Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Musings on my Florida trip

Fair warning to the non-dressage-geek types that read my dribble, this post may bore you to tears. For the dressage geek readers out there, this post will probably be right up your alley.

As you know, January 21 and 22 I attended USDF’s FEI Trainer Symposium down in Wellington, Florida. During that symposium, I got to watch Steffen Peters work with nine different riders for two days. I extend my stay for a couple of days, and spent one morning watching Catherine Haddad Staller train. The week before I went to Florida, I was down at Hassler Dressage where I got to watch Scott ride.  True to my dressage geek nature, I have spent a lot of time comparing what I saw.

The first thing I saw is there many, many similarities in good training. With all three trainers, I could watch their work and logically figure out what they were trying to explain to the horses. There was no random riding around. Everything was very purposeful and very clear. They were quick to correct, and equally quick to reward their horses. Because of this, all three trainers made significant differences in all of their mounts. Two areas where I noticed differences were slight differences in thigh position and different warm up plans.

First, the thigh position and how that affected the leg aid.  Steffen, of course has that beautiful vertical thigh/deep knee leg position that we all drool over. Ironically, with one exception, he didn’t stress the thigh position with the riders he taught. He did, however, admonish several riders to keep their toe underneath the knee. That toe-underneath-knee alignment was common to all three trainers, regardless of their thigh position. Scott’s thigh wasn’t quite as vertical as Steffens, and Catherine had at least vertical thigh of the three.

The interesting thing about the thigh position was how it affected the use of the calf and spur. Steffen uses his calf as the primarily leg aid. He was very, very sparing with the spur. He advocated a pressing half to encourage a longer stride (which differs from the leg aid discussed at the Young Dressage Horse Trainer’s Symposium in November -- which is the topic I intend to discuss with Scott when I see him next week). He used the spur more as a correction when the horse did not respond correctly to the calf.

Scott, on the other hand, was working with the horse to get a more prompt, active response from the hind legs. He used the spur further back, aligned with his hip, as the initiating aid for more hind leg activity. He supported the spur with his voice and with rhythmic taps from the whip. With the angle of his thigh, he could easily use the spur that far back without rotating his leg onto the hamstring.

Catherine, whose thigh position is the least vertical of the three (but still much more vertical than the huntseat-horizontal thigh), advocates using the spur three ways -- tapping with the spur, resting the spur against the horse’s side, and a pressing spur.   Her a-bit-more-vertical thigh position allowed her the control to differentiate these three aids without moving the rest of her leg.

Of course, since I’ve been home I played with all three thigh positions. From my research and teaching, I know that the amount of arch someone naturally has in the lower back and the tightness of their psoas muscle often determines their thigh position. With my build, no matter how much I want to, I’m not sure I am physically capable of riding with my thigh as vertical as Steffen’s. When I try, I spend so much time focusing on my thigh that I get distracted from what I’m trying to do with my horse. That being said, if there’s a camera nearby you bet I’m going to try to get my thigh to look like that. 

Focusing on keeping my toes right under my knees, however, has been helpful.  This seems to stabilize my wandering right leg, which gives me the control I need to use leg and spur in a more specific manner.  Which, in turn, helps me activate hind legs of the horses I ride that need activating-- although I need to remember to turn it off. When I got on Liz Dobrinska’s horse, Rocky, who has a quick, active hind leg, right after riding Venus, who tends toward a longer, bigger, slower stride, he got his hind legs cranking so much that he had a hard time maintaining his balance. I could hear Scott’s voice in the back of my mind, “easy, Ange, easy.”

Second, the differences in the warm-up and how that flowed into their training session. Steffen spent a lot of time discussing warm up. He has a strong advocate for warming the horse up in a balance that really helps them. Which means not every horse was warmed up long-and-low. When he chose to keep a horse in a more uphill frame for warm-up, he clearly stated that he felt that taking that particular horse long-and-low compromised their balance. That being said, he had each horse go forward in steady, rhythmic, ground-covering strides during their warm up, regardless of how high or low he asked them to carry their neck.

Another large component of Steffen’s warm up was testing the aids. He used different exercises and school figures to check if the horses were responding to each leg individually, both legs together, the seat eight, and the rein aid. Once he was happy with the horse’s responses to his test, he would then ride test figures.

For example, one horse was not responding properly to the right leg. Steffen, who was riding with microphone, commented that the horse was pushing against his inside leg when making a right corner.  He spent a few minutes schooling smaller circles, asking the horse to be more responsive to the right leg. He then tested results of his schooling with a half pass. He wasn’t happy with the first half pass, so three strides into it he turned right, and went back to schooling the horse’s reaction to his right leg. He then tried the half pass again. This time it flowed beautifully.

Catherine, on the other hand, seemed to have a fairly consistent warm-up routine with each horse she rode. She started them all out in a longer, rounder frame. Once the horse was starting to swing its back, she used transitions between or within the gait to bring the frame up. Then she gradually flowed from less complicated movements more complicated movements. For example, on one horse, she began with a half pass from the corner to the centerline. Next she rode the half pass from the corner to the second quarter line. Then she rode the half pass from the corner to X. She did the same thing in the other direction. Then she rode a half pass zigzag.  She gradually increased the degree of difficulty each time she rode the half pass.

I think both approaches have their place in my toolbox. With my over-achiever type horses, I think Steffen’s approach would probably make them anxious. When I ride them, I find I intend to build more lines, like Catherine’s approach.  Some of my more laid-back types, on the other hand, seem to understand better when I insist on quick reactions to each aid before I set up each movement.

The last week and a half, I’ve really had a good time applying all that I learned to each horse I ride. I really enjoy sorting out each horse’s mind and body, and helping them become more relaxed, fun athletes.

Special thanks to all of my boarders, who gave me the Christmas gift of a check to spend on my education. Thanks to their generosity, I was able to spend these four days in Florida. Watching this caliber of training inspired my winter training. Thank you again for investing in me.