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24Dec 14

Strictly Come Dancing and dressage to music

Yes, I have watched every single one of the Strictly Come Dancing shows and loved it. Yes, it is more than glittery and the tango's are not as passionate as they should be, the jokes are not very funny but to watch non-dancers grow into dancers and with that the physical and emotional struggle is a very exciting thing to watch. The partakers are called celebrities these days which adds to the show in more than just the fact that we know them from telly, radio, You Tube or downloaded on our iphone. We can watch people we generally look up to, as their work is connected to some form of stardom, turn into humble, to the point of insecure, human beings, dying for a bit of approval from the four judges. Maybe I am naive but it seems to me that their enthusiasm and commitment to stay in it as long as possible is real, just as their disappointments and occasional tears are.

Judge Craig is the tough one who pulls the technique apart before he allows his emotions to come in. Judge Bruno occasionally falls from his chair as his exuberance gets the better of him. The other two judges Darcey and Len are seated in the middle which also represents their comments, kind with a hint of criticism.

Last night in the final Craig at some point compared Frankie to a horse and it did not sound complimentary; Frankie very quick-witted whinnied back at him.

This week English dressage-star Charlotte Dujardin together with her beautiful Valegro piaffed, passaged and pirouetted themselves into another record-braking first position at Olympia. I wonder when the next discussion about dressage judges will come to explosion. Has it got worse since the music was added to Grand Prix dressage or is that my imagination? At the moment the freestyle entered the competitive dressage world a whole new set of emotions arrived with it. Until then judges might be somewhat more partial to a certain type of horse but it was all about technique and the quality of the expected movements. Music is so personal and has made dressage at times a bit of a tear-jerking  experience, to put it bluntly.

Judges are people, yes, with a certain competence, but still people. Many years ago it was riders Christine Stuckelberger and Reiner Klimke who made my hart beat faster (still without music), then Anky von Grunsven and Isabell Werth, Edward Gal was the first one to make me sob and now  Charlotte is having a similar effect. It is not possible to keep some form of personal emotion out of the freestyle as that is the whole idea. That is what has made dressage so popular, also for people who have never done it and/or will never do it themselves. 

I so hope that the politics are never going to ruin the sport. Only then is it possible for the difference between scores of judges such as Strictly judges Craig and Bruno to keep each other in balance and for dressage riders to be able to live with the fact that at the end of the day it can never be as clean and clear as show-jumping.  



12Dec 14

Winter blues

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! 



So very true! Love the photo, is that 'Marie'?
liz Read, 19th December 2014

03Dec 14

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.






Hi Liz, very interesting, thank you for answering my question in more detail. In hindsight, I also wish that I had asked Robert the question, would have loved to hear his thoughts. Cheers Sharon
Sharon Mitchell, 23rd December 2014

Dressage Training

Dressage training needs variety, including pole work

Dressage Training

Dressage training needs variety, including pole work

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.


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.