Many riders are confused about the difference between a horse being in front of the leg versus a horse that is rushing. It can be difficult to differentiate between power that is nicely carrying you forward and power that running ahead of you. Although the difference can be small enough to often go unnoticed, the impact that it has on development gets much more noticeable the longer that it is allowed to go unchecked.
Gaining impulsion and activity is a common goal during dressage training, but learning to control and balance this power is an essential step in developing a relaxed, confident relationship with your dance partner.
The first step in developing tempo control is understand what tempo really is. Tempo and rhythm are not the same. The encyclopedia describes tempo as the “rate or speed of a motion or activity” or how many times a beat happens during a set amount of time. Now rhythm is described as a “regular repeated pattern of movement”, so speed is not measured in rhythm, only the regularity is considered. Rhythm is fairly easy to recognize during training, but in order to develop control of the tempo, you must control the energy that is being created.
Unfortunately, when we think about control during training, many times we see an imagine involving many half halts and heavy contact restricting the horses power, but this is not necessary. The clearest and most fair way to improve our control during training is by explaining exactly what we expect out of our horses consistently every time we ride. This may sound too easy, but horses are far more often confused than resistant and clarifying expectations always helps improve communication between horse and rider, so that is what todays exercise is focused on.
During the warm-up portion of your ride, put extra focus on where your horses energy is. Does your horses engine feel like it is dragging behind you, pulling ahead of you or idling right underneath your seat? The latter is ideal, but typically our horses start off with too much or too little energy, depending on their natural tendencies. Even though your horse may usually be one way though, be sure that you have a solid handle on how they are feeling today. Even the laziest horses have a rushy day and hot horses can get behind the leg just as easily as the less than motivated ones, so take the time to ask your horse how he/she is feeling today.
Starting in medium walk on a 20 meter circle, take a deep breathe and relax your seat and lower leg. Most horses will shift their energy when we stop micromanaging and just how they shift will tell you where their energy is. If your horse immediately slowed down when you relaxed your seat, their energy is behind you. If your horse got quick when you relaxed, their energy was running ahead of you. This is a very simple way to “read” our horses energy and adding this question to your warm-up can help clarify where your horses energy is at.
Ok back to that 20 meter circle! How did your horse answer? If your horse slowed down, ride an upward transition into working trot for about a quarter of a circle and then return to medium walk. Repeat this exercise until your horse better maintains the energy without the assistance of your leg. If your horse quickened when you relaxed your seat, ride a transition to halt and stand for a three count and then return to medium walk. Repeat this exercise until your horse maintains the energy even with the additional freedom of a relaxed seat. Be sure that you initiate the transition as soon as the shift in energy occurs, whether it is a shift up or down. This is where clarity is important. If you “correct” your horses shift in energy by placing the transition at varying tempos, they will not have a firm grasp on what tempo you actually want and what tempo is too little or too much. Be consistent and praise all attempts in the right direction. It is amazing how much verbal appreciation can help let our horses know that they are on the right track, so don’t forget to use your happy voice!
Repeat this exercise in working or collected trot, depending on your horses level of development. You can ride this exercise throughout the arena, but I suggest at least starting on a 20 meter circle to help narrow your own focus. In the posting trot, find your preferred tempo. This tempo does not depend on the horses gait size, so whether your horses trot is humble or over the top, a good tempo is solid and feels like something you would like to ride for a while. Now you don’t have to be capable of keeping this tempo forever (because if you could, you wouldn’t need this exercise!), but you DO need to find it. If you don’t know what your goal is, you cannot expect your horse to know it either. So once you have found that goal tempo, relax your middle back and forearms and watch how the tempo changes. If the tempo increases, ride a transition into medium walk. This transition should be ridden carefully with a goal of a good quality medium walk as soon as the trot just begins to become quicker. It is important that the transition is not sloppy or abrupt. Although it is a correction for the increase in tempo, it needs to be well timed and something that will help to reset your horses tempo. Walk several steps and return to working trot repeating the exercise until you feel an improvement in the tempo maintenance.
Now if your horses tempo slows when you relax, prepare for a transition into working canter and ride a half 20 meter circle in canter and then return to working trot and repeat until your horse maintains the tempo better without the assistance of your leg.
Repeat the exercise is working or collected canter as well. Riding a transition into working trot for a tempo that is too quick and riding several strides on lengthening for a tempo that drops below ideal. When riding this exercise in the canter, be sure to maintain your canter positioning when you relax your seat. You should have your inner seat bone relaxed down when riding the canter, so if you lose this position as you relax, this will confuse your horse and may cause a loss of the canter. Focus on relaxing any tension in your thighs, tightness in your calf or lower leg and resistance in your back. These are all muscle engagements that should not be necessary in your goal tempo. A sinking down inner seat bone, outside leg drawn behind the girth and open chest are all elements that should be maintained during the canter, so don’t “lose” them while riding the exercise.
Be sure to give your horse breaks throughout the exercise. This is not an exercise that will come quickly, think of this as something that will be added regularly to your riding plans. The more clear you are about the tempo you want and the quicker you correct your horse for shifting above or below that tempo, the better that tempo will develop and become capable of being maintained. Help your horse out and let them know what you want so they can give it to you! You may be surprised at how much your horse listens when you tell them exactly what you want.
This week, the breeding world lost a truly great stallion. Jazz has influenced breeding for decades now and sired a long list of successful offspring. He had a bit of a reputation for being difficult, but what genius doesn’t? He was spooky, but the way his feet touched the ground made me forget to breathe. He was very sensitive, but the expression in his eyes was that of horse that loved what he was doing. He was a true pleasure to watch and most can only dream of what he was like to be partnered with, but a select few knew him personally.
Tineke Bartels was able to unearth Jazz’s true greatness. She loved him and he loved her and this was so evident watching them together. I remember watching a video of the warm-up arena at the World Equestrian Games in Jerez. This video is permanently tattooed in my mind. Jazz appeared to simply hang from Tineke’s seat. They seemed to be melted into one another, relaxed, yet activated... soft, but strong... loose, but somehow also gathered. I could go on and on, but the point is that it I knew what Jazz was “known for”, but none of that was evident. He didn’t look spooky or over sensitive or tense, he looked like a dream and this was because his rider was fully focused on maximizing his strengths in order to minimize his weaknesses. This is what a great rider does and the wonderful thing about this is that it every rider can learn to do this and every horse will benefit from it.
One warm morning in September, I found myself sitting at the outdoor next to Tineke while she waited for her first lesson of the morning. We were talking about one of the young horses at the farm, when Jazz came up. It was surreal sitting there talking to her about him. You could tell that she enjoyed recalling her time with him. She talked about him as a young horse and as a mature horse, about his collection and his extension, his training and his competition. Something that never came up was his weakness. In regards to his sensitivity, she spoke of how responsive he was. In regards to his spookiness, she described him as curious and alert. No one else on earth was more aware of his weaknesses, but his strengths were what she was focused on and in turn, this became his focus as well.
I am not inferring that simply ignoring your horses weakness will make him magically supple or uphill or brave, but when your horses weaknesses become your main focus, their strengths are left on the back burner.
Robin Sharma says that “What you focus on grows, what you think about expands.” and this is true in life and in the arena.
When a lesson is focus on straightness, the rider who excitedly squeals when asked if they felt that moment of straightness finds it far more often than the rider who announces how quickly they lost it. Constantly searching for things that may make your spooky horse spook will only confirm to him that confidence cannot be achieved here. Attempting to out pull your horse will never result in lightness. These responses are all based around your horses weakness. Most riders are aware of when things are going wrong, but when these things take over your focus, it is very easy to be stuck riding in damage control mode, instead of riding towards the great moments.
The next time you find yourself in a “bad ride”, ask yourself a few questions...
- Am I riding my best right now?
- Can I do anything more to help my horse feel better?
- Are my reactions confirming the negative aspects of this ride or minimizing them?
These answers are about YOU, so leave your horse out of it.
Good riding does not require a certain horse. Everyone can ride great on every horse.
When riding with and listening in on Tineke’s training sessions, I rarely heard her mention what the horse is doing wrong. In contrast, she is always reminding the rider of what they can be doing more or less of to help the horse work in the best possible way. She doesn’t only teach this way, but she rides this way as well and this was evident in the confidence and focus that Jazz and many other horses displayed.
I hope this motivates you to search for the positive elements of each ride and place those front and center. Focus on these elements and look to yourself to determine what you need to do to further develop these elements. This mindset will help you to become aware of what you did to create that positive moment and then you can praise and repeat!
I took so many notes during this trip. Every day was a race to write something down fast enough that I didn't miss the next thing that came out of Imke and Tineke's instructions. As soon as I was finished riding, I would sit in the library and write down everything that I could remember. Some of these notes will eventually become training articles, but I picked out some of the big ones to share with you today. I hope you enjoy these pearls of wisdom...
The outside rein is everything…
Learn to “play” with your horse during the tough rides…
Don’t over do the half halts…
Some mistakes don’t matter…
Smaller bits to focus on….
Happy riding everyone! Enjoy the journey and appreciate the small stuff...
My time here at the Academy Bartels is coming to a close. It has been an awesome trip full of wonderful experiences and training opportunities. I have really enjoyed my time with Floratio, but he has worked very hard lately, so he is receiving a well deserved weekend in the pasture. He was quite a partner to learn with. He is talented and powerful, but his above average intelligence made him a bit of a puzzle to be solved. He could read my mind very easily and knew when I was riding 100% and when I was riding 95%. It was really interesting figuring out how to work with his intelligence to get more out of him. Every rider has their perfect match of a horse. Some riders have not found this yet, but I most definitely have. I pair up well with sensitive, cautious horses and this was not Floratio. He is bold and strong. I could not make him do anything, I had to be smarter than him, I had to use good timing and focus on exactly when and where I would be most successful. This was a fun riddle to work out.
Floratio gave me a very special feeling, which was a testament to the training he has received in this program. I will never forget the big moments I had with him or the sultry looks he was known for giving in the barn. I will never forget you Floratio…
My dance partner today is the elegant Eduard. If Floratio was Rock Hudson, Eduard would be Cary Grant. He has a soft, soothing sweetness to him. He stood perfectly still while bring tacked up and began our ride fully focused. He gave me the feeling that he was just as invested in this session as I was and that is a fun feeling to have. Todays lesson was with Columbian dressage rider Rodrigo Laserna. Rodrigo has been working at the Bartels stable for several years now and his speciality is piaffe and passage. He is a master at inhand work and has a really sharp eye. I met him during my first time at the Academy Bartels and was excited to ride with him this morning.
Our focus with Eduard was straightness. True… absolute… straightness. Eduard is a very supple and flexible horse, so if you are not careful, pieces will fall out of alignment. He is also very adjustable, almost too adjustable. He can collect so much and his naturally obedient temperament made him very responsive to the leg and although each one of these attributes are positives one, harnessing all of these in one package took some organization.
Rodrigo’s coaching was very systematic. I warmed up by developing consistent control of the rhythm in both trot and canter. I did this by focusing on specific tempos throughout the arena. It can be easy to place the importance of adjustability above consistency, but although one may be more important during certain moments of training, they are equally as important overall. It was quite easy to gain adjustability with Eduard, but when I shifted my focus towards developing consistency, I found something to work on.
The thing about consistency is that it impacts several different aspects of our horses way of going. It works longitudinally (back to front and front to back), laterally (side to side, both inline and diagonally) and in terms of energy. Eduard is quite consistent in regards to energy. He is not afraid to put in a full days work, so maintaining a consistent level of energy was not difficult, as long as I was asking consistently, he was working consistently. The majority of our goals were retaining certain body positions to help improve his overall straightness and balance. It was really satisfying to feel his already Lamborghini like feeling develop into something even better.
Once we established this, we began testing the control by riding long lines on inside tracks and adding some lateral movements and flying changes. It was a really fun, gratifying ride that ended with a hack around the beautiful galloping track.
Eduard has a lovely soul and it was an honor to work with such an honest and giving animal.
This week was a Training Week at the Academy Bartels, so riders from all over Europe bring their horses to train with Imke. I had the pleasure of spending time getting to know so many wonderful people that I would probably never have had the opportunity to meet. There were two ladies from France, a Dutch couple who brought their very special Icelandic Horses and two friends that bought their horses from nearby Eindhoven. This was a great group of horse people! We spent a lot of fun evenings dining in nearby towns until late hours and they all taught me Dutch words, which I surprised Imke with during a few lessons. They were a wonderful part of my visit and I just wanted to thank Els, Hans, Pien, Sandra, Dasha, Mohammed, Anette and Giulia for the good times we spent together.
Now that I am back home, it is such a great feeling to look back on all of the great moments, lessons and experiences that I had on this trip. I left with so much motivation and am really excited for the opportunity to pass this along in the future. I would also like to thank Imke Schellekens-Bartels, Tineke and Joep Bartels, Rodrigo Laserna and Annet Broeckx for all of that they have given to me. To say that I appreciate what you have done for me just doesn’t seem like enough...
Till next time...
Today, we are back to our normal schedule. I am really looking forward to riding with Imke this afternoon. On the mornings schedule, all of the riders have a session with the Bartels physical trainer, Bouke van Spreeuwel. Fitness is a very important element of being a successful rider. If we are not fit enough to ride our horses well, then what we are asking for can become unfair. We need the strength to keep our own balance and to keep up with the movements, reactions and developments we are asking of our horses. If you are having trouble riding your horses current trot, asking for a better one is unfair. If your reins are an important part of your own balance, then asking your horse to become lighter in the bridle is unfair. If your leg migrates around a bit during your ride, asking your horse to take your leg aids seriously is unfair. We should have goals of improving our own bodies, just as we have goals of developing our horses. This is not something that happens overnight. We all have to start somewhere and this mornings focus was on balance.
We warmed up by stretching out, slowly gaining flexibility in our hips, shoulders, back and chest. Next we moved into some yoga poses that help to challenge our balance and compare our bodies left to right. The table pose or Dandayamana Bharmanasana (I had to check the spelling on that one!) was especially revealing. I love yoga and have been in this pose more times than I can count, sometimes successfully and other times not, but there is something about doing it in the mindset of how my lack of balance would be effecting my horse during training that really clarified its importance. We started on all fours then slowly slid one leg back at a time, being sure to not drop or twist in our hips. Once this was flowing nicely, we began to lift the opposite arm to varying levels, beginning at just above the ground and gradually building to eye level. Bouke watched that we all kept our core engaged and our backs long and flat. It is amazing how we all knew a way to twist just enough to get that arm up, but when we were corrected, even the slightest amount made the balance much more of a challenge. The final step of this pose was slowly alternating between lifting the left arm and right leg, then right arm and left leg, being mindful to not lose your core steadiness. We all joked that we were already sweating and had not even begun the actual exercises yet!
Bouke brought out a few large balance balls from the closet for our exercises. We did a circuit of challenges on the balls until we got to the big one. This exercise was one of those that caused some of us to laugh hysterically at how quickly and easily we failed. I was one of those people. We were to sit on a large balance ball, while holding rubber stretching bands that were wrapped around a beam in the gym as reins. Up until this point, things were looking good. Then, we were to bring our feet up onto a thin piece of rigid board that was balancing on top of a foam roller the size of a soup can. As soon as my feet left the security of the gym floor, I started to resemble a baby giraffe attempting to stand for the very first time. It was an eye opening experience to put it mildly. We were told to shift our “reins” from side to side at first to help us gain our initial balance, but as soon as we were stable, we were to begin becoming independent of the rein pressure. We did small tests of looking over our left or right shoulders, asking for bend with our “reins” and closing our eyes. Every single addition challenged us and this was something that I definitely kept in my feeling throughout the following rides. It was a fun challenge that really proved how something very small can impact us in a big way. This should also be kept in mind in regards to our horses. When they lose their balance, we need to have a little more empathy for them in the way that we give our corrections. Struggling with balance is no fun for us or for them.
I changed into my riding clothes and headed towards the barn to get Floratio ready for our next ride. Every time I have Floratio in the cross ties, I get the feeling that I am being seduced. Seduced into what is not clear, but he sure is a charmer. He has a very affectionate and mushy personality and absolutely loved being groomed. It was fun spending this time with him each day. The grooming area of the barn is where all the action is. You get to see one beautiful horse after another being groomed, tacked up, bathed, massaged… its all here, so preparing the very handsome Floratio for my rides in this area was a fun, motivating experience.
Our ride today really focused on developing a quick reaction to my leg aids, like we had done on previous days, but today we expected this same quickness now given within more structure. Whether it was a specific neck position or on a specific line, I was to achieve a quick response there. Not close to that line or in a similar neck position, but on that exact line and in the exact neck position. It required quite a bit of focus mentally and balance physically. It really worked out that we had worked so hard on improving balance earlier this morning. When you want to ride a straight line, you need to possess the ability to maintain your own straightness, regardless of what your horse is struggling with. This is difficult enough when riding center lines or long quarterlines, but riding varying rhythms and balances on these lines takes a bit of magic. Horses lose their balance, even the strong ones, and when they do, they tend to lose it to left or right. This isn’t always super obvious if you are riding on a circle or against the wall, but when you are riding on a straight line on an inside track, this is much easier to diagnose. When working on these lines, if you are not capable of maintaining your own balance, as soon as your horse loses his, you are going to follow and this only aggravates the issue. “Sit down and keep riding” was spoken over and over the sound system all day today and it served as a wonderful reminder to keep working towards the goal of straightness and control, even if my horse was not quite there yet, I would only hinder the process by getting tense or overthinking the stage of that process that he was working though at the moment. We had great responses and some not so beautiful ones, but none of them caused Imke to say, “Tighten your seat and raise your hands.” because this is never the answer! I feel that this is something that unfortunately many riders must learn with experience. You have probably been told this by your instructor, but until you believe it from experience, you don’t give it the importance it deserves. Learn from my experience… sit down and keep riding are words to live by…
Tomorrow, I am riding Eduard and I am excited for the opportunity to practice all that I have been learning on a different horse.
Click here for Training in Holland 3.0 - Part VI
Today, I rode with Tineke. It was a little bit surreal. I have talked with her many times before, watched her ride, watched her coach, but I have never been personally coached by her until today. It feels like yesterday that my mom and I were sitting on the floor of our living room watching a VHS of Tineke riding in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Later, Tineke and her spicy mare Olympic Barbria were one of my favorite partnerships and it was very inspiring watching them earn a silver medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. More recently, Tineke expertly presented the incredible Dutch stallion Jazz in many competitions, including the World Championships in Jerez. I had always loved watching her in competition, but my appreciation for the way that she trains, both horses and riders, truly blossomed when I was able to witness her work in person.
Imke warned me ahead of time that she is tough and I knew that from watching her teach others. She has an incredible eye and sees everything, almost before it even happens, so absolutely nothing is getting past her. Earlier in the day, I had a session on the flex chair with a physical therapist along with some other riders in the barn. The therapist gave everyone a sheet of paper with some of her thoughts on our straightness, flexibility and balance and we were to hand this in to Tineke.
I hopped on Floratio while Tineke read the results of my session. I was well balanced left to right and front to back, but I had a tendency to sit too tall. I was a bit confused by this, because aren’t we always supposed to sit up? Well, it turns out that anything can be done in excess and this was what she wanted me to relax a bit with. For many years , I have tried to elongate my appearance in the saddle. I am not the tallest person and I do my best to disguise my short comings (pun intended). So the therapist’s goal was for me to practice relaxing in my mid section, making this area as soft as possible… an area that I have been trying to firm up for years now. Although, it would be nice if I could just tell Nate, “No, no, my physical therapist told me I have to keep this area soft.” the next time we come to the ab portion of our workout, unfortunately, this is not what she was referring to. Although I was not bracing in my core, I was activating it unnecessarily. Our bodies need to follow our horses back,. This becomes increasingly more difficult, as the movements become more complex and the horses you are riding become more powerful. Floratio can be quite powerful, so I knew this was going to be a challenge.
Tineke called me over to discuss our goal for the day. I had been warming him up in a posting trot and she was already watching. She said that she noticed that I sit tall in the saddle, but as I was thinking, “Why, thank you!” she continued on to say… “Instead of in your legs.” Well that was a rollercoaster of emotion, but I knew exactly what she meant. I stretching up and not down. I know I said this before, but Floratio is very powerful and subconsciously I was trying to stay with him up top, instead of lengthening myself down around him giving him the responsibility of bringing me along. This will be better all around, he will have to work a bit harder and I can relax a bit more.
I was instructed to return to my warm-up, so I picked up a nice forward posting trot and headed down the long side posting with nice length in my legs. I hadn’t even reached the first corner, when over the speaker system I hear Tineke ask, “Fallon, will you stand in your stirrups for me?” I nodded yes and stood for about five or six steps of trot and then returned to posting. “Keep standing.” So, I stood up through the short side and then returned to posting, partially out of confusion about how long she wanted me to stand and partially due to my legs refusing to do much more. “Fallon, why are you cheating?” Oh boy… she wants me to stand until she says otherwise and for about the next ten minutes, this is what I did. My legs felt so long, I was worried that they were close to dragging the arena floor and when I was finally ask to sit the trot, I had no strength left in me to activate anything, so goal achieved.
The rest of our lesson was spent working on control within the canter half pass. She expected him to begin the half pass with a sense of seriousness, no considering the response, go now. She was happy with the actual half pass, but he was also a bit slow towards the finish. A full size arena looks pretty narrow, but maintaining the same quality of energy, expression and position from F to E made it feel like a much longer run. Once I reached the end of my half pass, we worked on making him wait. He had to both wait for me to ask for straightness and then also wait for me to tell him what I wanted next. We mixed it up a bit, by occasionally finishing the half pass before actually getting to the wall, sometimes with a flying change and then other times, we continued through the corner in counter canter. Whatever we did though, had to be clear and well balanced.
It was an awesome lesson! Tineke was tough, but in a great way! We did not drill the most difficult movements with him, we just picked a specific exercise and made sure that it was done correctly. I left the arena feeling very motivated and Floratio left the arena needing a good shower. The perfect way to end a session with one of the best in the world.
Today, the horses are enjoying a well deserved day off, so I was thinking about maybe driving to a few tack shops, seeing the countryside, testing my credit cards durability… but, as soon as I walked into the barn, one of the Bartels up and coming young horses was in the cross ties being braided. Hmmmm what have we here? Well, it turns out that the very handsome Handretti had qualified to compete at the Dutch National Championships in the ZZ Light under Lars op’t Hoog and tonight is the Kur! I do love a good tack shopping trip, but this was an experience that I wasn’t going to miss! The competition was being held in Ermelo at the KNHS Center, which was about a two hours drive north, so I recruited a few traveling pals to make it an official road trip.
I made some great friends during this trip, two of which are Mohamed, a dressage rider from the United Arab Emirates currently training at the Bartels with the goal of qualifying for the 2022 Asain Games and Dasha, a young rider from Russia, also training with the Bartels. It was great getting to know both of them while I was in the Netherlands and they also happened to make perfect road trip partners, so we all loaded up and headed towards Ermelo.
The grounds are quite large and there were competition arenas everywhere. I counted eleven dressage rings plus all of the warm-up arenas. There were beautiful horses everywhere I looked! This championship was for medium level, between Second Level and Fourth Level, and it was well organized keeping horses of similar levels together in certain areas. Lars and Handretti were competing in the ZZ Light, which is comparable to Fourth Level Test 1 in the US. We were lucky to have seats right in between the warm-up arena and the arena that the musical freestyles were being held.
There was a wide variety of music and choreography used, so each freestyle was unique and exciting to watch. My particular favorite was a big, elastic chestnut ridden to a dance remix of a current radio hit that just worked. He was big and powerful and the music complimented him perfectly. I liked the ride so much, that I lost a few fries during my applause and I didn’t even care. THAT is how good the ride was….
Lars music was really cool. Haunting and deep and it really brought you in. His ride had really great moment, but unfortunately a few small mistakes prevented them from winning this class. They scored over 71% placing fourth, which is so exciting for such a young horse. It will be interesting to see where he goes in the future.
Once the competition was finished, we headed towards the vendors. Is it even a real horse show if you aren’t tempted to buy something shiny? Well there was no risk of that happening on this day, because there were sniny things everywhere! It was overwhelming. There were so many tents and each tent was chock full of so many beautiful things. I recently lost my favorite chin pad, so that was my first target. I found a big squishy one for only 12€, plus a cool riding shirt, so I got out without doing too much damage to Nate’s retirement fund, which is a win in my book. I also got to meet some of Custom Saddlery’s European reps and check out their demo saddles. You think people are getting a little “loud” with their colors and bling here in the US, well some of the saddles here were way over the top! From the back of the cantle being completely encrusted with diamonds to crocodile print knee blocks and in so many different colors and textures. There were all so beautiful to look at and the craftsmanship was amazing, but nothing beats brown buffalo leather in my humble opinion.
Although, Lars class was finished, there were still other levels still in the midst of their competition. It was interesting to see the layout of vendors and competition arenas here compared to how they are typically set up in the US. This line of vendor tents was only about thirty feet behind the judges boxes of some of the arenas holding championship classes. Can you imagine riding down centerline, while someone is holding up a shiny red jacket to see how it fits directly behind C? I know a few horses and riders who would not be fully concentrated in these conditions, but instead of being in awe of the differences between the way that I am used to showing and what I watched today, I am definitely going to use it as motivation for making sure that all of my horses are well rounded enough to go down centerline with food truck parked near H and not come out needing medical attention. #goals
I cannot decide if I like exploring with Dutch locals or other nonnatives better. I love how much locals know about the food, different parts of the country and traditions, but there is a different feeling when traveling with other people who are also excited over every little dutch thing you find. For example, we were making our way over to look at the final results from the days rides and found a small pancake stand… We all got super excited! Pancakes are pancakes, right? Wrong! These pancakes are tiny little pancakes served with chocolate sauce across from the results booth at a horse show in the Netherlands. Completely different. What did they taste like, you ask? Pancakes, but I didn’t feel like I needed a nap or a shower after these pancakes, like I do at the iHop, I felt motivated to go ride tomorrow and how often can you say that about regular old pancakes?
After investigating the entire show grounds (including taking a stroll though the parking lots to look at pretty horse trailers), exploring every vendors tent and sampling the local snacks, we headed home. We had been on the road for about fifteen minutes, when we passed a tiny little ice cream truck that was parked along the side of the road. We had already passed it, but as soon as we all realized what it was, a U turn quickly followed and we gave that man our business! This is when I knew that I had chosen great traveling buddies. This guy was a hoot! None of us speak Dutch, so as soon as we walked up, I asked if he spoke English and he said in a perfect American accent, “Do you want modern english or…” then he switched over to a British accent, “…old English?” Haha! Not only was he very entertaining, but his homemade ice cream was perfect. I had two scoops of Stracciatella with double whipped cream on top and fought falling asleep the entire ride home. It was the perfect way to end a really great day.
I woke up early the next morning with a mission. As soon as my alarm went off, I turned on the coffee maker, opened the blinds and typed “Floratio” into Google. The words of the great Freddie Mercury filled my brain… “Under pressure”…
I knew I had heard the name before, but I am a big bloodlines nerd, so I was thinking that maybe I had recognized his name from a stallion show or maybe one of his offspring was at an auction I was shopping through. I also thought that maybe he was living in Imke’s stallion barn because the other barns were full or maybe they had brought him up into that barn because I was going to be riding him daily. What had NOT crossed my mind was that he could have been Imke’s own horse. Yes… Imke’s personal horse.
This time, as soon as I walked into the barn, I stopped the first person that would know more about him and asked, “Is Floratio Imke’s horse?” and it turns out that he IS Imke’s horse and is owned by the Bartels and the owners of Imke’s Beijing Olympic partner Sunrise. Imke competed Floratio small tour in the fall and he is now developing his piaffe and passage. He is one of those horses that really holds your attention, both on the ground and while being ridden. He will really be a knock out in the show ring one day...
At first, I was super blown away that she would allow me to ride him, then I felt quite honored about this whole pairing up, but then I started thinking about the way that I feel when someone is riding my horse. It’s never easy to watch someone ride a horse that you are training. Even if that rider is doing well, they are most likely doing things different than you would be. As that horses trainer, you begin compiling a list of things that you will want to correct during your next ride. Well, I was going to be the one riding him again tomorrow and the day after that… and the day after that… so I wanted to do my absolute best to keep Imke’s list as tiny as possible.
The best way to keep your trainers list small is to do everything that they tell you to do. Sounds easy enough, right? If you just rolled your eyes at the thought of doing everything your trainer tells you, allow me to clarify what I mean. I know that everyone is somewhere on the long journey of learning… every… single… rider is, because we are all learning, every day. When I say do “everything”, I mean pay attention to everything. During a typical lesson, you should hear several different categories of instruction. Some instruction is given as an order, “Keep your hands steady.” Some instruction is given as a notification, “Did you feel his back just come up?”. Some instruction is given as a warning, “If you use the whip like that again, you are going to know exactly how firm the footing is today.” and some instruction is given as advice, “If the trot is not super in the corner, the half-pass coming out of that corner won’t be either.” For some reason, the first three are easy to absorb, because we can all keep our hands down, if your trainer tells you what it feels like when his back is up, memorize that feeling and now you know, and you will remember the whip thing… one way or another. At times, the advice that is casually given during lessons does not enter our brains in the same way, but remember that your trainer would not waste his/her time offering that suggestion if it wasn’t something worth listening to.
When I am coaching, I will occasionally toss a soft suggestion to a rider when I feel that I am already asking a lot of them, but I notice a little something that needs to be mentioned. Maybe this suggestion is not super important now, but I would not have even mentioned it if it wasn’t important in some way. Imke does this a lot. During todays ride, we were working on steep, high quality half-passes in the canter. In the beginning, we really prepared the canter. Quick, honest response to the leg, good neck control and a solid balance. Once this is established, we started moving into the half-pass. Imke has many great suggestions for riding the half-pass, but she will occasionally quietly mention, “Ride your corners.” Now there are two ways that you can respond to that quiet little suggestion. Number one and the most popular is, “Yeah! Corners are important. I love good corners! Corners, corners, corners….” and you keep on riding your corners like you had been for the past thirty minutes. OR… you can really RIDE that next corner and try to see where you can squeeze out that little bit extra your trainer noticed that you needed. These little suggestions are just as important as the big ones, but in a different way. The big ones have to be done and preferably now.
An order - “You need more bend.” Translation: Bend more now.
A suggestion - “Corners are important.” Translation: Your corners probably aren’t absolutely horrible or she would have mentioned it, BUT they are not as good as they could be and if you don’t take advantage of really using the corners to improve what you are currently working on then you are wasting too many opportunities and all of those wasted opportunities will compile one day and start negatively impacting the way that your horse uses himself in other areas of the arena and that will negatively impact his balance, his straightness, the quality of his gaits and the expression of the movements… ok, so the point is that the small suggestions are worth listening to!
Here are some of the little drops of wisdom from Imke…
I can't wait for tomorrows ride....
Returning to the Netherlands felt different this time. I am familiar with the process now. I know my way around every corner of Amsterdam Schiphol Airport and am starting to feel very comfortable driving around this beautiful country. This was the first time that my landed in the afternoon though. I have arrived at 5AM and I have pulled into the barn around midnight in the past, but this time, I was on the A1 leaving Amsterdam around 2 o’clock. This was also the first time I have come during the summertime. Each other trip was done during the winter and as I sat bundled deep inside of my many warming layers, the barn girls would say, “You should come in the summer next time!”…. so, I did and it is a completely different place during this time of year! During the winter, there was some sort of precipitation every day. Rain, snow, freezing rain, a wet snow/ freezing rain combo… most days were perfect for kicking off a nice chest cold, but not this time. This time every field was full of bright white sheep and flowers. Flowers everywhere!! Wild flowers along the highways, window boxes full of flowers on the homes and the beautiful flowers continued all over the grounds of the Academy Bartels…
I wanted to grab some groceries for the week before I settled in for an early night and when I searched for local supermarkets on my GPS, up popped an Aldi!! I had no idea they had Aldi’s in the Netherlands, but have since been educated that Aldi actually started in Germany. It felt just like the one we shop at in Chesapeake, Virginia. The carts are coin released, but unlike in the US, these carts will accept a .50 cent piece or 1 Euro and 2 Euro coins. Its nice, because sometimes you don’t have a quarter laying around at the bottom of your purse! I popped my coin in and grabbed some essentials and by “essentials”, I mean bread. The bread here is incredible and it is everywhere. I made peace with the two or three extra pounds I would be returning to the US with ahead of time, so the bread decision was an easy one.
It felt wonderful returning to this incredible place. I know so many people here now, so it was a warm, cozy feeling entering the barn. I caught up with Imke for a while and then we went to meet my training partner. We entered the stallion barn and there he was, looking like he was ready for a photo shoot… or a sugar cube.
When I heard the name Floratio, it sounded quite familiar. I couldn’t recall where I knew this horse from, but I knew of him in some way. I also knew that I had been awake for longer than my brain preferred, so I headed towards my apartment and put a full effort in towards reseting my internal time zone.
I woke up early the next morning and headed straight for the main barn. You never know what you are going to see, learn or witness when walking in to this barn. The majority of what I soak up is training. From young horses to international grand prix horses preparing for competition just days away, it happens in this arena. I have watched so many valuable lessons and have learned priceless tips on everything from riding great corners to the best way to present your passage to extended walk transition at P in the grand prix. I have been there as skilled riders work through unique training issues and have watched specialists work at developing the perfect bit for a sensitive horse. I have been there as some exciting “firsts” are executed and as very established international horses worked towards that next step of execution. It is pretty clear why I head straight to the barn every morning, right?
Imke is coming back from a back injury, so she is not riding all of her horses yet. Luckily, she was riding one of my favorites this morning. Hey You is a very special 7 year old KWPN gelding that is a true pleasure to watch Imke school. She is in the process of starting his piaffe and there are glimpses of something very cool to come. This particular morning was quite busy. Tineke was sitting ringside coaching a few students, one of which was one of the Japanese riders on a promising new partner. I always love when the Japanese riders are being coached, because the lessons are in english. They are also very good riders with goals beyond simply qualifying for the Olympic games. They are all very serious about succeeding and it shows. They ride with purpose and goals and I think this is why they have chosen to train with the Bartels.
As the day progressed, I grew more and more excited for my first ride on Floratio. I brought my personal saddle with me this time and was really hoping that it was going to fit the horse that I would be riding. As I looked at Floratio’s big broad back, I started to think that hand carrying and guarding this beautiful new saddle with my very life may have been a big waste of time, but thankfully… and not too surprisingly, my Custom saddle slid right into place on him and all of a sudden, it was time.
Our first ride went well. I remember walking around the arena thinking in the back of my mind, “Who are you?” I knew that I heard the name Floratio before, but the barn was really bustling today and there were too many others things to do besides strike up a conversation on his back story, so I got to know him in the arena.
If you read my blogs about previous trips, you probably remember the paragraphs about “meeting” a mare. Starting with low expectations and demands, moving in cautiously, taking the time to slowly develop a partnership… stallions and geldings are much different though. If I had to put it into words, it would go something like this…
“Hello. My name is Fallon and I will be riding you for a while. This is my leg. This is my hand. Are we good?”
“We are good.”
And away we went…
It is human nature to feel that when you are doing something difficult, you should be working hard. Inactivity can’t produce results, right?
Each time I train with Imke Schellekens-Bartels, I come away with a fresh new realization, a breakthrough in training. This trip brought me a greater appreciation for what Imke calls the “zero position”. Those who ride with me have heard me ask, “Who is working harder right now? You or your horse?”. This has long been an important element to me during training, but the concept of the zero position is sort of like an onion, as it is understood in layers. Finding the zero position is simple, but keeping it can be quite complex. The main idea of sitting in a soft, allowing position while your horse does the work is easy to understand, but if I had a dime for every time I shuttered as Imke busted me for “helping” a horse with a little leg pressure or driving too much with my seat or activating my thighs when I shouldn’t have… I would be very well off.
As a perfectionist, this lesson is tough. Why would I allow a mistake to happen when a little leg pressure could cover it up? Well, the first and most important answer to this question is because my trainer told me to (hint hint), but next in line is because this is how your horse learns! Allow me to create a little word picture: I am working on activity in the collected trot with my horse. I have done my transitions, each one quicker off the leg than the last. The hind end is really working now. The rhythm is beautiful and the connection is clear. As I travel down the long side, I feel my horses hind leg begin to slow. It is just a tiny bit though! I have not lost the connection yet and the trot is still quite lovely. My mind knows that if I just close my leg a bit, I can repair this tiny loss of energy and no one will even know that it happened. Oh, but someone WILL know and that someone will expect me to help out again the next time he doesn’t feel like working so hard and this is where the issue begins.
I am a very visual learner. I learn so very much from my lessons, but I learn in a different way when I watch Imke ride. One of my very favorite things about these trips is the fact that when I am not riding, I am watching the best riders in the world develop their own horses and coaching clients that are working toward some very big goals. As I go back through the notes that I took, I would love to share with you a few thoughts I wrote down while watching Imke and Tineke school early one morning…
"Watching Imke & Tineke"
I cannot tell you how much I wish that I could record these training sessions. Watching Imke and Tineke ride seems to impart decades of knowledge, experience and timing to your sight. Of course, doing it must be learned, developed and perfected, but just sitting here watching and listening gives you so much. We have been really focusing on my “zero position” lately and it is just beautiful to watch both of these ladies live in it. Tineke is riding a young chestnut this morning and she is introducing the one tempis to him. It looks like he is fairly comfortable with the “one-one”, but adding the third in a row is challenging. Two things are evident as I watch this ride. The exercise is new to this horse and Tineke has unending patience. As the session goes on, he tries to offer several other answers, all of which are wrong, but none of them change Tinekes approach. She sits. She waits. At times, she temporarily changes the subject to regain the connection, but then returns to the goal at hand. To me, it did not look as though it was going to happen today, but experience tells her otherwise. He is succeeding at the “one-one”, but has not come through with the third change yet. Each time he makes a mistake, she returns to the “one-one” to build his confidence and then it happens… five beautiful ones in a row! Big, clean and straight. They did not come about by magic or by chance, but by clean, consistent riding. I am feeling very inspired!
Imke is working on straightness with the horse that she is riding this morning. I know from past visits, that this particular horse has struggled with some internal unevenness, but you would not know that from watching today. Today, he is straight. Today, his body is even and everything is moving together and beautifully aligned. True straightness is a process though and I am experienced enough to know that although any crookedness is no longer visible, Imke most definitely feels what still needs improving. The lesson to be learned from this ride is a huge one. Imke never leaves her straight, even position in the saddle in order to “fix” what I know she feels. Yes I do not see anything out of alignment, in fact, this incredible horse looks quite perfect this morning, but Imke is a genius and this is her own horse, so she is aware of everything that is going on… every… little… thing.
Imke’s horse was featured during a training ride that a handful of clients were treated to last week and I was lucky enough to sit in on this experience. It is always a pleasure to watch Imke train her own horses and to have Tineke put into words what she sees and what Imke is training towards was an incredible learning opportunity! It was obvious that Imke was both comfortable and confident in her own “zero position”, regardless of what was going on beneath her. There were many impressive things going on during this session, but what really stuck with me was the consistency in instruction. Tineke wanted Imke to ride in the same way that she told me to ride and the same way that I watched her ride her own horses. Imke teaches her students riding young horses the same principles as her clients working towards the Olympic Games. She doesn’t tell me to ride one way and then do something different herself. I was able to practice this principle during my own rides and then watch it being executed by her again and again throughout the day. The reason that she wants me to ride this way is the same reason that she rides this way... because it works...
Now if you were to ask me if inactivity could produce results, I would answer with a very inspired yes…