Friday, July 26, 2013

Secrets of Training Secret

Ok now Ange, pressure is on. You promised everyone positive, fun blog—now you must deliver.

Sorry, this one is long. My friend Stacy, of, got some great shots of Secret at a show last month, and I have a ton from before the training break. I'll get a photo blog to go with this long-winded diatribe posted tomorrow.

The topic of today is Secret.  Secret is an 11-year-old Arabian-Frisian cross owned by Linda Butz.  I have had the pleasure of riding Secret for almost 5 years now. She is a wonderful mare. She has a double-dose of try-too-hard and that keen Arabian intelligence.

The story of Linda and Secret reads should be titled “How to Start out Wrong and Still Somehow End up Right.” 

Secret, right after Linda bought her.
Linda bought Secret four months after she began riding. She bought her from a video. Linda was such a novice that it did not occur to her to worry that Secret was unmounted on the video.  She liked Secret’s pretty trot, and was learning to ride on Secret’s half brother, so that was enough to seal the deal. 

When Secret arrived from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania in December, Linda was a bit surprised at what she saw. The fuzzy, pasture-toughened mare wasn’t exactly the elegant, sleek horse of Linda’s ideals. She asked the shipper if it was the right horse.  Right or wrong, it was the horse she got.

Secret was a 5-year-old scared alpha mare, so Linda followed her instructor’s advice and sent her to a cowboy. There Secret learned to allow humans to touch her ears without rearing, stand like she had parking brakes, and, after 2 ½ months, to carry a rider. The cowboy was concerned about Linda and Secret as a match, and advised her to get lots of professional help.

After 4 months with the cowboy, Linda took Secret to a co-op with her instructor. Her instructor was a student of mine, so when they ran into trouble with Secret, her instructor called me. 

I took one look at Secret and her papers (I had trained her half brother on the Friesian side and many of her Arab-side relatives), and I knew this was an amazing athlete. I also knew she would be hot, a tendency to spook, and maybe a touch of ADD.  Her strengths for dressage were the natural uphill movement and super quality canter.  The training issues for dressage were clearly displayed in her upright neck and weak loins, which were things I am very comfortable correcting, but I was brought in to make her safe for Linda, not turn her into a dressage superstar.

The problem that brought me to Secret’s arena was an ugly buck in the canter depart. Linda, thankfully, wasn’t there—just the current instructor and I.  I really don’t like needing to do a discipline training session in front of a new horse owner. 

I started her on the lunge to make sure that she could easily get into the canter. She could, and had a really super canter. So I got on and worked with the trot to help her to relax a little. Then I asked for the canter.

Yep, the mare can buck.

This was not the cute little unbalanced-green-horse-hop-into-canter buck, this was a head down, back up, I-want-rid-of-this-annoying-human bronco buck.

So I did a little discipline work to explain to her that bucking into the canter is not acceptable. No, I didn’t abuse her, but she had to understand that displaying displeasure by trying to unload a rider is unacceptable, and if she bucked, she would have to work much, much harder than if she just took the canter.

Then I set up the canter depart again, and learned that Secret is a determined little alpha mare.  She tried to unload me again, with a bit more determination. 

So again I tucked her nose on my stirrup and booted her into a tiny circle until she was dizzy, then cued the canter again. She politely took a gorgeous, uphill canter, which I greeted with much praise and petting.

Apparently, when she decided to give me her canter politely, she decided I was acceptable as her rider.

That fall, Linda sent Secret to me for training. The plan was to stay the winter then return to the co-op with her regular instructor. Linda’s personal goals were trail riding, with the ultimate goal being to trot downhill.

Early on, Secret showed me talent for dressage.  Even though competitive dressage was not Linda’s goals, we decided to take her to a schooling show in early spring to see if the training held away from home.

In our area we have a huge horse community, with riders from recreational trail riders to Olympic team members in the neighborhood.  Most of the time, when we go to a schooling show, there’s a wonderful hodge-podge of pony club horses, well-loved ott’s, out-of-season fox hunters, and all-around horses. But sometimes the big boys show up, especially in the spring, to trial-run their tests before hitting the bigger shows.

Guess who showed up? Hilltop Farm and Iron Spring Farm. Not that it really mattered. I just wanted a nice, uneventful trip around the sand box.

Secret gave me a nice ride.  And she ended up 3rd, behind Hilltop and Iron Spring, and not by much.  Wow.

So we decided to enter her in the Mason Dixon Classic, a local Arabian Morgan show, a few weeks later, where she earned training level champion.  Not bad for her first recognized outing. Linda promptly fell in love with horse shows.

So Linda and I sat down and made a plan. Most horses need show miles to get consistent in the ring, so Linda and I decided to give Secret a ton of outings.  While we were at it, we’d shoot for a few schooling show year-end awards and hit the Arab circuit. 

We showed her a lot that first year, and although Secret had some inconsistent moments, she became better and better with every outing.  She ended up Top 5 at the Arabian East Coast Championship, 3rd in All-Breeds that year, and 6th at the BLM finals against the warmbloods.

Secret continued her winning ways through 3rd level, racking up ribbons, Legion of Merit designations, high-score Half-Arabian awards, and regional championships. But when we got to 3rd level, even though she was placing well in the classes, she was having trouble with the same movements over and over in the show ring.  I knew the struggles would only get worse, so after a heart-to-heart with my trainer, Scott Hassler, I asked Linda to let me pull her off the show circuit and work on some of the foundational strength issues that were limiting Secret’s ability to do 3rd level with ease.

Yea, that’s not a fun talk to have with any horse owner, especially one whose horse has been kicking butt for 3 seasons.

The underlying foundation problem came back to the weak loin and upright neck I had noted when I first met Secret.  Because of her weak loins, when she lowered her neck to the “on the bit” posture, she would support herself by bracing a little in the base of her neck, meaning there was no true connection to the reins.  When I put my leg on, sometimes I’d feel her change in my rein contact, but most often I’d feel her quicken her tempo and get lighter in my head instead, which meant I wasn’t able to recirculate the power from her hind legs through her topline to create true collection and cadence.

 In order to get to Secret’s loin muscles, I needed to work her in postures that didn’t allow her to use the base of her neck for support. These postures weren’t pretty. The work was really hard. Secret would come in sweaty every day, but she never, ever argued with me about the work. This mare is truly special between the ears. 

I would be lying to say that pulling Secret off the show circuit was easy. Linda wasn’t happy about it. There were many, many tense days between Linda and I.  But Secret dug deep, and gave 100% in every difficult strength building workout I planned for her. We took Secret down to Scott monthly to get his unbiased opinion on our progress, and every month he’d point out to Linda where he saw the improvement and what he expected to see change next.

I have to thank Linda for giving me the time to help Secret. Many owners would have moved their horse to a different trainer, but despite the disappointment of not competing and the rather un-dressage-like work I needed to do with Secret to get her stronger, Linda stuck with me. Not all owners would do that. 

And boy has it paid off.  As she has gotten stronger in her topline, she now has a super feel in the bridle. The increased strength allowed her to show more bend behind the saddle, which made her renvers, travers, and half-pass much more fluid.  Plus the added strength took her flying changes from late behind to really, really pretty expressive changes.  She has developed a really nice school canter and working canter pirouette with a long neck, instead of the bunchy Friesian neck.

After the year home, this April we headed to the Mason Dixon Classic again to try out 2nd and 3rd levels.  That morning I had a panic attack. What if the improvements in Secret didn’t translate to higher marks in the show ring?

My panic was unfounded.  Secret scored really well, significantly ahead of her competition, and ended up 2nd level and above champion.   She has continued her winning ways this season, including AHA Region 15 Reserve Champion at 3rd level and Champion at 2nd level.

That Secret is doing so well in the show ring is awesome and quite a testament to applying the correct training and giving the horse the time she needed, so I’m really pleased, but not completely surprised.  What has surprised me is the reaction we are getting from the judges.  With the most recent dressage tests, the rider score is now divided into 3 categories – position, effectiveness of the aids, and harmony with the horse.  The first time I saw all 8’s in those numbers, I chalked it up to a generous judge. By the second and third time, I was feeling truly humbled to get to ride such a horse that can demonstrate harmony to a judge. But at Region 15 Championship, when Kathy Rouse gave us a 10 in harmony, I was completely speechless.

This weekend we get to ride for Debby McDonald at Hassler Dressage. Secret and I worked with Debby 2 years ago, and during our strength-building year, I referred to those lesson notes repeatedly. I am excited to again get to work with Debby and see what she suggests for Secret’s future development.

I’ll let you all know next week.

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