Saturday, July 7, 2012

"I Can Smell the Piaffe"~June 2012 Clinic with Alfredo Hernandez

Frisco Bay at Four Years, Developing the Passage

“I can smell the piaffe.”…If you imagine these words spoken in  a heavy Spanish accent, and in the most lighthearted and joking way, you will have an insight into the kind of fun but educational time you will have if you ride with Alfredo Hernandez, a renowned piaffe/passage clinician. If you think we are talking about putting tricks on horses, you will be sadly mistaken. Alfredo just might be the REAL horse whisperer. His timing is impeccable, and his read of both horses and people is like nothing I have witnessed. He is the perfect mix of confidence in his abilities, ability to admit he is always learning new things, silliness to balance the seriousness, self-deprecating humor, and earnest desire to help the rider achieve her goals.

I took my four year old Westfalen gelding, Frisco Bay(Fidertanz x Conquistador) to a clinic with Alfredo at the beautiful Kimball Ranch in Heber City, Utah, organized by Stephanie Brown-Beamer of Hampton Dressage. You might wonder why someone would ride a 4 yr old in a clinic with a trainer who specializes in the Grand Prix movements. Alfredo loves to work with young horses, before they think this is work, before they have any preconceived notions, and before unhelpful patterns are set. He plays with it, introduces the concepts, in a careful way, so the youngsters finish with a new understanding of how to carry themselves. He tailors his expectations to the horse and rider, and very quickly assesses what will come easily to the horse, and what may not. He uses his techniques to give the horse confidence and tools to try the things that may come harder.

My goals for this clinic were to learn in hand methods that will help my horse be more responsive to my aids both on the ground and under saddle, and to have the concepts of piaffe and passage introduced to him now, so that he just gradually learns a more enhanced balance, engagement and self- carriage. I came away with many tools and learned several in hand techniques. It will, however, take me many years to improve my technique and timing, and my read of the horse. It was invaluable to have Alfredo show me some very small but very significant “tells” my body was giving my horse. Something as simple as asking the horse to move off can be surprisingly difficult when your horse is also your pet and you really don’t want them to leave you. Every time I asked him to move off, I very subtly yielded my own position to him, and yet I wonder why he always pushes towards me with his shoulders. Alfredo put his hand on my shoulder and stopped me from doing that, and Frisco instantly yielded.  There are many little positional things Alfredo gives his students that help them gain more leadership with their horses. A cardinal rule, for example, is to never let the horse pass your shoulder, and if you have a ground person, the rider has the utmost responsibility to never let the horse pass the ground person. This is one of the keys to developing the half halt, because once they learn they can’t pass you, they learn how to half halt themselves, and it puts them in a much more uphill balance. If they can half halt themselves, they become easier to half halt under saddle. Some important concepts I learned for handling the horses in hand are as follows:

a.       If you want your horse to back up, and they are not cooperating, a tap on the cannon bone with the toe of your boot is extremely effective. Just step towards your horse and they learn quickly to get out of your way if your boot’s toe meets their cannon bone a time or two. My guy is a giant Chocolate lab and I had him stepping out of my way like a ballet dancer.

b.      “Close the door”. The horse is never to pass your shoulder. You need to have your shoulders perpendicular to the horse’s shoulders. He is also never to lean into you. Alfredo believes a horse that pushes into its handler is more dangerous than a horse that kicks.

c.       Never use the whip on the horse’s shoulders. If he pushes past, use the toe on cannon bone technique, or, a push with your hand on the horse’s face to turn him away from you.

d.      When asking the horse to move off, the horse moves first, and then you go with him. This was the biggest struggle for me, having raised my own horse, who as I said earlier is more like a big dog.  I, like any “mom”, try to do everything for him, including providing too much “help” to get him to move. I learned that my “lazy” horse is actually not lazy at all, he is extremely responsive and light, when I teach him to carry himself, and then, LET him carry himself. Alfredo said this is a very hard concept for women. Not to open a can of worms here, but, he said he has met the most powerful of women, but when it comes to their “babies”, they always struggle to be as direct as a man can be. Horses really need for us to be direct with them. That is how they treat each other.

Alfredo taught me how to have my horse turn on the shoulders in hand, and then under saddle. The turn on the shoulders is a way to use leverage to gain the horse’s respect. If you control the head and the hips, you control the horse. He also showed other riders how to then turn it into a turn on the haunches with reverse bend, and I will introduce this to Frisco in time. This work transfers to the saddle, making the horse lighter to the bending and moving aids.

But this clinic was not all about in hand work. Alfredo had excellent exercises for us to use under saddle. With my horse, he had me do many trot to walk to trot transitions. He said this is how you teach the half halt. He wants the horses learning to reach into the contact from the beginning, and learning to stay connected in transitions from the beginning. “No fluffy reins!!” he would say. Actually he was saying no floppy reins, but the accent makes it sound like he is saying fluffy, and frankly, I think it is a much more picturesque way of saying it! One of the most effective exercises he used with my horse was having me ride his neck longer and lower, and then gradually bringing him up into the highest degree of balance he was capable of achieving at this stage. Surprisingly, it was a much higher degree of balance than I expected. I made the mistake of simply raising my hands the first time he asked me to bring Frisco up. He said that won’t help my horse bend the hind legs and lift the shoulders; that you have to squeeze the lower legs, push with the seat, and “Bend the L-bones”-another lost in translation moment. He is saying “elbows” but again, I think his way of saying it is much more illustrative. Alfredo believes that horses should either work with a long stretched neck, or, as close to the balance they need for Grand Prix as they are capable at that stage. What matters is the length of time you expect this balance. With a young horse, obviously, less steps in this balance is better. However, he feels too many people let their horses dwell on the forehand far too long, and then wonder why their horses struggle to achieve the balance necessary for the upper level work later. He also said he has never had trouble teaching a horse to stretch, but, many struggle to learn to stay uphill, so he feels we focus too much on having horses work with a long, low neck when this is usually not the hard part for them. I have actually struggled to teach my horse, who is rather short necked and upright, to stretch. But the genius of Alfredo’s approach was that Frisco OFFERED to stretch after being required to work in a more connected, uphill way. In my desire to get my horse to stretch, I have spent far too much time letting him travel on the forehand in a semi stretch, often with fluffy reins, begging him to stretch, but it isn’t honest, because it is not a stretch to my hand. Frisco reached beautifully for my hand after the lowering/raising exercise. Alfredo also strongly believes it is best to have a few very good steps than to have a hundred mediocre steps. He had every horse take many walk breaks, on a free rein. He believes many injuries in horses can be avoided by working very correctly for very short periods of time, punctuated by many breaks on a long rein. He also spends a great deal of time in walk exercises.

Some other important exercises Alfredo had riders do included leg yielding corner to corner in walk, then adding transitions between walk and trot, maintaining the leg yield. He also had riders leg yield in canter from the centerline to the rail and transition to trot. It was remarkable how this exercise improved the balance and cadence in the subsequent trot. With horses that had a tendency to come behind the vertical, he had the riders push the horse over tempo, then, bring it back using only inside leg and outside rein. He said to never use two reins to bring the horse back. He uses haunches in on a circle and leg yield with the nose to the inside on a circle(he says haunches out but that is simply a lost in translation way of saying what he wants) to loosen the horse behind the saddle. Another leg yield exercise he uses is to leg yield corner to corner in walk or trot, but increase the crossover so you reach the rail sooner than the corner, and immediately ride haunches in once reaching the track.

Alfredo had some other key concepts. He said when a horse loses the rhythm or resists, for example when working the piaffe, the very last thing you should do is trot out of it, give away the contact and let the horse go forward. He believes  you are then teaching the horse to resist the piaffe. He prefers to continue working the piaffe, finding the right way to communicate what you want from the horse. Then, HALT. Or, walk out of the piaffe. He said he thinks it is a major mistake, when training piaffe, to ever trot out of it. No test requires that. Teach them the right way from the beginning. Also, be sure that when working the piaffe, the horse is taking many more walk steps than piaffe steps, to avoid overuse injuries. He also greatly prefers a rider do the wrong thing, and make mistakes, than to do nothing at all. He was very insistent that all riders PUSH to the contact, and never take the hands back to gain the contact. The reins must stay short, unless you are purposely riding free walk or lengthening  the neck. He wants riders to pay more attention to changing the horse’s balance right from the beginning, get them off the forehand early and often. When struggling with a movement, he said to pick one aspect of the movement that is missing, and work only on that. Once that has become easy for the horse, then add another element. When giving the reins for free walk, never throw the reins away, always have the horse gradually take the rein down, so that the horse learns manners. If you throw away the reins the horse learns to snatch them. Lastly, he feels that when riding a horse with baggage in a show situation, it is best to ride for safe scores than to try to make a training point with your horse in the arena.

This is only the tip of the iceberg of my learning experience. Alfredo is warm, funny, and will do all he can to give the horse and the rider the tools they need to achieve what he is asking. He believes that is our job as trainers, to give the student and the horse the tools they need to do the job and he works very hard to achieve this no matter the talent or level of the horse and rider pair. This was my first clinic with Alfredo, but it will not be my last, and it is clear why he is much sought after, by beginners and Olympians alike. Thank you Alfredo! And thank you Stephanie for organizing clinics with him regularly, in little ole Utah.

Below are some clips spliced from video of the trot and canter work after the in hand work, but before the passage work. Notice the vastly improved balance as compared to photos on this blog from earlier in the year.
The improved canter balance after the lowering/raising the neck exercise in trot
Lowering and raising the neck in trot to improve balance and adjustability

Here is a link to video from the passage work:
The music is Pa' Bailar by Bajafondo.