USDF 2020 Trainer’s Conference Day 1 Notes

My mind is still full of information that I’m processing.  The 2020 USDF Trainer’s Conference is something I’ve been looking forward to for months now, and it did not disappoint.  The Conference is something I’ve always wanted to put on my calendar and the fact that this year’s topics also counted for my L Graduate continuing education just made it too much of a good thing to pass up.  I can tell you now in hindsight that the USDF Trainer’s Conference is an educational event that I will now be putting on my calendar every year.  It was just that good.

First of all, our moderator for the event was none other than Lilo Fore, retired FEI 5* judge, who’s knowledge and passion for the sport and development of horse and rider was evident throughout the Conference as she guided the discussions between presenters and Q & A sessions.  Our presenters Anne Gribbons, FEI 5* judge; Ashley Holzer, Olympian; Lars Petersen, Olympian; and Gary Rockwell, FEI 5* judge, created absolute magic together between thoughtful discussion and dynamic instruction to the riders.  Some of my favorite moments were when one of them would trade out with another and say how they agreed, disagreed, or just thought of another way to teach the same concept.  The mutual respect and admiration between them was always evident and the way they continued to put the horse and rider first throughout both days was a lovely thing to be a part of.

With that introduction, I will do my best to decipher my notes to accurately interpret my biggest take aways from each horse and rider combination throughout the two days.

Day 1

Our 9 hour educational day began with Meagan Davis and Elian, a 10yr old Dutch gelding.  Anne began their session by posing the thought of the difference in some horses who warm up better in trot vs. in canter.  As Anne watched, she also made a point to address not allowing the horse to be too short in the topline at the start and to wait to start doing movements before you have the whole topline.  Once Meagan went to canter, Anne encouraged her to *go* in the canter first, just allowing the horse to roll out a bit like a young horse, and then after a time begin the lengthening and shortening transitions within the gait.  Anne told us, “At this stage they’re allowed to be a bit on the forehand. It’s the warm up!”

Gary popped into Meagan and Elian’s session making the clear point to take your time in the warm up.  The warm up is where you can develop the canter a bit more as it cannot be addressed in the collection.

Anne came back in to remind Meagan that it wasn’t her job to hold the horse.  She then gave the exercise of staying on the wall in shoulder fore and proceeding with walk, canter, walk transitions.  Anne encouraged Meagan to make sure that there were no trot steps, and to stay “in it,” making it clear that it was the patience in this moment that was required by the rider to help the horse to develop the strength to carry himself properly.

Anne continued that because Elian’s canter was a bit croup high, that the shoulder fore/ shoulder in exercises were going to be the most useful exercises for him at this time.

Ashley then took a turn with the pair saying that she really likes to tackle the training issues.  Her first priority with them was to clarify with Meagan the timing of the walk to canter aid and truly knowing the timing of the foot fall in that transition in order to help with the changes later on.  As they worked through that, they then went on to work with the changes where Ashley encouraged Meagan to give the new inside rein in the change.  Because Elian had a tendency to go downward in the changes, Ashley told Meagan to stay back in the changes and to make an immediate transition to walk if Elian tried to bear down on her afterwards.  Ashley then added in to do the changes on the long side from counter canter, and then add in a walk pirouette to set back up and try again.  Ashley stated that you just “can’t allow the running through.”

Lars then stepped in and told Meagan to make sure that the new inside leg was the holding leg for the new lead.  He gave Meagan the exercise of counter canter, counter bending, and then “pop” with the outside leg for the change, all the while making sure the canter wasn’t in too much collection.  Lars reiterated that you must keep the new inside leg on when the horse tends to want to “steel” the change from you.  He also kept reminding Meagan to not let the canter get too collected, but to think of a medium canter to keep the hind leg swinging through more.  In addressing the croup high tendency Elian had in the canter, Lars told Meagan to think of riding the croup down and the ears up and went to just focusing on the canter quality with transitions within the gait from collected to medium canter and back again.  He kept encouraging Meagan to make the hind legs quicker.  Lars also said something that I tell my riders at home all the time, “You must *own* the stride.”

As Meagan and Elian wrapped up their lesson, Gary emphasized the warm up once again, saying that the overall tightness in the frame will extend to the rest of the work if you don’t take care of it at the beginning.  He also cautioned Meagan not to over prepare the walk before the walk to canter transition saying that at this stage it should be treated as a simple, straightforward transition, but it must be a clean depart in order to help with the changes later on.

Anne concluded their lesson reminding all of us that the quality of the canter directly influences the quality of the changes.

Emily Donaldson then entered the arena on Audi, a 14yr old KWPN gelding.  Lars started off the work with them posing the question how much or how little do you start off the trot in the warm up.  He then reminded us all to take the time in the walk so you can ask for balance, not just going around with the head down.  Lars then asked Emily to make sure that she rode the hind legs, waiting in the front until the base of the neck got looser.  He asked her to make sure that she straightened Audi, not always bending, even on the harder side.  Lars also said, it “Doesn’t have to be so pretty, make the warm up functional.”

Ashley then handled the topic of Audi’s bracing and questioning the aids by encouraging Emily to answer him with transitions.  Along the same line as Lars, Ashley challenged the pair’s straightness by going down centerline in the warm up telling everyone that the centerline is one of the best places to get an accurate read on how straight and adjustable your horse is or isn’t.

As they continued with transitions, Ashley told Emily to make sure that they were more through, thinking about being an elastic band in the transitions, not so much stop and go.  As they continued the thought of balancing the horse and improving the topline, Ashley asked Emily to square her shoulders into her seat to help her horse more.  Since Audi would hold in his back, Ashley also spoke to how the trot, canter, trot transitions would help to loose the back.

Lars then continued with Emily, encouraging her to lighten her hand to allow the neck to stretch up.  He also agreed with Ashley in the trot, canter, trot transition, but added that they needed to remain forward into the trot.  He reminded her one way to make sure Audi maintained the forward trot, would be to push the inside leg to the outside rein in the trot transition.

Gary then capitalized on Ashley’s reminder to Emily on rider position, saying that it needs to be more soft and supple, with arms down, supple elbows, and opening through the shoulders and back.

Lars again jumped in taking the pair into canter leg yielding, but started with transitions within the canter to gain more balance.  He wanted a very shallow leg yield back and forth from the long side with the counter bend, stating that this exercise improves suppleness and submission.  Lars further broke down that you should ride this with 80% seat, 15% leg, and 5% hand.

Ashley followed up on that, reminding us all that it is *leg* yielding and not *hand* yielding.  She also began to help Emily interject her leg yields with 8-10m spiraling circles allowing the bend to decrease tension in the topline.  Ashley stated that some horses panic with larger gaits and you have to use the transitions to help them gain more comfort.

Gary reminded us that there’s a danger in leg yielding if the horse gets tense it will do more harm than good.  He said it’s a very good suppling exercise, but that you must maintain the balance.  Gary also reminded everyone that all exercises must have a purpose.  A rider must get out of the exercise once you’ve accomplished the needed feeling.

Anne and Gary then carried on a conversation about the pirouettes:

Anne: You must be in charge of the size of the circle and the amount of bend that you want.  Whenever the canter deteriorates, you must abandon it.

Gary: You have to look where you’re going.

Anne: The eyes have to go where you want.  FOCUS.

Gary: Look to the inside of the turn.  Thinking 11, 10, 9, etc., and see the bend.

Anne: You must ride forward at the end to be able to get out of it.

Gary: At the quarter turn of a half pirouette, you must see the way out, so you don’t over rotate.

Anne: In order to execute a good pirouette, your horse has to think with you.

Gary: You must always train your eyes to look up and over the poll to the destination.

Lars added to the conversation on pirouettes reminding everyone that sometimes its beneficial to train them deeper.

We then had a few moments of Q & A before the next rider where Lilo reiterated the importance of the idea of focus and the use of the rider’s eyes.  She said that you must not only know where you want to go, but where you want to arrive.  Lilo continued with going back to the importance of the correct shoulder fore/shoulder in for the gymnastic development of the horses.

A question was posed about when to use the track, inside track, or quarter line for the development of straightness.  Ashley answered with saying she does a lot of work on the eighth-line, quarter-line, and centerline, stating that having the wall is always helpful, but true straightness is only seen off the track as you move up the levels.

Anne and Gary were then asked to clarify the topic of starting small and finishing big in the pirouettes.  They answered by saying that horses often come in too big, too fast and then almost spin around to avoid the difficulty of the movement.  The rider must control the stride by shortening at the beginning and lengthening on the way out.  Ashley added to dissect the pirouette by thinking about the line you’re riding to gain more control of the forehand around the hind leg.

Hanna Benne then came in with Rigadoon RF, a 10yr old Oldenburg gelding.  Ashley took point on this session and after watching for a few minutes of the warm up, commented that if the horse sucks back, don’t just run him in the warm up.  As the rider, you have to think more about the balance and allow a slower more cautious tempo in the beginning.  Even if they’re behind your leg, allow the horse to find confidence.  Ashely also warned that you have to make informed decisions about where you’re going, *look* for your line.  Ashely continued to encourage Hanna to think about the transitions, and to take her time.  Because Rigadoon came behind the contact a bit, she also cautioned not to take too steep of an angle on leg yields in the beginning, Ashley said she would rather go to the rail and do transitions within the gait as slow adjustments with a horse like this.  She said to think about ABS breaks and the pulsing on and off in these transitions.  She also said to remain aware of the straightness within the exercises and that the alignment of the horse allows him to actually go to the reins.  Ashley picked at Hanna’s circles, reminding her not to ride ovals because the accuracy of the line matters to the balance you’re building within your horse.

Gary chimed in agreement of making sure not to over pace a horse in the warm up and the use of transitions within the gait for a horse like Rigadoon.  He cautioned about steep leg yielding saying that the rider must ask what is happening to the balance and the quality of gait throughout it.

Anne reminded us that balance and tempo are 100% interrelated.  She also stated that, as a judge, she would be suspicious of a draping curb rein.  Anne then began the conversation with Hanna and Rigadoon about the pirouettes, saying that she should start in shoulder in, keep the circle the same size, and change to haunches in to gain more adjustability.

Ashley commented that Rigadoon was trying too hard, and had such a talent for sitting that he was over-doing it.  She said that with a horse like this, you have to teach them a way to come off of the hind leg.  If Rigadoon could use his neck to get the weight off of the hind end, then he would be more able to find comfort within the movement.  So, Ashley told Hanna to encourage the neck down and stretch out, even if sometimes he goes behind the vertical to come off of the hind leg, they needed to teach Rigadoon to use all different parts of his body to gain comfort.  She told Hanna to “pop” the neck out right in front of the withers in the movement.  Ashley then guided Hanna through the pirouette work saying to use the bend in the corner and staying to the outside of the line, sitting just a little bit and having her determining how much weight he took behind.  She said to make a quarter turn and give him a break to teach him balance and accuracy.  Overall Ashley encouraged Hanna to stay connected in a balance.

Gary added to approach the pirouette with a softening of the bend and to wait for the vertical softening on the outside rein.

Lars cautioned that going to the outside rein doesn’t mean you don’t have the inside rein.  They must be through and even in the connection.

Lauren Sprieser was next on 14yr old, KWPN gelding, Guernsey Elvis.  Gary began the session with them talking about the horse’s conformation, saying that he was delicate in the throatlatch, so he was bending behind the poll, and Lauren needed to allow his face out more.  He reminded us that if the horse is at the vertical and the rider got their hands too high, there was a very real danger that the horse would come behind the vertical.  Gary also stated, “Don’t give the judge something to look at,” in reference to high hands, “Let the hands disappear into the wither.”  He asked for a shallow leg yield from centerline off of both reins and to think more about the horse being straight on the outside rein.

Anne took over saying that Elvis had nice gaits and appeared comfortable, but wanted Lauren to take him more out and through the topline for the warm up.

Gary continued by telling Lauren not to prepare for the canter transition, just simply ride the best walk into the canter.  He also reminded that changes of bend make a horse supple.  Gary then asked Lauren to ride a long half pass, 15m circle to a downward transition without shortening the stride.  He asked to allow the sideways of the half pass to develop the collection.  Gary also reminded Lauren to look up high in the tempi changes.

Lars took over the session by saying that as a rider you need to think of the end goal for the horse and work backwards rom there to develop them to the goal.  It doesn’t have to always bee pretty, sometimes you have to ask more out of the horse.  Lars reminded, “It is the bending work that makes a horse straight.”  He also told Lauren that the next half halt comes after Elvis falls out of the movement, encouraging her to allow the mistakes to happen to encourage him to develop more strength.  He also stated that you need to take more time if they run through the half halt.

Ashley stepped in by saying that the horse needs to learn to struggle in a bigger gait.  If the horse gets too strong, do a smaller gait to gain balance, and then send them forward again.  Ashley was careful to remind us that “Speed does not equal balance.”  She wanted Lauren to teach Elvis a “dribbling” trot, not half steps, to use when she needed it.  Ashley continued to say to let the horse fail and find that lack of power in order to learn from it.  She said there should be two phases to the work: the fancy, cardio phase, and the small, balancing, and bending phase.  Ashley stated that we must teach an over achiever to under achieve.

Anne commented that Lauren and Elvis provided one of the most interesting lessons because Elvis would over power himself from behind, so Lauren had to take the power away for a while before she could go back to that work.  Anne told us that this is the most time consuming type work that a rider will do, but it’s necessary for this type of horse.

Gary reminded every to make sure there’s a clear progression from the warm up for the horse.

Ashley told us that her end goal for every horse is that it could make it to the Grand Prix, so her work is always done with that progression in mind.  She said that as a rider you have to understand that the walk trot transition is the gateway to the piaffe.  Ashley then talked about the use of the riders stomach is more useful than a rider leaning back on the horse for these transitions.  She reminded Lauren to get Elvis rounder first into and out of the walk trot transitions.  She cautioned whatever escapes your seat will hit your hand, so think more seat rather than shoulders.  Ashley encouraged fine tuning these tedious transitions by showing Elvis different positions with power.  She also said that it’s not just straightness that we have to worry about, it’s the straightening, bending, and back to straightening again that is the most useful.

That wrapped up Day 1’s morning rides and we all went to a wonderful lunch where I was fortunate enough to decompress and talk over the topics with a good friend who was also in attendance.  We commented on how inspiring it was to see the camaraderie between the presenters, and how it’s these types of relationships that will continue to grow US Dressage into the powerful force it’s becoming.

Megan Fischer-Graham and her 11yr old Dutch gelding, De Rosseau brought us back to work after lunch.  Anne began the session with Megan stating that the walk should be with a purpose and on both reins, being mindful that you don’t over-use the inside rein, and continue to strive for an even connection.  Again the warning was given not to start the collected work too soon with a horse before given the chance to give the rider the topline correctly.  Anne stressed using simple long leg yields and “more shoulder in, as it’s by far our most important and useful exercise,” referring to the shoulder in as “the mother of all exercises.”  She also cautioned Megan not to allow Rosseau to just do tricks as tricks show he’s behind the leg, and instead encouraged her to use more half halts to produce engagement.

Gary confirmed Anne’s earlier statements by saying that Megan needed to get the horse more equal in the reins.

Anne moved on to the changes and asked Megan not to look down or twist in her waist in the changes.  Instead she told Megan to sit straight and quietly for the tempis.  When there were problems with Rosseau taking over a bit in the count or in canter quality, Anne asked Megan to let yield to the outside to get the balance and engagement, as well as breaking them down to no count, but rather thinking of being able to send her horse forward and then change.

Gary jumped in on this work saying, “I’ve seen good tests go down the sewer for lack of a good correction.”  One of the most important things a rider can do is to not throw the correction away after something goes wrong.  Make sure you get the recovery better.  If you just kick them back in, it doesn’t teach the horse anything.

Anne jumped back in telling Megan to be more deliberate with her aids.

Ashley had an exercise for Megan and Rosseau to tackle asking for normal canter, then between P and B ask for four strides (really GO), then normal canter, then B to R ask for 6-8 strides (really sitting).  In adjusting gait length it’s imperative that you find the horse’s normal, and then really push the envelop both directions to figure out what you have.  She also commented on what Gary and Anne eluded to by saying that you have to react to what your horse gives you.  If it’s a mistake, fix it, don’t just muddle past it.

Gary wrapped up Megan and Rosseau’s session by emphasizing that when things go wrong the rider must keep their position.  Corrections that are made have to make things correct.  You must view the movements as interrelated.  He reminded us that riders shouldn’t separate how the training incorporates into multiple movements.

Next up was Emma Asher and the 11yr old KWPN gelding, Elegance N.  Lars started off with this combination.  This horse made his Jazz breeding well known straight away with Lars saying straight away that for horses who look a bit, it’s better to have them more into the contact than too light, and whatever they look at, think about using a shoulder in tendency to maintain some control.  He constantly reminded Emma to ride deeper and lower, so that Elegance N wanted to drop his neck so that she could be the one who decided to lift him and how high.  You don’t always have to train in the show frame.  A bit rounder and deeper can be helpful with these types of horses.  Lars cautioned not to collect too much for canter to trot, but to instead to step the haunches out to disconnect the hind legs.

After they had began the work, Anne made the comment to make sure this type of horse isn’t able to take you out of the tack.

Ashley tacked on to Anne’s comment saying that with these horses you have to get your seat stronger so the comfort and security is more from the seat, so your hands can get lighter, even though Jazz horses are usually slow to soften because of their spooky nature.  Riders must have a stronger core and back.

Lars also remarked that the more on your seat, the quieter the mouth.

There was a question referred to Ashley regarding the seat.  She stated that “the seat is the stability the horse receives from you.”  The riders seat has to be able to sit against and control how much movement goes to the hand.  She warned that rounded shoulders render the riders back useless.

The next two rides I had been waiting for all day long.  Two US Olympians.  You will have to forgive my lack of note taking as I was so focused on watching and allowing myself to be in the moment as much as possible with both of these riders.

First was Kasey Perry-Glass brought in Mistico TM, a 13yr old Hanoverian gelding.  Ashley took point on the session speaking to the fact of how important it is to seek out constant improvement is in this sport.  During Kasey’s exceptional demonstration of an ideal warm-up, Ashley emphasized the relaxation that was being created throughout this warm up.  As they moved on to the work, Ashley drew close attention to how Kasey would come to the lowest denominator of the exercise to tackle the movements that her horse was weaker in.  They moved into work with the pirouettes and Ashley said that the canter determines the size of the pirouette.  Ashley noted that it’s the shift of the shape of the hip that is most important in training the pirouettes.  As Ashley and Kasey continued working together, Ashley commented that if you make it easy for the horse, they figure out ways to offer you more, yet, if you make it harder for them, they will find a way to make it easier such as swapping out leads behind in the pirouettes.  She challenged Kasey to only go to where it feels secure at this stage of training for Mistico.

Lars added that it’s so important that the topline remains the same throughout the half halt.  He then began working with the pair on piaffe and passage giving Kasey the word picture of “framing in” the outside hind in the passage.  Lars clarified with all of us that whichever hind leg may be more uneven is the one you want to frame in.  He encouraged Kasey to shift gears throughout the work and stay smaller in these movements until Mistico was able to gain more confidence.

Ashley added into the work with Lars that since Mistico had a tendency to piaffe a bit in the passage steps that Kasey should tap on top of his croup to help.

Second of our Olympians was Michelle Gibson and Barland IM, a 9yr old Swedish Warmblood gelding.  As a side-note, when they entered the arena, I was immediately taken back in time to having Michelle’s poster on my wall with her and Peron as a teen.  It is so powerful to see her in person some years later!

Gary started off the pair, once again noting that there’s just no skipping a good, quality warm up.  It sets the tone for the whole body of the work.  “The warm up has to make sense and has to be progressive,” he stated.  He once again noted that all the tope riders ride shoulder in because it’s very important to get it right.  The angle and the bend must be the same for every horse.

We wrapped up the day with the horses and I think everyone left the arena excited for the Q & A session in a few hours with Lilo and the presenters.  Topics ranged from straightness vs. alignment, lunge lessons, rider goals, “code of points,” and all the way to their thoughts on the new short Grand Prix test.  Overall, the theme of the discussion would always wrap around to a point that would entail being a guardian of the horse and the art of the sport of Dressage.

With that, Day 1 was a wrap…I don’t think I’m alone in saying that we all walked away equally educated and inspired.

Stop helping before you start hindering

The question that I’m going to attempt to answer is this:

Why is it, when horse’s have been developed correctly, and are supposedly on the road to the upper levels, do they feel like they “all of the sudden” develop contact issues, behavioral issues, or get emotional about a specific part of the work?

My answer:

We don’t know when to stop helping them, and, instead, we begin to hinder their training.

As riders, we move up the levels of our own development…from lead line to lunge line, lunge line to following the rail, then onto endless 20 meter circles to master our geometry, and so on.  And the process of developing as a rider truly never ends if you honestly appreciate this sport for all that it is.  But, as we develop through this process, we get stronger, our balance changes and increases.  We become more knowledgeable about what aids are needed when, as well as more exact in the way that we apply those aids.

Our horses go through much of the same pattern in their development.  They begin to learn more about how to use their top line more efficiently, how to balance correctly on all the different shapes and movements we ask of them, and all of it is in an effort to develop that true ability of the horse to move in self-carriage.  Of course, we know that there are different levels to self carriage from Intro to the Grand Prix, to correctly execute each test, our horses have to learn to exhibit the appropriate amount of self carriage for that level.

Intro to Second Level self carriage still requires quite a bit of help from the rider for the horse to not only find it, but to also maintain it during the ride.  And it’s our responsibility to recognize when the horse is feeling weak and give appropriate breaks to make sure that we continue to encourage the correct development of this process, rather than initiate a break down of the horse’s spirit.

Third Level, however, the game begins to change a bit…or a lot.  This is where, if the horse is able to execute these movements, your horse is truly starting to understand and maintain the type of self carriage that will make the upper levels possible for you.  The balance and power are all shaping your horse into the type of athlete that can truly do a lot of the movements on his own.

And here’s where our problem begins…

Sometimes, it happens that we’ve become so accustomed…perhaps even addicted…to the fact that our horses need our help to develop and maintain their self carriage, that we forget to get out of their way and allow the beauty of their own power to carry us through the movements.  We’re still trying to ride them as a First or Second Level horse that we feel the need to micromanage when the horse actually knows how to do it.

Our helping becomes a hindering.

So what do we do about it?

Enter in the concept of “breathable aids.”  As riders, we have to develop a new level to our own self carriage to enable this part of the training process.  We have to learn how to allow our aids to be there, but not in a securing way anymore.  The aids become the doorway that the horse can then utilize his own balance and power to develop the movement himself.  The point of the aids then becomes allowing your horse to show off his talents.  Because we have developed our self carriage enough to trust our horses, we can then just allow the beauty of the movements to happen.

And this, then, becomes the beauty of dressage that we see in the successful upper level horses and riders.

Of course, the training of power and balance is still part of the equation, and there will continue to be moments where our horses still will require our help to understand the concepts as we pursue the upper levels.  But, if we truly want to feel the real beauty of self carriage, even in that training, we must begin to realize there are moments, more often than not, where we need to get out of the way and allow our horses to show what they’re capable of.  To feel like they’re being celebrated as they develop strength day by day.

So be helpful to your horse, yes, but take note of when your help may be hindering and smothering his willingness to train with you as well.  Pay attention to your horse’s mental and emotional state during the work…learn to allow…and put into practice the concept of having breathable aids.

The beginning of the taming process

Razounding HVF has been home now for a full week.  I have definitely learned a lot about this colt, and I have to say, I’m loving what I’m seeing from him.  His personality, his thoughtfulness, and his approach to new things are really starting to shine through as he gains more confidence in our interactions together.

So, I’m going to take you back through our week together.  This first part of the taming process is pretty monumental, if you think about it.  This is where these young horses first learn anything about how to interact with people, and how they’re going to react to people.  This is where you can either make a young horse gain confidence daily, or lose it daily, so it takes thoughtfulness and caution, but you need to have a certain level of confidence as well so you can present yourself positively to the young horse.  So let’s break this down…

Day one, when Raz first stepped out of the trailer, I just let him settle for a few minutes.  I hadn’t brought Regen out to be in the paddock with him yet, I just wanted him to take a minute, breathe, and get used to his new space.  He could see other horses in a pasture a couple of paddocks away, so he knew he wasn’t completely by himself.  Honestly, Raz didn’t take that long to settle, so I went and got Regen and brought her out to the large paddock that his smaller area is in.  I walked her around Raz a few times — Raz did the foal “teething” thing that young horses do with older horses, and Regen squealed a couple of times as you would expect a mare to do.  Within a few minutes they were both quiet, so I took Regen’s halter off and let them be together and get used to being that close to each other.  It was completely anti-climatic, which is exactly how I wanted it to go!  We had a few visitors who joined me at Raz’s fence to just appreciate his conformation and his natural confidence, but I didn’t do anything with him that day other than just letting him get used to the new space.

Day two, I started bring him his breakfast which he wasn’t 100% sure he was all that interested in.  This was a surprising moment for me as every single weanling I’ve picked up from Hans have been highly food motivated.  They’ve smelled the oats (what I start all of them on) and have been very ready to chow down.  Raz…not so much…very interesting.  He didn’t finish his breakfast either — he was totally comfortable to amble away to pick at grass and hay.  Ok…good to know.  In my mind, I was formulating.  This wasn’t what I was expecting, but maybe he would show me how to interest him more?  I had lessons to teach that day, so I didn’t have time to do anything more with him until dinner time.  This time, instead of focusing so much on the food myself, I really watched Raz.  I really saw how he was interested in everything little thing — not spooky or anything like that, but just generally interested in “something to do.”  Food, to Raz, is not as interesting as doing something.

Day three, breakfast went a bit better…meaning he ate more and nearly finished.  This time I started asking him to let me rub on him while he ate.  Another interesting thing about Raz is his confidence, and he definitely would show that to me straight away.  I got the distinct impression that he wanted our interactions on his terms, and as long as I stayed within his acceptable framework of our relationship, he was fairly accepting of me.  Very interesting.  Later that afternoon, I decided to stuff my pocket full of oats to see if I could help Raz understand that I can be in his space without endangering his dignity while letting him see that I can be trustworthy in our herd of two.  Because he had been more interested in his breakfast, immediately, he thought that oats from my hand were a pretty cool idea as well.  But, again, it needed to be completely on his terms.  So I started working my way closer into his space, which he was *not* I repeat *not* a fan of.  In the years of working with these weanlings, Raz is the first one to ever have popped his butt up and even thrown in a couple half-hearted kicks for good measure.  Interesting again.  Never once did I feel that he was struggling with his confidence in our interaction, rather that he was struggling with my own confidence in presenting myself to his personal space.  So we had a bit of drama, but ended the session with me being in touching distance of his shoulder while he ate a bit of oats from my hand.  I walked away, slightly taken aback with how he responded to me — I’ve had scared weanlings, I’ve had sweet ones, I’ve had ones who just weren’t ready at all to recognize me in their space, but I hadn’t had one that was this confident in recognizing that I was in fact coming into his space and was also confident in telling me off about it.  So I came out with his dinner with a new plan at feeding — hoping that I didn’t scare him off of his food since he isn’t food motivated.  He was going to have to push my hand, arm, whatever, out of the way to get to the bucket every time he went to take a bite.  The interesting thing is that because he’s more motivated by something to do, this made his food more interesting to him.  I would switch hands, switch which eye I was standing out of, etc.  He really wasn’t 100% keen on me switching sides at all, but he began the accepting process.

Day four, started with breakfast much the same way as dinner the night before, but with a much faster progression for him.  This was the first day he finished all of his oats that I had for him — big morning!  That afternoon, we played again with him just accepting me in his space in preparation to be able to begin to touch him.  I could get him to allow me at his neck for a few seconds (if that) on the right side.  It wasn’t a terribly long session before he had me in a position that I could easily touch him and he was beginning to accept me in his space by letting a breath out, licking and chewing, and a lot of blinking.  After this session, he sacked out for a long nap.  It truly meant something to him.  That night at dinner, I decided to keep my hand out at shoulder height, and see if Raz could accept me touching his neck before he got to his bucket of oats.  I would leave my hand held out and wait for an opportunity for him to “run into” my hand.  Raz did just that a number of times on both sides.

Day five, breakfast started the same way as dinner left off, and Raz found an even better amount of acceptance for my touch.  I was truly encouraged thinking that our afternoon session would be amazing…it wasn’t quite what I hoped, unfortunately.  Raz’s confidence about knowing that I was in his space along with his slight lack of acceptance this day made me have to move his feet a bit to make sure that in our herd of two we were both developing a mutal respect for each other.  Not just me making sure I was respecting his boundaries, but that he was also respecting mine.  His lack of respect came through with a couple of hops up with the hind end again, but no kicking this time.  Still, to me, it was something that I could address a bit because Raz was showing me how confident he was with keeping our relationship on his terms.  I went back to dinner with him that night holding my arm out at shoulder height, switching sides, watching his eyes and ears, to see if I could learn any other tidbit of information from such a fascinating young horse.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect the next day, to be honest.

Day six, breakfast started off much the same, and Raz was even better than the previous morning.  Progress was being made!  I could move my arms and switch sides without disturbing him from his breakfast very much at all.  Our session later on was something that really surprised me — Raz showed me some itchy spots which is a bit step in a positive direction for a young horse.  A horse that is showing you where they want to be scratched is a horse that’s confident in you and the fact that he is safe, so I took this as a very high compliment.  I was able to rub his face all over, both sides of his neck, and Raz was eating up every bit of it.  At dinner, I barely made it into his small paddock before his head dove into the bucket of oats, pushing past my arm as he went to it.  Moving around from side to side, rubbing his neck on either side as well as from either side all went perfectly.

Day seven, breakfast went the same as the previous night except that Raz really allowed me to mess with his ears a lot more — a very nice development!  I was feeling positive again for our session to come later in the day.  I decided that since Raz had found greater acceptance with having me in his space the previous day with letting me scratch him around his front end that I would start thinking about introducing him to the halter.  It’s important to note here that during each interaction with Raz, I have had the halter hanging on my right shoulder…every single time he’s seen me he’s seen the halter, bit at the halter, rubbed past the halter, etc.  So the halter and lead line are just an extension of me, and something that he’s already been very aware of since we started together.  Armed with some oats (which are slowly becoming a very cool thing to have around…still not as cool as doing something, but it’ll work), I presented him with the halter which he bit at and messed with and then took his handful of oats.  The halter swung a little when he bit at it and it didn’t phase him at all, so I thought alright, here we go.  I positioned the halter so that he had to press into it to get his next little hand full of oats which Raz happily did — 3 times in a row.  The third time, he pressed into the halter so confidently that my right hand which was holding the head piece was touching his ears and he didn’t even mind.  I decided on the fourth attempt to be brave and to take the opportunity to slide the halter over his ears.  It went extremely well with Raz backing away only slightly, but unfortunately, he felt a little pressure from the rope and some drama began.  I let the rope go as the halter was on and let him trot around and kind of figure himself out for a minute.  He paused, stood to face me as if to say, “What is happening to me?”  I rescued him from the rope which had wrapped around his neck and he felt the pressure and went trotting off again, this time I tried to contain him from the lead rope, and he turned to face me in the opposite direction as the rope wrapping it around his neck again.  Raz felt that pressure and stopped to think which allowed me time to help him out of the rope, and ask him to just stand there with me and allow me to rub on him.  The image of this blog is a moment after I started rubbing — Raz pushed his nose into my hand and really leaned the full weight of his head and neck into my hand, closing his eyes and licking his lips.  The drama was over, he was still safe, and we were in a normal space together.  It was a huge learning moment for him.  He got to the place where he was finished licking and chewing, and I went to unbuckle the halter to slide it off, which he handled beautifully, and stood with me like a very patient partner.  Even with the dramatics, it was a monumental day for us!  Earlier this week, I did not anticipate having the halter on him within the week at all, but there we were.  Dinner time went extremely well for him — really showing me appreciation for the scratches while he was eating contentedly.

Day eight.  So remember that I said earlier that this early stage of the taming process allows you to learn how a young horse is going to interact and react to people as well as whether or not you’re going to contribute to building their confidence up, or tearing it down?  Well, I knew when I came out for the day after our first haltering session that I would be in for the cold, hard truth about what Raz thought of me, and our whole situation the day before.  I was hopeful that I was tactful enough, yet ready to eat a piece of humble pie if need be — like I’ve admitted earlier, this weanling is different than the others.  He’s a thinker and a doer, not scared of anything, and totally willing to tell you when you’re in the wrong in his space.  I was pleasantly surprised when Raz met me at the gate to his paddock again, and shoved his face into his breakfast bucket straight away, barely letting me get in the paddock with him.  He was totally accepting of whichever hand I wanted to rub him with on either side, and good about pushing past my hand and letting me rub on his ears while he ate.  All good signs.  Later when it was time for his session, as I walked up to his paddock I knew this was the moment of truth — just how well did I present this whole catching, haltering, taming conversation to him the day before?  I walked up to the gate, and Raz was right there, ready for his handful of oats.  I walked to the middle, holding the halter up which he bit at and pushed his nose into just like the day before.  I held the halter in my right hand and fed him a handful of oats through the nose band so that he would go into the halter all the way to his ears again, rubbing the halter up and down on his face as he munched…no big deal.  The third time, I put the halter up over his ears and Raz tensed, lifting his head.  I rubbed his neck and he let out a sigh and continued crunching on the oats he still had in his mouth while I clipped the throat latch of the halter.  No dramatics.  Not a one.  I rubbed him all over finding even more itchy spots and allowing him to position his body where he felt I could better reach some of them.  I then asked for him to walk forward off of the pressure of the halter — one step at a time, and a very slow progression, but Raz remained completely thoughtful and confident the whole time.  I unbuckled the halter and stood there rubbing on him for a little bit and walked away.  The whole interaction couldn’t have lasted longer than 10 minutes, but it was a very special session for both of us!  Raz’s dinner time that night was great — complete with sloppy oat kisses and rubbing his head on me to itch in-between bites.

If you would’ve told me on day three that I would’ve had the type of interaction with this colt that I had on day eight, I would’ve seriously doubted that.  I know the process works, but I also know that the individual horse sets the timeline of all the work you do with them.  It’s up to us to see where the open doors are and to help them create those instances where we can see a little bit more into their brains.  By no means does this mean that Raz has completed the taming process — there are many more things to check off our list before I will consider him tame enough that I’m able to reliably catch him and that he’s accepting of human touch every where.  But, the amazing thing about this colt is how quickly he catches on if just given the opportunity to process things.  I’m absolutely loving what Raz has shown me of himself in our first week, and I can’t wait to experience more together in the weeks to come.

Stay tuned for our next update!

Meet Razounding HVF

Little Raz has arrived safely home at HVF!  I wanted to share with you guys a bit about him, and give you a behind the scenes look into how our story together began.  Raz will be one of many weanlings that I’ve raised from this age, and I’m quite excited about him!

Let’s rewind to late last year — I received a message from our breeder at Indian Land Farm that they had lost their stallion, Razmataz, a Royal Prince son, to colic complications.  He has been the sire to seven of the horses that I’ve had the privilege of training from either weanlings or slightly older these past several years.  It was quite the blow.  When you’re as invested in a breeding program as I am with Indian Land Farm — promoting the brand, helping sell the horses, keeping some for yourself for upper level prospects, etc. — you can kind of feel a bit uncertain in the future of your program.  As a professional, your thoughts revolve around only being as good as your best horse, and only able to be confident in your future depending on the young horses you have coming down the pipeline.  This combined with the unfortunate lameness issues I’ve dealt with in one of my most promising older horses left me feeling in a bit of a crunch.  BUT.  I had my coming 3 year old Redemption HVF (Ty) to focus on, so that helped, and his full sister, 8 year old Revival HVF (Vivi), was starting to develop beautifully into an FEI horse.  So I had focus, direction, and a bit of an ace in my pocket for the future.

Then I got an email at the beginning of this year.  It was Julie, the breeding manager at Indian Land Farm.  She was explaining to me that a colt had just been born out of one of their prized mares, Whispre EM.  They were really hoping it was going to be a filly, so they could retain her for breeding to the new, young stallion they recently purchased (another blog for another time about him), but, unfortunately, it was a colt.  According to Julie, not just a colt, but something that she and Hans believed to be about near as to perfection as they could’ve ever hoped for.  They wanted to make sure that this colt would have every opportunity to be utilized to his full potential in the show ring, so they contacted me to give me first right of refusal — something that I truly love about our partnership.  Of course, the last time they contacted me about a colt, it was for Ty, so I wrote back asking for more information, photos, and some videos.

Whispre’s pedigree, her record of both herself and her previous foals, and the footage of this colt she had by her side definitely did not disappoint.  So, even though I wasn’t planning on taking another weanling on at the time, I jumped at the chance.  This is likely to be Whispre’s last foal as she’s getting on in years, and with Raz’s passing I didn’t know when another weanling of this type and quality would be available.  When opportunity knocks, you answer the door.

I received one more photo update about the colt after making my decision, and then only intermittent email updates about how he was growing and what type of personality traits he was exhibiting in the pasture.  They were keeping him a surprise for me, and they were loving it.  This is the type of relationship that you can develop with a breeder through the years, and I absolutely adore having all of the Indian Land Farm team as part of the HVF family!

Once again, my first time seeing this colt in person, did not disappoint.  He has inherited all of his dam’s grace and his sire’s power.  I could not have asked for a more impressive first interaction.  His confidence, thoughtfulness, and presence are quite something to take in.  I’m definitely aware of the fantastic responsibility that it is to raise such an individual…the sky feels literally the limit.

We chose the name Razounding HVF for him, to carry on Raz’s legacy, and it will be a wonderful constant reminder of how much one stallion has done for me through these years.  Every interaction I was fortunate to have with that stallion always left me feeling inspired.  He truly was something special.  I look forward to developing my own Raz in such a way that honors not only his sire’s memory, but the legacy that Hans Lengers is creating through his breeding program at Indian Land Farm.  I’m truly blessed that this is an aspect of my job, and I can’t wait to continue to share the journey with all of you…

Stay tuned 🙂

Be humble and kind…

Some of you may think I’m a bit of a broken record in my blogs…that’s ok…I think these types of topics are extremely important and relevant to the majority of riders within equestrian sports, but especially within the sport of Dressage.

I purchased a horse in April who was meant to join my lesson program, but my mom absolutely fell in love with him along the process of feeding him up and gradually introducing the work to him.  Letting her take over the ride is a sacrifice I’m more than willing to make because it’s always been a more fun experience training and showing when I can watch my mom enjoying herself on the journey as well!

Gabriel, as we named him, had no clue of the work — absolutely none!  And that was ok!  I bought him with a purpose in mind, and he was everything I was looking for: quiet and safe.  Sometimes, when looking for your perfect horse you can’t have it all in one package immediately…but that sounds like another blog for another day… So we’ll get back to the subject at hand.  Unfortunately, Gabriel’s generous heart also came with a lack of confidence around people and around the work.  In situations like his, you truly don’t know what history he’s had, so it’s important that we stayed quiet and kind in the process of getting to know him.

It’s been three months now since we brought Gabriel to HVF and he’s really, truly beginning his dressage career.  Rather than just going around the ring however comes easiest to him, we are beginning to ask for more suppleness with the hopes of building more engagement.  It’s hard, concentrated work for him — something that I’m very sure Gabriel has never been exposed to before these past couple of weeks.

So a few thoughts have come to my mind as I’ve been coaching my mom through these rides where we’re developing more of a conversation with Gabriel:

1.) First and foremost, be kind, humble, and fair within the training process. 

Don’t just assume that you have the right to come to a horse that you’ve purchased and ask these things of him.  There is no space for your ego in these moments.

2.) Take the emotion out of the training.  Do NOT be attached to the result more than the process of the training.

This is where a lot of riders get into trouble in this scenario.  We forget that the horse is simply a horse, and they don’t understand why it’s so important to try these different exercises and put their body in these different shapes.  We must be more in love with the horse than the actual training of the horse.

3.) Recognize that the “fizz” of training can be normal, but how you deal with it is critical.

Some horses get this unsettled, “fizzy” feeling when they’re unsure of something.  It’s ok.  Remember in these moments to breathe, and ride through without breaking the horse’s confidence in the movement.  Don’t be afraid of this feeling.  This would be what the great Walter Zettl referred to as the edge — I remember he would say, “Ride to the edge, but never over.”  This is when you’ve brought your horse outside of his comfort zone.  It’s going to happen at multiple stages of your training process, so don’t panic.  Just keep thinking that you want to take him there, and bring him back to something more comfortable, and then back to the edge again in a rhythmic dance, so that you can continue to enhance the horse’s mental capacity towards the work, as well as the confidence to try again in his body for you.

4.) Be confident enough to think outside of the box during your training sessions.

Just because something worked for your horse yesterday does not ensure that it will work for you again today or tomorrow.  Stay flexible, and be willing to try something different.

I hope these points can be helpful to you and your horses as you go about training them throughout their careers.  If we can remember to keep the number one focus in our training to be humble as riders, we can correctly develop our horses through a kind and fair training process.

Happy tummies make happy ponies!

I have always had the mindset that a horse will be happy with you if you’re training correctly, methodically, and making sure that you reward the horse, however they enjoy a reward the most, for every try that could remotely go in the right direction.  I still think that way…

But…

Lately, I’ve had a few things that caused me some concern for my show string.  Nothing has really changed, there’s no extreme amounts of stress in their current work load due to my travel schedule and concentrating on the L Program instead of their show schedule, but I could tell that the mares were just not feeling happy.

I started doing some researching, talking with my vets, body workers, nutritionists, and we all kind of settled into the theme of making sure that their GI tracts were all “happy” as that can be a large part of some issues that are seen in the day to day with show horses.  So, I pulled them off of commercial grains and started feeding them a whole food diet based on their basic needs as horses, continued speaking with our nutritionist about different vitamins and supplements that they would require now that they’re on a mostly forage diet which helps their “guts” but there’s some extra needs that have to be filled based on their work loads.

I’m proud to announce that one of these new supplements we have been implementing at my barn is my newest sponsor: Zesterra!

Zesterra® is a 100% all-natural supplement for horses. It’s formulated to provide support for horses that are prone to stress or experience ulcers or ulcer symptoms. Zesterra® is a unique equine supplement that neutralizes excess gastric acid, encourages feed and water consumption and allows for greater nutrient absorption. It’s particularly helpful when your horse experiences stressful situations like hauling, foaling, heavy training or extreme weather.  Zesterra® relieves stress and other digestive disorders by boosting appetite, improving water consumption and reducing acidity in the stomach.

I have seen amazing results through utilizing this product!  All the horses have seemed to let a sigh of relief out since beginning on Zesterra.  Not only have they become calmer and happier in their work, but just around the barn and in their paddocks!  I tell everyone at the barn, I feel like I’m walking into a day spa when I walk down the lane from my house to the barn every day– the energy has changed that much in such a positive way.  I truly believe this is a product that all horse owners should have in their barns!

You guys know I’m all about sharing helpful information with everyone I know, so if through reading this blog you decide that you would like to try Zesterra for your horses, they have a money back guarantee, so you have nothing to lose!  Contact me, and I’ll be sure to put you in touch with my rep to answer any of your questions!

Remember: happy tummies make happy ponies!!

One more time

Horses are amazing creatures. Wonderful teachers, generous with their time, mind, and bodies. It’s awe inspiring what they allow us to do through our beautiful sport.

Often times I’m left totally baffled by the fact that they try so hard. They’re naturally creatures of comfort, craving space, quiet, and unlimited grass buffets. And what do we do? Ask them to participate in a rigorous training effort, go into a show atmosphere that is anything but quiet, and on top of that, we control their caloric intake. It truly is something special that the horses put up with our schedules and this sport.

There’s a bit of a plague amongst us; however, this “one more time” business.

One more time

I’ve heard others say it, and I’ve said it in my head as I’m riding a horse and out loud as I teach. But is is truly necessary?

One more time

Funny thing about horses is that there’s a delicate line between schooling something and drilling it. Schooling serves a purpose to strengthen the horse — within the movements there’s a different emphasis each time you make an attempt at the movement. Drilling is just doing something over and over, no clear purpose or difference between attempts. Drilling can be dangerous physically, mentally, and emotionally to the horse — we must avoid it at all cost while training our horses.

I’ve heard my coaches and their coaches say the same thing, “If you can accomplish it in 15-20 minutes, why not be finished?”

I think being concise is a lost art in our sport, and it’s has been replaced with the, mostly, well-intended “one more time.” The rest of our lives we deal with immediate satisfaction everywhere we turn. But in training our horses, we cannot expect that, even if we do keep trying that “one more time.”

So, I encourage you this week, to not be greedy with your horses. Allow them to be who they are — improve one step at a time never hesitating to leave the next step for tomorrow. Remember, we can’t do this without our horses, so let’s be kind, and have the compassion to realize when they’ve tried enough.