Are you a complementary rider or a mirror rider? In order to properly self diagnose, let’s talk about the differences. According to my trusty dictionary, to complement someone or something means that you “fill in where there is a lack” or “add where needed” or (this is my favourite definition) “make something complete”. In contrast, to mirror someone or something means that you “show a direct reflection of” or “give an exact replica of” whatever is being done. Now that we have the facts, let’s ask the question again, do you complement your horse or do you mirror your horse?
Buck Brannaman once said that, “The horse is a mirror to your soul. Sometimes you might not like what you see in this mirror and sometimes you will.” This statement is true on so many levels. The right side of our brain immediately applies this to our emotions and this is true. If you are not happy, your horse knows. If you are not enjoying todays ride, your horse is aware of this. If you are still upset at the guy who cut you off in traffic on the way to the barn, your horse will pick up on this. Now different horses respond to human emotions in different ways. I have worked with horses that are acutely aware what is passing through my mind at any given moment and will respond accordingly. I have also worked with horses who seem to be eternally happy and unchanged by human emotion. Although their responses may be different, I believe that both horses are equally aware of our “condition”. Just like humans, horses have unique personalities. Some horses are more forgiving than others and some horses are more responsive, but they all know.
Although horses vary in the way they mirror us emotionally, the way they mirror us physically tends to be a bit more consistent. If your back is tight, it will be very difficult for your horse to relax his back. If you are crooked in the saddle, your horse will not be straight. If your body is full of tension, your horse will not be able to relax. At times, this feels unfortunate. When you are nervously warming up at a horse show, it is really inconvenient for your horse to mirror your tension. When you are having trouble controlling your body in the saddle, your horses mirroring this can really add to the issue. When you decide to work on one element of your riding and everything else falls apart, this can feel disheartening. Well, I have some good news and some bad news. Bad news first…. this will never change. Our horses will always mirror us and there is nothing we can do about it and in my opinion, we shouldn’t want to do anything about it! Allow me to explain… horses make wonderful trainers. No matter how much I develop my eye, I will never be as quick as your horse. So instead of becoming frustrated by this “mirror”, look at it often and use what you see to make yourself a better rider!
With the understanding that our horses mirror us, lets figure out how we can best complement (hint hint!) them during training…
Now, lets look at some of the affects of complementary riding vs mirror riding…
Affects of mirror riding:
Affects of complementary riding:
Striving to be a complementary rider is one of the best goals you can work towards. Since our horses mirror our actions, if we turn around and mirror them back, we will become stuck. You and your horse are partners and partners need to complement each other in order to get the most out of the relationship. We are supposed to be the leader in the relationship, but ultimately, we are only fully in charge of our own actions. Next time you are about to respond to something your horse is doing, think about responding with complementary aids to help “fill in where there is a lack” and make the feeling or the movement as good as it can be.
for Pat Mulligan...
Even as a very young rider, I knew that I wanted to work with horses for the rest of my life. I always had a deep desire to be a part of the process of developing horses into something great and for years, I was blessed with the ability to do just that.
This all changed a few years ago, when my husband joined the United States Marine Corps. We knew that we could be stationed anywhere in the world, so while he was away in training, I campaigned and sold the horses that I owned and made arrangements for my clients. Soon, we were sent far from home and my life was instantly changed. Our early circumstances made it impossible for me to ride, but after my equine interlude, I was approached for lessons in our new area. I had given lessons for years and had nice group of clients up north, but I was primarily a rider. Most of my passion had been geared towards riding, training and competing horses, but this was all about to change.
I soon began giving lessons to the most wonderful group of horsemen and horsewomen near our new home. Up until this time, I had always thought that I preferred to working with horses over humans. There was no good reasoning behind this belief, I think it was just the fact that I had more experience in training horses over humans. For the most part, your training relationship with a horse is simple, you are either making progress or you are not, but the relationships that I have developed with my human clients are much more complex than this.
The forty five minutes that I spend with my clients in the arena is only one element of our partnership. When two unique individuals partner together for the purpose of accomplishing goals, both short term and long, reasonable and lofty, small and large, with a living, breathing animal, you are bound to get close to each other. Just how close, depends on the people involved and I believe (unbiasedly, of course) that I have been blessed with some very special people.
I have always strived to be the best that I can be. I believe that conducting myself in a professional manner is very important. My clients look to me for direction, guidance and counsel in regards to many aspects of riding, training and care for their horses. It is paramount that I give them advice that not only helps them to feel accomplished today, but will continue to make them successful down the road. I want them to be able to trust me with the small decisions and the big ones, when they are in the saddle or when I am and with their personal goals and dreams for the future.
A relationship like this typically does not remain in the arena. For my personal clients, I prefer that we warm-up together, so the first ten or fifteen minutes of every lesson is done walking and talking. Sometimes, we talk about yesterdays ride or todays goals, but other times, we talk about our lives, families, politics… whatever we need to hash out before we begin the ride. I have really gotten to know so much about everyone during this time. We have become more than friends... we are family. We meet for breakfast, lunch and dinner, celebrate each others birthdays, holidays, accomplishments and awards, cheer each other on at horse shows, encourage each other when we struggle and praise each others triumphs. I have been at my clients barns at 5am and at midnight, for the purchase of a new partner, for the birth of a precious foal and for the passing of a dear friend. We have cried together over everything from a first flying change to a pulled shoe and I have been entrusted with more secrets than I can count. I act as a surrogate mother, sister, agent, middleman, psychiatrist and consultant and I would have it any other way. I truly love every minute of it.
Last year, when my husband was told that we were being sent to Japan for several years, a wrench was dropped into our well oiled machine, but after the frustration and tears subsided, we pressed on and figured out a way to make the worlds most complex long distance relationship thrive. I have processed through several “seasons” while being separated from my circle. The weeks leading up to and immediately following a clinic visit are the best. I have something to look forward to and then am left on a high after spending time with such dear friends. We do a good job of staying in close contact between visits, but I am often frustrated by the 8100 miles between us. I find myself day dreaming about riding one of “my” horses or about one of my clients rides after we discuss training options via email. This frustration is always eased by hearing that little notification on my cell phone and seeing one of their names pop up in my inbox. It makes me know that I am still involved in their plans and progress and this warms my heart. I need this partnership just as much as they do. We are friends, family, partners and I love them all. When you care for someone deeply, you feel their joy and you share in their pain. I thought I understood this fully until a about six weeks ago.
My dear friend and client Pat Mulligan had been fighting off a lung infection for quite some time. We would talk back and forth about how she was feeling, what the doctors were saying and how she could not wait to get back into the saddle. We laughed about how her mares were enjoying their “vacation” and how sore Pat was going to be once she was allowed to start riding again. Looking back now, it feels like one day we were laughing about how sluggish her mares were going to be and the next day, I was being told that she had cancer. Now I know that there were a few weeks in between, but not nearly enough time to process this information.
I have been called on to help my clients through a variety of hardships since I left. There have been some unfortunate accidents, a few injuries, surgery and regrettably, the loss of two wonderful horses. In my experience, this has been a tough year, but this all pales in comparison to receiving the news that one of your dear friends is suffering in the way that she was. I didn’t have the tools to help with this information and felt useless because of it. For years, Pat had been bringing her training concerns to me and I had always been able to set things right for her, but this time, there was nothing I could do for her.
On August 17th, my dear friend Pat passed away. I know that she is in a better place and that she is no longer suffering, but right now, it doesn’t make losing her any easier. Pat was special. She was so full of personality and brought fun with her wherever she went. She felt like my sister, because she was just a little too naughty to feel like a mom. Her’s was the first name out of anyones mouth when it came to getting everyone together. When the weather got too hot to ride in the Summer time, we would all head over to Pat’s pool for a party. She always brought her famous bbq chicken dip to our get-togethers and seemed to always have the ingredients for a White Russian on hand.
I will never forget the first time I “met” Pat Mulligan. I was headed home from Wilmington exhausted from a really tough ride, so when I saw an unknown number pop up on my phone, I sent it to voicemail. A few seconds later, she called again, so I answered. She sounded surprised that I had answered and told me that she was calling again just to leave me a voicemail. Then she started giggling and asked if I wanted to hear what the voicemail would have been about. This was the first of many times that Pat made me laugh out loud.
She told me that she was in charge of finding potential clinicians for the EDCTSA and saw that I had moved to the area online. She was very clear that she was only calling me to ask some questions and that I would have to be approved before we would proceed any further. She warned me that she was going to be very direct about what the club was looking… “You are not one of those trainers that kicks and pulls on your horses, are you?”, she asked. As soon as I said no, she asked, “Well, do you tell your students to do it?”. It was a great question, but the answer was the same. Her last question was, “Do you yell a lot during your lessons?”. I chuckled, as I had never been asked this before, and told her “not usually”. She said that she liked my answers and wanted to have me come to her farm for a “trial” day, so she could meet me and watch me teach before she would schedule a clinic. I had no idea what I was in for, as we settled on a date.
A few days later, I was greeted by a bubbly little woman wearing shorts and carrying one of those extra large drink mugs. She introduced herself and I immediately asked her, “Aren’t you supposed to be riding in 5 minutes?”. She laughed and told me that she wasn’t going to ride with me until she knew what I was all about, so she brought in a guinea pig to ride her horse for the lesson. This guinea pig was Rachel Edwards and I believe she rode three out of four of the horses that were scheduled for that day. I must have passed muster though, because Pat called me that evening to schedule our first clinic.
A few weeks later, I arrived at Jasmine Meadows for our clinic. Pat greeted me in the driveway and gave me a little background on the riders. She told me that her friend Wanda had just gotten “one of those fancy dressage horses that does all of those upper level thingys”, that I would have to yell at Davo because he can’t hear anything and that her mare was going to shake her head during the whole ride, but she didn’t really care. I was intrigued by watching her sweet smile and crackly little voice cutting straight to the point, but that was Pat. Although she did a great job of introducing me to almost everyone, she failed miserably in warning me about Davo. Yes, she told me that I would need to speak up, but she did not tell me that he was…. Davo. He came busting out to the dressage arena a few minutes late and asked me if I was “knocked up” in an accent that I thought someone would have mentioned. I just stood there thinking about the fact that I did eat a lot of Chinese food last night and how these breeches are not really the most flattering ones that I own…. when Pat stood up and said, “Whoa, whoa Davo! She doesn’t know what you mean!” (my face must have given that away). She explained to me that “knocked up” means worn out in Aussie talk and then she explained to Davo that “knocked up” meant pregnant to Americans. Davo blushed a little and we all had a good laugh. Pat promised me that she would translate Davo’s sayings for me from then on and she always did…
Before every lesson, Pat used to tell me that her money was hidden under her cell phone just incase she didn’t make it through her ride. I always joked back and told her that if this happened, the ride would be no charge. Pat would also shower and shave her legs before every lesson, so she would look good just incase she had to go to the hospital at some point during her ride.
When I think about how Pat would only ride Miss Ty on a twenty meter circle at A, in her safety vest and if nothing terrible happened within the first twenty minutes, she would be done, I am so proud of how much she accomplished with her.
I remember the first time she cantered full arena. As I was explaining what a huge step this was for her, she began to tear up and I knew that Pat had bigger dreams for Miss Ty than she had verbalized. She had every reason to be cautious when working with Miss Ty, but that fire inside of Pat kept her going through the tough times. One of those times was at Jasmine Meadows on a cold, windy day. Pat was the first ride after the lunch break and when I walked into the indoor, she was lunging Miss Ty and things did not look good. I told Pat that this was not something that could be lunged out of her, so she pulled her up and we walked to the top of the arena together. Pat asked me what I thought she should do and I told her that it was not going to be an easy ride, but she had two options. She could devote the rest of her lesson to ground work in preparation for tomorrows ride OR she could find her “inner balls” and ride like I knew she was capable of. We all laughed a bit, but I told her that she would only have a successful ride if she was riding at 100% today. This look of determination came over her face, she flipped the reins over Miss Ty’s neck and walked to the mounting block. After she did her usual “post mounting ritual”, she looked down at me and whispered, “Are you sure I can do this?” and I told her that she was already in the saddle, so she better start riding! She rode like a pro that day and if I only had a dollar for every time Pat mentioned how big her balls where after that ride, I’d be rich….
Pat always let her opinions be known. We always had a lively discussion on what was and wasn’t a lengthening, she shocked everyone by saying that she didn’t care for Valegro and she was notoriously cheap when it came to buying tack. I almost had to sit down on the day that she told me she wanted help ordering a new dressage saddle. There are so many things worth mentioning about Pat, but words could never fully do her justice.
I am so blessed to have been there as Pat and Miss Ty developed together. Pat was always quick to let go of a difficult ride, but would never let us forget her great ones. I have text messages, emails, FaceBook messages and comments from Pat with her classic, “Did you see my ride??” line. Pat wasn’t only this excited about her own rides though. There were many times that I would get a phone call on my drive home, because Pat wanted to talk about how good someones ride was that day. She was the first one to clap after everyones test and I remember dreading taking her to a recognized show, as I knew that she wouldn’t have been one notch quieter with her post ride celebrations. She was everyones cheer leader and her uninhibited boisterous encouragement will leave something missing from every lesson, clinic and horse show.
I love you Pat Mulligan…
I love good preparation. I write about it, I teach about it and I use it every time I sit in the saddle. Carl Hester often talks about how movements are only as good as the preparation before them and this (among many other things he says!) is music to my ears. Not only does preparation set your horse up for the movement, but it is also the perfect time to read whether actually asking for the movement is a good idea or not.
Although I think we should all make better preparation a goal for every ride, today is about the way we finish an exercise or movement. If you are wondering why I started an article about the end of a movement by talking about the beginning, here is why…
As riders begin going up the levels, there is a tendency to slip into survival mode, especially when riding movements that are new to you and/or your horse. Aside from the excitement of knowing you are riding something fancy, a lot of riders explain that they “don’t want to disrupt” their horses or are afraid that they are going to ruin the movement by doing something wrong. I totally understand this, but while survival mode may feel safe to us, it feels a bit like being abandoned to our horses. When you clearly prepare for a movement, apply the aids for a specific movement and then stop doing anything (sometimes including breathing!), you just hopped into the backseat and are no longer driving. In order for a movement to maintain good quality, we need to continue riding throughout the entire movement and finish it in a clear and purposeful way.
There are several reasons that the way you finish an exercise or movement is so important:
This week’s exercises will focus on riding every step, so not only are you prepared to finish the movement clearly, but you will also be aware of any changes that may have happened during the movement. Let’s head to the ring…
Intro/Training (working trot):
This exercise may sound a bit simple at first, but let me assure you, it is not! Begin by riding a twenty meter circle in working trot at a specific letter (let’s say E). This circle will begin and end at E, so the first step will be to ride every circle separately in your mind. You are not just on a continuous twenty meter circle in the middle of the arena, you are riding a single twenty meter circle at E and then another twenty meter circle at E and so on. Now that you have a specific start and finish point of your circle, we are going to begin changing the rhythm of each circle.
I want you to think about two different working trots. Let’s say a relaxed working trot and then one with a bit more pizazz, Ride one twenty meter circle in the relaxed rhythm and as you ride past E, begin one twenty meter circle in the bigger rhythm. Each time you pass E, begin a new circle in a different rhythm. At first, transitioning between rhythms may take a quarter of a circle or so, but this is where we are going to really clean up the exercise.
In order for the transition to be clear, you need to maintain the rhythm of the first circle all the way to E. When I use this exercise during a lesson, most riders stop riding the first circle about three quarters of the way through while they begin thinking about making the transition onto the next circle. When you do this, you and your horse become disconnected, so when you get to E and ask for a different rhythm, the first first steps are spent getting re-connected and by the time your horse responds, you are well past where you wanted to be. So really focus on riding that relaxed rhythm for every step of the twenty meter circle and don’t let the fact that you are approaching E back you off. Keep riding and as you pass E, close your leg and ride the next twenty meter circle in the bigger trot.
*Goals for the exercise:
The fun thing about starting with such a simple exercise is that you really put anything at E. A halt, transitions in and out of medium walk and even working canter, just be sure to remember the goal of this exercise… finishing the movement you are in (the twenty meter circle you are currently riding) before you begin riding the next movement. Have fun!
First/Second (working canter):
We expect a bit more from horses working at First and Second Level. When you read from First Level Test 1 through Second Level Test 3, you will notice a big difference in the required canter work. The quality of your canter becomes more and more important as you advance up through the levels. The ability to control the rhythm, balance and activity in the canter in important as you begin introducing lengthenings, counter canter and simple changes. This week’s exercise is going to focus on riding a great canter all the way up to various transitions.
If you were riding full arena in working canter and your trainer asks you to show lengthened canter on the long side, most riders focus would go immediately to the lengthened canter (Will it be big enough?, Will it be round enough? Will it be straight?) and while all of these things are important, the working canter you are in now has the most influence on how good your lengthening can be.
If you are about to ride a counter canter serpentine is your mind jumping ahead to things like, “I hope my horse doesn’t make a change.” or “I hope she just keeps cantering this time.”? If so, you may be missing out on the small shifts happening underneath you right now that would answer your questions ahead of time.
Begin by riding working canter full arena. Really ride every stride and be sure that you are aware of how the canter is going. Don’t stop at the fact that you are still cantering and pretty round, be more specific. Is there enough energy at your disposal? Is your horse bringing that energy into the outside rein? Is the inside jaw actively softening? Keep asking yourself these things all the way up to the beginning of the next movement… and then the next movement… and the next (catch my drift?). Ride a fifteen meter circle in working canter at V (tracking right), lengthen the canter from V to S and then ride another fifteen meter circle at S. Don’t think about the similarities between this exercise and the First Level dressage tests. This exercise is all about focusing on riding three separate movements, clearly and purposefully. Yes, the movements should flow, but the focus should be on riding each separate movement the best you can.
As you are approaching the end of your fifteen meter circle at V, don’t start building momentum for the upcoming lengthening. A good quality working canter should have enough energy to lengthen and if it doesn’t, fix the working canter and then return to the exercise. After riding through this exercise a few times, your horse will start to figure out what is going on and this can help. If they know the lengthening is coming, they are ready for it. This can be helpful, but be sure that is does not effect the quality of your working canter or the geometry of your fifteen meter circle. No one but you and your horse should know that a lengthening is coming. As you complete your fifteen meter circle, close your leg for the lengthened canter from V to S. Finishing the lengthening and starting that circle at S is the most difficult part of this exercise. Riders tend to take their leg off too early when transitioning from a lengthening, medium or extension and your horse needs your leg to, first, maintain the movement until it is finished and then second, to keep the hind end active during the downward transition. By “leg”, I do not mean a squeezing or driving leg, I mean a softly closed leg explaining to your horse exactly what you want and where. Simply taking your leg off does not mean return to working canter. Really ride the lengthening until the last stride you want it and then sit up, softly close your thighs, half halt and ride a transition back into working canter. Your fifteen meter circle at S is just as important as the one ridden at V. It should not begin on two wheels and it should not end with the feeling that you are glad the exercise is over (even if you are ;)). Be sure that although that is the last movement of this exercise, you leave the fifteen meter circle clearly finished and ready for whatever comes next.
*Goals for the exercise:
If you and your horse are confident in the walk-canter-walk transitions, you can customize the exercise by riding a fifteen meter circle in medium walk, collected canter in either true canter or counter canter from V to S and then back to medium walk for the fifteen meter circle at S. However you choose to customize the exercise, be sure to remember the goal of the exercise, riding every step and finishing every movement clearly and with purpose. Have fun!!
Third & Above (collected gaits):
Half-pass is first introduced at Third Level and a required movement in every test through Grand Prix. When I think about how important it is to properly finish a movement, half-pass always comes to mind. This is true at all stages of development. In fact, I find that most horses understand half-pass better when we are just as clear about the end of the half-pass as we are the beginning. Being able to correctly come and go from half-pass is far more important that being able to ride many steps of the movement during the developmental stages. In the beginning, most horses can only maintain correct positioning for a limited amount of time, so finishing the movement clearly before they lose their balance, bend or relaxation really helps maintain quality over quantity.
Being mindful of the way your horse finishes the half-pass will really tell you a lot. Did the last few steps of your half-pass feel more like a leg yield? Did your amount of bend decrease as the half-pass progressed? Did you feel unorganized once your half-pass was finished? Now while these things happen to every horse and rider during the learning phase, they should not continue on as a normal part of how your half-pass finishes. Once you and your horse have a good understanding of the basics of half-pass, you need to begin maintaining the quality of the half-pass. This means finishing the half-pass with the same focus that you started it with.
When we think about this idea, we assume that we are already putting the same focus on the last few steps as we did the first few, but in my experience, this is not true. Most riders spend a lot of time preparing to start the half-pass (and we should!), but once it has begun, we tend to accept a loss of bend, rhythm, self-carriage and overall quality as something that just happens. By riding every step and learning from your horses past tendencies, you can begin finishing your half-pass better than it started! Lets begin…
This exercise can be ridden in any gait, but today, I will focus on collected canter. If you are riding this exercise in a defined space (an indoor arena or inside of a fenced ring), be sure that you remain aware of your surroundings at all times. There are several steps to the exercise and they all work together, so be sure that you have enough room to complete each step before you run out of space. The amount that you ride of each element will depend on your abilities and can expand as you advance.
Begin by riding collected canter right lead full arena. At the top of the long side, begin by riding a few strides of shoulder fore. The amount you need will depend on how the canter feels. I always begin half-pass with a shoulder fore positioning, so if your canter is really great, you may only need one or two strides. Once the shoulder fore feels correct, ride half-pass right from the rail towards the quarterline really focusing on a maintaining the amount of bend and body positioning that you had in the shoulder fore. Your outside rein should remain steadily in contact (this is your job) and the inside jaw needs to be actively softening (this is your horses job). Think about riding the inside hind leg towards the outside front leg. This will prevent the haunches from over taking the shoulders. Many riders tend to feel that they need more haunches in the half-pass, when they actually need a better positioning in the inner neck. It may sound like there are too many things to think about as you ride the half-pass, but you can do this. Break it down to three elements: your outside rein staying in position (this requires more muscles memory than brain space), active conversation with the inner jaw and your outside leg riding the inner hind leg.
As soon as you begin to feel a loss of… anything, return to shoulder fore right on a straight line parallel to the long side. This is where you will fix what you were losing. Be sure that the second shoulder fore is the same quality, angle, bend and feel of the shoulder fore you began the half-pass with. Once you are confident in the shoulder fore, ride a very small, very controlled half circle to the right and repeat the exercise. If you stay focused and in control of your surroundings, you should be able to repeat this exercise several times without needing to change direction. The better the half-pass becomes, you will begin riding less shoulder fore and more half-pass, but always remember the goal for this exercise: that both shoulder fores are the same quality and the only way that you can do this is by maintaining the quality of your half-pass.
Once you are capable of returning to a well positioned shoulder fore at any point during the half-pass, you can continue riding the half-pass wherever you need to go.
*Goals for the exercise:
Look at the diagram of this exercise and if you lack confidence or coordination, begin by riding it at the walk, so you can think slowly and get into the swing of things. Once you are organized, move onto collected trot and then eventually in collected canter. This exercise will improve horses and riders at all stages of development, as your half-pass improves, continue to challenge yourself in the exercise by asking for more bend, more angle or more control. It is a great warm-up and a great way to challenge the control you have over the overall quality of the half-pass. A definite must have in your riding tool box! Have fun!!
Structure is an absolute necessity when it comes to having success in training your horse. I have always been an advocate of riding with clear, simple aids, but this blossomed to a whole new level during my time with the Bartels.
There are several reasons that maintaining structure during training is so important. The biggest reason for me is just how far apart our idea of a great ride is from what our horses would rather be doing. Now I am a firm believer that there a lot of horses out there that genuinely enjoy being ridden and love the partnership they have with their rider, but I also know that when your horse is out in the pasture on a sunny day, there is not a big empty space in their heart that can only be filled by twenty seven canter transitions… right? So as soon as we stop riding with structure, they begin filling in our “holes” with what they feel is right.
What is your horses idea of the perfect day? Grass, sunshine, no bugs, freedom and being naked is probably pretty high on the list too. Is traveling uphill on that list? Maintaining jaw softness? Tracking straight? Being focused on a humans requests above all of the other incredibly interesting things in their surroundings? Most likely not…. so when you think about it in this way, it is very easy to see why so many riders tell me that as soon as they stop riding “well”, their horse “falls apart”. The reason I put these words in quotes is because I want to replace the word “well” in that idea with the word “structure” and “falls apart” with “returns to their natural tendency”. To me, the idea that every time I stop riding with structure, my horse returns to his or her natural tendencies is not very confusing or frustrating at all. Yes some elements may continue for a bit thanks to muscle memory or training good habits in the past, but its only a matter of time that your horse will fall out of auto-pilot.
I like to think that the reason we train positive repetitions, good muscle memory and strive to create good habits in our horses is not so one day we can stop riding so well, but it is kind of like insurance for the moments when we make a mistake. I have no desire to stop riding the best I can (that would not be fair to my horse), but I do know that I will make mistakes in the future and if I do have a lapse in good judgement or forget to give my horse clear structure, hopefully the hours in the saddle that I did ride well, will help my horse to help me during those times. I think there are too many trainers with the goal of creating a machine beneath them that knows what they have to do and what will happen if they don’t. Is this a training partnership? Not in my book. The reason that I want to ride my best as consistently as I can is that I want my riding to matter to my horse. If I am riding fabulously, I want my horse to go fabulously and when I am not riding so great, I shouldn’t feel upset when my horse mirrors this.
So how do we avoid losing the structure of our ride? As I type this question out, I feel like I need to say that it is completely normal for mistakes to happen. Mistakes are the way that we learn how to do things better the next time. Today is not about trying to be the perfect rider, it is about forming a structured goal for every ride that helps you to make the most out of your time with your horse. So, in answer to the question, the best way to avoid losing the structure of your ride is to begin every ride with a goal.
There is something heavy about a goal. For some reason, riders tend to lump goals and potential failure together in the same category. For myself and for my students, a goal is simply something to ride towards. If you reach that goal today, wonderful! If you didn’t quite get there, you already have a goal for tomorrows ride. A great rider doesn’t look at a goal in the context of winning or losing, but as a way to maintain your focus and gauge your progress. Imke Schellekens-Bartels says that the time you spent riding without a goal is time wasted in the saddle. I loved this when I first heard it and loved it even more as I thought more about its application. She didn’t mean that every day has to be spent learning something new and difficult, she simply wanted purpose to what a rider is doing in the saddle. It is pretty easy to understand why this is so important on the days where something new or more advanced is being introduced, but it is truly just as important during day to day schooling, on the trails or through a set of cavalettis.
Becoming a structured rider will improve the relationship between you and your horse in two different ways…
Our main goal as a rider is to try to convey what we want to our horses so that they will do it, right? That sounds way easier than it actually is. Unfortunately, our horses do not speak English and we do not speak horse. In human to human communication, we can describe exactly what we want with a few simple words, but between horses, body language is the way to go. In addition to our vastly different communication methods, I believe that communication in general is much more important to our horses than it is to us. How many times have you heard someone say, “Well thats not what I meant.” or “I mean no offense.”? Well to a prey animal that lives or dies by their ability to read the communication given off by other animals and humans, what you communicate is very important.
Tips for riding with structure:
Horses, in general, are lovely creatures. Yeah there are some bad seeds in the bunch, but I have found them to be very few and far between. Something handy about the great majority of horses is that they warn you when something is about to happen. So many riders talk about how their particular horse does something naughty “out of the clear blue sky” and I am not saying this is impossible, but I do believe that it is unlikely. This is kind of like the saying, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one was around to hear it, did it make a sound?”. Allow me to explain… Just because we were not aware of the warning signs, does not mean that they were not given.
I remember watching a friend of mine ride a very cheeky young horse and someone behind me said, “Its funny how she is so full of herself, but she doesn’t run away.” Well, this horse was not deciding not to run away, this talented rider was adapting her warning signs and preventing disaster by doing so. This particular rider is very good at what he does, but he is not a magician (although I have had my doubts at times). Every one of us can ride this way, but it requires a structured awareness of not only what your horse is actually doing physically, but what they are communicating about their future plans. Some small, but important signs that often are ignored are small rhythm changes, habitual drifting in a particular area (even the tiniest amount), a shift in sensitivity to your aids (either becoming more sensitive or less), a change in breathing patterns… and there are many more signs that can be added to this list and you do not need to be clairvoyant to recognize them. I often ask my riders, “Where are his ears?” during a lesson. A horse cannot be fully focused on you with both ears pointing out of the arena. This is certainly not a guarantee that something horrible is about to happen, but it is an early warning sign that you either have lost or are losing their focus. When you are on a nice relaxing and your horses walk begins to speed up, don’t wait until things make a big change, correct the change when it is small.
Just being aware of the signs your horse is giving you helps to keep you aware of what their plan is and the earlier you become aware of changes in their plan, the better position you are in to react successfully.
I hope this helps motivate you to begin making structure a very important element of the time spent with your horse. Remember, structure doesn’t mean rigid and goals are your friend. Happy riding everyone!!
(W with Imke, Imke’s Words of Wisdom)
Imke’s words of wisdom:
I absolutely loved my time sitting in on so many lessons. Every day, I took the things I heard her say in the morning along with me to the arena that afternoon. Here are just a few wise words that I jotted down.
All of these are paraphrased of course…
*** I really loved this: During a lesson, a rider asked Imke if they could try something and she said no. A few seconds later, she said, “No. You cannot try something, but you can DO it if you want.” I just loved her response. It may seem like its just a word, but it so important! Ride with structure and be confident that you are well prepared for what you are about to ask for.
(Wow, Gabbana and my lesson with Mischa Koot)
Wow: This horse was quite sensitive and had a tendency to be a bit “sticky” under the saddle, so our goal for the ride was getting him to release tension through his back and connect the energy he had in his hind leg all the way up to the bridle. Because he struggled with bringing energy over his back, it was difficult to maintain a steady topline. When a horse has varying amounts of energy being brought into the bridle, it is impossible to maintain one frame. To improve his topline, we needed to develop a consistent amount of activity in the hind leg and this requires consistent respect for the leg aid.
We began on a medium length rein in rising trot paying special attention to maintaining a consistent rhythm. As the rhythm developed, we began riding gradual transitions within the gait from working trot to medium trot and then back to working trot. This horse responded fairly well to the leg, so a transition into bigger trot was not too difficult, but coming back down to working trot, he lost the activity in the hind leg and stiffened his back. I had to ensure that my hands were very steady in their positioning, so he had absolutely nothing to hide from in a downward transition. With a horse that would rather not connect, even small amounts of movement in the contact may be enough to shut down the energy prematurely. As he has success with the gradual transitions, I asked for quicker responses, both up and down, always keeping focus on the activity behind me. His canter was very extravagant in the front leg, so if he wasn’t properly connected, there was a visible difference between the rhythm in his front and back end. As a rider, there was a big difference to me when he was well connected, so it was easy to know when things weren’t going as they should. When he did disconnect, I asked for a bit more canter and if he answered well, we went on working. If he did not answer, I was quick to follow with a correction, which for this horse was a quick low kick and then legs down and relaxed to allow him to take over the carrying. He was a quick study and when he realized that he needed to carry himself consistently, he started feeling fabulous. He was beginning learn pirouettes, so I did an exercise of various sized circles, alternating between a very straight collected canter and more forward canter in travers on the circle. It took a lot of focus to maintain the same amount of activity, whether we were riding in collection or using that activity to cover more ground. I knew how important it was to avoid stiffening my seat as I felt the work become challenging for him, but it was still tempting! Stiffening my seat would only create tension in his back and could undo everything I worked on during the warm-up, so instead of allowing his struggle to affect the softness in my seat, I helped remind him as soon as he lost activity or soften him when he tightened his jaw to help him work his best. When he was working in self-carriage, it was very easy for me to ride well, so any time I felt tempted to change my position, I used that as a sign that he needed to do something better. This is the epitome of being a manager in the saddle and not a labourer and it always works.
Gabbana: Gabbana was a completely different horse. He was built much more compact and really stepped into the bridle. He did not offer the quick reactions that Wow did, as he was not nearly as sensitive, so that was my first goal. I began with some transitions quickly from walk to trot and then back again. This was improving his reactions, but not as much as I wanted, so I rode some steep leg yields, making sure he responded equally to both legs and over time, this helped quicken his response to my leg aids. When I began riding some lateral work in the trot, it was very important to maintain the positioning of his shoulders in front of the track of his hind leg. During our first few shoulder-in’s, he wanted to step a bit wide behind in order to avoid proper straightness, so when I moved onto half-pass, I focused on keeping his inside hind stepping toward his outside front leg. This prevented him from leading too much with the inside hind, to avoid carrying weight on that leg. It resulted in some nicely balanced half-passes in the collected trot.
It was in the canter that things began to really improve. After a few circles in a nice warm-up canter, I began riding groups of six to eight strides of a more collected canter followed by the same number of strides in medium canter. Once he understood the exercise, we made it more difficult by asking for only four to six strides of collected and medium. This required a very quick response to my leg in both the upward and the downward. I made sure that all of the collected strides with sitting and carrying weight on the hind leg and that all of the medium strides were powerful and ground covering. This really helped him carry himself nicely. During the warm-up, I felt that he preferred to move away from my left leg quicker than my right leg, so it was no surprise that his half-pass to the right was a bit rushy. During half-pass, the outside rein is in charge of both the tempo control and the angle of the half-pass, so the better he responded to the left rein, the more balanced and controlled his right half-pass was. In half-pass to the left, his respect for the left leg helped to create a good positioning around my inner leg, but he needed more activity. I focused on building activity and quickness in the hind leg during the steps leading up to the half-pass. This not only helped start him off in the best way, but it also made it easier for me to correct small loses of activity and maintain a better tempo, longer.
Both of these horses wanted me to change my position when they began to struggle, which is very common. Horses are very smart and they want your body to change for a reason, typically to make something easier for them. The first horse wanted me to stiffen my seat in order to help “push” him along, but this would have alleviated him of the responsibility of carrying himself and maintaining that relaxed connection over his back. The second horse wanted me to help him by using a heavier leg on his “slow” side and staying away from his more sensitive side, but this would have only increased the crookedness. The more balanced, even and relaxed we all ride, the better our horses can work.
This is such a great lesson for all of us!
W with Mischa Koot: The focus of this ride was to up the expectation set for W, so I could spend a little time focusing more on myself. During the warm-up, Mischa told me something that I have heard before and that I really appreciate, you do not need to look so pretty in the saddle, especially on such a difficult horse, you need to be effective. So I spent a few minutes spelling out exactly what I wanted from W for the remainder of the ride.
A) He needed to respond to my leg. Every time. This is a very common topic among dressage articles and clinicians. The trainer yells out “quicker” or “now!”, but the horse is not the only one that needs to improve in regards to this topic. When you decide that you want to make a horse quicker to your aids, the way you use your aids just got a whole lot more important. We cannot just kick the horse every time we think he was too slow. My students will all tell you that I do not want their legs on the horse unless they are asking for something and this is the basic goal for all of us, but before you start making a horse “quicker” to your aids, you must know when, how and where you are applying them at all times. You can only correct a horse for a lack of response, if you are positive that you were clear when you asked and that wasn’t one of ten leg aids you gave over the last twenty meter circle. So even those this was an expectation set for W, it was just as much set for myself.
B) He needed to be patient when I wanted to turn that energy off. This was hard for W. He loved the bridle… leaning on it, pulling on it, charging into it… I remember the first time I asked him to halt (back on the first day), I started with me seat and then a few half halts and by the time I asked for a strong half halt, I was thirty meters past where I actually wanted to halt. So I knew that asking him to respond respectfully light to my rein aids would cause a bit of frustration in him and it did. Now I know that a heavy horse and heavy hands are best friends, so I was not going to get pulled into a “get off my hands!” yelling match with him, it never works. Instead, we rode many transitions. First from trot to walk and then from trot to halt. I was careful to balance rewarding him for responding better (even if it was only a teeny tiny bit better) and asking for it to be better the next time. This requires total focus. Yes he was still no where near where I wanted him in the end, but was this halt at all better than the last one? If it was, I let him stand a moment, softened my hands, gave him a pat and then we went back to the trot. I used my voice a lot too. As I am riding the transition into halt, I can feel if this one is about to be good or not, well that moment is too early to reward physically, but I sure can cheer him on with my voice. Most horses love verbal praise and it really did help motivate him to keep working for me. We have to look at it from their viewpoint at time. To me, I may be two or three more transitions from what exactly I want, but to him, this is the twenty fourth transition, am I going to be doing this all day? Always make it clear to them that they are heading in the right direction.
C) He needed to use his body the same whether he was yielding my left leg or my right leg. This is something that every horse on earth needs. No horse responds exactly the same left and right. W was very good to my left leg, because it sent him right into his favourite right rein. So our focus for this direction was to ensure that he was not pushing energy over his right shoulder when I sent him away from my left leg. When I put my right leg on, all of a sudden, this compact little horse felt as if I were riding a rhino. Not only did he not respond enough, but he pushed back at me! This is the perfect time to remember that this is not personal, I am asking this horse to do something that requires a difficult response for him (either difficult physically, because it makes him use himself better or difficult mentally, because that is his dominant side), either way, I need to be patient and remain even and balanced myself, so I do not add to the problem. The first “win” was getting him to step away from my right leg, but as soon as this began to happen, Mischa reminded me that he needs to take that energy all the way into the left contact, so his energy remains straight and I can begin to put him where I want him, not just tell him where I don’t.
So, as soon as he was ready for more, Mischa wanted me to ask him for a forward transition and as soon as he responded, I was to over emphasise relaxing everything from my lower back to mid-thigh. Not only did this test his honesty, but it really gave him the opportunity to step up and carry both of us on his own. Well, the first few times we did this, he took advantage of my relaxation almost immediately by dropping his back and slowing his hind leg. So we began following the relaxation of my seat with a question for W. This is how the series went: Forward transition, ultra relaxation of my seat, will you bend left? or Forward transition, ultra relaxation of my seat, will you pick up the canter? The question kept W on his toes and eventually even when I did not ask anything special of him, he was waiting for the question and kept his mind in the work.
As we moved on to more advanced movements, Mischa had this wonderful mental picture she spoke of several times. Think of riding your horse on train tracks. A young, green or lower level horse would be on the tracks and as long as they do not derail, everything is good. Well, a more advanced horse needs to be ridden in between the tracks. This narrows the balance and requires more lateral sensitivity and response. For example, if I wanted W to be positioned away from my inner leg, he was only to shift his energy away from inner leg up to the boundary my outside rein was creating. If he went through my outside rein, we were no longer inside the train tracks. Or if we wanted to begin asking for more bend in his neck, the rest of his body needed to remain aligned in order to stay between the tracks. This really requires a horse to step closer and deeper with the hind leg, putting it more under his centre of gravity and in a better balancing place.
We maintained this concept throughout half-pass and pirouette work. It was very important that he stayed in good alignment on his own, so I could continue playing with ultra relaxation. I was quick to correct when he needed it and with well timed corrections and clear rewards, he really blossomed towards the end of the ride. It was a fun session and I left the arena totally in love with Mischa and her coaching style. I was so excited to riding at a place that put so much emphasis on straightness. I believe that it is so important to have this not only validated, but intensified in my own riding felt very fulfilling.
Click here for Training in Holland - Training Notes Part II...
The next morning, I walked past the outdoor arena and saw Tineke coaching Imke on her fabulous black mare. They were out there alone, early in the morning, so I didn’t want to intrude, but I wanted to watch them work together so badly! I walked over a little closer to the arena and Tineke asked me how I was doing this morning. I stepped close enough to answer, but kept a respectful distance. A few moments later, Tineke asked me if I wanted to sit down, so I sat in one of the chairs a few feet behind her. She was seated in a all directors chair and as soon as she noticed that I was behind her, she stood up, moved her chair to the side and motioned for me to bring my chair up next to her. I am smiling just typing this out. She is so warm and welcoming and I felt so honoured to be welcomed into such a fabulous private training session between two masters.
They had just started, so they were focusing on warming up the mares back with some round stretching and transitions between gaits. I know that being mother and daughter, they have been working together for a long time, but it was so impressive how connected they were to each other. It was like Imke did something as Tineke said it and it was all so harmonious. Of course mistakes happen during training and this mare was still in the developmentally stages, but the way mistakes were handled and corrected was inspirational. Both Tineke and Imke talked about being clear with your aids and making sure that the rider is doing everything possible to make it easy for the horse, they rode this way too. I think one of the biggest things I got out of watching both of them ride was how important it is to be clear about what you want and not to waiver on that goal when things don’t go as expected. I think it is easy to think about not changing your plans when your horse does something naughty, but I think it is so important that we don’t change our plans when they horse doesn’t give you quite what you had asked for. Its in those small moments where our clarity becomes so important. Yes, we need to keep riding when things go wrong, but you also have to when your horse tries a little less than you wanted or when you are getting only 80% of your goal for the day. I think they ore advanced we become as riders, the more we are able to help things along and this isn’t the best way for the horse. Stick to your goal and wait for the horse to come with you.
They went on to school some half-pass and changes with lots of emphasis put on the lines they were riding. During my lessons, Imke often reminded me that even though the changes were good or the pirouette was nice, I had slid off of the line I had originally wanted them on. This is big, because my horse needed to improve in all aspects of his way of going, so even if I rode a good, clean change, but I was eight inches to the right of the line I had started on, it wasn’t the best it could be. Not only did she remind me of this during our lessons, but she did it herself on every horse I watched her ride. It was like learning in two different ways, by watching her and by feeling it myself. It may sound like a simple element, but it requires a lot from both horse and rider and being able to own that line and do your movements, adjustments and corrections there improve the horse in big ways.
This session finished with some piaffe and passage and it was dreamy. Not only was the mare fully prepared through all of the earlier exercises, but she looked like she could have stayed there forever. Although piaffe and passage requires a great deal of strength from every horse, Imke had built this mare up so beautifully that it appeared very easy. Through experience in developing horses through the levels, I am full aware of the hard work that goes into getting a horse to this point and what a pleasure it is to watch the fruits of such a masterful riders hours in the saddle.
Todays date meant that I only had two more rides with Imke, so I really wanted to challenge myself with the goal of improving what was hardest for W. The two things I wanted to achieve were better control in the pirouettes and better control in the tempis. So during todays lesson, after we warmed-up, we began focusing on being able to control the amount he collected and the track he was on. Unfortunately, W thought a pirouette was like a party trick. As soon as I asked him for a little bit more sitting or a little bit more bend, he would drop from a 15 meter circle down to a tiny pirouette. When he was corrected for this, he became a bit frustrated that I would not allow him to show off his fancy moves, so this ride was really dedicated to expecting exactly what I wanted from him, when I wanted it… no more no less. It was the worst that he had acted since I started with him, but the best break through we had made together. By the end of the lesson, we were able to ride competition worthy pirouettes at a specific point with a specific number of strides and alternating between leaving in counter canter and riding a flying change. It was such a fabulous feeling! (see Training Notes)
After my ride, I was asked to do an interview for the Bartels website about my experience. I am the first American to take part in the training at the Academy Bartels. They asked about my life in Japan and my thoughts and opinions on the stables, riding and my own lessons. It was a great time! I am posting a link to the interview here. It is in Dutch, but I will be posting an English translation as soon as possible. After the interview, Imke and I posed for a photo near one of the beautiful pieces of art. I was able to chat a bit about our goals for the last ride. It was really special to have a moment to chat with someone I have admired for so long about what we are going to work on tomorrow. I will remember those moments forever.
That evening, a group of us went to dinner at a cozy little restaurant called Taverne Paulus. I had been there a few evenings back with several lovely ladies from the barn and really enjoyed the food, so I was excited to return. It was fun discussing the differences between the US, Holland and Japan… the way we eat, our customs and of course, the horses. It was such a fun evening and all of the ladies in training were so fun and a pleasure to get to know.
The next morning was my last lesson with Imke. I had such a great ride today and tomorrow was going to be the fifth consecutive ride for W. I was worried that he would be a bit stiff from several really good rides in a row, so first thing in the morning, I gave him a hot bath and took him out for a good long hand walk all over the farm. I let him stop for a few bites of grass so I could watch Tineke ride my favourite little chestnut mare one more time and then we went back to the stable to tack up. W absolutely loved having his body curried. Most horses have their “spot” that they enjoy being scratched, but W seemed to love it all. He lifted his lip and pushed his back into me while I curried his back and hips and if I was anywhere near his front half, he made a big attempt to return the favor. Our ride was scheduled for 9:30am, so I headed over to the arena around ten after to give him a nice long walk. I was really hoping he would feel good on our last ride together… and he did!
As soon as I asked for the trot, I could feel that he had lots of positive energy. We warmed-up in a nice round stretch and then we headed over to Imke. She said that all of my hard work has really paid off, because this is the absolute best he has looked. I can’t describe how wonderful it felt to hear her say this. After those first few tough rides, I was so determined to show great improvement in W and although the last couple of rides had been quite good, today everything came together and the biggest change was in W himself. He felt happy, supple and ready to work. Before my ride, I set my phone in the viewing area, but not one person came through the arena during my ride. This was the only time this had ever happened during my stay and if I could have picked one ride to be captured, it definitely would have been this one. Oh well… the lesson was fun! We did just a few pirouettes brushing up on yesterdays lesson and then moved on to some series of changes on very clean, straight lines. First, we started with changes in no particular order, then moved on to fours, threes and twos. We talked about how he may have the ability to do ones, but good quality changes were difficult for him and we decided to quit on a high note. Moments like this require restraint, but although pressing for more could have been fun, it wasn’t the right thing for W, so we finished there.
I am pretty sure that I stopped every person that we passed on our way back to his stall to tell them just how good he did today. This boasting earned W a few extra pats and even a sugar cube. It was funny how much I really disliked working with him for the first few days and now, I felt kind of sad untacking him for the last time. I cleaned all of his things and then spent the rest of the afternoon watching Imke coach a group of her clients the were leaving for a competition the next day. It was a great experience watching her teach riders preparing for a competition. Although Imke wants clean lines and great use of the arena all of the time, training is a bit different right before a show. I had a pen and paper with me and took so many notes during this time. These lessons were all in English, so I was able to understand every wonderful word (see Training Notes). It turned out to be a beautifully sunny afternoon! Sitting out in the sun in a comfy chair, drinking a cinnamon tea with a handsome King Poodle’s head on my lap watching great riders on their stunning horses was the perfect way to end my stay… or so I thought.
Academy Bartels scheduling manager extraordinaire Annet Broeckx asked if I had any plans for dinner and when I quickly recalled the two slices of Swiss cheese, seven day old grapes and Pringles can in my apartment and gave a hearty no and she told me that she was going to take me out on the town that evening. Annet is lovely, very warm and just a beautiful person, so I was very much looking forward to getting to know her a bit more. Later that evening, Annet picked me up and we were off! She showed me several beautiful places in the area… an old hunt field that used to hold cross country events, a HUGE outdoor statute of a man standing in front of a painting easel right in the middle of a freshly plowed field (it must have been twenty five feet tall!) and many beautiful old Colonial Farm style homes. As she was driving me all over the countryside, she said, “We are in Belgium now.” I had no idea we were so close! We joked that our trip was so extensive that it crossed country lines ;)
Once back in Holland, she took me to a viewing tower that overlooked the beautiful Dutch countryside of Lage Mierde and Lake De Flaes. This tower was way taller than I thought it would be and it looked like a piece of art. It was a giant spiralled staircase made of twisted metal and the biggest tree trunks I have seen in person. I am not the biggest fan of heights, but the excitement of what I was about to see overrode my fears and I was not disappointed when I reached the top. It was raining that evening and a big double rainbow was in the sky. The lake was beautiful and everything around it was lush and green. Such a beautiful place and to think, if Annet hadn’t taken me out this evening, I would never have known this place even existed. After we took some photos, we headed to Den Bockenreyder for dinner. Den Bockenreyder is a hidden gem deep in the woods that was ranked the number one restaurant in the Netherlands in 2016. It looks like several cabins grouped together surrounded by pastures. Annet said that during the Summer months, many people ride their horses through the trails to come eat here. She said at times there can be a hundred horses tied to the hitching posts in the pastures!
Annet said that there are several options for places to sit, so we tried the smallest building first and there was a cozy little table for two right in front of the fireplace just waiting for us! The menu was in Dutch, so Annet helped me decide on a bowl of Asparagus soup to start. It was so delicious and really hit the spot of a rainy night. While our main course was being prepared, the manager brought over a plate of Bitterballen (beef croquettes) and Frikandel (Dutch sausage) for us to sample. I am so glad a tried these tasty little appetizers! Next, I had a big plate of fried eggs served over curly bacon on soft, buttered wheat toast. It came with a small salad of pearl onions, pickles, cherry tomatoes and black olives. It was such a big plate, but too good to leave anything behind. After dinner, Annet and I split a caramel Stroopwafel sundae. I think Stroopwafel is my new favourite cookie. Rian and Anita were sweet enough to give me a bag of them to take home and they did not last very long! Not only is it a tasty little cookie, but it is really fun to say too ;)
After dinner, Annet took me to see her home on the way back to the barn. It is a beautiful place with red and white shutters that Annet painted herself and a lovely garden and yard. It was a delightful way to end a great stay in Holland. Annet, if you are reading this, you are such a pleasure and I can’t wait to go out on another romantic drive through the Dutch countryside with you ;)
The next morning, I woke up early to say farewell to my friend W and to talk a bit with Imke. It was hard to put into words how much I appreciated my time with her, but I did my best and left two feet taller after hearing her opinions on my riding. This experience was fun, exciting, challenging and rewarding and I cannot wait to head back for more. Not only are Imke, Tineke and Mischa beautiful, successful riders, but they are wonderful coaches as well. I look so forward to bringing everything I learned back to my own students and horses. Till then…
Click here to go to Training in Holland - Training Notes Part I
Over the next few days, I spent from early morning until dinner time in the stable. There is always something going on in the barn. Something I was really looking forward to was watching the way that they trained, maintained and cared for these top athletes. The horses moved a lot. Everywhere I looked, I saw a horse being hand walked, playing in the turn-out or going for an early morning walk in the walker. The Academy Bartels has a beautiful galloping track that the horses all really enjoyed! One morning, Imke said that a vet would be at the stable taking a progress report on the horses using the Hydro-Trainer. I was really excited that I would be able to watch these sessions!
I headed over to the Hydro-Trainer room a little before they got started. I wanted to get a look at the machine. I have seen Hydro-Trainers before, but this one was a bit more streamlined. It was essentially a treadmill in a bath tub. It was set up very inviting for horses. The walked up a ramp just like walking into a horse trailer. Once inside, there were adjustable chest and butt bars to accommodate a wide variety of horses. Something I really liked about the set up was that there was a front ramp, so the horses could walk straight out, instead of having to back down the rear ramp.
The first horse for the morning was the Bartels young stallion Don Presidente. I had seen him before in the stable, but up close he was such handsome boy! It was quite obvious that he knew the routine and was super comfortable in the Hydro-Trainer. I noticed that it was very quiet as he walked up the ramp and found his place. I had assumed that there would be some rattling, but there really wasn’t. Once he was in place and the chest and butt bars were secured, a groom sealed the front and back doors, while someone stayed up with his head. The vet had a file for each horse with a customized training program. She said that the program was different for every horse, because every horse was in the trainer for a different reason. The Hydro-Trainer can be used to treat injuries, bring a horse back to work after a period of rest, strengthen weaknesses and even help to regulate the way a horse uses his body. The vet was very careful to watch that horses used themselves in a very even way. Straightness in the body was her number one concern. Their necks must maintain a straight forward positioning, so that they swing evenly over the back and step with the same depth in both hind legs.
The treadmill was started first and the speed was brought up to approximately 60% of a good quality medium walk. The walk looked a tiny bit slow to me at first, but she said that it would be just right once the water was added. Next, the water is slowly introduced. It was really interesting to see how just a small amount of water required much more effort for the horse to maintain the tempo. I asked how she decides on how to deep to fill the water and she said that this is also determined by the reason the horse is being worked in the Hydro-Trainer. She filled the trainer to just below Don Presidente’s knees and told me that he had been built up to this depth over time. When they are using the trainer to treat or to bring back from a lower leg injury, she wants the water just slightly above the point of injury. When using the trainer to gain strength and improve flexibility over the back, she slowly builds the horse up to working in knee deep water. Thats as deep as she prefers to go in the Hydro-Trainer. I asked why and she said that much deeper and horses can’t bring their legs up out of the water any more, so they tend to drag them along below the waters surface. This is counter-productive in working towards improving flexibility over the back and a great reason to stick to knee deep water.
During his session, the vet altered Don Presidente’s tempo by slowing the treadmill to ask for higher, shorter steps and then increasing the tempo to require more drive from the hind leg. There is a bridge next to the Hydro-Trainer, so the vet and grooms can reach the horses shoulders, back and hips to help influence a slow hind leg or crooked shoulder. These sessions were not about just walking in water, they had a very specific purpose for each horse. It was really interesting to watch!
The next morning, I had a session scheduled with Dutch Physical Therapist Saskia Heijkants on the Flex Chair. The Flex Chair was originally developed to treat lower back injuries and to help people regain strength post surgery. Later, Ms Heijkants and other co-workers developed a training program around the chair to help diagnose crookedness in a riders seat and to help develop even use of the thighs, hips and pelvis. The seat is used in conjunction with a computer program that uses sensors to show how even a riders seat is being used. It senses discrepancies both up and down (like a lifted or dropped seat bone in the saddle), left and right (a hip that is locked in one direction or lacks same movement as the other hip) and forward and backward (a chair seat vs a “propped up” seat). I was intimidated before I even sat down! This program is perfect and as riders, we are always at risk of thinking that something is one way, but it really isn’t. Horses are masters of pushing our seat were they want it to be and riders are usually most comfortable in a position that fits somewhere within our horses preferences, so sitting on this chair is like a lie detector test for your seat!
At first, I was asked to just sit on the seat as I would in a saddle. I was given time to find in a position that felt comfortable and well balanced to me as a rider. Ms Heijkants stated that we don’t need to put much effort into the way we sit, because your muscle memory will put you were you typical sit when you ride. It was true, after only a few small adjustments, I found “home” and felt just like I normally do during a typical ride. My mind was in overdrive, as I could not see the computer screen yet and did not know if I truly as balanced as I thought I was. I am a pretty confident rider, but after a few seconds seated on this program, I started thinking, “Maybe my left seat bone is a little too far forward…”, “Am I twisting my hips?”, “Are my breeches pulling or is my right thigh heavier against the seat than the left?”….all the while, I was trying to listen closely to what she was saying and as soon as I heard her say that it was very important to allow your body to relax into its typical position in order for the program to accurately read your balance, it snapped me back into reality. I took a deep breathe and she asked if I was ready to see my sensor picture. There are several different programs on the computer, but the first one looked like a bullseye. There was a small yellow ball that moved around the bullseye following the weight of your seat. If a rider sits heavier on their right seat bone, the ball would be somewhere over on the left of the bullseye or if you sat too far forward, the ball would be pushed down towards the lower portion of the bullseye. Now this little ball can go absolutely anywhere on the screen, so it is capable of reading the smallest of weight shifts. I was absolutely thrilled to see that my ball was within the very smallest ring of the bullseye! Sweet relief! She was very complimentary of my balance and posture, but of course no one is perfect. As she took me through various exercises mimicking walk, trot, canter and half-pass, she found that my right hip was not as fluid as my left hip. I was able to maintain a balanced amount of weight and even positioning with both hips, but when I rode a half-pass to the left, my hip dropped smooth and gradually, but when I rode a half-pass to the right, my hip dropped with less finesse. So I left my session with a plan to focus on using both hips with lots of finesse…
The timing for this appointment was perfect, because that afternoon I had a lesson with Mischa Koot. Mischa trains at the Academy Bartels and I have always heard great things about her as both a rider and coach, so I was very excited when I found out that I would be able to schedule a lesson with her, especially following my session in the Flex Chair. Mischa focuses a lot on riders position and the effectiveness of your aids, so I felt really good about working on my Flex Chair results with her.
At the beginning on my lesson, I told her what I wanted to focus on in regards to my hips and she asked a bit about W and how our earlier rides had gone. I told her that he could be a bit difficult and that we had been focusing on getting him to carry himself and be a bit more rideable. In the back of my ride, I was concerned that I would not be able to fully focus on bettering myself as long as I was riding a difficult horse. I discussed my concerns with Mischa and she was very understanding. Our plan was to set a firm line of expectation for W to ensure that he was working good enough that I could direct some energy towards my own riding. It was a very familiar goal to me, one that I have set for my own students on many occasions. I had been doing this to a small degree during the first few rides, but it was time to up the expectations on W. This lesson was so much fun! (see Training Notes) Hard work, mentally and physically, but the rewards were great. Mischa is very motivating and has a way of keeping a rider focused on the task at hand, while shifting from one movement to the other. She was a real pleasure to learn from and I hope I get the opportunity to do so again!
Later that evening, all of the grooms, riders, stable management and the Bartel family met in the stables beautiful library room for a cozy dinner together. It was nice to meet everyone and talk horses while eating an absolutely delicious dinner cooked by Annet Broeckx. Not only is Annet a lovely person, but she is a very talented chef as well. It was a great evening…
Click here to go to Training in Holland - Part III
The morning before my flight, I made sure I had everything I would need in my luggage… for about the fifth or sixth time (you can never be too sure). It felt like getting ready for a horse show, but a horse show on the other side of the planet! I checked the forecast for the area and it looked like temps were going to be hovering around 14C (upper 50’sF), so I packed an extra sweater and Nate drove me to the airport. The flight to Honk Kong was short and uneventful. The Honk Kong International Airport is absolutely huge and beautiful. There are gates from #1 all the way into the 500’s spread over several floors and wings. Luckily, most of the gate screens alternated between English and Cantonese, so I was able to find my way around. There were many luxury shops and even some American food (McDonalds, Starbucks, Popeyes Chicken). The Honk Kong Dollar symbol is just like ours, so before I did a quick currency conversion, I was completely shocked at the prices on everything. My Starbucks tea was $38 and most of the dinner options were somewhere between $70 and $110. Now someone, somewhere had told me that Honk Kong is very expensive place to travel in, so it didn’t seem impossible, until I checked my bank statement and saw that my $38 tea actually only cost $4.88! Well, it turns out that the Honk Kong Dollar converts to roughly .13 US cents, so things turned out to be a bit cheaper than normal. *Note to self: There are other “$’s” out there…
The airport was super clean and had big flower boxes full of ferns and orchids planted all around. My lay over was over five hours long, but with everything to see, it went by pretty quickly. I learned something on the flight to Amsterdam: A flight full of Dutch people is a like a party in the sky! I am used to long flights typically being quiet and boring, but this one was quite fun. There was lots of chatter and a generally happy feeling on that flight and the only thing that I can contribute it to was all of the Dutch passengers on board. It was great! My flight arrived early the morning before my training began with the Bartels, so I used my “spare” day to go and visit a friend in Holland.
Once I got out of the city, everything was so beautiful. When asked by residents how I liked the area, my answer was typically met with some laughter. Ok, so I may have gushed on a bit about how beautiful I thought everything is, but it was all the truth! When you live somewhere for your whole life, it all looks normal to you, but from a visitors eye, I was in love. Everything is so green and lush everywhere you look. Driving down the expressway, there are huge fields full of brown and white cows or sheep to the left and the right. Some of these fields had windmills in them… real windmills. Not the big white ceiling fan looking ones we have in the States, but picturesque little brick building with large wooden sails spinning in the wind. They were so beautiful… I am lucky I was able to stay on the road!
Driving in Holland is like in the US, left side of the car, right side of the road. I did not have trouble switching back over, but I did forget to swap my “fast lanes”. Here in Japan, driving on the left side of the road means that the lane furthest to the right is the fast lane. So here I am obediently following the speed limit over in the left lane. Well, it was fine at first, because it was early and no one else was on the road, but as soon as traffic picked up, there was no shortage of helpful citizens willing to point out my mistake. When I first picked up my rental car, I was warned that there are speed cameras everywhere in Holland, so I made sure that I was not exceeding the posted limit. I think I was the only driver concerned with this threat. The speed limit on the expressway was 130 kilometres per hour, which is a little over 80 miles per hour and I might as well have been pushing my car down the road at 130kph. Everyone was headed somewhere fast! My car was very nosey and as soon as I went 4kph over the speed limit, a little voice asked, “Do you know that you are driving over the posted speed limit?” haha! So I just stayed in my slow lane and enjoyed the sights…
The roads off of the expressway are only slightly wider than a one way road in the States and when you approach another vehicle, you both slow down and pull off to the side far enough to pass each other and then continue on your way. Traffic was very light out in the country. Many of the roads were lined with tall trees on either side and most had a paved bike path. I believe I saw more bicycles than cars on the road! My first stop was Judy Arbouw’s stable in Strijen. We have been importing horses through Judy’s stable for almost fifteen years and I was very excited to spend the day with her. Her stable is set in a beautiful little town with brick roads and colonial style homes. She had two beautiful horses for me to ride, so I changed into riding clothes and headed out to the barn. It was much colder than what I was expecting, so I was glad to hear that she wanted to train in the indoor! Judy was a very successful Grand Prix competitor in her younger years and even competed Anky van Grunsven’s famous Bonfire as a young horse. She currently focuses on training and sales in Holland and I was very excited about having a lesson with her!
My first horse was a beautiful German gelding named Wow. He was leggy and sensitive and a real fun horse to train. As we warmed up, she told me that he could be a bit “sticky” under the saddle and needed to work on releasing his back and connecting the energy from his hind leg all the way up to the bridle. It was a fun, successful ride and a great way to start! (see Training Notes) Next, I rode a Dutch gelding named Gabbana. This horse had a much different way of going. He had a powerful build and a tendency to push into the bridle. He was a bit more challenging to balance, as he wanted to rush his rhythm and fall out of self-carriage if he was allowed to push into the bridle. We focused on slow power and shoulder flexibility to make self-carriage possible as we moved into more advanced exercises. (see Training Notes)
It was a fabulous morning and I am so glad that I was able to fit it into my trip. Judy has a great eye and a barn full of beautiful horses. While we were untacking, her stallion Four Legends came through the barn and he was a real doll! If I didn’t know who he was, I wouldn’t have even thought he was a stallion at all. Very kind and charming. I was told that he is lovely to train as well. If he passes along his temperament to his offspring, I would love to work with one of his foals.
After we chatted a bit, I got back onto the road and headed towards Hooge Mierde. It took me about an hour to get to the Bartels stable and it too is placed in a lovely little town. Driving through the gates at the Academy Bartels gave me quite an excited feeling. The facility is pristine with brick driveways and paths everywhere. The barns are white brick with green and dark wood trim. The stalls all have a windows, so there were lots of handsome heads poking out as I drove by. I was greeted by Ana (one of the barns head grooms) and a feisty little weiner dog named Fritz. Ana took me to my apartment and told me that I was welcome to hang out in the barn for the afternoon. My plan was to wash up a bit and then go watch some rides, but as soon as I walked into that warm apartment, I knew it wasn’t going to happen! I had been awake for thirty two hours, drove two hours and rode two horses… I slept from around 4pm that afternoon until 6am the next morning. It felt so good!
That morning, I made a cup of coffee, put on my breeches and head out to the barn. It was a very special feeling walking into the barn of a person that I have looked up to for as long as I can remember. The wash racks were full of fabulous horses being tacked up, grooms scurrying around and I could hear that the indoor arena was being disked. The barn manager Desire called me into the tack room and asked me about my trip. She was very nice and had everything under control. She asked me if I wanted to go meet my horse, so we headed over to the “hotel” stalls. The facilities here are incredible. There are three indoor arenas, two outdoors, a sand galloping track and several different “wings” to the barn. The mares have their own area, as do the stallions and there is a section of stalls for training horses. The next aisle down is the “hotel” barn. This is where all of the short term training and trailer-in horses stay. Each barn has several wash racks, a feed room and a tack room inside.
I fell in love with my horses head from fifty yards away. He looked like a giant Breyer horse with a little pony head and big, soft eyes. He was brought in from a barn down the road, as many of the sales horses had been very recently sold and they needed something for me to ride. No one knew anything about him! His name was W, he was delivered with his own bridle and thats about it. So we took him up to the main barn, so we could find a saddle that would fit him. While we were looking through the saddle options, Imke walked in and introduced herself. She is very warm and had one heck of a handshake! She asked if we had found something that fits him and if I would like to ride him a bit in the morning to get to know him before our afternoon training kicked off. So, we finished tacking him up and head out to where Imke was riding. Well, up until this point, he had been very civil, but somewhere between the wash rack and the outdoor, he woke up. He woke up so much in fact, that the groom asked if I still want to get on him! Did I want to? Not that much. Did I have to? Yes. He was going to be my horse during training and I had the opportunity to have a private early morning ride with Imke Schellekens-Bartels… we are doing this W.
So, I put him on a circle and we got to know each other. I made the mistake of assuming that he would be a light ride. He is only about 16h and has a dainty little face, but he is surprisingly strong. He was very “up” and seemed to be enjoying dragging me around the arena very much. Not only was this our first ride together, but this was also the first time I was able to watch Imke ride in person. I rode many lines headed in her general direction, so I could watch her ride a bit. She was riding a fabulous big black horse and seemed to be working on lightness in collected canter. One of the first things I noticed about her was the balance she had in the saddle. She was very centered over this horse and remained balanced whether the horse was struggling or excelling. It was beautiful to watch.
After about twenty minutes of trot and canter work, W was still quite strong, but we had an hour of riding ahead of us later that afternoon, so I took him back to the barn. He is very charming to work with. He checked my pockets for snacks, stood like a statue for his bath and absolutely loved having his head rubbed with a towel. We went for short hand walk and then I put him back into his stall for lunch. There was a “training week” going on at the Academy, so eight new horses were brought into the hotel barn later that morning. I was relieved to find out that all of the other riders spoke English and they were all very friendly! After we were all introduced, Imke gave us the ride time schedule for the afternoon and told everyone that she wanted us all to come to our lesson with a definite plan for the day. Every rider needs to have a specific goal for the ride. It is not the end of the world if you don’t get all the way to that goal, but a ride without a goal is a waste of effort. Imke had many wise words on this topic (and others) that I will list a little later on. Once our meeting was finished, I had four hours until my lesson, so I headed over to the indoor to see if anyone was riding…
As soon as I walked in, I was thrilled to see that Tineke was riding in the indoor, along with several others. I have always loved watching Tineke. She has been a successful in so many competitions including World and European Championships and the Barcelona and Atlanta Olympic Games. I remember watching how quiet she rode and wanting to look like that myself as a young rider and now I am sitting in the indoor, drinking a cup of coffee, watching her school one of her upcoming horses. It was surreal.
In the days leading up to this trip, I thought a lot about what it would be like to watch these riders that I have looked up to for my entire riding life in their own environment. When we see them, they are almost always at a competition. We all ride different at a competition. Some of us get nervous or tense, but these International riders have worked their whole lives at presenting their very best in front of a crowd and to the judges. This is what we base all of our feelings about them on. Its kind of crazy when you think about it. Our entire opinion can be formed on a five minute slice of time that we watch on our laptop, while comfortably sitting on our couch. That is such a tiny element of the big picture. I have had the opportunity to watch some very successful competitors behind the scenes and have been really impressed by some and very disappointed by others. You never know until you are actually there watching the action and even then, one ride on one horse doesn’t tell you everything. I have had many rides that I would be very disappointed if I heard someone based their entire opinions on my riding and training off of. I have also ridden some horses, that if I am being really honest with myself, would have looked just as good with a steady handed monkey, so when you think about things this way, it should take us a while to form our opinions on a riders system and abilities. Now I want to preface what I am about to say by saying that neither Tineke Bartels or Imke Schellekens-Bartels need my endorsement in any way. They are incredibly successful riders and have been so for many years, but I was given the privilege of watching them train many horses over many days, both in the saddle and as a coach, in their own stable and I could not watch enough.
That first time I watched Tineke, she was on a very compact chestnut mare. She was not doing anything fancy, just walk-halt and trot-walk transitions. She seemed to be focusing on straightness and making sure that the mare was waiting for her aids. She kept her in a very neat trot that I probably would have ignored if it were another rider, but there was something special that was going on. Although Tineke was not using big visible aids, the mare was resisting the small corrections that she was making. I could not stop watching how patient and focused Tineke was. It was so obvious that there was something she was working towards and nothing was going to derail this goal. As the ride progressed, she added some half-pass and shoulder-in, but still all ridden in a very average trot. Imke was also in the arena riding a big beautiful bay and Tineke schooled them a bit while she gave her mare a rest. Imke looked the same on this horse as she did earlier that morning… so balanced and connected to her horse. It was interesting to watch Tineke and Imke work together like this. I felt very privileged to be watching them working together like this. A few moments later, Tineke picked her little mare up and went back to work. I was totally shocked by what I saw. This modest little mare turned out to be one of the most incredible horses I have ever seen. It was cool to be able to see what Tineke had been working towards all come to fruition. This mare became so expressive and light and the range she had in her gaits was simply amazing. I was lucky enough to watch Tineke school this mare several more times during my stay and she is a horse that I will never forget.
All motivated from watching such beautiful riders, I tacked up W and headed to the arena. He was much more relaxed this time and I was hoping that as he felt more relaxed, that he would be an easier ride. Today, this wasn’t the case. The ride was quite difficult and pretty frustrating. He was very strong in the bridle. My bottom two fingers were numb towards the end of my ride and I was exhausted. Imke said that she hoped tomorrow would be a better ride and if he continued on this way, we would have to talk about other options.
Later that evening, I went back to my apartment, took some aspirin and thought about the ride. I did not like this horse. I was not looking forward to riding him again either. I was so disappointed that this was the horse that I would be riding during the precious days that I had to train with Imke. So, after a few moments of despair, I started to think about what I did not like about W. I did not like that he was difficult to sit on and I did not like how strong he was in the bridle. These two “complaints” were definitely connected. If he would be a little better in the contact, he would be a whole lot more comfortable to ride, so essentially, I had one complaint about him… a BIG complaint, but one none the less. It just so happened that his biggest flaw was also one of my pet peeves. I don’t like riding heavy horses and over the past few years, I have been blessed to ride and train a nice group of lighter horses. I know myself as a rider and W is not the type of horse that I would choose to ride, but did I need to be in love with him to learn from him? No, I did not. Did he need to be my favourite type of horse in order for me to enjoy the journey of training him? No he does not. And did he have to be fun in order for me to improve myself as a rider? Not at all!
I fell asleep with all of these thoughts rolling around in my head and I woke up the next morning with a plan…
Click here to go to Training in Holland - Part II