Blog posts about dressage
MAARTEN VAN STEK IS COMING BACK!
A CLINIC IN MAY
Yes, Maarten van Stek is back on form! And visiting Cornwall again for a clinic in May. Last year he couldn't make it due to a lengthy recovery period because of multiple leg fractures after having been stuck under his horse who had a very unfortunate slip on the concrete.
Yet again, the fact that Maarten is back riding and instructing after such a horrendous accident tells you of his phenomenal resilience. We, who have met him and were already part of his clinics, know his story. Maarten has been at the dressage subtop for many years, despite the fact that he lost one arm because of an accident when he was only six years old. Other than having trained numerous horses ready to compete Grand Prix, he has coached five Dutch riders into Grand Prix level and 17 into the PSG.
MAARTEN: UNDERSTANDING, FORGIVING AND A GOOD SENSE OF HUMOUR
What I personally find Maarten's greatest gift is, that he, despite the fact that he himself has had to be as tough as nails to have such a brilliant career as a sublime horseman, he is very understanding and forgiving to anyone struggling at any level.
Having trained so many horses and riders to the highest levels, there is nothing kocky or snobby about him and his sense of humour, together with his knowledge, has given all of us the chance to feel secure and free to ride with confidence, at the same time able to absorb his comments and thrive. For me it has meant I have developed my teaching skills through watching him and for my pupils it meant we were able to continue our journey with more focus and understanding about where we are heading.
Below some statements from some who have taken part in Maarten's previous clinics in Cornwall:
Lucy Lloyd: Maarten's clinics have been invaluable to tweak and improve many aspects of our training programme. This helped me to move up to medium level dressage, something I never really thought I would achieve on my old eventer, Tomtom.
Becky Wilkins: I had a lesson with Maarten on his last visit and I can honestly say that it was incredible. He identified and addressed the small issues that I was having with my little mare and made a huge difference to the way she went. I was then able to work on his advice afterwards with Liz. With Maarten and Liz's help we've been consistently in the top 10 after dressage which we definitely weren't before. I would strongly recommend booking for a lesson with Maarten, he is brilliant!
Emily Skerrett: I had a lesson with Maarten when he visited the UK last, and really enjoyed it. I am a grade 5 para rider and found it very helpful being taught by someone who not only understood my disability, but my fierce independence and also understood my hot warmblood who then was recently imported from Holland. He worked with us with a lot of sensitivity and insight which left me feeling more empowered and confident with some good tools to help my horse. Looking forward to seeing him again!
Davina Pritchard: Maarten is a really inspirational trainer. He is very firm, direct and clear in what he expects from you as a rider and he doesn’t settle for anything less than 100% commitment. Yet he is insightful and generous with his time and knowledge and helped gain real improvements to my riding and my horses way of going.
Liz Bailey: I have been lucky enough to participate on Maarten's clinics in Cornwall over the past few years. He has a superb manner of calmness and confidence about him, putting yourself and your horse at ease very quickly. His lessons are incredibly informative & fun & I find myself referring back to moments within our sessions multiple times long after the event. I always try and make time to watch some lessons throughout Maarten's clinics too, there's so much to learn!
Claire Daniels: My horses and I have been so fortunate to have had several lessons with Maarten on his visits to Cornwall. Every experience with him has led to several light bulb moments, turning some training methods completely upside down! Maarten has a true gift in enabling riders to help their horses in an amazing way all through working within their natural instincts. In a single lesson he is both inspiring and so intuitive that you always come away on a real high, eager to continue in the same fantastic groove he’s shown you and addicted to achieve that ‘feeling’ from then on!
Maarten van Stek clinic dates at Tall Trees: May 18, 19 and 21. £70 per session. Claire Daniels is taking bookings on messenger WhatsApp or text. Mobile number: 07790 394234.
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A VERY SPECIAL TRIP TO GERMANY RESULTING IN AN UNEXPECTED MEETING WITH OLYMPIC RIDER LEONIE BRAMALL
A few weeks ago, my husband Buz and I left Cornwall at the crack of dawn to be in time for the Eurostar to take us to Bruxelles. We were on our way to Hanover for a very special occasion, the marriage of Toby and Christian, both committed horsemen. Two days never to forget. To witness a young man, whom I had known for many years, getting married to the love of his life, was an emotional happening, to say the least.
For the newly-wed to take their first married day and drive us around for an equine-related sight-seeing trip was the icing on the cake. Not only did Toby, now a qualified equine veterinarian, show us around the Veterinary College of Hanover, but we also visited Volker Dusche and Olympic rider Leonie Bramall. The proud owners of dressage yard and stud Bramall-Dusche GbR gave us a warm welcome and were extremely generous with their valuable time.
A FUN AND LOYAL LITTLE HELPER FROM GERMANY
Some fifteen years ago, a very shy boy, named Tobias Puschmann, walked into my yard. He was on a working holiday at the organic farm next door, but so missed horses. At the time I was still breeding and, other than a few mares and foals, I had a couple of horses in work and a busy teaching schedule, so some extra help wouldn't hurt.
For three delightful weeks, Toby came every day. He not only knew how to handle a broom or shovel, but was a kind of hard-working sponge, sucking up every bit of information that could possibly help him to become a better horseman. The day he came to say goodbye with his mum, still too young to travel on his own, I will never forget. As soon as they were out of sight I basically sobbed, because I knew: such a kind and loyal young helper I would never find again.
TWO INCHES TALLER
Until he went to university, Toby came nearly every year for a couple of weeks. The third time I went to pick him up from the airport he was suddenly two inches taller than me. Little boys can grow very fast.
We always had so much fun. Other than the work in the yard, Toby came with me to all lessons, he rode some of my horses and in our spare time we walked the coast and talked about everything under the sun. As Toby got older, our conversations often were about his future.
NOT GOOD ENOUGH
Last year, when Toby came to see me with his partner Christian, he told me that, during one of his stays, I had made him so very angry. When yet again he had told me, he wanted to become a horse trainer, I had answered him in a very matter of fact way that he just wasn't good enough. 'I was so angry with you, but it was the very best advice you could have possibly given me.'
In another conversation, in which Toby was wondering what to study, one of the options being a veterinarian, I told him that I could not choose for him. But if he chose to study to become a vet, he would become a very good one.
A WALKING EQUINE ENCYCLOPEDIA
So now, some fifteen years later, after the official part of the wedding, we were sitting down for dinner, very convenient in the restaurant next door. The chair next to me was occasionally empty, because my neighbour, a tall and larger-than-life man with ginger hair, was regularly running off with his camera. Volker Dusche not only shot loads of beautiful pictures, but also turned out to be a walking equine encyclopaedia. Whenever he sat down he showered me with pedigrees of German and Dutch warmbloods. I really needed the breaks to recover when he was on another round of picture-taking.
OLYMPIC DRESSAGE RIDER LEONIE BRAMALL
Next to Volker sat his partner Leonie Bramall, Olympic dressage rider from Canada. Only eighteen years old, Leonie moved to Germany to train with Johann Hinneman. She rode at the Olympics in Barcelona in 1992 and again in Atlanta in 1996. Christian occasionally takes his horse to Leonie for a lesson, which has turned into a good friendship. How very attentive of Toby and Christian to put me right there.
Whether Leonie is possibly not the biggest talker, I will never know, because of the unbridled enthousiasm of Volker.
‘BRAMALL-DUSCHE GBR’: TOGETHER IS STRONGER
It wasn't that surprising that we drove to stud and dressage yard ‘Bramall-Dusche GbR’, the following morning. I forgot my hangover as soon as Volker, who calls himself the 'tractor driver', introduced me to the first horse. And he continued this from stable to stable. Again, I was told pedigree after pedigree and admired all, including the horse Leonie is competing at Grand Prix, the 9-year old Oldenburg gelding Queensland by Quaterback.
What struck me most was both Volker and Leonie's drive and their enormous pride about what they have achieved together. That 'together' is what makes ‘Bramall-Dusche GbR’ tick, makes them stronger. These two people admire and respect each other; one the trainer and rider, the other the breeder and organizer.
In the field, with three mares and foals, Volker pointed out the mare still from the line his father bred. In that respect Germany is not that different from Holland. The passion of horse breeding is passed on from father to son.
YARD WORK, BRUSHING AND TACKING UP: PART OF THE JOB
With over twenty horses in work, of which Leonie trains up to eight, and that next to a busy teaching schedule, there isn't a spare minute in the day. Still, when I asked her whether she still worked in the yard, I already knew the answer. Her strong arms and hands spoke for themselves. 'Yes, why not? Mucking out, brushing, tacking up, it gives me a chance to get to know them. We get quite a few quirky horses. Intelligent horses often have that side. It is in my own advantage to be around them and sort some issues out without being on top.'
CAN YOU SEE I'M GOOD-LOOKING?
Volker Dusche insisted to show us a two-year-old in the indoor arena. The chestnut had to be gelded, his too small testicles the reason not to be accepted into the grading system as a potential sire. Volker was sad about that, but in the end, here trotted and cantered a proud sports horse with great quality and the world at his feet. Out of their broodmare Rihanna (Sire: Royal Classic) by Galaxie, he stopped suddenly, turning sharply, putting his neck right up there and looked at us, as if to say, 'Hey, can you see I'm good-looking?'
WITHOUT ANY DELUSIONS OF GRANDEUR
No, no time for cappuccino, thank you very much, 'Herzlichen dank, wir mussen weiter!' Back in the car I still feel the electric enthousiasm of two great horsemen of the highest level, who are used to work hard, day in day out, proud of their achievements but without any delusions of grandeur. Quite seldom, these days.
THE VETERINARY COLLEGE OF HANOVER
Next on our way to the veterinary college of Hanover, where Toby is now a qualified equine veterinarian. When entering the modern building, I inevitably had to think of our trip of many years ago. my home-bred PSG mare Marie had developed a chronic sinus problem. I was referred to the veterinary college in Bristol and Toby happened to be there, so joined me for the trip.
Now, I was following Toby into a similar building, realizing that he probably had reached the same, if not higher, level as the veterinarians who had drilled a hole in the head of my beloved mare to have a little look inside.
Did I feel a touch of pride? I admit, Yes, I did…
COLICS, CHRONIC EYE INFECTION AND HEAD-SHAKERS
I saw horses with colic on drips, a stallion with a chronic eye infection and a very charming little cob mare with a cute little moustache who was a head-shaker.
Toby eyed up each individual case in his quiet and steady manner. It was his day off, but that didn't keep him from making sure he left the building knowing that all was as well as could be under the circumstances.
RESEARCH FOR HEAD-SHAKERS
Toby told me that one of his research projects is head-shakers. In the outdoor arena he will sit for hours on end, watching four individual cases being lunged with all kinds of different set-ups. This to see whether side-reins, high, low, longer, tighter or none, affect the behaviour. The slightest differences will be registered with the aim to produce new knowledge.
THE CRANE, SAFETY FIRST
The crane, which moves on rails from the ceiling through part of the building, including the X-ray unit and the operating theatre, is impressive and has changed the complex and dangerous process some of the horses must go through. It means that now horses under full anaesthetics can be moved in slings, completely safe from injury.
THE HORSE VIRUS CAN BE PAINFUL...
We had one more visit to make. Christian had to prepare the food for his Oldenburg mare Anna, at the yard where she is in livery. When Christian was doing the stable,Toby looked longingly at Anna. 'Hopefully I will be able to have my own horse next year...'.
I feel for my good friend who has been so patient. I was once his age. The horse virus can be ever so painful…
Top picture: Leonie Bramall with her Grand Prix horse, the 9-year old gelding Queensland. (Picture made by Volker Dusche)
Below that: Toby with one of the foals at 'Bramall-Dusche GbR'. (Picture made by Volker Dusche)
Below that: the two-year old gelding by Galaxie. (Picture made by Volker Dusche)
Below:Toby at the veterinary college in Hanover. (Picture is made in and belongs to the veterinary college in Hanover)
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BACK TO THE PAST WITH TWO REINS ON THE SNAFFLE
OLYMPIC RIDER AND COACH TINEKE BARTELS REMEMBERS…
Some time ago, Dutch Olympic rider and coach Tineke Bartels remembered in an article the time we used to have to ride with two reins on the snaffle as a preparation for riding with the double bridle. It was standard at the riding clubs when I was growing up.
That is how it was done. We were not allowed a double bridle until we were able to keep these two reins at the correct length as if they were connected to the bradoon and the curb.
It is a very innocent practice which makes the life for the horse far more fun, rather than being hassled around with two messy hands and a frustrated rider.
‘Thoombs doown!’ was the favourite phrase of one of our instructors, which made us all go in hysterics. Hence I never forgot.
‘Thumbs down’ is the only way to keep the control over the length of your reins and when you haven’t mastered this it will show as soon as the double goes into the mouth of your horse. It will become an uncomfortable handbrake with your horse having no choice other than to go on the forehand.
THE DOUBLE IS AN ART
It is the dream of every aspiring dressage rider. Throughout history, the double bridle is connected to the higher level of dressage and correctly used it looks beautiful.
It is an art, where the bradoon gives the horse the contact it needs with the curb kept slightly longer. On the other hand, it is a terrible weapon when in the wrong hands, literally.
It needs a pair of experienced hands and should only be used when the horse is ready for it. Balanced, for the leg and relaxing comfortably through all the exercises in a snaffle. Certainly not when a horse is heavy in the mouth as a measure to achieve the desired lightness.
HONEST AND ETHOUSIASTIC
I am very lucky to have a great bunch of pupils, some of them having been with me for well over twenty years, who are committed and show every lesson they have done their homework. Some are very comfortable riding in a double, others are still dreaming of it and waiting patiently for themselves and their horse to be ready.
KEEN AND GREEDY
One of those riders is Liz Bailey with her horse George who is not ready for the double yet, but Liz is keen and greedy in the nicest kind of way. She has worked very hard on her home-bred gelding, after a rough start with not a whole lot of trust left in each other. George has finally succumbed to accepting the leg and is happy in his work, with Liz now realizing what little information he actually needs to do his job properly.
They are very comfortable at producing a decent Novice test, whereas during our lessons we play with a bit of shoulder-in and the baby half-pass. Also, George has taken a liking to the flying changes, after a very well-established counter canter.
A WASTE OF TIME
However, this rider is still struggling at times to make her downward transitions uphill. It would be a terrible waste of time to now take that beautiful double bridle, which is waiting in the tack room, off the wall.
Chances are George would revert right back to being behind the bit. The last thing we want after all the work we’ve done.
Just in time for Tineke Bartels to remind me in an article about the two reins on the snaffle. The perfect way for Liz to feel that she is working towards her dream.
Also, it is a reality check. Liz soon found out that keeping the curb consistently a tad longer was not at all easy, even when George went well. As soon as he had a bit of a difficult moment both reins were tight again.
A COMFORTABLE TRANSITION TO DEVELOP FEEL
Knowing Liz, it won’t take her long to get it right. It is now part of her regular homework. I do not mention it during the lesson if it is not quite right. It would become frustrating and we would not achieve anything else. We just go about our usual business and it is not until the end of the lesson when I tell her whether she has improved with her 'double'.
I am convinced that by the time George is ready Liz is capable to make it a comfortable transition for him. She will possibly have the curb rein a bit long. Not a problem, from there she can safely develop her feel.
Tineke Bartels, together with her daughter Imke, also an Olympic rider, are the trainers and coaches at Academy Bartels at the beautiful Culitsrode estate in the Netherlands.
Top Picture: Tineke Bartels
Bottom: Liz Bailey with George practicing two reins on a snaffle
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YOGA, PILATES EN ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE, FITNESS WITH FEEL
DRESSAGE STARTS WITH YOU!
When we think of dressage our attention immediately goes towards training the horse. We want for it to move with balance, because we know that is one of the most important ingredients to achieve the desired results.
But how can a horse be well-balanced when 50 kilos of weight is not exactly in the middle or leaning too far forward or back? One hip is higher than the other or the shoulder blades are stuck out?
So, let's be honest...dressage starts with you!
My pupils Hazel Clewley and Liz Bailey, both extremely fit women, convinced me of joining a yoga class because I saw how their balance and position on their horse got very quickly much better from the moment they joined.
HEAVY WHEEL BARROWS AND RUGS
Especially when you're young it is easy to forget about body wear and tear. To underestimate the toll on muscles and joints, especially in the muddy autumn and winter. Wheel barrows are heavily loaded to avoid an extra trip to the muck heap and heavy rugs for in the stable and out in the field are thrown on many times a day.
FITNESS IS IN!
Fitness is in! Everyone knows about spinning, weights are lifted and marathons run. What a difference between some fourty years ago and now. The fitness development to help us grow old happy and healthy has taken such a flight in the last ten years or so.
It is very available and a wonderful development and for many the perfect option to work on weight loss and/or stamina. But when, as a rider, the rest of your day is also fairly physical, you may need to consider other options. You might need to work on suppleness and learn about engaging without tension. And it is not not cool, even when you are still really young, to join a Yoga or Pilates class.
After a relatively long recovery from a back injury from many years ago a friend suggested the Alexander Technique to me. A one-on-one method where you are retaught your body to sit, lift and bend -and all other kinds of banal movements- in a novel and uncomplicated way. We forget as we grow up and it causes endless damage.
What a shame, if had learned that before my injury my position as a rider would have been so much better early on and it would have made my riding so much more effortless and effective!
WHERE ARE MY SEAT BONES?
To be able to ride we think quickly about fitness and strength, but riders are often fit and strong because of their way of life. So, choosing an option of a work-out with a focus on balance and suppleness is probably a better plan.
The Alexander Technique has helped me tremendously to 'find' my seat bones. It has given me a body awareness of which I pick the fruits every single day.
It is called a technique because once you have learned how to use it you just do not forget and it stays with you forever. On days when my back is not very cooperative I can still function fairly normal because of it.
YOGA IS NOT BORING!
Having started yoga this spring has given me a very different view of what it entails. I thought it was a bit too vague for me, possibly a bit boring. How wrong I was!
If ever there is a way to work on your core strength it is yoga, this together with learning to breath from a lower part of your body. The perfect combination for the dressage rider where breathing correctly is so very much part of successful training. Think rhythm and transitions.
FITNESS WITH FEEL HELPS YOU AND YOUR HORSE
The exercise classes and/or techniques I have mentioned not only make you stronger but specifically focus on learning how to be strong without abusing your body. That not only helps you on your horse, but also with pushing your heavy wheel barrows (with a little less muck in it from now on!) or sitting behind a desk.
It is fitness with feel and when you take the time to feel and realize how it improves your own balance, you will be able to feel better what your horse needs to improve its balance.
WE ARE PLENTY TOUGH!
We learn everything about how to warm up our horse before the more difficult exercises and movements. We seldom think about our own warm-up and the negative effects because of it, especially on a cold day, on our horse.
Horse riders are a fairly tough breed. The sport demands a certain toughness. But especially because of that we should not forget to develop that other side of ourselves, learning to feel, and allow time and space for that.
It is not only our body which will benefit but also our horses. They will soon show you their appreciation during their training. And it is just so great when you are able to 'feel' that!
Top picture: Liz with George
Bottom: Hazel with Trundle
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Physiotherapist Saskia Heijkants meets up with Maarten van Stek
Article by Dutch journalist Tessa van Daalen- de Graaff from Dutch magazine Dressuur Magazine
Pictures: Miriam Voorwinde
Translation: Liz Barclay
‘LESS IS MORE’
Physiotherapist Saskia Heykants is always looking for improvement. Hence the reason for her to ask Maarten van Stek whether she could possibly pay him a visit. ‘It intrigued me how he manages with his one arm to train a horse into the Grand Prix. That is unusual to say the least. I think we can all learn from that.’
Saskia is fascinated by rider position and seat. How, as a rider, can you become more efficient with your aids through your seat, that is what she is after all the time. She thought Maarten a brave man to want to cooperate. ‘Maarten is extraordinarily clever. You ought to give it a try, ride with one hand and make something as difficult as a pirouette. He has to be able to ride straight as well as bent. How on earth does he manage that? And how does this work as far as connection, submission -you name it-, how do you do all that and, at the same time, send your horse into the direction you want it to go with that one hand?’
Before meeting Maarten, Saskia assumed Maarten was mainly riding by shifting his weight in combination with unusually quick follow-up aids. This was only partly the case. ‘Of course, we should all be riding like that, the horse can’t do anything with a load of aids at the same time. In Maarten’s case this is a necessity. His coordination is extremely well-developed; he has enormous control over his body. I think he was probably clever in that way by nature, but through circumstances developed this to an extreme level because he needed it to ride in a far subtler manner. We can pull with two hands and push with one leg. That doesn’t necessarily make it better, but at least it looks like something. He is not able to do that.’
First Saskia put Maarten on the flex-chair. It was clear from the start that he is super at finding his centre of gravity. ‘He has developed an extreme sense of finding the exact middle with his weight. Because of this he is, as a rider, ‘with’ his horse always. He has to be, otherwise his horse would continuously want to turn left or right, because Maarten can not compensate with a strong one-sided rein aid.’
Saskia wanted to know how Maarten trains his horse, whether it is similar to what she sees around her or how she does it herself. ‘It does match for the greatest part. Only, he rides into a movement with very little rein pressure. This makes it much clearer for his horse what he wants for when he does use pressure. It makes a lot of sense, we should all be working on that. When you always ride with pressure, how can the horse feel when you want it different? Maarten himself says that he let’s go, ‘allows’ his horse. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t maintain a connection. Also, he does occasionally also use the reins; when he wants to slow down and nothing happens. But it is about the very moment you give the horse the information for a movement. That you don’t ‘hang on’ at that moment, so the aid you give has a chance to be digested by the horse.’
A resisiting hand
Even with two hands riding with a resisting hand is difficult to fully grasp. Saskia explains it as ‘making a horse wait’. ‘It is a difficult concept to explain in words. When a horse pulls on the reins, you do not go with it. You stay where you are, without pulling back and work backwards. Maarten instigated that it is not his cup of tea. I do also think we have to work to ride towards a more relaxed contact and less with the resisting hand. Too many riders are riding with too much contact and maintain that throughout. You must keep a connection without that extreme pressure. You could really see it in Maarten’s riding style how he does that; connection without that tightness. The moment your horse accelerates you have to brake, so, yes, you do interfere. Only, do not hold on for ever. Also, not to pull him towards his hindleg, which happens so often. A horse will not relax its jaw when you ride with a lot of pressure or the bit is shifting constantly from one side to the other.’
These days, many horses are so used to that pressure, that they respond negatively when released. By going faster or even becoming confused. For the riders this is the reason to increase the pressure again. ‘Practice and more practice’ is Saskia’s opinion.
Because Maarten keeps the connection with one hand only, the bit lies very stable and quiet in the mouth. Or rather bits, because Maarten rides in a double bridle. So, all four reins are held with one hand. How does he adjust his reins? ‘That is so unbelievably clever, in one very quick movement he lets all of them go and picks the whole lot up again. Praising was another thing. He simply drops everything, gives his horse a pet, picks everything back up again and continues as if it is the simplest thing in the world. I tried it; of course, my horse and I are nowhere near as far in our training. Impossible, I’d been around the school four times before I had myself organized. That is again all down to Maarten’s coordination.’
Changing direction Maarten does by moving his reins sideways. ‘You could compare it somewhat to Western riding, but in a very mild form so that it barely shows.’ Maarten’s position between exercises is according to Saskia neutral. ‘He sits in the middle with his shoulders over his pelvis. And that so incredibly relaxed, that he follows his horse to its maximum and never is restricting it. He is neither forward or leans back, also not to the left or the right. So, he does not push his horse with his weight through one shoulder, which I do by accident because I’m a bit stronger on the right. I know I do it, but it still happens. I make up for it with my outside rein. He cannot do that, it would show, so there is no other option but to sit where he sits.’
As far as the theory and technique there is no difference. We all want to ride our horse from back to front and that in combination with a beautiful light contact. But, in real life this is very different. According to Saskia most riders know how it is meant to be, but do not practice it. Compensating with the reins, whether as an aid or as unfair pressure, is more or less standard. Maarten is simply not capable of doing that. What does Maarten do which we ought to take to heart and get better at? Saskia thinks this a very relevant question, because of the image problem dressage is undergoing at this very moment. ‘Riding lighter and friendlier; we will have to accept that this is the way forward so that we can avoid for outsiders to look at us as cruel and possibly for the sport to even be prohibited. This sounds a bit over the top, but I think that we should not close our eyes for the foreseeable. So, look at people who approach things differently, try to take the good from that. Less is more. Think about that for a minute. And go out there and keep trying.’
‘It is all in the preparation’
‘Is what Saskia observed correct? Maarten has to think about this. It happens unconsciously. ‘I am predominantly busy with where to go next. Through being very clear to your horse about this, it is easier to ‘stay together’ and less corrections are necessary.’
Maarten thinks what he does seems easy, because he is always so focussed on where to go, in which tempo and which position. ‘It is all in the preparation. The horse itself wants to go somewhere and seeks a tempo that makes him feel ‘safe’. Safety is all he cares about. If I can beat the horse to it, by being super clear about our direction, then it will do that. Horses are herd animals so it is in their make-up to follow. I am pleased it looks easy, but of course it is not. It is a long road to get to that point. However, it is not any more difficult with one hand. If that would be the aim, anyone could do it.’
If your message is not clear, the horse will choose its own direction, tempo and position. That is why Maarten never uses the term ‘running through the outside shoulder’. ‘It is not a bad thing when a horse is escaping, as long as it is not its own escape. When you think that it is running through the shoulder or a circle is too big or too small, it is you who did not make the direction sufficiently clear. The horse is absolutely not interested in a too small or too big a circle.’
The advantage of a decent preparation is that Maarten does not have to correct anything. ‘When you change direction, or start a movement out of the blue, the horse will inevitably start to make it up by itself as it goes along. Imagine changing the rein across the diagonal, the diagonal being line zero. Without clear aids it is ever so easy to be one or two metres on either side. With a correction the chances are you overshoot the mark by another meter, which makes it minus three. That is never going to be tidy, to say the least. You cannot change the past, so put your efforts into the future, be ahead of the game. Only then you will get the chance to sit still and light, because nothing much has to change. When the picture in your head becomes the picture in the school, you are able to relax.’
Maarten does think that he has more rein pressure than Saskia imagined when watching him. ‘Yes, the connection is soft, but not non-existent. My right arm is pretty much permanently overstretched, because it has had to work so very hard for so many years. So, it simply hurts when I use too much power. At such a moment it flashes through my brain that I can’t afford to lose that one too. Through all the years I’ve trained with Alex van Silfhout, he has hammered on keeping it light. I always thought that a few seconds more pressure was okay. But an endless amount times a couple of seconds is a lot, when you are trying to save your one and only arm. So, it works both ways: I want to be light for my horse, but also for my own body. It does mean the road to the top takes a bit longer, but I don’t mind that.’
No pussy footing
Maarten emphasises that he is not holier than the pope. ‘There are certainly moments that I am a bit tougher and tell my horse clearly what it actually is I want. That is not always ‘pretty’. But just look how a mare treats her foal, no pussy footing around there either. Only, she doesn’t keep moaning about it. Which is what people do. I also use the resisting hand occasionally, but only as a very quick correction. When a horse learns to use the hands as a fifth leg, it is up to you to change its mind. At that moment it might help to maintain a temporary unpleasant pressure for the horse to want to get rid of it by itself. But you must then immediately lessen the pressure. When the pressure continues, not every rider understands where it is coming from. At the moment it releases its jaw, the horse must use its body in such a way that it can maintain this softness, this suppleness. Which means, the hindquarters will now have to step under and the horse carry itself. That is often the moment it goes wrong. When the horse releases but does not move sufficiently forward from behind, it ends up on the forehand and it will meet that bit again. The more the horse goes on the forehand the more the pressure on the bit continues. When you as a rider answer that with a resisting hand, you give it the option to lean on you and the horse will go even more on the forehand. It cannot go soft because it is literally falling forward and there is that bit again. When you let go and give leg, you teach it how to carry itself, without using you as a ‘coat rack’. Learn to understand where the pressure of leaning on the bit comes from and then teach yourself how to solve that. At that moment it doesn’t really matter how many hands you’ve got.’
In theory most of us can follow this. But, why oh why, do we see so many riders pulling with horses on the forehand? Maarten believes this is because many do not really spend enough time and energy on learning to understand what they are actually sitting on. ‘More often than not, riders do not understand why a horse does not carry itself from behind. So, that is what their task is. Six hundred kilos of moving meat which wants to go forward and downward. And achieving that with your body which isn’t even one tenth of that weight. The horse wants to move on its front, that is its build, its nature. It doesn’t matter whether you are on a Shetland pony or Valegro or anything in between, this principle is the same for all. You must teach your horse with patience and in a relaxed way so that it can also carry itself with its hind legs. Then it will try for you. So long as it feels safe. When it does not understand or gets tense for any other reason, it will try to get back on the forehand. To make it easier for itself. At that moment the horse does not realize anymore that we want it to use its hindlegs for self-carriage. Riders often think their horse ought to understand all this. But it is not like that. When the frustration kicks in because the horse does not understand, that is the moment when assertive behaviour from the rider becomes counterproductive.’ However, dressage or any form of riding is too difficult to be negative when it doesn’t look quite so pretty for a minute. On the other hand, Maarten is pleased there is a reshuffle going on as far as lightness and harmonious riding. ‘At the Europeans the two tests which moved me to tears were those of Sonke and Cathrin, which gives me hope for the future.’
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GOOD BYE DEAREST PRIDDY, A HORSE WITH A BIG HEART
GOING DOWN MEMORY LANE
When I saw Katie Nicholas' message on Facebook about her lovely and loyal mare Priddy having gone to horse heaven, I immediately went down memory lane.
Katie and I go back a long time and I've seen her on quite a few different horses. Her first lesson with me was organised by Claire Daniels, who got a group together for me to teach during the time they were still at Duchy College.
Katie was riding her sister's thoroughbred and from there we grew a wonderful relationship which continued in her riding arena at her home on the south coast. Either her mum or dad would provide me with cups of tea whereas several dogs would keep me company.
A BIG HEART AND KEEN TO LEARN
When I saw Priddy for the first time, Kate was a little apologetic, 'Sorry, Liz, she is not exactly a big mover.' Katie had bought her from Claire Rushworth to event and when Novice was achieved and Katie decided to have babies, it was time to focus on a dressage career.
Now, lack of movement has never affected me much as long as it is a horse that is eager to learn and has a half decent canter. Priddy certainly had that; she had a big heart and was keen to learn. She was also a mare, so a little moody at times, but together with Katie's endless patience we tinkered away and waited for when Priddy was ready to step up the game.
FLYING CHANGES, HOORAY!
Having learned from her previous horse not to get too carried away with the flying changes, Kate and Priddy took their time and, blow me, there they were! From every six strides to every four strides and then every three strides!
The real fun started when the basics were there sufficiently to start the half steps into piaffe. She was good at it and from there the trot, which had already improved through the canter work, got better and better. It would never be huge, but it was correct and Kate and Priddy were a lovely picture together.
PRIDDY PRIX ST GEORGE
We had already worked on the quarter pirouettes in canter but they were difficult for this sweet mare when moody, so we had to pick our days. Still, there was a moment that Kate, after some decent Advanced tests entered her first Prix St George. For me as a trainer a fantastic moment. My first pupil at that level!
PRIDDY STOLE MY HEART
I think back of those days with great fondness. A rider always willing to give everything, a horse willing to give more than ever thought possible and all those lovely cups of tea...
I am with you Katie,I miss her too. Priddy stole my heart many a time and we will never forget her...
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CARL HESTER RINGS THE BELL!
JUDGES OFTEN HAVE TO TAKE IT ON THE NOSE
It is not easy, being a dressage judge. No matter how hard you try, there will always be a disgruntled competitor who does not agree with either score or comments. I know the feeling both as a competitor and as a judge. It is not a great moment when a rider makes a rude comment behind your back but within earshot.
As a rider I used to be quite philosophical about it and rely on the fact that too low a score one day probably meant too high a score the next time and it would all even out in the end.
Only the time when I missed my qualification for the Advanced regionals, I was stunned when I saw my score. The fact that the winner, standing next to me at the scoreboard, said, 'you should have won', made me feel slightly better.
So I can say without hesitation that I didn't really have any sleepless nights over it.
A 'COMMON' HORSE
At the lower levels the type of horse at competitions varies; from cob to thoroughbred and of course increasingly the warmblood.
Marie, with whom I rode PSG and a couple of Inter II's, was a 'common' horse. Whenever we qualified for the regionals, I had to accept that we were going to have to be satisfied with some 65% and if we were lucky end up somewhere in the middle, but I was just pleased to be there and ride in such a great atmosphere.
Marie's mediocre movement was partly the reason for our score. At the regionals the quality of the horses shot up and I sometimes wondered why I hadn't bought a warmblood from one of my Dutch friends. Not for long, though, as we had a wonderful time together and she taught me everything about how to deal with a complex character.
DRESSAGE... OR SHOW HORSE?
But still, I don't quite understand. Yes, when I watch an extravagant moving horse I do get goosebumps. But isn't that about the caliber of horse and doesn't that kind of thinking belong in a showing class?
Is dressage not that a horse, because of correct technical riding and training, gives itself to the rider for 100%, and through full use of its back and hind legs does all the demanded exercises correct, accurate and to its highest ability? Doesn't the 'common' horse, when producing that, deserve a similar mark as the more quality horse?
Okay, the quality horse should get a 10 for movement, but it is so disheartening when the amount of money you pay for your horse decides on your dressage score.
DRESSAGE IS A PERSONAL EXPERIENCE AND COMPARES TO ART
At the moment opinions are not shared but start to vary, dressage becomes a personal experience and is so much more complicated than jumping, where a pole down or a refusal is what it is. At that moment dressage is more art than sport. Not unlike a painting, a play or dancing which are able to unleash so many different emotions.
FIDDLING WITH THE JUDGING CODE
I am going to be brave and move onto slippery ice. Is it so that this problem occurs at all levels, also the highest , also at international shows? Take Valegro as an example, not a huge mover but still called 'the King of Dressage'. This wonderful horse had a fair bit of international criticism for its high scores and winning two Olympic titles.
Is this one of the reasons for the FEI to want to fiddle with the judging code, in the hope to make the system more watertight? This in combination with the problem that, when three or more judges are looking at the same test, scores can differ; yes, the personal experience can get in the way.
It must be a competitor's worst nightmare to miss, at a crucial competition, a qualification for an international team, possibly undeserved. And how horrible to think that you have missed an Olympic victory because of one unlucky score, which pulls the final score down just enough (something I can't even begin to imagine). A chance which may never happen again.
GROWING AND ADJUSTING IN TUNE WITH THE EVOLUTION OF DRESSAGE
It is extremely important that the sport is alert on growing and moving with its own evolution. There is so much more at stake than some 30 or 40 years ago. What once was for most a run-out-of-hand hobby for the rich - take German Olympic rider Reiner Klimke for example, he was a lawyer- has become a profession for many in which huge sums of money circulate. For starters the horses cost a fortune these days and the whole business is stuck together with sponsors.
SIGNED LETTER FROM SIXTEEN INTERNATIONAL RIDERS TO THE IDRC
So, with the pressure building it is increasingly important that the judges are correct and as uniform in their opinion as possible. But how...I know not enough to answer that. However, I am extremely grateful for Carl Hester ringing the bell in the Horse and Hound and urging dressage riders to give their opinion.
Also, sixteen international dressage riders -among whom Carl Hester, Laura Graves and Edward Gal, just to name a few- wrote a signed letter to the International Dressage Riders' Club, which is advising the FEI, in order to vent their worries about a potential fast-forwarded change of rules to the existing judging code. This after they were informed at a meeting about this subject at the world championships in Omaha. They urge for the commission to not speed things through without having listened sufficiently to all involved; this of course must include the riders.
Something which has become an increasingly sensitive subject, can not turn into a 'quick fix' with even more problems than before. Something which can not only affect a rider's day, but an entire season. And do not forget the judges in this. I want to believe that they are trying their best to turn competitions into a fair happening.
Still, when I watched the freestyle at Aachen I wanted for Sonke Rothenberger to win from Isabell Werth. When I watched him and Cosmo moving so perfectly light-footed and completely in tune with that ping-ping piano sound, I felt moved...
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THREE MAGICAL DAYS WITH MAARTEN VAN STEK
MAARTEN DOING THE SALSA
Thursday's clinic with Maarten van Stek, the first day of three, started with a little dance. Claire Daniels looked in amazement how Maarten was swinging it out. It was obvious he had done the salsa before.
After a fairly short night -Maarten's plane arrived late at Exeter airport so we only arrived at the farm well after midnight- he didn't waste much time to get 'in the swing of things', so to speak.
It was a brilliant exercise; after having done it in walk in order for the rider to have fully understood, rider and horse were to proceed in trot, riding four steps with the bum slightly in, four steps straight, followed by four steps bum out. In canter this was to be done every three strides.
Nearly every single rider wanted to either show too much bend, or allowed for their horse to overdo it because of lack of control. But the whole point of the exercise was bending little! Maarten explained this by putting himself into a painful stretch nearing the splits, which made very clear to all there what we were doing to our horse if we didn't keep it small.
Other than making them unnecessarily sore, through over-asking, or allowing too much from a clever horse, the most important part -coming out of the bend with plenty of energy and impulse with a well-balanced and straight horse on two tracks- was completely overlooked.
The comparison to the salsa made it very easy to understand for the riders what Maarten wanted to achieve, which often resulted into the horses doing a sigh of relieve, literally! Us watching could see the horses relax in pelvis and through the back whereas the riders really felt it.
For the slightly older PSG horse of Vic Hunt, owner of the beautiful and tidy premises we were kindly allowed to use for the clinic, this exercise was also of enormous value. Every horse needs to be made loose, young or old. The older horse needs even more care. An aging muscular system is easily damaged.
STICK TO THE PROGRAM!
'Stick to the program!' This, for me as trainer, was the most important slogan of the entire clinic. It made everything us riders are trying to achieve so much less complicated for our brain. It is so easy to end up drowning in trying to solve all the little problems. But, 'what happens now is already in the past, so you can not solve that anymore, too late',makes so much sense, however, our arms and legs have to accept this as well and learn some self-control, creating the opportunity to feel so much more. Such a great little, at the same time powerful, slogan ticks the box without having to explain endlessly.
So, when your horse is overreacting, loosing attention or resisting, keep doing what you are doing. Don't stop your aids, because it will remember that for next time; don't get sharper, because it will remember that for next time. Repeat what you where trying to tell it just the same until your horse understands what you want and has become more supple to actually do it like you meant.
COLLECTION IS A PART OF MORE
This is very much Maarten's strength; being able to come up with these incredible comparisons which speak to the rider's imagination. For example, a collection of stamps. When one stamp is missing the collection is incomplete.
This way we all of a sudden woke up to what collection as part of dressage really is: it can not exist without all the other forms of movement and is the final result of being complete.
The word rhythm was mentioned more than regularly, because rhythm gives relaxation and relaxation in its turn helps the submission and honest rein contact.Rhythm is more often than not part of the make-up of the Dutch horse, sadly not always of the English bred horse, so it has got to come from the rider. Not easy, but Maarten, although persistent with a healthy stubbornness, never showed any impatience when occasionally it took a bit longer to achieve.
HOW DOES A HORSE USE ITS WALK
Maarten is quick, very quick; grabbing every chance horse and rider give him to explain yet another issue which comes along. In this case the young, but very tidy, Niamh Hobbs with her most generous horse had to learn to walk with more impulse. Maarten explained why it is so difficult to make a horse walk with sufficient impulse. In nature the horse only uses the walk to amble from grass to more grass. If it really wants to get somewhere it will choose trot or canter. Therefore far more attention from the rider needs to go into motivating the horse to walk with vigour.
So, first of all Maarten went 'window shopping', after which he proceeded 'to the park for a brisk walk'. The window shopping made him dead-tired whereas the brisk walk made him feel invigorated with a body full of oxygen. It's no different for a orse.
I was particularly grateful for this comparison. The evolution of the Cornish dressage rider started relatively recent, some thirty-odd years ago. Riders and horses can feel a bit aimless without a lane or a track in the woods to follow, which eats away at the necessary impulse.
DRESSAGE IS DISCIPLINE...OR...JUST 'FUNNY'?
'Keep it funny!' was one of the funniest things Maarten came up with. Everyone thought this to be rather 'funny'. Maarten is surprisingly clever at teaching in a -to him- foreign language and uses his English in an adventurous manner. Every now and then when something sounded hilarious to all there, it only grabbed everyone's attention even more so, and, most important, brought the necessary relaxation for horse and rider. Liz Bailey was the best example, it nearly made her go into stitches and you could virtually see the tension disappear out of her horse because of it.
Dressage is still such a young sport in this country and there has been, occasionally still is, a tendency to approach dressage in a far too disciplined and rather stilted manner. All parts of the test are trained as in the test without sufficient impulse, rather than being inventive and pull the exercises apart. This makes it look obedient, but no more than that. It makes the horse bored and uninterested in the job (my horse doesn't like dressage, I hear it regularly), whereas none of the movements create the flow through the body of the horse. The flow it needs to develop a strong muscular system, which ought to be the whole point of doing it in the first place!
So, it didn't matter if it looked a little messy at times, as long as something happened. 'Don't worry about doing it wrong. If you don't try you have failed altogether!' By saying this Maarten managed to help riders, who worried far too much about doing it wrong, to loosen up and be a bit more gutsy. That way they achieved far more than they had dared to wish for and left feeling very satisfied and delighted with what they'd learned.
On Friday afternoon, para rider Emily Skerret filled the gap of an unfortunate cancellation and introduced herself to Maarten. And boy, did these two hit it off! This showed specifically at the end of the session when Emily bared a little of her soul telling Maarten how awful it felt when some of the 'healthy' people wanted to make all these decisions about her very own dressage career.
This had never really occurred to me. I always thought that it was such a wonderful thing that in this world we had finally reached the point where everyone counted, with or without their arms or legs, putting it bluntly.
WHO IS HELPING WHO?
But sadly this was the second time this year I heard a para rider talk about being made to feel completely inadequate and therefore deeply hurt. Earlier on this year I heard the terrible story of a young girl that was told it was better for her and her horse that the trainer would ride it up to a week before a competition and only then she would be allowed on top of her very own horse to glue it all back together. She wasn't even allowed to brush her horse, which was so important to her. It stopped her wanting to ride at all and how sad is that?
This gave me rather the impression that the ego of some of the trainers involved in this game is far too important, with the sponsors having to take some of the blame as well. May I just ask, who is helping who...?
Saturday, quarter past four and Liz Read, the last rider of the three days, enters the arena. It is her second lesson. She and Callum also rode on Thursday.
Last year this big and bold Dutch bred horse and Liz had struggled a bit. They had both been off-colour for more than a month. Callum was a hand-full and Liz, whose weak point is focus, found it all overwhelming. Maarten kept it as simple as possible but even that was tough for Liz. The following months I quietly kept working exactly as Maarten had done and it gradually started to make sense to Liz. Her focus improved and I hoped so much for her that she would be able to keep this up during her sessions with Maarten.
I must say, I was so very proud of them. After having worked our socks off all year, it was such a relief that Maarten was able to push them so much more. Also Liz and Callum were allowed to do the salsa and when the session ended with the grand finale, a proper flying change, I could see the emotion in this enthusiastic rider, although she hid it well behind a cheer with one hand way up in the air.
SEE YOU NEXT YEAR!
It went way too fast. We had all been looking forward to this so very much. For me personally it was again more than a luxury, not only to be able to give my pupils the chance to open new doors so that we can grow on with fresh vigour, but when Maarten and I at the end of the day were finally settling down with a plate of food in front of us, he was always happy to keep explaining, answer my questions with never ending patience.
It has simply been rejuvinating and better than a weekend in a spa! I am more keen than ever for my pupils to explore their capabilities and support them in their process to grow on; to teach them how to enter for them previously unknown territory. I need to be a bit more gutsy, be a tiny bit less patient and and always remember to remain inventive.
We all want him back and when I got home having dropped Maarten off at the airport, his message on Facebook was hopeful. 'Thank you, my Cornish friends, and see you next year!'
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CARL HESTER AND THE DRESSAGE PIONEERS OF THE UNITED KINGDOM
We have been able to see it with our very own eyes...Isabell Werth losing her otherwise cool composure and splashing champagne all over Carl Hester; the rather fat kisses which followed were even better!
And that brings me to the following subject. The English dressage fairy tale with Carl Hester as pin-up. Not only did Carl Hester build his dressage career from scratch, he has helped give both the English and also the international dressage scene a more horse-friendly image. Not only his beautifully relaxed style of riding, with the easily scared Nip Tuck as proof in the pudding, but also what he gives to the sport in so many other ways; how he comes across as a human being.
TWO LITTLE JUVENILE DUTCH DRESSAGE SNOBS
It all started with Jennie Loriston-Clarke and Dutch Gold in the seventies. The first English combination which counted internationally. And, oh man, how did my then friend and I, two Dutch juvenile dressage snobs in the middle of puberty, howl; because, in our opinion, the changes were not quite straight. We were barely able to pull off a half-pass!
TRAINING WITH JANE BREDIN
By the time I moved to Cornwall there were a few more English dressage stars on the firmament. And luck would have it that Jane Bredin's mum lived in the nearest village.
Soon I found myself in the car with Bunny on our way to Goodwood. It just so happened to be last dressage show ever held there. It was an atmosphere never to forget. Emile Faurie, with I believe Virtu, was basically peaking there. You could hear a pin drop but after the last salute the audience, including me, totally lost it.
A few years later, I was on my way, with my second breeding product Marie, in my little yellow lorry to Jane's yard near Chippenham. That is where I decided to never be a Dutch dressage snob, ever again. It was a humbling experience, Jane knew so much and I so little!
TO THE OLYMPICS
After having worked for David Hunt for many years, Jane ran her own training yard, with the help of her good friend Suzie Cumine.
Jane knew from a very young age she was going to the Olympics and did not mind telling her two sisters and friends this fact. I believe this happens more often, that top athletes know at a very young age that that is what they will do. Jane rode at two Olympics, Atlanta and Hong Kong.
TRAINING WITH ANKY VAN GRUNSVEN
I vividly remember her Dutch bred gelding Cupido with his lively eyes and big blaze. During that period, Jane put her lorry time and again on the ferry to Holland in order to train with Dutch dressage queen Anky van Grunsven and top trainer Sjef Janssen. Also, she was keen to measure herself with the best and never tired from crossing the Channel yet again to compete on the continent against the international riders with the dressage genes in their blood. At that time, it was a little too easy to win a Grand Prix in England; not exactly a recipe to become Olympic material.
Jane, together with riders such as Peter Storr, Emile Faurie, Carl Hester and Richard Davison, helped bring England on the international dressage agenda. Her pioneering instinct knew no boundaries.
INTERNATIONALLY RESPECTED BY THE VERY BEST
Sadly, she was not able to be part of the huge successes of recent years. Six years ago, Jane had a heart attack which she did not survive. After the memorial service, when walking back to the car with some of her friends, I heard a Dutch voice behind me. It was the voice of Dutch dressage queen Anky van Grunsven, who had made the effort to be there. The ultimate proof of how very much Jane was respected and appreciated by the very best.
THE RED CLOTH
Jane was a strong personality, a 'one-off'. She did not make it easy for the English Olympic organisation by letting them know that, if they wanted Cupido on the team in Atlanta in 1996, she needed to be on the plane with him. This was breaking every rule, but she managed to do it!
On arrival there was a lovely lot of shavings in the stable. Had to be removed; if Cupido rested his beautiful head on a pillow of straw at home, how could he possibly survive when having to perform at his best?
Sadly, Atlanta was disappointing because Cupido got terribly ill and spent his time recuperating.
But Jane had seen the red cloth from very nearby and, ten years later, she made a cracking come-back with her horse Lucky Star, which secured them a place for the Beijing Olympics.
HENK VAN BERGEN COACH FOR THE ENGLISH TEAM
In the late seventies, I was working at a huge riding school in the east of Holland. My boss, Jan Oortveld, had lessons with Henk van Bergen at the time. We, working pupils were green with envy; Henk van Bergen was 'God' to us.
Years later -surprise, surprise! - his name cropped up in this country. Pammy Hutton came down to Cornwall every six weeks and so, ready for more accurate flying changes and learning canter pirrouettes, it seemed the way to go to get some regular training and very successful, too.
On my first visit to Talland, Pammy herself went off in the lorry for a lesson with...Henk van Bergen. A small world, isn't it? I believe during that time he was the coach for the English dressage team, another great move to become a competing nation to reckon with.
CARL HESTER A GLORIOUS THIRD AT THE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS
And how well has England fared since then! After having enjoyed all the fun with Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro, there was Carl again with a brilliant third place in Omaha, sprayed with the champagne from Isabell's bottle. Superb...
Picture: Jane's mum's favourite picture. Bunny kindly let me use it for both the Dutch and English blog.
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MAARTEN VAN STEK, WE'RE READY FOR YOU!
‘BOERENKOOL MET WORST’
‘Marc will collect you, just text your address’, this was the Facebook message from dressage trainer Maarten van Stek after I realized my mistake: there was no train to the horse yard where he was expecting me. Never had been.
Not only did Maarten’s husband Marc collect me, he also cooked my favourite meal that evening: ‘boerenkool met worst’, which is cabbage greens mashed with potatoes and smoked sausage.
But before that I had the joy of sitting at the side of an outdoor school in a sun that made the air feel like spring and all I had to do was watch Maarten ride his William, the gentle Hanovarian with whom he will hopefully be competing Grand Prix before this year is over.
They are a beautiful team. The difference with last year was quite something, so much more compact, more muscled, more precise. The one- and two-timers kept on coming. Maarten was able to push him, because he knew he could, in the piaffe work, trusting he would pick the fruits the next day. And remember, all of this with one hand. When I watch the two of them I forget…
MY FIRST DUTCH EMPLOYMENT
Maarten and Marc were my last little ‘outing’ before I would jump back on the plane to Cornwall. My trip had been a grand time, starting with the KWPN stallion show in Den Bosch (staying in the best Bed & Breakfast ever!) followed by visiting loads of old friends and…my first employment as freelance journalist for Dutch equine magazine the Hoefslag, equivalent of English magazine the Horse and Hound. A full day with two powerpoint presentations about the use of hormones in the breeding world and the use of DNA samples and genetic selection as a new method to decrease joint issues amongst others. A challenge and I loved it!
SPARKS WERE FLYING!
But now I was at the end of my three-week trip and being on Maarten’s side for nearly two days, would give me yet another chance to increase my knowledge as a trainer.
After last year’s initial meeting, followed by a very successful clinic in Cornwall with some of my pupils, I had very much hoped that Maarten and my friendship and working relationship would continue, if not grow.
And growing it did. Also, the sparks were flying! When Marc was patiently cooking and the smoked sausage made my mouth water, Maarten and I had a feisty little discussion about whip use. His point was that there has got to be greater commitment of the riders to keep their lower leg sufficiently forward in order to be able to kick at the correct part of the horse’s belly, where the nerves will make the muscles contract the same way we jump when someone sticks his fingers in the sensitive area above our waist. Only then will the horse fully understand and learn to respect and only then will the basic training create a smooth track to the higher levels.
His explanation: ‘Do you use a whip when you try to lift the legs of your horse when picking their feet out? No! you again and again squeeze at the right place until in the end, out of respect the horse lifts its feet when you point. Sitting on top makes no difference’.
Just being able to have that discussion proved our mutual respect, me the pupil, he my teacher…
A THANK YOU AFTER 35 YEARS
This was my second visit, Last year was the first time we met after my ‘out of the blue’ email to him. In short: ‘Dear Maarten you don’t know me but when I read about a Dutch one-armed dressage rider on his way to the Grand Prix, I knew it had to be you. About 35 years ago, I watched one of your clinics. I was still on crutches after a car accident, in which I nearly lost my leg…’
I remember all too well how I blubbered that evening, when I came home. Maarten was then already an extremely accomplished instructor and when he threw himself with his one arm effortlessly on a client’s horse, he managed to quietly achieve a metamorphosis within no time, which made me feel awful, why he and not me? I had had to stop my courses at the equestrian school; you can’t ride properly with a crooked body and the doctor had said I should be grateful that I was able to walk again, kind of…and then I got angry…at myself. And 35 years later I could thank Maarten. Competed Prix St George, helped two pupils to get there and actively teaching more than ever.
That evening so long ago gave me the grit and the energy to keep fighting, put my teeth back into it. Just like he did, and still does, because, believe me, for Maarten every day is a challenge, although he is too humble to ever brag about that.
A ROSE CALLED ‘WILLIAM’
So, last year in May, we met again and in the most unusual way. I had to go and find them. Their GPS in their rental car from Exeter airport had brought them somewhere near Golant, but wasn’t clever enough to find my farm. So, in the pitch black two cars slowly glided past one another, the drivers carefully glaring whether they recognized each other, ready to be seriously embarrassed if this was not the case. Marc was driving and I had not met him yet, so I nearly put my foot on the accelerator.
At home, after I received a lovely rose, called ‘William’, we had a cup of tea, a glass of wine and went to bed. Next day we were going to make a lot of miles, giving Marc the chance to do some sight-seeing, whilst Maarten would be teaching.
TRUST AND FRIENDSHIP
Last year’s clinic was a great success. It gave all of us, pupils and instructor, such a boost, so much more focus to build on. But most of all, the human side of it. The fact that, in this increasingly tough world, it is still possible to take a risk by opening up, baring one’s soul and receive the gift of a friendship in the most spontaneous way…that I found the best bit of all.
AND AFTER WILLIAM, HARRY ARRIVED...
Since about a month William has got company; Harry arrived. Just like the royal family, including the hair colour!
On last week’s visit I was also given the chance to watch Harry in work. Harry is by nature an athlete with a conformation that makes everything relatively easy for him. It really brought home to me how hard William works for Maarten, purely on his character, something Maarten so very much appreciates in him. But, ‘it takes two to tango’, and it is the fine bond between Maarten and William which motivates William to push for the ultimate.
And if Maarten and Harry can find a similar passion, the future will be bright; that is my humble opinion.
Maarten has lessons with renowned trainer Alex van Silfhout, father of Olympic rider Diederik van Silfhout. On the way to the airport, when Maarten was telling me he sometimes wished Alex was at times a bit more critical on his position, I had to laugh out loud! I can only drool when I watch him ride, starting with his impeccable leg position…
LOWER LEG FORWARD!!
Maarten is a busy man; other than his two horses to train, he has a lot of pupils. But…in May he will visit Cornwall again. This time at Victoria Hunton’s lovely indoor school near Bodmin. As soon as we put the post on Facebook, three days were booked in no time, so we may have to add a fourth day, depending.
In the meantime, I’m back into the groove. The first week of teaching in fairly horrendous weather conditions is behind me, my pupils having shown tremendous dedication to want to ride despite the vicious squalls at times. Message was to all: ‘Okay guys, if we from now on make an extra effort to keep that lower leg forward, join your own dotted line together with the dotted line of your horse and, other than that, try not too hard, too much, too soon when riding for Maarten, we will benefit three times, maybe even four times, more than last year’s visit!’
It seemed to work, so on we go, full throttle. Maarten van Stek, we’re ready for you!
Top picture: Maarten van Stek with William at a demonstration at the Dutch happening 'Horse Event'
Middle: the best Bed & Breakfast of Den Bosch with host Thecla Renders making sure we are over-indulged!
Bottom: Maarten and William in training with dear friend Miriam Voorwinde on her horse ValegrA in the background. Miriam helps Maarten often at his competitions.
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Liz and Callum: the determination to find line zero!
It must be seven years or so when I went to see Callum together with Liz Read on the Bodmin Moor at the private yard of another pupil. Liz had recently lost her beloved Boogy and needed cheering up so going on the road to see some horses for sale seemed the obvious thing to do. I'd never seen this coloured Dutch-bred horse from close by before, but the moment I looked him in the eye I knew Liz would want him. He had exactly the same eye as Boogy and I could just see a new love affair develop right there and then.
IN A HURRY
I left it up to her; I don't like giving advice on what to buy. The times I said I liked a horse but it would take a year or more to gel together always worked against me; everyone seems to always be in a hurry. And here again I had introduced a decent rider, however not necessarily terribly experienced in dressage, to a young horse.
He had been under saddle for over half a year and had had a couple of outings; he seemed to have a good disposition. Hmmm...the next winter the trouble started. Liz has a full-time job. If Callum was left out a little longer than he thought was right he would be dangerous to lead in. I saw it when one day I turned up for a lesson and Liz was a bit behind schedule as she was just leading him to the gate. His one-eighty and the lash-out was like a thunderbolt and missed her by a hair!
The fact that Liz had tried some free natural horsemanship stuff in the school had not helped in this case. This horse needed to be on the lead and not off it. That winter I put a lot of time into Callum. Lunging and more lunging, forward and more forward. I felt desperately sorry for Liz. Her previous horse had been a difficult situation for quite a while because of an old injury. Liz needed to have some fun.
In the mean time another problem occurred. Liz had always had a lorry, but when that year the plating got massively expensive she switched to a trailer. Callum turned from a happy traveler into a demon. He could not handle it; whether it was the confinement or what, it did not work. He would load, but continued to panic during the trip.
A little bit of history: Callum had had a serious injury as a youngster. He had been stuck upside-down underneath a fence, which had resulted in a hock injury. It was flushed out twice and this not even two year-old horse spent months on end in the stable. After that he had to be walked out in hand for weeks and weeks, and that often in the dark after work, often in gale force winds, on a moorland lane!
His previous owner had been very honest about the hock injury and it reflected in the asking price. He was vetted sound with a few lumps and bumps. In hind sight though, I do believe that during that time he possibly developed a streak which occasionally still blew his brains.
We improved and things got safer. We knew that on headstrong days Liz would have to keep cantering on the track until he was begging her to go to trot. After that he would work a treat. About three years ago we were able to say that Callum was forward, balanced and ready to move into some lateral work. He turned out to be a natural.
This had been Liz's dream; shoulder-in, half-passes and in the canter hopefully a flying change. As a trainer I can only blame myself for the gradual deterioration which sneaked in. I underestimated Li'z's desire and did not realize how many shoulder-inns, travers, renvers and half-passes were done in between our two-weekly lessons. Add to that the fact Callum is a grass addict and gains weight just by inhaling fresh air, which turns him in the summer a bit into a Thelwell pony. This does not help his movement; it simply becomes difficult for him to move from the hip as his belly is so in the way, which showed specifically in his odd , newly developed, rabbit-hop canter.
Also, Liz is a small person. It is very difficult for her to feel the middle, especially in the summer when his back is so flat and wide. The result is that when Callum is not around her inside leg, she ends up with too much weight in the outside stirrup. This results in Liz trying to restrict him with the inside rein too tight against the neck.He soon figured out that that could be used to make up his own behind-the-leg travers movement as a terrible evasion.
MAARTEN VAN STEK
And then came May 2016. Trainer Maarten van Stek arrived from Holland for the clinic we had all so very much looked forward to. It was Sod's law, wasn't it; he saw Callum and Liz at their worst. Liz was so excited, she lost all her focus whereas Callum had just had a month off because of Liz having been off-colour and he consequently behaved like an unruly 3 year-old stallion. I was not impressed and I wasn't the only one, either.
In the end Maarten was the best thing that could have happened. As a trainer I was put on the spot to never ever allow any of my pupils collect their horse on days they are not 100% forward. It took a little while for Liz to regain her confidence. Insecurity is the little devil lurking over our shoulder, ready to get under our skin when at our weakest. But Liz is tough and took Maarten's sound advice to heart. Callum...well, Callum blossomed.
With Maarten's voice echoing in our head with snippets such as: you haven't killed the spirit of the horse; tell it what to do, not what not to do because that is too late; follow your dotted line, line zero; now I can see what you're doing, now I can't, we went on a journey. At least three months we spent re-establishing the tempo. Not a leg-yield, not a shoulder-in, no counter canter, not anything was done other than riding forward...and focus...and learning to respond proactively in order to avoid corrections.
A STEP OR TWO TOO FAR
It was hard and took a lot of patience, from both sides. And you know what, today, on a blustery wintery day we had the best lesson ever. Topping it off with two beautiful leg-yields, away for the inside leg but inside and for the outside leg so that Liz was able to ride perfectly from letter to letter. The same with the shoulder-ins, they were so soft with no head-tilt and consistently on three tracks, coming out of it with so much self-carriage.
Two half-passes which never went through the shoulder and stopped nicely on the centre line, something Liz has now accepted she should do. She loved going the whole way across, not realizing she completely lost the correct bend around her inside leg. Occasionally pupils don't realize how much damage they can do by taking the training a step or two too far and that is their right and not something that makes them a terrible person, but it doesn't help the long winding road to success.
Today taught me a lot. It taught me about teaching flexibility to my pupils. A flexibility trainers tend to have naturally, but need to remember to pass on. In order to improve one has to dare to move forward and venture onto new territory. On the other hand, every time one gets stuck one has to accept to go back to where it starts, the forwardness and the straightness. Re-establish the focus to be proactive, but also with the flexibility to be ready to step it up when the horse offers you the submission to do so.
After the lesson I gave Liz and Callum the biggest hug. And I told Liz I wanted to write a blog about them. But I really wrote this for Liz. Years of no competition riding, a body that is aging and hurts more than she would like to admit (she is my oldest pupil at 61). She never complains, she's always ready to go, never minds being pushed. I have such respect for this woman who keeps on smiling, even when I occasionally reprimand her to keep a serious face!
And, this spring we're hoping to show Maarten a happy forward horse with a proper three beat canter and a rider on top who has pushed herself hard to keep hold of that dotted line, line zero.
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Flora scared of a few jumping poles? Never...
The first time I met Jen on Flora, I could not help but think: this is the weirdest canter I've ever seen. I can't even describe it as a four-time beat or a rabbit-hop; it was unlike any other 'wrong canter'; she held herself completely rigid. Flora looked grumpy and lazy, something that Jen was very aware of. To add to the problems, Flora would more often than not strike off on the wrong lead on both reins.
The other issue was that Flora would shy every single time she went along the long side where the jumping poles were stacked.
I see it time and again: when a horse is on the rein of its stiffer side, it resents the correct lead in canter and it picks on things outside the arena that are not scary on the other rein. Both problems will miraculously disappear when the horse accepts the bend around that particular leg. Flora, however was rigid in both directions.
I strongly believe there is not ever the one and only way of training to solve problems such as these. Yes, there is the golden rule which works for strong professional riders with the perfect seat and perfectly quiet legs combined with maximum impact, but that level of riding is not even possible for the best rider who has only got the one horse to ride and a full-time job.
Most of my riders have not got the leg power to break through that initial moment which makes the horse accept and respect the leg to the extend that is light ever after. I have learned from experience that spurs do not solve this until the rider has learned to maintain his or her leg still and sufficiently forward. Sadly, many riders seem to suffer from sitting too far forward with their shoulders and calves too far back (possibly related to training often in bad weather and heavy wheel barrows?), with the bald spot too far back on the rib case as a silent witness.
Back to Jen and Flora. Although Flora was backward she did not strike me as a 'rearer' so I gave Jen a short jumping crop with which she was going to tap Flora's inside shoulder (the shoulder of the inside front leg that needs to lift higher for the correct canter) one stride before she wanted to make the transition into the right canter. This would give Jen the chance to sit stiller and straighter whereas the whip merely pointed out to Flora to lift that leg higher, This would hopefully create an instinctive response. It did, Flora obviously understood this aid immediately and after two correct transitions, the crop was not needed any more. This was only a small and temporary bridging measure (particularly chosen for this horse with a very weak shoulder) to get to the next part: now that we had two correct leads we could start to ride more forward.
Oh, wait, no, I forgot the shying business! Instead of over-focusing on this I asked Jen to ride Flora on the inside track instead of fighting her on the track and always losing out. Experience has taught me that the ghost, in this case some innocent jumping poles, does not exist. It is the fear of the horse to be told off or yanked in the mouth wrongly (not because the rider wants to but is simply not aware of it). Now we were in business! I asked Jen to canter as fast as she could around the arena, not worrying about balance or corners and still ignoring that one long side by staying on the inside track. At times Jen had to sit forward in order to follow the slightly out of control movement and she did not look happy, but... she did it and it worked! When she came back to the trot Flora was off her leg and propelling herself forward with great vigour and a very different attitude. That was the beginning and in the next lessons we gradually built on this new groove, always finishing on a high and never being too greedy.
Jen could not believe how well Flora started to work. Because I did not know Flora and she had quite a wary eye, I opted to not ever chase her with a lunging whip; something I have done with lazy horses, just so that the rider can enjoy a quiet seat for a while and learn not to nag. Also, although Jen had to work on her leg position she is a very determined rider, so she was able with this new concept to build on Flora's respect for, and trust in, her.
And look now! We have introduced the leg yield from the inside track to the track where the poles are and also shoulder fore is now possible along that track. This gives Jen the chance to keep her from breaking through her inside leg; yet again a way to help Jen to keep a still leg in the correct position and a means to the next phase of overcoming the entire issue. Unfortunately Flora still tilts her head slightly (bit of stiffness in the pol which is already getting less) on that one rein for the shoulder fore, but, hey, she has just overcome a years' worth of shying along that side. We do enough inside track work on being straight and forward (where she does not tilt) in order for this to not become a habitual issue.
For Jen the increased tempo initially felt like she was flying and out of balance, but that was only the beginning of a new chapter, where both of them had to regain a new balance. We are gradually able to ride with more lift on a horse that didn't even have an outline but now wants to go deeper by choice. We need that lift for the shoulder to have some more freedom to move higher in order to allow that strong hind leg to work with the activity it now so wants to show off.
Both canters are now also solid and balanced in the counter canter and the medium trots are starting to become exciting.
Last week judge Mary Mcginley marked Flora and Jen with a 73 and a near 75 %, with 7.5's for her medium trots and, more important to me as the trainer, some great comments about the basics.
The point I am trying to make here is that shying generally has nothing to do with the fear for what the rider thinks it is. It is a result of the rider misinterpreting the situation and consequently the horse fearing that area because of how the rider deals with it. And there are different recipes for different riders, weaker or stronger, and of course also our horses.
Flora never shies at competitions so why over-focus at home on something which will overshadow every other aspect of a potentially great training session?
Thanks Jen, for letting me use you and Flora as an example!
Top picture: Tom Unwin made this picture during our last lesson. I call it my triangle: the trust between horse, rider and trainer.
Bottom: Mary Mcginley's comments made my day.
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My time in the States: from boats to horses
In the late eighties I had a great chance to spend some time in the States and work on some very smart sailing yachts, delivering to the Virgin Islands, the Bahamas and further north as well; Nova Scotia being the best trip of all. It was an adventurous time, however, life without horses turned out to be impossible, so...
...One day, a good friend, who understood my problem, drove me to the freshly started Mounted Police Unit in Portsmouth.
Well, I ended up at the right place at the right time. There was only one policeman who was a rider, two who were bravely hanging in there and one who had only just joined the patrol and was green as grass. There were four horses, of which one had turned out to take to the job well, two which were getting there and one poor gelding who lived as far back in the stable as possible being terrified of people.
This was something these guys could not help; the horse had only just been donated to them. But, on the other hand, it was not something they knew how to handle. What a coincidence! I fell in love with Jesse right there and then. He was a young and stunning looking Saddlebred and only God knows what happened to him before he was brought to this unit. I had my work cut out for me and took some time off the boats to fully immerse myself into this great project.
Sitting lessons for the novice riders, schooling the other horses and playing patiently with Jesse on a piece of wasteland on the edge of the biggest naval yard of the States, with the mighty aircraft carriers in the background; the odd pack of wild dogs roaming around. How crazy can life get!
Jesse soon proved that he had a heart of gold and within a couple of months we were on the road, teaching him to be comfortable in city traffic and learning to stand perfectly still next to a car, close enough to put a parking ticket under the windshield wipers, but of course without scraping the car with the stirrup. He had to learn to relax next to a police car with lights and sirens full-on and walk over unusual surfaces, with me firing some sort of a fake-gun. Not easy, sometimes a bit scary, but what fun!
Sadly, Jesse turned out to be too much for the novice riders the policemen really were at that stage and he was moved on. I would like to hope I gave him a chance for new and good life. By then it was time for me to move on,as well. The unit was on its feet, by now a well-liked sight on the streets of Portsmouth and my 'McCloud time' over. I'd had a call from a lady in Smithfield who, together with her husband, ran a very smart private dressage yard. I had been there once before with a friend to watch at a clinic and drooled at the sight of some lovely horses and of course more my type than those at the mounted police.
Yolanda asked if I would come and see her young horse Sonny, who had had a hock injury early on in his life, had been consistently sound in the field for quite a while but, since being backed, not quite on the lunge or ridden. The vets could not do anymore for him. Yolanda was virtually in tears when we met because I literally was her last hope. No pressure!
I put him on the lunge and watched. I guess muscle-memory is possibly the term now used. When put under a little bit of pressure Sonny seemed worried to use his previously injured hind leg, so I used my gut-feeling and only activated this particular hind leg with the lunging whip every step, again...and again... and again. And he went sound within minutes. My gut feeling had been right: he just did not know anymore how to use this leg correctly and only had to be reminded. As soon as he realized it did not hurt he was absolutely fine!
Of course I was worried about whether I did the right thing, it may have been Sonny's adrenaline kicking in, but then again I knew I was his last chance, literally. Of course we had to wait how he would be the next day. Years before I was asked to work a horse with what was thought a nap. After 'not a great time' she gave in and worked actually lovely. The next day she was lame. It turned out to be the navicular bone and that was her reason for napping. At least the owner knew she could not be ridden anymore and she did not have to go through another horrid session, but I was not proud of myself.
The next day Sonny only in the very beginning drug his hind just slightly, but already so much less than in the first session. After that he was sound and stayed sound during his entire career into PSG. It was the turning point for my career, because from then on I spent most days at Terra Ceia Farm with Donald and Yolanda Williamson. Yolanda not only gave me the chance to work with her older PSG horse Boomer, but together we had such a blast producing Sonny. It is where I did my first flying changes and canter pirouettes. There were some lovely livery horses with very nice owners who were also keen to have lessons and often it was followed by a great lunch or dinner. We watched endless training video's, from Reiner Klimke to some eccentric South American guy who taught piaffe in the most unusual way. Still to this day use his method for the horse with no natural ability. It is uncomplicated, kind and always works!
And then the time had come to settle somewhere permanently. I missed Cornwall and my little farm terribly. Contact with Terra Ceia Farm faded but every so often I looked at the picture of Yolanda and Sonny in the hallway and wondered how they were getting on. Well, thank you Facebook, after years of having lost touch we're posting, messaging and liking as if there's no tomorrow.
Donald and Yolanda achieved great things. They believed in what they did and always worked their tails off. They bred some fantastic horses and of course their home-bred Dutch stallion Staccato by Idocus out of their beautiful mare Domfee was the highlight and an achievement they so very much deserved!
Now, guess what? The grandfather of Idocus is Voltaire. This is when life goes in circles and Yolanda will be able to read in my book 'THE FARMER, THE COAL MERCHANT, THE BAKER...' how Voltaire ended up in the Netherlands with Henk Nijhof. It is a lovely story, amongst many others. I know there are many of her friends with an interest Dutch Warmbloods and I hope they also will enjoy reading about how the Gelderland horse evolved into the able competition horse of today, changing the life of many Dutchmen who were brave enough to embark upon the challenging adventure of horse breeding as a job.
Next week a small group of us will drive to the big equestrian happening Olympia, with plenty of tissues in our pockets. It is time to say goodbye to Valegro... his last big performance. Again Voltaire as a great-grandfather, with Amor and Pericles in his bloodlines, as well. KWPN stallions from the past, but never to be forgotten...
'THE FARMER, THE COAL MERCHANT, THE BAKER...' for sale at Amazon. Price: $10. Now also available as eBook! Price: $4.32
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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.
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Rollkur, classic dressage, one-armed riders and social media
It seems to get more intense by the minute. The equine world is using social media in order to give their opinion with pictures of horse cruelty, whether it be rollkur, classic dressage versus whatever other dressage or statements about one-armed riders harming their horses when using a double bridle.
I really don't get it. This thinking in little boxes and condemning all else, more often than not with no real fundamentally correct arguments. I guess one could say that by writing my blogs I am doing the same thing, however, I am hoping to bridge gaps, rather than deepen them. It is not possible though, to bridge gaps when the the heated arguments are made by people who have not made the effort to inform themselves sufficiently about their subject.
I am still not quite sure about the whole rollkur discussion; I need to read and learn more about it. What I am sure about is that the images circulating to attack rollkur look to me more like horse abuse than rollkur. A horse tied down, head on chest, with only a thin piece of string through its mouth I do not think is rollkur and a picture with a horse looking distressed with its tongue hanging down could have been made yesterday of my own horse when we had a momentous small upset which only lasted a split-second, because of a shy on my cat running out of the bushes,and is definitely not the norm when I train. I do at times for a very short spells ride horses deep when they are ready and I feel they can cope and this is the same thing my physio does standing still in order to flex and loosen the horse's neck in order to achieve greater suppleness. Yes, by overdoing it you can harm your horse and that is wrong of course, but you can do that with everything!
Yesterday someone told me blatantly that they loved classic dressage and hated that 'show dressage'. When I looked obviously puzzled and asked her what she meant she said: 'Well, you know, what they do at the Olympics.' I did not even know what to answer for being utterly gobsmacked.
I seem old when I write this but when I grew up and had my first dressage lessons, I learned that you did what was needed to supple your horse and engage its back. Generally that meant riding in a deeper frame before you would lift in the desired frame. Later, when I became more experienced, I learned to use different methods and adjust my riding for different horses: a horse that would hollow you would ride deeper longer and a horse that would naturally go deep you would ride more up, some horses needed more leg, others less.... but it was all called dressage. And it was all done so that the horse would grow the correct muscles in order to have a longer and healthier life.
Last but not least, a statement appeared last week about the fact that there ought to be a rule to keep one-armed riders from using double bridles. I am sure there are one-armed riders who are not capable to use a double bridle properly, just as there are tons of two-armed riders who ruin the mouth of their horse with the same tool.
But when I watch Dutch one-armed subtop dressage rider Maarten van Stek and I see the softest happiest horse with a slightly looser curb rein and I then think of all these badly founded statements, I get so very angry and am ashamed to be part of a dressage world which now seems to gradually deteriorate into below-the-belt ignorant statements.
I think social media can do so much good and a healthy discussion is a good thing, but in these cases I feel that the comments become hurtful rather than powerful, obviously caused by ignorance.
What can we do about this? I asked my 'guru' Maarten. His answer was: 'I think that we trainers, also at the highest level should not become defensive but rather show transparency through education.'
Okay, Maarten, point taken, instead of wanting to push the delete button I will keep on trying to build bridges!
Top picture: social media at its worst!
Bottom: Maarten van Stek with William
First 5 Star review on Amazon for my book 'THE FARMER, THE COAL MERCHANT, THE BAKER...'!!!
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Valegro, you got under my skin
After having read several write-ups in the German newspapers on Charlotte and Valegro's 'grand finale' and Isabell Werth's silver at the Olympics it is obvious that the German equestrian world wholeheartedly embraced 'das Wunderpferd' ( the miracle horse) Valegro as the champion. Apparently Isabell Werth said that even without her mistake she would still not have been able to touch Charlotte and Valegro's performance.
So here we are, Dutch bred Valegro (I have to say that, you do understand!) and Charlotte Dujardin proved that they are worthy Olympic champions by repeating their performance of four years ago. I don't know how she coped with the serious amount of extra pressure after the continental hype that in 2012 it was not such a difficult freestyle composition compared to others and had she therefore really deserved it.
This week I read an opinion on website Horses.nl from Dutch equine journalist Dirk Willem Rosie who decided to hammer the fact that Valegro may now be seen as the best dressage horse, ever. He writes it has nothing to do with sport to keep a super athlete such as Valegro out of the competition routine for a longer spell of time. To put it in context, in his article he wanted to criticize the way judges influence the general public by creating an image which is kept in place by high marks which are basically preconceived before the performance and used Valegro as an example. Quote: 'In order to not win, Blueberry had to make a proper mess of it.' He also questioned Valegro's early retirement.
Valegro apparently is not the perfect conformation. I don't know enough to even go there. Neither am I sufficiently experienced to compare the best with the best in order to dare to make a decision who is actually the very best. However being a professional I tend to keep my eye in when watching these athletes perform their tests, always wanting to be able to spot the tiniest imperfections. Only because it's a good exercise.
But with Charlotte and Valegro it's different. They touch something in me, they make me emotional. I think because of the ease and uncomplicated way, the enthusiasm with which they attack the most difficult moves. His face says it all. He is happy out there. And when Valegro has left the arena I cannot forget about him, he gets under my skin. His sweet and charmingly innocent face and proud front legs stay with me. Only Reiner Klimke's Ahlerich and Totilas with Edward Gal were ever able to leave such an impression, and that over a period of some forty years!
I strongly believe that every rider has the right to work and manage their horse the way they think suits its physique and personality in order to add to its well-being and peak at the right time. If that means competing less for a while then Valegro and Charlotte's performance proved that it was the right decision. And if, after having won all major titles, some several times and the freestyle at the Olympics twice, they feel that Valegro can retire from top competition then I can only say: Valegro, we shall miss you something fierce but good on you! You've done it all.
Even if one felt to have the right to question Valegro's superiority, there is one thing for certain. Carl Hester, Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro are the very best ambassadors the dressage sport could possibly wish for. Turning top horses out in the field well before that was common practice and fashionable. Breaking through the fear of losing a very special bond by securing permanent ownership in a world run by sponsorship; having nearly a year's break from competition and daring to go straight into the Olympics; most riders would look at that as a major disadvantage! And if that's not enough they have made top level dressage look more free and fun than anyone else I've ever seen.
Finally, referring back to what is sport and what is not: what great sportsmanship from the country which won team gold to not only accept but also embrace Valegro as 'das Wunderpferd'!
Picture: Lucy Lloyd having a relaxed moment with Charlotte at the Ballan dressage regionals only a few weeks before the Olympics.
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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%.
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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.
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A healthy contact rein is better than a bent neck and an upset horse
Some years ago I gave the odd clinic for the Cornish Dressage Group. It was thoroughly enjoyable, especially because Derowennek is such a lovely indoor school with its large windows overlooking a beautiful valley. Occasionally an elderly but very fit lady turned up, called Elizabeth and I can't actually remember her surname, who had a small bay horse which she loved very much; that was clear from the moment I met her.
When I asked her what she would like to get out of her lesson, she said that she didn't feel very competent in a dressage arena as she had hacked most of her life. I asked her, like I always do with a newcomer, to show me a walk, a trot and a canter on both reins and to take her time. Most first-timers are always in a hurry, probably because they are trying too hard to make a good impression.
Well, it was just lovely, basic, but so rhythmical and balanced. The little horse's eye was attentive, relaxed and confident at the same time. It really made my heart beat faster for enthusiasm.
I asked the few people watching what they thought of this and, I could have guessed actually, the first response was that the horse wasn't sufficiently round. True, but it did not bother me in the slightest. Especially not as Elizabeth was the last pupil of the day and four of the other seven I'd seen were round with either a broken neck or so grumpy and backward that I wondered where to start in order to make their hour productive without making their world fall apart.
When will it sink in that a round neck does not count when it is not the result of the horse being forward and balanced?
What Elizabeth showed that day was that a relatively inexperienced but forward and rhythmical horse on a contact rein at the beginning of a lesson, with a little bit of help will be a round horse in a correct fashion, still forward and balanced towards the latter part of the session. If she would have had the desire to take up dressage in a more serious way it would have been so incredibly easy for a trainer to turn that into a success. The basics were all there!
When she asked me how to continue, my return question was what she actually loved doing most with her horse. 'Oh, I shall be hacking most of the time and try to school once a week.' As she was not going to have regular lessons I advised her to continue what she was doing and not change anything, other than to add the serpentine and 15 meter circles, which we had been practicing that hour.
When she left with a big smile, her horse happily following her back to the trailer, I thought, 'Lucky horse...'
Picture: Sadly I do not have a picture of Elizabeth, but my home-bred little Tegen, then a green four year-old, together with Emily Noszkay, is showing here over poles exactly that forward balance on a contact rein. They turned out to be a great team together, both a touch mischievous and gutsy, which worked well for them during their eventing career together
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Maarten van Stek, worth waiting for!
'You've done a good job, because you haven't killed the spirit of your horse... don't correct, it's too late, tell your horse what to do... now I can see what you are doing, now I can't, now I can... stay on your dotted line; line zero'. Anybody who has lessons With Maarten van Stek will recognize his inventive use of language when teaching. For three whole days I was allowed to sit next to him when he took over the helm and instructed some of my pupils and, honestly, not only was it music to my ears, it gave me so much more.
When, through a fluke, Maarten and I connected last year, I could hardly believe my ears when he offered to come and teach my pupils. This meant more to me than he could even begin to understand. Not only was this a chance for some riders to work with a teacher of a caliber of which there are only very few, but also, I would be able to learn so much for myself. It had the potential to more than double the result. My pupils would grow, their horses would grow and because I would grow, we would be able to continue that process in a clearer and cleaner way.
It was hard work for all of us. Riders, who had looked forward to this so very much had to relax before they could work to their capability. I know from my own experience that this is not always easy and takes some self-discipline. Maarten had a lot on his plate, other than having to get into the groove of speaking English, he felt very much the responsibility to, one, make sure every rider would finish up with something which would enable them to work on and not get into trouble next week through a misunderstanding; two, help me to understand and put it in the right context so I would be able to add to my own teaching skills; three, make and keep it fun for all. His skill in doing so was showing not only his incredible professionalism as a trainer, but also his wonderful human approach and his ability to get 'under the skin'. My hard work was to keep my mouth shut for one whole hour at a time and all who know me, also know that this is not a natural thing for me to do, but I think I managed that quite well. Other than that I had to digest everything, watch and listen and store at the same time.
At the start of most lessons Maarten talked about the spirit and the instinct of the horse. The spirit which should stay alive always and how the rider should use the fact that the horse is an animal of flight in a positive way. Based on the principle that the horse is only able to rely on his instinct and can only respond in a positive way when told what to do, instead of being told all the time what not to do, gave riders the opportunity to ride more quiet and subsequently opened the door to ride with a little more feel. I am a sucker for getting the basics right before getting into the more tricky bits and this was emphasized in every lesson yet again, which will help me to stick to this most important rule in the future even better.
The biggest and reoccurring problem for every rider is to keep the horse truly for the leg and accept that you can not 'fix' the mouth of a horse. Maarten explained this so brilliantly by saying if you compared the different parts of the rider to the toolbox of a carpenter, then the legs might be a hammer and the seat a pair of pliers, body-parts which can be used to create or repair something. But the hands can only be used as a level. A level is not a tool you can fix something with as it can only check something. So the hands can only check what the rest of the body-parts create, no more than that!
The very clear explanation why the canter-trot transition is so difficult to get soft, round and uphill, was new to me and such a revelation. The knowledge that canter has one diagonal set of legs moving, trot two and walk none, was there. However, it never occurred to me to connect that with the fact that, for this very reason, in order for the horse to go to trot he has to add a second diagonal, which is an effort. Far more of an effort to go from canter to walk. As a rider I am able to deal with this instinctively, but as a trainer I can now explain it and do a much better job helping my pupils to improve this transition.
All my pupils are committed, hard workers who, other than care for their horses really well, take their training serious and want to do it in an honest way. It was inevitable that these lessons, where riders were pushed to another level, it would bring the odd frustration to the surface. As riders we have to be tough on ourselves. In order to train on days the weather is rotten or your old injuries hurt you have to push yourself often. But you can also be too tough and our biggest enemy is perfectionism. Maarten was direct in a kind and patient way, which made every single rider know how much he cares.
So now, after three full days, Maarten has left and we go back to the drawing-board. But with vigorous and revived spirits and in the hope that, if he wants to visit again for a repeat, we can show him we listened, we worked and we learned.
I saw Maarten ride and teach some thirty-five years ago. Some of the things he said then stayed with me forever and I felt sad I was not in the position to have lessons at that time with someone that kind and competent. But we've made up for that now and it was certainly worth waiting for. Maarten, thank you, from the bottom of my heart for everything you gave these past days. It was tons more than I could have hoped for!
Sadly it was not possible, because of time restrictions, to fit everyone in, but if we are lucky there will be another time!
Top picture: Maarten van Stek competing William
Bottom: A tired but delighted Rachel Wood with Jazz looking for well-deserved polo's in Maarten's pocket
Middle: Claire Daniels on Euro in full swing, with Maarten
There are two more blogs on Maarten van Stek. 'Perseverance and more perseverance' from the 6th of November, 2014.'An afternoon or two with Maarten van Stek' from the 1st of March, 2016.
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Corners, so very useful
Years ago, when I finally had convinced, a then very novice, Martyn Humphprey to get the rake out and tidy up the corners, which lacked some serious TLC, he told me at the beginning of the next lesson: 'I just can't believe how long the short side is, all of a sudden'. That is so true, but not just the short side, coming on to the long side it is now so much easier to start the diagonal in time, or to set up a lateral movement.
The longer I teach, the more it has become clear to me that most riders, who are bringing on a young horse for the first time, are so very pleased when their horse accepts the bend around the inside leg, that they do not dare, or just not think of the possibility, to ride straight into the corner and only turn last minute, keeping the horse in a much straighter frame. Often the horse needs the outside leg on the girth to help it to turn the shoulder quicker. The corner might look like a quarter of a ten meter circle in the earlier development of your horse's career, but it needs to outgrow that as the level of training goes up.
My second blog, from the 28th of May in 2014, I wrote just after having judged at Lanhydrock Horse Trials. One of the pet hates for a judge is when there is no difference to be seen between the corners and the twenty meter circles at A and C. It all seems to happen on the same track. The corners are too 'round' and the circles too square. What a shame, so many easy to make points down the drain!
Learning to ride corners takes time and it is first of all a riders effort. They need to be approached with a similar determination and focus as if there was a jump there. (This, by the way is true for all movements.) It is a gradual process and it can not be achieved overnight. It needs to be practiced in walk first to find out how tight you can make it. When trying it in trot it helps to initially make a transition to walk, still straight, as near the first corner at the beginning of the short side, as possible, proceeding to trot on as soon as the corner is finished trying the second corner in trot. Remember, it is a gradual process, your horse shouldn't get the feeling you're trying to knock it over!
So, first you teach your horse to bend, only to have to take the bend out of it again. This basically will go on all the way through your and your horse's dressage career. And the more lateral work you do, the more you always will have to check whether you can still go straight. Inside track and nicely ridden 'square' corners are an exercise never to be forgotten or underestimated.
One more piece of advice: never try to make your corners tighter at a competition than you manage at home. If anything, it works the other way around, especially for the younger or less experienced horse, different terrain and lack of concentration sometimes make it impossible for your horse to give 100 percent.
Well, let's see what the corners look like at Lanhydrock this year!
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An afternoon or two with Maarten van Stek
It was an exciting moment for me to meet Maarten van Stek again after all those years. He did not really know who I was as, those thirty years ago, I was just a spectator on crutches at a clinic he gave in the East of Holland. This one-armed man with his calm way of approach, which stuck to every horse and rider he worked with, made me so very greedy to overcome my own issues after an accident. Not only was Maarten an instructor on a mission, when he was riding you simply forgot there was an arm missing. It just looked so very beautiful.
A while ago I translated an article for website Horses International about a one-armed PSG rider on his way to Grand Prix and realized this was the very same guy. So I decided to overcome my shyness and contacted him. Mainly to thank him for the fact that all those years ago he was an important factor in my recovery which made it possible to become the rider and trainer I am now.
Maarten is a very kind man with no ego issues. Despite the fact he of course could not remember me, his answer was warm and inviting. So here I was, on his side, soon with his little dog Tootsie in my lap, as he was teaching in the indoor school of the Van Verre family in Empe. And boy, how nice to listen to his relaxed but alert way of teaching. The punctuality and technical precision, hand in hand with a healthy sense of humor and endless patience, always keeping in mind the emotional and physical well-being of both horse and rider. Treating part of the session as ridden physio with the result a happy horse, keen to up its game when gradually pushed into more challenging exercises.
When I thanked him he invited me to visit him at home and meet William, the horse he achieved so much with and of course I couldn't possibly refuse such an invite. So, the next week I took the train to Hoofddorp where Maarten collected me.
William lives in quite a big yard, but as soon as Maarten called his name, William's head appeared over his door with a happy snicker. As I stood watching Maarten brushing William, ready to help when asked, it was impossible to ignore the patient self-discipline Maarten has made his own in order to live a life for which most people think at times two hands aren't enough. Every door latch, every knot, every buckle, every brush stroke, mounting his horse, taking up the reins, the correct tension on the curb. My respect grew by the minute as I watched this man work.
Although William had been out in the paddock and also lunged, he had not been ridden for four days, because of having lost a shoe, which had only just been put back on. So obviously Maarten had to adjust their training session in order to deal with the vast amount of surplus energy. This is when I decided I was now definitely a groopie. I have seen so many competent riders not have the patience to restrain themselves on training days such as this. Maarten worked quietly away on.....straight lines. Using his own invention of riding diagonals from A or C to the corners of either side of the arena. Eventually using those lines for flying changes, finishing up with a very correct lot of one-timers.
A warm thank you to William with a relaxed long rein was followed by using the two-takt walk as a means to get into the piaffe.
On my way home, chewing over all I had seen, two things stuck out. Firstly, the ease with which the modern warmblood accepts the leg and rein tension to become soft and forward. It is built to do so and therefore the muscles and the brain don't make a big deal of it as it is easy for them. Most of the horses I work with in England need more of an 'in between time' in their early training development in order to be able to handle the pressure in a positive way. When ignoring this the chance is they become nappy.
Second, the use of the legs very forward, touching the muscles which make the horse pull up its belly. And once the horse is fully on the aids and using its core strength properly, the not involving the legs as much as guiding just with the reins when doing the exercises it knows. Of course! Eureka moment, I knew it, but had not said it in such a simple and uncomplicated way.
Uncomplicated, not exactly how you would see life with one arm. But that is how Maarten has made it somehow, which is so very striking and humbling. He proudly told me that, many years ago, he passed his first exam which involved bandaging. He was exempt from this phase, however, insisted on taking part. It involved teeth and knees but he passed... with a 9!
I'm hoping that I will get another chance to watch Maarten work. In those two meetings I learned so much. This I can pass on again to my own pupils and if they are lucky they get to meet the man himself not too long from now.
Top picture: Maarten with his pupil Vera van Verre and her horse Change Faith (Valdez x 00Seven)
Bottom: Maarten van Stek with William
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Some horses are naturally more light-footed than others. Occasionally I come across a horse where the amount of noise it makes when the feet hit the ground is created by too much negative energy. More often than not these horses have been jumped before they were able to develop their mouth properly and are literally 'chomping on the bit'. Especially for a smaller horse it can look quite cute for the inexperienced eye, however, it generally goes together with a horse which is eager to please but probably not very happy. Also, often these horses are literally 'blowing bubbles' rather than mouthing up with a nice bit of white froth in both corners of the mouth.
Last week I was introduced to a new arrival in a yard I visit regularly. A seemingly very cheerful Connemara cross with exactly this problem, although not overly salivating. When horse and rider trotted on, it was literally the first thing I picked up on: the sound of its feet on the ground.
It is one of the hardest things about riding: not to anticipate the mistakes our horses make. In this case the rider was happily rising up and down as fast as possible to keep up with her horse, also breathing very fast. I stopped them and suggested for the rider to not think trot, when trotting on, but think jog, in the meantime rising a little behind the rhythm and breathing as slow as possible. Even the patient husband with camera on the side noticed an immediate difference. This is a young horse which responded quickly, one could nearly see the relief on its face. Older horses take longer, but will get it in due course, as life is so much more comfortable for them that way.
Also, they will have to relearn the canter transition and get used to push off more with their hind legs from this slower trot, but once that little issue is conquered as well, the canter will immediately become more balanced and less on the forehand.
The secret is in the word 'jog'. Asking the rider to trot slower does not seem be sufficient information. Asking the rider to rise and breathe slower without the word 'jog' does not have the desired effect.
It will take time and practice for the horse to learn to track up in this new rhythm, but then, it could never track up going fast either and at least now it stands a chance.
Picture: The rider is still sitting a little forward as this young horse is a tad tender in the back. The nice little grey is now settled and relaxed.
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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.
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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!
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Humans and school, horses and training
The first years of a human being basically exist of being cared for and an enormous amount of enthusiasm when the first step on two legs is made or the first 'mama' or 'papa' is said. One can compare this to the first few years of a young horse where all it needs to learn is following its owner on a halter and lifting its feet for the farrier.
Being backed and hacking is nursery school, learning to accept the basics of dressage, jumping and some x-country schooling primary school moving on to GCSE's or A-levels, which is followed by a specialization, which one can compare to an apprenticeship, a college, or uni. After that it's time for a proper job with a pay cheque as reward.
Why these comparisons? Because we can use it in our training as it can help us to understand how to use our rein aids.
When the horse is backed and starts hacking it needs lots of encouragement and pets in order to feel safe and remain positive in this new and strange environment, just as the child in nursery, which generally also involves little outings.
This leads to learning to accept the rider's forward aids in many different situations, even when it is not entirely happy and possibly a little scared. So a little more discipline and respect is going hand in hand with the previously built trust.
Primary school: when schooling the basics in walk trot and canter on the flat we establish what is the horse's stiffer side. Once decided we now always pet the horse with the hand on the stiffer side of the horse's neck. This combines a 'thank you' with a relaxation of the rein on the side where the muscles are stiffer and shorter, however, through this aid/pet the horse is at the same time invited to relax and stretch the stiffer side. This will gradually turn into a softer bend in the more difficult direction, which helps the horse to come on the bit softer in both directions, rather than becoming more one sided.
GCSE's or A-levels: the horse is now progressing through Novice into Elementary, Medium, and the exercises are becoming more difficult, adding counter canters and lateral work. We want to help our horse to carry itself a little higher, remaining soft. If we would now continue to pet lower on the neck, not only would we invite our horse to bring its neck lower than wanted, we also would lose too much of the connection we need for that level of work.
The pet on the neck still on the slightly stiffer side turns into a gentle stroke forward and back on top of the mane.
Next step, college: The gentle stroke on top of the mane turns into the lift. Still the same hand and rein go up and forward at the same time, creating a diagonal movement toward the horse's ear. This helps the horse to free up on it's stiffer side at the same time as it is invited to collect more in a higher frame. As it is learning to be happy in a higher frame we have to adjust our rein length and ride with both hands higher than we were used to, in order to support the horse in its newly found frame.
At every level in the school system for human beings there are breaks during the day in order to not become overwhelmed with information. Of course at all stages we also give our horse regular breaks in walk on a long rein during the training sessions in order to relax both the muscular system and its brain . This is the time when we can thank our horse for it's achievements and pet it every way we feel like.
A job with a pay cheque: we will feel that the horse is understanding its job and hopefully, because we have done a good job, does its job full of enthusiasm. A small lift here or there is sufficient for the horse to feel happy and appreciated. We are more or less equals now, feel the partnership, feel as one. We have grown up together and the pay cheque is within sight: our first 60% or more at Advanced or Prix St. George with hopefully even more to come!
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Aids are to help and submission is not slavery
When some years ago I was chosen to be part of a clinic with Conrad Schumacher, together with my Prix St George horse Marie, I jumped sky high for excitement as he was my guru. I had already been to some of his clinics as a spectator and was totally smitten by his training technique.
What really caught my attention was when he questioned the term 'submission'. He said he didn't like that word as it sounded as if the horse was your slave instead of rider and horse being a partnership. I loved that. 'Submission' stands for the German term 'durchlassigkeit' which is not easily translated. It means the aids are fully accepted and digested by the horse which subsequently turns it into self carriage and suppleness.
Now the term 'aids'. We have a bit in the horse's mouth, and a leg on each side. We can add to that a whip and spurs. Now we have the ability to yank, kick and whack as much as we like in order to create submission. If we don't achieve quickly what we want we try fiercer bits and sharper spurs. Great, now we have turned our horse into our slave.
The dictionary explains 'aid' as 'help' and that is how I look at the equine term 'aids'. Instead of looking at it as pressuring the horse to perform, look at it as helping the horse to achieve what you want it to do.
Yet again I have helped a rider to turn her horse from a lazy, angry horse with dangerous explosions into a horse which shows every potential to compete at least at Medium level if not Advanced. He is still slightly awkward at times, but only because he gets frustrated when he wants to please but can't quite get his head around it, which his rider has learnt to understand. That is when we let him of the hook and do something easy which he knows and understands. Only last year you could not canter him without a chance of a rodeo. On outings he was a liability. A couple of weeks ago he went to his first x-country schooling session and behaved all the way. Why? Because he is happy that he feels understood and it makes him feel safe.
Turns out he's super sensitive, saw the leg as a threat and backed up on it. This was misunderstood by the rider who pushed more and more to the point of no return. We spent time on the lunge desensitizing him by teaching him the lunging whip can touch him without being a threat. This we could use on top as he now responded more positive to the whip which would be used educational; rather pointing at the place of the part of the body that needed to put in a little more effort. Voice aids are important to him for active transitions: walk to canter is now a piece of cake, extended trot is showing incredible promise. Rider and horse can now finally have the love affair they so badly wanted. And...he can now be ridden from the leg without taking offence. The whips are more often than not retired to the cupboard!
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Martyn Humphrey: aiming high
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Meet Tristan Tucker
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Breathing during training
It is something we all do without thinking about it: breathing in... and out. So does our horse. Breathing is a regular thing and it is the breathing out which makes breathing in an automatic movement. As long as life is not upsetting we breathe regularly. When we are emotional or when we are sporting and pushing ourselves outside our comfort-zone for too long, we start breathing irregular or too quickly which makes us feel bad.
It is exactly the same for our horse, so for both rider and horse it is enormously important to be able to keep a normal and regular breathing-pattern.
First us. When we are comfortable with our horse and sufficiently fit there is not a problem. When we feel tired, insecure or even scared it will affect our breathing and that gives an immediate message to the horse. Tiredness is a matter of the regular little brake discussed in last weeks blog. It is probably not just our horse that needs a brake at times. However, when the rider needs too many brakes it needs to be sorted by fitness-training such as biking, running or swimming, just to give a few examples. Otherwise the horse is never given the chance to really get going which results into not much improvement and a stagnant training-pattern.
Being insecure needs some reflection and/or research about what we are doing and how to do it differently.
Being scared can be overcome with a helpful trainer, depending on how badly affected the horse is. Some horses cope with a scared rider better than others. If it is the horse which has caused it, then often it has shaken both the rider's and the horse's confidence and an experienced trainer is needed in order to assess the situation as far as how to solve this.
Now the horse. A younger horse often starts a little irregular in its breathing when doing its first trot and canter as it is still having to get used to the new environment. As it is not very fit yet, you will find that it can only get regular for a shortish amount of time until it starts to get tired which causes for its breathing to speed up too much, which results into loss of rhythm. When this is not recognised the chances are that the young horse will never find its natural rhythm or worse, starts to dislike being in the school from its early training days.
As the horse gets fitter we can begin to feel, by listening to our horse, where its regular rhythm in walk, trot and canter lies. When a horse is comfortable it will breathe regularly in the rhythm of its movement. This generally is a little slower than we think and our horse lets us believe. As the horse develops into a more experienced horse we will get used to the regularity and know we're on the right track as exercises become easier.
This brings us back to the previous blog. In order to help our horse to do its work to the best of its ability we will have to come to terms that training is: helping the horse to understand and helping to improve, not making...... This includes, other than working on balance, regular little brakes.
The upset horse, no matter how experienced it is, will always breathe irregular and therefore will always move outside its natural rhythm. It is ugly to watch and can't be much fun to sit on.
Certainly the time for some self-reflection!
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Horses and their personalities
Having had a great time in Holland with plenty of equine entertainment and at the same time increasing my knowledge as far as the Dutch Warmblood breeding industry, it is now time to get back to normal working life.
In my first week back to work it occurred to me what a huge variety of horses I work with, not only as far as their personalities but also their body-structure and the kind of sport they are involved in.
The more experienced working hunter and the oncoming event horse; the cheeky youngster and the dressage horse in development with a panic button, just to name a few.
They all have one thing in common. Every single lesson the rider has to be reminded that all horses are crooked to some extend and their horse is not the exception to the rule. No matter what level, there will always be the moment when the level gets upped that the horse tells us: one side is easier than the other.
The question is how to deal with this as far as their different personalities, into which I include their pain-threshold. Many years ago, Ferdi Eilberg visited Cornwall for a demonstration. He said: "If only we could explain to our horses, just like the physiotherapist, this is going to hurt a bit but you'll feel better afterwards, our horses would be so much more cooperative." I never forgot that and it has been of phenomenal importance to my training.
I have learnt to look at an evasion differently, since then, more open-minded and ready to change tactics in an inventive way, not only in order to avoid the point of no return, but more so to get more out of my horse. It pays of to be clever and alert. Listen to the breathing and watch how the sweat-patches appear. They will give you all kinds of indications in order to respond in time and before the agitation has built up too much.
Some horses are insecure, others easily bored. Some are hot, others slow to get going. Some are intelligent, others have their brains somewhat detached from their body. There are endless options. This also dictates a certain work pattern. The insecure horse, for example, needs to be given the time to settle into an exercise and have a lot of personal time with the rider outside the training time as bonding is important. The easily bored horse needs to be given new exercises regularly and in time so as not to think of shying or becoming lethargic. The hot horse may need a hack or lunging or even turn-out if stabled before riding. A different hot horse may have to walk long and low for much longer than normal. The slow one probably needs lots of trot-walk-trot and canter-trot-canter transitions in its warm-up. The intelligent ones are tricky as they have evasions galore and need a very quick-thinking and experienced rider in order to thrive but in return have a lot to give. The lesser intelligent ones with a good body sometimes are easier as they are more forgiving. They just need a little more time for something new to sink in.
There is one thing they all need. Which is regular and well-planned brakes during their training session. Their brain and their muscles need time to recuperate within the session often. This is something I underestimated for a long time. For two reasons I now take this to heart: first of all, a well-planned brake at a moment when the horse has made a little brake-through or just learnt something new is a huge thank-you to it and it will show when you try the same exercise in the next session as the horse will always respond positive to a positive experience. Secondly, a regular little brake keeps the horse from becoming unbearably stiff for the next day.
Actually, there is a third advantage. Not every competition runs on schedule and also the horse may occasionally peak a little earlier than is usual. At that moment, if the horse is not trained with regular brakes it will find it difficult to stop and start again. Also from that point of view it is important.
Next time I will discuss the breathing during training.
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Strictly Come Dancing and dressage to music
Yes, I have watched every single one of the Strictly Come Dancing shows and loved it. Yes, it is more than glittery and the tango's are not as passionate as they should be, the jokes are not very funny but to watch non-dancers grow into dancers and with that the physical and emotional struggle is a very exciting thing to watch. The partakers are called celebrities these days which adds to the show in more than just the fact that we know them from telly, radio, You Tube or downloaded on our iphone. We can watch people we generally look up to, as their work is connected to some form of stardom, turn into humble, to the point of insecure, human beings, dying for a bit of approval from the four judges. Maybe I am naive but it seems to me that their enthusiasm and commitment to stay in it as long as possible is real, just as their disappointments and occasional tears are.
Judge Craig is the tough one who pulls the technique apart before he allows his emotions to come in. Judge Bruno occasionally falls from his chair as his exuberance gets the better of him. The other two judges Darcey and Len are seated in the middle which also represents their comments, kind with a hint of criticism.
Last night in the final Craig at some point compared Frankie to a horse and it did not sound complimentary; Frankie very quick-witted whinnied back at him.
This week English dressage-star Charlotte Dujardin together with her beautiful Valegro piaffed, passaged and pirouetted themselves into another record-braking first position at Olympia. I wonder when the next discussion about dressage judges will come to explosion. Has it got worse since the music was added to Grand Prix dressage or is that my imagination? At the moment the freestyle entered the competitive dressage world a whole new set of emotions arrived with it. Until then judges might be somewhat more partial to a certain type of horse but it was all about technique and the quality of the expected movements. Music is so personal and has made dressage at times a bit of a tear-jerking experience, to put it bluntly.
Judges are people, yes, with a certain competence, but still people. Many years ago it was riders Christine Stuckelberger and Reiner Klimke who made my hart beat faster (still without music), then Anky von Grunsven and Isabell Werth, Edward Gal was the first one to make me sob and now Charlotte is having a similar effect. It is not possible to keep some form of personal emotion out of the freestyle as that is the whole idea. That is what has made dressage so popular, also for people who have never done it and/or will never do it themselves.
I so hope that the politics are never going to ruin the sport. Only then is it possible for the difference between scores of judges such as Strictly judges Craig and Bruno to keep each other in balance and for dressage riders to be able to live with the fact that at the end of the day it can never be as clean and clear as show-jumping.
I WISH YOU A VERY GOOD CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR!
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Behind the vertical is not necessarily behind the bit
It was a revelation to hear trainer Robert Pickles say that you do not necessarily need a warmblood in order to do dressage. There was an interesting variety of horses at Sunday's demonstration, organised by the Cornwall Dressage Group. Being Dutch, I can not help but being proud of the international stamp the Dutch breeding world has put on the equine sports, specifically on show-jumping and dressage. However, one could not be but charmed by the first group in which the two bigger cob-crosses moved so well and showed great willingness to put out for their rider.
The littlest one, which did not quite pass the test for conformation and movement stole the show with a ten for character. The very determined jockey on top did a great job, particularly when correcting the canter lead.
I did have my concerns about one of the horses in a later group, which seemed to find great satisfaction into going quite irregular to the point of looking positively lame every time Robert was talking to the audience and therefore wasn't able to see the horse , but completely sound as soon as it felt the eyes of the trainer up on itself. It obviously did not bother the rider as the horse was made to work the entire session.
After the demonstration a friend of a pupil asked my opinion on one of the last more advanced horses. She felt it was behind the bit. It is a complex issue and very difficult to explain, as what is for a more advanced rider a perfectly acceptable and temporary measure to get the horse more up in the back and at the same time more submissive looks wrong for the lesser experienced eye.
My way of explaining is to compare it to a human athlete. Whether it is gymnastics or diving or football. The exercises in order to do the perfect leaps or somersaults or play the best game are entirely different from the end result. Also, for each individual athlete the exercises might have to differ according to what their body needs in order to be in top form. We can look at dressage and how to prepare our horse for a test the same way. The test is around five minutes so we only need to peak for that amount of time. Also, it would be impossible for the horse to work for the entire session like that.
So, first of all, we have to assess the level of our horse in order to decide which exercises to do in order to improve. We then decide in what frame we need to do them so that the horse benefits in such a way that it can peak for a shorter amount of time in the perfect frame with its nose on the vertical whilst tracking up correctly. For a longer possibly more hollow-backed horse or a horse which is easily distracted a deeper frame is temporarily more effective. As long as the horse is tracking up this is may be behind the vertical but not behind the bit. Watch the part of the neck nearest to the shoulder. When that part is positioned more upwards the neck is not able to restrict the movement of the shoulder.
Equally, a horse which is narrower and weaker near the poll might have to work a little higher in order to not 'bury' itself. When it goes on the bit too early in the training session or before a test, the not yet sufficiently developed muscles nearer the poll will not be able to hold the head in the desired position and the horse will drop too deep and become very heavy on the hands
So, a different recipe for each individual horse without ignoring the general rules. I wish the person who asked me this afterwards had asked Robert Pickles, himself. I would have loved to hear his opinion on this subject. Maybe another time.
Also, see blog 27 from August 14: too deep or not too deep?. You can find this in categories dressage and general training.
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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.
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Dressage on a shoestring in Portugal
There were many sad faces when Tiddy and Martin Hamilton left North Cornwall for Kenia some ten years ago.
On the other hand, it became many of their friends perfect holiday destination.
The pair worked hard and made their dream come true: running safari’s either on horseback or in a jeep... Martin‘s style (a bit scary at times but in safe hands).
The fact horses became part of their life again was no surprise. Although Tiddy insisted she did not really want to run a yard again, all of us knew that a life without these four-legged friends would be an impossibility for this experienced horsewoman.
Last year they decided it was time for another adventure. They successfully sold their now well-established business and left for Portugal, walking out of Lisbon airport with four suitcases and a dog.
Finding a project
Martin Hamilton, a project manager as much as a builder, found a contact in the area of Fundao, a town about one hours drive to the west of the Estrella mountains. The couple only looked at three properties and settled for a ruin of a barn set amongst an endless amount of delightful peach- and cherry orchards, olive groves and fields with cork trees. They have some ten acres of land which was left to go wild and is filled with wild thyme, mint and lavender, which they are hoping to turn into grassland as, of course, you can guess, they have already acquired three horses.
Their first attempt to reseed one field this spring failed, as colonies of ants dutifully carried the grass seed away. Their neighbour farmer who did the job forgot to tell them that because of this problem the locals tend to seed their fields in the autumn.
From Bolventor Vicarage to swimming pool with lion
Although I had been Tiddy’s dressage instructor for some years, our friendship solidified when Tiddy and Martin moved to the Vicarage at Bolventor. We had a great exchange going, Tiddy backing the youngsters I bred, I supporting her with her event horses. We laughed a lot, also occasionally cried together.
So seeing Tiddy at Lisbon airport was a joy and the drive back through the mellow Mediterranean evening air in a bright yellow Saab convertible great fun.
As we bounced along the last bit of the unpaved tracks towards the property a strange figure started to take shape. It was a huge white lion, bought in a garden centre, overlooking the new swimming pool in style.
The welcome was warm, the wine flowed and then it was time for bed.
I couldn’t wait to meet what was going to be my project for the next five days.
The next morning Tiddy and Jolie were waiting in the cool of the shelter. Luckily it wasn’t that hot as between the heat and the flies daytime riding is not always fun in this area. Jolie is a six year-old Lusitano mare who loves to eat. So, although once a rescue case she was now `looking well’. Tiddy found Jolie and the other two horses through Nick Burd, an event rider who also moved to Portugal. The great big black warmblood type gelding Zorro, still skinny, but apparently three times fatter than when he arrived is for Martin and there is the nice little dun youngster Obby, only just backed.
Jolie had a tricky mouth and a more or less non existent canter, however, she turned out to be a fast learner with a very sweet disposition. We were working on a nice flat area at the far end of the property near a little stream lined with alder trees .It was very romantic and so unlike how dressage training is done, these days; between walls on sometimes on twenty thousand pound surfaces.
The surface was naturally there. It was just harrowed and picked over for stones. As the soil is more or less pulverized granite it wasn’t too dusty, either. It rode surprisingly well.
We had five lovely days. Jolie was worked in the morning and after that some exploring around the area was done. Martin and Tiddy did not sit around in their first year in Portugal. The barn which was derelict until only a year ago is now a lovely up-to-date comfortable house with a veranda overlooking the swimming pool and with a view over their fields with the three horses.
On our last evening Tiddy and I were doing the numbers. And this is what I found fascinating about this experience. Jolie cost six hundred euros. Tiddy found a saddle on E-bay for ninety pounds. I am not a saddler but it rode nice and the mare was very comfortable with it. The riding area cost no more than a bit of fuel for the tractor and some sweat and a bit of back-ache picking stones.
The best bit though is the shoeing. Tiddy had the local farrier and was so disgusted with his lack of competence that she went to the local market and bought a set of shoes for ten euros and put them on herself. I can only say that I wouldn’t have picked up on it looking at the mares feet and she was as sound as a bell. The grand total of this operation is still well below the thousand pounds.
All who have known them over the years, though, know very well that your names have got to be Tiddy and Martin Hamilton to pull this of. And good luck to them!
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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.
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A little feel can grow into more
Over the years I have watched endless amount of riders, some as being their teacher, others as an admirer. It is a wonderful thing to watch a good rider with a lot of feel being in synch with his or her horse.
Also those riders were once beginners. And this is something we should never forget. It takes an enormous amount of practice to develop feel. Only a few riders are talented enough to immediately have lots of it. Most of us start with a little and as long as we allow ourselves to feel, rather than overwhelm our horse with too many unnecessary aids, we can make it grow.
Here is an example: you are in India visiting a market and you stop at a silk stand. The salesman lets you feel three types of silk; a very fine one, a medium one and a slightly rougher one. However, you can not really feel any difference. If you had the chance to go back every day for a month, I can assure you that you would feel a difference by the end of that month. This is exactly the same as developing the feel to ride well. A gradual process.
There are ways which will stop you from developing feel.The worst scenario is an assertive rider who is talented and strong enough to have impact, but with an unrecognized bad habit. For example, a crookedness somewhere in the body, flat hands, or plain and simply a temper (the last type should never be allowed to have a horse, of course). A crooked rider can make a horse unbalanced to the point that it turns naughty. It certainly becomes impossible to develop the correct feel. I strongly recommend the book `Centered riding' by Sally Swift. It is a bible for advice on correct balance and much more.
Flat hands can only pull, not feel. It is generally underestimated. Hands are a point of connection from the mouth of the horse through the reins, through our arms and finally through our back to our seat bones. When the hands are flat the `telephone cable' is broken and can not transfer information properly.
When, many years ago, I was on a customer's horse in a group lesson with Mrs. Molly Sivewright (founder of Talland), she told me to `turn my hands until I could see my finger nails'. It changed my riding dramatically for the better. You should try it.
No feel can not turn into feel. However, there are very few riders with no feel. A little feel can grow into more feel. Until the feel is of such that you are so very much in synch with your horse that you occasionally reach that moment when you forget who is who and you and your horse are one united body. I can tell you: It is addictive!
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Last week I discussed the deeper outline for a novice horse and its future.
This week I would like to go back to that but from a different point of view. What to do when the young horse has made the transition from a contact rein to learning to go round, but over-bends without you actually asking for it.
First we have to establish the reason. Is it a mistake the rider is making by, for example, having his or her hands to low and or wide, or, is the horse not strong enough yet in certain areas in its neck and instead of maintaining its position it collapses some how. This could be a weak poll or an under developed shoulder, amongst others.
When the rider is less experienced it is difficult without mirror or trainer to learn to have a higher and more closed position of the hands. However, the tip `long arms and shorter reins' is one that I give often when teaching. Especially when the horse has a weak poll this already helps the rider to not pull the head mechanically under its neck, or worse, between its knees. Also, we have to learn to understand that the horse can only come up when we `make room' by carrying our hands higher. In this case gravity is our greatest enemy as when the horse goes down we tend to drop our hands without even realizing it. This higher carriage of the hands is a gradual and consistent lift, which maintains its position at the level where it becomes functional.
In other words, the base of the neck can only come up when the hands allow by making room through a gradual lift.
The more experienced rider is able to recognize this gradual development, however some horses will still try to go too deep as an evasion. Now we need the sudden lift. In this case, depending on whether there is a tilt of the head involved, both hands or one hand lift suddenly, which virtually makes the horse go above the bit, followed by a quick release in order to re-establish a new and softer contact and outline. This is quite an invasive aid which should not be used too often. Overuse of this aid will make the horse have an uncomfortably inconsistent head and neck carriage. If so, it is time to evaluate what is happening in order to find out what is wrong.
Remember that going too deep can not be riding-technically solved if there is a physical problem (I'm thinking teeth or back). Always have these issues taken care of in order to avoid unnecessary arguments.
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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!
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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.
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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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