Saturday, November 12, 2011

Dressage for the 21st Century, by Paul Belasik

This is one of my favorite books, and I am currently re-reading it for perhaps the 6th time. I'm sure I'll read it many more times before I am done with my riding career! I want to share a couple of super excerpts from the book. The first is just a wonderful explanation of collection vs. extension, and is found on page 93. It reads: "If a horse cannot immediately lengthen the trot, there is a good chance that the previously collected trot had no power. If nothing can be let out, nothing was being stored up. Collection and extension should be like the proverbial cannon-the same amount of gunpowder, only a different angle of the barrel." In other words, slow is NOT collection. Contained power IS. The next excerpt is more about the philosophy of training horses and riders. It is a philosophy I personally hold dear. I do not encourage my clients to run out and buy highly trained horses that are trained far above their current riding levels for a reason. I instead encourage my clients to become an integral part of the training process, and I try to demonstrate to them through my own dedication and hard work that learning to ride well, and train your horse, is a years-long process that takes committment and time. The excerpt is found on page 133, and reads: "The underlying theme of this book has been to explain how the classical system is a continuous process. There is a complex layering of skills and a dovetailing of excercises. Unless one trains horses all the way through, it is impossible to really understand the way the training must fit together and what is more and what is less important along the way. All along, there has been the inherent warning that all theory must yield a cohesive whole, or the trainer can become infatuated with interesting but unworkable fragments. The tendency in the beginning is to want to climb the ladder as quickly as possible. Some riders think that a lot of experience at Grand Prix will automatically fulfill the requirements for experience at the lower levels. Well, it won't. There is no substitute for experience at every level: each has its own importance and, in some cases, the lower levels are more important. So long as the rider is seduced by the glamorous notion of high school, there will be a problem. This is not just some psychological problem of too large an ego. The problem is one of pragmatic importance and it has a real physical dimension, which is that the horse knows that the rider does not really care about the fundamentals, about doing the simple things right. The horse knows that it can wear the rider out with a little dragging of the feet. This rider will bore easily." Belasik goes on to say: "Part of being a teacher is to do the teaching and not let the students control the curriculum. Like the horse, if the students know that the teacher doesn't really care about the fundamentals, about doing the simple things right, they also know that they can wear the teacher down with a little feet dragging. The teacher will bore easily. A student might think 'If I procrastinate a little, then I can do something that is more fun.' Any school of horsemanship that is based in such 'fun' demeans the blood, sweat and tears of such as La Broue and Newcastle and Gueriniere, who gave us classical dressage. There can be great joy in riding, but it is set up with great work. The study of equitation is school, not entertainment." I could not have said it better myself, and is a salve to my still raw wound of losing my very educated partner far too young...developing a horse through to the upper levels of competitive dressage takes not only many years of hard work, but also, a lot of luck. I could easily go out and "buy my ride" and be showing in a tophat and tails right now. But I won't...because I know how important it is to fully understand every layer of this onion, despite the blood, sweat and tears involved. Thank you Paul Belasik for staying true to the core principals of this amazing discipline. And thank you to my current very dedicated clients for trusting that there are no shortcuts, that the tortoise always wins the race of developing horses and riders.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Poetic Justice and Brenda Whiteley

Ok I have to just take a moment to brag! I've just returned from the California Dressage Society's Regional Adult Amateur Championships in Del Mar, CA. Brenda did a great job, and learned a lot. It was her first dressage show of this calibre, with 22 riders in her class. On Saturday, she and Cookie put in a solid, steady ride, finishing in 8th place with a 67.2%. On Sunday, we worked in the warmup to develop more elasticity, suppleness, and throughness. Brenda did a super job getting Cookie put together into a much more polished, professional looking degree of balance and connection. Unfortunately, Cookie did remind us that she is only just barely four years old, finding some invisible monsters in the H corner of the arena. She'd already been in that same arena the day before! Brenda had a little trouble getting her into that courner throughout the test, which created a few problems. That being said, Brenda remained poised and tactful, never punishing Cookie or getting restrictive with the hand. She just kept her legs on, hands forgiving, and sent her confidently a pro. This is the kind of riding Cookie will learn from. There is nothing to fear, most especially not her rider! Because the quality of the warmup work was so high, and Cookie was thus moving much more brilliantly and staying much more connected, they still managed a 64.8. Overall Cookie was a real trooper and behaved herself far better than many horses with much more show experience. This was only her fourth show! As a result of these scores that Brenda and Cookie earned, in combination with scores that they have earned in the three previous shows, they have accomplished four very amazing feats for such a novice pair. Brenda has now earned a USDF Rider Achievement Award at Training Level. Cookie has earned a USDF Horse Performance Certificate at Training Level. Brenda and Cookie have qualified for the USDF Regional Championships. And, Cookie will earn a national ranking in the USDF All-Breed Awards, for the American Warmblood Registry, at Training Level. Their median score will be approximately 66.4%, and at the present moment that places them in first place nationally! Additionally, Cookie has earned two Vintage High Points for Brenda, and one Open High Point for Stacy...before she even turned four years old. This is an amazing young mare, with tremendous heart and beautiful movement, and Brenda is to be commended for her hard work and committment. Dressage is not easy, nor is bringing along a young horse. I am so proud of them both, and pleased to be a part of this amazing team.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What, Really, is Collection?

Ask a hundred different riders, whether they are dressage riders or reiners, or cowhorse people, or hunter/jumper riders, even natural horsemen, and they will all give you a different definition, and yet, they are all seeking it.
I was telling my student and BFF about a month ago that I wanted to write a blog post about how I personally define collection. Then I got busy packing to head north, and didn't get it posted. In the meantine, she had lent me a book called "Dressage, Naturally" by Karen Rohlf. Karen was a longtime student of Anne Gribbons and has competed at the highest levels of dressage. But she left the conventional avenues of dressage training to pursue a study of the Parelli system. What came of that study is brought together beautifully in this book. Why am I mentioning this book now, during my attempt to discuss how I define collection? Well, because for the very first time, in all the reading I've done, and I've done lots of reading, I have never once seen anyone describe collection the way I would describe it, until I read this book.
Are you on the edge of your seat, waiting for my(and her) definition??!!
Collection is nothing more than balance. To me. If I could get my clients to understand one thing about collection, it is that it has absolutely nothing to do with framing your horse into a pose or slowing down the gaits or even the stereotypical picture of a "collected" horse. What you are seeing, when you picture that stereotype, is nothing more than a horse who has been brought, little by little, step by step, ride by ride, year after year, into a heightened degree of balance, self-carriage, throughness(I call it maleability), engagement, and straightness. There is a reason collection is at the top of the pyramid. You don't wake up one day and say to your horse: "Now we must be collected." And then proceed to arm wrestle him into a pose that fits your image. Karen, in her book, goes on to say that she would rather not talk about collection as a destination, but rather a journey. What we are all really after is actually not necessarily the height of collection(seriously, how many of us, and our horses, will really make Grand Prix or perform the airs??). No, what we are all really after is: "collectibility", the possibility to collect, the balance improving degree by degree.
So how do we achieve this? Well, that is a work in progress, for every rider, and every horse. Collectibility is your gradual development of your horse's balance. By developing all the tiers of the training pyramid thoroughly, you teach your horse to become more and more balanced onto his hindquarters, more and more light in his shoulder, and more and more maneuverable with lighter and lighter aids.
This is not an easy process. It doesn't happen overnight. And depending on how you picture that collection, whether you eventually want to ride a piaffe/passage tour or you want to ride a rundown to a sliding stop, you must take the time to develop your horse's rhythm, relaxation, contact, impulsion, suppleness and straightness until he has become so rideable and balanced that the collection you need to get that task done is just "there". The amount of collection needed to do a medium trot to collected trot transition at Second level is not the same as the amount of collection needed to get that piaffe/passage tour done at Grand Prix. But if you don't ride that medium trot to collected trot transition well at Second level, then you are not setting your horse up for the piaffe/passage later. You have to ride today's work very well if you want tomorrow's work to be better. So the next time you ride, consider this. Rather than saying to yourself "gee I wish my horse had an easier time staying collected.", instead think about what is missing from your horse's way of going that prevents him from staying balanced enough to keep his weight on his haunches and off his forehand. Is he overloading his left shoulder? Is he giving you neckbend rather than body bend to the right? Are his haunches to the inside when you canter? Is he stepping through equally with both hind legs? Does he "stop" in the downward transitions and fall into your hands, or does he step more deeply underneath his mass and transition down like a feather falling from the sky? These are the kinds of questions you have to ask yourself, as a student of horsemanship generally and dressage specifically. Not once in a while, either, but every ride, every stride. If you are in the saddle, you'd better be asking questions, if you want that coveted perfect balance of collection.
Here's to balance and collectibility, in riding, and in life!

Monday, May 2, 2011

An Interesting Debate I had with a Friend and Student

I have had an ongoing debate with a friend, who from time to time also takes lessons from me. She has come to dressage by way of other disciplines. I am copying my response to her concern as to why a particular ride that was not very accurate did not have many comments from the judge regarding that. And why she got good scores on a couple of movements, that she thought weren't necessarily all that wonderful. Here is my response:
"Read the top part of your Training level test: "To confirm that the horse's muscles are supple and loose, and that it moves freely forward in a clear and steady rhythm, accepting contact with the bit." It does not say: "To confirm that the horse can be ridden in an accurate pattern and that the rider is completely accurate." It isn't about the pattern, dressage is simply not about the pattern. It's about the quality of the gaits, which are expected to be improved rather than corrupted by correct riding, and the quality of the connection. It's about the horse-making sure the horse goes forward with clear, clean gaits, and accepts the bit. He doesn't even have to be completely ON the bit, just, accepting. Every level beyond Training level, includes that statement above as a prerequisite to the additional requirements of the level. The judges expect to see young horses and beginning riders at Training level, neither of whom can be expected to always hit their marks, so to speak. They deliberately make transitions between markers rather than at markers, until the hardest test, and even then, a judge would MUCH rather see a correctly forward-to-the-connection transition a little bit early or late, than exactly at the mark. They tell us this specifically in the L course. Now if you can do all that, AND get your transitions bang on, that's when you see scores of 68 and higher. And frankly, it DOES take tremendous effort and correct riding by the rider to keep a horse's gaits pure and clear, especially if you have a horse that does not naturally have great gaits, or a horse that has very big gaits. You would be surprised at how many riders make their horses' canters and walks impure, either through tension, or through not letting the horse move out to a steady contact because they are unable, or afraid, to ride their big moving horses forward. Judges are taught to severely penalize impure gaits-that goes to incorrect riding and training. That is why one rider got a very low score, despite a dead accurate ride. She is so tense and fearful, and so severely restricts her horse’s movement that she has even made her horse's trot impure. And I don't mean just going uneven or unlevel in the trot lengthenings either, a common problem due to lack of thoroughness and connection. I mean he ambles instead of trots. He didn't do that two years ago. It's also probably why you got a 4 on one of your walk scores. I had a horse come to me whose walk and canter had both been made completely lateral by the previous trainer. She did not know what to do with his big gaits, so she rode them out of him. Nor did she know how to keep him connected over his topline, and so he'd also go reinlame in the trot lengthenings. I have fixed the canter-but it is much harder to fix the walk once it's ruined-and I still have times where he goes lateral in it. This is a horse that was born with 8 gaits. So you see, gaits absolutely, unequivocably, go to training. His 8 gaits can easily be made 5 gaits. Your horse has a tendency to get lateral in walk and canter, but he naturally has 7 gaits. You didn't have to go out and buy a fancy horse to get 7 gaits. No one does. A 7 means your horse has "fairly good" gaits. 8 is only just "good". Incorrectly ridden, your horse’s gaits can easily become a 5, even a 4. The gaits ARE all about the training-the preservation of the gaits and in fact the IMPROVEMENT of the gaits during the training is the hardest part of this sport. Accuracy: Janet Foy called it the pennies in your pocket, vs. the gaits and the connection, which are the silver dollars and fifty cent pieces. If you halt exactly where you are supposed to, but your horse hits the hand and goes onto the forehand because you slammed on the brakes just to hit your mark, you will, under a correctly trained judge, always get a lower score for that, than a horse that halts a litle bit before or after X, but halts softly onto his haunches and stays connected, balanced, and engaged because the rider took the time needed to seek correctnesss in the transition. Besides, it's really hard to see from C if the rider exactly hit X. We've had this debate before and I know how you feel, but I am telling you, that is not how dressage judges are trained. We are developing lifelong athletes that are expected to reach their peak between the ages of 12 and 18. Our best athletes that go to the Olympics are not even ALLOWED to be there unless they are at least 7 years old. If all dressage trainers worried about was accuracy, they could not keep horses sound that long. Now let's face it, a rider who rides correctly enough to keep the horse going forward to the connection in a clear and steady rhythm, and keeps her horse supple and loose, generally also is able to get her half halts through easily enough that her accuracy happens as a direct result of the correctness of the rest of the work. In other words, it should be a byproduct of correct training, rather than the goal. You don't have to agree with me(and it's not me, but rather the entire classical dressage theory), but this is how we are taught to judge. So, even if you don't agree, at least you now know enough to understand why you might get the scores you get, and why I emphasize the quality of your horse's movement when I teach you. His canter is VERY different when you sit back and keep his hind legs loaded-he gets much more uphill with much more airtime, the difference between a 5 canter, and an 8 canter, and that right there is an example of how the riding directly affects the gaits. That is why you got a 9 on that canter circle-you must have not only been accurate, but you must have kept your weight back over his haunches and showed a balanced, uphill, active canter with plenty of suspension. Congratulations! Good job."

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Show Report, Las Vegas Winter Fling Feb. 19/20, 2011

Congratulations to Brenda Whiteley and Poetic Justice for earning the High Point Vintage award! Brenda rode Training Level Test 3-Q to a 67.2% on Saturday, Training Level Test 2 to a 67.5% on Sunday, and Training Level Test 3-Q to a 68.888% on Sunday. She has earned one of two scores required to qualify for the USDF Regional Championships. She has also, with her scores from this show and the November show, now qualified for the California Dressage Society's Adult Amateur Championships, with the Southern Championship show to be held in August in beautiful Del Mar.

I'd also like to congratulate Jenny Campos and Brendijs on their very first Recognized competition. Jenny has been successful at the schooling level, and decided it was time to up the ante. She learned a lot and has gained some valuable insight. I expect wonderful things from this pair. Their scores were very respectable, and will only improve.
Lastly, I'd like to thank Brenda for choosing me to help her bring along her lovely young mares. In 2009, her mare Bold Rhythm Rules(Ruby) helped me earn the final scores needed to obtain a USDF Rider Performance Award for Training Level. I had already earned three of those scores on my own mare, Charisma, in 1999 and 2000, prior to moving to Canada. I'm happy to report that as of this last show, and of course pending final verification from USDF, I have now earned all scores needed for a Rider Performance Award at First level, thanks to the scores I earned at the November show and this show, on Poetice Justice(Cookie). I earned two scores previously on Charisma, and earned the remaining two with Cookie. I can honestly say that I earned these awards, along with the Rider Performance Award at Second level, exclusively on horses that I trained myself. While not everyone agrees, to me as a professional in this industry, this is an important distinction, to be able to say I trained the horses that I rode.

You Can Lead a Horse to Water.....

Ever wonder why some people seem to make their way despite less than ideal circumstances, and others, with all the support in the world, just languish? I truly believe there are two different kinds of people. There are those who wait for knowledge/success/dreams to come to them. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't, often with just a difference between good luck and bad luck. And there are those who actively pursue knowledge, work smartly towards success, and never take their eye off their dreams. I believe we make our own luck to a certain extent. Yes we have to have a little help from Lady Luck herself, but, if you aren't currently existing in a place to receive that help, then it will be wasted and pass you by. It amazes me when someone will say to me, "I'd like to ride such and such level", and they could not if their lives depended on it recite to me what is required of that level. The information is all out there, folks. And with the internet, information has never been so very easy or inexpensive to obtain. If you want to progress more rapidly than you have ever dreamed possible, take advantage of every resource available to you. When you take your riding lessons, do you ever go home and write down notes about them? I do, and always have. Do you read your score sheets, make note of common themes in problem areas, and go home and work on those before the next show? Or do you throw your hands up and decide to wait to find another judge who might be more forgiving of your particular faults? Or worse, decide to stick with schooling shows? Do you avoid challenging yourself with harder work, more lessons, more shows, more clinics and instead sit passively on the sidelines thinking "oh that looks so easy, why doesn't that rider just DO what the instructor is saying?!"? Or do you stay home "schooling" at whatever level you think you are schooling and never go out there and be forced to get it done under the lights? It's not confirmed until you can get it done in front of a judge with everyone watching. You don't have to have a lot of money to improve. Even if you are very limited in how many lessons you can take, there are always going to be ways to get education inexpensively. I mean seriously, if you have enough money to own a horse, you can certainly find a way to afford SOME instruction and the ODD show or clinic. I can't think of a trainer who wouldn't trade a lesson for some help around the barn, or some skill or service you provide that would be of benefit to them. How many of your peers' lessons have you watched this week? Do you show up, ride your horse and gab at the grooming racks, or, do you stand out in the weather with the trainer watching the other riders? I challenge each of you to take initiative in every facet of your life. Need to lose some weight? Walk a little bit more, eat a little bit less, do some extra chores around the barn or join an exercise group. Not strong enough or fit enough get the most out of your lessons? See the previous answer. Just not flexible enough to keep your legs long and in the correct position? Join a yoga class or save some money and look up equestrian specific stretching routines online. And then actually DO those stretches. Don't know what the trainer is talking about when she schools the students at a higher level than you? Ask!! Or better yet, go home and read about it. Read the FEI handbook. Read the Dressage Rules and the Dressage Glossary. Is your trainer going to be involved in some kind of higher education course? Try to get yourself volunteered as a groom, auditor, or just a tagalong. Be humble, but TAKE INITIATIVE. As Thomas Jefferson said: "He who knows best, knows how little he knows." Seek knowledge, it's out there just waiting for you.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Christmas Fun

We got together for a little Christmas party organized by Brenda. The original plan was to go for a trail ride together and then over to Brenda's for a gift steal party. But it rained, and rained some more! We had rain fall approaching record levels in December, but that didn't stop us from having some fun. Since we couldn't really ride, we decided to take silly pictures of the horses instead. Jenny, Barb and Linda weren't able to make it, but Arnie, Barb's husband, was a good sport and filled in for a picture! Later we went over to Brenda's and had a really nice party. Everyone decided they liked the gifts they brought the best so we each chose our own! The girls all pitched in and bought us a Simultalk 24G no more shouting into the wind, and no more pretending they can't hear me ;) It's been really helpful, the girls love that I can talk to them more quietly and that I can get more information to them, in time enough for it to actually make a difference!

The girls had a successful year at the Color Country Equestrian Club Dressage schooling show series. I am proud of their hard work, and we are already planning for next year. Check out the Photos tab for some show pictures of the girls.