Blog posts about general training
PIXEL, I'VE GOT A HORSE AND PIXEL'S GOT A LIFE
I WAS LOOKING FOR A GELDING...
It’s been a long time since I wrote a blog for my own website. A new project and also writing for Dutch equine magazine the Hoefslag, has been taking up most of my spare time.
But I feel after having worked Pixel for a couple of weeks again after six weeks off I want to share our journey.
I bought Pixel last autumn after dear Pinokkio turned out to have some physical issues that can’t be fixed. I was looking for a 6-ish year old gelding. It didn’t have to be very special as long as I could stay in the groove with dressage training. That has always been my priority as training has always been more important than competing for me.
PIXEL IS A MARE AND SHE KNOWS IT
Things worked out different. Pixel is five years old with a quarter thoroughbred and a quarter Dutch in her. Oh, and she is a mare and she knows it. When I tried her, I could feel she had an ‘I prefer to go slow’-attitude and I know from experience that especially with mares that can sometimes be a bit tricky when also the hormones kick in. She was either above the bit with a grumpy face or way behind it with what I call a lock-down attitude. The dressage arena was obviously not her favourite place so after five minutes of having tried her in there I decided I knew enough and didn’t want to do any more damage.
I guess I like a challenge, so, after passing the vet with 'perfect conformation' written on the form, I bought her. With the warning that she could be a bit awkward to get on. I knew I had my work cut out for me and I was looking forward to it.
LUNGING WITHOUT ANY EXTRA KIT
My way into a horse has always been lunging. Lunging without any kit. So, no side-reins, no bit. Especially with a horse that has been through the mill a bit and where things obviously have gone somewhat pear-shaped.
First learn to use their legs, after that we’ll see what’s next. Pixel started off with ears back, eyes on grumpy and bucking back at the lunging whip. After a week or so she understood that I meant it, and the whip meant ‘go’. But canter was a problem. She was so incredibly uncomfortable that I decided to settle for a forward trot and every day one transition into canter on each rein. Patience, patience.
After a few weeks I felt I needed to see whether anything had changed on top. Not really, after patiently putting her back time and again at the platform to get on she at least finally stood to allow me on board but immediately buried her head and went in lock-down. Because I solidly believed it was totally related to insecurity, distrust and lack of respect, I knew we needed more groundwork. I obviously wasn’t able to read her correctly yet, and for me groundwork is the key to achieve that.
Back to the lunge and on the good days a hack. Winter was on the doorstep, so safety first.
GETTING THROUGH THE WINTER IN ONE PIECE
She improved bit by bit, day by day. But as in the school we seemed to go forward, in the stable things went the other way. She changed from being quite sociable in the stable to not at all. The sight of a halter turned her into a vicious little monkey. Added magnesium to her food didn’t help either.
It seemed to me a territorial issue and I realized I had to tread carefully. I decided to keep her halter on in the stable with a long lead-rope over her back and that sorted the going into the stable to get your horse. Also, when I opened the door to put her bowl of hard-food in I kept it behind my back until she pricked her ears.
And I had to accept there was one hell of a lot more homework to do. This was a very intelligent horse with many tricks up her sleeve who was not sure yet I was boss.
If we got through the winter lunging and hacking in one piece, spring would be the time to start the next phase.
INTO THE FIELD ON THE LONG-REINS
Other than the stable issue there was the canter which was still so on the forehand that I completely understood why she didn’t like it much. So, we went in the fields on the long-reins. We needed space and believe me, I ran as much as she cantered. But it worked. Gradually I saw a change in her attitude, and yes, also in the stable she gradually turned into a happy horse again. By February the canter started to look like something, and happy snorts started to appear in the trot.
So, soon after, when the weather was on our side, I decided it was time to get back on top in the school and yes, this time I was right. We had done enough groundwork to continue on top. Very short sessions in just walk and trot to get used to each other with a pleasant hack afterwards and then, one day, just with the voice command, there was the canter, without any hesitation and surprisingly comfortable. I can tell you, after that session I went to the kitchen, made myself a cup of coffee and laughed out loud. I was that excited.
FORWARD, LIGHT, HAPPY, SNORTING
In June I had to stop working her because of a tendon issue in my hand. The flies were bad, so pretty good timing, hey?
Last week I took Pixel back in the school for the first time again. On the lunge, just to see where we had ended up. I was not ready yet to take everything for granted. One wrong move and months of effort can be wasted. She was great. Forward, light, happy, snorting.
The next day she stood patiently to let me on board. And this is now normal. The last two weeks have been bliss with every single session filled with small improvements.
I now have a horse that stands like a normal horse should do to let me on board. The riding area has become her happy place where she is keen to improve every day with her little ears pricked and the odd happy snort. With a canter which has become so comfortable that we both like it nearly better than the trot.
So, I think we’re in for a good autumn.
And I am so chuffed. I’ve got a horse and Pixel’s got a life!
Picture: Pixel below Pinokkio having a leisurely time in the garden
TWO LEGS, ON AND OFF THE WALL AND A BROOM: MAARTEN VAN STEK IS COMING BACK!
WET, WET, WET AND SOME SNOW
Today is the first day of spring and a proper one! After the sodden land finally drying up from a wet autumn all the way through a long and even wetter winter, we were surprised by Arctic blizzards with tons of snow on the first day of March. Can it get any crazier? Yes, March was not done with us yet, we were in for another blast. I admire how most of my pupils and the rest of the horse world have managed to keep going. I wholeheartedly agree: it has not been easy!
It was therefore a welcome break to sit indoors and watch Maarten van Stek at work on my visit to Holland in January. Very uplifting and motivating and as always I came home with some fresh and inovative ideas. Particularly Maarten's novel way of explaining complex things which makes it all of a sudden very 'uncomplex'.
I watched Maarten ride two horses. His wonderful William, who was then just coming back in the groove after a break and has recently done his first Inter II again; inching closer by the day to their Grand Prix debut.
After that Maarten rode a lovely horse belonging to an equally lovely rider who injured her back, which was another joy to watch. Talking to Feline confirmed something that I already knew. How lucky we are to have the chance to get Maarten across the pond for a few days!
Not only is Maarten in great demand as an instructor, he also has recently started to work together with the young and very talented rider Steve van der Woude. It looks like their aspirations to form a solid team which is capable of training horses of all ages and levels in a most thoughtful and caring way.Their philosophy is all about 'slow is good', rather than overlooking what the horse is actually able to give at that moment in its life.
This is also a great opportunity for owners whose horses are recovering from an injury through a thoroughly designed and personalized rehabilitation program.
TWO LEGS, ON THE WALL AND OFF THE WALL...AND A BROOM!
The lesson with Bianca Zinger and her enthusiastic Friesian horse Kay was right up my alley. Not long before that I had had an exchange with Maarten about the often forgotten importance of the outside leg for a blog I wanted to write for Dutch equine magazine the 'Hoefslag'.
'Two legs' and 'on the wall, off the wall' were the expressions that were repeated regularly. With so much information available on social media, often banging on about riding from the inside leg into the outside rein, it is extremely important to be reminded that we also need the outside leg. For too many riders riding on the inside track is challenging because the emphasis is on the inside leg with the fence doing the rest and that is not helpful in the slightest to achieve a balanced horse which moves on 'line zero', another one of Maarten's great expressions.
The broom in order to explain the balance of the horse was so typically inventive for his way of explaining; a real 'Maarten special' and one I hope he will use on his next visit.
MAARTEN IS COMING IN MAY
The day ended with a lovely meal (thank you, Marc!) and so it was time to make a plan. The clinics in the two previous years have been a huge success and so I am only too pleased to organize the third one. The dates are Wednesday May 9th, Thursday May 10th and Saturday May 12th. £80 per session. Again in the lovely indoor school at Derowennek near Bodmin, owned by Vic Hunt. You can contact me, Liz Barclay, through this website or through Messenger.
Maarten already put up a post last month and so we are filling up fast!
Top picture: Maarten with William doing a demo on the big Event Festival in Holland a beautiful sunny day.
Bottom: Bianca Zinger with Indalo-Keimpe, in short Kay.
ADRAIN JAMES BRANNELLY: HORSEMAN, HUMBLE AND HONEST
FINALLY, A CHANCE TO BUILD A TINY BRIDGE
Just over two months ago I had a phone call. Audry Cole, who occasionally has lessons with me, had had a nasty fall of her young horse, breaking three ribs and her collar bone. Her show-jump trainer was now taking the horse to a local event for her. Could he please book a dressage lesson.
Hah! This could be the moment I'd been waiting for. Maybe I could build a tiny little bridge...
Always keen to see a new face and only a few days later I was in an extremely good mood and heading towards Plymouth.
Adrain was the name of the young Irishman who was on his way back from a small hack before his lesson. Audrey had told me about him before. This young guy was one of the riders for Monty Roberts, also teaching show-jumping. Audrey told me he had helped her terrifically with her jumping and she took it upon herself to organize the odd clinic for him.
I have blogged before that when I hear any name connected to some form of Natural Horsemanship I do feel slightly uncomfortable and not because I am against these techniques, but because in the past I have been pushed around a bit by the odd trainer who advocates these techniques as the one and only way and so we, 'conventional trainers' are therefore seen as narrow-minded and stupid. This was extremely insulting and humiliating.
But I had heard from several people what a nice chap he was so I was determined to make it into a fun and productive lesson in the hope that afterwards, with a cup of tea, I would have the chance to air myself, of course giving Adrain the chance to air himself, if he felt the need.
On arrival, Audrey told me with a mischievous grin on her face that he had even polished his boots for me. Very naughty, two middle-aged women making fun of this young Irishman.
Adrain arrived, we shook hands and went to work. I did not need long to see that this was a confident and experienced horseman with a secure jumping seat. Only, he had let his stirrups down for his dressage lesson, so I asked him to put them up again. He was sitting on a horse which had unseated his rider in a most unkind manner so I wanted Adrain to be in his own natural balance. I think he was pleasantly surprised.
A STICK AND A POOPER SCOOPER
Funny, because this was a dressage lesson and I a new face, I suspect Adrain rode more conservative than he would possibly do when training on his own. The grey was pretty much behind the leg, lazy actually. For me that is a sign for trouble with a young horse, especially at an event where all kinds of things happen -speaker systems, another horse racing by, quad bikes, you name it- an apparently lazy young horse can often unleash some bottled- up energy to let rip at those moments with the rider not expecting it.
Soon I was bouncing around banging with a stick on the pooper scooper, anything I could find to make some noise. Great to have rider on top with good 'stickability', if needed. And, yes, the young grey woke up nicely, although I felt a total fool and not exactly a dignified dressage trainer.
But this is not a blog about how the lesson went. No, this is about how great it was to work with a horseman from, let's just call it 'the other side' for ease, who was wide open and 100% approachable. I had hoped for that very much but, to be honest, had not dared to expect as much.
I mentioned earlier how frustrating it was to be pigeonholed and pushed into a small box with the word 'narrow-minded dressage trainer' on it. As a matter of fact, I am very proud that I am the opposite of narrow-minded and have always wanted to learn more, still do, if it helps my training and the well-being of the horses I work with.
This was going to be the moment I hoped to be allowed out of the box and show we can do this differently.
FEET TO THE FIRE
I can not tell you how delighted I was when Adrain wanted to book another lesson. I had totally assumed it was a one-off. And that while I had certainly put his feet to the fire. After the lesson, in Audrey's kitchen, having listened patiently to my frustrations, his answer was clear, 'I do not belong to anyone. I do also work for Monty Roberts, from whom I've learned a lot, and otherwise I am open-minded to anything that can add to me becoming a better horseman.' Point taken...
Before temporarily flying off to the next job, Adrain has had four or five sessions with me and the guy is like a sponge, able to take in new information very quickly and deal with it. It is clear dressage is not his first love (it doesn't have to be, as far as I'm concerned), but he wants to learn for the sake of learning, not only to win and I like that very much.
I have fully understood that he is open-minded to anything that can enrich him as a horseman. Also, that he sticks to a horse like glue, but when he does go, he rolls and gets back on. Handy for me and very relaxing during our lessons.
I have made an effort to watch him work with some of his clients and seen the result. He is great with people and clever at helping everyone to feel more confident with their horses, often using a good bit of Irish humour, cheeky grin included.
‘THERE IS NO QUICK FIX’
So, yes, I am impressed; Adrain is honest, respectful and above all, humble. And in my experience that is not always the case with the new young 'alternative pro's' which the Natural Horsemanship world has produced.
In our chat in Audrey's kitchen we soon agreed that most problems with horses occur because of too much food and not enough work. And when further along in our conversation Adrain said, 'there is no quick fix', it was like music to my ears. Especially when during some of the demonstrations these days the audience is given the misconception that anything can be achieved in no time at all.
So...I am happy and very satisfied. From what I've seen so far, I can back Adrain's methods. I can trust, that when a horse which is started or corrected by Adrain and continues its education with me, this horse has been treated with honest respect and will therefore be respectful and trusting of the human race, which makes my job much more straightforward.
If I run across a complication which needs a young and capable body on top, I know who to call. Very important to me, Adrain proved to be open to my advice and suggestions which occasionally were very far from his bed. But he tried and felt the result.
That is because Adrain James Brannely is a true horseman in heart and soul, to be taken seriously. First little bridge built; mission accomplished!
Top: Adrain with the lovely Ollie
Middle: on the big and powerful horse of Sally Jane
Bottom: wondering what the joke is? During a demonstration with Monty Roberts
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.
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.
The eye of the horse
Even if you don't feel like reading my whole blog, would you please read the last paragraph?
When I was very young I so hated that I did not (yet) understand the eye of my pony Ansje. When I would look at our family dog I would always know how it felt, but the eyes of little Ansje always seemed to look the same. I was probably no more than eight or nine at the time and, other than a swift brush, preferred to spend my time on top.
It was only when I started to learn how to lunge that I had the chance to see whether I could spot the change in the eye and even then it was difficult to study it for longer spells of time. There is so much going on and to watch. Also, the whole idea is NOT to look into the horse's eye when it is sufficiently forward; only when it needs to go more forward or is crawling closer, inside the desired lunging distance, eye contact should be made. It is their language and it works.
Of course trainers and instructors get lots of chances to study the eye during their lessons and it was only then that I properly learned the language of the eye of the horse, because it really is a language; giving so much information about how to approach the different phases of the lesson.
The 'sleepy' eye I don't like at all. It tends to go together with the backward horse and when I don't know the horse that well yet, I prefer to lunge it first because it often will nap when told to get on with the job. I don't use side-reins at that point because I will want to be able to chase the horse around if necessary and in that situation the last thing I want is to put pressure on the mouth. Some naps are fairly innocent but to be on the safe side it is so much better to get the respect from the ground and transfer it to on-top.
The younger horse very often looks in a kind of wishful-thinking way out of the arena when passing the entrance. It knows where it came from and still needs to learn to accept that a little bit of work has never hurt anybody. As soon as it realizes that it is safe in the school and is starting to enjoy the work, it will stop doing that and turn into the eye I like so very much, a relaxed and 'soft' eye. The same softness us riders should have when we're 'in the zone'.
The soft eye is an eye which is able to concentrate without over-focusing. In her book 'Centered Riding' Sally Swift explains this so very well for the riders. But it is really no different for the horse.
Have you ever watched the eye of a show-jumper change during a jumping round? There is complete focus and a bit of fire in the eye when approaching the fence, but over the jump the eye goes soft again. The same for a horse going x-country. Kate Rowe's horse Harry shows this really well in this picture.
Only very few times I have seen the eye turn deep black. They were always very tricky characters combined with a very tight poll. It is a strange and scary sight, as if the eye has died and certainly time to take the pressure off immediately, if not to be avoided all together. I call it the 'ice-cream headache, my way of visualizing it.
Some years ago I went with a pupil-friend to see a horse. She had not long before lost her old horse and had not really got over it. I only had to take one look at the horse and my immediate thought was: 'I do hope this horse suits her because she will want it.' It had exactly the same eye as her old horse and it was love at first sight.
And then there is the tired eye. Very important for the trainer to recognize: it is probably time to call it a day and certainly not the time to start something new. When sessions finish at the right moment, the horse pleasantly tired but still having plenty left for an energetic last trot on a long rein; that is such a great feeling for both horse and rider.
The eye of the horse: don't underestimate it. It tells you about its character, it tells you about its mood and all of this is important information we do not want to miss out on.
Sadly, the idea for this blog is because of this picture I saw on Facebook of a horse in a lorry. An eye that tells us it doesn't know what's next, tired but still trying to stay alert. The picture came from the website of the charity 'World Horse Welfare' about the terrible practice of long-distance horse transports across Europe, only to be slaughtered and probably not in the best-run slaughterhouses, either.
It is one of the charities I support, rather than giving Christmas presents. Because I love horses, not just my own horse. Hopefully you do, too...
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.
Jane Gregory's (nee Bredin) words: music to my ears
Olympic dressage rider Jane Gregory (nee Bredin), who sadly passed away far too young in 2011, came to do a demonstration at Duchy College in Cornwall in the early nineties. She had brought not only her top horse Cupido who was chosen for the Olympics in Atlanta, but also a chirpy 15.2 palomino, a Connemara cross who had a phenomenal passage.
I remember her words well, 'Some horses are born as a dressage horse, others are made into one.'
Pinokkio is his name, a 7 year-old piebald 15 hand tinker /thoroughbred cross. His head a bit big, not much of a neck yet and a bottom at least one inch higher than his whithers. I met him some three years ago as he came to live with me for a while with his young owner who wanted to work with horses. She ended up not liking him because she saw him trip over and fall down several times in the field as a youngster and didn't particularly like the thought of eventing a horse with a tendency to end up on his face; and I don't blame her.
He was so kind that I just could not help myself but secretly fall in love with him, however, I wasn't looking for a horse, certainly not that kind. So, because he was so quiet he ended up being sold to an inexperienced rider. To cut a long story short, it didn't work out because of lack of interest and he ended up with me...again... now permanently.
I didn't even dare to tell my pupils. Most of them are competitive and striving for higher levels. But still, Pinokkio and I started our routine of one lunging session, two hacks, one session over poles and one flatwork session a week, gradually ticking the boxes of improving rhythm, impulse and the beginning of self-carriage. It was very tricky at times with a few falls involved which I don't wish to remember, but... the stumble gradually disappeared with the trot growing bigger and the canter less 'discombobulated'.
Years ago, at a dinner party with a nice selection of Cornish horsewomen, show-jumper Claire Rushworth said to me that she could not understand how I was always motivated to train others without competing myself. It was before I moved here permanently and although I was already training in Cornwall, I was not able to compete for that very reason. This never bothered me. Training others and riding many different horses has always been, and still is, sufficient to keep me focused and interested in my job.
Of course I can't deny that, once I'd settled down permanently, I didn't have a blast competing my home-bred mare Marie -also quite basic- into PSG, but when she had to be retired after an injury I knew enough was enough.
So why take on an undersized ugly duckling with a stumble? Two reasons: first of all, I had promised his first young owner I would make sure he would end up in the right hands. Second of all, I was yet again drawn like a magnet to the challenge of proving one more time that a common little horse with not great conformation but a heart of gold and super work ethic is worth far more than an extravagant mover with top breeding and therefore possibly a complex personality; certainly for the hobby rider.
It is gradually becoming a real issue. The horses bred for dressage are becoming more extreme,and hotter and with that not always easy for the general rider. The other problem is that these horses are just so unbelievably expensive with their dad's sperm having cost the same as one used to buy the whole horse for some twenty years ago!
Often I question myself on why I teach. How much ego is involved? Of course I want my pupils to do well and of course I feel pride. But somewhere in me is a little voice which tells me to stick to the rule that every horse deserves decent care which includes decent training. And that is where I so often see the small miracles happen. And I know from experience that, what seems to be a common horse, but wants to work, can surpass anybody's expectations big time.
Thank you, Jane…your words were music to my ears!
Top Picture: Chill time, Jane with her horse Cupido.
Below: Pinokkio having a play in the river.
You can order my book 'THE FARMER, THE COAL MERCHANT, THE BAKER...' at YouCaxton or Amazon
Competition riding and keeping your world small
For as long as I competed, it was never difficult to perform consistently and in line with my level of training. The longer I have been teaching, the longer I realize what an incredible gift this was. Yes, I would be nervous, but it was always possible to turn this into an advantage, rather than the whole thing forcing me to go to pieces. The only time I ever I didn't get it together was, when driving over to the competition venue, I said to my friend groom, 'I'm not nervous at all, wonder what that will do.' Well, I found out, two mediocre tests! So back to a bunch of healthy nerves.
Over the years I have occasionally come across riders who ride super during their lessons but at shows it all goes basically to pot. This can easily become a rut, the rider becoming more nervous with every next outing with the horse becoming increasingly unsettled and upset as a response.
What do you do as a trainer? This can not be solved during lessons as that is when rider and horse obviously feel within their comfort zone even when stretched to a higher level. The advice to go to clinics with different trainers, with several horses in a group and possibly some people watching from the side at establishments where the shows are being organized is a start. This does add another kind of pressure, but still, it's pressure and that is what an insecure rider has to learn to deal with. At the same time the horse gets to see the premises more often and can be taught without the competition stress that this place is not as scary as it thought it was.
Also, the effort a trainer can make to join the rider at competitions occasionally helps. In particular when it turns out that this rider has a problem giving the horse clear aids which the horse is able to rely on in order to feel safe during the warm-up when there are more horses in the arena.
A typical example happened not too long ago when I joined a pupil for her very first affiliated show at Novice level. In the warm-up her horse did a not at all pleasant one-eighty on its hind legs which resulted into some negative comments from the side, such as 'oh, oh,naughty horse' and more. I pulled the rider up to explain how to avoid this behaviour which was only caused by fear for a collision from the horse's point of view. In this case the horse is less flexible around the right leg. When confronted with an approaching horse when on the right rein, having to pass left to left, the rider had to make an extra effort to flex the horse's neck into a shoulder-fore to the right in order to give the horse the secure feeling that it was not on collision course. Problem solved and a potentially disastrous day turned into a second place with 70 %!
Another time I watched a new-ish pupil warming up in just about half the tempo they normally worked in at home. This had been a pattern and one could literally see the horse gradually turning into a bag of nerves with the result a test with several shies resulting into rider and horse leaving the arena very unhappy.
These patterns are not easy to break because, how can the rider become more confident if the horse does not yet know that from now on the pattern has changed and despite the rider doing a better job still feels threatened in competition environments with old ghosts lurking in corners?
It takes time and patience to overcome this lack of confidence but it is certainly possible. The key to this is for the rider to learn and understand how to during the test make their world 'small' as far as what they are doing together. You can make your world small by training yourself not to worry about what 'others' think or say and to think 100% 'inside the arena'; literally, physically and emotionally. You make yourself just as private is if you were in your own arena not worrying about the pussy-cat of the neighbours sitting in the bushes. For a shying horse this means riding it into a productive shoulder-fore during the test. Productive meaning that it has result. If that means the judge comments on it, so be it. Rather a comment on the horse's neck and head being slightly in than losing lots of marks for shying. The horse is now not physically confronted with what's going on outside and starts thinking inside, which is where it is meant to happen. Eventually the horse will grow more confident through this technique and the shying will stop also when starting to ride straighter, promise!
Not to dwell on what has gone wrong during the test but thinking forward at all times. This is equally as important and gives the horse a proper chance. It takes practice to consistently prepare the horse for what's to come when it is not a natural gift and the only way to practice is to learn to do it...at competitions.
However, I do want to point a finger. This involves fellow competitors and others watching. Every one competing probably loves their horse and has worked incredibly hard to get there. They have only one goal, which is to show their beloved animal in the best possible way and there is not a better feeling than when someone tells you you've got a lovely horse. Equally there is no worse feeling than when there is a bit of 'oh, oh, naughty horse' going on. It really hurts and is not necessary. Let's be good sports and think twice before we comment. It will really help those suffering from insecurity to up their game.
Finally, being a bit of a 'hippie', I quite like the the thought of a mantra, a simple repeated sentence which expresses what you aspire and want to achieve. This you do regularly and gradually it becomes part of you and you start to believe it. Honestly, for me it worked!
Top Picture: Jen Unwin on her lovely Flora. Jen is a typical example of how to 'rise to the occasion' and able to use her nerves to her advantage.
Bottom: Rachel Wood who had a difficult start with her home bred Jazz but changed it around showing great determination and is now regularly placed at Novice level with consistent scores between 65 and 70%.
When will the showing world grow up
We're getting very close to Rio and probably every horse owner is hoping for the repeat of 4 years ago when the English dressage team finally made it and beat the countries who used to win it. For a trainer living in Cornwall, but born and bred in Holland, this was received with mixed feelings, however, I've lived here long enough to defend the English team when my Dutch friends reacted a tad prickly.
When I moved here just over thirty years ago, dressage was still in its early development and often down here I was asked to teach on a slope which the rider considered flat. How things have changed. If you've ever flown from Newquay and tried to count the outdoor schools below (I have...) you'll understand what I mean.
The level of understanding has catapulted. Not only the dressage divas but also the more serious event riders arrive these days well-prepared for their dressage test at their competitions.
One of the regularly reoccurring subjects in the dressage world is the use of the double bridle. To be more specific: when to start using it and, at least as important,how to use it. My personal philosophy has always been that there is no point to try a double unless you can do it in a snaffle. Some purists want to push even further and abandon the double bridle completely, considering at cruel altogether. I still think the correct, and I mean CORRECT, use of the double bridle is a beautiful thing to watch and an art in itself.
At our weekly riding club lessons in Holland we used to have to ride with two reins on our snaffle bit and were taught from the very beginning how to hold the reins as if it was a double, with the curb rein sufficiently loose so the contact would always be on the bradoon. What an innocent way to learn, because if you got it wrong the horse would not pay the price. By the time the horse was ready for the double the rider would be able to handle the change with confidence.
When I moved here, I nearly fell over backwards when I met the showing world. All these lovely young horses in doubles ridden with the curb as tight as the bradoon! Often behind the bit motoring around as if there was no tomorrow.
So I felt I was on a mission and when any pupil of mine wanted to show I would warn them I would never teach them again if they put a double in their horse's mouth. Generally they succumbed and generally the judge would make a comment about it. Generally these horses also went up in their placings after the judge rode them.
Why, oh why, can the showing world not take more notice of what, after England is now fully submerged in dressage, should be common knowledge? I so would love for my pupils with their young horses to enter showing classes. I still think it is such a wonderful education tool for a young horse to learn to cope with a competitive environment. It is so much less scary for them to be able to perform in a group rather than on their own at a dressage show.
More than anything, though, I would love for all those wonderful show horses to start their early life bitted in a fair way. Showing world, please grow up!
Picture: Martyn Humphrey on his lovely mare Damerisk kept her in a snaffle for a long time and see where they are now! A blog about Martyn you can find on my website on the 23rd of April, 2015.
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
I have a problem...
I've got a problem. It's been festering ever since Monty Roberts became famous. I have nothing against Monty Roberts, neither against Pat Parelli or our newest star Tristan Tucker. As a matter of fact, when Tristan made his extremely funny statement on horseback at the dressage convention, I thought: 'ah, a breath of fresh air and finally we stop thinking in boxes'. Someone who is trying to bridge these strange and unnecessary gaps between a bunch of narrow-minded groups of equine enthusiasts.
When this whole new era of natural horsemanship started, together with the sudden appearance of classic dressage as a completely new discovery (how did that happen?), I was immediately attacked for being a narrow-minded dressage freak by some of the new addicts wearing cowboy hats. I was speechless. I've worked hard from a very young age to understand the horse, day-in, day-out, in riding schools, jumping yards, eventing yards and, yes, also dressage yards and somehow was better at dressage and developed myself in this to a higher level; still able now, to go back to the beginning and helping people with their young horses, working through their growing-up problems.
When I watched Monty Roberts for the first time, I thought: 'Hey, I recognize this. I do that on the lunge when I'm working a young horse', of course didn't dear to say this out loud in order not to upset any of his followers. We, 'conventional trainers' whispered it to one another, but no more than that.
I guess, some of us were partly to blame for this. In the horse world there are some very good trainers, unfortunately also equipped with a short fuse. This hasn't helped the situation.
But what drives me completely around the bend, is that inexperienced horse lovers are given the misconception that they can learn how to back and train a horse with a couple of courses, worse, a course you can buy on the internet!
A prime example is a horse which lived in my yard as a youngster, belonging to a pupil of mine. She decided to back him through join-up. All that went fine, but I never doubted that in the first place, as she had tremendous feel for a horse and was already a fairly experienced rider. Then the trouble started: every time this horse had a tiny little issue, something that would go away if virtually ignored, a teething problem so to speak, she would do yet another join-up with him. It became a sport, as the owner started to become addicted to her horse dropping its head and wanting to follow her anywhere. I saw this horse shrivel up and die inside. In the end he did not like people any more.
These methods are fine in the right hands and they are not as novel as many think they are. What I want to get across desperately, is, that good and honest horsemanship can only be achieved through hours and hours, days and days, years and years of spending time with horses and not through a quick course here and there.
I am worried, as I see more depressed and lame horses, caused by the irresponsible way of passing on knowledge, which is misunderstood and therefore abused by innocent horse lovers, who desperately want to learn but sadly are sucked into cult-thinking.
I'm also worried that those same horse lovers are charged a fortune, often by people who call themselves qualified, after having done some 'qualifying courses' by 'qualified' trainers in a certain method.
A few examples: a newish pupil calls to cancel her lesson because she had a visit from a horse whisperer who had been whispered to that the horse wanted a break because of a skin irritation on its back. I had already told this pupil during her first lesson to wash her numnah as everything was filthy! She paid this lady 80 pounds.
A licensed 'qualified natural horseman' was found to leave a problem horse without bedding, food or water in order to get some results in the round pen.
WHO IS CHECKING ON THESE PEOPLE???
The art of horsemanship is centuries old and it takes years, other than some talent, a decent equine education and endless patience, to become a competent trainer and instructor. There, I rest my case.
Picture: training a young horse for the Mounted Police when horse training was horse training, sirens on and lights flashing.
Part of the ride
It all began some twenty years ago. My great friend Sjakkie would turn up regularly with first only little Joscelyn, and a few years later her little baby-brother Petroc, as well. I loved them both equally as much, but of course could not help but notice Jos's face lighting up when she saw my horses.
Fergie, my broodmare, was extremely safe and it didn't take any convincing for Jos to be thrown up on top. 'Hoho, it's windy up here.' I shall never forget that moment. First of all, my nickname, how do they make it up! Second, how funny but also how true. She was now some five feet higher up than she'd ever been and the world felt and looked so very different.
Jos was only four years-old when, all by herself, she would help me getting my mare Marie bandaged up. At the time my back was not good, hence the fact I would first put a bandage at each leg before crawling around on hands and knees in order to put them on. Jos would make sure they were in exactly the right place, also occasionally undoing one in order to roll it back up. I always made sure to have one handy in my pocket so as not to make her feel bad. Inevitably she started at the wrong end.
Next thing was, we had to find her a little old trustworthy pony and, yes, there happened to be one next door. Thirty years old, going strong and man, could this thing bite when I was off-guard wandering along the Cornish lanes with Jos happily pulling the wild flowers out of the hedgerow, chatting away for dear life. The pony was called Sunny, but Jos didn't think much of this and changed it all by herself into 'Sunshine Georgia'.
Time moved on and the family moved to Holland, in order to be closer to family. Wringford became their second home for much of the summer holidays and Jos, having regular lessons at her local riding school, was able to ride my mare Marie and the very kind livery horse Frost.
And now, well, here we are; with the great help of Neel Schakel-van Klei of riding school 'Schakel' in Ameide, Joscelyn is now not only officially assistant-instructor but also very close to being able to compete Medium on Zorro, a smart bay gelding belonging to the riding school.
Congratulations, Jos, and I've loved being part of the ride!
Pictures: Joscelyn Weychan, on my broodmare Fergie, with 'Sunshine Georgia' and recently with Zorro
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: 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.
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!
Back in my little corner with Claire Daniels
Last week, when I sat down in the corner of the riding area in Bossiney, with Claire Daniels already on her home-bred Euro, a slightly unsettling thought entered my head. As much as I had been looking forward to being here again, Claire was now older than I was, when I first taught her all those many years ago and that made me feel old. I decided to shake that thought as quickly as it had arrived in order to concentrate on Claire and Euro, who was certainly full of it.
His mum, Bailey, gave Claire great fun during the years she evented her. I remember seeing them together for the first time after Claire had just bought her for not much money from David Stevens and thought: he missed the point here, this is a bloody good horse. But then Claire always did have a good eye for a horse, something she has in common with her husband Conker. They have bought many a project together over the years and done well.
As I was enjoying the playful Euro, at the same time trying to help Claire with keeping him straight and focused, I could not help but thinking about Drigan, as we called Bodrigan in daily life.
I bred her out of an Irish Draught type mare and with the national hunt sire Sousa as her dad. As she seemed to have a talent for jumping and certainly not for dressage, whereas her full sister Marie was the opposite, I had asked Claire to continue her training as I had reached my limit. Drigan was jumping sweetly with a natural feel, but it was time for the fences to go up.
I shall never forget the face of her dad Terry Dangar when he stood watching expectantly for Drigan to hop off the lorry. He liked an elegant horse and this Drigan was not. Terry actually looked disgusted. I decided not to say anything and left her there with the confidence Terry would soon be happy. One week later the phone rang. They could not believe the power of Drigan's jump. The rest is history.
Euro and Claire worked on their trot-canter transition in order to settle down the canter more as he gets a little overexcited which makes him change behind. He'd had quite a bit of time off and needed for the basics to be settled without getting bored. Not an easy task but I have always trusted Claire's endless patience.
Next was Paso, a small grey Dutch horse, a little shy but with a magnificent canter and an equally good jump. An interesting project as he never liked the right leg at all and Claire had to use every bit of imagination in order to get him to not turn himself into a banana when she would touch him. This had already improved a lot, so we were able to even start the counter canter with him. Funny, as he knew the flying change naturally. Hence the counter canter needed for Claire to be very clean and clear with her aids. He did great and it was time for coffee.
Whether it was the chestnut Charlie, Feathers from Tregembo with whom she competed into Advanced eventing, or all those many others we worked with together, I never got bored watching Claire ride. Devoted, stern but playful and always in a good mood. When many years ago I heard some young chap call her with the nickname 'Smiler' I thought that to be so true.
So, here we are again, gone full circle, the two kids Rio and Tia in school and us back doing what we love so much: me watching and Claire riding.
Top picture: Bodrigan after a few months with Claire Daniels
Bottom: Euro and Claire
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.
From problem horse to gentleman
Today I visited Paddy for a lunging session. Paddy is a 17 year-old, Irish Draught cross and as his owner has a full-time job, I see him twice a week, once for a lunging session and once for a lesson, unless it is too windy. In that case the lesson tends to be a lunging session, as well.
I've known Paddy for nearly ten years. He was bought to hack and for light schooling. When I saw him work the first time I could see he more or less knew all the tricks, but also that he was not supple, very lazy and with a tendency to shy when pushed a little more. This work pattern was established at his previous home as he had not been here long and his new owner had only hacked him as she did not have a huge amount of experience doing flatwork.
As we started the regular lessons it became obvious to me that this horse was virtually beyond ring sour. He was brainwashed and so depressed that he couldn't even be bothered to nap. He would go on the vertical but with a neck so straight and horizontal that he was blocking his own shoulder completely. Whether it was the chicken or the egg, I do not know, but he tended to move on three tracks, as well. This looked more and more like a problem horse.
The first couple of years we kept it simple, pole work; lunging without side reins and just about going forward and hacking. Once every two weeks we met up for a flatwork session. gradually he was cheering up a bit, but he did have an issue about softening the poll and was still blocking his shoulder far too much. Also, although he would appear lazy on the lunge, if you dared to touch him with the lunging whip he would have a fit to the point of nearly falling over.
I love a challenge and that was a good thing in this case. A major accident on the road turned Paddy into one frightened, but not very little, bunny. It was impossible for his owner, pregnant at the time, to cope with this and so we had to make a plan.
I decided on lunging twice a week and schooling once a week. As Paddy lived out most of the time that could possibly work. The only thing that bothered me was the fact that he had been brainwashed before and I worried about him becoming ring sour again. This was not the case, as a matter of fact the opposite. He became more enthusiastic, gradually got used to the lunging whip and when schooled, started to love his lateral work and we managed to move from a perfect simple change onto a flying change!
By now his owner was ready to ride again and things went well for a time, until disaster hit again. This time a tendon injury, having played too rough when out in the field. After sufficient rest he was put to work again, however, there was more lameness, on different legs without really being able to pinpoint exactly what was going on. By then a vicious circle was established as Paddy was virtually spending most of his time indoors for worry of more injuries, which made him go even more crazy when he did go out. In the end between owner, farrier and trainer the decision was made that Paddy was going to go to his field and time would tell.
After several months Paddy seemed sound again. I suggested that I would be able to set up a remedial lunging plan and was fairly confident that this would be successful.
A few years on and we are still going strong. It blew a gale today, but Paddy did not mind. We've moved from lunging without side reins to fixed draw reins running through the bit rings behind the poll, to only one side rein on his stiffer side and on to the current situation: side reins attached higher to the saddle so if he wants to, he is able to go above the bit. However, he is so happy and forward, that he is up in the shoulder but round and softer in the poll than ever, looking for a light contact on the side reins and also my hand. The lunging whip is not needed other than the odd small flick under his belly, in order to remind him to use his core strength. I barely need my voice, it's all body language.
Paddy's owner rode him the other day and, although occasionally he will try to fix his eyes on some fictive ghost at least a mile away, the two of them did a solid bit of well-balanced work with some shoulder-inns, great simple changes, finishing up with his party piece, his trot extensions.
Woaw, I was so proud. This horse is having fun and it looks like 17 year-old Paddy might just be on the way to finally becoming a gentleman heading for a sound retirement!
MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A SOUND NEW YEAR!!
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.
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!
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!
From Claire Rushworth to Liz Barclay and back
Some years ago show-jump trainer Claire Rushworth sent me one of her pupils as she could not work out what to do next in order to improve the performance of both horse and rider any more. I had seen this lady jump at the odd competition so knew her her issues more or less.
I decided to take the jumps away but leave a course of poles on the ground. I had not seen this done before but it seemed to me that this way we could make a start with getting a rhythm and suitable tempo, work on corners and also straightness when approaching the the poles without having to worry about keeping jumps upright. It worked miracles as we were now able to dissect the individual problems without either horse or rider becoming weary of poles crashing left, right and center. We did about four sessions of this before returning to Claire.
We worked on not dipping the inside shoulder into, over and out of the jump, on when to start pushing the new inside leg on more forward when 'jumping' a pole on a diagonal and wanting a lead change. Turned out that this was on one rein about three strides before the actual jump as this horse was stiffer on the side he had to change towards. He therefore needed the message earlier in order to straighten himself so he could re-bend in the new direction.
Every time he became too exuberant we made a halt, let him think about it for the time needed and initially had to walk him as well in order to settle him down before we were able to pick up a controlled collected canter straight away from the halt. When changing leads on a straight line still going in the same direction, so without a message to change, he was also made to halt and then corrected back to the appropriate canter lead in a similar way.
In the first session I pulled the rider up on not walking sufficiently slow and controlled with a long but round and deep outline. Secondly, we worked on making a controlled walk-canter transition with the rider not dipping the inside shoulder and the horse being more alert.
Today I started this same pattern with a pupil event rider with some show-jump issues. Again I surprised not only my pupil but also myself with the effectiveness of this approach. The horse started initially with all the mistakes he normally makes over jumps. Too bold, changing when not asked, not changing when asked and running through the outside shoulder after the 'jump'. First we sorted the walk tempo and outline, then the canter transition, then just around on the same rein going large with one pole on each long side aiming for perfect straightness of horse and rider, making halt-walk- canter and eventually halt-canter transitions to correct unwanted lead changes and a too bold a canter.
When we finished, having done now a full circuit of poles on the long side and short side, a change across the diagonal over a pole and proceeding with another full circuit on the other rein the rider told me this:" I finally felt he was light and we could have gone on in that canter forever. I know if we can work like this between the jumps it will make such a difference.
This horse has always had a tendency to either go too fast and subsequently too flat over the jumps, or, when slowed down to back off being behind the leg. Also, he would make up all kinds of lead changes anywhere at any time.
Sometimes it is not possible to remember everything at once and what to do when. So brake it up and decide what comes first in order to improve your jumping. This method helps you to work on your riding between the jump's and is always a good way to start breaking your bad habits.
One last tip, I myself learnt an awful lot from watching top show-jump riders working their horses in the warm-up area. It nearly looks like everything they do is slow-motion. They walk slow, but track up well and go into this very slow canter without the rider seemingly shifting a muscle. They know they need this control- from the leg into their hand and engagement and impulse without becoming stressed or excited- in order to be able to get through a course which inevitably will cause plenty of excitement with the odd surprise and imbalance.
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!
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.
Princess Anne and sailing
Although still not terribly cold, winter has definitely brought all the wet and the dark which makes it not so motivating to get tacked up and face up to the elements with a straight back and relaxed seat and all else needed in order to improve our dressage achievements. Often a hack between the hedgerows is a better option as trying to soften your horse on both reins in horizontal rain is a near impossible task. Also, when working full time one is limited to the weekends which adds another challenge to horse training.
Some years ago a pupil of mine had a horrific accident when hacking out on a crisp and sunny winters day. It was triggered of by the sudden appearance of some ferociously barking dogs storming for the horses legs. However, it did not help that the horse was more frisky than usual, not only because of the freezing temperatures but also because of a forecast for quite a major gale.
I am convinced of the fact that horses still have an instinctive sense of what is to come and are far more alert to the point of sharp when there is rough weather around the corner. If they were living in the wild they would have to look for shelter so naturally more adrenaline kicks in which creates the energy needed to take on that task.
Also, twilight seems to frighten them more so as that would be when the animals of prey would be out to look for their meals. In the winter when I am teaching in artificially lit outdoor arena's I prefer to teach when it is completely dark if the lessons are later on in the day for that very reason.
Twilight is not the time to be hacking around the dark lanes either as for cars it is virtually impossible to identify what is coming towards them. No matter how fluorescent we make ourselves, it is a confusing picture for drivers and doesn't necessarily cause the correct response.
All this needs to be taken into consideration before we decide to hop on our horse during winter time. Unless your horse lives out with possibly a shelter the restriction of their stable for most of the time might influence their temperament. You have to know your horse before you decide to go for a hack on a Saturday when your horse has not worked through the week and is stabled as well. Not just for the chances of getting yourself in trouble but also think of its muscles and realise that your horses condition will deteriorate when not worked or out regularly.
Clipped horses should be covered up until the rider gets on and maybe even be worked with a quarter sheet. The cold will make them restless and stiff. Anybody who refuses to accept that should be made to brush their horse in their underpants and see what that feels like.
Lunging or hacking are sometimes better options than training on top as rough weather can really turn a horse of the job which it otherwise likes doing.
And last but not least, additional feeding needs to be sensible. Horses get fit from riding, not from high energy feeds. The best hay or sufficiently dried haylage is often enough for the horse limited to weekend riding. Overfeeding is just as dangerous as underfeeding. The main thing is to assess your horse's condition daily in order to pick up on the small changes. For the well-being and safety of both of you!
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.
A happy horse is more fun to ride
Initially, when I started to venture into the English equine world I was surprised by the difference in attitude of horsemen and women in the various branches of the sport. It may have changed by now in Holland as well, but some 30 to 40 years ago everybody was through riding club jumping and doing dressage affiliated on the same day at the same outdoor premise. Only indoors was split up but you would still meet with your same chums.
In England everything was separate and also jumping riders seemed to be a very different kettle of fish from dressage riders and event riders seemed to be a different species all together. There was of course the occasional all-rounder, good or no-good at everything, but that was only sporadic.
What did strike me though, that particularly in dressage the word discipline was taken so very literal. It was nearly as if the horse had to feel it was made to do it rather than getting some enjoyment out of itself.
This was completely averse my own training philosophy. Having worked with many difficult horses, some having given up on trying to be helpful at all, I had to learn early on that you have to make the horse believe that it wants to do it because it likes what it is doing. Only then can it turn into a discipline. And even then we can maintain the fun-bit.
So, here is a message to those who aspire dressage: vary the work with sufficient hacking and pole-work and certainly do not brainwash.
Also a message to the show-jump riders: flatwork is an important and necessary part of your training in order for your horse to enjoy its jumping so much more.
And last but not least, the event riders; do not treat your dressage as a necessary evil in order to get a decent score for your test. Your horse does not 'hate' dressage and neither do you, you just don't know it, yet!
I am the first one to admit I am not brave.
When I am in a precarious situation with a horse I tend to forget I am not brave and deal with it accordingly, but if you asked me to go and sit on a horse that rears I would actually refuse.
When working with a problem horse I like to gather information by doing plenty of groundwork in order to make a training plan that works for the horse and me. I am very capable to admit if it is not my cup of tea and suggest someone trustworthy who is more of a cowboy and has a bit more youthful flexibility.
Having lived in England now for nearly thirty years I have come to the conclusion that, as the equine sport in this country all started with the hunting and racing (preferably over fences), it is a little bit embarrassing to admit that you are not exactly a daredevil. This is a country where people have jumped five-bar gates since they could barely walk in of course terrible weather conditions (as hunting takes place in autumn and winter, just like rugby: very muddy!).
I did go hunting a few times. I was helping a neighbor, now friend, with some of her horses. She, together with her husband, occasionally imported some horses from Ireland, and I did some schooling for them. She very kindly invited me a few times and I must say, being very lucky with the weather, I had a lovely time..... But I saw some people do things that to Dutch dressage-me looked breathtakingly scary. Also going through bogs on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall closely packed behind one another as the rider in front knew where the hard ground was made me feel highly uncomfortable. At some point my friend and I talked about what to do when things start to go a bit wrong. "Oh well" she said. "You can always bail out." "Bail out??" "Yes, bail out. Just jump of when you think it gets too dangerous." It had honestly never occurred to me to jump of a horse. I personally always tried to stay on top for as long as I possibly could.
So, there's the difference. It is about how you grew up and in Holland we tend to spend more time in an arena. Also, the countryside by nature does not lend itself to be as wild and adventurous as the rolling countryside of good old England allows one to be. When teaching the North Cornwall Pony Club some years ago, I walked a stiff x-country course with a mother and her 10 year-old daughter. Mothers advice was:`if in doubt, kick'.
Of course things are gradually changing. The Warmblood horse made its entry quite a few years ago and England is now, especially since the Olympics and the World Championships, very much on the dressage map, to say the least! Dressage is now a well-respected, even trendy, sport, rather than something only the `wimps' used to do.
Riding dressage is actually not for the fainthearted. I could have told you that in the beginning. The higher the level of the dressage horse, the fitter, the more gymnastic it becomes and being cheeky can turn into some unusual movements, hence the bucking-strap seen occasionally.
As a trainer I occasionally deal with pupils who plain and simply got scared of their own horse. A sudden change in the weather, a bit too much intensive schooling or simply a surprise from an aggressive dog when out hacking can cause some serious and unexpected trouble.
It is a fine line to put this fear out in the open without making the situation worse. It is not shameful to be scared. It is a terrible feeling when you realize that you have stopped breathing and your heart is literally in your throat. It is also important for the rider to understand that the horse has probably lost its confidence as well, so it's both ways. Sometimes you can not solve this by yourself and you need to have a trainer you can trust, who is able to push just enough so that the comfort zone is stretched again little by little without over-standing the mark.
Trainer and rider have to assess together what caused it and from there make a plan. Firstly, is it a health issue. After that, is more groundwork needed, when ring sourness could be the case is hacking the answer or do both horse and rider need a proper brake all together in order to make a fresh start. Be ready for it to be a fairly slow process with ups and downs But the key is to never feel you have to do anything you do not want to do. The horse will feel this and respond accordingly. When you have achieved only the smallest little bit of something be very pleased, not just with yourself but tell your horse how much you appreciate this little step in the right direction. It will soon turn in a happy snort.
Not too long ago a rider told me: `since I have had these problems I have learned that I need to know much more of the psychology of the horse'. Well done!
Only occasionally it is a personality clash and the rider simply has got the wrong horse. Be brave and admit it in time so this horse still has a future rather than being too damaged to be passed on.
For both horse and rider this is a very lonely place and as fellow riders we should never underestimate the harm we can do with the wrong remark or a 'bit of a look'. We probably have all been there at some time or another and if you haven't, well, you have just been very lucky.
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!
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.
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!
Your horse as a body-builder
Your horse as a body builder
The process of guiding your horse through its career is not always a smooth one. We are learning as the horse is learning so mistakes will be made. My philosophy has always been: as long as we are not purposely torturing our horse and doing everything we can to overcome the obstacles, our horses will forgive us.
In the wild horses are busy looking for food, water, shade or shelter and can’t always find it. It is freedom but tough. Predators are another serious issue. When our horse lives with us it has none of those problems (I hope!). Fresh water every day, a field shelter or a stable with plenty of bedding and probably more food than necessary. In order to have that cushy life they have to do one hour of work for us six days a week, with the odd uncomfortable moment because we get it wrong.
One of the things we must take quite seriously, though, is muscle soreness. We ourselves complain, after a serious flatwork session or even a long old hack, about barely being able to walk. We often forget that our horse will probably feel the same. Our horse needs to be treated like an athlete, just like for example a body-builder.
It is very important to be able to detect whether the horse is muscle sore and find out why. Is it because of the correct exercises and it will settle down with a long walk, have you overdone it and need more days with light work to overcome the stiffness or is it a balance problem between you and your horse which needs attention?
As the horse moves from being an inexperienced and undeveloped youngster to the higher levels dressage, show-jumping, eventing or any other equine sport the changes in its body are enormous. Here are two interesting examples.
Years ago, when fairly inexperienced but really keen, I was visiting a top dressage yard. As I was wandering around the stables when most horses were having a nap after their midday feed they all seemed to be asleep kind of `on the bit’ but in a completely relaxed state. So far all the horses I had seen asleep were dangling their head way down. By the time I produced my first horse to Prix St. Georges she slept the same way. I realised, it is all muscle!
Not too long ago I was lunging a very good horse for a client. I have lunged him once a week for just over a year, as he was a bit of a challenge for his owner, at times. At the end of the session I asked her to come and have a look at the side reins. I wanted to show her on the horse the difference in length of the side reins between now and a year ago: three inches. Also they now were attached nearly on the withers. During that process he has developed a keen interest in his job instead of pulling tricks to avoid a bit of sweat. We monitored this development like hawks.
A sore horse just does not enjoy its work and also, it is cruel and can create serious injuries.
Nursing the soul of your friend: the horse , part 2
Horse and bicycle
Remember your first experience on your little bike? It seemed impossible to keep it upright. Because the instinct of our horse tells him to not fall over, it can give us a false sense of balance, something a bike can not do for us. A wrong balance is also a balance. Often riders want to girth up very tight so the saddle stays in the middle. It is probably already an indication that the rider is not `in the middle’. This is very uncomfortable for the horse, and makes it impossible to be balanced and therefore go on the bit correctly. First things first. During his clinics top trainer Conrad Schumacher, from Germany, kept emphasizing the importance of lunging lessons for riders. It should not be considered boring or a waste of money to have lessons `just’ to improve your seat and balance. It is the foundation of the physical relationship between you and your horse, which gives you both a chance to enjoy the process of improvement.
The comparison of horse and bike has another side to it which is at least as important. Our horse feels; our horse feels loved or appreciated or our horse feels rejected or misunderstood. This can make him very insecure. Just like a child he will react by rebelling, or worse, become depressed. It is your responsibility to not let this happen. You want a partnership, not a tortured slave.
Draw-reins and lunging whip
It is not easy to find a trainer who is not only capable but also suits your personality. There are many competent and knowledgeable trainers but some are very business like, some are very patient, others have a sense of humour that is not yours. It is your money and your choice. Once you have found someone that you and your horse are happy with and trust, show some commitment, and do not change too often. You and your horse will benefit from a more long term relationship with your trainer, working through the dips together and enjoying the highs. At the end of the day it is your choice, though, and if your gut feeling tells you it is not working, be brave and discuss it.
There is always the odd witch-doctor about. Worse, a qualified trainer who still believes in draw reins in a pair of unpractised hands and a lunging whip under the tail. Be aware and dare to say: no, I am not willing to do this to my horse. And always keep on nursing the soul of your friend, the horse. He will pay you back, big time.
Next week: problems during dressage tests
Nursing the body and soul of our friend: the horse, part 1
Enjoy the challenge
When the dressage or jumping `bug’ has settled nicely under our skin, we can’t wait to be able to do that pirouette or have the fastest time around our first jump-of. Soon we will find out we have entered the world of one of the most time consuming and often frustrating hobby’s, possible. Time consuming: yes, but frustrating: no. Replace the word frustrating with the word challenge and that will redefine your mental approach. Consider it a little miracle every time it works and let your horse know how much you value his desire to try and please you. Only then the much desired partnership will flourish.
If horses could say `ouch’ we would be ashamed of ourselves. Also, if our horse was a bicycle it would probably fall over.
This obviously needs explaining. First the `ouch’ bit. Nearly every rider has, at some point during his or her career, dealt with, what seemed to be, a disobedient horse. Of course there are horses with very little or no work ethic. However, unfortunately, most horses are the victim of their misunderstanding riders who are desperately and endlessly repeating all kinds of exercises, which put an enormous amount of unnecessary strain on body and soul of our beloved animal. Especially at the time of access to the internet and all kinds of DVD’s available it makes so much more sense to not do all that unnecessary mileage, but instead first learn by watching capable and experienced riders perform all those beautiful movements or jump those tricky grids the correct way. A doctor in training will have to watch his mentor many times before he can take the scalpel in his own hand in order to take your appendix out.
Professional trainers are the first ones to admit that they improved also their own skills and not just those of their pupils because they are continually watching and therefore learning.
It is a shame that so much horse `disobedience’ is interpreted as not genuine behaviour with all measures taken. We have to accept that by limiting our own learning process we limit the fun we are meant to have with our horse, and sometimes even their lifespan.
Preparation for tomorrow
Part of the problem is of course our own insecurity during the learning process of horse training. It is a fine line between blaming yourself and doing something positive about it and getting frustrated (ego? What ego!). When this situation occurs it really works to make halt, take a deep breath, and walk on a long rein while thinking about where it went wrong, which more often than not will give the answer why it went wrong. If it can’t be solved today, think of something you can do well, together, and finish up on that. Anything better than a last minute fight which ruins the whole session. Dr. Reiner Klimke, possibly our best dressage rider, ever, made some fantastic training video’s in the eighties. After every single session he finished by saying: `And that... was a good preparation for tomorrow.’
It is extremely important for neither you or your horse to be out of your comfort zone for too long. On the other hand, if you never push yourself you will not improve. By spending the time with your horse listening and trying to understand its behaviour, rather than imposing unnecessary pressure you will learn to understand how long your horse can be out of its comfort zone without panicking. As soon as you have learnt that, you will know for how long and how much pressure you can put on with a productive result.
This is really all about the horse learning to trust submission. Submission is scary when, as a horse, you feel you can not trust and depend on your rider to keep you safe. This is when ill behaviour, which generally starts with looking for ghosts outside the arena, begins. If not taken seriously this can turn into napping, rearing, you name it. And there you have the ring sour horse.
Rather sow the seed than brainwash
Muscle memory is a word that pops up everywhere, these days. Whether learning a new song at choir practice or having treatment after an injury. Also horses have muscle memory .
It is important to realize when your horse is secure at the level you are working at, the time has come to give him a new little challenge. Nothing worse than a bored horse as impulse disappears or, just as with too much submission, shying occurs, depending on your horse’s character.
Often, though, the tendency is to wait too long with something new. However, once brave enough to take that little step into the deep, the only way forward seems to be endless repetition until both rider and horse are overheated and exhausted . Recognize yourself? Don’t worry, it’s never too late to change.
When the time has come for something new, plan it at the end of a shortish but productive session so the horse is mentally in a good place. Not too tired and able to absorb a little more. Think through the process of how to approach your horse with the new exercise, not just from the technical point of view, but also in a way that suits its character best. Setting it up so the horse becomes interested rather than scared out of its wits is the road to success. It does not matter if initially the exercise is not executed to perfection: just sow the seed, and after one or two attempts it is time for both of you to leave it be and think about it. For him it means that next time he will recognize the exercise without already having learnt to hate it. For you, if it went well, that glorious feeling of achievement and if it didn’t go so well time to work through your frustrations without your horse and think how to do it differently next time.
In most riding arena's will be a stack of jumping poles somewhere. My worst scenario is that there are jumps all over the place as it restricts me sometimes in my teaching. A few poles nearby come in handy with younger horses or horses that are not that interested in flatwork.
The strange thing is, that whenever the jumps are stacked outside the arena, for whatever reason they seem to always be at the far end.
Imagine you are a young horse and you are going to have your first ridden experience in an arena. As soon as you come in there is a ghost lurking in the distance. you know where you just came from and where it felt safe. So that is where you want to go back to. This is exactly how often in the very beginning a pattern with `a ghost in the corner' is set.
Horses are animals of flight and in an arena most of them are secretly dreaming of their stable or their field. In my experience the whole issue of `the ghost at the far end' changes a great deal when for starters the jumps are living near the entrance and the end of the arena is made as inviting as possible. As a trainer, when I realize there is an issue with shying, I position myself near the spot where it occurs -more often than not it happens at the same spot- and talk the horse through it. Also, that is where it will be given a brake, a pet and sometimes a treat and also where the rider and I discuss what we are doing and why we are doing what, during the session. This way the area where the shying kept occurring will hopefully turn into a good place to relax a bit.
Do not... get upset or angry when your horse irritates you no end with shying at the same place, again and again. It will make it worse. There are other ways and better ways. One with a person on the ground in the right place, as discussed above. And for the more experienced horse and rider there is a more technical approach. But that is for another time.
Welcome to my blog
As a horse lover and dressage trainer I have watched, sat on, lunged, in short, studied horses and riders for over thirty five years and loved every minute of it. It is what makes me tick. Through those years many issues keep on reoccurring. What interests me particularly is, no matter what anybody’s aim is with their horse it should always be fair and with the best interest of the horse in mind. So, if you love your horse and you are a rider, please keep reading
I am aiming to give you solid and clear information so you will understand your horse and its potential problems better. If this improves your competition results, well, that is a bonus. For me competition was never the drive to train horses, although I did compete, really only to check whether I was where I wanted to be, and thought I was, in my training. Some people need competitions to stay motivated. No matter what your drive is, at the end of the day you will get most out of your horse when it feels good, in its spare time and its work. No romance will blossom unless your horse is on your side. It is all about partnership and not about ego trip.
I hope you will enjoy and appreciate my effort to give you a regular tip so check the website and if you have questions, send me an e-mail and I will try to use it as a future topic.
About Liz Barclay
Her love for horses together with her dedication made her into the trainer and dressage rider she is, today. She is versatile and inventive and likes a challenge; whether it is a technical training question, a confidence issue or a problem involving the management of the horse or pony.
THE FARMER, THE COAL MERCHANT, THE BAKER...
My book 'THE FARMER, THE COAL MERCHANT, THE BAKER...' with the subtitle 'A Personal Impression of the Development of the Gelderland Horse World' has been received with more enthusiasm than I possibly could have hoped for. Click here to contact me and I will send you a copy. £7.50 + postage, or click here to order from Amazon.