As I write this, I see snow outside my window. I don’t like this time of year, and not just because of the cold. I refer to winter as ‘purgatory,’ because most of my usual training help has headed south. I spend 3 months wondering if I’m developing my horses correctly, or if I’m off on a garden path. Because let’s face it, the worst place to see what a horse looks like is from his back. And ‘feel’ is a tricky thing – often, what I think things should feel like is pretty far removed from what they actually feel like, but that’s a topic for another blog.
This year, purgatory has been delayed a bit. In the last 2 weeks, I’ve been in front of 2 trainers that I highly respect, and I went down to the FEI Trainer’s Conference to watch for 2 days. The problem, of course, is I been exposed to a snapshot of 3 different trainer’s systems. I now have the job of analyzing that info, and seeing where and how it integrates into my system. I have pages of notes to read, a bunch of video to watch, and a bunch of ideas to percolate in my mind.
A quick aside – yes, correct training is correct training. But just as different versions of Christianity are all built on the same fundamental beliefs that center on Jesus and afterlife, and all read the same book, each denomination has a slightly different flavor. I’m not here to start a holy war. In my opinion, as long as all paths lead to heaven (or, in our case, a relaxed, happy, balanced, obedient horse), who am I to criticize.
As I started to look at the info by topic, I realized I had a nice progression of half pass work. Venus and Secret’s winter training goals both include improving their half passes, so timing was perfect. Half pass training lends itself easily to a large variety of exercises, and the following three conveniently showed up at just the right time to address the ideas that were bubbling up.
So, the exercises, and what they improve in a horse-
Leg yield to the wall, half pass in a little, leg yield to the wall, half pass in, with no change in the neck position.
Catherine Haddad gave me this exercise for Venus, who tends to like to power along so much she loses suppleness in her back.
I played with this for a few days, and found it did improve Venus’ back. Additionally, focusing on keeping Venus’ neck in the same position, she started to stretch her outside shoulder out towards the wall more, which helped improve her shoulder freedom. Then I tried it on Secret, and instead of loosening her shoulders, it provided her with a wonderful escape route – if she pushed her shoulder a bit too much, aka popped her shoulder, she could get to the destination without lowering her hip.
That Saturday, Secret was scheduled to go in front of Gigi Nutter, who gave us the following pattern:
Same pattern as above, but straighten the neck in the leg yield, and re-position it for the half pass.
The purpose of this variation is to improve the acceptance of the outside rein in the half pass, and therefore helping the shoulders “stand up.”
I played with this exercise for both mares, and liked the control I had, but feel like, even though neither mare loses tempo significantly in the half pass, they could both use more “bounce” when they go sideways. I know this is very common, but the best horses don’t lose energy or cadence when going sideways. As I was pondering which of the many half pass variations would help, I went down to FL to audit Stephen Clark at the FEI Trainer’s Conference. He had a rider demonstrate the following exercise:
On a diagonal, looking at destination letter between the horse’s ears, ride forward, then ride half pass, then forward. Always keep the neck and shoulders on the diagonal line.
Stephen Clark used this exercise in the FEI Conference to improve expression and keep the same quality of trot in the half pass. The super-fancy-genetically-gifted-for-dressage horse went from quite nice to really impressive, so I was curious what it would do for my mounts.
I plugged it into the mare’s half pass plans, and for Secret, it made a really smooth, fluid, this-sideways-stuff-is-easy-peazy half pass. For Venus, her natural tendency of make-big-steps got channeled into make-big-sideways-steps.
Just like a musician’s variations-on-a-theme exercise, I have variations-on-a-half pass to fill my days in wintery purgatory.