Liz and Callum: the determination to find line zero!
It must be seven years or so when I went to see Callum together with Liz Read on the Bodmin Moor at the private yard of another pupil. Liz had recently lost her beloved Boogy and needed cheering up so going on the road to see some horses for sale seemed the obvious thing to do. I'd never seen this coloured Dutch-bred horse from close by before, but the moment I looked him in the eye I knew Liz would want him. He had exactly the same eye as Boogy and I could just see a new love affair develop right there and then.
IN A HURRY
I left it up to her; I don't like giving advice on what to buy. The times I said I liked a horse but it would take a year or more to gel together always worked against me; everyone seems to always be in a hurry. And here again I had introduced a decent rider, however not necessarily terribly experienced in dressage, to a young horse.
He had been under saddle for over half a year and had had a couple of outings; he seemed to have a good disposition. Hmmm...the next winter the trouble started. Liz has a full-time job. If Callum was left out a little longer than he thought was right he would be dangerous to lead in. I saw it when one day I turned up for a lesson and Liz was a bit behind schedule as she was just leading him to the gate. His one-eighty and the lash-out was like a thunderbolt and missed her by a hair!
The fact that Liz had tried some free natural horsemanship stuff in the school had not helped in this case. This horse needed to be on the lead and not off it. That winter I put a lot of time into Callum. Lunging and more lunging, forward and more forward. I felt desperately sorry for Liz. Her previous horse had been a difficult situation for quite a while because of an old injury. Liz needed to have some fun.
In the mean time another problem occurred. Liz had always had a lorry, but when that year the plating got massively expensive she switched to a trailer. Callum turned from a happy traveler into a demon. He could not handle it; whether it was the confinement or what, it did not work. He would load, but continued to panic during the trip.
A little bit of history: Callum had had a serious injury as a youngster. He had been stuck upside-down underneath a fence, which had resulted in a hock injury. It was flushed out twice and this not even two year-old horse spent months on end in the stable. After that he had to be walked out in hand for weeks and weeks, and that often in the dark after work, often in gale force winds, on a moorland lane!
His previous owner had been very honest about the hock injury and it reflected in the asking price. He was vetted sound with a few lumps and bumps. In hind sight though, I do believe that during that time he possibly developed a streak which occasionally still blew his brains.
We improved and things got safer. We knew that on headstrong days Liz would have to keep cantering on the track until he was begging her to go to trot. After that he would work a treat. About three years ago we were able to say that Callum was forward, balanced and ready to move into some lateral work. He turned out to be a natural.
This had been Liz's dream; shoulder-in, half-passes and in the canter hopefully a flying change. As a trainer I can only blame myself for the gradual deterioration which sneaked in. I underestimated Li'z's desire and did not realize how many shoulder-inns, travers, renvers and half-passes were done in between our two-weekly lessons. Add to that the fact Callum is a grass addict and gains weight just by inhaling fresh air, which turns him in the summer a bit into a Thelwell pony. This does not help his movement; it simply becomes difficult for him to move from the hip as his belly is so in the way, which showed specifically in his odd , newly developed, rabbit-hop canter.
Also, Liz is a small person. It is very difficult for her to feel the middle, especially in the summer when his back is so flat and wide. The result is that when Callum is not around her inside leg, she ends up with too much weight in the outside stirrup. This results in Liz trying to restrict him with the inside rein too tight against the neck.He soon figured out that that could be used to make up his own behind-the-leg travers movement as a terrible evasion.
MAARTEN VAN STEK
And then came May 2016. Trainer Maarten van Stek arrived from Holland for the clinic we had all so very much looked forward to. It was Sod's law, wasn't it; he saw Callum and Liz at their worst. Liz was so excited, she lost all her focus whereas Callum had just had a month off because of Liz having been off-colour and he consequently behaved like an unruly 3 year-old stallion. I was not impressed and I wasn't the only one, either.
In the end Maarten was the best thing that could have happened. As a trainer I was put on the spot to never ever allow any of my pupils collect their horse on days they are not 100% forward. It took a little while for Liz to regain her confidence. Insecurity is the little devil lurking over our shoulder, ready to get under our skin when at our weakest. But Liz is tough and took Maarten's sound advice to heart. Callum...well, Callum blossomed.
With Maarten's voice echoing in our head with snippets such as: you haven't killed the spirit of the horse; tell it what to do, not what not to do because that is too late; follow your dotted line, line zero; now I can see what you're doing, now I can't, we went on a journey. At least three months we spent re-establishing the tempo. Not a leg-yield, not a shoulder-in, no counter canter, not anything was done other than riding forward...and focus...and learning to respond proactively in order to avoid corrections.
A STEP OR TWO TOO FAR
It was hard and took a lot of patience, from both sides. And you know what, today, on a blustery wintery day we had the best lesson ever. Topping it off with two beautiful leg-yields, away for the inside leg but inside and for the outside leg so that Liz was able to ride perfectly from letter to letter. The same with the shoulder-ins, they were so soft with no head-tilt and consistently on three tracks, coming out of it with so much self-carriage.
Two half-passes which never went through the shoulder and stopped nicely on the centre line, something Liz has now accepted she should do. She loved going the whole way across, not realizing she completely lost the correct bend around her inside leg. Occasionally pupils don't realize how much damage they can do by taking the training a step or two too far and that is their right and not something that makes them a terrible person, but it doesn't help the long winding road to success.
Today taught me a lot. It taught me about teaching flexibility to my pupils. A flexibility trainers tend to have naturally, but need to remember to pass on. In order to improve one has to dare to move forward and venture onto new territory. On the other hand, every time one gets stuck one has to accept to go back to where it starts, the forwardness and the straightness. Re-establish the focus to be proactive, but also with the flexibility to be ready to step it up when the horse offers you the submission to do so.
After the lesson I gave Liz and Callum the biggest hug. And I told Liz I wanted to write a blog about them. But I really wrote this for Liz. Years of no competition riding, a body that is aging and hurts more than she would like to admit (she is my oldest pupil at 61). She never complains, she's always ready to go, never minds being pushed. I have such respect for this woman who keeps on smiling, even when I occasionally reprimand her to keep a serious face!
And, this spring we're hoping to show Maarten a happy forward horse with a proper three beat canter and a rider on top who has pushed herself hard to keep hold of that dotted line, line zero.
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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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