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