Tack Time vs. Gym Time and Rider Fitness

I’ve heard it many times at the barn — a rider saying that they need to be fitter for their horses.  I know I’ve told riders I coach that they should be or should want to be fitter for their horse.  Fitness is not a bad goal as an equestrian; in fact, it’s 100% necessary for our sport.  And, no, I’m not talking about the skinny as a rail in your white breeches fitness, I’m talking about the ability to keep up with and help your horse throughout your ride type of fitness (although I know all of us girls wouldn’t mind looking a tad bit skinnier in our whites either).

A lot of riders I know go to the gym, do spin classes, or barre, which are all fabulous ideas for getting into better shape!  If I had more time, didn’t have endless hours of barn chores, and a kiddo to run around after, I’d certainly be hitting up the Yoga and Pilates classes again as well.  Obviously, riding well takes a certain level of stamina and fitness that all of these things can help you develop, and I love to see equestrians putting that extra effort into their riding, but, is it worth choosing to replace time in the tack?  If given the choice between a gym membership or an extra lesson on your horse or a school horse, which would you choose?

If your ultimate goal is to ride better, there’s only so much that strength training, barre, or cross fit can actually do for you.  Again, I’m not against adding any of these things into your fitness regime, on the contrary, I’m all for it!  Just don’t expect that extra gym session to make your horse magically know how to shoulder-in or jump through that gymnastic better for you.  Look at any other sports athletes…would you be able to expect a super fit basketball player, tennis player, or dancer to just be able to step foot in a stirrup and complete the Grand Prix Special or be able to hang in there for the 1.6m jump off round?  You haven’t changed a thing about their strength or stamina, but you put them on a 1,200lb animal with it’s own brain, and asked them to complete a task…it could go well…if the horse is a saint…or it could go very, terribly wrong…even if the horse is a saint.  Even take it back a notch…could they ask a horse for a flying change, guide them through a horse’s first water, or jump a cross rail course?  Possibly…could they do it well?  Maybe…but again, if you’re ultimate goal is to ride better, why would you settle for maybe?  Especially when your sport involves strapping yourself to a large animal with a mind of its own?

Like I said from the very start, I’ve often encouraged riders to do something extra to increase their fitness level.  Most often times, something involving balance, strength, and stamina exercises to be exact.  BUT, I’ve always book-ended the topic with the phrase, “Nothing will substitute time in the tack.”  Why is that?  There is something very specific about riding, whether you’re learning to post or jumping a large oxer, that just can’t be duplicated.  So, yes, again, I love it when riders want to invest in their overall fitness, BUT, I always encourage them to make sure that the main thing, stays the main thing.  You can spend time and money on a gym membership with a fitness trainer, or you can spend that same time and money on lessons with your coach and utilize YouTube fitness channels for you Pilates routines.  There are lots of options!

Your horse is always going to bring something to the table that you will never get at cross fit.  The Box is a predictable place with inanimate objects, The Barn is a whole different game.  Your horse demands that you become a psychologist…learning how to figure out those days when the right canter is just a no, your tempis fall apart, the gymnastic you jumped last week now obviously has an alligator living in the liver pool ready to strike, the list could go on and on.  And this, this is why there is absolutely never going to be a substitute for time in the tack.  This is something that only a horse and your coach can teach you to successfully navigate, and these situations are exactly why you need to have a certain level of stamina to get through to the other side.  Not that you have to “man handle” your horse to get through them at all, but stamina to make sure that your body is able to maintain positive muscle tension to correctly keep the aids quiet and consistent, stamina to make sure that your emotions don’t get the better of you in a moment where you need to be relaxed, classy, and calm…that’s not anything that a gym membership is going to give you.

So, if your ultimate goal truly is to ride your horse better, work on your fitness, go to the gym, do yoga, but ride…ride as much as you can, as many different types of horses as you feel comfortable and safe on, get as many lessons as you can.  Be a student of the horse first.  Find a coach with a program you believe in, and become a student of that program as well.  Take every opportunity to increase your fitness, but keep your main thing, your main thing.

Always remember, nothing can substitute time in the tack.

Selling and Buying…finding the right fit

I have to take a moment to brag on this mare who’s photo is the featured image of this blog…this is Reichenhall, we call her Bella at the barn.  She’s been with me since she was two years old, she’s now seven, as a consignment sales horse.  It’s always been the plan to find her the right rider when they come along and allow her to spread her wings from my program.  I’ve often said, this mare is one of the harder ones to do a consignment sale with…I’ve grown very attached, and, on top of that, she’s a phenomenal ride.  I definitely don’t mind her staying in the barn for as long as it takes to find just the right person.

Bella hasn’t had any shortage of interested parties, but the elusive right rider is hard to find when you’re marketing in her price range with a horse that has talent, power, and is a mare.  This horse has had her fair share of test rides with people who she’s never met before, and she has packed them around the arena, keeping an eye on me the entire time.  Sometimes I watch her and it seems like Bella is saying, “yea, sure, ok…this is normal” and other times I have had to cut the ride short because I can tell it’s just not the right fit, and Bella starts to lose her confidence in the rider.  She always does her job and that’s why I’m so proud of her after every test ride, but it becomes a question of the quality of how the job is done.  It’s nothing against the more unconfident rider, but some of these horses need you to have a certain grit to your riding that they know they could follow your leadership anywhere unscathed.

Bella is not alone in being this type of horse.  They are all over the place with many of them being bigger, more talented, and higher priced.  People come to look at these horses looking for the prestige of having them, or looking for something that will bring home the blue ribbons for them.

Now, before I get arm chair warriors, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to own your own warmblood or whatever your dream breed is and being proud of having them, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting to win that blue ribbon, but those are horrible reasons to actually sign on the dotted line and buy a horse.  You may end up causing yourself to end up with something that will take the enjoyment out of the sport for both the horse and you.

The horse that you should buy is the one that makes your soul smile…it’s the one that you feel safe with and confident to put a leg over and try new things.  Never underestimate that quiet, simple horse.  He doesn’t have to be fancy, he just needs to be suitable.  Fancy can come later, if you’re able to develop the strength and courage for it, because sometimes, honestly, it can take a lot of both.

The buyer that we should sell a horse to is the one who can’t get the horse out of their mind when their head hits the pillow at night.  The buyer who feels of and for the horse, ferociously asking questions, to see if they are appropriate for each other.  I know, I know…we all need to make a sale, especially in the current Covid-19 market, but at what cost?  Isn’t it better for our sport to find riders and owners that are appropriate for our horses rather than just passing money around and crossing our fingers behind our backs?  As sellers we have a responsibility to be partnering riders with horses who fit together.

Now, there is always the other side of the coin in this buying/selling scenario.  If you MUST have that big, beautiful horse who is totally inappropriate for yourself, and it defies gravity as it floats along, or is able to jump the snot out of the moon, and you are dying to be a part of its life, why not choose to support a more appropriate rider?  Finding a trainer to be the rider, support them as the owner, or form a syndicate ownership?  There are many well known riders that do this, and I can name even more unknown, amazingly talented riders that would jump at the chance to have this type of horse and owner in their barn.  Maybe, just maybe you could be a part of sending the unknown pair to Olympic qualifiers and beyond.

The only wrong scenario in buying or selling is allowing an inappropriate fit between horse and rider.  It’s not fair to either of them and can easily destroy a rider’s confidence as well as end a talented horse’s career.

So as a seller or buyer, do your research.  Ask the hard questions, and make the tough call of saying that this is an inappropriate fit if it is.  Be honest with yourself, and most importantly, be the horse’s advocate in the selling/buying situation.  They can’t voice who they would prefer to be with, so let’s make sure we do the right thing by these amazing creatures we are fortunate enough to have in our lives.

USDF 2020 Trainer’s Conference Day 2 Notes

Day 2 dawned and we all headed back to High Meadow Farm in White Fences for another day filled with insights from our presenters Gary Rockwell, Anne Gribbons, Ashley Holzer, and Lars Petersen along with our moderator Lilo Fore.

Meagan Davis started the day off again with Elian.  Gary took point on today’s session continuing to emphasize that there’s a warm up and then the work.  He considers collection as weight lifting, and as such, it can do damage by doing too much of it too soon within the work.  He started the pair off with a 15m circle to a long leg yield to a small letter, continuing to encourage Meagan to work towards a longer neck in a forward rising trot.  Gary wanted the long outline to produce more freedom in the neck.  He reminded all of us that it’s ideal to end the movements one step before the letter.  Gary continued to ask Meagan to make the horse even on both reins.  They then went into the canter and he reminded Meagan that if Elian rushed forward in the trot to canter to re-do the transition; to make smaller, more frequent transitions, and continue to look up higher to influence his balance.  Gary went back to a 15m circle at the canter, change rein across the diagonal, simple change through the trot, and make a small aid to canter again.  He stated, “this is where you make it right to help the changes.”

Beginning into the collected work, Gary utilized the shoulder in once again, but also told Meagan to make it more immediately from the corner and to not overuse the inside rein.  The tilting that would creep in at times, especially in this movement, was from uneven rein contact that the shoulder in exposes.

Gary gave us all an insight into the FEI rule book regarding the rein-back stating that in the rule book it defines the rein back as a square halt, 4 steps back in diagonal pairs, and then another square halt at the end of it.  No one has ever done the halt at the end and to his knowledge, adding that no one ever teaches it either.  This is a topic that he and Anne spoke about over the past couple of days and they both agreed they would bring it back up at the next FEI meeting.

Continuing the session, Gary said again to make sure that you don’t over prepare the walk, but that you simply canter out.  He also reminded us all about the importance of using 15m circles in canter balance development at this stage.  He wanted Meagan to be able to add something to the canter without actually going more forward at times.  Just adding the thought that she could always take him more out and forward at any moment.  They moved into working towards the changes together and Gary made sure that Meagan and Elian were always ready to do the movement right out of the corner, and not wasting the preparation that utilizing the corner provides.  He reminded everyone that the horse must be confident and secure in the transitions because those simplify the changes.  As he wrapped up with his time with Meagan, Gary reminded her that she has to let Elian find his own feet because she can’t “just carry him around for ten years.”  He also emphasized that as a rider sometimes you have to do nothing, otherwise he won’t hear you when you give an aid.

Ashley stepped into the session confessing that she is a “transition hound,” and wanted to make sure that Elian was using his haunches more rather than using the bit to balance himself.  As Meagan would do a downward transition, Ashley encouraged her to use more leg, seat, and perhaps a tap of the whip to encourage more use of the hind legs.  As they worked, Ashley made sure to point out that as a rider we need to “focus on what the horse needs to do to fix a behavior, *not* just what’s going wrong.”  This will allow you to focus on the crucial topic of relaxation with your horse which is where the work must start and finish even if tension is necessary in the work at times.

Ashley also bridged the topic that we must realize that dressage is physical.  It’s a bit of ballet and weight lifting.  A rider must really ride at times.  It doesn’t mean that we have to be unfair with our aids, but if you’ve got a big horse, such as Elian, who has a lot of weight in the forehand, you have to be able to really ride against the movement at times in order to adequately change the balance .  Ashley brought this session to a close reminding us that when you’re having to really ride, it’s easy to second guess yourself and just hope you’re doing the best in the moment, but if you always go back to the classical basics and the understanding of how and why you’re doing each movement you can be sure that your attitude towards the training is for the benefit of the horse.

Emily Donaldson and Audi then started their session off with Anne who really encouraged her to change her rider position right at the start.  She told Emily to open her shoulders and lift her head so that she could become a balancing rod on top of her horse.  Anne also said, “pretend I’m taking an ice pick between your shoulders.  What would you do?”  Immediately, Emily pulled both shoulder blades back and it created a much straighter picture.  Anne also stated that the rider must be in charge of the tempo, the horse cannot be allowed to change it.  Audi then had a moment of tension where he reared up.  Anne told Emily that they had to be more cleaver with Audi and sit down into his back, putting his neck lower, and put him to work.  She had Emily keep Audi on bending lines, reminding us that the more sensitive types are easier to control on a bent line.  They went into the work then and Anne told Emily to think of underachieving exercises and to not repeat things too often so that Audi wouldn’t get so suspicious.

Anne drew attention to the importance of correct half halts.  “You will never do too many half halts,” she commented.  She then cautioned, however, that if the half halt is too long, the horse can get claustrophobic and then the rider will get into trouble.  “Timing is everything, you can’t let your hand be the only thing left in the half halt.”

Lars then stepped in to work with helping Emily get Audi more even in the connection as he had developed some tilting during the work.  He had the pair doing shoulder in and changing the positioning to renvers, then to haunches in.  Lars continued to say through the whole conference, “it is the bending work that makes a horse straight.  If you ride straight to make a horse straight, then you will only make them stiff.”  Lars noted that every horse has a weak side, and it’s the rider’s job to get the horse even on their seat bones.

Gary popped in with a few comments that if a rider carries their hands high, it will create an indirect rein which isn’t helpful in this type of work.  A higher outside hand will cause tilting at times when it’s not necessarily about the horse’s weaknesses.

Lars then concluded, referring back to the moment Audi reared earlier in the work that you have to put this horse way deeper where the rider could hold him if the horse comes against you.  “When you train a horse, it’s about reading them mentally and reading the body.  You have to go about the work according to them.”

Hanna Benne with Rigadoon RF was next in the arena and Lars continued to flow right into this session.  Rigadoon was showing some lack of clarity in his walk at the beginning of the work, so Lars asked Hanna to do easy, long leg yielding in the walk because the leg yield can help fix a dangerous walk.  Lars jumped into the conversation of contact once again with this pair, sharing that if the horse is light in the contact you have to ride to the bit.  It can’t just be about riding the neck long, he has to go to the bit.  He reminded Hanna that having the horse in front of you has nothing to do with speed.  “Faster will never improve the connection.  Be normal.”  Lars was adamant that a rider must have established a positive, even connection before the work in transitions can begin to be helpful.  As the warm up continued, Lars told us, just because the horse has his head down on a loose rein doesn’t mean that he’s stretching.  “It’s the contact that makes the stretch,” he stated.  In the remainder of his time with Hanna, Lars continued to encourage her to make her horse go to the bit, almost to make him pull because he had such a tendency to be too light.  Lars continued to emphasize that if transitions and movements are done incorrectly it will make things worse, really drawing attention to the inconsistencies in the horse’s contact.

Ashley took a turn with their pair again as they got into work with piaffe and passage steps and told Hanna, once again, to make sure she didn’t ask him to sit any more than he already was because he’s such an over achiever and sits so much that he can’t find his way out.  Ashley really emphasized that it’s important to do one or two steps of this work and then out.  Riders must not get greedy or over do it in this work since it’s easy to over tax the horses and then it’s very hard to re-teach it properly.  It’s vital to build this work slowly.  Ashley then clarified with all of us that the definition of a half halt is “halt of a transition.  It’s the part of the transition that brings weight back to the hind leg, then the softening to reward that response.”  Even if the horse falls out of self carriage, a rider just simply needs to half halt, re-set, and try the work again.  But Ashley then cautioned, “You have to know when to give your horse a break.  Remember how physical the sport is.”

Gary wrapped up the session by reminding Hanna that she should feel that the collection and extension in each gait live within themselves and are available to her at all times.

Lauren Sprieser then rode in on a different horse than she had on day one, a 9yr old Lusitano working on third level.  Gary began the session with the pair commenting that the horse was weak in his neck and had a tendency to curl behind the vertical, so he had Lauren take him on a 4 loop serpentine building into slow leg yields off the rail, to the quarter line, and back to the rail again.  As they continued, Gary reminded Lauren to bend before the turn so that she wasn’t stuck having to increase the bend within the turn and create a lack of balance into a movement.  They continued working through the warm up, and Lauren had a couple unfortunate moments where her horse got his tongue over the bits.  Gary, Ashley, and Anne then had a conversation about this issue:

Ashley: The horse draws the tongue up in a moment of tension.  You could put latex on the bit for a horse show if you must, but it’s absolutely a throughness issue that should be addressed at home.  You could possibly experiment with the set of bits that you ride in with the double.

Anne: If it happens in the test, you have to make the choice to try and muddle through or just excuse yourself.  You can always try adjusting the bridle or go to the snaffle if it’s the double that’s causing issue.

Gary: He comes behind the bits in the transitions anyway.  You have to get the connection even where he’s coming out more.  Overall, you have to break the habit so that he doesn’t spend so much time down and behind the bit.

Gary continued the lesson having Lauren ask for more forward steps, but not allow the horse to necessarily go anywhere.  He said that the horse has to go forward correctly in order to collect correctly, you can’t keep riding backwards.  “It takes more leg to go back than to go forward,” he reminded as he handed off the session.

Ashley stepped in going back to the contact issues, reminding us that the tongue is a direct result of relaxation or lack of relaxation.  She then spoke to Lauren about keeping her lower leg still and quiet, noting that it is harder to accomplish this on a horse that’s a bit smaller for the rider, but it’s absolutely necessary to clarify the leg aid.  Going back to focusing on developing the connection within the work, Ashley told us all that there needs to be a balance between the lateral and longitudinal suppleness within the horse.  It’s all about how much the bend in the hocks because that’s where your engagement comes from.  This is where you can visualize the hocks pushing into the bridle.

Ashley reminded us to think of the horse’s spine as a hose, and it’s our responsibility to make sure there are no kinks.  With that thought in mind, Ashley asked Lauren to shorten her reins, push her hands forward and down towards the wither and push her hips up to the hand.  Lauren’s horse had some tension creep in through this work, but also had moments where the connection and frame were absolutely uphill and beautiful.  Ashley reminded us that in training there’s going to be tension.  “You have to go there to see where your limitations are,” she encouraged Lauren.  As they wrapped up Lauren’s session with some beautiful work with the changes, Ashley cautioned to pay attention to the signs your horse gives you during the training to decide how much of an exercise is sufficient to make a positive change, but also you must know how much they can do correctly before they’re too tired and know when to stop.

Anne, Gary, and Lars then had a few questions they answered for a short Q & A before the next horse came in.  Lars was asked about horses being behind the vertical in the work, and he said that he always prioritizes the connection first.  At the end of the day, he believes that it’s improvement in the connection that will allow the horse to follow the hand out to the vertical more confidently.  Lars, Anne, and Gary tacked a question about teaching tempi changes.  Gary reminded us that it’s all about the simplicity of the canter, walk transitions, and maintaining straightness throughout.  Lars cautioned that the individual changes must be good first, and then you just see how often you can “get ready” for the next change.  Anne confirmed that you don’t want to start the tempis too early.  Just make sure that your random changes are straight forward and uncomplicated.  Gary commented that the rider also needs to make sure that the focus of their eyes is upward, not downward on the shoulders as this is where croup high changes originates from.

One of the trainer’s in the crowd asked for the mic and then asked the question about how to stay inspired and to keep going in the sport.  This question was handled by Lilo Fore straight away saying that you just have to “keep a love for the sport, for the horse.”  It was a beautiful moment where Lilo shared stories from her years of experience coaching, training, and riding.  It brought tears to my eyes just seeing the fire in Lilo’s eyes as she told us that, there is nothing more inspiring to her than the moment when a horse or student has that moment in the work where they just “get it.”  To further answer the question, she went on to say that you must put yourself out there to make connections with people who also have a great love for the horse and the sport.  You hear it all the time, and there’s so much truth to it, but it really does take a village in this industry.

Megan Fischer-Graham was next with her gelding De Rosseau, and Lars started the pair off in their work asking Megan to really make him go into the hand, but not faster.  He wanted her to feel as though Rosseau was sucking her forward, but cautioned that it had nothing to do with speed.  As she began to leg yield, Lars wanted her to ride more forward and less sideways, but to also own the trot that she was riding so that it wouldn’t change as she went straight or did a leg yield.  Lars wanted all of the work at the beginning to be easy and normal because his first priority is always establishing a relaxed connection.

After the warm up, Lars then guided the pair into work towards developing the pirouette.  He wanted Megan to focus on riding the inside hind leg more, making sure she utilized the outside rein, but really rode the inside hind through the turns.  Lars wanted the canter a bit quicker and forward, the transitions honest, and the connection forward thinking and round.  As they began to close the turns toward a working pirouette, Lars told Megan to actually open her inside leg so that Rosseau would draw towards the opening on the inside for a better quality turn.  He then gave Megan the exercise to work with in the pirouette development to counter canter a 15m circle at E and B, and then on each open side a volte/pirouette in true canter developing a smaller, quicker canter each open side.

Anne jumped in cautioning Megan that “one of you has to be in chage and it better be you.”  She had her canter, 10m circle in the corner, half pass to centerline, shoulder in past X, then half a pirouette to put the pair on the quarterline.  As they worked the exercise, Anne wanted Megan to feel more connected to the bridle and to make sure that the last step of the pirouette has to be ready to leave the movement.

Gary then added that this is a horse that anticipates and is extremely aware of Megan’s upper body.  He really encouraged Megan to school the walk, picking up the reins, and letting them back down over and over again, so that Rosseau didn’t always think that the shortening of the reins meant anything other than walking on a good consistent contact.  Anne agreed saying that quiet and correct work is what’s needed when the horse starts to anticipate.  Ashley added to the conversation saying that the more you educate your horse, the more you can inadvertently aid your horse into a movement.  As riders, we have to take clear responsibility of the horse anticipating and learn to relax our backs.

Unfortunately the next rider’s horse had to take the day off, so we went back into another Q & A session with Ashley and Lars.  Ashley tackled a question about shoulder fore vs. alignment saying that at any moment your horse should be able to do a shoulder in, and cautioned that shoulder fore isn’t a substitute for straightness.  Lars then clarified what he meant when he referred to a horse as “spitting out” the contact during the work.  He said that it happens when the mouth opens and the horse goes behind the vertical and leg.  The rider is then left without any connection between the seat and hand, and he reminded us that if you don’t have that conversation you truly can’t do anything.  Both Ashley and Lars when into a discussion about the pirouette.  Ashley made sure that everyone understood the importance of knowing the timing of the footfalls to know if it’s correct or not as some horses will turn the canter pirouette into a four beated gait instead of three.  As long as it’s positive disassociation, hind foot first, front second, then the four beated canter is allowed in the pirouette.  Lars added that the rider position becomes extremely important in the pirouette that you sit in a way that you allow the hind leg to take the weight.  He also said that the pirouette should be ridden more as a shoulder in rather than a haunches in because as soon as you turn back to your line to exit the movement, if you’re in haunches in, you won’t be able to leave in straightness.

Once again, we were down to our two Olympians for the last two rides of the day, and my notes became scarce as I told myself to be really present with the rides and to soak it all in as much as possible before taking all this education home to my horses and riders.

First up was Michelle Gibson and Barland IM.  Ashley started the pair off saying that some horses hold in their backs by nature and it’s our job to experiment and find an exercise that will help them.  She continued saying that riders need to make sure that they have “relevant warm ups.”  Having a plan and being ready to modify as needed is extremely important.  As Michelle continued to show us an exemplary warm up, Ashley reminded us as riders that the warm up is where you need to challenge yourself to feel the suppleness and evenness of the connection of both sides, or lack thereof by doing the same exercises on both sides.  “You then take the information you receive in the warm up and then allow it to inform your training,” Ashley stated.

Michelle and Barland then moved into the work portion of their session with Michelle asking the presenters’ thoughts on how big of a trot she actually needed in the competition arena.  Ashley reminded Michelle to allow Barland to feel the struggle of the work saying, “if we don’t allow them to struggle, we won’t know how far we can go.”  The stronger/bigger the trot, the stronger/bigger the crash because there’s a line that you can cross where the horse just can’t maintain that much power in balance, so you have to gauge how much of a risk you’re willing to take in the trot on any given day.  Ashley just encouraged Michelle to continue looking for good reactions to her aids throughout the process of experimenting with Barland’s gait.

Lars stepped in and started the work in the piaffe and passage with the pair.  He told us that it’s not necessarily about the hocks in the sitting movements, it’s about what he calls the “rotator,” or the stifle and sacrum area with creating a quality sit.  The hocks can be completely out behind and still be active, which isn’t the correct picture.  Lars concentrated on the transition from piaffe to passage with Michelle asking her to piaffe forward until she could find the passage so she could get rid of the big step out of the piaffe where the balance and power is lost.

Our last ride of the day was Kasey Perry-Glass and Mistico TM.  Our presenters basically sat back and encouraged us all to be present and watch what they called the “perfect warm up.”  The entire warm up was orchestrated through Kasey’s methodical, deliberate, and accurate riding.  You could tell that the classical principles of the sport have been clearly upheld through Kasey’s training, and the whole picture created through the warm up allowed Mistico to become relaxed and prepared for the work as well as finding the power and balanced needed to maintain expression.

Anne stepped in to guide Kasey through schooling the zig zag which was Mistico’s first time attempting it.  Anne again stated that it’s a testimony to Kasey’s training at home that the gelding was able to attempt the zig zag in this environment and kept a very positive mental outlook on the work.  She encouraged Kasey throughout that the zig zag is simple a quality, balanced, collected canter, the half pass, and a quality change.  Anne pointed out that it really is the ending of the zig zag that is the hardest, noting that you must start and finish the movement symmetrical, and if you start large, it will finish large and can get very tight feeling at the end.

Anne then asked Kasey if she would like to work on the one tempis, but they started off the work in the changes very thoughtfully.  Kasey took Mistico on the quarter line and started off with the fours and worked her way down but wasn’t afraid to take a long side to address the quality of the canter through use of transitions within the gait.  Kasey got down to the two’s which clocked off to perfection with ease and relaxation.  She went down to the ones and got a bit stuck in a couple of them, so she quietly sent Mistico forward to develop a better canter and then just started asking for one out, one in.  Once Mistico gained confidence there, they went on to do a line of a few ones strung together with ease.  Anne congratulated Kasey on the quality of them and reiterated to us that with the one’s you only want to do what the horse can handle, so you can keep their confidence in the work.

With Kasey exiting the arena, the 2020 USDF Trainer’s Conference concluded.  With much thanks given to the farm owners, our presenters, announcer, and moderator, I was left with an incredible sense of camaraderie with all the trainers there, and an immeasurable amount of appreciation for USDF creating such a program to help encourage and inspire trainers to stay the course.  As this industry has grown, it can feel a bit overwhelming and you can get a bit lost amongst the bigger names, but this conference gave me such a sense that our governing body of USDF is truly in each trainer’s corner.  It is an amazing feeling to be a part of something that’s so much bigger than our individual barns and training programs.  I would encourage everyone who is able, put the Trainer’s Conference on your calendar.  This was definitely the inspiration I needed to get myself ready for the 2020 season.

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.

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.

Where are the horsemen: Is love enough?

I’m a goal-oriented person. Highly motivated, slightly OCD/ADD in certain areas of my life — the barn and my training being a couple of those areas. If you follow me on social media, you already know this by my obsession with my hashtag #dothething. In my mind, there is always something to do and I will be doing it.

My goals are lofty…they include 5 rings, 3 podiums, and representing my country on an international stage. I love my sport. Dressage is an art form that mesmerizes and enchants me, and the thrill of the connection that I have with a horse during a well performed test is something that I cherish.

But is the love of the horse and the sport enough?

The reality is that there’s probably a lot of “me’s” in the equine industry. Possibly with a lot more financial backing, more opportunities to reach for that podium moment…possibly with an even more limited range than what I’m blessed to work with every day as well.

I’m not in an area that you would call a hot spot for international Dressage…most of the new, non-equestrians I meet don’t even know how to pronounce the word and ask me if I’ve won any races recently, but I’m thankful that my circle asks questions and is genuinely interested in my work even if they don’t understand the in’s and outs.

I don’t necessarily have a barn full of international quality horses that would be on the selectors radar for Team picks. I have a barn full of babies who I adore and am nursing my more mature mare back from lameness issues that sidelines us from making it into the FEI arena last year.

I wasn’t in the young rider program — the opportunity wasn’t one that presented itself. At my age, I’m realizing that I’m a bit of a late bloomer in this industry.

So I ask myself this question on the regular at this stage in the game — is the love of the horse and the sport enough? I think you have to ask yourself that any time your passion also becomes your profession.

Being a horseman to me means that you have a love for the horse and you’re an advocate for their well-being and the maturing process in their careers. You’re ok with the early mornings to get things done before it gets too hot for anything productive. You can deal with the late nights because you have night-checks to make sure all is well at the barn after everyone is asleep. You walk the colicing horse, you monitor the allergy meds and the joint injections, you soak that foot that has a case of white line. You do the endless mucking, watering, throwing hay, and dropping grain…why? Because you love it. If not, it wouldn’t be worth it.

When the goals seem far away, and you’re slugging it out to try and keep your owners happy, your sponsors happy, and keep your chin up…when that one horse with all the talent in the world is struggling in their training and when you’re trying to budget for the next round of clinics and shows…it’s the little moments with my horses, whether I actually own them or not, that makes all the difference in the world to me.

The love for my horses and my sport is enough — I truly believe it’s a God-given passion for a purpose and I keep walking in it step by step, day by day. I may not see the successes every day. I may have weeks where I don’t feel like I’m going anywhere. But it’s enough.

I keep moving forward — eyes on my goals, but never forgetting to remind myself to appreciate right where I am and to be thankful for the people who believe in me and support me and the horses who I get to enjoy every day. I fight for my horses every day — journaling every mundane day, fantastic day, changes that I make, things that I think may need to change; continuously striving to make things straight forward and easy for them.

So to the horseman, is love enough?

Yes…yes it is.