A tricky spring for rugs: on... or off?
One of the joys of my job is, that I get to drive through the beautiful Cornish countryside and especially in this time of the year that is such a treat. Although it took some doing, with such a very slow and cold spring, yet again the fields are greener than anywhere else in the world, and livestock is munching away as if there's no tomorrow. I like to check out those fields and of course specifically the ones with horses and/or ponies in it. It surprises and even upsets me when I see some of them still rugged up in the same blanket they've been wearing for all those long winter months on a lovely warm day.
Only a few weeks ago it suddenly got much warmer and drier at times. Now that I do all my training away from home and I only have one lovely little project in the field, a hardy 15.1 Tinker x thoroughbred who likes it outside far better than in a stable, I ponder every morning and evening what to do with his rug: on...or off. I admit, it is not easy this spring with the wet coming and going and the odd very cold night. Also the midges are playing havoc. But the temperatures are definitely up and for example the previous Sunday it was glorious sunshine all day. On a day like that I can not wait to pull that rug of, as, not only do I know that my horse loves that freedom, a roll and a run without any restriction, but I myself love watching my horse enjoying that freedom.
I know, I know, there's a downside. Mud caked all over if the ground is still wet and having to brush if the rug has to go back on again. But, honestly, isn't that why we've got a horse? Spending time with them with a brush in our hand is well-spent time, a time to connect with your horse, a time where you do the the work for once instead of him (or her).
In professional yards it is relatively easy. There is nearly always someone there to manage any situation. Most competition horses have limited time out as they are worked nearly every day, whereas others have switched by now and are out by night instead of by day and can wear a summer rug at night without any risk of overheating. But then, we have great weather forecasts these days, so it is possible for the general horse owner to make a safe decision in the morning before going to work.
A rug on a hot, sunny day can be as wrong as no rug during rough weather. Even if you don't see any immediate problem, involuntary sweating, because of basically being wrapped up in plastic, can cause skin irritation and summer colds. This is the time of year where a bit of rain during a night with temperatures in double figures, or a dry cold night, only helps your horse to not get too soft. Horses which are not worked regularly, need this rug-less time in order to move their coat, get some oxygen on their skin and enjoy that freedom of which they have lost already so very much.
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Maarten van Stek, worth waiting for!
'You've done a good job, because you haven't killed the spirit of your horse... don't correct, it's too late, tell your horse what to do... now I can see what you are doing, now I can't, now I can... stay on your dotted line; line zero'. Anybody who has lessons With Maarten van Stek will recognize his inventive use of language when teaching. For three whole days I was allowed to sit next to him when he took over the helm and instructed some of my pupils and, honestly, not only was it music to my ears, it gave me so much more.
When, through a fluke, Maarten and I connected last year, I could hardly believe my ears when he offered to come and teach my pupils. This meant more to me than he could even begin to understand. Not only was this a chance for some riders to work with a teacher of a caliber of which there are only very few, but also, I would be able to learn so much for myself. It had the potential to more than double the result. My pupils would grow, their horses would grow and because I would grow, we would be able to continue that process in a clearer and cleaner way.
It was hard work for all of us. Riders, who had looked forward to this so very much had to relax before they could work to their capability. I know from my own experience that this is not always easy and takes some self-discipline. Maarten had a lot on his plate, other than having to get into the groove of speaking English, he felt very much the responsibility to, one, make sure every rider would finish up with something which would enable them to work on and not get into trouble next week through a misunderstanding; two, help me to understand and put it in the right context so I would be able to add to my own teaching skills; three, make and keep it fun for all. His skill in doing so was showing not only his incredible professionalism as a trainer, but also his wonderful human approach and his ability to get 'under the skin'. My hard work was to keep my mouth shut for one whole hour at a time and all who know me, also know that this is not a natural thing for me to do, but I think I managed that quite well. Other than that I had to digest everything, watch and listen and store at the same time.
At the start of most lessons Maarten talked about the spirit and the instinct of the horse. The spirit which should stay alive always and how the rider should use the fact that the horse is an animal of flight in a positive way. Based on the principle that the horse is only able to rely on his instinct and can only respond in a positive way when told what to do, instead of being told all the time what not to do, gave riders the opportunity to ride more quiet and subsequently opened the door to ride with a little more feel. I am a sucker for getting the basics right before getting into the more tricky bits and this was emphasized in every lesson yet again, which will help me to stick to this most important rule in the future even better.
The biggest and reoccurring problem for every rider is to keep the horse truly for the leg and accept that you can not 'fix' the mouth of a horse. Maarten explained this so brilliantly by saying if you compared the different parts of the rider to the toolbox of a carpenter, then the legs might be a hammer and the seat a pair of pliers, body-parts which can be used to create or repair something. But the hands can only be used as a level. A level is not a tool you can fix something with as it can only check something. So the hands can only check what the rest of the body-parts create, no more than that!
The very clear explanation why the canter-trot transition is so difficult to get soft, round and uphill, was new to me and such a revelation. The knowledge that canter has one diagonal set of legs moving, trot two and walk none, was there. However, it never occurred to me to connect that with the fact that, for this very reason, in order for the horse to go to trot he has to add a second diagonal, which is an effort. Far more of an effort to go from canter to walk. As a rider I am able to deal with this instinctively, but as a trainer I can now explain it and do a much better job helping my pupils to improve this transition.
All my pupils are committed, hard workers who, other than care for their horses really well, take their training serious and want to do it in an honest way. It was inevitable that these lessons, where riders were pushed to another level, it would bring the odd frustration to the surface. As riders we have to be tough on ourselves. In order to train on days the weather is rotten or your old injuries hurt you have to push yourself often. But you can also be too tough and our biggest enemy is perfectionism. Maarten was direct in a kind and patient way, which made every single rider know how much he cares.
So now, after three full days, Maarten has left and we go back to the drawing-board. But with vigorous and revived spirits and in the hope that, if he wants to visit again for a repeat, we can show him we listened, we worked and we learned.
I saw Maarten ride and teach some thirty-five years ago. Some of the things he said then stayed with me forever and I felt sad I was not in the position to have lessons at that time with someone that kind and competent. But we've made up for that now and it was certainly worth waiting for. Maarten, thank you, from the bottom of my heart for everything you gave these past days. It was tons more than I could have hoped for!
Sadly it was not possible, because of time restrictions, to fit everyone in, but if we are lucky there will be another time!
Top picture: Maarten van Stek competing William
Bottom: A tired but delighted Rachel Wood with Jazz looking for well-deserved polo's in Maarten's pocket
Middle: Claire Daniels on Euro in full swing, with Maarten
There are two more blogs on Maarten van Stek. 'Perseverance and more perseverance' from the 6th of November, 2014.'An afternoon or two with Maarten van Stek' from the 1st of March, 2016.
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Corners, so very useful
Years ago, when I finally had convinced, a then very novice, Martyn Humphprey to get the rake out and tidy up the corners, which lacked some serious TLC, he told me at the beginning of the next lesson: 'I just can't believe how long the short side is, all of a sudden'. That is so true, but not just the short side, coming on to the long side it is now so much easier to start the diagonal in time, or to set up a lateral movement.
The longer I teach, the more it has become clear to me that most riders, who are bringing on a young horse for the first time, are so very pleased when their horse accepts the bend around the inside leg, that they do not dare, or just not think of the possibility, to ride straight into the corner and only turn last minute, keeping the horse in a much straighter frame. Often the horse needs the outside leg on the girth to help it to turn the shoulder quicker. The corner might look like a quarter of a ten meter circle in the earlier development of your horse's career, but it needs to outgrow that as the level of training goes up.
My second blog, from the 28th of May in 2014, I wrote just after having judged at Lanhydrock Horse Trials. One of the pet hates for a judge is when there is no difference to be seen between the corners and the twenty meter circles at A and C. It all seems to happen on the same track. The corners are too 'round' and the circles too square. What a shame, so many easy to make points down the drain!
Learning to ride corners takes time and it is first of all a riders effort. They need to be approached with a similar determination and focus as if there was a jump there. (This, by the way is true for all movements.) It is a gradual process and it can not be achieved overnight. It needs to be practiced in walk first to find out how tight you can make it. When trying it in trot it helps to initially make a transition to walk, still straight, as near the first corner at the beginning of the short side, as possible, proceeding to trot on as soon as the corner is finished trying the second corner in trot. Remember, it is a gradual process, your horse shouldn't get the feeling you're trying to knock it over!
So, first you teach your horse to bend, only to have to take the bend out of it again. This basically will go on all the way through your and your horse's dressage career. And the more lateral work you do, the more you always will have to check whether you can still go straight. Inside track and nicely ridden 'square' corners are an exercise never to be forgotten or underestimated.
One more piece of advice: never try to make your corners tighter at a competition than you manage at home. If anything, it works the other way around, especially for the younger or less experienced horse, different terrain and lack of concentration sometimes make it impossible for your horse to give 100 percent.
Well, let's see what the corners look like at Lanhydrock this year!
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About Liz Barclay
Her love for horses together with her dedication made her into the trainer and dressage rider she is, today. She is versatile and inventive and likes a challenge; whether it is a technical training question, a confidence issue or a problem involving the management of the horse or pony.
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