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.
My time in the States: from boats to horses
In the late eighties I had a great chance to spend some time in the States and work on some very smart sailing yachts, delivering to the Virgin Islands, the Bahamas and further north as well; Nova Scotia being the best trip of all. It was an adventurous time, however, life without horses turned out to be impossible, so...
...One day, a good friend, who understood my problem, drove me to the freshly started Mounted Police Unit in Portsmouth.
Well, I ended up at the right place at the right time. There was only one policeman who was a rider, two who were bravely hanging in there and one who had only just joined the patrol and was green as grass. There were four horses, of which one had turned out to take to the job well, two which were getting there and one poor gelding who lived as far back in the stable as possible being terrified of people.
This was something these guys could not help; the horse had only just been donated to them. But, on the other hand, it was not something they knew how to handle. What a coincidence! I fell in love with Jesse right there and then. He was a young and stunning looking Saddlebred and only God knows what happened to him before he was brought to this unit. I had my work cut out for me and took some time off the boats to fully immerse myself into this great project.
Sitting lessons for the novice riders, schooling the other horses and playing patiently with Jesse on a piece of wasteland on the edge of the biggest naval yard of the States, with the mighty aircraft carriers in the background; the odd pack of wild dogs roaming around. How crazy can life get!
Jesse soon proved that he had a heart of gold and within a couple of months we were on the road, teaching him to be comfortable in city traffic and learning to stand perfectly still next to a car, close enough to put a parking ticket under the windshield wipers, but of course without scraping the car with the stirrup. He had to learn to relax next to a police car with lights and sirens full-on and walk over unusual surfaces, with me firing some sort of a fake-gun. Not easy, sometimes a bit scary, but what fun!
Sadly, Jesse turned out to be too much for the novice riders the policemen really were at that stage and he was moved on. I would like to hope I gave him a chance for new and good life. By then it was time for me to move on,as well. The unit was on its feet, by now a well-liked sight on the streets of Portsmouth and my 'McCloud time' over. I'd had a call from a lady in Smithfield who, together with her husband, ran a very smart private dressage yard. I had been there once before with a friend to watch at a clinic and drooled at the sight of some lovely horses and of course more my type than those at the mounted police.
Yolanda asked if I would come and see her young horse Sonny, who had had a hock injury early on in his life, had been consistently sound in the field for quite a while but, since being backed, not quite on the lunge or ridden. The vets could not do anymore for him. Yolanda was virtually in tears when we met because I literally was her last hope. No pressure!
I put him on the lunge and watched. I guess muscle-memory is possibly the term now used. When put under a little bit of pressure Sonny seemed worried to use his previously injured hind leg, so I used my gut-feeling and only activated this particular hind leg with the lunging whip every step, again...and again... and again. And he went sound within minutes. My gut feeling had been right: he just did not know anymore how to use this leg correctly and only had to be reminded. As soon as he realized it did not hurt he was absolutely fine!
Of course I was worried about whether I did the right thing, it may have been Sonny's adrenaline kicking in, but then again I knew I was his last chance, literally. Of course we had to wait how he would be the next day. Years before I was asked to work a horse with what was thought a nap. After 'not a great time' she gave in and worked actually lovely. The next day she was lame. It turned out to be the navicular bone and that was her reason for napping. At least the owner knew she could not be ridden anymore and she did not have to go through another horrid session, but I was not proud of myself.
The next day Sonny only in the very beginning drug his hind just slightly, but already so much less than in the first session. After that he was sound and stayed sound during his entire career into PSG. It was the turning point for my career, because from then on I spent most days at Terra Ceia Farm with Donald and Yolanda Williamson. Yolanda not only gave me the chance to work with her older PSG horse Boomer, but together we had such a blast producing Sonny. It is where I did my first flying changes and canter pirouettes. There were some lovely livery horses with very nice owners who were also keen to have lessons and often it was followed by a great lunch or dinner. We watched endless training video's, from Reiner Klimke to some eccentric South American guy who taught piaffe in the most unusual way. Still to this day use his method for the horse with no natural ability. It is uncomplicated, kind and always works!
And then the time had come to settle somewhere permanently. I missed Cornwall and my little farm terribly. Contact with Terra Ceia Farm faded but every so often I looked at the picture of Yolanda and Sonny in the hallway and wondered how they were getting on. Well, thank you Facebook, after years of having lost touch we're posting, messaging and liking as if there's no tomorrow.
Donald and Yolanda achieved great things. They believed in what they did and always worked their tails off. They bred some fantastic horses and of course their home-bred Dutch stallion Staccato by Idocus out of their beautiful mare Domfee was the highlight and an achievement they so very much deserved!
Now, guess what? The grandfather of Idocus is Voltaire. This is when life goes in circles and Yolanda will be able to read in my book 'THE FARMER, THE COAL MERCHANT, THE BAKER...' how Voltaire ended up in the Netherlands with Henk Nijhof. It is a lovely story, amongst many others. I know there are many of her friends with an interest Dutch Warmbloods and I hope they also will enjoy reading about how the Gelderland horse evolved into the able competition horse of today, changing the life of many Dutchmen who were brave enough to embark upon the challenging adventure of horse breeding as a job.
Next week a small group of us will drive to the big equestrian happening Olympia, with plenty of tissues in our pockets. It is time to say goodbye to Valegro... his last big performance. Again Voltaire as a great-grandfather, with Amor and Pericles in his bloodlines, as well. KWPN stallions from the past, but never to be forgotten...
'THE FARMER, THE COAL MERCHANT, THE BAKER...' for sale at Amazon. Price: $10. Now also available as eBook! Price: $4.32
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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.