Clinics are risky. No matter how well you do your homework, you won’t know if you, your horse, and the clinician will be a good fit until the lesson actually starts. In a regular lesson, if it’s a bad fit, you can just head home and forget about it. But clinics usually come with auditors, so if it goes badly, well, it goes badly in public.
The good news is the Region 1 Adult Dressage Symposium’s clinician, Charlotte Baker, and Secret and I were a good fit.
Secret is not a warmblood. She is a Friesian/Arabian cross, which means she has the drama of the Friesian with the intelligence of the Arabian.
Unfortunately, she also has the upright neck of the Friesian with the tight back of the Arabian. Many clinicians have seen that neck and missed the tight back. Those clinicians have coached me to lengthen my reins, with the goal of getting Secret’s neck as long as possible. But with her tight back, that just doesn’t work. We end up with her poll getting low, her nose coming behind the vertical, and her strides getting quick.
But Charlotte wasn’t going to make that mistake.
Charlotte immediately identified Secret’s problem (and neatly coached the auditors into also seeing) as a need for more suppleness in the back, and set to work loosening the dramatic little black mare. She gave us several leg yield exercises, from the standard leg yield from centerline to the rail in trot and canter, nose to the wall leg yield in trot, and a nifty leg yield from x to the corner followed by a canter depart. She followed that up with some lateral work in trot. These worked like a charm, and Secret’s back got softer and softer, and her neck came longer and longer.
Then Charlotte wanted to see our counter canter. Counter canter has been our nemesis ever since last fall, when I started playing with lead changes. I have put the lead changes on the shelf, but Secret, in that wonderful I-can-do-whatever-my-human-wants-if-I-just-try-a-little-harder mare attitude, still wants to show off her new trick. She will maintain counter canter from the walk without anticipating a lead change, but if we change directions from true canter to counter canter, well, Secret knows exactly where to put the lead change, whether I cue it or not. The right lead is significantly more prone to random lead swapping. And the more pressure we add (like a clinic or a show), harder she tries, and the more she swaps leads.
Charlotte has this great technique for when things go wrong. Instead of trying to push through it, she steps back and breaks the exercise into its component parts – the buttons that need to work in order for the exercise to be easy for the horse. After a little exploring, we found that, when in the right lead canter, Secret’s reaction to my left leg is to tighten her topline and hurry, throwing her off balance. Then she uses the lead change to correct her balance.
Then Charlotte did something uncharacteristic in a clinician. She broke the rules. She said “Generally, we don’t want to have a horse go with his haunches in while cantering, but for this horse, this is the correct correction.” She did an excellent job of making sure everyone understood why this unconventional correction was correct.
We put Secret on a circle and worked with her to get her to give me haunches in on the circle, while maintaining her tempo, and bend, and a soft neck. This was no easy feat. Charlotte tactfully interspersed humor when things started to get tight with an “On the bit? Oh, yea, that too.” Maybe Secret wasn’t the only over-achiever in the ring…
We didn’t get it 100% at the clinic, but the amount of suppleness we did create gave us a much better collected canter. In the week working with this since the clinic, she has gotten much more supple and relaxed about my left leg. I have not tried any challenging counter-canter lines yet, as Charlotte’s advice for me was to focus just on the canter haunches in for a little bit, then go back to the counter canter.
On day two of the clinic, Secret’s soft back and longer neck proved that Charlotte was on the right path. We continued with more suppleness work, this time utilizing bend changes in the lateral work (shoulder in to renvers, half pass to leg yield). We also spent some time playing with transitions within the canter. Charlotte made Linda, Secret’s owner, and I beam like kids at Christmas with the words “this mare has a lot of ability in the collected canter.” Watch out warmbloods!
In addition to my lessons, I took pages of notes, writing down the different suppleness-generating exercises Charlotte used for each level. My horses at home have been reaping the benefits.
Thank you USDF, for making this excellent clinician affordable, to OVCTA’s great organizing, and Hassler Dressage for their incredible footing (the barn is nice too). The clinic was truly a joy.