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24Sep 14

Riders meet: relaxation and timing is everything

On Sunday I organized a little gathering for a few of my pupils who for various reasons have not been able to compete regularly.

They each had to pick a test which was bordering their comfort-zone. It had to include all the movements they have trained with their horse so far which would be a tad higher than their competition level of the moment.

They were each given one and a half hours. One hour to warm up, if needed; a set time to do the test; a little time for comments from the trainer and fellow riders and for the horse to have a break; finally, if needed some more time to work on some of the issues and another try for the test. 

The first horse, a big stalwart event horse at novice level with the potential to do an intermediate one day, has had a back injury, is now fit again and came in like a tank. Often event horses are a `bit full of themselves' at their first outing and he certainly was. In a situation like that it is virtually impossible to plan a warm-up: when the horse starts to settle it will then immediately feel tired. Also, it is a fine line between trying to get rid of some of the surplus energy with some canterwork and winding up the horse even more. Starting in a trot and picking the right moment for some canterwork generally is the best option, occasionally checking whether the horse is ready to settle in the walk. as soon as he is ready for that it is important to not over-practice the movements as the energy level will now drop fast. Instead, save the energy, trust your homework and during the test help your horse rather than the horse having to help you.

The chosen test included shoulder-in, counter canter and simple changes. When his official time was up the bay gelding was still `chomping one the bit' and therefore everything looked hurried and unfinished, although it got better as the test went on, the canterwork in particular. A sign of a mature and thoughtful rider as she herself did not get flustered and so was giving a calming signal through her seat bones to the horse. Nevertheless, she was disappointed. After a little brake she worked on more relaxation and did the test again. He was a little too tired to do a perfect one but the regularity of the trot and the canter had improved, the shoulder-ins looked more finished, the simple changes were more accurate and the mediums in canter were surprisingly spot-on. The rider had hoped for more but gave the horse a good foundation for the next competition, which was the whole purpose of this day in the first place.

The next horse arrived in similar fashion if not even more excited. The rider wisely decided to lunge him first. I know this horse has a `funny button' and although getting better,can buck and occasionally rear. It took only minutes for him to literally go as quiet as a lam and the rider showed a beautiful warm-up. Especially the trotwork looked soft and was beautifully balanced. The problem was the horse was threatening to peak before its time. so the rider added some breaks which helped to slow the process down.

The horse is still young and has only just started to compete, however, the rider bravely choose a novice test. Apart from the odd toss with its head, the horse did a very acceptable test. The upward toss the trainer blamed on the fact that the horse only recently started to go on the bit correctly and does not have a strong poll. It is an effort to carry your own head around when it lives a foot or two in front of the rest of your body at the best of times.  Give this horse a few months with the right exercises and he will have outgrown this problem. 

After the short break we worked on the walk, which was too sluggish, also the free walk on a long rein. By using the whip a little more assertively the rider was able to sit stiller and not use too much leg. The horse looked more focused and energetic in its free walk. Also this horse was a little tired during the next test but the walk certainly had improved and yet another settled horse with a good experience under its belt left the arena.

Also the horse of our host started on the lunge. This striking skewbald gelding can be sharp and a little nappy at the beginning of a session at times, particularly when he has had an easy week. Strange, as once he gets going he seems to love his work. This horse has a travel issue but fortunately its rider loves her training and, although she hopes to compete again, does not allow herself to have any sleepless nights over it. In the meantime they have become very comfortable with the lateral work and also the counter canter and simple changes are part of his `vocabulary'.

The rider added some shoulder-ins to an otherwise suitable elementary test and she really did herself proud. Although she got lost at the very beginning she recovered and rode a test which was not quite consistent but had some glorious work in it. Trainer and rider were pleased the horse did not bolt when a spontaneous little applause came from the side.Trainer and riders all felt this horse did not have to do the test again. After having shown their half-passes rider and horse went back to their stable both looking satisfied.

During lunch we discussed the morning and all agreed on the fact that, during the warm-up, there is no point trying to ride some of the movements of your test until the horse feels relaxed in its environment. Once competing at a regular basis a pattern will establish itself which the rider can then start to depend on.

Timing is everything. Also leaving home in time! I always add an extra hour in order to leave with plenty of time for a relaxed drive rather than be late and get stressed. Your horse will respond accordingly.

When the horse takes too long to relax at a competition, try lunging before you leave. 

Finally, some horses need longer to warm-up than others. Listen to your horse in order to give it what it needs, as only then it will be able to give back what you want so very much.



10Sep 14

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!   



03Sep 14

The lift

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.     


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.