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.