Wednesday, October 31, 2012

"Half the failures in life arise from pulling in the horse as he is leaping."

I learned something from my four year old horse today. I am supposed to be the teacher here, and yet anyone who has ever taught anything to anyone knows full well that the teacher learns as much from the student as the student learns from the teacher. Frisco is still learning to be straighter, better aligned, and more balanced. He is young. This problem generally reveals itself when tracking right. He leaves his shoulders left. I am very careful not to fall into the trap most people fall into, which is to bring the right leg back in a vain attempt to get the haunches to move more to the outside. If I want right bend, I have to keep the correct right bend position and not fall victim to his lack of alignment. Eventually he will balance himself under me and straighten himself out, with repeated corrections every ride, every day, for a lifetime. That said, he still often gets on the forehand to the right even though I am careful to keep the correct right bend position. Today, it hit me like a truck, how I could better help him. We all like to think we have great hands, don't we? We know we aren't supposed to pull back, and yet, we do. That is human nature. I try very hard not to ever pull back with any horse, but especially mine, because his poll is so flexible and his neck shortens easily. But I realized today, when he gets out of alignment, and those shoulders start getting left to the left :) because he isn't engaged enough with his right hind leg, I exacerbate the problem with my hands. I DO pull back, whether I want to admit it or not. For some reason, I decided to put my hands markedly forward today, and voila. He was able to find his balance and get back into alignmment. I absolutely WAS pulling in my horse just as he was attempting to make the leap...even though I knew better. How many times have you been absolutely convinced you were doing all you could to help the situation, only to realize later that you were doing one crucial thing that was constantly causing you to paddle upstream? By shortening his neck in an attempt to achieve a better alignment, I was causing him to tip further onto the forehand, making it even more difficult for him to regain his alignment. I was thinking too much about the front of my horse, and not enough about allowing him the space to balance himself with his own neck, and just keeping the hind leg active. What is that zen saying? Do not forget what you already know??? I was instantly reminded of this sage advice below today, when my horse went from somersaulting over his forehand into a nice, uphill, 10 meter trot circle, just because I simply gave him the space to get it done. We have to learn from our horses, we have to learn to read them and understand what works and what does not. Nothing you read in books is useful, if you are not able to also read your horse and make the necessary adjustments, and respond to the feedback your horse is giving you. As Alfredo Hernandez said when asked what books he recommended: "My book has a mane, a tail, and four legs. You need to learn to read your horse."

Half the failures in life arise from pulling in the horse as he is leaping. ~Augustus William Hare and Julius Charles Hare, Guesses at Truth, by Two Brothers, 1827

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Another Great Clinic with Alfredo!

Frisco and I have now participated in three clinics with Alfredo Hernandez at the lovely Kimball Ranch in Heber City, organized by Stephanie Brown-Beamer. Since bringing Frisco back to work after his summer vacation, I have struggled to regain access to his back. I was pleased that Alfredo instantly picked up on the missing engagement, not so much of his hind leg, but behind the saddle. Frisco is a well developed, strapping, strong horse. But he is still a young horse, and his back, his bridge, still has to be built up just like any other horse. Both days, Alfredo worked the piaffe with Frisco in hand, and we also worked the passage in hand. We had worked piaffe a little bit last time, and in the first clinic, we worked passage with me in the saddle. But the goal of doing both in hand this time was to help remind Frisco to engage his body, and to use his core muscles more correctly. He has a nice way of using his hind leg, however he can look more engaged than he actually is. But I could feel it, the lack of access to the hind leg and the lack of connection to my seat. In the piaffe work, Frisco offered some attempts at diagonal pairing and was quickly and hugely rewarded each time. Recall that last time, Frisco only lowered and quickened behind, but never offered the diagonal pairing with a front leg. This is how Alfredo works...only a few steps for now with big rewards, so he knows what we want and will try to offer it sooner, and more clearly, next time. I cannot work the piaffe and passage in hand alone yet, but Alfredo gave me an excellent exercise to do at home. He wants me to do walk to halt to walk transitions in hand, and when Frisco halts, I am to use the whip to encourage him to step deeper underneath and completely square. A few times, Frisco offered it very correctly and was hugely rewarded. I am to work on this a little bit every single day. We did quite a bit of in hand work both days. On the second day, under saddle, I finally felt that connection to my seat that had been missing, and I felt a greatly improved balance. It was enlightening to see how much taller Frisco looked when he was fully engaged and pushing off the bit. This improved balance in hand helped the balance under saddle, and that is really the premise of Alfredo's work.
Just to highlight that there is nothing new under the sun, Alfredo continued to stress inside leg to outside rein connection. He never wanted two reins used in the half halt or the transitions, only outside rein. But that only works if the inside leg is correctly used, and the horse is correctly responding to these aids. When Frisco tuned me out, he said to wait it out, that he would eventually give me a response, but to never sacrifice the classical principles out of impatience or frustration, even if I have booming voice telling me to get it done!!  This experience gave me a humbling reminder of how my students feel from time to time when I am asking them to do something, and they know they can't get it done. Alfredo also wants me to make sure Frisco works with a longer neck, that I work with a lower hand, that I constantly push him forward to the bit, but that I use only my body in the half halts(where have I heard this before?!). And in pushing him forward to the bit, he is never allowed to run or quicken the tempo, so I am to use many half halts, again with my body, to teach him that my leg does not mean go faster. It means engage your hind legs, and my half halt means engage your core and lift your thoracic sling. Every stride: engage hind legs followed immediately by engage core and lift thoracic sling. This is how you build that bridge, every stride, every ride.
In the lateral work in hand, Alfredo was very pleased to see that Frisco was now much  more forward thinking in all his reactions(this is also true in the saddle), but he still felt Frisco was being lazy behind, and tending to over position his neck. So he actually had me shorten the side reins quite a bit, and, hold the whip a bit lower. He wanted me to make bigger, sharper corrections, and be less "nagging" with my use of the whip to control the haunches. And he wanted me to half halt either back towards the shoulder when Frisco lost the body angle by overbending the neck, or, half halt up and tap the wither with the whip when Frisco tried to bear down into my hand. These corrections paid major dividends when on the second day we were able to take many careful, correct steps laterally, in both directions, with only the weight of the rein in my hand. He continued to stress that I never allow Frisco to step out behind with his inside leg when halting from this work. He does it with both hind legs so Alfredo feels it is more an issue of laziness behind, rather than any particular weakness. A seemingly tiny detail, but hugely important in Frisco's overall understanding as a dressage horse, was noted on the first day. When taking the first step laterally, Frisco stepped first with the front leg. Alfredo wants him to step first with the hind leg. Just pointing it out to me, bringing it to my awareness, seemed to be enough to make it happen. It reminded me to focus much more on the hind leg in the work, so that when I asked him to step over, I directed my intent towards his inside hind leg. Once again, this proves that the horse rarely makes mistakes, and the fault can usually be found with the rider. It is only natural for a horse to make the first move with the front leg, but correctly set up in a system of aids, he can and will make the first move with his hind leg. That does not take talent, on the part of the horse or the rider. That just takes attention to detail. Dressage is a sport in which you can succeed if you pay attention to the small things. Yes it helps to have a horse that is extremely talented. But even the plainest of horses, so long as it is sound, can be greatly improved by careful and correct training that never lets any detail slide.
I once again leave my experience with Alfredo inspired and energized. If you have the opportunity to ride with Alfredo, you absolutely should. Even one clinic is very helpful, but you can gain the most by working with him consistently. Each clinic builds upon the information from the last.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

CCEC Fall Dressage Schooling Show

SCWDressage organized the CCEC Fall Dressage Shooling Show, held this past Saturday, October 20th. We had gorgeous weather. Everything ran smoothly and on time, thanks to our judge Stephanie Brown-Beamer, and our volunteers. In fact I had a dire shortage of volunteers, so we ran on a skeleton crew of Lava Bluffs Equestrian Center boarders, with Heidi serving as our scribe, Brenda helping me rake the arena edges the day before as well as with setup and scoring, and Sarah helping me with morning setup and afternoon takedown. So not only did Lava Bluffs and the Gardners provide our stunning setting for the show, but it was their clients who made the show happen. Our community owes a lot to Ryon and Holly to make it possible for Color Country Equestrian Club have a Dressage program. We had fun prizes for class placements rather than ribbons, and thanks to Adams Horse and Pet Supplies(link to them via the icon on the right side of my blog), we had amazing High Point prizes! Pictured here are two such winners, Hannah Hymas on the left, and Chelsea Mackert on the right, with their coach, Rosemary Gunter. Hannah was the Jr/YR High Point, and Chelsea was the Western Dressage High Point. Vintage High Point went to SCWDressage's own Sarah Glidden, and Open High Point went to Arlene Cunningham. In addition, a "Most Inspirational Horse" award was given to Becky Sue Moore and Theo-San, her 32 year old OTTB. Pictured below is a group of riders goofing off with the class prizes. Full results for the show may be found here:
Left to Right: Mia, Hannah, Stephanie, Stacy, Sarah, Bella, Theo, Rosemary, Becky, Brenda, Chelsea, and Pipsqueak

Through the Levels Symposium with Debbie McDonald and Janet Foy

I am over the moon excited to announce that Frisco and I have been chosen as a demonstration pair for this symposium, taking place November 10th and 11th and Millbrook Farms! We will be one of two pairs demonstrating movements and concepts at Training Level. Details about the symposium can be found on Millbrook Farms' website:

Sunday, October 21, 2012

2012 GAIG/USDF Region 5 Championships, Heber City, UT

Frisco and I headed up to Heber City the first weekend in October to participate in the Regional Championships. The setting was beautiful, with the Wasatch mountains framing the outdoor rings, and the weather was bright and crisp. Frisco had only been back under saddle for six weeks, after having a seven week summer vacation turned out on grass. Our last show was in May, so, we were a little bit rusty compared to some of the other pairs, who had been showing through the summer. Down in Dixie, show season is fall through spring. I may show Frisco through the summer in 2013 in order to avoid this issue next year. It is a disadvantage, when the championship show is always in the fall.
Our Training level Championship class was on Friday, and normally, that would be a good thing for Frisco. He has been fairly laid back in the past, but he seems to now understand that shows mean it's time to bring your A game. So, he was a little more exuberant than I'd expected, and I probably could have planned 45 minute warmups vs. 35 minute warmups. That said, it was going to be a long weekend with six classes for the show and I didn't want to put too much stress on his legs and soft tissue. So on Friday, I had far more horse than I typically have, and, he was rather spooky. We managed to still get decent scores, a 61.4 on the warmup class and 63.7 on the championship class. We placed 5th in the championship, not bad in light of the spooking and utter lack of a half halt! The judge in the warmup test(61.7) commented that the miscommunications needed to be sorted out before getting to the show. That will be a major theme in our training for the next year. That is essentially life with a developing young horse, really...establishing reliable communication. At home, I generally have way more whoa than go, but at shows, it is the opposite, which makes it difficult to prepare for. In the end, the resolve is the same: he has to learn to be ON my aids, not behind them, and not getting ahead of me.
Saturday was a much better day in terms of submission. Frisco was a lot more attentive and I felt our rides went really well. However, the judge did not quite agree. Our scores were not bad at all, with a 64.2 on the Training Test 3 and a 68.2 on the USEF 4 Yr Old Test, but I sure thought that Training level test was going to be a better score. After watching the video, in comparison to some rides in the previous show season, I do think there are judges who would have scored it quite a bit higher. In fact on Friday, this same judge scored our ride over 5% lower than the other judge in the championship class. At an International show, this kind of scoring differential would result in a judging committee meeting. She had a bone to pick with me, and that was this: my horse is naturally very easily brought "round" in front. He has three fingers of space in the throatlatch, which  makes his poll extremely flexible. And even though he has a super shape and set to his neck, it is rather short. This particular judge was absolutely adamant that I not "cheat" to make him look round, and to make sure he was developing the necessary topline strength by not letting him settle behind the bit no matter how hard he tried. She wanted him honestly stretching for my hand in all the work, and she wanted me to make absolutely sure that when I employed the half halt, I did so in such a way as to not shorten his neck and discourage his desire to reach for my hand. While I felt somewhat picked on in this respect, and that she possibly focused on this to the exclusion of recognizing some of the more positive aspects of the work, in the end, the judge is always right. I resolved that I would figure out how to get a half halt without shortening my horse's neck. On Sunday, the videos revealed a MARKED improvement of Frisco's uphill balance, particularly in the trot work. I believe that we learn the most from our disappointments and failures. We certainly didn't fail, but my disappointment stung enough to light a fire under me. I have folded this experience into my training with Frisco since then, and he is gradually getting stronger in the topline and improving his uphill balance, day by day. This will take time, but now is the time...Frisco can't get by on his good looks any longer, the work has to be very correct, and I place extreme value on the learning experience this day provided.
Sunday was the highlight, and despite Frisco getting a little over eager and getting ahead of me, I made one hundred percent sure my half halts did not suppress his forward desire or his reach to the bridle. You can see in the video that there are times when he still cheats and settles behind the bit, but overall, the balance was much improved, and I received 8s from both judges for rider seat and position. Frisco earned a 70.4 on Training Test 3 for a championship qualifying score for 2013. He also earned a 70.6 on the USEF 4 Yr Old Test. Frisco was repeatedly complimented for his work ethic and willingness to please by all four judges who saw him on Saturday and Sunday. In fact one friend of mine who saw one such comment said "you should frame that!". This alone was an enormous victory over the problems encountered on Friday. Everyone has their own philosophies, but as I said earlier, we learn most from our failings. Frisco's mother was also very spooky. I handled the problem wrong when she was young, and as a result, she spent a lifetime not sure whether to be more concerned about the boogy men in the corners, or about my lack of tact in handling her fear. I vowed to never make that mistake again, and so with Frisco, who can be very spooky just like his mother, I have always just completely ignored the spook, ridden him forward, and put him back to work. By not overreacting to his fears, I help Frisco overcome them. He realizes that if I am not scared, there is probably no reason for him to be either. By Sunday, he was walking by the 20 foot tall tractor like it was not there, and when a new judge's tent appeared where there had previously not been one, he strode past it with boldness, like he fully expected it to be there. I have to take pride in the things well done, and this is one thing I am proud of...I now know how to teach a young horse to be brave and confident. This is a success that was born of failure.
Here are links to the videos from Sunday:
Many thanks to my friend Brenda for travelling to the show with me. While she and Poetic Justice did qualify, she chose to focus on her training rather than going to a show. It was great to have the moral support, and a dedicated video person and polo wrap remover, and also an emergency fly spray retriever!