Sunday, December 17, 2017

How are Connection, Rein Length, and Weight in the Reins Related?

This article is the third in a series of articles that will serve to discuss in depth the various tiers of the USDF Training Pyramid. Every dressage rider should be very familiar with this Pyramid. The tiers are as follows: Rhythm, with Energy and Tempo; Relaxation, with Elasticity and Suppleness; Connection-Acceptance of the Bit through Acceptance of the Aids; Impulsion-Increased Energy and Thrust; Straightness with Improved Alignment and Balance; and Collection-Increased Engagement, Lightness of the Forehand, Self-Carriage. A pamphlet discussing it in depth may be found here: https://www.usdf.org/EduDocs/Training/Pyramid_of_Training.pdf
Since everything we do every day with our horses is interrelated, I will demonstrate with these articles specific connections between the various tiers, and how they can be used to facilitate the training of the horse at every level. The vast majority of riders and horses are at Training Level, but what the reader must understand is that this is the MOST IMPORTANT level, for horse and rider. A good education in the beginning secures the future of every dressage horse and every aspiring dressage rider. ~Stacy C. Williams
Connection(Acceptance of the bit through acceptance of the aids) is the third tier in the USDF Training Pyramid. The explanation further illuminates: “The energy generated in the hindquarters by the driving aids must flow through the whole body of the horse and is received in the rider’s hands. The contact to the bit must be elastic and adjustable, creating fluent interaction between horse and rider with appropriate changes in the horse’s outline. Acceptance of the bit is identified by the horse quietly chewing the bit. This activates the salivary glands so that the mouth becomes moist and production of saliva is evident. The softly moving tongue should remain under the bit. The quality of the connection and balance can be evaluated by ‘üeberstreichen’, releasing the reins (to demonstrate self carriage) or by allowing the horse to chew the reins out of the hands (to demonstrate relaxation).”

This article will be on the longer side, simply because the concept of connection is by nature very specific to each individual horse and rider, and is furthermore a dynamic state, changing within the ride, from day to day and from year to year.  This makes it a very nebulous concept that is difficult to explain. It has to be felt. This is why robots will never be able to judge dressage, and is also why dressage judges trained within the same system will have differences in opinion. It is the point from which all of the advanced work develops, thus a clear understanding on the part of the horse and the rider is critical.
Perhaps one of the most concerning topics for newer dressage riders is rein length, and, the amount of pressure or weight in the contact. It is a subject often discussed. The most difficult concept for riders to learn at the basic levels is how contact(the amount and the evenness of the pressure in the rein) relates to connection(the ability to influence the back and hind end and stay "on the aids" aka "throughness"). Many riders want me to tell them which notch on their handstop reins is the correct notch. Unfortunately, my answer always has to be "it depends". If there was a set formula for these kinds of things, dressage would not be so difficult. It would boil down strictly to science, vs. the art that it actually is. Art is a reflection of emotion, feel, or intuition. However, good art is always based in science and therefore the two are not wholly independent. An artist who does not have the technical skill to use her tools correctly cannot convey her vision, no matter how creative.

So how long should a dressage rider's reins be? Furthermore, how much pressure should the rider feel in her hands? It depends. The first thing riders must understand is that the contact belongs to the horse, and connection is a gift the rider earns. It is the job of the rider to ensure that the horse is first traveling with a good forward thought, with correct rhythm in all three paces. The horse should be supple enough to bend somewhat symmetrically left and right, all with a relaxed state of mind and minimal negative emotional or physical tension. Once this is established, the length of the rein and the weight of the contact depend on a number of factors: 1. The ability of the horse to engage the hind leg, whether affected by level of training or conformation. A long backed, downhill horse will obviously be less able to engage the hind leg and shift its balance to load the hind end during the stance phase as compared to a horse that is shorter and more uphill. 2. The degree of lateral and longitudinal suppleness of the horse. 3. The lateral and longitudinal flexibility of the horse’s jaw and poll and the amount of space in the throatlatch area. 4. The sensitivity and/or stoicism of the horse. Iberian horses often prefer a lighter feel, whereas a more old-fashioned style Warmblood may prefer a much more solid feel. 5. The horse’s conformation in terms of neck shape, set and length. 6. The correctness of the rider’s seat and hands as well as the rider’s physical strength. This correctness goes directly to “tolerability” of the contact that the rider offers the horse. It goes without saying that the more correct the rider’s seat and hands are, the more tolerable the contact will be for the horse. 7. The stage of training of the horse. A green horse, be it a green Training level horse or a green Grand Prix level horse, may at times need more help balancing. The more confirmed the horse is at its level, the better able it is to hold the connection through the rider’s seat vs. relying on the support the bit creates. There are many more factors that could be mentioned here, but these are the most common.

Biomechanical studies have shown that most horses prefer a weight of roughly 2 lbs in each rein. This more or less answers the question of how much weight should be in the reins. But the nuance of the feel in that weight can vary greatly. Two pounds of dead weight with no adjustability will cause even the strongest rider’s fingers to fall asleep and shoulders to get sore. One can only imagine how the horse must feel in this scenario as well. On the other hand, a highly trained horse who is strengthened to full capacity and in complete balance and harmony may work with only the weight of the reins and still remain completely connected to his rider. Furthermore, a very powerful and big moving horse can offer a very elastic and malleable connection of five or more pounds, particularly in the extended paces or in the passage. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the rider to develop her seat and position to such a degree that the “feel” is not lost in the contact. A rider who falls behind the motion or stands in the stirrups will necessarily rely on the horse’s mouth for her balance, thus limiting the horse’s ability to use the contact to create an honest connection from the hind leg, through his back and into the rider’s hand.

As for rein length, again it depends. The horse who is properly connected from the hind leg, through its back and into the rider’s hand will fill up the length of the rein as it is lengthened gradually by the rider, stretching down and out. This is why the stretch down circle is such a fundamental part of the tests in Training and First level. There also used to be a canter stretch down at Second level, and conscientious riders will still check the horse’s willingness to stretch every single ride, at every pace. The difference between a beginning rider and a more educated rider is that a beginner will view that pesky trot stretch down circle in the Training and First level tests as a “movement” and not as a tool to gauge the honesty in the connection as the educated rider does. The horse lowers and stretches as the rider tactfully feeds out length, yet remains completely adjustable. Any horse can be taught to drop its head to the floor on cue, often seen when riders widen their hands or see saw the bit. That is not connection and will not develop the scope in the topline needed for advanced work.

Riders must realize that a long rein is not any more kind than a short rein, and quite often it can actually be less kind. If the reins are too long, and the horse is not properly connected, completely on the aids, and in full self-carriage, then by necessity the rider will only be able to make contact by pulling back. Using the hand in a backward fashion is a cardinal sin in development of a horse’s willingness to accept the bit. Recall my earlier statement that the contact belongs to the horse. The other major realization for riders concerning rein length is that in order for the contact to remain elastic, the length of the rein must be elastic, not static. This elasticity comes from the stability of the rider’s seat and position, and the ability to absorb the bounce in the elbows. The wrists must remain stable, but, the elbows must flow and follow, to eliminate any “snapping” of the reins. The rider must be able to adjust the rein length quickly and tactfully at any point throughout the ride, without disturbing the acceptance of the bit. Anyone with some climbing experience might relate to the following comparison. A rock climber always climbs on a rope that is dynamic. The rope has some stretch. The lead climber always has a very light but elastic connection to this rope, and it is the life-saving job of the belayer to maintain just enough connection with his leader to prevent a fall to the deck. If the lead climber were to fall, the elasticity in the rope would give slightly and thus absorb energy from the fall, preventing the climber or his belayer from being snapped in half upon making full contact with the rope. This system only works if there is not too much slack in the rope, nor too much tension which would prevent the leader from advancing upward. This is a life and death scenario, but nevertheless clearly emphasize the need for a proper understanding of connection. As it pertains to the feeling the horse encounters, if a rider does not have enough control over her position to maintain a light, elastic, reasonably steady connection with the horse’s mouth, the horse will feel that same “snapping” at every rise and fall of the stride. Place a bit over your shin and have a non-riding friend move the reins in various ways if you would like to understand how the unpredictability of an inelastic and unsteady elbow/hand/bit connection can cause you great distress. Such is the lot of the horse and it is important for every rider to work very hard to improve her position enough to offer a “tolerable” contact to her horse.

How does a rider determine whether or not the connection is good? Much of this depends on feel. The horse will feel easier to sit, even(especially) a big moving horse, because the connection from the hind leg to the hand creates a steady wave on which the rider can balance and follow. The sounds of the footfalls will diminish as the horse’s body and back absorb the concussion. The space behind the saddle will fill in as all of the muscles of the horse’s back fill and stretch in reaction to the lifted abdominal muscles. The horse may feel taller as the hind leg engages and bears more of the load. The legs will work in sync and there will be no roughness in the way each hoof impacts the ground. The rider will be able to open and close the horse’s frame-commensurate to his level of training-at will. The horse will go easily forward, and respond smoothly to the half halt. A rider who understands fully the concept of a quality connection also understands that you don’t teach a horse extended trot as though it is a movement. Extended trot develops naturally over time, with correct attention to the basic details of rhythm and all it encompasses; relaxation and all it encompasses; and the development of an even and committed acceptance of the bit by a horse that is genuinely on the aids and in front of the leg.

Connection is where the rubber meets the road in this discipline, and the quality of it can make or break a horse’s ability to progress through and beyond Second level, which is the foundation for all the advanced work. It also will make or break a rider’s ability to ride at an advanced level, because a horse that is well connected is easier to ride. Ask any Grand Prix rider, and they will tell you they spend the bulk of their rides developing the basics of Rhythm, Relaxation and Connection. They use the touchstone of Second level work to prepare their horse day in and day out. It behooves every rider and every horse to work every day toward an elastic, dynamic, mutual connection irrespective of competitive goals. Who doesn’t appreciate that feeling of oneness only achieved when horse and rider are genuinely connected?

The photos that follow will illustrate some points outlined in the article. I like to use photos of myself and my own horse for a more real world comparison, and also for copyright reasons.

Photo one illustrates a three year old horse showing at Training Level at his first show, in proper connection. Notice the parallelism of the diagonal pairs of legs, the slightly open throatlatch, and the reach through the entire topline towards the bit. The rider’s elbows are allowing forward, and the line from the elbow, through the forearm, the hand and to the bit is straight. The poll could be slightly higher, but this is a good moment in connection for a young horse. Photo credit Dow Williams
Photo two illustrates a Third level horse who has lost the commitment to the connection. At first glance, it’s quite a nice-looking moment, but on further examination you will see that he is not reaching out to the hand and has instead retracted his neck slightly. The rider’s hands are slightly above the line of connection. If the photo were taken from the other side, we would notice that the joints of the hind leg have not taken enough weight to sufficiently lift his entire mass into a more uphill, “out to the bridle” manner. This is a great example of an honestly working horse who is not quite yet strong enough to support his mass in more advanced work. It isn’t a terrible moment, but, little leaks sink big ships. Photo credit Andalusian World Cup

Bend: Is it the Origin of Self-Carriage?

This article is the second in a series of articles that will serve to discuss in depth the various tiers of the USDF Training Pyramid. Every dressage rider should be very familiar with this Pyramid. They are as follows: Rhythm, with Energy and Tempo; Relaxation, with Elasticity and Suppleness; Connection-Acceptance of the Bit through Acceptance of the Aids; Impulsion-Increased Energy and Thrust; Straightness with Improved Alignment and Balance; and Collection-Increased Engagement, Lightness of the Forehand, Self-Carriage. A pamphlet discussing it in depth may be found here: https://www.usdf.org/EduDocs/Training/Pyramid_of_Training.pdf
Since everything we do every day with our horses is interrelated, I will demonstrate with these articles specific connections between the various tiers, and how they can be used to facilitate the training of the horse at every level. The vast majority of riders and horses are at Training Level, but what the reader must understand is that this is the MOST IMPORTANT level, for horse and rider. A good education in the beginning secures the future of every dressage horse and every aspiring dressage rider. ~Stacy C. Williams


Bend: Is it the Origin of  Self-Carriage?

The USDF Training Pyramid lists Relaxation(with Elasticity and Suppleness) as the second tier of training, following Rhythm(with Energy and Tempo). The complete description of Relaxation goes on to state: “Relaxation refers to the horse’s mental state (calmness without anxiety or nervousness), as well as his physical state (the absence of negative muscular tension). Usually, the mental and physical states go hand in hand. The horse learns to accept the influence of the rider without becoming tense. He acquires positive muscle tone so that he moves with elasticity and a supple, swinging back, allowing the rider to bend him laterally as well as lengthen and shorten his frame.”
With the assumption that all readers agree about the importance of the mental state in the horse’s training, I will elaborate in this article on the last sentence, which refers directly to lateral and longitudinal suppleness. The lateral suppleness, and the horse’s acceptance of the rider’s bending aids, directly affect his longitudinal suppleness(the stretch through the topline). It is this suppleness that teaches the horse how to carry his body correctly on the line of travel so that he is ultimately able to carry himself in balance. The balance created in turn develops the horse’s self-carriage. How does bend influence balance? Can you have a well-balanced horse traveling with adequate engagement and self-carriage for the level, without correct bend? Take a look at the score sheet for nearly any Dressage test. Count how many times bend and balance, often together, are mentioned in the directive idea box for the movements. As an example, in the 2015 Third Level Test 3, bend or balance are mentioned seventeen times. Furthermore, the words “engagement” and/or “self-carriage” are mentioned seventeen times, again, often together. In a test which contains 24 scored movements, those four words are mentioned 34 times in the Directive Ideas. Engagement and self-carriage are inextricably linked to balance, and balance develops from sufficient and correctly executed bend, which becomes the framework for each of these other states of being. As they are all very closely linked concepts, none of them can exist in any degree of quality without the presence of the others. Balance, engagement and self-carriage develop naturally from correctly executed bend, step by step, ride by ride, year by year.
What do we mean when we use the term bend as it relates to riding? Bend, in simple terms, means that the horse’s body is shaped to match the line of travel. The degree of bend required is different for a green horse as opposed to a Grand Prix horse. The bend must not only be sufficient to match the line of travel, it must also be precisely executed in order to be of any use in creating the other states of being. There are many ways a horse can attempt to offer bend, but only one way is correct. Each body part, and each leg, must stay fully on the line of travel. This is not such an easy criteria to fulfill. Every horse, and every rider, is asymmetrical to some degree. We all have a stiff side, and, a dexterous side. We all have a hand or foot that is more agile, and, one that is stronger. Think about which hip you put your child on. Think about which foot you use to operate the pedals in your vehicle. The hip you put your child on is the strong hip. The foot you use to operate the pedals is the dexterous foot. I am betting that for most people reading this, those are not the same sides of the body, unless you have had some sort of injury that has forced you to change to the other side for carrying out these tasks. Your horse is no different. Watch him lower his head to eat hay off the ground in his stall. Which foot is forward, and which is back? Which front hoof has a tendency to get too much heel, and which one tends to get too much toe? The forward foot generally gets too much toe, and, the foot that is placed under the sternum usually gets too much heel. This asymmetry affects the way he moves. It is normal. It is the job of the rider to address her own asymmetry, as well as her horse’s asymmetry. It is a never-ending job and very few horses or riders are ever one hundred percent symmetrical. This is where correct bending under saddle becomes indispensable as a tool to develop balance, engagement and self-carriage. In order to bend correctly, BOTH of the horse’s shoulders must travel in such a way that both front legs reach freely forward towards the line of travel. The hind legs must do the same. Any minute deviation from the line of travel in any limb or section of the horse creates an automatic loss of correct bend, and therefore instantly reduces balance, preventing the horse from being able to fully engage and thus carry itself.
Riders must recognize that MORE bend is not necessarily the answer, nor is “more” necessarily what judges mean when they mention it on your score sheets. “More” cannot exist, if “correct” does not come first. Next time you hang out with your horse, observe him balancing himself in his natural state. For example, consider the simple act of biting a fly on his flank. Your horse balances himself by compressing the inside of his body and stretching the outside, pushing his shoulders and belly out as the head and hips come in. We as riders can use the horse’s innate sense of balance to our advantage, just by making this one observation. We can use this biomechanical reality of how a horse’s body functions to control him if he becomes unruly, by exaggerating the placement of the head and hips to the inside, in order to prevent him from bolting away from a scary object. But we can also use our knowledge of this tendency to fine tune that bend to such a degree that we create a very heightened state of balance that places those shoulders directly in front of the horse’s hind legs, its engine. Every time we place our horse in perfect bend, we require the horse to place slightly more weight on the hind leg that is to the inside of that bend. That creates strength in the glutes and hamstrings of that hind leg with repetition, no different than the human athlete who does squats to create more strength in the same muscles. This is why it is so important to change direction frequently. It is a known quantity that muscles get stronger from repeated cycles of stress and rest. The other thing that happens to that inside hind leg is that its joints must also take more weight, and flex more deeply. It is in this heightened state of flexion(“engagement”) that the power for extension is created. So long as the rider allows the horse to direct the energy created in movement away from the line of travel(i.e. a habitually bulging shoulder or hind leg that is always placed just to the inside-which not accidentally tend to go hand in hand), that energy is wasted because it is unable to be used for the purpose improving balance, engagement and self-carriage. Bend, properly employed, aligns the horse's body so that the energy created goes the right direction for our purposes. It takes a lot longer to fill forty 100 gallon water troughs if there are ten leaks in the hose than it does if the hose is solid and distributing the energy of the water flow directly to the intended line of travel-said water troughs.
Riders must recognize that it is their duty to notice every footfall, and further notice any time any part of the horse’s body leaves the line of travel. All the cogs in the wheel must stay in total alignment for maximum efficiency. The more a rider notices, the more times she can make adjustments to her horse’s alignment on that line of travel. It is vitally important at that point, once she has noticed, and made the correction, to then LET GO(“self-carriage”) to a certain degree(please don’t drop your horse on his head by abandoning your own self-carriage), to see how well the horse has understood. This letting go, this uberstreichen, is what allows the horse to learn how to carry himself in balance in the unnatural state of carrying a rider whose way of being (vertical) is completely opposite to the horse’s way of being(horizontal). Imagine carrying a backpack that lies perpendicular to your back and consider just how much that would affect your balance. Now imagine that backpack wiggling around with no control over its own balance, but then punishing you every time you lost yours while struggling underneath its ineptitude. We have to notice the horse’s failure to stay on the line of travel with each body part, and, show it the way. But, we also have to understand our own duty in affecting that very delicate balance, by being as impeccable with our own positional alignment as we expect our horses to be.
It might seem contradictory to consider bend in creating balance when one considers that we also have to ride on a straight line. It is easy enough to ride on a circle and get the horse to reach through his topline and remain in adequate balance. But the minute the horse is asked to leave the circle and carry on down the rail, riders have a very bad habit of forgetting to ride and letting the rail take over the job of directing her horse on the line of travel. Experienced riders always ride in shoulder-fore. It is a cliché in dressage, that a straight horse is ridden in shoulder-fore. But this “straightness” is achieved with-wait for it-BEND. Not much, mind you. But just enough. Just enough to require the horse to narrow his shoulders, and shift them inward so that they line up in front of the inside hind leg. In order for the horse to take this shape, he must, by sheer force of his biomechanics, displace his ribs ever so slightly away from his riders inside leg. This is the beginning of bend. It is this ability to keep the thought of bend even on a straight line that allows the more experienced rider to keep her horse better connected, aligned and balanced no matter where she is in the arena. This is why “Relaxation with Elasticity and Suppleness” comes before Straightness on the training scale. Consider the following excerpt from an article in the May 2005 issue of Dressage Today, written by Sandra Adair about a 2005 symposium conducted by the Houston Dressage Society, which featured Robert Dover. The author writes that Mr. Dover explained the basics as follows: “The driving aids-the seat(back, trunk, weight) and both legs-generate forward motion; the bending aids-both legs and the inside rein-work together to produce straightness; one regulating aid-the outside rein-helps the rider control the effects of the first two sets of aids, and, adjusts the rhythm, flexibility and ultimately the balance of the horse.” (I will point out that I do think the author meant tempo vs. rhythm.) Notice the part I highlight. The BENDING aids produce straightness.
The Dressage test writing committee is very careful to write the tests in such a way as to help the riders better train their horses. In every test, riders are given the opportunity to establish the bend and balance in the first two movements. Read every test, from Intro A through Second level. The second movement box in every one of those tests reads “C track right/left”. In the Directive Ideas box, in each of those tests, the very first thing mentioned is “bend and balance in turn”. It is the rider who asks her horse to turn directly off the line from her outside aids with no deviation outward, asking with her inside leg to stay upright as he wraps himself around that supporting leg to take the exact shape of the line of travel as he makes that turn, who is setting her horse up for the balance needed to progress from just started to Grand Prix in the least amount of time, with the most correct muscling. So many riders spend hours upon hours trying to get a better trot lengthening, but how many realize that it was in the turn through the corner that their horse was either prepared or unprepared to be engaged enough and balanced enough to comply with the request? The devil is in the details. The photo at the end of this article shows a centerline, turn, medium trot sequence that earned an 8 and a 7 in a Second level test. Photo credit goes to Pam Olsen, prophoto.bz. Notice the placement of the inside leg of the rider(myself), supporting the bend through the turn. For top scores, my horse could have been even more engaged behind, and his shoulders would have then been even more uphill, preventing his inside front leg from coming even slightly behind the vertical in the stance phase. I could have accomplished that by asking him to be even more correctly on the line of travel with his haunches with my outside lower leg, and, I could have kept my hips, shoulders and hands more level, preventing him from dropping his inside shoulder in spite of the good placement of my inside leg. The ever so slightly lower inside ear and my inside hand acting in a backward fashion are dead giveaways that his shoulders weren’t totally level in the turn. My trunk and seat could have done a better job backing up my correct inside leg.


My goal in writing this article is that I impress upon the reader the profound role correctly executed bend plays in the development of balance, engagement and self-carriage of the horse. The moral of the story is this: The next time you get back your Training level test, and the judge has commented on bend(listed nine times over the course of thirteen movements in 2015 Training Level test 3), I hope you will take the judge’s advice to heart. I hope you will really, truly, and deeply assess your understanding of just exactly how your horse is executing bend. Are you teaching your horse to bend in such a way that its balance improves? If so, then, engagement and self-carriage will most likely become happy by-products of this very basic directive. Dressage, correctly and thoughtfully practiced, is a wonderfully systematic way of developing a horse that allows him to learn everything in a gradual way, and therefore develop his strength in an equally gradual way. Riders will do themselves and their horses a huge favor to really understand the directive ideas as they relate to the Training Pyramid. This method of training we call dressage is what makes the plain horse beautiful, and, the talented horse reach its full potential.


Saturday, October 7, 2017

Tempo Control: Is it the Origin of Connection and Collection?

This article is the first in a series of articles that will serve to discuss in depth the various tiers of the USDF Training Pyramid. Every dressage rider should be very familiar with this Pyramid. They are as follows: Rhythm, with Energy and Tempo; Relaxation, with Elasticity and Suppleness; Connection-Acceptance of the Bit through Acceptance of the Aids; Impulsion-Increased Energy and Thrust; Straightness with Improved Alignment and Balance; and Collection-Increased Engagement, Lightness of the Forehand, Self-Carriage. A pamphlet discussing it in depth may be found here: https://www.usdf.org/EduDocs/Training/Pyramid_of_Training.pdf
Since everything we do every day with our horses is interrelated, I will demonstrate with these articles specific connections between the various tiers, and how they can be used to facilitate the training of the horse at every level. The vast majority of riders and horses are at Training Level, but what the reader must understand is that this is the MOST IMPORTANT level, for horse and rider. A good education in the beginning secures the future of every dressage horse and every aspiring dressage rider. ~Stacy C. Williams

Tempo Control: Is it the Origin of Connection and Collection?
The first tier of the USDF Training Pyramid is Rhythm(with Energy and Tempo). The description goes on to elaborate: “Rhythm is the term used for the characteristic sequence of footfalls and timing of a pure walk, pure trot, and pure canter. The rhythm should be expressed with energy and in a suitable and consistent tempo, with the horse remaining in the balance and self-carriage appropriate to its level of training.” At this point I will point out that there is a major difference between the terms “rhythm” and “tempo”. Rhythm is defined above. Tempo is the RATE OF REPETITION of said rhythm. The words are not interchangeable and should not be used as such.
The Purpose stated on the Training Level Tests reads: “To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, is supple and moves freely forward in a clear rhythm with a steady tempo, accepting contact with the bit.” At its most fundamental level, Dressage training seeks to establish correct basics: the horse should have three clear gaits; he should accept his rider’s aids with calmness and confidence born of understanding; he should demonstrate freedom in his way of going; he should be balanced under his rider; and he should travel at a tempo that is sufficiently active and that remains steady. In examining Training Level Test 1, notice that “regularity and quality of (insert walk, trot or canter here)” is in EVERY SINGLE Directive Idea box. It is mentioned thirteen times in thirteen movements. While the “Gaits” score in the Collective Marks section is only a coefficient of 1, it is nonetheless factored into the score of each and every movement. This requirement holds true through Grand Prix.
Most horses seen in the Dressage ring today have reasonably clear and correct rhythm in all three gaits. By including “regularity” in the Directive Idea of each movement, today’s test writers have seen to that. Riders can’t really train correct rhythm into a horse, but, they can definitely train it OUT of the horse. That goes to Relaxation, and is a subject for a different article. What a rider CAN control with regard to her horse’s rhythm as it pertains to the Training Scale, is whether or not that distinctive footfall characteristic to each gait has sufficient energy, and, whether or not the tempo remains steady. It is this continuous, unimpeded flow of energy from the horse’s hind legs to the rider’s hand that creates the connection between the rider’s aids and the horses mind and body. Dressage is about movement. It is an athletic endeavor, an Olympic sport, and a discipline centuries old. It is at Training level that the young horse is educated to accept the rider’s driving, bending and balancing aids. It is truly the most important level, the platform from which springs all the beautiful movements we identify as “Dressage”.
A horse who moves freely forward, in a clear rhythm that has sufficient energy and balance is a thing of beauty. Horses like to move. It is up to the rider to teach him how to move in such a way that his gaits are enhanced, his balance improved, and his responses are instant. Stand ringside at the warmup arena at any dressage show, and observe how the horses move. Some are bold, active, and committed to the aids. Some are silly and inattentive. Some are hesitant, unsteady, and lacking in balance. Some are each of these at any given time. It is that steadiness of the tempo, the even push of each hind leg as the horse moves resolutely forward towards the bridle, or lack thereof, that will separate two otherwise equally talented horses. Any time a coach or rider concerns herself with where the horse’s head is before insisting that the horse’s tempo and energy become consistent is putting the cart in front of the horse. No amount of jiggling of the bit to create a false frame will teach a horse that his job is to keep the hind leg committed to stepping up to the hand at all times. But once the horse understands the level of energy required and willingly goes to the bridle, accepting it, the connection over the topline is simply the next step on the continuum. Connection is a gift the correctly ridden horse gives the rider, not something the rider demands. The “put your head down or you are going to the packers” mentality has no place in good training. It is this commitment to step into the rider’s hand, this establishment of a trusting connection, that is at the heart of collection. Horses will always come with different talents. Some find the extended paces easy. Some find the lateral work easy. Still others find the high collection easy. And then there are the rare horses that excel in all three areas and that is the stuff Olympic dreams are made of. However, it is the diligent rider who will take the time to solidify the basics on each horse, no matter his area of talent, that will have the most success with the widest range of horses. A horse who can piaffe, but cannot stay balanced enough in the canter to make even a single flying change, is not a Grand Prix horse. Some horses find learning the changes easy and will do them correctly no matter how poorly set up. Others will never make clean flying changes, no matter how many years they have been performing them, unless perfectly set up by the rider. But the problem’s root cause is a failure on the part of the horse to remain committed to stepping into the bridle, and/or a failure on the part of the rider to expect it. It is at the essence of everything we do from the beginning ride to developing the one tempi’s. The conversation goes something like this: Rider says, “horse, here are my driving aids.”; Horse replies, “here is my commitment to step forward towards the bridle.” ; Rider reciprocates, “here is your release, now please carry yourself.” Horse replies, “I can carry myself for this long today.”; Rider acknowledges, “Thank you for your effort today.” This conversation takes place continuously throughout every ride, every day, for the horse’s entire career.
The rider has to take the description of Rhythm in the USDF Training Pyramid to heart when developing the young horse or reschooling older horses. If the tempo is too fast, the horse will constantly ask the rider to balance him by leaning on the hand, or will hide behind the hand with a closed throatlatch and a chest that points down in spite of the high poll. If the tempo is too slow, the horse can avoid developing a real commitment to contact. If the tempo varies, it is a red flag that the horse is too crooked and unbalanced to sustain a steady tempo, and lateral suppleness needs to be addressed. Noticing variations in the tempo can help the rider identify a lack of symmetry, and, addressing the changes in tempo with steadying aids on the quick side and driving aids on the slow side will go a long way towards improving overall symmetry. If the rider further studies the Purpose of the Training level tests, she will see that it is not only the correct rhythm, with sufficient and steady tempo and energy that is crucial, but also that the horse is demonstrating acceptance of the bridle. The two go hand in hand: when the horse willingly and resolutely responds to the driving aids and accepts the bridle, the rider can then create a recirculation of energy that establishes the circle of the aids, and then she is in control of the tempo. It is this circle of aids, this recycling of the energy, that puts the horse “in front of the leg” and allows the rider to gradually influence the entire body of the horse and set him up in a balance and alignment that makes it possible to access both the thrusting power and the carrying power of the horse’s hind leg. It is the ability to access both trajectories of energy that creates, over time, the collection needed to perform at the highest of levels. If your horse is not willing-or you as the rider are too impatient-to meet the requirements as set forth in Training level, he will only learn tricks. His talent may take him a long way, but the tempo control established at Training level is what allows the rider access to all of the gears required to execute the most harmonious Grand Prix test.
To illustrate the relationship between tempo control, connection and collection, compare the following two canter photos.




Thanks to Pam Olsen of ProPhoto for the photo on the left, Andalusian World Cup for the photo on the right. The photos are of the same horse/rider, in the same show season, at Third level. The first photo was taken during extended canter, the second during collected canter. While this is by no means a perfect representation, it serves to illustrate the idea that a continuous flow of energy from the hind leg to the bridle has created a connection through the topline that has allowed me, the rider here, to open and close my horse’s frame to meet the requirements of each pace with almost no change in the reach through the topline or the degree of engagement. All that changed was the trajectory of the energy. There is nearly the same amount of separation of the hind leg, the trailing hind leg continues to work from the hip forward even in the extended canter, the saddle does not sink down as the he stretches out his frame, and his nose points to where his foreleg will land. Because my horse’s tempo is steady, and his energy flows towards my hand, I have the ability to adjust his outline forward and back again with no loss of balance, energy, or engagement. My hands are able to quietly receive and recycle the energy created by the hind leg. These are nice moments taken from reasonably successful rides. No ride is perfect every step of the way, but, studying your horse on film, either through video or still photo, is a very reliable way to assess how secure the elements of the Training Pyramid are in the daily work.

I hope this article helps the reader to recognize how important it is to notice her horse’s tempo, once the establishment of a correct rhythm has been assured. Assessing the tempo, expecting a steady flow of energy, and adjusting the tempo early and often will pave the way for a more honest connection, which creates the possibility of collection. My next article will discuss Suppleness from the Relaxation tier.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Summer 2016 Update

2016 has been a busy year thus far! I have continued to develop the young Moresian gelding, Saezzar. I started him the middle of August last year, and he has made steady progress. His mind is so incredible, and he has the talent for dressage. He seems to really love his job. In June, he went on his first outing, to Millbrook Farms in Fairfield. He learned how to go away from home and still do his job, an important step in the education of a show horse. In July, he competed at his first show, again at Millbrook Farms. I just love this facility for baby horses and new riders. The stabling is very secure and safe, the footing is excellent, the warmup arena is huge so you can keep a nervous Nelly in a corner away from other horses, and of course the organization and management are extremely welcoming. Saezzar did great at his first show. On Saturday, he got a little too excited and inattentive, picking up the wrong lead for the right canter-something he had actually NEVER once done under saddle-and our score was only a 63.409%. Not bad at all, but, he has the quality to do a lot better than that. Sunday was much better. In spite of being tired, and suddenly noticing the arena sign that had been there all along, resulting in a spook just as we trotted up centerline to start, he stayed much more focused and we earned a 71.136% on Training level Test 3. I was thrilled with him and his conduct at his very first show. Saezzar will also go to the August Millbrook Farms show, and, the Utah Dressage Society shows the following weekend.
Saezzar's owner, Persis, needed to get in the saddle herself so she could learn along with her youngster. In December, we traveled to Albuquerque, NM, to look at an older schoolmaster, a Friesian gelding. As soon as they pulled the blanket off of him and he turned to look at me, I felt that same arrow through my heart that I felt that July day in 1998 as I walked into a barn in Klammath Falls, Oregon, and Charisma put her head out of the stall and looked at me. I had to work hard to remain professional, but I had already researched the horse's credentials pretty carefully, and only needed to sit on him for a few minutes to confirm what I felt I already knew. Even at coming 18, he passed his vetting with flying colors, in spite of being extremely underweight, under muscled, and in very poor condition. The vet gave Persis a very specific nutritional program, and Chase arrived in St. George in the dark in late December, calmly walked off the trailer and into his stall, and stole all of our hearts immediately. Luckily Persis has a fleet of daughters to spoil him in his future retirement but for now "Chase" has carried Persis to her very first dressage show with very nice scores and even a first place. They showed at the July Millbrook Farms show, and will be showing in August as well, along with Saezzar.
It was really special to have six of Persis' seven children, as well as her husband and nephew, there to watch both her and I. What a support crew-I don't know about Persis but their love and support made me feel invincible!!

Diane and Legolas have been working hard with me since last fall, with the goal ultimately being First level. Legolas previously had a career on the AQHA circuit, and has had to learn a new discipline along with Diane. They are a very elegant pair and make progress each day. They also entered their first dressage show at the Millbrook Farms July show. Linda taught Diane how to make dressage braids, and it made gave me such a fulfilling feeling to see the two of them, heads together, getting those braids perfect. I have to say, Diane's turnout was spectacular! It was such a joy to see Diane's father come and watch her, and I had to hide my emotions when I heard him say to her "It's just like when you were a little girl." . Diane's husband and one of her sons(she has eight beautiful children!) were so proud to watch her, and Legolas behaved very well on show day. I am really proud of this pair and their progress.

Linda and Cazador continue to make progress. Caz was very green when Linda bought him just over a year ago but they have really gelled as a team. They showed at the July Millbrook show as well, at First level, and they earned a qualifying score for Regional Championships!! This thrilled me to no end. Linda is very excited to begin work on their First level Freestyle, a long time goal of hers. I have high hopes for this pair's future in the sport. I can easily see Linda earning her Bronze medal and Freestyle bar in the very near future. 
April saw the departure of Ashley Adams and her darling family. Her husband Chris received an Army assignment that took them to Monterey(rough life!). I miss all of them terribly. Ashley purchased the grade gelding Silver Lining in February from Kerri Coufal, head groom to Alison Brock. "Charlie" schools Third level and is a super find for Ashley and her daughters. Charlie and Ashley participated in several shows at Gilroy Gaits this summer, earning the First level scores Ashley needed towards her Bronze medal, as well as to allow her to begin designing her First level Freestyle. I have been coaching them via email and phone, which while not ideal, is still helpful. Were it not for Jan Lawrence's virtual coaching while I rode Kleine, I would not have progressed from never having shown FEI to a very respectable 65% at Intermediate II and 59.7% at Grand Prix within seven short months. 
Ashley's KWPN mare, Dulce' stayed at Lava Bluffs with me, in full training, with the aim to sell her to an ambitious rider who can capitalize on the mare's great paces, energy, and work ethic. I took her to a clinic at Cooper Ranch in Las Vegas and rode with David Wightman. He praised her elasticity and gaits. Details, photo and video about Dulce' may be found on my For Sale page. Dulce' will be shown at First level in the August Millbrook and Utah Dressage Society Shows.
Karen and Tanner continue to amaze me at their diligence. Tanner is so honest, and gives it his all every single ride. They participated in a schooling show at Cooper Ranch in Las Vegas, in January, and did a great job, earning a very nice score. They were unable to participate in the April  show due to a scheduling conflict, and, the remaining schooling shows there were cancelled for 2016. Karen and I are preparing her to show recognized next year. 
Alison and Biscuit continue to improve and have become a super partnership. Pat and Blue are taking the summer off from lessons due to the heat. Pat has to be careful about getting overheated and rides very early every morning. We will get back to lessons in the fall.
Frisco steals my  heart on a daily basis. I love that horse so much. Together this year, thus far, we have earned our Bronze Freestyle Bar, qualified for Regional Championships at Third level, at Third level Freestyle, and qualified at CDS-HOY Third level Freestyle. 

2016 has been a very full year for SCWDressage, and I am excited to see what the remainder of the year holds for my horses and riders. I am blessed and filled with gratitude.
Here is a link to a complete album of photos from the show:
https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10155102520074460.1073741844.713909459&type=1&l=fcca5cf3da



Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Las Vegas Chapter-California Dressage Society Annual Awards Banquet

SCWDressage would like to congratulate Ashley Adams and Beau Dazzler on their 2015 year end award with the LVC-CDS. The LVC-CDS Awards Banquet is this Saturday in Las Vegas. Ashley and Daz were the Schooling Show, Adult Amateur First Level Reserve Champions in the Opportunity Division. Also receiving an award at the banquet is Stacy Williams and Frisco Bay, who were the Rated Show Musical Freestyle Champions across all levels with their Second Level Freestyle. Full results for LVC-CDS Year End Awards may be found here:
http://lasvegasdressage.org/awards/

Jaeli, Ashley and Daz, Chris, and Sage. It's a family affair!
Frisco's Second Level Freestyle earned three Championships in 2015.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

2015 USDF Awards Banquet

Silver Medal with George Williams

LVC-CDS 2015 Silver Medalists: Pearlier Rorhbacher, Marthe Winner, Stacy Williams, Kristy Keller

Receiving Frisco's All Breeds Westfalen Horse Association Second Level Freestyle Championship

Westfalen Horse Association Award Recipients

Friday, November 27, 2015

In Loving Memory of Barb

Obituary of Barbara Clara Repta-1940-2015 

Barbara Clara Repta, formerly of Lawrence, Kansas, passed away on 23 November 2015 of natural causes after a long bout with Alzheimer's Disease. She was born Barbara Clara Vogel on 12 December, 1940 in Manitowoc, Wisconsin to Earl Otto and Lois Vogel, who along with her brother Garrity Vogel, preceded her in passing. "Barb" is survived by her husband Arnold and son Garrity, both of Park City, Utah and daughter Tracey of New Orleans, Louisiana. Barb and "Arnie" were married in Cudahy, Wisconsin on 10 November 1962. Barb was an ardent lover of animals and an accomplished equestrian. Along with her dressage riding, she enjoyed the outdoors including gardening, swimming, skiing and skating. She was a loving and devoted mother and wife who was very outgoing and filled with energy and the joy of life. Her warmth, smile and infectious sense of humor endeared her to all she met. She will be remembered and deeply missed by her family and all her friends. She enjoyed many friendships in the numerous places she lived including Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin; Lawrence, Kansas; Wilmington, Delaware and St. George and Park City, Utah. Per Barb's wishes no funeral or service is being held. Those wishing to honor her life are encouraged to make contributions in her memory to “Best Friends of Animals Society” (http://bestfriends.org/) and or the “Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation” (https://www.alzinfo.org/donate/donation_form/). Condolences may be addressed to Reptaaj@aol.com