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!


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