THREE MAGICAL DAYS WITH MAARTEN VAN STEK
MAARTEN DOING THE SALSA
Thursday's clinic with Maarten van Stek, the first day of three, started with a little dance. Claire Daniels looked in amazement how Maarten was swinging it out. It was obvious he had done the salsa before.
After a fairly short night -Maarten's plane arrived late at Exeter airport so we only arrived at the farm well after midnight- he didn't waste much time to get 'in the swing of things', so to speak.
It was a brilliant exercise; after having done it in walk in order for the rider to have fully understood, rider and horse were to proceed in trot, riding four steps with the bum slightly in, four steps straight, followed by four steps bum out. In canter this was to be done every three strides.
Nearly every single rider wanted to either show too much bend, or allowed for their horse to overdo it because of lack of control. But the whole point of the exercise was bending little! Maarten explained this by putting himself into a painful stretch nearing the splits, which made very clear to all there what we were doing to our horse if we didn't keep it small.
Other than making them unnecessarily sore, through over-asking, or allowing too much from a clever horse, the most important part -coming out of the bend with plenty of energy and impulse with a well-balanced and straight horse on two tracks- was completely overlooked.
The comparison to the salsa made it very easy to understand for the riders what Maarten wanted to achieve, which often resulted into the horses doing a sigh of relieve, literally! Us watching could see the horses relax in pelvis and through the back whereas the riders really felt it.
For the slightly older PSG horse of Vic Hunt, owner of the beautiful and tidy premises we were kindly allowed to use for the clinic, this exercise was also of enormous value. Every horse needs to be made loose, young or old. The older horse needs even more care. An aging muscular system is easily damaged.
STICK TO THE PROGRAM!
'Stick to the program!' This, for me as trainer, was the most important slogan of the entire clinic. It made everything us riders are trying to achieve so much less complicated for our brain. It is so easy to end up drowning in trying to solve all the little problems. But, 'what happens now is already in the past, so you can not solve that anymore, too late',makes so much sense, however, our arms and legs have to accept this as well and learn some self-control, creating the opportunity to feel so much more. Such a great little, at the same time powerful, slogan ticks the box without having to explain endlessly.
So, when your horse is overreacting, loosing attention or resisting, keep doing what you are doing. Don't stop your aids, because it will remember that for next time; don't get sharper, because it will remember that for next time. Repeat what you where trying to tell it just the same until your horse understands what you want and has become more supple to actually do it like you meant.
COLLECTION IS A PART OF MORE
This is very much Maarten's strength; being able to come up with these incredible comparisons which speak to the rider's imagination. For example, a collection of stamps. When one stamp is missing the collection is incomplete.
This way we all of a sudden woke up to what collection as part of dressage really is: it can not exist without all the other forms of movement and is the final result of being complete.
The word rhythm was mentioned more than regularly, because rhythm gives relaxation and relaxation in its turn helps the submission and honest rein contact.Rhythm is more often than not part of the make-up of the Dutch horse, sadly not always of the English bred horse, so it has got to come from the rider. Not easy, but Maarten, although persistent with a healthy stubbornness, never showed any impatience when occasionally it took a bit longer to achieve.
HOW DOES A HORSE USE ITS WALK
Maarten is quick, very quick; grabbing every chance horse and rider give him to explain yet another issue which comes along. In this case the young, but very tidy, Niamh Hobbs with her most generous horse had to learn to walk with more impulse. Maarten explained why it is so difficult to make a horse walk with sufficient impulse. In nature the horse only uses the walk to amble from grass to more grass. If it really wants to get somewhere it will choose trot or canter. Therefore far more attention from the rider needs to go into motivating the horse to walk with vigour.
So, first of all Maarten went 'window shopping', after which he proceeded 'to the park for a brisk walk'. The window shopping made him dead-tired whereas the brisk walk made him feel invigorated with a body full of oxygen. It's no different for a orse.
I was particularly grateful for this comparison. The evolution of the Cornish dressage rider started relatively recent, some thirty-odd years ago. Riders and horses can feel a bit aimless without a lane or a track in the woods to follow, which eats away at the necessary impulse.
DRESSAGE IS DISCIPLINE...OR...JUST 'FUNNY'?
'Keep it funny!' was one of the funniest things Maarten came up with. Everyone thought this to be rather 'funny'. Maarten is surprisingly clever at teaching in a -to him- foreign language and uses his English in an adventurous manner. Every now and then when something sounded hilarious to all there, it only grabbed everyone's attention even more so, and, most important, brought the necessary relaxation for horse and rider. Liz Bailey was the best example, it nearly made her go into stitches and you could virtually see the tension disappear out of her horse because of it.
Dressage is still such a young sport in this country and there has been, occasionally still is, a tendency to approach dressage in a far too disciplined and rather stilted manner. All parts of the test are trained as in the test without sufficient impulse, rather than being inventive and pull the exercises apart. This makes it look obedient, but no more than that. It makes the horse bored and uninterested in the job (my horse doesn't like dressage, I hear it regularly), whereas none of the movements create the flow through the body of the horse. The flow it needs to develop a strong muscular system, which ought to be the whole point of doing it in the first place!
So, it didn't matter if it looked a little messy at times, as long as something happened. 'Don't worry about doing it wrong. If you don't try you have failed altogether!' By saying this Maarten managed to help riders, who worried far too much about doing it wrong, to loosen up and be a bit more gutsy. That way they achieved far more than they had dared to wish for and left feeling very satisfied and delighted with what they'd learned.
On Friday afternoon, para rider Emily Skerret filled the gap of an unfortunate cancellation and introduced herself to Maarten. And boy, did these two hit it off! This showed specifically at the end of the session when Emily bared a little of her soul telling Maarten how awful it felt when some of the 'healthy' people wanted to make all these decisions about her very own dressage career.
This had never really occurred to me. I always thought that it was such a wonderful thing that in this world we had finally reached the point where everyone counted, with or without their arms or legs, putting it bluntly.
WHO IS HELPING WHO?
But sadly this was the second time this year I heard a para rider talk about being made to feel completely inadequate and therefore deeply hurt. Earlier on this year I heard the terrible story of a young girl that was told it was better for her and her horse that the trainer would ride it up to a week before a competition and only then she would be allowed on top of her very own horse to glue it all back together. She wasn't even allowed to brush her horse, which was so important to her. It stopped her wanting to ride at all and how sad is that?
This gave me rather the impression that the ego of some of the trainers involved in this game is far too important, with the sponsors having to take some of the blame as well. May I just ask, who is helping who...?
Saturday, quarter past four and Liz Read, the last rider of the three days, enters the arena. It is her second lesson. She and Callum also rode on Thursday.
Last year this big and bold Dutch bred horse and Liz had struggled a bit. They had both been off-colour for more than a month. Callum was a hand-full and Liz, whose weak point is focus, found it all overwhelming. Maarten kept it as simple as possible but even that was tough for Liz. The following months I quietly kept working exactly as Maarten had done and it gradually started to make sense to Liz. Her focus improved and I hoped so much for her that she would be able to keep this up during her sessions with Maarten.
I must say, I was so very proud of them. After having worked our socks off all year, it was such a relief that Maarten was able to push them so much more. Also Liz and Callum were allowed to do the salsa and when the session ended with the grand finale, a proper flying change, I could see the emotion in this enthusiastic rider, although she hid it well behind a cheer with one hand way up in the air.
SEE YOU NEXT YEAR!
It went way too fast. We had all been looking forward to this so very much. For me personally it was again more than a luxury, not only to be able to give my pupils the chance to open new doors so that we can grow on with fresh vigour, but when Maarten and I at the end of the day were finally settling down with a plate of food in front of us, he was always happy to keep explaining, answer my questions with never ending patience.
It has simply been rejuvinating and better than a weekend in a spa! I am more keen than ever for my pupils to explore their capabilities and support them in their process to grow on; to teach them how to enter for them previously unknown territory. I need to be a bit more gutsy, be a tiny bit less patient and and always remember to remain inventive.
We all want him back and when I got home having dropped Maarten off at the airport, his message on Facebook was hopeful. 'Thank you, my Cornish friends, and see you next year!'
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About Liz Barclay
Her love for horses together with her dedication made her into the trainer and dressage rider she is, today. She is versatile and inventive and likes a challenge; whether it is a technical training question, a confidence issue or a problem involving the management of the horse or pony.
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