mayhill taken from my 1996 Whorridge Stud catalogue
The horse: the best teacher for rider...and trainer!
This week I had a lesson with one of my favourite pupils, always cheerful, always positive and with a great sense of humour. So when in the middle of the lesson and seemingly out of the blue she just burst into a loud and seriously unflattering sobbing fit I was completely gobsmacked. So seemed her lovely patiently standing bay gelding.
As we all know, training horses can be very confronting. Not only physical limitations can turn the toughest of the toughest into teary eyed little heaps of misery. Also the mental state, a bad day at work or with the kids, can cause huge upsets when a training session is meant to help forget and release stress but doesn't quite go to plan.
It seemed out of the blue, it was loud, but didn't last long. And soon I found out the problem.
We were working on the halt down the centre line. She said her horse always threw his bum to one side or the other. They always left the ring feeling stupid, despite the fact that the rest of the test had been well above average. I was never told about this problem before and admit during our monthly meeting we had concentrated on other, seemingly more important, things.
Generally, when I come across this problem, it is caused by lack of impulse combined with one-sided stiffness and can be solved with one leg a tad more behind the girth. Trying to practice the halt on the centre line over and over again doesn't help because negative anticipation from the horse kicks in, resulting in even more lack of impulse, which doesn't make the halt any straighter, certainly not squarer. A halt without sufficient impulse is never square.
So, we set out to ride a more forward trot down the centre line, without the halt in order to eliminate the anticipation proceeding with the halts along the long side. When that went well, I thought: piece of cake, she will do a perfect one now down the centre line and on we move to the next part of the lesson.
Wrong, wrong... the horse did exactly the same, followed by the previously described emotional release. Turns out this has been such an ongoing frustration that both rider and horse simply had learned to hate that last bit!
Ha, a challenge, bring it on! First I had to confess I initially misinterpreted the entire issue and therefore asked her to ride down the centre line one more time and make the halt so I could again look at what exactly happened.
What an eye-opener! It just shows how much you can learn as a teacher during your own lessons. This workaholic of a horse was not going too slow into the halt, but too fast! So when the rider felt the bum move to one side and tried to 'fence it off ' with her leg behind the girth, the gelding quickly shoved his bum the other way and very fast too. Reason: he is not one-sided and there was nowhere for the very active hind legs to go other than trying to pass the front legs which had stopped to move because of the rider's increased contact with the mouth. As soon as he felt the leg of the rider shift to where he moved he quickly went the other way with even more left-over energy. So it was all about keeping the front end straight in front of the back end and certainly not a one-sided kick on the body of an eager-to-please horse which was already very for the leg.
I explained this and asked the rider to keep her legs very still in exactly the same position on both sides and ride with wider hands to secure and channel the head between the shoulders of her horse.
Also, I wanted it less abrupt and more progressive, with a few steps of walk in between. This not only to give both rider and horse the time to think and prepare, but also breaking the pattern of holding on too long and too tight to the rein contact. This way the whole action turned into helping the horse rather than correcting, avoiding the whole issue.
She did a great job, showing tremendous self-restraint, keen to break a long-standing bad habit. So, now when the bum made an attempt to swing right, causing for the head and neck to swing left, the reins would be able to feel that coming and deal with it by bringing the right rein sufficiently from the neck, based on the feeling of the rider.And of course the same if the bum threatened to swing left.
Three times and not only the smile was back, but the bay settled down in his whole body language, I could see the relief on the faces of both rider and horse. Although there was still a small shiver in the body where the horse showed an expectation for the rider's leg to shift, he did halt straight and the rider said she positively felt how to ride it.
Advice for the next test: Keep the transition progressive in order to break a long pattern of frustration. A '6' with a future is better than a '4' with none.
At the next event the halt was square.
Advice for Liz: never think you know before you've seen, always be prepared for an unexpected situation and learn yet more from the best teacher in the school: the horse!
Picture: Rebecca Wilkins with her lovely horse Yogi. They finished in 6th place for the Southwest BE100 ranking for this eventing season.
Remember: My book 'THE FARMER, THE COAL MERCHANT, THE BAKER...' is the perfect Christmas present for your horsey friends! Order from me, or at Amazon or publisher YouCaxton.
Competition riding and keeping your world small
For as long as I competed, it was never difficult to perform consistently and in line with my level of training. The longer I have been teaching, the longer I realize what an incredible gift this was. Yes, I would be nervous, but it was always possible to turn this into an advantage, rather than the whole thing forcing me to go to pieces. The only time I ever I didn't get it together was, when driving over to the competition venue, I said to my friend groom, 'I'm not nervous at all, wonder what that will do.' Well, I found out, two mediocre tests! So back to a bunch of healthy nerves.
Over the years I have occasionally come across riders who ride super during their lessons but at shows it all goes basically to pot. This can easily become a rut, the rider becoming more nervous with every next outing with the horse becoming increasingly unsettled and upset as a response.
What do you do as a trainer? This can not be solved during lessons as that is when rider and horse obviously feel within their comfort zone even when stretched to a higher level. The advice to go to clinics with different trainers, with several horses in a group and possibly some people watching from the side at establishments where the shows are being organized is a start. This does add another kind of pressure, but still, it's pressure and that is what an insecure rider has to learn to deal with. At the same time the horse gets to see the premises more often and can be taught without the competition stress that this place is not as scary as it thought it was.
Also, the effort a trainer can make to join the rider at competitions occasionally helps. In particular when it turns out that this rider has a problem giving the horse clear aids which the horse is able to rely on in order to feel safe during the warm-up when there are more horses in the arena.
A typical example happened not too long ago when I joined a pupil for her very first affiliated show at Novice level. In the warm-up her horse did a not at all pleasant one-eighty on its hind legs which resulted into some negative comments from the side, such as 'oh, oh,naughty horse' and more. I pulled the rider up to explain how to avoid this behaviour which was only caused by fear for a collision from the horse's point of view. In this case the horse is less flexible around the right leg. When confronted with an approaching horse when on the right rein, having to pass left to left, the rider had to make an extra effort to flex the horse's neck into a shoulder-fore to the right in order to give the horse the secure feeling that it was not on collision course. Problem solved and a potentially disastrous day turned into a second place with 70 %!
Another time I watched a new-ish pupil warming up in just about half the tempo they normally worked in at home. This had been a pattern and one could literally see the horse gradually turning into a bag of nerves with the result a test with several shies resulting into rider and horse leaving the arena very unhappy.
These patterns are not easy to break because, how can the rider become more confident if the horse does not yet know that from now on the pattern has changed and despite the rider doing a better job still feels threatened in competition environments with old ghosts lurking in corners?
It takes time and patience to overcome this lack of confidence but it is certainly possible. The key to this is for the rider to learn and understand how to during the test make their world 'small' as far as what they are doing together. You can make your world small by training yourself not to worry about what 'others' think or say and to think 100% 'inside the arena'; literally, physically and emotionally. You make yourself just as private is if you were in your own arena not worrying about the pussy-cat of the neighbours sitting in the bushes. For a shying horse this means riding it into a productive shoulder-fore during the test. Productive meaning that it has result. If that means the judge comments on it, so be it. Rather a comment on the horse's neck and head being slightly in than losing lots of marks for shying. The horse is now not physically confronted with what's going on outside and starts thinking inside, which is where it is meant to happen. Eventually the horse will grow more confident through this technique and the shying will stop also when starting to ride straighter, promise!
Not to dwell on what has gone wrong during the test but thinking forward at all times. This is equally as important and gives the horse a proper chance. It takes practice to consistently prepare the horse for what's to come when it is not a natural gift and the only way to practice is to learn to do it...at competitions.
However, I do want to point a finger. This involves fellow competitors and others watching. Every one competing probably loves their horse and has worked incredibly hard to get there. They have only one goal, which is to show their beloved animal in the best possible way and there is not a better feeling than when someone tells you you've got a lovely horse. Equally there is no worse feeling than when there is a bit of 'oh, oh, naughty horse' going on. It really hurts and is not necessary. Let's be good sports and think twice before we comment. It will really help those suffering from insecurity to up their game.
Finally, being a bit of a 'hippie', I quite like the the thought of a mantra, a simple repeated sentence which expresses what you aspire and want to achieve. This you do regularly and gradually it becomes part of you and you start to believe it. Honestly, for me it worked!
Top Picture: Jen Unwin on her lovely Flora. Jen is a typical example of how to 'rise to the occasion' and able to use her nerves to her advantage.
Bottom: Rachel Wood who had a difficult start with her home bred Jazz but changed it around showing great determination and is now regularly placed at Novice level with consistent scores between 65 and 70%.
When will the showing world grow up
We're getting very close to Rio and probably every horse owner is hoping for the repeat of 4 years ago when the English dressage team finally made it and beat the countries who used to win it. For a trainer living in Cornwall, but born and bred in Holland, this was received with mixed feelings, however, I've lived here long enough to defend the English team when my Dutch friends reacted a tad prickly.
When I moved here just over thirty years ago, dressage was still in its early development and often down here I was asked to teach on a slope which the rider considered flat. How things have changed. If you've ever flown from Newquay and tried to count the outdoor schools below (I have...) you'll understand what I mean.
The level of understanding has catapulted. Not only the dressage divas but also the more serious event riders arrive these days well-prepared for their dressage test at their competitions.
One of the regularly reoccurring subjects in the dressage world is the use of the double bridle. To be more specific: when to start using it and, at least as important,how to use it. My personal philosophy has always been that there is no point to try a double unless you can do it in a snaffle. Some purists want to push even further and abandon the double bridle completely, considering at cruel altogether. I still think the correct, and I mean CORRECT, use of the double bridle is a beautiful thing to watch and an art in itself.
At our weekly riding club lessons in Holland we used to have to ride with two reins on our snaffle bit and were taught from the very beginning how to hold the reins as if it was a double, with the curb rein sufficiently loose so the contact would always be on the bradoon. What an innocent way to learn, because if you got it wrong the horse would not pay the price. By the time the horse was ready for the double the rider would be able to handle the change with confidence.
When I moved here, I nearly fell over backwards when I met the showing world. All these lovely young horses in doubles ridden with the curb as tight as the bradoon! Often behind the bit motoring around as if there was no tomorrow.
So I felt I was on a mission and when any pupil of mine wanted to show I would warn them I would never teach them again if they put a double in their horse's mouth. Generally they succumbed and generally the judge would make a comment about it. Generally these horses also went up in their placings after the judge rode them.
Why, oh why, can the showing world not take more notice of what, after England is now fully submerged in dressage, should be common knowledge? I so would love for my pupils with their young horses to enter showing classes. I still think it is such a wonderful education tool for a young horse to learn to cope with a competitive environment. It is so much less scary for them to be able to perform in a group rather than on their own at a dressage show.
More than anything, though, I would love for all those wonderful show horses to start their early life bitted in a fair way. Showing world, please grow up!
Picture: Martyn Humphrey on his lovely mare Damerisk kept her in a snaffle for a long time and see where they are now! A blog about Martyn you can find on my website on the 23rd of April, 2015.
Part of the ride
It all began some twenty years ago. My great friend Sjakkie would turn up regularly with first only little Joscelyn, and a few years later her little baby-brother Petroc, as well. I loved them both equally as much, but of course could not help but notice Jos's face lighting up when she saw my horses.
Fergie, my broodmare, was extremely safe and it didn't take any convincing for Jos to be thrown up on top. 'Hoho, it's windy up here.' I shall never forget that moment. First of all, my nickname, how do they make it up! Second, how funny but also how true. She was now some five feet higher up than she'd ever been and the world felt and looked so very different.
Jos was only four years-old when, all by herself, she would help me getting my mare Marie bandaged up. At the time my back was not good, hence the fact I would first put a bandage at each leg before crawling around on hands and knees in order to put them on. Jos would make sure they were in exactly the right place, also occasionally undoing one in order to roll it back up. I always made sure to have one handy in my pocket so as not to make her feel bad. Inevitably she started at the wrong end.
Next thing was, we had to find her a little old trustworthy pony and, yes, there happened to be one next door. Thirty years old, going strong and man, could this thing bite when I was off-guard wandering along the Cornish lanes with Jos happily pulling the wild flowers out of the hedgerow, chatting away for dear life. The pony was called Sunny, but Jos didn't think much of this and changed it all by herself into 'Sunshine Georgia'.
Time moved on and the family moved to Holland, in order to be closer to family. Wringford became their second home for much of the summer holidays and Jos, having regular lessons at her local riding school, was able to ride my mare Marie and the very kind livery horse Frost.
And now, well, here we are; with the great help of Neel Schakel-van Klei of riding school 'Schakel' in Ameide, Joscelyn is now not only officially assistant-instructor but also very close to being able to compete Medium on Zorro, a smart bay gelding belonging to the riding school.
Congratulations, Jos, and I've loved being part of the ride!
Pictures: Joscelyn Weychan, on my broodmare Fergie, with 'Sunshine Georgia' and recently with Zorro
Good luck to Nicky Turriff and Lux O'Neill at HOYS
Successful come-back after kissing spine for Hazel Clewley with Trundle
It was a tough year for Hazel Clewley and her horse Trundle. During the previous spring it gradually became obvious that the stalwart bay gelding had a problem. Although he wasn't exactly lame he was increasingly irregular in a weird sort of way and when Hazel asked me to get on top in order to feel him, his two canters, right and left, felt completely different. Much more than I could see from the side.
Hazel, being a veterinarian herself, decided to visit Western Counties Equine Clinic near Exeter for a thorough and specialist investigation. Trundle was seen by Chris Johansson, who diagnosed kissing spine. Considering Trundle's age (14 at the time) together with the level of severity he decided to inject Pitcher Plant extract (as a pain management) and steroid between the affected spinous processes. Trundle was put on rest for a couple of weeks and after that lunged with the Pessoa for another month. Gradually normal work was introduced, however, between Chris and Hazel the decision was made to work him less often, two or three times a week. This would give him sufficient time to relax and avoid another spasm. As Trundle spends most of his time out in his field and is naturally fit this wasn't a problem. Chris was fairly confident that Trundle would be able to pick up his eventing career again as there was little growth on the vertebrae and the discomfort largely caused by muscle spasm.
Initially I took the muscle spasm quite personal as I'm the one who introduced lateral work in order to help Trundle to become more even. When I met him for the first time he was very stiff to the right and Hazel explained to me that this was an issue from when she bought him. His x-country record was excellent, which was, together with his honest character, what attracted her in him.
I very much kept in mind that he was not a young horse and felt we built it up as gradually as possible. Maintaining the counter canter on the left rein was also an issue for him. Just before it all went pear-shaped all of the hard work seemed to have paid off as shoulder-in, travers, renvers, both counter canters and the beginning of a decent half-pass were established. Also, he really loved his powerful medium trot on the diagonal. .
During Trundle's recovery I helped Hazel with the remedial lunging as it was important that he would work softer when going into his stiffer direction which, because of the spasm, now had reappeared. Surprisingly quickly though, he started to get happier again and was snorting just as much going to the right, as well as going to the left, maintaining a good rhythm and correct bend. After more or less three months he was back into normal work, what's more, he looked better than ever.
I must say, when I teach Hazel and Trundle I have to restrain myself, as lateral work is now not something we want to do too much of anymore. Pity, as he looks so good when doing it.
But this weekend at Bicton, seeing the two of them take off so very happy, for what turned out to be an excellent x-country round, put tears in my eyes. Driving back the rosette for 9th place gloriously hanging behind us meant a lot more than being placed.
Top picture: Hazel and Chris Johansson watching Trundle being lunged during his investigation at West Counties Equine Clinic.
Bottom: Hazel and Trundle going strong.
Timing and competition riding
Every so often I join one of my pupils at a competition. It has happened that I am sat waiting in my car in order for the rider to arrive some time later. I'm a strong believer in the fact that arriving too early never ruins the day, but arriving too late does. I simply do not see the point of putting all that training time in, paying substantial entry fees, filling my lorry up with a hundred quids worth of fuel in order to end up feeling rushed. Enough nerves are involved already and (don't take me wrong, a healthy lot of nerves can up your game) do not want to be running around like an idiot, proceeding to not be able to find things, getting moody with my horse when trying to get studs in, or worse, not getting them in at all.
I am going to paint you a picture: A red faced rider is moving in a stiff trot to the ring steward to find out where to go, knowing very well that there is very little time left to warm up. The horse had already figured out, the way it was yanked of the lorry and saddle and bridle chucked on that things weren't exactly relaxed and after the stiff trot has its adrenaline running even more so. Result: frustration is unleashed with perfect timing when the bell of the judge rings.
What a shame, not only is the day partly or completely ruined, but also the chances of the next outing as horses do not forget anything, ever.
I am lucky to have sensible pupils but also they occasionally underestimate holiday traffic or maybe their horse is a little less willing than normal to walk on the lorry. First piece of advice: do not pass your hurry on to your horse, but stay in control of your emotions as that gives you the best chance to save what is left. A short but relaxed warm-up is always the better option.
The first time I competed in Cornwall it was in Launceston at Andrew Reeve's yard, some 25 years ago. Being Dutch the problem already started at home. I had to drive the lorry for some 10 minutes along a steep narrow lane, mirrors in, with no passing opportunities at all. No satnav to depend on then, so direction's written out on a large piece of paper. I knew my horse well enough that, it being her first competition as well, she would be 'full of it' to say the least. When I arrived Andy wasn't even up yet and there was no one to be seen. I was on top ever so relaxed well before the rest of the competitor's started to arrive and Marie took it in her stride, literally. I got of again and gave her a hay net for half an hour before I got back on for a short warm-up and she did great.
Another timing problem, often for event horses at the beginning of the season, is that I hear riders say: my horse was like an idiot for the dressage but when I got back on for the show-jumping it was fine.
Simple solution, arrive early, work your horse for a short time, put it away just as you would between dressage and show-jumping, and get back on. Nine out of ten times it works.
If all this rings a bell to you, then set your alarm a little earlier than you used to at a competition day. I bet it pays off!
From Claire Rushworth to Liz Barclay and back
Some years ago show-jump trainer Claire Rushworth sent me one of her pupils as she could not work out what to do next in order to improve the performance of both horse and rider any more. I had seen this lady jump at the odd competition so knew her her issues more or less.
I decided to take the jumps away but leave a course of poles on the ground. I had not seen this done before but it seemed to me that this way we could make a start with getting a rhythm and suitable tempo, work on corners and also straightness when approaching the the poles without having to worry about keeping jumps upright. It worked miracles as we were now able to dissect the individual problems without either horse or rider becoming weary of poles crashing left, right and center. We did about four sessions of this before returning to Claire.
We worked on not dipping the inside shoulder into, over and out of the jump, on when to start pushing the new inside leg on more forward when 'jumping' a pole on a diagonal and wanting a lead change. Turned out that this was on one rein about three strides before the actual jump as this horse was stiffer on the side he had to change towards. He therefore needed the message earlier in order to straighten himself so he could re-bend in the new direction.
Every time he became too exuberant we made a halt, let him think about it for the time needed and initially had to walk him as well in order to settle him down before we were able to pick up a controlled collected canter straight away from the halt. When changing leads on a straight line still going in the same direction, so without a message to change, he was also made to halt and then corrected back to the appropriate canter lead in a similar way.
In the first session I pulled the rider up on not walking sufficiently slow and controlled with a long but round and deep outline. Secondly, we worked on making a controlled walk-canter transition with the rider not dipping the inside shoulder and the horse being more alert.
Today I started this same pattern with a pupil event rider with some show-jump issues. Again I surprised not only my pupil but also myself with the effectiveness of this approach. The horse started initially with all the mistakes he normally makes over jumps. Too bold, changing when not asked, not changing when asked and running through the outside shoulder after the 'jump'. First we sorted the walk tempo and outline, then the canter transition, then just around on the same rein going large with one pole on each long side aiming for perfect straightness of horse and rider, making halt-walk- canter and eventually halt-canter transitions to correct unwanted lead changes and a too bold a canter.
When we finished, having done now a full circuit of poles on the long side and short side, a change across the diagonal over a pole and proceeding with another full circuit on the other rein the rider told me this:" I finally felt he was light and we could have gone on in that canter forever. I know if we can work like this between the jumps it will make such a difference.
This horse has always had a tendency to either go too fast and subsequently too flat over the jumps, or, when slowed down to back off being behind the leg. Also, he would make up all kinds of lead changes anywhere at any time.
Sometimes it is not possible to remember everything at once and what to do when. So brake it up and decide what comes first in order to improve your jumping. This method helps you to work on your riding between the jump's and is always a good way to start breaking your bad habits.
One last tip, I myself learnt an awful lot from watching top show-jump riders working their horses in the warm-up area. It nearly looks like everything they do is slow-motion. They walk slow, but track up well and go into this very slow canter without the rider seemingly shifting a muscle. They know they need this control- from the leg into their hand and engagement and impulse without becoming stressed or excited- in order to be able to get through a course which inevitably will cause plenty of excitement with the odd surprise and imbalance.
One hundred years of eleven-eleven-eleven
Ever since the First World War reached a ceasefire on November the eleventh at eleven o'clock it has been the moment for the countries involved to commemorate this. As today it is the centenary of the beginning of First World War, I, as a horse lover, would like to pause for a moment in order to remember the thousands of horses which were lost under the most atrocious circumstances. With that many of the men who were caring for them had to suffer the loss of their four-footed comrade at a time when they needed every bit of emotional comfort they could lay their hands on. Sadly, when the war was over many horses, having gone through hell and back, were now paid by being slaughtered for their meat.
It does not hurt my feelings that the cavalry is a changed phenomena and horses no longer go to war. Through the beautiful and enormously popular theatre production 'War Horse' (and also the movie) the tragedy was brought a lot closer to us. Horse lovers and non horse lovers found it an equally emotional experience. Personally, I could not keep my eyes dry for a minute through the whole play, not so much because of the story line but knowing that this one romantic tale represented also an endless amount of tragedies.
My first pony was a Haflinger. Somewhere I read that this small compact horse was much loved by the cavalry in Austria as it was able to pull cannons very well in difficult terrain. Last night on the English program 'Countryfile', which was dedicated to the Great War, it was mentioned that the mule was so popular for its stamina. One does not need a whole lot of imagination in order to realize how sad that actually is.
Dressage is going through an enormously popular phase. Dressage to music has added to this greatly. I think that occasionally we should remember that the cavalry is (partly) responsible for all the knowledge we have about what makes our horses respond to us. For me, for example, a book written by Gregor de Romaszkan was an important source of information. He was an Austrian cavalry officer in the Great War and also was involved in the Second World War, in Poland and in France.
Part of the cavalry is the uniform. In the dictionary another word for 'uniform' is 'identical'. This is what I sincerely hope we will never loose in the dressage world. The uniformity of what we wear when competing. We owe that to our horses. So that, when dressage is being watched by enthusiasts, the horse is not overshadowed by its rider. Also, it is a way to honour those who gave us the foundation for what is now our sport, but once was such a vital part of protecting one's country.
Perseverance and more perseverance
A couple of weeks ago I was translating an article about a Dutch dressage rider who, after a brake because of an injury, had started to compete again at Advanced level and did rather well. It said he had competed Prix St.Georges in the past and was now hoping to prepare in order to compete Grand Prix.
Small detail: the rider Maarten van Stek has only one arm. As soon as I read that I raced back in time and was sitting again on the side of an indoor arena somewhere in the east of my home country Holland, crutches lying next to me, after a car accident which nearly caused for me to loose my left leg and disabled me for quite a while.
Maarten was teaching and had just got on a horse of a client. I must say, I was completely starstruck. Watching him ride made me also so unbelievably envious. Here was a young guy who did everything I had wanted to do and not only did he have this wonderful quality of being able to explain in a very uncomplicated and humble way very complicated things, he transformed a quite unbalanced and confused horse in a relatively short time into a well-balanced horse which started to show itself of and in the process growing happier by the minute. It didn't even occur to me any more that this man had only the one arm.
I came away confused, angry but also with that itch of wanting to not give up and stick the pain and the frustration in order to get back on a horse again.
So, thirty five years later,still going strong as a dressage trainer, I am sitting behind my little laptop in my Cornish cottage and in the meantime learning about the fact Maarten had lost his arm in a car accident when he was only six and started riding as a therapy. A lesson in perseverance to say the least. I wish him all the best and will follow his achievements, hopefully in the Grand Prix not too long from now.
Oh, and by the way, thank you Maarten, that time in the indoor school in Haaksbergen was a life-changing experience.
Riders meet: relaxation and timing is everything
On Sunday I organized a little gathering for a few of my pupils who for various reasons have not been able to compete regularly.
They each had to pick a test which was bordering their comfort-zone. It had to include all the movements they have trained with their horse so far which would be a tad higher than their competition level of the moment.
They were each given one and a half hours. One hour to warm up, if needed; a set time to do the test; a little time for comments from the trainer and fellow riders and for the horse to have a break; finally, if needed some more time to work on some of the issues and another try for the test.
The first horse, a big stalwart event horse at novice level with the potential to do an intermediate one day, has had a back injury, is now fit again and came in like a tank. Often event horses are a `bit full of themselves' at their first outing and he certainly was. In a situation like that it is virtually impossible to plan a warm-up: when the horse starts to settle it will then immediately feel tired. Also, it is a fine line between trying to get rid of some of the surplus energy with some canterwork and winding up the horse even more. Starting in a trot and picking the right moment for some canterwork generally is the best option, occasionally checking whether the horse is ready to settle in the walk. as soon as he is ready for that it is important to not over-practice the movements as the energy level will now drop fast. Instead, save the energy, trust your homework and during the test help your horse rather than the horse having to help you.
The chosen test included shoulder-in, counter canter and simple changes. When his official time was up the bay gelding was still `chomping one the bit' and therefore everything looked hurried and unfinished, although it got better as the test went on, the canterwork in particular. A sign of a mature and thoughtful rider as she herself did not get flustered and so was giving a calming signal through her seat bones to the horse. Nevertheless, she was disappointed. After a little brake she worked on more relaxation and did the test again. He was a little too tired to do a perfect one but the regularity of the trot and the canter had improved, the shoulder-ins looked more finished, the simple changes were more accurate and the mediums in canter were surprisingly spot-on. The rider had hoped for more but gave the horse a good foundation for the next competition, which was the whole purpose of this day in the first place.
The next horse arrived in similar fashion if not even more excited. The rider wisely decided to lunge him first. I know this horse has a `funny button' and although getting better,can buck and occasionally rear. It took only minutes for him to literally go as quiet as a lam and the rider showed a beautiful warm-up. Especially the trotwork looked soft and was beautifully balanced. The problem was the horse was threatening to peak before its time. so the rider added some breaks which helped to slow the process down.
The horse is still young and has only just started to compete, however, the rider bravely choose a novice test. Apart from the odd toss with its head, the horse did a very acceptable test. The upward toss the trainer blamed on the fact that the horse only recently started to go on the bit correctly and does not have a strong poll. It is an effort to carry your own head around when it lives a foot or two in front of the rest of your body at the best of times. Give this horse a few months with the right exercises and he will have outgrown this problem.
After the short break we worked on the walk, which was too sluggish, also the free walk on a long rein. By using the whip a little more assertively the rider was able to sit stiller and not use too much leg. The horse looked more focused and energetic in its free walk. Also this horse was a little tired during the next test but the walk certainly had improved and yet another settled horse with a good experience under its belt left the arena.
Also the horse of our host started on the lunge. This striking skewbald gelding can be sharp and a little nappy at the beginning of a session at times, particularly when he has had an easy week. Strange, as once he gets going he seems to love his work. This horse has a travel issue but fortunately its rider loves her training and, although she hopes to compete again, does not allow herself to have any sleepless nights over it. In the meantime they have become very comfortable with the lateral work and also the counter canter and simple changes are part of his `vocabulary'.
The rider added some shoulder-ins to an otherwise suitable elementary test and she really did herself proud. Although she got lost at the very beginning she recovered and rode a test which was not quite consistent but had some glorious work in it. Trainer and rider were pleased the horse did not bolt when a spontaneous little applause came from the side.Trainer and riders all felt this horse did not have to do the test again. After having shown their half-passes rider and horse went back to their stable both looking satisfied.
During lunch we discussed the morning and all agreed on the fact that, during the warm-up, there is no point trying to ride some of the movements of your test until the horse feels relaxed in its environment. Once competing at a regular basis a pattern will establish itself which the rider can then start to depend on.
Timing is everything. Also leaving home in time! I always add an extra hour in order to leave with plenty of time for a relaxed drive rather than be late and get stressed. Your horse will respond accordingly.
When the horse takes too long to relax at a competition, try lunging before you leave.
Finally, some horses need longer to warm-up than others. Listen to your horse in order to give it what it needs, as only then it will be able to give back what you want so very much.
Too deep or not too deep?
`On the bit' is for many a rather grey area. I also have been confused in my earlier days about this matter. However, as the years went on and with that experience increased, I have simplified the matter: when the horse goes too deep it has got to come up and when it goes too high it's got to come down.
We all know what is too high but when does your horse go too deep?
When the horse consistently wants to go to high it is not wrong to ride it too deep during training for a certain time, as on competition day it will probably end up just right. It is important though to be able to recognize when this position is becoming habitual and therefore difficult to change, with the result: a horse on the forehand. A naturally forward horse will start to move quicker than its natural rhythm and the lazier horse will go dead for the leg.
But what when you think that on competition day your horse was accurate, obedient and for the leg but not too fast, whereas your sheet tells you your horse is behind the bit? We must accept that our qualified judges should be able to notice whether a horse is correctly on the bit or not. However, this is the moment we enter the grey area. Can a horse be on the bit when it is actually behind the vertical? In my opinion: yes.
When a horse is advanced in its training and its head and neck carriage in the final position it must be on the vertical when competing, of course. But this surely means that when the horse is more novice and therefore more horizontal in its head and neck carriage but becoming more stretched in its top line, it inevitably will be a little behind the vertical. If not, it would be ahead of the vertical when reaching its final and more advanced position.
This position at novice level must go together with the horse tracking up and consistently and accurately performing the movements in the test. Then I do not think the judge should question the position of the head and neck. If the judge marks this horse and rider down and the rider takes this comment seriously it will stop their development to a higher level and that would be such a shame!
Judging at the unaffiliated event at glorious Lanhydrock reminded me of a thought I have regularly, especially when a potential new pupil warns me about the fact that: `my horse does not like dressage'.
I wholeheartedly agree that if ones aim is to do a decent enough dressage test at prenovice or novice level, as that is the standard which most riders aim for when eventing, dressage is thoroughly boring. Not just for the horse but also for the rider. As the standard of an intermediate, let alone an advanced, cross-country is seldom within reach , most riders don't think beyond that boring novice test.
Let us take a different approach. Your horse is going to get older and probably one day needs to slow down. There are several options. One is to just do some hacking or some local shows, which is fine if you are happy with that. However, it is possible to have another competition career, if you have done your homework right. Dressage isn't actually that boring if you change your view from training for a novice test to training to maybe do a medium test with some shoulder-in, a half-pass. Maybe even an advanced test with some flying changes.
Not interested? Feel free, but you are missing out. You think it's out of your reach? Probably not.
If you think a little more long term and work seriously on your basics. Then gradually dare to extend the comfort zone of you and your horse, it takes away the dead-end feeling and your horse will become interested and learn to like it. I can guarantee you that. The bonus is even better: higher marks when you do your tests at your events.
As I am not a show-jump expert, I can not be certain how this is similar for the show-jumping. All I know is that my pupils have always improved each phase of their performance dramatically, when taking both their dressage and their show-jumping serious and spend equal amount of time training for them.
Welcome to my blog
As a horse lover and dressage trainer I have watched, sat on, lunged, in short, studied horses and riders for over thirty five years and loved every minute of it. It is what makes me tick. Through those years many issues keep on reoccurring. What interests me particularly is, no matter what anybody’s aim is with their horse it should always be fair and with the best interest of the horse in mind. So, if you love your horse and you are a rider, please keep reading
I am aiming to give you solid and clear information so you will understand your horse and its potential problems better. If this improves your competition results, well, that is a bonus. For me competition was never the drive to train horses, although I did compete, really only to check whether I was where I wanted to be, and thought I was, in my training. Some people need competitions to stay motivated. No matter what your drive is, at the end of the day you will get most out of your horse when it feels good, in its spare time and its work. No romance will blossom unless your horse is on your side. It is all about partnership and not about ego trip.
I hope you will enjoy and appreciate my effort to give you a regular tip so check the website and if you have questions, send me an e-mail and I will try to use it as a future topic.
About Liz Barclay
Her love for horses together with her dedication made her into the trainer and dressage rider she is, today. She is versatile and inventive and likes a challenge; whether it is a technical training question, a confidence issue or a problem involving the management of the horse or pony.
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