Sunday, December 18, 2011

Cliffs Notes from Clinics

My favorite movie is Dangerous Beauty, the story of a 16th century Venetian courtesan. One scene depicts the heroine, addressing a group of Venetian wives, and, as she is peeling a banana, she says, “The Latin for banana is arienna. Banana tree is pala.  A woman’s greatest, and most hard-won asset is an education.” The scene is all the more memorable since she concludes by deep-throated the banana, but that doesn’t really relate to my blog, so I’ll leave that alone….

I treasure my education, and I routinely augment my regular lessons with clinics. The quality of education from this year’s clinician list has been truly impressive.  Secret, Venus, Eclipse, Sling, Flash, and Legend have been my mounts, and I thought I would give you a peak at my lesson notes.  Rather than bore you with pages and pages of notes from each specific clinic for each specific horse – and believe me, I have them – I thought I’d sum up in a Cliff’s Notes-style blog.  None of these things are profound, as the difficulty of dressage is not in the complexity, but rather in the specificity.  So here goes.

Control every part of my body. Control my thigh pressure, control my seat, control the angle of my pelvis, control the placement of my legs, control the pressure in my calves, control my hands.  Ride better.

Control every part of the horse, every stride.  Control the shoulders, control the hind legs, control the tempo, control the balance.  Train better.

Keep every part of my body separate. If I need to boot a horse forward, my hands need to stay still. Otherwise it’s confusing to the horse.

Sometimes I need to ride the harmony, sometimes I need to disrupt the harmony to change a specific item – balance, suppleness, activity, obedience. Then I need to re-establish the harmony.  Don’t leave the exercise until the harmony is reestablished.

Pushing when there’s tension only makes more tension. 

Pushing when there’s relaxation and balance sometimes creates some really amazing work. Don’t coast when it feels good, use the “good” to make “even better.”

Tempo and clarity of the gait cannot be overestimated.  If every stride isn’t in a clear, correct rhythm, fix it. Don’t move on until that basic is in place.  Skimping on that step will cost you balance and suspension in the long run.

The calf is for go. The spur or a thumping calf is the correction for not responding to the calf.  Save the whip for collection.

If I think my horse is supple enough, supple some more.  A lack of suppleness can show up as heavy on the aids, running from the aids, or just plain stiffness. 

Ride the horse out to your hand. Don’t take the bit back to the horse.  If the horse won’t go to the bit, check the suppleness, then let the horse go out to the bit again.  Ride better.

Ride the horse out to both reins first, and then worry about bend. If he’s not out to both reins, I don’t have control of enough parts of him to make a correct bend anyway.

If my horse is heavy in one rein, make sure the opposite shoulder isn’t popping out. Don’t give him the rein to lean on, instead put movement in the “heavy” rein, and a steady contact on the rein that is avoiding contact. And get off the track – the second track encourages straightness.

Break things down for the horse. If he understands walk pirouette from the seat aid, but wants too much help from the rein in the canter pirouette, keep going between the two until he understands that it’s the same thing, just a different gait.  Teach the horse, don’t just muscle him.  Train better.

Know what I am doing and why. When I ride a circle, I need to know what I want to accomplish through that circle. Do I want more bend? Do I want to control the tempo? Do I want to improve the balance? The clearer I am in my mind, the more clearly I will communicate to my horse.

If an exercise begins to fall apart, stick to the “why.”  If I wanted leg yield in trot to improve suppleness, and the horse misunderstood and cantered, rather than correct the gait (which wasn’t the goal of the exercise) stay in leg yield until the horse understands and gives me more suppleness.

In short, ride better and train better.  I think that’s what we all want. With or without the banana.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Little Help from My Friends, Part 2

In addition to Cheryle and Linda, two people fall into the “I can’t live without them” category – Doug and Amy.

Yea, Doug is my husband, and he is contractually obligated to be around, but the level of support he gives me goes far beyond the ‘good horse husband’ requirement. In reality, SFD is what it is because of him.

About 9 years ago, I was in a slump. I had left my working student position and starting to build my own business. I understood that building a business takes time, but I had a few other things going on.  Swayze, the horse I had developed while I was a working student, was dying of cancer. I was busting my butt as a waitress to cover Swayze’s vet bills. I was riding for a gal with some nice dressage horses, and frankly, I could tell she was working her way off of my client list. The remaining handful of students only had outdoor arenas, and it was fall. I was looking at a long winter in the restaurant, feeling like I wasted four working-student years and had nothing to show for it. I decided I had had enough, and it was time to engage the back-up plan and return to school.

Doug and I were living together, but we weren’t married yet, and frankly, I don’t know how he put up with my depressed, surly self.

I brought up the topic of returning to school. He was supportive of my plans, telling me it didn’t matter to him what I did for a living, as long as I was happy.

Then he bought me a web site, and lent me money to attend a USDF instructor workshop.
The web site became a turning point for me. It started as and later, when we rented our first barn 2 years later, evolved into The early web site helped me stay focused on my goal. It gave me a place to organize my training theory, showcase my students and horses, and helped me see the big picture of my career, instead of getting bogged down in the day-to-day ups-and-downs of building a business. Later, when SFD started to need me more in the arena than behind the desk, Doug learned Dreamweaver and became webmaster. 

The USDF Instructor Workshop was another turning point. At the workshop, I met Mary Russell, who has Lucky Cricket Farm. She asked me to come teach a series of clinics at her place, and from that clinic came three training horses, all of which the owners wanted to see in the show ring – two under me, and one under his jr rider. Mary has a full-time job in addition to a lesson barn, so that is a service she couldn’t provide.

As a working student, I had funneled my limited funds into clinics, so my show resume had a glaring 5-year gap in it. Competition exposure was something I really needed, and those three horses got me back in the show ring. All three horses have won numerous year-end and all-breeds awards, Pentacle with his junior rider Victoria.  One of those horses is Statesman’s Eclipse, the Morgan stallion, and he is still with me, currently competing at PSG.

Since that pivotal winter, Doug has worn the hats of photographer, video editor, show groom, holder-of-the-homefront while Ange is at shows, stall help, chief maintenance man, moral support and occasional kick-in-the pants.  My dreams come true every day because of this wonderful man.

Amy is my groom, and is the best groom I have ever had. One of the realities of riding professionally is I just don’t have the time to curry and buff to my heart’s content. How a horse is handled on the ground directly relates to how they go under saddle, so having the right groom is crucial.

I remember when I hired Amy. I had been trying to fill my grooming need with working students and in-house for a couple of years, and finally gave up and put an ad in the Horse of Delaware Valley. I had a good response to my ad, but I was worried about the whole interview process – what questions should I ask, what if I hired the wrong person, etc. I set up interviews with nine people, and by the end of the day, I asked two of them to come in and try the job for a day (with pay, of course). In reality, I liked Amy the best, but the other gal had a stronger resume.

Once the day was over, it was clear that Amy was the right one for the job.  She has been with me over a year, and I hope she never leaves. She is careful and safe, the horses all like her, and she is great at the details. Two of my horses, in particular, have a LOT of details to help them perform their best, and Amy handles all of their quirks like it’s no big deal.   Plus she has a great sense of humor, something that is sorely underestimated in a barn.

Thank you doesn’t even begin to cover the depth of emotion I have for the help and support you two give me.