In accordance with the terms of my award of a Training Scholarship, I prepared the following article, which will be published in the next UDS Newsletter.
“Ride like a Pro, Stacy. Don’t leave that corner to chance.” These were the words Charlotte Nord-Nielson left me with as I entered the arena on March 7th to show Second Level Test Four under the esteemed General Jonathan Burton. Brilliant. Deceptively simple. Charisma had spooked in that corner repeatedly during our schooling session with Charlotte the day before. The old Stacy would have just hung on and hoped for the best, and the old Charisma would have, without fail, spooked in that corner. Not this day, and never again.
I’ve been trying to get a ride with Charlotte since the first time I attended a show hosted at Cooper Ranch, the barn in Las Vegas, NV, where she is the head trainer. I watched her students compete, and earn very good scores, and every one of them, to the rider, rode like champions, no matter what level. Some rode very talented horses. Some rode horses less Dressage-suited. But it didn’t matter about the horse, because every one of them rode up centerline boldly, leaving nothing to chance. That is the brilliant, deceptively simple, secret to riding well. Leave nothing to chance.
Two weeks prior, I took a lesson with Charlotte, the day before a show. It was my first lesson with her. Was I crazy to ride with someone new the day before a show? No, because, I knew I had to make major changes, if I was to make progress. What did I have to lose? I wasn’t even scoring in the 60s yet. I was in the saddle, walking on a loose rein, when Charlotte walked up. She asked me to go ahead and take up the rein. Right away, I got the usual “no” from Charisma, pressing up with her giant neck and getting a-rhythmic. Charlotte immediately asked me to start paying attention to the rhythm in the walk before I did another thing. Once again, deceptively simple. Why would I let this slide? This should be easy. Some trainers have asked me to be very aggressive with this horse, but, this is a boss mare. Like Kyra Kyrklund says, you have to make three applications, and after 11 years of riding her, I’m rather used to having my applications turned down.
After sorting out the walk rhythm, Charlotte asked me to trot on. Right away, she asked me to pay attention to the rhythm, to keep it steady, and, to slow the tempo down. Charisma tends to hurry the trot. Charlotte said that when she gets too quick, she loses the expression in her trot. I know this, but, I always ride like a passenger, wondering why my horse won’t just offer a slower, more cadenced trot. I showed some of the slower, more expressive trot I’d been working on at home, and Charlotte said it was lovely. I said I’d been working on that, but wasn’t sure if it was right. She said I needed to trust my instincts more. Charlotte made me pay attention to every footfall, make note of where the hind legs were at all times, and be very clear about my expectations. Inevitably, Charisma would press up, or carry the haunches in, all to avoid the real work. Each time, Charlotte patiently asked me to correct the haunches, and keep her round on both reins, even when on a circle or in a lateral movement. I’ve been told all these things, but, Charlotte’s presentation is unique. She will ask the rider to correct something. She will ask nicely. She will repeat the request, nicely, until you do it, and then, she’ll say thank you. And she’ll tell you to thank your horse. Interesting.
We then moved on to the canter work. Right away, Charisma used her neck against me in the canter. I’m so used to having my applications denied, that I’ve developed this system of spending a long time on the canter, being popped out of the saddle because of tension, and hoping it will just get better if I just keep holding on and hoping for the best. Wrong. In response to Charisma’s denial of my application, Charlotte didn’t do the usual “Get in there and make her do it!” routine that has yet to work in 11 years. This approach of Charlotte’s was a pleasant departure, and I was so grateful. Instead of asking me to force her head down, she patiently instructed me to keep thinking of riding her haunches on a slightly larger track than the shoulders, and she kept saying it quietly, until, I did it. Also, she repeated as many times as necessary that I was to keep her round on both reins, especially the right rein on the left canter, our nemesis. She was so gentle and patient with her voice that I finally wondered to myself, why I didn’t do what she was asking the first time?! It would take being more demanding of myself as a rider, and, it would require that I expect, from now on, to have my applications accepted by my boss mare. I suddenly got her round on BOTH reins, with the haunches traveling correctly in line with the shoulders, and voila, the canter was round enough, slow enough, engaged enough, and straight enough. A beautiful, melodic, “THANK YOU, STACY” was my reward from Charlotte.
We worked on our shoulder in, travers & renvers, as well as our walk turns on the haunches, and, our simple changes. Another teaching method of Charlotte’s is to ask her riders to “Ride the belly”. Now, when you are done laughing at how silly this sounds, I’ll explain. All done? Okay, here’s what she means. Charlotte wants the rider to use her legs to hug the horse’s barrel, keeping her leg on at all times, so she can feel what the horse is going to do before it is too late to correct. She wants the rider to focus on what’s happening behind the saddle. Are the hind legs responding to the leg aids? In addition to this, she reminded me frequently to keep my seat plugged into the saddle, so I could use it to guide her, and not get pushed out of the saddle. Keeping my legs working correctly made this task much easier. It isn’t that I didn’t know these things, it was just that I would isolate the seat as being separate from the legs, when, it’s nearly impossible to ride with a deep seat if the legs have to stay in constant contraction to get an aid through. She had me using my legs so much more effectively, that I was able to keep the hind legs working with light aids, and then I could use my upper legs & seat to guide Charisma much more smoothly through the lateral work. And here’s the most interesting side effect of “riding the belly”. In all the years I’ve taken lessons on this horse, I have probably been told no less than one million times to shorten my reins. Why is this? I have quiet hands, I keep my fingers closed, the reins shouldn’t keep slipping through my fingers. It’s because, Charisma can be so very strong in the bridle that it would take Arnold Schwarzenegger himself to keep the reins the correct length, if Charisma’s hind legs are not engaged. Charlotte only had to ask me once, but by the end of the thirty minute lesson, my reins stayed the correct length simply because my horse was engaged enough behind, and slow enough in her tempo to maintain balance, that she was not pulling them through my fingers. She hasn’t asked me to shorten my reins since. And when I ride on my own, I see that, when the hind legs are engaged enough, I frequently find myself riding with nothing but the weight of the reins in my hands. Now when I apply a rein aid, it actually goes through, because I haven’t been hanging on for dear life trying to keep her head down. My right shoulder is thanking Charlotte every day now. So is my horse’s mouth. All this that I’ve discussed was covered in thirty minutes. I am accustomed to riding for an hour trying to get half this amount of work accomplished. The interesting thing is that it was all so simple. It was not EASY, I was glad the lesson was only thirty minutes, but, it was so simple. No pounding sand, no aching back, no numb fingers. Ah, lightness. It took a couple of days for everything to come together, but by the last ride of the weekend, we improved our scores dramatically.
Over the course of the show weekend, and the ensuing two weeks until our next lesson and show weekend, I faithfully applied the laundry list of principals set out in a scant thirty minutes. I used video to ensure I was doing everything right. By the time I saw Charlotte next, she was very pleased with the improvement in the canter, and Charisma was MUCH steadier & softer in the bridle, while remaining in a better uphill balance, more engaged behind. It was during this second lesson that we were able to deal with the Mr. Hyde side of Charisma-that spooky dominant mare who is always looking for danger.
It was a windy day, there were mirrors in this arena, and, faux ivy in the letter boxes, waving around in the wind and reflecting themselves in the mirrors. Nearly every horse was spooking, but the difference was, once they saw it and dealt with it, they moved on. Charisma has always been one to continue to spook even after she’s been allowed to see the scary object several times. She’s an intelligent, kind horse, not terribly hot-natured, so, there must be a rider reason why this continues to be a problem when she is nearly 15 years old and has seen far more of the world than most horses. Charlotte handled this issue with her usual diplomacy. Her sing-song voice quietly, patiently, instructed me through it. I was to ride her “in position” when approaching the known scary corner, and as I rode through the corners, use as much inside leg as it was going to take-LOTS-to keep her bent correctly through that corner no matter how scared she was. I was to keep her round on BOTH reins, even if I had to ride the short side & corner in shoulder fore. I was to keep my legs around her belly, feeling for changes before it was too late, scanning her body for fear, and replacing it with gentle, firm, & precise aids to keep her bending around my inside leg and paying attention to my requests. I continued to employ this method throughout the weekend as Charisma found more scary corners in the warmup ring. By the time I rode up centerline and saluted General Burton, I knew what to do. I knew Charisma was not going to counterbend, or press up with her neck, or jump sideways. How did I know? Because, I rode that belly. I kept her round on both reins. I rode like a pro. I didn’t leave that corner to chance. I rode every step of it. My legs scanned her barrel for tension and asked her to release it before it was too late. Application……ACCEPTED. The second she released the tension, I thanked her with softening muscles. I even spoke quietly under my breath, so the judge couldn’t hear. What did I say to her? “Thank you, Charisma.”