Category Archives: Theory

“Straight Makes Eight” – Part Two

So, this is a little late. Story of my life it seems like! Anyways, onto part two of the Linda Zang clinic! Because I am writing this late some things might not make a lot of sense. Let me know!

The half pass was a really big “ah-ha” moment, and I am pretty sure that I was not the only one who felt this way. A half pass is really travers on a diagonal line. When you think about that  The head, neck, and shoulder should be put on the diagonal line and then you should ride across the arena in the travers. The shoulder must always stay in front of the haunches. Linda explained that half pass is not a sideways movement but a forward one! Big name, upper level riders will come out of the corner with the front end lined up and then power the hind legs so the horse carries them across the arena – instead of the awkward pushing and driving many riders try. Even before you get to the letter the position of the head, neck, and shoulders should be on the line. Use the corners to really develop the flexion properly. Look up at the direction with your eyes, and this will help lift the leading shoulder and not create that behind the leg feeling. She really stressed that winning a test is all about getting a horse into the flexion correctly before the movement or out of the corner, not only in the half pass but in all the figures. I have kept this in mind a lot riding this past week and it has really helped Val’s expression. I also have to really think about keeping my right shoulder back farther in the left half pass so that he stays straight and the hind legs keep driving. My position is where I need to look for problems first, not assume that it is Val’s fault. It is always the riders fault – sometimes I really forget this!

For proper collection the horse should feel like you could ask for a pirouette at any time – this is truly “on the aids”.You want to ride a horse out in front of you so that the transitions occur uphill. There should be space between your body and your hands so that there is area to influence the horses way of going. A rider should open their inside hip and ab area to allow the horse to come forward into the space that exists with their hands in the proper place. According to Linda “straight makes eight” – this straightness needs to exist in all figures, lateral and otherwise. Straightness also refers to a horse being correct between the aids and balanced. The last rider of the day was a Young Rider so she worked on the Prix St. George which was really beneficial for me to see. Linda helped her work on the flying changes for a while too. When a horse pulls a late change it usually means they are dropping the forehand and shoulders. The rider needs to open their hip and allow them to come up and through the change. Think of it like the first stride in the canter that comes up. You have to present the canter. Her visual connection was to think of fencing. That moment of “en guard” is how you want the canter, and the changes, to feel. A change will get a 7 if it is correct without expression, 8 if there is correct ground cover and no sway, and a 9 or 10 if the corners and collection are good before and after. When riding diagonals you have to complete the movement before the marker otherwise it will be an automatic 6. A good example of this is the extended canter in the Prix St. George. The ‘back’ and the flying change need to happen before the corner marker. For the pirouette’s there needs to be one stride of collected/pirouette canter before and after the full or half pirouette for a rider to score anything more than a 6.

On a random note that I took from the clinic, but that I thought was too important and thought-provoking enough to include, when you are riding a circle you are really riding straight! When on a circle you want to use the outside hand down low and have the outside leg on to make the horse straight. When you are riding straight you are actually riding flexion and suppling at all times. It is rather an interesting and intriguing thought that the only time you are not constantly flexing and suppling is when you are on a circle allowing the horse to flow around the soft inside.

Linda also revealed how you can win your test, and it reminded me a lot of what Jimmy Wofford says about winning an event. Linda says to win a test you must have the horse correctly in the flexion before the movement (I said this once already but it was important enough to say again!). She also said that disciplined riding is the only way you will win. You have to be honest and really consequent in your riding. Accuracy and precision can never be given too much weight in your training. Be hard on yourself and don’t let yourself get away with ‘just okay’. You have to use every bit of space in the arena and not let a single moment pass you by. The short side should be where a rider shows off the quality of the gait – that is how a good rider turns 7’s into 8’s. Present the horse because that is really all the judge can critique when you are on the short side. Funnily enough, this was not the first time I had heard this advice! Jason and I had talked about this very thing last summer going into Kentucky and Gladstone.

And now for your random fun fact of the day, the first ever Kur was in Atlanta at the 1996 Olympics and there was a huge debate over whether adding music would inherently ruin the sport making it a spectacle graded on entertainment value and not correct training. Personally, I think the Kur is one of the most beautiful and interesting parts of the sport, and I know a lot of people agree! Linda talked about how she remembered the debate and how she believes it really helped to keep the sport vitalized and going strong today.

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Clothes make the man

In most cases I would argue that while clothes do not make the man, the can certainly help the overall impression. In the horse world however, tack does make the horse! Even the best horse will not do well with ill-fitting tack and it is somewhat of a hobby of mine to “window shop” not only for horse that will never be mine, but also equipment. I have recently become very interested in saddle fitting, a product of my current ‘chair’ coming to the end of its life. My saddle is in poor shape: the seat has ripped up on one side showcasing the foam cushion of the underneath, it is in desperate need of a reflocking, and some of the stitching is coming loose. I love my Prestige, but I have finally accepted that either I am going to need to have a major overhaul done on it, or a new saddle needs to take its place.

Stereotypically I would categorize dressage people as the ones who believe that something is always wrong with their tack, and a new gadget could be that miracle answer to why their horse “just won’t do the Grand Prix”. With my eventing background I like to think of myself not quite in that group – but I am really a DQ at heart, after all! However, with my limited means and my wonderfully supportive-but-not-so-extravagantly-wealthy family, I usually fall into the category of “would really love to have but cannot afford because board/training/showing is more important and both is not an option”. Don’t get me wrong – I have never wanted for anything in my life! I am just not the girl who gets a new saddle every few months because I decide that my current one is the wrong shade of black.

I have ridden in an array of saddles, but most recently have fallen in love with the Custom Saddlery line. I have never had a saddle customized for Val in the four years that I have owned him. I have run through three used saddles in that time, all of them never quite right but in the budget. Today at the barn one of our local saddle fitters happened to be out fitting another client and I asked her if she had time to look at mine when she was all finished. She took a look at it and let’s just say that ill-fitting doesn’t even describe how embarrassed I was! My horse is a saint! I had sat in most of the Custom line up in Gladstone with their representative up there which helped when I mentioned which model I was really interested in. Serendipitously, she happened to be holding onto an older (’04 model) Advantage that was just my size – and she even let me keep it to ride in!

I had a super ride in the new saddle today; I finally tacked him up in the double and really rode him to see just how the saddle really felt. I am in love! Super shoulder-in’s, nice schooling canter pirouettes, a little piaffe/passage, nice zig-zag half passes in both trot and canter, expressive and big changes, and even clean four tempis (Yes! We counted to four!). Now let’s just cross our fingers that the price works out, I can keep it and they can custom fit the tree and flock it for him. It would be a prayer answered and a dream come true.

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Dressage: an Exercise in Delayed Gratification

Thanks to Dressage Daily for highlighting this awesome video!

Food for thought: Look at how the sport of dressage has progressed even in the last thirty year! Look at the length of their boots, the saddles, the saddle pads. I think it is remarkable how much has changed, in my opinion, for the better. Also look at the quality of the horses, their physical attributes and gaits. There is none of the flash and pizzaz you see in todays National/International level Gran Prix horses. I think if anything this video highlights how much the quality of the everyday average horse has increased as well!

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Hills and Valleys

Or when giving up and getting off is not the worst idea you have ever had.

When riding horses, those ‘bad rides’ come with the territory. That being said, they are no easier to cope with knowing that they do happen. In a sport where everything is the riders fault there are times when there is nothing a rider has done or can do to fix a problem. Before the training pyramid can even come into play a horse must have obedience. When obedience is lost there can be no hope for a ride to go well, and usually the rider cannot make the recovery on his or her own. If a rider becomes emotional about the ride then problems can only escalate from there. There is no shame in getting off before things go from bad to worse – it is a skill I wish that I was more proficient at, in fact. There is also no shame in admitting ‘defeat’ when problems are beyond the scope of the capabilities of the rider. Late last summer Val and I went through a period where I could not make him do anything. I could beg, plead, cry, scream, and nothing worked. Val got sent to pony boot-camp for a week of training where I was removed from the process so we could each take a step back and better come together in the end. I think it is an important quality of a trainer and a responsible rider who are humble enough to accept that something needs to change. The best trainers don’t want to get on and do it for their students, but recognize when it is time for them to take the reins and aren’t afraid to hop in the saddle and work it out. A student needs time to figure things out on their own, but never need to feel abandoned and stranded, sinking into the ocean blue. There always needs to be someone who can throw that lifeline out when it things start to head south.

A friend this week had one of these traumatic rides on her pony which resulted in tears and not a lot of fun for her. I came up after a work out with Val down in the dressage arena and we swapped ponies so she could walk the boy and cool him out while I tried to figure out what the issue was. She was pretty quick to duck out of the contact but this wasn’t a surprise as most horses don’t understand what I want for the first couple of minutes. Then as I finally got her to relax and drop her head down and stop stiffening and bulging to the inside the little pony began trick #2 – backing out of the forward. Most horses aren’t as quick to respond to aids as the dressage scene likes them to be (Val isn’t even as quick as I would like him to be most of the time! It’s always a work in progress…). Usually backing off of the leg tends to yield some spectacular results. There are the horses who do A) Nothing, they might be the worst because they just shut down and there is not a lot you can do to motivate them – the can be very tricky, B) Hind-end Acrobatics, the buckers/kickers/swishers/hoppers who respond to your leg by throwing their back legs around in avoidance of putting them under the body (Hello Val, nice of you to join us!) and C) Front-end Acrobatics, the rear/crow hop/spin/paw which can be a little more intimidating for a rider to deal with the idea of possibly going up-and-over. Our star pony-mare is a Type-B which is not fun to ride on any size horse because you feel like you might go over their ears whenever you get the urge to really mean an aid. Upon taping her with the whip I was rewarded with a fantastic buck, pretty sure even the Russian judge would have given in a 9.5. My pet peeve is when people carry whips and don’t use them however, so even though the buck was not the desired reaction, at least it was something and I wasn’t afraid to get a little tough with her when she tried to crawl around the arena instead of trot. We ended in an okay place – not where I would have liked too but all horse people know you can’t always get what you want. Another girl from the barn, not the owner, rode the little red-head today with better results, less bucking although it was still present, and better connection even when she pushed her a bit.

So what is the point? Don’t get discouraged when something goes bad! You are the one with the brain, so you have to use it and be smart. Know that horseback riding is a cycle with up’s and down’s, just like all training, and that sometimes you need to abandon all those classical training principle’s and find obedience. Leg means go. Hand means woah. You respect my space and you respect what I am asking you to do. The rest of the fancy-smancy things will come back after you once again establish yourself as Alpha – horses are herd animals and sometimes even that low guy on the totem pole gets it in his head to put up a good fight. Consistency is the only thing that will win this war for you however, and with any program you can overcome a rough patch as long as you stick to it and ask the same questions which require the same answers everyday. Don’t be afraid to go back to the beginning, you will find that once you have a base firmly established anything can be built upon it.

As for the big red-headed boyfriend, he has been schooling in the snaffle for the last two weeks and will have seen the vet twice as of tomorrow (for nothing serious I assure you all!). He has finally settled into a steadier connection once again – a serious issue before the last show – and is showing some serious work ethic these days. The walk pirouettes, I hope, are improving by keeping the steady walk rhythm and an active hind leg and his transitions, within and between the gaits, are seriously improving by quick transitions with quicker aids and coordination on my part. Shoes tomorrow since he lost a front one on Wednesday and is long anyways and a LESSON!!!! on Friday! Show next weekend is going to get here too quickly, of that I am sure!

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What Goes Up Must Come Down

It’s been a week since my last post which seems like forever even though it’s not. Val has been a super star for me this past week, working really hard in both the double and the snaffle bridles. Change in gaits and transitions has been the focus of the last week’s training and I have been making progress which will hopefully reflect in our scores come spring. The half-passes are still our weakness, although the bend and the crossing over of the legs is improving.  I am definitely going to pick Jason’s brain about improving their quality in our next ride together.  Other than that however I have been overall really pleased with my horse. Well, until yesterday that is.

Now riding is not an easy sport, even if some bone-headed people think that “All you have to do is sit there…”. Well let me assure you that there is more to it than that. Come try it sometime; I’ll even put you on my horse! If you have ever been asked what the hardest part of riding is however I will guarantee that you will get different answers from different people. For jumpers perhaps it is that elusive ‘spot’; for barrel racers perhaps it is managing the turns vs. speed. Dressage people will come up with a multitude of different answers from specific movements to training concepts and beyond. However, the hardest thing about riding is training.

I can here you all rolling your eyes now asking yourself, “That’s your answer?” Well yes, actually, it is and I have a healthy respect for the idea of training. I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the NAJYRC Clinic last year. George Williams was a really awesome clinician who gave me some great intricate things to work on. But two of the big ideas that were brought to my attention were that A) training is a back and forth process and B) many people expect riding to come first and then training second. The first idea was brought home to me at the end of my ride the first day with Mr. Williams. I ride a young horse and always have – I am not one of the cliché young riders who sit on nice, made horse and learn from a school master. Everyday of my life is a training ride with Val. I was the only rider in the clinic on a young horse and this presents both greater challenges and greater successes.

(Now as a side note I would like to go on record saying that “green horse, green rider” is never something I recommend – everyday I wish that I was fortunate enough to have ‘ridden’ before I trained. Training a young horse as a young, inexperienced rider has been the most heartbreaking, toughest experience of my life. Somehow we survived and made it to the other side but young horses are not for the average rider. It takes an extraordinary person who has the patience of a saint and the guidance of angels around them to know when that patience is gone; it takes a person who is willing to sacrifice everything they want and feel heartbreak on a regular basis. It takes someone who knows when they are in way over their head and still wants to keep going for the good of the horse. Everything you are, everything you do, is in that horse. It is not something I, or anyone, should take lightly.)

Back to the clinic. We talked about Val’s overall work at the end of the ride on the first day and how we both agreed that he was a good guy who works really hard once you get him focused and you both ‘pick up the telephone’. I went on to describe that as a young horse he likes to work very hard and just when I think everything is perfect we have a horrible ride where we go back to basic walk/trot/canter. Mr. Williams assured me that this was completely normal and that it was good as both his rider and everyday trainer that I was willing to let this back-and-forth happen in the training. You take a leap forward to take three steps back – it’s the nature of training a horse. It’s both frustrating and rewarding at the same time and I think many people get discouraged when this happens. Training is about consistency and the ability to accept the rides when it’s all you can do not to scream or cry and the inability to do what you did yesterday.

Which leads me to my second revelation of both that clinic and training as a whole. During lunch we had theory sessions each day – probably my favorite part of the clinic. All of we Junior/Young Riders sat down with this wonderful teacher and could ask just about anything we wanted while he went over some wonderful theory of biomechanics and riding. One of the things brought up by the group is that you must learn how to ride first and train later. I was more than a little taken aback by this idea, especially because this rings to the fact that you have to be able to afford the schoolmaster to be able to learn how to ride. It is just not possible for the overall dressage community to proceed in this way – in fact to me the very definition of the french word dressage as training seems to make this idea ludicrous. Training is something that the rider does every time they get on their animal. In our community of imperfect riders on untrained horses this sometimes results in the blind leading the blind. We talked about the training scale at the clinic as well, and Mr. Williams was quick to ask, “Who can name the first element of the training scale?” and so forth. My jaw dropped, metaphorically speaking, as there were crickets and blank stares from the girls at the table. This should have been an easy question, one that I had known since the first time I had sat on my three-year-old. It’s a concept addressed in every good peice of training literature I have ever read or that I own.

The training scale is the most important tool any rider can have when getting on the back of a horse. We have both the responsibility to understand our goals and the progression of how to meet them. The training scale is a huge part of the young horse training programs in this country but sometimes I think it gets overlooked by the rest of the riding community. The training scale is not only a dressage tool – it is how to train any horse for any discipline. In Europe they don’t think about specializing a horse right off the bat – they introduce the horse to a multitude of activities following the same training program for all the english disciplines (albeit their training scale is slightly different then our USDF one). Only by the ‘classical’ principles of rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, straightness, and then collection can a rider truly say they have trained a horse. It is your biggest tool, so don’t hurt yourself by not knowing the roadmap of how to get what you want and how to use it.

Needless to say, Saturday was not a great ride for either me or Val. We had the energy needed for rhythm but not the regularity. Relaxation was in sporadic bursts where I would find him light in one moment and pulling me around the next. Our connection was there, but neither he nor I could ‘pick up the phone’ at the same time for very long. Impulsion was lacking for our energy was not of the productive proclivity at all. Straightness – a tier that includes bend in my mind – was inconsistent. And so you can imagine with holes all along the pyramid that the top most tier of collection never stood a chance. Sometimes we forget that unwritten objective at the base of the pyramid which is obedience, the root of all problems in my mind. Obedience was a problem and without that our ride never stood a chance. Still, I got off gave him a big pat and loved on him when we got into the barn. Not everyone is 100% all the time. And falling back down the pyramid isn’t a problem – training is circular after all, you get one thing perfect only to find another thing is broken.

So the moral of the story is don’t be discouraged when you come to ride your horse and you find a different one than the one you left. If you are consistent and you set yourself up for success using tools that every rider should know then just give the training time. Your horse will come around – I am sure of it! :] Someday maybe we will get good weather for more than three to five days, too!

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