Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Glimpse at my FEI Symposium Notes

Anyone who knows me knows my education is really, really important to me.  For Christmas, my boarders took a collection to be put towards just that cause.  In Linda’s words, “investing in your education makes sense, we get it back.” 

I used my Christmas education gift to do something I’ve wanted to do for years—attend USDF’s FEI Trainer’s Symposium in Wellington, FL.  This year I was really chomping to go, since Steffen Peters and Scott Hassler were the presenters.  Plus it is in Florida at the end of January, which usually has a bit better weather than Pennsylvania this time of year.

In this Symposium, Steffen worked with 9 horse-rider combinations at various stages of their FEI journey, from learning changes to schooling Grand Prix, and Scott recapped the rides.  Steffen got on every horse at least once, and his ability to articulate what he is doing while he is riding is truly impressive. Getting a glimpse inside of another trainer’s mind is really neat.  All of the horses improved dramatically, and I think we’ll see a couple of them on future teams.

One really neat thing about symposiums with Steffen and Scott is how they emphasize the importance of indentifying each horse’s strengths and weaknesses, and creating a training plan to improve those weaknesses.  Because they were so clear about what each horse’s weakness, I could see how each training plan could be applied to specific horses I ride every day.  Plus they were super clear to emphasize that a weakness is just that, a weakness, not a limitation, which, of course, just gets me all the more excited to get home and train.  But since it is 75 here and 15 at home, I’ll stay until Thursday and visit an old friend as planned.

Here I am, at the conclusion of day two, and I thought I’d share some snippets from my pages and pages and pages of notes. Please note—these are my unfiltered translations of a master, so any fault you find in them is most likely my translation.

Train like you show, show like you train.

Don’t “kick the can down the road.”  When a training issue comes up, fix it. Don’t wait for the elusive “strong enough” to happen. 

Stay true to yourself as you train.  All of the input from judges, instructors, and peers should add to your training path, not replace it. Stick to a horse’s path.

Another word for discipline is priority.

When a horse makes a mistake in a movement, it is a problem with the acceptance of one of the aids. Figure out which aid needs tuned up, then try the movement again.  Fix the root problem, not the movement.

A good seat goes with a manageable contact. You can’t have a good seat if the horse is incorrect in the contact. They go hand in hand.

Contact needs to be correct first, then add  cadence and swing.

Every step needs to be controlled.  Each aid has to be purposeful.

Let  a horse make mistakes, then take care of it. Don’t ride to prevent mistakes.

Horses need to come back as easily as they go forward.

As a trainer, we need to figure out when a horse struggles with strength and when the horse struggles with understanding. Handle each differently.

If you need to ride strong, do it, but immediately be light.

If you can’t fix the outline/balance/rhythm in 2 strides, simplify the work and fix it. Then go back to more complicated movements.

Every movement has 3 phases:
                Phase to set up
                Phase to execute
                Phase to finish – movement isn’t over until the quality, balance, and relaxation are reestablished.

Very few horses are deliberately disobedient. More often, resistance is caused by confusion, fear, or pain. This is why attention to your horse's welfare and simplicity and clarity of aiding are paramount.

Loaded with all of this inspirational goodness, I'll bundle up on Friday and train to my heart's content. Within the limitations of the weather and my tolerance for frostbite, of course. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Winter Workshop 2012

Aneesa Romans came to this year's Winter Workshop thanks to a scholarship from DVCTA. Her scholarship required she write an article about the experience, and I enjoyed reading it so much I asked if I could run it here. She made WW sound so much fun I wish I could come as a participant myself!  (on an aside, I can't figure out why this page saved in two colors, but I've given up on getting it all one color, so we'll call it artistic...)

Winter Workshop
By Anessa Romans

I attended the 2012 edition of Straight Forward Dressage’s Winter Camp December 28th - 30th and, in short, I had a blast. It was an action packed three days of fitness workouts, riding theory, and of course riding lessons. I’ve never been so simultaneously exhausted and energized after a clinic. There’s a bunch to share so to keep it semi-organized the article will be in three chunks. One on the riding & training theory topics that were discussed, a second on rider fitness (mostly physical but I’ll also touch on the mental), and finally some takeaways from my one on one lessons. I’ve also included lots of photos. Before diving in I want to say thank you to the tireless staff of SFD for hosting such a wonderful event and thank you to DVCTA for making my participation possible via the scholarship. -Aneesa

Cheryle lead the discussion for our training toolkit.
Training Toolkit. The first discussion introduced the goal worksheets. Each sheet was for a specific riding goal or problem area and there were spaces to list exercises one could do to address it including highlights for success and potential pitfalls. Tempo, relaxation, straightness, contact, impulsion, and similar goals/problem areas were tossed out by the group in the brainstorming phase. I will sheepishly admit that it wasn’t until typing this article that it dawned on me that these same goals are prominent residents of our venerable pyramid of training. However, there are many roads to Rome and it’s up to us as trainers to understand our horses and tailor our approach accordingly. As an example, under the goal of relaxation it was suggested to warm up the horse in a predictable pattern paying attention to consistency from day to day and place to place bearing in mind the possible pitfall of the horse either taking over or tuning out the rider. It was also suggested to constantly vary the warm-up routine paying attention to keeping things fresh and stimulating with the possible pitfalls of making the horse insecure or agitated. Both are legitimate strategies and excellent additions to ones training toolkit.

When talking about warm up consider the physical, the horses’ body temperature actually rising as a result of increased blood flow in the cardiovascular system, and the mental, like the relaxation strategies mentioned above. Warm up is also time to gage the horses’ attention and obedience. Reine, the resident corgi, aptly demonstrated how obedience is more readily attained once you’ve capture her full attention. Then Ange talked about how having a plan in mind before you mount can speed up the process of getting the horse focused and responding to aids promptly. Start with the basics of go, stop, and turn, and refine the aids from there, acknowledging places where you meet resistance and incorporating that into your plan.

Now I’m not a very serious person by nature and while all the theory is well and good it’s also a little heavy. Thankfully we got to spend two days putting the training scale into practice without even having to think about it. How you ask? Why quadrille practice of course! Keeping eight horse and rider teams synchronized tested everyone’s training (and our poor instructor Cheryle’s dodging skills) in a fun and positive way. Mastering the fan, the pinwheel, and carousel all required a firm grasp on the many shades of go, stop, and turn that we established in warm up. My horse particularly liked using thread the needle to show off trot lenthenings that he never gives a regular test. The highlight was finally pulling off the routine Sunday afternoon with our fearless band of junior riders leading the charge. If you’ve never tried quadrille please do!

Sadly our quadrille lacked a soundtrack, but we got plenty inspiration for next year by cozying up on the couches to watch freestyle videos, read the test sheets, and discuss what makes for a good musical ride. From the simple, like matching the beat to the gait, to the subtle, like placing crescendos to highly extensions. We were also treated to talk on competitive dressage in the days long before the grand prix freestyle test was started. Jenifer Bryant brought along several books that gave us a glimpse into the time when dressage was simply a part of a military horses training and competitions were only between cavalry members. I was floored to learn that the first Olympic dressage test was approximately 17 minutes long! (I really hope they allowed readers) The books also illustrated the evolution of the type of horse used for competition as the cavalries were disbanded, the world became more industrialized, and amateurs got into the sport. New training systems grew alongside new bloodlines and new judging requirements. Competitive dressage is changing faster than ever in today’s information age, and I appreciate the context provided by gaining a better historical perspective. Now I understand why these big kerfuffles erupt every time a new biomechanics study is published that flies in the face of “tradition”.

Rider Fitness. Owning a “fun sized” horse for the past seven years has made it pretty obvious that my balance (or lack thereof) directly impacts that of the horse. So, like most ambitious equestrians, I’ve always made an effort to maintain a decent level of fitness out of the saddle. Running is my go to activity along with yoga classes sprinkled in to counter the tightness in my hips that comes along with pounding the pavement and being a desk jockey for forty hours a week. I was looking forward to testing my mettle in the daily fitness classes. Each morning of camp was kicked started by trainer Carolyn Grashof who always came with and smile and a van full of equipment.

Yea, these hurt. They just do.
Jumping jacks raised everyone’s heart rate and squats and lunges woke up the large muscles below the waist that are vital to keeping us firmly in the saddle. It didn’t take long for participants to start shedding layers and reaching for water bottles. Bungees provided resistance for working the upper body solo and in pairs. Balance exercises that went far beyond any field sobriety test abounded, first while standing on solid ground, and then on an inflated disc, sometimes with a medicine ball thrown in for good measure. Targeted abdominal work came with the help of a squishy ball tucked into the small of the back for “support”. I later found that it was actually there to dampen the tremors as we were all soon quaking from the effort. All told I’d give myself an ‘A’ for effort but only a ‘C’ for execution. My shoulder strength is non-existent and I got bucked off the disc more times than I could count. Still, the first step is admitting you have a problem and I’ve started doing exercises at home to improve in these areas.

Liz and Chris on the balance discs.
Another area of improvement I’ve sighted in on thanks to camp is emotional balance. On day two the group sat down for a candid discussion on fear, frustration, and ambition. There’s no doubt that we’ve all had to deal with these emotions but putting it out in the open still takes courage. I’m grateful to everyone who shared their fears and their failings, along with tools to better manage those inevitable situations. I personally wrestle with performance anxiety and don’t always handle frustration too well. Especially if it’s something I’ve put a lot of effort into. In the past I’ve turned my feelings of frustration on my horse and while I know that’s totally unfair and completely irrational it doesn’t always register in the moment and it leaves me feeling like scum once I’ve regained my senses.
These types of discussion rarely provide a quick fix and often leave more questions than answers. But as long as it gets us thinking, talking, and reflecting I believe it is very worthwhile.

Riding Lessons. Camp included a half hour private lesson each day and I thought I’d share some of the things I learned. So you know where I’m coming from, and whether any of it might apply to you, my horse is a 15.1 hand 19 y.o. Arabian gelding and we show first level. He is a laid back and forgiving sort that is usually happy to give exactly what you ask for but not a penny more. He tends to be tight in the base of the neck, he avoids engaging by traveling wide behind, and he will pop up above the bit if ever given half a chance. He has a nice walk and scores well in the canter work. We struggle with the lengthenings and anything lateral.

Our warm up exercises tended to be things that tested and sharpened his forward and sideways buttons while encouraging the neck to stay long and placing the poll a little lower than you’d want it for showing. Three to four strides of leg yields on and off the wall and nose-to-the-wall leg yields for half a long side rolled into shoulder in for the second half are examples. I paid attention to getting the bend through the whole body, not just the neck, and getting flexion just in the poll and again not the neck. You’d be correct to assume that my horse has a very flexible neck and he’s not afraid to use it.
In addition to traditional dressage lessons, participants
could take a spin on Maddy's lunge line for a
"seat focused" lesson

Once he was tuned up the real challenges began. In one lesson we introduced renvers. I was given two ways to set up for it. The first was asking for it out of shoulder in where you already have the proper angle from the wall and just need to switch the bend. The second was to ask after a short leg yield from the wall to the quarter line so that the bend was already established and you only needed a change in the angle. I had better luck with method two since his haunches want to trail in the leg yield anyway but both exercises went into my “toolbox”.

In another lesson we really went for a higher degree of collection in the trot and canter. On a circle the horse was asked to open and close the stride. My job was to keep his back up and neck soft so that he didn’t go down and out like a racehorse when opening up but rather jumped up and then out. I also got some help from the ground with the instructor tactfully using an in-hand whip. After much grunting and huffing (mostly on my part) he settled into gaits with a super amount of suspension and the cheeky pony even decided to show off a couple flying changes.

Those of us who didn’t mind catching some air were treated to jumping lessons at Nancy Ligon’s lovely Firefly Farm. She provided us with excellent school horses that took care of their riders and enabled all to have a good time. One of the biggest adjustments I have to make going between dressage and jumping is in the leg pressure. After hours of lunge lessons training my legs to “drape” around the horse and using my seat to stay centered it’s quite a challenge to have to lighten the seat and hold my position with steady pressure from the inner thigh and calf. Nancy taught me how to regulate the horses speed by simply opening or closing my hip (squats anyone?). The goal was to maintain an even pace around the course and for a sensitive horse like the one I was riding, shifting my weight over the saddle was much less disruptive than using the reins or adding leg. That is a lesson that will certainly carry back over to my dressage work.

Moe, Ange and Jess enjoying after-a-good-ride glow.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Dressage Experiment

The Morgan Dressage Association contacted me to write an article about a clinic I attended with Eclipse, the little Morgan super star who has been my competition partner for the last 6 years. I started writing, and got a little carried away. They graciously allowed me to publish the article in my humble blog, so below is as it ran in this months' issue.

Eclipse recently retired back to Ensign's Grace Morgans in MD, and I miss him in the worst way. This arrogant little turkey won my heart years ago.