Blog posts tagged 'opinion'
BACK TO THE PAST WITH TWO REINS ON THE SNAFFLE
OLYMPIC RIDER AND COACH TINEKE BARTELS REMEMBERS…
Some time ago, Dutch Olympic rider and coach Tineke Bartels remembered in an article the time we used to have to ride with two reins on the snaffle as a preparation for riding with the double bridle. It was standard at the riding clubs when I was growing up.
That is how it was done. We were not allowed a double bridle until we were able to keep these two reins at the correct length as if they were connected to the bradoon and the curb.
It is a very innocent practice which makes the life for the horse far more fun, rather than being hassled around with two messy hands and a frustrated rider.
‘Thoombs doown!’ was the favourite phrase of one of our instructors, which made us all go in hysterics. Hence I never forgot.
‘Thumbs down’ is the only way to keep the control over the length of your reins and when you haven’t mastered this it will show as soon as the double goes into the mouth of your horse. It will become an uncomfortable handbrake with your horse having no choice other than to go on the forehand.
THE DOUBLE IS AN ART
It is the dream of every aspiring dressage rider. Throughout history, the double bridle is connected to the higher level of dressage and correctly used it looks beautiful.
It is an art, where the bradoon gives the horse the contact it needs with the curb kept slightly longer. On the other hand, it is a terrible weapon when in the wrong hands, literally.
It needs a pair of experienced hands and should only be used when the horse is ready for it. Balanced, for the leg and relaxing comfortably through all the exercises in a snaffle. Certainly not when a horse is heavy in the mouth as a measure to achieve the desired lightness.
HONEST AND ETHOUSIASTIC
I am very lucky to have a great bunch of pupils, some of them having been with me for well over twenty years, who are committed and show every lesson they have done their homework. Some are very comfortable riding in a double, others are still dreaming of it and waiting patiently for themselves and their horse to be ready.
KEEN AND GREEDY
One of those riders is Liz Bailey with her horse George who is not ready for the double yet, but Liz is keen and greedy in the nicest kind of way. She has worked very hard on her home-bred gelding, after a rough start with not a whole lot of trust left in each other. George has finally succumbed to accepting the leg and is happy in his work, with Liz now realizing what little information he actually needs to do his job properly.
They are very comfortable at producing a decent Novice test, whereas during our lessons we play with a bit of shoulder-in and the baby half-pass. Also, George has taken a liking to the flying changes, after a very well-established counter canter.
A WASTE OF TIME
However, this rider is still struggling at times to make her downward transitions uphill. It would be a terrible waste of time to now take that beautiful double bridle, which is waiting in the tack room, off the wall.
Chances are George would revert right back to being behind the bit. The last thing we want after all the work we’ve done.
Just in time for Tineke Bartels to remind me in an article about the two reins on the snaffle. The perfect way for Liz to feel that she is working towards her dream.
Also, it is a reality check. Liz soon found out that keeping the curb consistently a tad longer was not at all easy, even when George went well. As soon as he had a bit of a difficult moment both reins were tight again.
A COMFORTABLE TRANSITION TO DEVELOP FEEL
Knowing Liz, it won’t take her long to get it right. It is now part of her regular homework. I do not mention it during the lesson if it is not quite right. It would become frustrating and we would not achieve anything else. We just go about our usual business and it is not until the end of the lesson when I tell her whether she has improved with her 'double'.
I am convinced that by the time George is ready Liz is capable to make it a comfortable transition for him. She will possibly have the curb rein a bit long. Not a problem, from there she can safely develop her feel.
Tineke Bartels, together with her daughter Imke, also an Olympic rider, are the trainers and coaches at Academy Bartels at the beautiful Culitsrode estate in the Netherlands.
Top Picture: Tineke Bartels
Bottom: Liz Bailey with George practicing two reins on a snaffle
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CARL HESTER RINGS THE BELL!
JUDGES OFTEN HAVE TO TAKE IT ON THE NOSE
It is not easy, being a dressage judge. No matter how hard you try, there will always be a disgruntled competitor who does not agree with either score or comments. I know the feeling both as a competitor and as a judge. It is not a great moment when a rider makes a rude comment behind your back but within earshot.
As a rider I used to be quite philosophical about it and rely on the fact that too low a score one day probably meant too high a score the next time and it would all even out in the end.
Only the time when I missed my qualification for the Advanced regionals, I was stunned when I saw my score. The fact that the winner, standing next to me at the scoreboard, said, 'you should have won', made me feel slightly better.
So I can say without hesitation that I didn't really have any sleepless nights over it.
A 'COMMON' HORSE
At the lower levels the type of horse at competitions varies; from cob to thoroughbred and of course increasingly the warmblood.
Marie, with whom I rode PSG and a couple of Inter II's, was a 'common' horse. Whenever we qualified for the regionals, I had to accept that we were going to have to be satisfied with some 65% and if we were lucky end up somewhere in the middle, but I was just pleased to be there and ride in such a great atmosphere.
Marie's mediocre movement was partly the reason for our score. At the regionals the quality of the horses shot up and I sometimes wondered why I hadn't bought a warmblood from one of my Dutch friends. Not for long, though, as we had a wonderful time together and she taught me everything about how to deal with a complex character.
DRESSAGE... OR SHOW HORSE?
But still, I don't quite understand. Yes, when I watch an extravagant moving horse I do get goosebumps. But isn't that about the caliber of horse and doesn't that kind of thinking belong in a showing class?
Is dressage not that a horse, because of correct technical riding and training, gives itself to the rider for 100%, and through full use of its back and hind legs does all the demanded exercises correct, accurate and to its highest ability? Doesn't the 'common' horse, when producing that, deserve a similar mark as the more quality horse?
Okay, the quality horse should get a 10 for movement, but it is so disheartening when the amount of money you pay for your horse decides on your dressage score.
DRESSAGE IS A PERSONAL EXPERIENCE AND COMPARES TO ART
At the moment opinions are not shared but start to vary, dressage becomes a personal experience and is so much more complicated than jumping, where a pole down or a refusal is what it is. At that moment dressage is more art than sport. Not unlike a painting, a play or dancing which are able to unleash so many different emotions.
FIDDLING WITH THE JUDGING CODE
I am going to be brave and move onto slippery ice. Is it so that this problem occurs at all levels, also the highest , also at international shows? Take Valegro as an example, not a huge mover but still called 'the King of Dressage'. This wonderful horse had a fair bit of international criticism for its high scores and winning two Olympic titles.
Is this one of the reasons for the FEI to want to fiddle with the judging code, in the hope to make the system more watertight? This in combination with the problem that, when three or more judges are looking at the same test, scores can differ; yes, the personal experience can get in the way.
It must be a competitor's worst nightmare to miss, at a crucial competition, a qualification for an international team, possibly undeserved. And how horrible to think that you have missed an Olympic victory because of one unlucky score, which pulls the final score down just enough (something I can't even begin to imagine). A chance which may never happen again.
GROWING AND ADJUSTING IN TUNE WITH THE EVOLUTION OF DRESSAGE
It is extremely important that the sport is alert on growing and moving with its own evolution. There is so much more at stake than some 30 or 40 years ago. What once was for most a run-out-of-hand hobby for the rich - take German Olympic rider Reiner Klimke for example, he was a lawyer- has become a profession for many in which huge sums of money circulate. For starters the horses cost a fortune these days and the whole business is stuck together with sponsors.
SIGNED LETTER FROM SIXTEEN INTERNATIONAL RIDERS TO THE IDRC
So, with the pressure building it is increasingly important that the judges are correct and as uniform in their opinion as possible. But how...I know not enough to answer that. However, I am extremely grateful for Carl Hester ringing the bell in the Horse and Hound and urging dressage riders to give their opinion.
Also, sixteen international dressage riders -among whom Carl Hester, Laura Graves and Edward Gal, just to name a few- wrote a signed letter to the International Dressage Riders' Club, which is advising the FEI, in order to vent their worries about a potential fast-forwarded change of rules to the existing judging code. This after they were informed at a meeting about this subject at the world championships in Omaha. They urge for the commission to not speed things through without having listened sufficiently to all involved; this of course must include the riders.
Something which has become an increasingly sensitive subject, can not turn into a 'quick fix' with even more problems than before. Something which can not only affect a rider's day, but an entire season. And do not forget the judges in this. I want to believe that they are trying their best to turn competitions into a fair happening.
Still, when I watched the freestyle at Aachen I wanted for Sonke Rothenberger to win from Isabell Werth. When I watched him and Cosmo moving so perfectly light-footed and completely in tune with that ping-ping piano sound, I felt moved...
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Stallion show Den Bosch: a slight change of program
For most visitors, and also the other two Liz's from Cornwall who accompanied me on my visit, the highlight of the national KWPN Stallion Show without a doubt will have been the choosing of the the champion jumping stallion Juventus VG (s. Kannan) and the dressage champion stallion Jameson RS2 (s. Blue Hors Zack), unless of course they were super fan of Valegro.
For me it was a very different show from previous years; barely saw a horse!
KWPN ONE EXTENDED FAMILY
It was a complete coincidence that exactly this week a lovely review of my book 'The Farmer, The Coal Merchant, The Baker...' was published in the Dutch equivalent of magazine the 'Horse and Hound', called the 'Hoefslag'. Visitors of the show were able to pick up a magazine for free in the stand which was shared with a Dutch fencing company and the Elite Foal Auction Borculo. After a phone call with the enthousiastic and spontaneous Marjolein Ras, secretary of this now over 30 year old organisation, I received a warm welcome at their stand which immediately brought back that old comforting feeling that everyone, whatever the connection with the Dutch Warmblood, is naturally a part of the family.
My day was made when I was given the opportunity to add a flyer to each magazine with the information where to buy my book!
FLEXIBLE STYLE OF RIDING
Earlier on I was exaggerating just slightly. During the evening program I did manage to occasionally run from the stand to the main arena to the warm up ring in order to catch a glimpse and have a taste of all that was happening. There are a lot of young and very talented riders who are there to show off the 4- and 5-year old stallions they trained so hard with in order to present them to their best ability.
It was there that I came to admire 28-year old Olympic rider Diederik van Silfhout. The picture looked possibly a little bit more contained and less exciting than that of the more assertive female riders. But how clever, the way he is still able to adjust his style of riding in order to make feel safe these young and at times boisterous stallions. It must be such a shock for those juveniles to enter the electric arena and I think they were probably quite grateful for his quiet approach.
A LOT OF MONEY AND HIGH EXPECTATIONS
Back to the stand of the Elite Foal Auction; never knew how big and international this organisation had become through the years. For me any auction connected to the sale of animals makes me slightly uncomfortable. Especially these innocent and still so very vulnerable foals...where are they going...who has bought them...do they know what they are doing? A lot of money is changing hands and with that inevitably expectations are high. However, Marjolein filled me in.
The care this organisation takes to make sure these foals get the best possible chance is enormous. From the keep and upbringing at professional farms, perfectly equipped for this, to the backing and education of the young horse in order to safeguard the very important first few years in which so much can go wrong. The advice and explanation of all this to the possibly less experienced buyer to avoid any disappointments is very complete and creates a safe situation for sellers, buyers and the animals themselves.
For any one interested to invest into a top quality KWPN foal the Elite Foal Auction Borculo is probably worth a visit.
In the mornings it is often quiet in the stands and so when a very modest looking, to the point of shy, lady from Germany was left to wait for something or someone at the stand, I felt compelled to test my German, knowing full and well that not much of it was left after thirty years in Cornwall.
There was an immediate click. Sandra Maria Stern is one of the nicest and most special horsewomen I've ever met. Her stud 'Pferdestall Johannes' was built only four years ago. Sandra Maria patiently explained her goals and philosophy in order to make come true her dream. With seven mares of which some in the sport and others in foal she is trying to find the back door into the KWPN studbook. The reason being that the front door is a bit stiff to say the least. Many breeders frown when discussing the subject of adding German blood in order to slow down the development at the rate it is going just a bit, in order for the KWPN horse not to turn into something no one ever wanted.
IN HONOUR OF...
Sandra Maria made a connection with the famous stud Team Nijhof and this spring one of her mares is expecting a foal of...Johnson. If everything is going according to plan Sandra Maria will be able to build her own inventive bridge with her own offspring to the KWPN studbook.
Emotion showed in her voice and face when she told me how her stud was made possible after the death of her father. It was then she was able to turn her dream into reality and therefore named her stud Johannes in honour of the man who put her into the world and whom she loved so much. The simple and honest way Sandra Maria told me this was touching.
After having given her a signed copy of my book I received a sincere invitation to visit 'Pferdestall Johannes' and after a warm hug we went our separate ways.
MEET THE FOKKERS
Another year of the KWPN Stallion Show with yet again so many stunning and promising young stallions of which most will end up gelded in the sport and a few will hopefully add to keeping the KWPN studbook as prominent for the future as it is at the moment.
The other two Liz's who joined me on this trip made the impression to be pretty much overwhelmed by they saw. But there were also some hilarious moments. Although some of the commentary is in English, most of it is in Dutch. The two kept on bursting out laughing every time the speaker mentioned the Dutch breeders and this happens often. I admit, the Dutch word for breeders does have a strange sound for English ears. So...from now on we have every reason to call the KWPN Stallion Show: 'Meet the Fokkers'!
Top picture: behind the scenes in the warm up ring
Middle: Sandra Maria Stern
Bottom: Pferdestall Johannes
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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.
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Rollkur, classic dressage, one-armed riders and social media
It seems to get more intense by the minute. The equine world is using social media in order to give their opinion with pictures of horse cruelty, whether it be rollkur, classic dressage versus whatever other dressage or statements about one-armed riders harming their horses when using a double bridle.
I really don't get it. This thinking in little boxes and condemning all else, more often than not with no real fundamentally correct arguments. I guess one could say that by writing my blogs I am doing the same thing, however, I am hoping to bridge gaps, rather than deepen them. It is not possible though, to bridge gaps when the the heated arguments are made by people who have not made the effort to inform themselves sufficiently about their subject.
I am still not quite sure about the whole rollkur discussion; I need to read and learn more about it. What I am sure about is that the images circulating to attack rollkur look to me more like horse abuse than rollkur. A horse tied down, head on chest, with only a thin piece of string through its mouth I do not think is rollkur and a picture with a horse looking distressed with its tongue hanging down could have been made yesterday of my own horse when we had a momentous small upset which only lasted a split-second, because of a shy on my cat running out of the bushes,and is definitely not the norm when I train. I do at times for a very short spells ride horses deep when they are ready and I feel they can cope and this is the same thing my physio does standing still in order to flex and loosen the horse's neck in order to achieve greater suppleness. Yes, by overdoing it you can harm your horse and that is wrong of course, but you can do that with everything!
Yesterday someone told me blatantly that they loved classic dressage and hated that 'show dressage'. When I looked obviously puzzled and asked her what she meant she said: 'Well, you know, what they do at the Olympics.' I did not even know what to answer for being utterly gobsmacked.
I seem old when I write this but when I grew up and had my first dressage lessons, I learned that you did what was needed to supple your horse and engage its back. Generally that meant riding in a deeper frame before you would lift in the desired frame. Later, when I became more experienced, I learned to use different methods and adjust my riding for different horses: a horse that would hollow you would ride deeper longer and a horse that would naturally go deep you would ride more up, some horses needed more leg, others less.... but it was all called dressage. And it was all done so that the horse would grow the correct muscles in order to have a longer and healthier life.
Last but not least, a statement appeared last week about the fact that there ought to be a rule to keep one-armed riders from using double bridles. I am sure there are one-armed riders who are not capable to use a double bridle properly, just as there are tons of two-armed riders who ruin the mouth of their horse with the same tool.
But when I watch Dutch one-armed subtop dressage rider Maarten van Stek and I see the softest happiest horse with a slightly looser curb rein and I then think of all these badly founded statements, I get so very angry and am ashamed to be part of a dressage world which now seems to gradually deteriorate into below-the-belt ignorant statements.
I think social media can do so much good and a healthy discussion is a good thing, but in these cases I feel that the comments become hurtful rather than powerful, obviously caused by ignorance.
What can we do about this? I asked my 'guru' Maarten. His answer was: 'I think that we trainers, also at the highest level should not become defensive but rather show transparency through education.'
Okay, Maarten, point taken, instead of wanting to push the delete button I will keep on trying to build bridges!
Top picture: social media at its worst!
Bottom: Maarten van Stek with William
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Valegro, you got under my skin
After having read several write-ups in the German newspapers on Charlotte and Valegro's 'grand finale' and Isabell Werth's silver at the Olympics it is obvious that the German equestrian world wholeheartedly embraced 'das Wunderpferd' ( the miracle horse) Valegro as the champion. Apparently Isabell Werth said that even without her mistake she would still not have been able to touch Charlotte and Valegro's performance.
So here we are, Dutch bred Valegro (I have to say that, you do understand!) and Charlotte Dujardin proved that they are worthy Olympic champions by repeating their performance of four years ago. I don't know how she coped with the serious amount of extra pressure after the continental hype that in 2012 it was not such a difficult freestyle composition compared to others and had she therefore really deserved it.
This week I read an opinion on website Horses.nl from Dutch equine journalist Dirk Willem Rosie who decided to hammer the fact that Valegro may now be seen as the best dressage horse, ever. He writes it has nothing to do with sport to keep a super athlete such as Valegro out of the competition routine for a longer spell of time. To put it in context, in his article he wanted to criticize the way judges influence the general public by creating an image which is kept in place by high marks which are basically preconceived before the performance and used Valegro as an example. Quote: 'In order to not win, Blueberry had to make a proper mess of it.' He also questioned Valegro's early retirement.
Valegro apparently is not the perfect conformation. I don't know enough to even go there. Neither am I sufficiently experienced to compare the best with the best in order to dare to make a decision who is actually the very best. However being a professional I tend to keep my eye in when watching these athletes perform their tests, always wanting to be able to spot the tiniest imperfections. Only because it's a good exercise.
But with Charlotte and Valegro it's different. They touch something in me, they make me emotional. I think because of the ease and uncomplicated way, the enthusiasm with which they attack the most difficult moves. His face says it all. He is happy out there. And when Valegro has left the arena I cannot forget about him, he gets under my skin. His sweet and charmingly innocent face and proud front legs stay with me. Only Reiner Klimke's Ahlerich and Totilas with Edward Gal were ever able to leave such an impression, and that over a period of some forty years!
I strongly believe that every rider has the right to work and manage their horse the way they think suits its physique and personality in order to add to its well-being and peak at the right time. If that means competing less for a while then Valegro and Charlotte's performance proved that it was the right decision. And if, after having won all major titles, some several times and the freestyle at the Olympics twice, they feel that Valegro can retire from top competition then I can only say: Valegro, we shall miss you something fierce but good on you! You've done it all.
Even if one felt to have the right to question Valegro's superiority, there is one thing for certain. Carl Hester, Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro are the very best ambassadors the dressage sport could possibly wish for. Turning top horses out in the field well before that was common practice and fashionable. Breaking through the fear of losing a very special bond by securing permanent ownership in a world run by sponsorship; having nearly a year's break from competition and daring to go straight into the Olympics; most riders would look at that as a major disadvantage! And if that's not enough they have made top level dressage look more free and fun than anyone else I've ever seen.
Finally, referring back to what is sport and what is not: what great sportsmanship from the country which won team gold to not only accept but also embrace Valegro as 'das Wunderpferd'!
Picture: Lucy Lloyd having a relaxed moment with Charlotte at the Ballan dressage regionals only a few weeks before the Olympics.
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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%.
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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.
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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.
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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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Pinokkio is telling me: spring is not far off
It is the beginning of March and as always, we're all desperate for spring to arrive. Yesterday when I was brushing my little project turned friend Pinokkio, I saw to my delight the first few winter hairs letting go. However, this also has put me on alert as it inevitably will be going hand in hand with some horses changing their attitude temporarily and generally for the worst, which will make my job a little trickier for a little while. Some horses are more prone to this phenomenon than others; some become listless, others unreliable and a bit 'weird in the head'.
When you think of it, what a process, not only all that hair being released, but also a whole new summer coat has to be produced and installed. And that at a time that nature's food supply is at its poorest. It certainly is one of the toughest times of the year to be on top of our horse's diet and we have to be on alert to increase feeds in time, especially the ones living out. The fields are barren and chewed up and some horses can drop their weight overnight, which is of course nicely hidden by their rug.
But..... watch the weather forecast as the change can be quick and all of a sudden the grass is growing fast and soon there will be that lovely day when your horse will be begging you for its first roll without a blanket.... in the mud, of course! No better way than to get rid of some of that itchy winter coat.
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Stallion show Den Bosch 2016: the times they are a changing
Last year was my first time back at the KWPN stallion show in Den Bosch after some thirty years and I decided to visit again last week as my interest was very much refreshed. I was overwhelmed by what I saw, at the same time realizing that, having concentrated for so many years on my own training as a trainer and competitor, I had completely and utterly lost touch with the Dutch breeding world.
The separation in 2006 of the stallions as jumpers and dressage stallions for a start had not really sunk in until I saw with my own eyes how far apart these two types of stallions had grown. Weirdly enough I found it easier to judge the show jumpers as they seemed to still be more like the horses I remembered.
In Cornwall I certainly come across some very decent Warmbloods as the years go on, however, the young dressage stallions shown on the last two days of the show seemed to be a different breed. One can't be but seriously impressed with the extremely high standard and with that the endlessly adjusted philosophy of some very knowledgeable people. People who have tremendous heart for the Dutch breeding industry, an industry which basically has conquered the world in show-jumping and dressage.
Still, I could not keep my mouth shut at times and was lucky enough to exchange my thoughts with some professional breeders in the stands which gave me a chance to express my worries about the lionesque shape of some of the young dressage stallions: huge fronts and/or hind legs which moved so high that it made me feel uncomfortable.
One of my neighbors was a charming veterinarian,who took the time to explain to me that it was possible to create this movement artificially. I picked up the words chains and elastic bands.... If these stallions would make it to the performance test, this would gradually undo itself and so they would in the end still be judged on their own natural movement.
So in the end the KWPN stallion show was very much a show, whereas during the performance test the stallions would be trained in a uniform way, which would give a clear picture with the added bonus of an insight into their character and behavior. After that very few and only the very best are left.
But what if it actually is their natural movement and this is considered acceptable? What will be the physical future of the offspring of these stallions. Also, is it possible for them to maintain their quality of walk?
This was discussed in the stands as the now 4-year old stallions, who passed their performance test, were shown under saddle and the Novice stallion competition took place. The marks for the walk often exceeded 7 whereas also I could see the 4-takt rhythm was simply not there. Jokes were made about a potential Specsavers advertisement involving the KWPN judges.
Despite all the questions and issues my mind was boggling with, when I left the big arena in Den Bosch, I still felt excited about my visit.The KWPN is an organic organisation always in movement, always trying to improve, always open to new ideas whereas the past has proven that the KWPN is capable to change direction when things don't work out the way they hoped. Long may it last....
Top picture: Heraut, accepted by the studbook in 1946
Bottom: Igor, by Apache out of a Vivaldi mare qualified this year for the performance test and won the championship
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Many years ago, having just moved to Cornwall, I was a fence judge at the then still affiliated event at Lanhydrock. Every now and then the same person came by on yet a different horse. She seemed very relaxed as she even took the time to say 'hello again' when clearing the jump in great style. She probably had four horses there, from Prenovice into Intermediate.
The years went on and we met occasionally at pony club events, each trying to keep our pupils on the straight. During one of those occasions I saw Caroline trying to get young Lucy Wiegersma in the correct outfit for her dressage test, Lucy having a severe bout of being an uncooperative fifteen year old. It took forever as Lucy wouldn't even lift an arm. Caroline never lost her patience and seemingly unperturbed kept working at it until the job was done.
Some fifteen years ago, together with my pupil, local event rider Claire Daniels, I visited Tregembo near Penzance, at that time the Wiegersma base, in order to see a young horse for sale. Caroline was personable and straight forward to deal with and it certainly was the right horse for Claire as Feathers brought her a long way with the highlight of going Advanced at Gatcombe.
Two years ago I dropped off a young keen rider at the Wiegersma yard near Okehampton. Caroline was with head scarf after treatment, but as always steady, in the most positive frame of mind and braving the cold in a very windy outdoor school, patiently coaching working pupils.
About a month ago I still saw her flying around Bicton on her bike. Still doing what she has done for all those years so very well. I am sure Lucy will agree with me that a huge part of her success is due to Caroline.
Steady, trustworthy, competent, committed, as trainers we can all take an example from Caroline and I actually missed out the most important one: humble.
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Ireland: the best place to buy a brave horse
Only two weeks ago a good friend called and invited me to join her on the search for a smallish and quiet hunter in Ireland. I couldn't resist the invitation as the previous visit some years ago left me with some very fond memories.
Yet again, on arrival, we were welcomed by the most wonderfully varied group of dogs one could possibly imagine. All of them being an important part of the Norris household. Ned and Mary Norris have been dear friends of my friend for a very long time which therefore put me in an extremely fortunate position. Ned has been very involved with the Kilkenny Hunt for over fifty years, knows everybody, is liked by everybody, has bred and produced many a decent hunter and if he does not have anything suitable for you he will find it somewhere else.
Ned learned his skills from his uncle Jimmy. Jimmy was a one of a kind, a great Irish horseman with a wonderful cheeky side. Some thirty years ago, just after I had moved to Cornwall, my friends brought Jimmy for dinner. It was an unforgettable evening as Jimmy told many a great story, only problem was: I couldn't understand a word as his broad Irish accent was more than I could handle. It didn't keep me from liking him as he was just such a 'great character' as the English put it. The one word I did pick up was: dram. We had many 'drams' that evening.
We had many drams on this trip. The evening when we arrived at least three, the next day a 'wee one' with our lunch. In the afternoon when visiting Larry Burns on his sweet and wonderfully old-fashioned smallholding in order to see some of his hunters we were invited in and his two sisters had already put the bottle and glasses on the table ready for us..... Say no more.
Larry hunted the the Mullinavat Hounds for some ten years and had a reputation to find his way through complex countryside in a most inventive way which gave his followers a most exciting day out. He had some lovely hunters there, which were shown to us by his nephew Jim. Although we had to continue our search as none of them were suitable, Larry was just as warm to us and with his twinkly eyes assured us that on our next visit we would go hunting, he would organize it. I dared not tell him that I would die a thousand deaths just thinking about it but thanked him as he was the kindest and most hospitable man.
The next day Ned took us to the Wexford country, in order to see some hunters at at John Stafford's yard. This keen and experienced horseman, who was master of his local hunt for 19 years, showed us around the large barn where a great mix of horses were happily standing in their boxes which contained very few walls and doors. Poles and chains seemed to do the job just fine.
John's daughter was asked to lead a smaller grey out and trot him up. It didn't anything for any of us, he looked backward and stiff if not lame. His feet were not great so that could be a reason as the path was a bit gravelly. Still, a disappointing performance. The next one we all thought was weak behind. All the rest were too big. Oh well, might as well see the ugly grey ridden as we are here. John and his daughter looked at each other and owed up that he hadn't been ridden since previous hunting season. The small but chirpy daughter decided it would be fine so saddle and bridle were thrown on and off the two went into a great big field. After one round of trot they pushed into a surprisingly lovely and well-balanced canter; as if the horse had been ridden the day before. He was a completely different horse under saddle. Could we see him jump? Not a problem, John told his daughter to jump a big plastic drainpipe. The horse pointed and jumped. Can he jump a ditch? Of course, there is one over there. In Ireland a ditch is over a meter deep, generally with a bank on one side, in this case overgrown with nasty brambles right at the height of the horse's head. He wasn't bothered in the slightest and jumped it one way, and then the other. John was getting excited now and told his daughter to jump a nasty iron gate which was hanging crookedly on its hinges. 'Noe, daddy, noe!' But off she went and the grey jumped, no, flew it both ways. Please, no more, we've seen enough, he's 'a grand little harse' as the Irish say. John pointed his daughter towards a thin electric wire. Again a 'noe, noe!' and again they jumped it in both directions. To cut a long story short, after the grey gave my friend and me a wonderful ride, the deal was made, and yes, we had to 'make it a lucky horse'. You can guess, more drams.
The next morning we bid farewell with a promise to come back. Not difficult, as the Irish horse people (I haven't yet had the opportunity to meet any others) are the warmest most welcoming people in the world. Their horses are brave, uncomplicated and strong. As John Stafford said: 'if they don't jump they die.' It sounds a bit rough but it's a serious hunting country and that is how it works.
So the little grey will soon go on the ferry and hopefully not too long from now an other friend will want to buy a horse in Ireland. I'm up for it!
Top picture: Ned with his great collection of dogs.
Middle: Larry Burns with nephew Jim and their hound pups.
Bottom: some of Ned's young stock with the grey broodmare behind.
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BEF Futurity: can it be the future?
It's not my strong point to be up to date with all that happens in the competition, showing and breeding world. First of all I'm quite happy to stay in my bubble as a dressage trainer. Secondly, I'm still trying to grasp the gradual, however major, changes and approach the KWPN has made in the last twenty or so years in my home country, The Netherlands. This year's visit to the Dutch stallion show made me realize how very much I had lost touch since I moved to Cornwall. Here in the UK, as initially a breeder, I had my hands full trying to work through all the different possibilities of registering my youngsters and was very confused indeed; the HIS, the British Warmblood Society, the Database and more. All with great intentions but so much choice, not to mention the showing of horses, with no other use than that, at agricultural shows.
On Friday I decided to pay a visit to the Tall Trees Arena in Cornwall for a maiden Futurity Evaluation experience. I was surprised by the fact that for a long time I was the only spectator, listening to a very well-spoken judge, with microphone, representing a panel of three. I would have expected more interest. My visit was partly out of a professional interest and partly to start the search for a youngster for a pupil. This seemed to me a good way to see and meet serious breeders presenting their young horses, at the same time figuring out what the Futurity is all about.
The remarks of the judge about each individual horse reminded me very much of how it is done at the Warmblood grading shows in Holland. A clear explanation of the conformation, walk, trot and canter, a mark and a second, first or elite premium. The confusion set in when all of a sudden, smack in the middle of some very decent looking Warmblood foals, a pony appeared with her foal at foot. As the foal was looked upon as a dressage pony for the future it was considered suitable to be judged by the same standards. Then an Arabian mare came in with her foal, this time a prospect for endurance riding. After that more Warmblood foals.
I really did start to wonder how on earth the judges could keep their eye in as by now there was no consistency. The same panel was making decisions about five different types of horses. That must be rather difficult. Would it possibly make sense to have seen those at the beginning or end?
Some of the handling was very professional, some of it was not. Any horse needs a good runner who can keep up in a decent rhythm, so the horse gets every chance to show itself off. A good horse with a lot of action needs it even more so.
Am I too critical? No, actually, if I was now a breeder I would probably choose this system. Its all-inclusiveness of all sports horses is a good idea. However, it could be more refined by having several different specialist judges panels. I would have a lane set up in order to make it easier for the one and two year-olds to show themselves off along the long side when shown loose. Also, I would show the one and two year-olds at least a pole on the ground, in order to see their attitude.
But at least it gives a thoroughly confused country, about what society or organisation to choose, a chance to unite under the same rules and guide lines. At the end of the day the Dutch Warmblood partly became what it is now because of the use of the English thoroughbreds. The UK always has had, and still does have, some very decent stock. More good horses are imported. Frozen sperm is available from all over the world. It just needs organisation. Maybe the Futurity Program can make this come true.
It was such a nice surprise to see some pupils, of the past and present, do an excellent job. Andrew James presenting two very decent and good-looking show-jump foals Lillipep and Lipeppero (both by Peppermill) from broodmares (both by LIBERO H) he jumped himself, with scores of 8.75 and 8.21. His calm and professional presentation brought back memories of how he used to be forever patient with some very difficult ponies as a youngster.
Cara Jasper (picture left) doing a very tidy performance with dressage prospect Donna D'Amour (s: Don Olymbrio) next to her mum by Treliver Decanter, with a great score of 8.70.
Niamh Hobbs being a great helper to Victoria Hunton who ended up with a score of 8.50 for her dressage foal Huntons Furstenfearless by Furstenball out of a Regazzoni mare.
Sophie Turriff being the joint handler of the very fine and tidy moving bay yearling mare Cintrix Du Ruisseau bred for show-jumping (s: Cinsey, ds: Prince D'Incoville), owned by Mrs. M. Douglas and going home with a score of 8.40.
Sandra Grose has been a regular visitor at the Futurity Evaluation. She brought her three year-old show-jump prospect Diamond Jubilee by the sire Je T'Aime Flamenco for the fourth time. After a great score of 8.72 in 2013 she was probably hoping to improve on last year's score of 8.27. It was not to be. Of course at this young age some youngsters still change so much by the season and/or mature slower. The dam line going back to Landgraf, son of Ladykiller, is certainly a huge asset to this three year-old's breeding. Being a complete novice I bombarded Sandra with questions which she patiently answered. We agreed on the fact that some of the lower scores were possibly still too high. This might motivate breeders to come back next year, on the other hand it could give them a false believe in the quality of their youngster.
My personal favorite was the very enquisitive and playful dressage filly Woodwick Dancernegro by the Oldenburg stallion Danciano (ds: Negro). As soon as she entered the arena next to her dam she was mesmerized by the white plastic cones and adamant to walk over them rather than around. When she was free she was interested in everything and everybody but her mother and danced and pranced around as a ballerina. Her score was 8.45.
Star of the day was the last one in: the dressage foal Newton Flexitime, a bold and beautiful chestnut filly who seemed to want to tell the judges and audience, by the way she stood and looked at all of us, that one day she is going to be famous. Her dam by Vivaldi and sired by Furst Romancier certainly produced something very special and she scored a well-deserved 9.00.
Despite the lack of a bigger audience one thing was a revelation. Unlike some of the competitions I've visited over the years, the atmosphere was so very friendly. There was a lot of exchange and some good laughs amongst breeders and audience. Very refreshing indeed.
Top foto: Natalie Pote waiting to go in with her dressage three year-old gelding Ragazoo (s:Richelshagen, ds: Chagallo) with a score of 8.20.
Middle foto: Dressage one year-old Janne by Maxamillian Voltucky owned by Sophie Parsons with a score of 8.45. I can't help to mention the very sweet Dutch name of the dam, Blosje, which translates as Little Blush.
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Royal Cornwall Show: dedication and commitment in every ring and arena
The Royal Cornwall Show is an event I can not not visit. I tried it one year and felt miserable for it. Most years I go on the Thursday as I love watching the working hunters. It really is the only showing class I care for as it is both sporty and classy whereas the atmosphere is always great.
This year I went on the Friday and, boy, it was cold. So cold that, after having visited the Young Farmers tent and the Flower tent, I decided to invest in a seat at the Grand Stand in order to be out of the wind. There, for the first time in the thirty years I have visited, I watched basically everything, The quad-bike driver with his giant leaps; the phenomenal bird of prey display from Ben Potter with eagles soaring closely over the heads of the spectators; all the different hunts from around the county creating total chaos; the parachutists who, unfortunately for them, had to wait for the wind to die a bit which made them have to land after well over a hundred excited hounds had run around the arena, leaving lots of presents behind; the grand parade with all the different breeds, the giant South Devon bulls about the biggest, the dapper goats the smallest; the two Friesian horses Aurelia Van Burmania and Bounkje Van De Koetserij from the Tregothnan etsate trotting proudly and in total harmony around the arena in front of their immaculate carriage; and the last show-jump class of the day, the Open Accumulator, in which local riders Andrew Williams and Sammie-Jo Coffin made sure there were plenty of exciting moments.
The only time I left was for my favorite visit, a late afternoon wander around the cattle shed after all the rosettes are dealt, the animals bedded in loads of fresh straw, chewing away on well-deserved hay and breeders and handlers looking tired but happy, still fiddling about or chatting or just sitting back, feet up on the well-worn wooden trunk, evening sunlight oozing through the windows. It is the place where you find the core of the show, what an agricultural show is all about. Proud and hard working farmers who have dedicated themselves one hundred percent to producing the finest dairy- and beef cattle you can find.
So why am I talking about motorbikes, birds of prey and cattle so much in my equine blog? Because there is one thing everything previously described has in common: dedication. The same dedication and commitment I demand of myself and see in my pupils. It is the only thing which gives us the chance to become good at something. No matter how much talent the rider or how good the horse is, only putting in the time and effort will make it work. And there are no shortcuts! Shortcuts always backfire.
One last note: I think it is terrible practice when riders are still to have their well-deserved round of honor, after having given us hours of excitement and entertainment, for most of the spectators to leave their seats in order to get to their car as quick as possible.
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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.
I WISH YOU A VERY GOOD CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR!
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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.
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One hundred years of eleven-eleven-eleven
Ever since the First World War reached a ceasefire on November the eleventh at eleven o'clock it has been the moment for the countries involved to commemorate this. As today it is the centenary of the beginning of First World War, I, as a horse lover, would like to pause for a moment in order to remember the thousands of horses which were lost under the most atrocious circumstances. With that many of the men who were caring for them had to suffer the loss of their four-footed comrade at a time when they needed every bit of emotional comfort they could lay their hands on. Sadly, when the war was over many horses, having gone through hell and back, were now paid by being slaughtered for their meat.
It does not hurt my feelings that the cavalry is a changed phenomena and horses no longer go to war. Through the beautiful and enormously popular theatre production 'War Horse' (and also the movie) the tragedy was brought a lot closer to us. Horse lovers and non horse lovers found it an equally emotional experience. Personally, I could not keep my eyes dry for a minute through the whole play, not so much because of the story line but knowing that this one romantic tale represented also an endless amount of tragedies.
My first pony was a Haflinger. Somewhere I read that this small compact horse was much loved by the cavalry in Austria as it was able to pull cannons very well in difficult terrain. Last night on the English program 'Countryfile', which was dedicated to the Great War, it was mentioned that the mule was so popular for its stamina. One does not need a whole lot of imagination in order to realize how sad that actually is.
Dressage is going through an enormously popular phase. Dressage to music has added to this greatly. I think that occasionally we should remember that the cavalry is (partly) responsible for all the knowledge we have about what makes our horses respond to us. For me, for example, a book written by Gregor de Romaszkan was an important source of information. He was an Austrian cavalry officer in the Great War and also was involved in the Second World War, in Poland and in France.
Part of the cavalry is the uniform. In the dictionary another word for 'uniform' is 'identical'. This is what I sincerely hope we will never loose in the dressage world. The uniformity of what we wear when competing. We owe that to our horses. So that, when dressage is being watched by enthusiasts, the horse is not overshadowed by its rider. Also, it is a way to honour those who gave us the foundation for what is now our sport, but once was such a vital part of protecting one's country.
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Learning the hard way...
Some twenty five years ago, an old friend of mine, then an upcoming, now an extremely established authority and journalist in the Dutch equine world, asked me with a rather mischievous smile: 'So, what took the Dutch and Germans generations, you are going to do all over again?' My, in hindsight, rather naive answer was an enthusiastic positive head nod.
We were standing next to my one- and two year-old, both out of an 'Irish Draught type' broodmare with unknown background. I bought her as a three year-old as I liked her short-coupled conformation and gentle character. Both youngsters were by the thoroughbred Sousa. I was very proud and didn't exactly like being made fun of. And it did not get any better when his then wife said about the two year-old: 'I do hope she will grow into her head'. Bodrigan's head was indeed rather large, but of course proud mothers have the capability to not see those kind of things.
Well, to cut a long story short, Bodrigan became a well-respected grade-A show-jumper and her sister Marimaid stayed with me and together we competed Prix St. George and trained Grand Prix. We were close to do our first Intermediare when disaster struck and she had to be put down. Also, of the next generation a three quarter bred by the successful eventing stallion May Hill of Mark Todd, competed successfully at intermediate level eventing and with her junior rider was selected to compete in The Netherlands (which is were I'm from, incidentally) as a prospect for the team.
Would I do it again? No! You've only heard half the story. Out of nine, three were put down because of hereditary problems and one died as a just weened foal of a split stomach for no traceable reason. The emotional and also financial strain reached a high (or rather a low) when a three quarter bred beautiful mare by again May Hill turned out to have a behavioural problem of a magnitude that she was likely to kill someone one day. I had her put down as a four year-old after she tried to trample an experienced horseman, who was helping loading her, in a total frenzy. Her mother Marimaid had the same streak but not as dangerous but I now had to recognize I had a problem. It was then that I decided to stop breeding and what a wise decision it was.
Lesson learned: never breed with mares with an unknown background. Use proven stallions. Two of the offspring by a local stallion (who had a minor racing career due to an injury??) had stifle problems which kept them from having a successful sports career.
The Dutch, Germans and other countries on the continent did their homework. As the years went on and specially now that I am freelancing for website Horses International, I understand so much more about what breeds a good horse. Not just proven stallions but proven mare lines which go back generations.
And guess what: the friend who once made fun of me and my aspirations as a breeder is now my boss, Dirk Willem Rosie, editor of many high profile equine magazines in Holland.
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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.
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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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