(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...