Thursday, March 6, 2014

Searching for Inspiration

I was searching for inspiration (a conscious effort to battle the winter blahs), so I pulled out my notes from the FEI Trainer’s Symposium with Steffen Peters and Scott Hassler in January.  Looking at them now, a little over a month later, let me look at how that trip has improved my training arena. To keep this from becoming another long, dressage-geek diatribe, I am going to discuss 3 areas that I have notes on and how they have improved my rides. Like pretty much everything in dressage, they all come down to basics.

Positioning the neck for the bend

One of the horses in the clinic was a young horse with limited road miles. He was a bit overwhelmed by the environment, and showed it by bracing in his neck and wanting to come too high in the contact.  Steffen emphasized that horses need to be correct in the connection before they can proceed to the work of the day, no matter what was on that day’s training agenda. He had the rider position the horse with inside bend, then flex the horse’s neck to the inside, but not take the neck further than the width of the horse’s chest. Then he had her straighten the neck. When the horse maintained a soft neck bend without excessive inside rein, Steffen asked her use the outside rein to put the horse’s neck whatever height gave her the best feel of the horse’s back and control of the topline.

Throughout the weekend, the topic of a slightly braced topline came up.  Croup-high gaits and unauthorized lead changes were attributed to slight bracing in the connection. 

So I went home and checked all of my horses. Were the toplines soft and easy to position? If I flexed them to the inside, then straightened them, would they hold the bend from all of my aids, every time? I changed my warm up plan – when I asked my horses to flex and soften their topline, if I didn’t get the response I wanted, I replaced my old plan of lengthening the rein and letting them stretch (which is my go-to when I had flexion problems, to make sure I’m not getting the neck to short and blocking the flexion), with repeating the flexion aid again until I got softness from a response to my aid. I probably wouldn’t have tried this plan in the summer as I would worry about getting the necks too short, but since it’s winter, I was months from the judges’ eye and free to experiment.

The experiment worked out.  I began warm up focusing on the flexion and ignoring what I saw in the mirror. When they started to feel soft, then I’d check the mirror.  What I saw was not short necks, it was softer toplines and more open throat latches as my mounts stretched more into the connection. Which meant I could then put the neck at whatever height was best for my mount’s balance in that particular part of the workout.

Go from a light, pressing leg

Steffen Peters has a couple of themes that have shown up every time I have watched him teach. One of my favorites (and one I quote regularly, with attribution, of course) is that the only things we have to communicate with our horses is our leg, seat, hand and voice. He insists that they respond calmly to the lightest of aids, particularly the leg aid.  He made it very clear that the leg should stay softly against the horse at all times, and the horse should go forward from a small press of the calf. Not a kick, not a bump, not a spur or whip, but a press. Every time, no matter what, without any tension.

So I went home and checked my horses. At the Debbie McDonald clinic in December, she had focused on getting Secret to slow her steps from my seat. The order of the aids – increase energy with my leg, slow the tempo with my seat, ask Secret to follow the bit into a longer topline, then relax my thigh pressure to allow her to go forward again. Being a good student, I had done that with pretty much all of my horses.  As a result, I’ve seen longer toplines and more control with my seat. But I think all of this emphasis on not running through my seat aid had let them be a touch lackadaisical about a forward response to my leg. 

Since I had spent a month on “stay with my seat no matter what,” when I added “forward energy with every press of my leg,” I found I had a bit of a hole.  Most responded, but not in the next instant. They went, but a stride or so after I applied the aid.

So for 2 days I kept my leg steady, and without taking it off, added a gentle press. If I didn’t get an immediate response, I gave a REALLY strong press-to which, of course, they hurried away from. I’d bring the tempo back under my control, and apply a gentle press again. Most of them got the point within a few repetitions.  I tried to be a good student of Steffen and Scott and not use my whip (which Scott emphasizes is for collection/cadence), or the spur (which Steffen emphasizes is for engagement). 

The result after a couple of days was, of course, my horses were more responsive to a light aid.  In addition, insisting on an immediate response created a feeling of the withers pushing the pommel up every time I pressed. This isn’t an unfamiliar feeling to me at all, but the 95% consistency of it was really nice, especially with so little effort from me.

So I kept that standard as a tool in my toolbox, and watched what it did to the other work. Slingshot, who I have been focusing on exercises to create shoulder freedom for several months now, took that shoulder freedom upward into his medium trot to create a reliable, rideable medium with very lifted front legs (I have video proof!). 

Three components of pirouette work

Pirouette work always comes up in FEI clinics, because pirouettes are, frankly, hard. They take a long time to develop.  And like most things in dressage, the pirouette is only as good as the basics. Scott specified the three areas of the basics that often create problems in pirouette work: compression, suppleness, and balance. His advice is to figure out which of the three is creating the limitation, then fix that part, then go back and work the pirouette as a whole.

With his emphasis on simplicity, Steffen addresses both the canter pirouette and the walk pirouette pretty much the same. They are all about control.  If the horse backs off at any point in the approach, go forward out of the pirouette. Only stay in the pirouette as long as the quality is good, if I can’t get out of movement, I’ve stayed in it too long.  Once the horse understands the compression, balance, suppleness, add the turning aids. Once the turning aids are understood, polish the approach. If the approach isn’t controlled, the movement won’t work, so repeat the approach.

So I went home and checked my walk and canter pirouettes. I tend to start walk pirouettes pretty early in a horse’s education, so they all do them to some degree. I love walk pirouettes for teaching bend without swinging the haunches out, lifting of the withers, and shoulder freedom. But when I added the element of ‘control every part’ and ‘go forward at any moment,’ I also got the benefit of, well, control and forward.  That control carried over to the next exercise, and the next, and the rest of the workouts. 

Using Scott’s plan of deciding where the problem was, working that part, and then putting it back together made a big difference in Secret’s canter pirouettes.  She went into the winter understanding to rebalance and carry more on her hind legs on a straight line or a 20 meter circle, but I was having trouble maintaining the quality of the canter when we started turning. Her compression and balance seemed ok, so I spent a few days working on improving her suppleness during the compression.  Then I went back to asking for the turning steps, and boy did it work. I went from the spiral in exercise to Steffen’s pirouette diamonds to working pirouettes on the centerline, and when I kept the suppleness in mind, she could make big-girl pirouettes every time.

So even in this hard, long, snow bound winter, with all of my usual help enjoying the sun in Florida, using the resources I do have, I’ve managed to keep my guys progressing. I am looking forward to everyone returning north so I can get familiar eyes on my horses this spring. That, and warmer spring weather.