Friday, August 23, 2013

Secret's Two Days with Debbie McDonald

Linda e-mailed me a couple of months ago quite excite that Debbie McDonald would again be teaching at Hassler Dressage. Two years ago, through a twist of unexpected fate, I had the opportunity to ride Secret with Debbie. Those two lessons formed the framework that I built on last year, when she learned use her back and truly collect, which resulted in a massive jump in her competiton scores this season.  To say Linda and I were excited about the lessons might be an understatement.

I ride in public on a regular basis. I show often. All of my training sessions are open for any of my students to watch. I participate in clinics with auditors.  I have been doing all of this for years. I should be over performance anxiety.

But apparently I’m not.

I started to get nervous a week or so before when I saw the list of riders and horses. I’m usually the only one mounted on a non-warmblood, so that is expected. But the company I was in for this clinic was a list of horse/rider combinations I have been admiring for years.  To name a few, Silva Martin and Aesthete (national Champ 4-year-old, highly placed as a 5-year-old), Kim Herslow and Rosmarin (cleaned up on the FL CDI circuit in the small tour), Marne Martin and Royal Coeur (the US representative to the 2011 World FEI Championships for Young Dressage Horses).  And Secret and I. Secret is a truly special, talented animal, but winning Arabian Region 15 Championship just doesn’t seem like it is in the same league as the World FEI Championships. But here we were.

I can always tell when Linda is nervous and excited, she gets talkative. Which works out well, since I clam up. Sunday she carried the conversation during our trailer ride down.

We arrived in time to watch part of the first ride and then I was up. I never know how much to warm up for a clinic ride. I don’t want to do too much, for fear of fatiguing my mount since we are going into a 45-minute concentrated lesson. But on the other hand, I know the best way to get Secret using her back, and it takes a few minutes. 

 I took Secret for a long walk to relax, did a little bit of trot stretching, then headed in. I should have taken some time to get her canter loose, but nerves have a strange way of altering time, and I ran out of it – time that is, not nerves. I had plenty of those.

When I ride in a public clinic, I know I expose myself to the often-brutal opinions of the internet trainers. I don’t want to be “that student,” you know, the one who does her own thing regardless of the clinician’s instructions, overrides their mount, talks to the clinician thinking they are giving information and instead comes across argumentative. In short, I don’t want to be the disrespectful student.

I think, in this case, I may have gone a bit too far.

After Debbie commented on how much Secret’s body had changed since she saw her 2 years ago, we went to work.  Well, Debbie and Secret went to work. I just sat there.

Debbie tried to get me to ride more. She encouraged me to use my seat to improve the canter rhythm, which was hoppy because I was riding like a robot. She tried to stimulate me to improve the bend and connection in the trot work. 

Finally, about half way through the lesson, I pulled myself together and started to actually ride the horse I know quite well how to ride. Debbie noticed that too, by saying “now you are finally riding!” 

Despite my stage fright, I got some really good stuff out of the first day. Namely:

Ask for more ground cover, and then rebalance her if she runs. Then do it again, until she can give me bigger strides without falling onto the forehand.

There is only one collected trot and collected canter. Not the long side version, the half pass version, the shoulder in version. Every stride has to cover the same amount of ground and Secret’s neck has to stay long and out to the bit, no matter what. If the quality of her gait or the quality of her connection changes, abandon the lateral work and fix that first. Then go back to the lateral work.

Before the half pass work, make sure the shoulder in, haunches in, and leg yield work. If all three of these things go well (they did), then she has the tools to make a big, well positioned, ground covering half pass. Now ride the half pass like it is big, well positioned, and ground covering.  

When collecting into the pirouette canter, she has to shorten her stride, let me position her in haunches in, and keep her neck long. Until she is able to reliably do all three, we shouldn’t add turning steps.

Hassler’s Debbie clinic was shared with the USEF Developing Rider clinic and the Emerging Athletes Program. To accommodate all of this, everyone in the clinic rode on Sunday with auditors. The second lesson would be either Monday or Tuesday morning, sans auditors. Since we are fairly close and Secret treats the trailer like her favorite dining room, I offered to ride on Tuesday to save a longer-distance rider a night in the hotel.

When I came back on Tuesday, I was determined to be a more effective rider. I started by giving Secret a full warm-up.  When my lesson time came, Debbie started with “Let’s see some changes.”  Secret has had a hard time learning her changes, and we have struggled with tension as well as timing, so I was ready for help.  I headed on to the quarter line to make 2 changes along the very-long long-side of Hassler’s arena.

Debbie stressed that Secret must have a good canter, and she must do her changes in that same canter. Because she struggled with the changes being late behind, I had been working on Lendon’s “whoa-go” to get the hind legs caught up with the front legs, but now it’s time to get past that and make big-girl changes.

Ok, we can do that.

Then she asked for more changes, like 4 on a long side. ‘

Ok, we can do that.

 Then she asked for a change every 6 strides.

Ok, well, I guess we can do that…but that tension issue….ok, Ange, keep riding….

Of, course the tension issue came up.  Which, in Secret’s terms, means she knows what comes next, and I should just sit up there be a good, quiet, get-out-of-my-way kind of human.  Then she can make her neck nice and short and do her changes whenever she really wants to.  Yea, that doesn’t’ really earn us high marks from the judges.

We took a minute. I explained what I was feeling – that as the tension builds, Secret anticipates the flying change and gives it to me on the half halt.  Debbie’s response? She needs to get over that. Do more changes, not less.  When she anticipates, drop the counting between changes, and instead work the preparation.  Do the half halt and skip the change sometimes, and sometimes do the half halt and allow her to change, until she is really cued into me.  Only let her change on my terms.  She stressed that anticipation is not a bad thing—it often leads to better expression.

And wow, was she right. I got a true, bona-fide big-girl change.  Not just a swapping from one lead to the other, but a clear, uphill lifting into the air, landing on the other lead. It’s in there!

We revisited the half passes, which were much more fluid on Sunday. We did a bit of medium trot, where Debbie got after me to go for it more, especially in the transitions.  Then finished with some  pirouette canter, which went much better than Sunday.

We collected, and added haunches in, and Secret’s neck stayed nice and long – so we turned a few steps.  Not hopping around, but truly collected, carrying-on-the-hind legs turning steps.  That is in there too!

So now Secret and I have our homework to get strong enough for the next big jump in collection – Prix St George.  She has Sport Horse Nationals in September and a several-day visit with Scott to make sure we are ready.  Onward and upward!


Monday, August 12, 2013

Road Trips Start at Home

Ok, I know this blog is supposed to be a clinic report on my two rides with Debby McDonald (I will tease you with WOW, I am such a lucky trainer to get to ride a horse as willing and talented as Secret, and to have the support I have from Linda, Hasslers, and the home front to have the opportunity to get such quality instruction--yea, life is good), but a couple of recent blogs have caught my attention, so I’m feeling the need to stand on my red-headed soap box for a moment.

The first of these events is a speech entitled “Roadmap to the Podium," given by our dressage team’ Technical Advisor/Chef d’Equippe Robert Dover.  Here’s a link to Chronicle’s blogabout it. In short, he describes a pipeline starting with the Emerging Athletes Program (the up-and-coming young riders), the young horse program, the developing rider program (for horse-rider pairs that are gearing towards the big time), and the internationally-competitive riders. He discusses how each of these areas needs funding, especially getting the elite athletes funding to compete internationally.  He makes a commitment to hold fund raising events to provide cash for his master plan. And people are willing to help –proof is Lendon Grey’s Winter Intensive Program, which ties right into the Emerging Athletes Program, received tons of help from both sponsors and professionals.

The major emphasis of his speech was FEI level dressage riders, but he does give lip-service to the USDF, as “The USDF provides grassroots encouragement,” said Dover. “It’s the first portal of recognition for the emergent athlete.”

I understand that his interest is primarily in putting together a gold-medal winning team, but he has forgotten a huge and regularly overlooked part to the dressage community.  I am not talking about the adult amateur community, which I see gets a lot more support than they are often able to fully appreciate. For example, USDF Connections, a terrific magazine, is packed with AA-friendly info each month.  Several Dressage Institute grants are geared towards GMO educational events that are specific for adult amateurs. The USDF Adult Dressage clinics were created with the sole purpose of educating amateurs.  Heck, adult amateurs even have their own competition category—believe me, when I see Michael Barsione on my class list, I know I’m not getting blue. As a professional working in the middle-class dressage market, there is a significant economic gap between Michael’s trip around the sandbox and mine, but yet that is the standard I am held to. 

From where I sit, as an instructor, what limits most adult amateurs is not their riding education opportunities, it is balancing family, job, and riding, which is no mean feat. Being able to make the time for regular riding and lessons is often a challenge, regardless of who guides their educations.  Anyone who can hold down a family, a career, and compete in this sport gets my respect. I couldn’t do that, hence I made riding my career.  But that is another topic.

The overlooked category is, in my mind, is the local instructor. 

If Dover wants to raise funds for his programs that money needs to come from two main sources: big contributions from big cooperate sponsors and from smaller contributions from the dressage community at large. Obama ran his first presidential campaign using the consistent small-contribution model, so it works. But in order for Dover’s audience to stay excited enough about dressage to become consistent contributors, they have to be consistently excited about their sport. They need local instructors that inspire them.

Which brings me to the second bit of prose that has me fired up—Catherine Haddad’s most recent Chronicle Blog post.  In it, she talks about the clinics she has been teaching recently and the quality of students that the trainers have been putting in front of her. In summary, she feels like dressage instructors need to get more and better training, in order to teach better dressage to their students.

 I agree with her.  As an instructor, nothing gets me more fired up than working on my own education. Having Scott, Catherine, Lendon, Gunner, Maryal, Gerhard, or any of the other clinicians I have worked with over the years push me to be my best inspires me to go home and do the same for my students.  I regularly plagiarize my instructors. I can only teach as well as I have been taught.   

My students are the fruits of this concept. They know this, and are therefore super-supportive of my education by verbally supporting me, being flexible with their lesson times when I go for a lesson, and with the annual "Ange's education Christmas gift."  As Linda has said repeatedly, “When you go get a lesson, we all learn.”

So it’s not surprising that I think that when a highly trained clinician comes to the area, the organizer should first offer slots to the local professionals. When that highly-educated instructor teaches an amateur, she teaches one person. When she teaches a professional, the trickle down goes to all of that professional’s students.

What really surprises me is how hard it is to get professionals to fill the lesson slots. In my area, we have the luxury of an abundance of really well trained CDI-level dressage instructors. Most of my friends, who work in the middle-class market like I do, use one of these instructors regularly. But the opportunity to get a fresh set of eyes, especially with ability to take what you learn back to your regular instructor for discussion, is really an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.

But it is. Last spring DVCTA brought in Gary Rockwell, a CDI judge who has sat on Olympic panels, as a clinician. DVCTA had a terrible time filling the ride slots. DVCTA had to subsidize the price and call people directly to fill the lessons. Even if Gary Rockwell isn’t someone’s first choice for their education, the opportunity to get a highly-decorated judge’s perspective in a non-competition format is something I made it a point not to miss.

Of course, professionals face the same limitations as other riders, sometimes even more so—time and money.  I would love nothing more than to keep an FEI-tract horse with either Scott or Catherine and have their eyes on me daily for an extended period of time.  But the reality is the middle-class dressage market, where most of us are working and who really need the education, doesn't allow for that big of a continuing education budget (yes, I do have one – it really is a line-item in the SFD budget sheet). But that kind of money usually shows up with adult amateurs with careers (or husbands with careers) who have already paid off their children’s educations and their mortgages.

Which brings me to my challenge.  If the top crust of the dressage world is really interested in improving the overall quality of dressage in our country, help out the middle-class dressage instructors.   And not just the ones who are lucky enough to have a super-talented horse or two—help out the ones who are working hard and improving every horse they touch. Invest a bit of yourself as a mentor.  Be willing to help make better riders, instructors, and professionals.  That would create a difference that would really impact our dressage community and create a strong home base to support the elite athletes on their road to the podium.

I also think, we, as dressage instructors need to find creative ways to invest in ourselves. I have a bit to say about that, as well as a zygote of an idea that a few of my fellow instructors and I have been working on since spring, but this blog is long enough already, so you’ll just have to wait for that.  Next time.