Inspiration can be funny. It has both eluded me and overwhelmed me. I have sat at my laptop for a very long time searching for the right words to say, yet I have also had my mind flooded with exciting ideas and thoughts as I am pumping gas. The mind is a beautiful thing.
Recently, I had the privilege of being inspired by one of my idols. The first time I saw her ride, I was only ten years old. My mother had rented some VHS tapes of riders schooling at Aachen and they included some of the best riders in the world. We watched Reiner Klimke, Coby van Baalen, Sven Rothenberger… drop a name and they were probably on these tapes, but one rider stood out to me and this was Tineke Bartels. She was warming up a little bay firecracker on a hazy summer morning and it was like nothing I had ever seen. Her mare was sensitive and athletic, but Tineke appeared to be as relaxed as someone swaying on a porch swing. Her seat never left the saddle, not in a super glued sort of way, but in a way that appeared to so soft that she was able to follow her horses body wherever it went. It was so beautiful. Over the years, I watched her ride different horses in the Olympic Games and World Cup Finals and it didn’t matter what horse she was riding, she always looked the same… soft, harmonious, connected.
Fast forward a few years… ok, twenty of them… and I find myself sitting next to Tineke while she coaches my coach, her daughter Imke Schellekens-Bartels, on one of the most fabulous horses I have ever seen in one of the most beautiful facilities I have ever been in. It was a very surreal moment.
You never know what your idols will be like in person. I have had the privilege of meeting many of the top riders in the world and sometimes the experience is great and sometimes it is a let down. I had only been in the barn for a few minutes before I was introduced to Tineke. She was warm and welcoming and I left our conversation feeling as if I had just caught up with an old friend. I had watched her ride several different horses and found her riding to be even better in person. There is an element of relationship between a horse and rider that the camera just cannot capture. Tineke exudes a certain confidence in the saddle. Maybe it is her many years of experience, maybe it is something that she has always had, but along side her softness and finesse is a certain stability in the saddle… she is the captain of her ship.
During my time spent training with Imke, I took notes… many, many notes. Every night, I sat in bed feverishly writing down everything that happened that day. I am a “list maker”, so I had three categories of notes: training with Imke, training with Mischa and Tineke’s tips.
If you are interested to learn more about my incredible experiences training with Imke and Mischa, please click here - Training in Holland
Now I would like to share with you some of things that I learned from my time spent watching and listening to Tineke. I hope you enjoy these little bits of wisdom as much I have…
- Relaxation must be achieved during your warm-up.
This idea is paramount during training. Tineke spoke of the importance of achieving relaxation during the warm-up phase often. If our horses do not achieve relaxation, they will not be in the best mental state to receive and respond to our aids. She also made it clear that this goal is for all horses, regardless of their age or level. It can be easy to forget the importance of relaxation when your goals include things like activity, engagement, impulsion and power, but without relaxation, these elements will become stiff and tense.
- A rider should always maintain a straight line in their mind that runs all the way through their horse and we should never forget this line during training.
This is a big one, because if this line is not maintained, we are crooked. What about bending, you ask? Well this line should be flexible, but it can never break. Think about your dressage whip. Although it is straight, it can easily be flexed and bent and when you stop bending it, it returns to straightness. This is a simple, yet very important mental picture that we should all be able to envision when riding our horses.
- When we begin introducing flexion into our training, never allow the “millimetres” of flexion to be your only focus. The big picture of overall straightness and balance must remain forefront during training.
Sometimes, when a rider goes into the arena with a goal of flexion or bending, tunnel vision sets in and although everything else is falling apart, they just keep asking for that bend. Not only is this frustrating for the horse, but it is counterproductive to good future training. Bending and flexion should be ridden from straightness. It should enhance our horses positioning and balance. Only ask for the flexion or bending that you and your horse can perform while maintaining the elements of straightness and balance. Maybe today this is only a tiny amount of flexion? There is nothing wrong with this! Develop and perfect that tiny amount and soon it will become more.
- Always be aware of your aids!
If you are not using your leg aids, where are they? If you want your horses topline to be steady, why are you moving your hands? If you want your horses back to relax, why are you gripping with your thighs? So often, a rider will ask me why their horse is drifting to one direction or rushing the rhythm. Many times, this rider has allowed both, or even worse, one of their legs to slip back behind the girth and if they are unaware of this, they will be confused by the change they feel in their horse. When we are not aware of where our aids are at all times, we may be inadvertently asking our horses for the very thing we then correct them for.
- Do not give a correction without first knowing what you are correcting, why you need to correct it and what you would like to outcome to be post correction.
So lets say your horse breaks out of the canter into the trot. There are several reasons that this may have happened and a different correction accompanies each of those reasons. Did my horse lose his balance? Was he too crooked to maintain the canter? Is there a lack of respect for my leg aids? If you are not sure why the issue happened, which correction will you give? Being able to answer these questions will help you to avoid confusion, frustration and additional issues in the future.
- An angry rider gives angry aids and horses do not look to an angry riders for confidence, security or safety.
Riding angry NEVER works. My wish is that every rider learns this sitting in a chair before they have to learn it sitting in the saddle. Once your horse makes the decision that you cannot be trusted, it is a tough decision to undo. Every single rider can avoid this situation by not riding angry.
- When you are riding a nervous horse, you must give her the feeling that you are taking her under your wing.
You and your horse are in a partnership. If you happen to be partnered with a nervous horse, whether it be a permanent issue or something that popped up today, you are the only place that confidence can come from. If your horse does not feel that she can gain confidence through you, she will begin to look elsewhere.
- Always keep the bit centered in the horses mouth.
Both Tineke and Imke say this often and I absolutely love this! As a trainer, I tell my students to maintain even weight in both reins, but I really like the mental image of the bit staying centered in their mouth.
- When schooling forward, we want to train from back to front, starting in the hind legs and carrying all the way up into the bridle. When schooling straightness, we ride from front to back, starting in the atlas and jaw and then working our way back through the neck into the shoulders and all the way into the hind legs.
This is something that is developed over time in layers. A green horse or a rider working at the lower levels is working towards developing the basic back to front connection. On the other end of the spectrum, a correctly trained advanced horse can be influenced moment by moment within the back to front and front to back connections. There are so many steps in between these two stages and understanding the end goal will help keep you focused in the right direction for the future.
- Use your eyes to know where you are riding next.
If you are not sure where you are heading, do not get frustrated when your horse offers up a suggestion.
- Different horses need to be trained in different ways to achieve the same results.
Be open minded when you are training. Just because something works for one horse, does not mean that it will work for all horses. Be prepared to make adjustments during training to give each horse what is best for that particular horse. I really appreciate this in the Bartels training. Every horse in their barn is gorgeous, but they come in many different shapes, personalities and temperaments. How can one system work for all of them? It can’t. Tineke truly desires to find the very best way to develop each horse into a confident, healthy, happy athlete and this really shows.
- When riding the haunches in or out, the forehand must continue to travel straight and forward.
If you were riding on a straight line when you asked for the haunches to come in or out, you should remain on that line, regardless of where the haunches are positioned. If you are riding on a circle, ensure that the forehand follows the track of the circle and that the circle remains the same size. This pertains to everything from travers and renvers to walk and canter pirouettes.
- If the horse is too short in front of the saddle, the shoulders can become blocked. If the horse is too close behind the saddle, they will not have enough room to use themselves well. Even within an engaged hind leg and compact elevated frame, a rider must allow room for the horse to use their body. Don’t close off your horses options by riding the neck or body too short.
- It is ok to ride for a certain feeling, as long as you have a plan for what you will do next.
Both Tineke and Imke talk about having a clear plan for every ride. During most of my training sessions, Imke asked me at least once, “Where are you heading?”. If I am on a diagonal, that diagonal must have a specific goal. Am I heading towards S or H? And I cannot decide half way there, I need to know before I even step onto that diagonal… BUT, during training, there are times when we need to ride for a certain feeling and this is perfectly fine, as long as you know what you will do once you get the feeling. If you have been working towards a certain feeling in the bridle or a certain level of activity, what are you going to do with it once you have it? If the goal was a big one, maybe stopping there or giving a walk break after it has been accomplished is the right plan. If the goal is a smaller one or one pertaining to the warm-up, know what part two will be. Why were you riding for that particular feeling? Sometimes asking yourself that question can help you know where to go next.
Happy riding friends...