Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Feelings, oh oh oh feelings,

Rolling Stone Magazine lists the song "Feelings," written by Morris Albert, as the #9 worst song of the 70's.  I tend to agree. It's a cheesy, redundant, vague song about losing a feeling and not being able to get it back.  Kinda like trying to 'feel' a dressage movement.

As you may have already guessed, I am not a fan of “feel” when riding a horse.

I know, admitting this may get me banned from the “in” dressage instructors club, but hear me out.  My issue with ‘feel’ is multi-faceted. 

First, what riders feel is not necessarily correct or incorrect, what they feel is change.  That change may or may not be for the better.

Second, a rider’s ‘feel’ vocabulary is limited to the range of her experiences.  Unless a rider has trained several different conformation types up the levels, chances are their ‘feel reference’ will be incorrect.

Third, how a horse feels and how a horse looks may or may not match, particularly when a horse is learning a new balance point or a new movement. As a horse gets stronger, the same “look” may feel dramatically different.

Fourth, feel changes from day-to-day, depending on the weather, the footing, if the saddle has shifted back, the horse and rider’s fatigue level, the list goes on and on.  Feel just has too many variables to be reliable as a training evaluation.

Fifth, riders tend to get emotionally committed to what they think something should feel like, which gets in the way of an instructor helping them change the horse to become more correct.

So if I don’t teach feel, how do I help students become independent trainers?

First, I ask students to ride by landmarks and tests.

An example of using both landmarks and tests in leg yield: when leg yielding, using accuracy as a landmark, ride the movement from D to B. If the rider can accurately ride from D to B, instead of D-ish to somewhere-near-B, while keeping the horse parallel to the long side, the horse’s alignment will create crossing.  Additionally, a great test of balance in the leg yield is asking the horse to do a small flexion in the direction of the leg yield.  If the horse can do a small flexion change, without tension or tempo change, then the horse has proved his balance as well.

In shoulder in, there are two landmarks. First, if starting the shoulder in at M, can the rider see E through the horse’s ears, with both ears level, while keeping the hind legs on the track? If yes, then the angle is most likely correct. Second, can the rider push her inside hip forward, and line it up with her outside fist, without having 10,000 lbs in the outside rein? If yes, the bend is most likely correct.  If the horse maintains the tempo and increases his back swing when the rider swings her hips more, then that shoulder in is probably pretty darned fancy.

The second way I help students become independent trainers, and admittedly this is a bit contrary to my earlier-stated anti-feel stance, I ask students to let me label their “feels” for them. 

I rode in a clinic with a big-name trainer last November on Capi, and after a series of exercises, she asked me, “What do you think of that feeling?” 

“It doesn’t matter what I think, I’m memorizing it,” was my reply.  In that moment, I was noting where I felt the most pressure from the saddle on by seat, how much movement I felt in my hips, how much the muscles in my thighs were firing, and humming a song in my head (that’s my personal method for maintaining tempo – background music in my head).  I was creating a ‘feel reference’ for the trot.

When I’m teaching, if a movement looks correct, I’ll tell my student to memorize that feel. Nine times out of 10, they’ll say, “But that’s not what I thought it should feel like.” 

To which I reply, “’Should’ doesn’t matter, go with look, that’s what judges see.”  Then I let them hang in that movement for a few minutes, doing my best to give minimal corrections, so they have time to create a ‘feel reference.’

And thanks to the wonderful cell phone cameras, I don’t have to ask them to believe in me, I can shoot a few minutes and they can see it for themselves.

Once a student accepts the disconnect between ‘look’ and ‘feel,’ she is able to consistently focus on using landmarks, tests, and muscle memory instead of the nebulous notion of ‘feel.’  Which means, even when her ‘feel’ seems off, she has tools she can apply, tools that will let her confidently trust her training techniques.  And correct techniques consistently applied creates consistently trained horses. 

In dressage,  techniques are much better than Mr. Alber's "Feelings," which in his words, "never come again." 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Clinic quirks

Riding in public is always an experience. I know, intellectually, that getting a bit nervous is a sign that the event is important to me. I know that I have to practice being nervous, so I see how my brain sabotages my riding. Then I can think ahead of my brain’s nervous quirks – forwarded is forearmed and all that.  So when Hassler’s announced Susanne von Dietze, a position guru, was coming, I figured who better to help me find my riding quirks?

A short aside for the dressage rail-birds that seem to enjoy finding fault with more accomplished riders and horses—I promise you, no horse or rider is perfect.  Every accomplished rider knows what her and her horse’s weaknesses are. They are actively working to improve those weaknesses every day.  For those who enjoy searching for those faults like they are buried treasure, knock yourself out, but know you are not making divine revelations here. Accomplished riders want to ride better, even more than rail birds want to find holes in other people’s riding. This sport is hard, and riding in public, with all the perfectionism and pressure we idealistic, type-A dressage riders put on ourselves, is even harder.
Back to the clinic - after last weekend’s clinic I’m proud to say two of my quirks are better. I was able to process what she was asking me to do AND remember to half halt most of the time.  My hips didn’t become stiffer than the white man shuffle. Two of my quirks still need work, though. My hands stopped following, particularly in the canter, and my right seat bone disappeared to some foreign land.  As I hoped when I threw my name in the clinic-rider sorting hat, Susanne had exercises to help me with both of those things.

Other than the riding nerves, there’s a whole slew of other performance-anxiety quirks that I tested last weekend.  The time table I created for arrival/braiding/tack/warm up was busy enough to prevent me from fidgeting, but not so crammed I felt rushed. That worked.

I remembered to order video (thank you Carol at Volte Productions!), as I am usually good about my lesson notes the first day, but the second day when I’m not running on adrenaline, I usually forget to get my notes down. That quirk I gave up on fixing, and just remember to order video.

There are, of course, other quirks:
For some reason, despite over 20 years of working in horses, and 12 years after opening my own business, my ability to feel confident in a clinic comes down to one thing – mascara. I’d really like lip gloss too, but no mascara, that will turn me into a completely incompetent rider, I’m sure of it.  Do I wear mascara every day? Of course not, for Pete’s sake, I work in a barn. But on clinic days, it’s essential.

Then there’s my phone. Why, oh why, does the part of my brain that is in charge of keeping track of my cell phone decide to play hide-and-seek when I’m nervous? This used to happen to my keys as well (I was really bad—at one show I had a locksmith come open my truck, only to find my keys were hiding in my jacket pocket. At least I wasn't wearing the jacket while the locksmith was there.), but our new truck has a keypad on the door, so I can just lock the keys in the truck.

Now on to the part you really want to know – what exercises did Ms. von Dietze have that were so helpful for Sling and I?

For my stiff, wall-flower canter hands, she had me ride with both reins in my outside hand. She had me hold my inside arm in front of me as if I were hugging a giant beach ball, then turn my palm away from me, and push forward in the same rhythm of the canter.  This worked like a charm. Suddenly my hands joined the party.  

For my roaming right seat bone, she had me canter left while holding on to the back of the saddle with my right hand.  Again, it worked great. Both exercises gave me a “feel reference” that I could check in with throughout the ride.

She had a couple other exercises that I really liked.  I’ve played with them in lessons and training sessions since then, and found them to be helpful enough to include in my arsenal.  Here are the two I’ve used the most in lessons since the clinic:

Diagonal/straight – in this exercise, I rode Sling out of the corner on a diagonal line. Once all four legs were on the diagonal, I turned him parallel with the long side. Once all four feet were straight on that line, I turned him back on the diagonal, and repeated this cycle until I ran out of room.

This exercise did a great job of putting the responsibility of self-carriage on Sling’s plate, instead of letting me help too much.  As he had to keep changing direction, he figured out quite quickly that he needed to “stay ready” and not let his weight fall on his shoulders. 

5/5/5 – in this exercise, I asked Sling to take 5 steps of walk, 5 steps of trot, and 5 strides of canter.  Note that those were steps, not strides, so things come up really quick. 

This exercise did a fantastic job of getting Sling quicker with his hind legs.  It also got him much more focused on my seat, as I had to use my seat as the primary aid to change the gait. If I used too much leg, it created too much energy, and I couldn’t make the next downward transition happen in time.   

Today I head out to ride in public again, taking horses to a local schooling show to make sure I have their warm-up routines ironed out before we head to our first recognized show in two weeks. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep track of my phone. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Sling into Spring

This weekend I break the long winter's training by riding in a public clinic.  I usually don't stay home all winter, but this year I had new staff to train, several short-term horses in training, and a couple of Fl trips, so time got crunched, and here we are, with our first shows weeks away and most of my horses haven't gone off farm since October. So when Hasslers advertised a clinic, I threw my name in the hat.

I’m riding Wendy Adam’s horse, Slingshot, with all of his enthusiasm and antics, in Hassler Dressage’s clinic with Susanne vonDietze.  Which means I’m taking my most goofy, playful, over-reactive mount in front of auditors.   

Sling has been with me since he learned to carry a rider. I, as is my bad habit, fell in love with someone else’s horse, so we worked out an arrangement for him to stay with me long-term.  I rode him in a handful of young horse classes and taught him the basics of showing, or at least I tried to.  In the last few years, for the most part I’ve handed the competition reins over to Paige, Wendy’s daughter, who has earned a wall of ribbons on him.

Sling is a tricky ride.  He always has been, which is in part what I enjoy about him. I would not have been able to develop Sling without taking his personality intoconsideration.

He’s a very emotional horse, and we all know what he’s thinking, both in the barn and under tack. He can go from exuberantly happy to insecure in a matter of strides. His work ethic has always been tied to his fitness level, and he has always learned at his own pace.  Often I feel like I don’t really train Sling.  Rather I discuss dressage, and hope he comes to the right conclusion.

So why did I put this horse in public with a clinician who emphasizes biomechanics and position? Well, although Sling is quite emotional, at this point in his life, he is fairly honest. He has no problem telling me when my timing is off, but as he has matured, his enthusiasm for “the fancy stuff” feels like he’s cheering me on to ride better. 

Here’s hoping he’s not scared of the auditors, and that Ms. Von Dietze finds him as charming as I do.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Why do We Spend so Much Time and Money on This Crazy Obsession?

This is my attempt to turn a speech into an essay, so please forgive me my loose interpretation of many rules of grammar. I gave this speech Feb 25th at the French Creek Equestrian Association's Annual Meeting and Awards Banquet.  Fay Seltzer asked me to write it up for the blog, so here it is.

Why do We Spend so Much Time and Money on This Crazy Obsession?

When French Creek Equestrian Association’s president Fay Seltzer asked me to speak at this year’s annual meeting and awards banquet, she asked for a “husband friendly topic.”  After mulling this over for a bit, observing husbands at our recent schooling show, and batting the topic around with my husband, I came to the conclusion that the question every husband ponders is “what is it about horses that make my wife so happy?”  The “happy wife, happy life” thing only scratches the surface.

As a professional horseperson, I often wonder what motivates my students.  I see their over-booked lives. I see the sacrifices they make, both financially and time-wise, to be at the barn. I see how they struggle with fear and frustration to achieve their goals. I gear my business to helping them get satisfaction from the horses they love.  And I (well, my husband, actually) wonder why.

From a psychology standpoint, the horse-human relationship has not been studied much.  Equine Assisted Psychotherapy utilizes horses as mimics of human emotions to help with anxiety, PTSD, depression, anger management, and the list goes on. EAP has been a breakthrough for people who don’t respond to traditional “talk therapies.” 

According to Dr Gardner, in an interview for The Guardian, “One of the reasons I think equine-assisted therapies work so well is that everyone has a reaction to horses; nobody is indifferent. People either love them or fear them, so that's two big emotions that immediately reflect what most of life's issues revolve around.”

Although EAP is a far cry from the way most of us enjoy our horses, Dr Garner may be on to part of the “addiction” to horses.  Later in the article, he goes on to say,  "It has been clinically documented that just being around horses changes human brainwave patterns. We calm down and become more centered and focused when we are with horses," he says. "Horses are naturally empathetic. The members of the herd feel what is going on for the other members of the herd."

In our often over-scheduled life, a place of calm is often worth the price.

Taking this a bit further, I find many horse people are what I’ll call “friendly introverts.” They meet the introvert checklist, as Dr. Susan Whitbourne wrote for Psychology Today, a few of which are:

       1. You enjoy having time to yourself
       2. Your best thinking occurs when you’re by yourself
       3. You don’t initiate small talk with salespeople or others with whom you have casual contact. 
       4. You often wear headphones when you’re in a public situation. 
 5. You prefer not to engage with people who seem angry or upset.

I think most of these apply to horse people, especially dressage riders, particularly the last one. The article goes on to describe studies documenting introverts “re-directing” from high-emotion situations—redirecting their eyes in mild cases and physically leaving extreme emotional settings.

This ties in so easily to a common horse training technique – when a horse becomes tense or afraid, trainers often change the topic, wait for the horse’s emotions to settle, and then return to the scary/tense thing. As introverts, this behavior is hard-wired into us, and we get rewarded for being who we naturally are.

A student of mine takes it a bit further, and describes how her horse helps her bridge the gap between her strong introvert personality and casual interaction. She said:

 “When I talk about my pony to non-horse people, I talk about his personality. I tell stories where I interpret his attitude as if he were speaking to me. I like to tell stories about how patient and stoic he is. I talk about how fun it is when he runs around with the youngsters in the pasture. I tell stories about the times when all the other horses are running around and he looks up, decides it’s crazy to expend so much energy, and then goes back to eating. I talk about how fuzzy he is in winter. And then I show them pictures like he’s my baby.My friends notice that I tend to get more animated when I’m talking about Karison.”

Talking about Karison helps Cheryle bridge the gap of uncomfortable small talk so common in introverts, thereby making her more at ease.

Getting back to the barn aisle, stable life helps us horse people keep connections with friends and family that share our interest.  Just as a Star Wars buff finds his “herd” at Comic Con, we find our herd at the barn, at the show, at the paper chase, or at the hunt.

In the English language, the word loneliness doesn’t have an opposite. Light has its opposite in dark; anger has its opposite in joy.  But loneliness doesn’t have a word that describes it’s opposite.  Maybe belonging is that opposite.  The barn creates that for us.

I overhear conversations in my barn, and they so closely resemble what Stanford Assistant professor Gregory Walton calls “belonging intervention.” The three principles of “belonging intervention” are:
You are not alone.
You belong.
And it gets better

Walton studied “belonging intervention” in minority groups of college freshman. In his work, the “test groups” were counseled in the above three key ideas. That counseling impacted their academic performance and, surprisingly to Walton, their health.  The impact lasted through not only college, but until the end of the study, three years college. 

I overhear conversation that lines up with “belonging intervention” in my barn aisle regularly. Every time a rider is going through a difficult training stage, or a nagging lameness, or struggling to balance barn life and “real life,” I hear other boarders telling them they are not alone, listening to them, helping them, and reminding them that it gets better.  That shared empathy, that community, that belonging—churches offer it, social clubs offer it, and  barns offer it.

And when it’s going well, does it get any better than a great ride?
We often talk about a great ride as being “in the zone,” which psychologists refer to as “flow state.”
Flow state - also known as “the zone,” is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

Situations that can have flow often have these two characteristics:
              High interest
              High but achievable technical skill

Flow is an actual brain-chemistry state, when the norepinephrine (brain chemical of alertness) and dopamine (brain chemical of interest) balance to make that magic mental cocktail, where we are totally in the moment. 
Pulling from Mikaly Csikszentmihalyi’s web site (he is, incidentally the author of the book entitled, Flow), several elements are involved in achieving flow.

·       There are clear goals every step of the way.
·       There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.
·       There is a balance between challenges and skills.
·       Action and awareness are merged.
·       Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
·       There is no worry of failure.
·       Self-consciousness disappears.
·       The sense of time becomes distorted.
·       The activity becomes an end in itself.

The best part is that this wonderful state can be created so easily in the barn. A quick Google search will find a “cookbook” of how to create flow, and a few of those steps are pretty much built into horseback riding:

1. Rituals to begin event. In our world, those rituals include grooming and tacking.
2. Be mindful (aware, but non-judgmental) about your thoughts. This state is easily created in the early stages of the ride as you plan the workout.
3. Being aware of your emotional state and modulating it as needed.   Every horse person does this – it’s windy, my youngster looks frisky, am I ok with that or should we lunge first?
4. Cadence training (focusing on a sound or song) or targeting to help narrow focus.  Just listen to a horse trot, and you can’t miss the cadence.

So whether it’s the sense of calm, the sense of connection, or just the mental “high” of a good ride, we all have the addiction.  Sorry husbands.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Add-a-Bead Dressage Education

Sometimes I feel like my dressage education is an add-a-bead necklace. I take lessons, I ride and audit clinics, and I observe riders, and each educational opportunity gives me a new pearl to add to my chain. In the weeks since the Judge’s Forum and FEI Trainer’s conference in West Palm Beach and Loxahachee FL, I’ve found my teaching and riding sprinkled with the pearls I gleaned from my trip.

The first pearl was for me. The major reason I make the trek down each year is to re-set my standard. Winter in PA creates a challenge—how do I keep my standard high throughout the long months of riding alone? During the summer, I can sit ringside at shows, observing the JJ Tates of the world, and let my cognitive learning skills do their magic. I watch skilled rider’s body alignment, quietly effective aids, and the volume of their corrections.  This information worms itself into my brain, and my mounts respond. But the magic doesn’t last forever, so by mid January, 12 weeks after our last show, my training was feeling a bit stale.

After two days of watching 7 CDI Level riders, including such names as Canada’s WEG rider Karen Pavicic on her up-and-coming mare Beaujolais, and Beatrice Marienau aboard her Nation’s Cup mount Stefano 8, develop their horses, my internal dressage eye is reset, my brain is working out new training ideas, and my arena time now feels much more inspired.

Venus was the recipient of the next pearl. She often comes into the arena a touch on the unresponsive side. For her, the pearl came from Alexandra du Celliee Muller’s lesson on her mount, Rumba. I watched as Alexandra tried to subtly, tactfully bring Rumba more in front of her aids, and how that made her seat more and more crooked, just like happens to me on Venus. Then, as the clinicians Lilo Fore and Hans Christan Matthiesen encouraged her to get a better reaction, Alexandra gave him a strong (but not ugly) correction, to which Rumba splattered forward, dropped his poll, and lost the collection. Ah, Venus and I know this pattern well.

Lilo gave cooking advice that clearly resonated with Alexandra. She described cooking soup, and how when the soup needs salt, you don’t come in with the entire bag, because if you get the soup too salty, it’s tough to fix it. Instead you add salt, you taste it, and then you add more if needed.

Was the result magical? I’d be lying if I said Lilo’s words made a 100% turnaround, but it did make a difference, in not only Rumbas balance, but Alexandra’s straightness. Lilo made clear to all of us, riders, judges, and auditors, that this is not a quick-fix problem. And, of course, as horses are apt to do, Rumba set out to prove Lilo wrong – he came in on day two more uphill and more prompt in his responses.

Slingshot also received a pearl, this time from Dana Fiore’s lesson on So Special. So Special wanted to come short and deep in the neck, putting too much weight on his shoulders, which affected his suspension. Dana applied the clinician’s corrections to “show him the way up” through variations in shoulder in– the two that made the biggest difference were trot-walk in shoulder in, and varying the angle of shoulder in while maintaining the same bend. Throughout the ride, So Special’s trot gained more and more airtime.

My students and I all received a pearl from Karen Pavicic’s lesson on Beaujolais and Debbie Hill’s lesson on Cartier, a 9-year-old Dutch Harness Horse (who, incidentally, at one point in his career came through New Holland horse auction). Both horses were big, powerful moving horses, with a ton of bounce in their gait, and a tendency to carry their heads high. The corrections – focusing on hands going with seat bones in the canter, connecting calves to the bouncy horse, and making collection changes in small increments to help the horse understand to use their hips instead of their neck, keep getting repeated in my home sandbox, both to myself and my students.

Like an add-a-bead necklace, each pearl I gain creates a more complete string of knowledge on how to better develop horses and riders in this beautiful sport.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Seat Toy Box

Of course, it's No Stirrup November, and SFD just began a no-stirrup challenge on the Straight Forward Dressage Facebook page, so a blog post about the seat seemed fitting.

One student very frankly told me why she booked her first lesson with me. She said she was tired of being beat by my students at shows, and that all of my students had nice seats. I took that as high praise.  Another SFD student is a two-time blue ribbon holder from Dressage Seat Equitation at Dressage at Devon - heck, every SFD student who competed in DSE ribboned in that division in 2015 and 2016. Go Team SFD!

So how exactly do I build that seat? Jokingly, I tell people I take stirrups away, tie them to the saddle, and chase them with whips. Which is actually pretty close to the truth.  SFD students spend time on the lunge lunge line, they work without stirrups, and from time to time, they ride with various "toys."

The SFD seat method is based on two ideas.
1) The dressage seat takes fitness, and fitness comes from work, both on the horse and off of the horse.
2) In order to recreate the correct feel on a horse, you need to first feel it. Which is where the "toys" come in.

So here's my build-a-seat "toy" box. Each of the "toys" is selected to help the rider get a certain feeling, with hopes that the rider can re-create a tiny bit of that feeling without the "toy."  None of these "toys" are perfect, each has quirks and limitations, but point of the "toys" is to create a feeling, not perfection.   (fwiw, none of the affiliated "toy" companies have approached me about this blog.)

Of course, we start with the lunge line. Lots and lots of time on the lunge line. With stirrups, without stirrups, with one stirrup, doing funky exercises with arms. doing funky exercises with legs, etc. This builds fitness, balance, and confidence.

This is the Unisit. It really is a seat belt that holds the rider's thighs in the saddle. It does a good job showing students how to lengthen the thigh and reach down with the knees, engaging the abdominal muscles and the inner thigh muscles.

The Unisit does have it's limitations though -- it pulls riders a bit too much on the front of the seat (making it uncomfortable in delicate places), it can make thighs a bit grippy, and  it  keeps rider's seats very straight in the saddle -- some horses are reluctant to canter in it.  Also, if the saddle doesn't fit the horse, horses will get resistant in it.

This is the Unisit on a rider. You can see how it encourages a long thigh. 

This is the Equicube. It is a 3.2 lb weight that riders hold with their reins. It is held in front of the saddle, just above the withers.  I often use it right after the Unisit, as holding a weight out in front of the body encourages riders to lean back to counterbalance the weight, resulting in students sitting more on their seat bones--which corrects the Unisit's problem of putting riders a bit on the front of their seats. In addition, the Equicube helps riders tap into steering with both reins and their seat. Most riders feel the Equicube in their abdominal muscles and in their upper back.

The problem with the Equicube is two-fold -- 1) holding a whip along with a weight and reins is tough, so lazy horses will take advantage. 2) the weight is a bit much for younger riders and riders with shoulder injuries.  I wish they made an Equicube-light.

This is a metronome. The base of the training scale is rhythm with correct tempo and energy.  Most horses change tempos depending on the figure and where they are in the workout, and riders politely adjust their seats to the horse's tempo.  Giving riders a set "tick" in their ear encourages riders to set the tempo instead of following the horse's tempo.

The trick to getting the most benefit from the metronome is insisting that riders RIDE the tempo, instead of correcting the horse to the tempo. If the rider keeps correcting the tempo, the horse will overshoot it - first slower, then faster, then slower -- instead of the horse locking into following the rider. Most riders are a bit sore everywhere when they first start using a metronome, as controlling 1,000 lb horse takes clarity of movement.

These are my low-tech bits of baling twine. The orange one is a loop, that I use to help wandering hands. Often, as riders concentrate on seat, leg, balance, steering, the hands go wandering off a bit. By slipping this loop in the velcro of gloves, it gives a gentle reminder to keep hands up.

The two blue ones are used to  tie elbows to belt loops, again to give riders a feeling of when their elbows are drifting away.

Hands and elbows often wander when the horse is just a little behind the leg -- not backed off enough to appear slow, but backed off enough to not be stepping fully into the contact. Rider's widen their hands and arms to maintain the lighter contact.. These two tools help riders notice that wandering created by the backing off, and correct the horse with their leg -- hopefully before I notice it. 

These are the newest addition to my toy box -- the Perfect Heel from PS of Sweden.  Tucked in side of these Velcro-on heels are two weights.  I use them for two scenarios.

First, if a student has worked hard with out stirrups to create a nice, long thigh and deep seat, but once we add the stirrups back the seat begins to bounce, these heels are quite helpful. That bounce is coming from ankles that tighten when they feel the steady surface of the stirrup. Add the Perfect Heel helps the rider re-create the "draped" feeling of no stirrup work, while keeping the stirrup platform under their foot.

Second, for students who tend to use their heel to do all of their leg aids, the Perfect Heel will encourage a stretched calf from which to aid.  Once that feeling is established. riders are more easily able to tap into individual parts of their leg as aids -- the inner thigh, the knee, the calf, and the heel.    I see this a lot in riders on smaller horses, where the horse's belly falls away from the lower leg. 

This is another shot of the Perfect Heel where you can see the weights. They are removable. Most riders feel the difference with two weight plates in the heel, but I take one plate out for my younger students.

Friday, November 4, 2016

KHDTS Symposium Report

We were unloading at the BLMs when I received the e-mail from Jann, the secretary at Hassler Dressage, that Secret and I had been selected in the upcoming KHDTS (Klimke Hassler Dressage Training Symposium) Oct 28-30 2016.   Which is awesome, and a bit terrifying, all at the same time.

The next e-mail asked for permission to use video from the clinic as part of an online video library.  I agreed, as it seems like the right thing to do. Then noted my nervous-meter creeping up.

My Facebook feed and inbox started filling with more and more ads for the clinic, then the Saturday reception was advertised as full.  From attending previous clinics at Hasslers, I know that means close to 200 auditors – nervous-meter cranked up another click.

Linda was right with me.  She checked out the rider list, and realized that not only was Secret the only non-warmblood, she was the only mare.  I was pretty sure we would also be at least 5 inches shorter than any other horse there.

The week before, my groom was on vacation. She returned to work on Thursday, and my working student, who had been trying to muscle through work with a stomach bug, gave up and called out sick. Which pushed packing for the clinic to Friday morning, with us leaving early afternoon--nothing like a little frantic activity on top of nerves.

I am a chronic over-packer.  With the temperature doing it’s normal PA fall fluctuations, and nerves telling me I need to look tidy no matter what, I just kept throwing in more and more clothes.   Then, in last-minute panic, I tossed in yet another outfit.   If nerves completely sabotaged my riding, at least I’d look tidy.
Check out that boot polish - the square is a reflection of the window pane, and my boots are not patent leather. This is a bright, shiny example of nerves.

In the spirit of getting the most out of the weekend, I signed up for an additional lesson with Michael on Friday. I tend to ride like a robot when I’m getting used to a new instructor, so I thought it best  to get that out of my system before the auditors showed up.  

I made my hellos to Michael, told him a bit about Secret – age, show experience, her highlights (canter pirouettes), what I’d like improved (more cadence in the trot, help with her hard flying change), and Scott added that he thought Secret would be a good horse to show the auditors about early piaffe/passage training. I purposely didn’t mention her breeding.

Michael watched me warm up, then stopped to discuss the training plan. I realized (and he commented) that I was out of breath – yep, I was in total nervous mode, complete with holding my breath. 

 We went to work, in a format that he held to in all of the lessons – first transitions within the gait, go a bit from the leg, come back with the upper body to test the half halt. Once he was happy with that, then trot canter transitions until they were fluid. Then into the work phase.

First we spent time in the working pirouettes.  He had me ride her a bit more up in the shoulders, and had me use my upper body more firmly to help with the collection.  He asked me to ride the first step of the pirouette small, then make them bigger as we went, and stressed that I needed to know how many strides I wanted to put in my pirouette before I began it.  Then he sent me across the diagonal, with instructions to ride a full pirouette at X.  My mind got a bit racy – I have ridden full working pirouettes on Secret, and technical, show-pretty half pirouettes, but I had not asked her to give me a show-quality, at-a-specific-spot-in-the-arena full pirouette.

I headed out, collected, rode the first half of the pirouette well, then, like a nit whit, started pumping with my upper body in the second half. Secret politely covered for my messy riding.  The good news is Michael let us do it again, and I rode like I actually have sat on a horse before in my life.

Then Michael gave us a break and asked me about her breeding. When I told him, he said, “when you came in, I wondered what pony is this? But then she goes to work, and she can do the job.”  I admit, I enjoyed that Secret surprised him.

Next Michael came in with the in-hand whip. I had done a little bit with Secret between the BLMs and this clinic, just teaching her to walk and halt from my body language and voice on the ground, and teaching her lift each leg when it is touched with the whip.  Secret is half Arab, so she picks up on “tricks” quickly.

We made a good start on the piaffe, so we moved on to the changes.  Secret has had trouble with her right-to-left change. Recently I made some equipment changes, and as a result she was keeping her back more lifted and the changes were coming clean at home.  But I had been getting them clean by letting her go in a lower frame for the changes, and doing them early in the ride while her back strength was fresh.  Now we were late in the workout, and I was no-way going to lower her frame in front of the German. 

So the changes were messy.  Michael took my stirrups and whip away, to get me sitting back more in the changes.   We played with several different patterns, to find the one where she could keep her frame up AND do a clean change. Then we rewarded her.

He watched a few half passes in trot and canter, which he announced were “fine,” and we wrapped up the first lesson. I was starting to think I’d be ok in front of all of the auditors.

At the rider’s meeting shortly after my lesson, Jann announced that the riders needed to meet with the videographer for a short interview.  Interview? On camera? The nerves jumped right back up.

I had a bit of time between my lesson and dinner, so I went for a short run to burn off the rest of my stupid nervous energy, then grabbed a shower and headed out to the rider’s dinner.  Food, wine, and laughing at funny stories dissipated the rest of my nerves, so I figured I had a chance at sleeping.

I was a mid-morning ride, so to keep me from fretting, I braided Secret and Eiren Crawford’s mount, Godot SSF.  Both turned out pretty nicely, if I do say so myself.

In our Saturday lesson, Secret proved she understood how to lift her hind legs, by picking them up the minute Michael came near her, before he even cued, which generated chuckles from the audience. She tried a bit too hard in the in hand work, resulting in a bit of rushed, quick steps.  She redeemed herself in the pirouette work, making even better quality pirouettes than the day before.

That night was the lecture, and here’s some cut-and-pastes from my notes:

·         Riders  are responsible to be theoretically fit. Not just rely on the trainer on the ground.
·         Replace  'why won't he' with looking at it from the horse's perspective.
·         Teach a horse a movement - 'get it done.' Once you can get it done,  then time to polish.
·         For every time you have to ride a transition, it's reacting.  Every time you ride a transition because you want to, that's training.  Same with half halt.
·         If the gaits change when go into lateral work, it is a problem. Fix it before the movement.
·         Balance control with quality of gait/beauty.
·         Ideally should be able to dial the positive tension up or down.

After the lecture, Carol Havelka, the videographer, cornered the riders for our interviews.  Cue the nerves—instantly I was at full blown to panic. I had crazy helmet-hair that was hidden under a ball cap and my chin was peeling from windburn the weekend before. I borrowed a lipstick from Linda, and as I used my reflection in a window to put it on, I didn’t realize until afterwards that my eyeliner had melted when I rode, giving me two nice raccoon eyes. 

Then, to make it even better, I stuttered in the interview, mispronounced Linda’s last name, and got mentally flustered. I was trying to describe Secret’s work ethic, and between the thoughts of “10 on try” and “100% effort every day,” I managed to make her a 10% try horse.  I hope Carol is an editing wizard, as I didn’t give her much to work with. The video will be online in January, and I don’t intend to ever watch my interview. Ever.

On Sunday, after the warm up, we began with patterns to help her changes, and tons of rewards when she got her harder change clean and right with my aids. 

For the half steps,  Michael wanted to do the in hand work without a rider. Secret proved she had been thinking about it in her stall, and by the end gave some lovely, recognizable piaffe steps.  He announced she had “ability for piaffe,” which is high praise from a German.

Then with me up, we did a ton of transitions between half steps in sitting trot, then forward rising trot to help create more swing in her trot. We didn’t turn her into a warmblood by any means, but I could feel her starting to use her back in a more swinging way in the trot. When we played with the medium trot, she was more able to lengthen he strides without defaulting to her usual quicker strides.  This is an area we will continue to work on, but I felt true progress in the quality of her trot this weekend.

We ended the lesson with some half pass work. During one half pass, he had me move my inside hand more away from her neck. Then he asked me to keep my hands closer together, so I moved my outside hand over, and felt Secret wrap her body more around my leg with no shifting in her balance. That was really cool.

I am now home, and with videos of my lessons as well as notes from my and the other rider’s lessons, I’m inspired for the fall training season. 

Thank you to Scott and Suzanne Hassler for including me in this event, to the staff of Hassler Dressage for keeping all of it running smoothly, and to all of the event sponsors that helped make this happen. Thank you to Linda, for being Secret and my biggest cheerleader up the levels. Special thanks for Secret, for covering most of my nervous-nitwit moments.  And a special thanks to Michael Klimke, for giving so much of his knowledge to all of us.