Monday, August 16, 2010

On Laying Down The Foundation in Dressage

All of this basic work is meant to lay the foundation for the Grand Prix--you are in a sense--riding a Grand Prix horse which does not yet have the physical conditioning to do the GP exercises. The canter departs have to do with the flying changes and the pirouettes--if they are not done correctly now then the fc's and pirouettes will have to be introduced later as something brand new. However, if the canter departs are schooled correctly now, the fc's and p's are a piece of cake. From the beginning the horse should be in self-carriage. In the early stages this is a horizontal carriage but becomes more up hill as the horse strengthens. Never should the horse be allowed to (or taught to) balance on the reins--why create this kind of dependency?

The training must be a systematic program of conditioning with the idea of developing the horse to a higher level of ability--to help him become more flexible, strong, and expressive in his gaits. A great deal of care must go to ensure that the horse's aerobic conditioning has progressed along with his strength building and gymnastic exercises. Of course, along with these fundamentals of dressage, are the considerations of channeling the horse's mind to create a positive mind set to the work. So, all of these considerations have to be brought together in the training and will result in the making of a champion.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

On Starting Thoroughbreds When They Retire From Racing

I have worked with quite a few off the track T-breds--Gulliver and Henry came straight from the track to me as did others that I worked for other people--and I always spent about 3 months hacking them. When we started the ring work, the focus was on inviting them to stretch to the bit while establishing a slow, but steady tempo that would help them find their balance. They should not be expected to go "on the bit" for several months until they have found their balance. Once they come into balance, they will stretch their top lines on their own and will come quite naturally to the bit. Having a good sense of tempo is essential if the rider is going to be successful in getting the horse into balance and initial self-carriage. As Kimberly Clark pointed out to me, race horses learn to function using momentum. Dressage requires an entirely new sort of balance. The horses--if one is to be fair--must be given the chance to change their way of going over time. Forcing them to become something that their bodies have never experienced is totally unfair to them.

On the topic of cues and aids: I always think of a cue as something a horse has to be taught and an aid as something that is a natural response.  I don't think a horse should be asked to figure out what is being asked of him. I think it is very difficult for a horse to function this way and in the process of having to "figure things out" they become worried, and usually very tense. These are the horses that anticipate movements especially in a test. They worry enough about doing what they are supposed to do that they anticipate what they are supposed to do in the hopes that what they have figured out is ok. Anticipation is to be discouraged whenever it occurs. It is up to the rider to put the horse into the mental framework to be able to relax and simply allow his body to respond to the aids. Most of the aids should promote a natural response.

For instance if the rider has made the effort to cause the horse to step forward to the leg (the leg should never tell the horse to step sideways), then the piaffe will be a natural culmination of this "forward" inclination. If the rider has caused the horse to bring the left hind forward to the leg and to the left seatbone, the canter depart should be a natural culmination. Then when the same has been achieved to the right, a flying change is not something that is "taught" but a natural response to the aid to take the right lead. The horse then does the flying change as a canter depart in the other direction.

There are things that must be taught, but they should be thought of as conditioned reflexes: The voice aids when lunging should be taught in such a way as to condition a reflexive action. They should be presented in such a way as to cause the horse to respond without thinking. When the ground person says "walk" there can be no response from the horse other than to walk. He should not have to think about it. These voice aids are used in the early training of the horse under saddle. The horse has no clue about the driving aid when first broke. A kicking leg is confusing; often the horse will turn his head toward the rider's foot and will try to bite it if it is too annoying. However, if the horse has learned to walk with a voice command, the rider can begin to combine the voice command with the action of a driving leg to condition a reflex in the horse to go forward to the leg. The pushing seat to cause the horse to go forward is dependent upon the leg aid. The whip actually is a more natural aid in that the horse is very likely to step when he feels the whip.

Other aids, such as the squeezing leg to bring the back up or the seatbones for the bend (or simply turning in the early stages) or the lifting of the chest in the rider trigger natural responses in the horse. Horses seem to have a natural response to the restrictive action of the outside rein, but sometimes need to be conditioned to this aid. The closing of the knees acts as a restrictive aid on untrained horses but has to be re-established on horses which have been ridden by riders with tight thighs. All in all, what i am saying is that horses should not have to "learn" any thing. They can "learn" not to dive into the bit, but they should not have to "learn" how to carry themselves, how to do leg yield, how to halt, how to do shoulder-in, how to do flying changes, how to piaffe..............all of this should be a natural culmination of the training.

Most of the work I have had to do throughout my life has been to unravel the cobweb of anxiety that has entered the brain of the horse and to put him into a position of understanding that all he has to do is relax and allow his body to respond naturally to my body.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Dressage Goals and Daily Individual Training of the Horse

None of us want to keep going back in our training of the horse, so why does it happen? How can you go about making your riding sessions the most productive they can be? What can you do to ensure that you will reach your goals?  What are the goals of dressage?

The goal of dressage is to develop a horse to his highest potential. A correctly trained dressage horse should be a vision of contained power. He should move with great elasticity and expression. We are like the personal trainers of a horse. We use a program of exercises that become progressively challenging to the horse in order to train that horse. What we are really doing, rather than training, is developing the horse. Dressage is unlike dog training in that a horse doesn’t learn a trick and then proceed to learn other tricks. Through dressage the horse simply becomes stronger and more supple. Each exercise in dressage training is designed to take the horse’s weight off his forehand so the horse must be developed over his back and hindquarters in order to achieve this lightness of the forehand. It is only when the horse becomes free through his shoulders that he becomes expressive in his gaits and is transformed into a dancer.

The on-going problem facing the trainer is the simple fact that horses were not designed to carry their weight on their hindquarters. It is not natural, except in moments of fight when the horse rears to use his back to lift his forehand. The training, therefore, should be such that the horse develops the ability to step underneath himself. Since the length of a horse’s stride is determined by the length of the individual horse’s leg, and, therefore the horse cannot extend the length of his step, the only way a horse can step more under is by changing the angle of his pelvis. As the angle of the pelvis changes (through contraction of the belly muscles) so the back is stretched. This stretch should be limited by the amount of conditioning the horse has had for if the back is stretched too fast and held for too much time, serious damage can be done to the back muscles.

Trainers must also realize that unlike people, horses don’t prepare for their work outs by doing unsupervised warm up exercises. It is up to the trainer, then, to use suitable exercises for the horse’s warm up. I possess a devotion to lunging for the warm up, but that's for another post so I won’t go into that except to say that the side rein portion of the lunging should be designed to benefit each particular individual’s balance and suppleness.

Once I get on, I walk on a loose rein to stretch my legs out and to give the horse time to adjust to carrying a rider. Then I almost always do leg yield. Leg-yield is a good way to loosen the hindquarters and to get the horse stepping under. (It should be emphasized that the purpose of leg-yield is not to go sideways. Leg-yield should cause the horse to step forward and under his body. It is a beginning exercise designed to give the horse brief moments of carrying himself.)

I then work to loosen the neck and the shoulder area. In the first stages of training, I do neck suppling. Later, as the horse progresses, I do suppling half circles on the centerline. When the horse is ready, I do shoulder-in, haunches-in, and half-pass. All of this is done at the walk. Once I am satisfied with this work, I begin the real work of the session. I usually have in mind what I want to accomplish, but this plan is open to modification, depending on what I find going on in the horse that particular day.

With a more advanced horse, I might do walk/ walk transitions: collected walk to extended walk to collected walk to a few steps of piaffe. Then I usually do a lot of work at the canter.

With the less advanced horse I do halt/trot/halt transitions to ensure they are in front of my leg. Then turns on the forehand from the walk but moving promptly into trot after the turn. When I can't get him to step properly in the turn, I know he is on his forehand, so I do some shoulder swings into trot to get him up. When in trot, I let him come out to the bit and let him find his headset. As he gets stronger, his headset became rounder on its own. If the turns on the forehand have failed, I return to them after the shoulder swings to see where he was. If he fails to step promptly to my leg, I get off and do some turns in hand, then remounted to see where we are.

If everything checks out, I do some leg-yield at trot and some suppling circles, usually making transitions from walk to trot and from trot to walk on the curved line, making sure he keeps stepping forward in the transitions while shifting his weight to the new outside shoulder. If he doesn’t step forward in the transition, I go back to trot/halts and then to trot/walks. We stay at the trot/ halts until the horse steps promptly into trot. Once that happens, we do trot/walks. If the horse loses tempo in the downward transition, I drive him forward during the transition by displacing the haunches in and attacking the outside hind during the transition. And so forth and so on.

I do very little canter with the less advanced horse but when I do, the horse must bring the inside hind forward simultaneously to my leg. If he doesn’t, then we go back to walking and tapping the inside hind forward into trot. When he brings his inside hind forward with one tap, I again try the canter. There is much more to be said, but I don’t want to write a book this afternoon.

If the horse's leg-yields are sluggish, you should do nothing else until you get the horse going. A horse will never do collection if you cannot manage to get them to step forward! You really must take care to review the details everyday so that you can start building and stop having to go back.

When you come into the ring with your horse, have a thoughtful ride, keep in mind the basics of the work. We just cannot keep going back to where we were yesterday, and to avoid that, you must follow through with the things we discover and to stay alert as to whether or not the horse is prompt to the leg or to the whip.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Thoughts on Dressage and the Event Horse's Initiative

A student asked me to read this article by Jim Wofford,

My thoughts on this very important topic follow.

I think Jimmy is entirely right, but I want to clarify what is meant by collection--the difference between that and self-carriage. I spent several years riding--and teaching-- the Littaur/Chamberlain philosophy and think there is a lot to be said for that whole philosophy. For most riders, I think that is the way people should ride. I think the horse must first of all and forever be ridden in such a way that he is in balance. When he is in balance then he can become supple and in this condition be both more responsive to the rider and more athletic.

 Letting the horse find his way and allowing him to make mistakes that he can learn from are critical in jumping and actually terribly important in dressage.

When a horse is in balance, he is in self-carriage, and he must learn to go in self-carriage from the earliest steps in his training all the way through to the highest levels of training, whether it be in dressage or eventing.  Self-carriage is a the state where a horse can maintain his tempo without being held up by the rider. In self-carriage a horse is in balance and moving freely forward.

Dressage should be used to condition the horse to a greater level of strength and agility. When dressage becomes an end in itself, then the horse and rider (ideally) lose their personal identity and work as an harmonious unit. This kind of work begins at 4th level, not before. The unity of the two entities should be sought from the beginning, initially so the rider can lead the horse through progressively challenging exercises in order to develop the physical ability of the horse--increase his strength and increase his agility. The requirements of the training come to its peak (ideally, again) in the Grand Prix when the horse is able to extend and compress very easily, remain lively, responsive (because of the balance thing) and eager.

At the beginning of training the horse is presented with various challenges and should be asked to participate in answering these challenges because when he does, he has become a willing partner in the relationship.

Defensiveness (non suppleness) can only cause a horse to be more dependent, not less dependent on you.
I don't think that the aids are anything that a horse should have to "learn." The rider needs to ride in such a balance that she can trigger certain expected responses from the horse, responses that are no more complex than blinking the eye when something gets into it. I can get on any horse from any background and if he has not had his natural responses trained out of him--so he doesn't allow his body to respond (over-rides his reflexes)--I can do whatever the horse is capable of. I can't make a training level horse do a canter pirouette because he is not strong enough to do so. It isn't that he doesn't "understand;" it's simply because his body isn't there yet. I can't do the splits. I don't have to learn how to do the splits; I have to condition myself to that level of ability.

The more a horse has to figure out what we are "teaching" him, the more anxious he becomes. A horse should not have to figure anything out in dressage--a horse is not designed to "figure things out." A horse is a reactive creature and he should be guided to react in a way that is favorable to the training (in dressage.) A horse should be allowed to respond as his body reacts naturally to the rider's aids. (Initially, of course, he must learn that the legs of the rider are more than a mere annoyance on his sides, but other than that the dressage aids are designed to trigger natural responses of the horse--and we do have to heighten that response with a flick of the whip--and the horse responds to the sting as he does to a fly, by lifting a leg--or as amplified by the spur, and sometimes the response needs to be more than a little encouraged by the rider as some horses perfer to lie in bed all day and not have to do much of anything.)

I think that horses who anticipate in dressage are horses who are being "taught" rather than being conditioned. These horses worry that they might do the "wrong" thing and anticipate what the rider wants, using a little mental strategey to save them punishment. A horse has very limited powers of reasoning and when asked to perform and use these limited powers, they become anxious and anticipate rather than relaxing into their body's natural ways of doing things.

When a rider is inaccurate with the aids, the horse must learn to over-ride his physical responses to the aid. For instance, if the rider doesn't sit on the left seatbone to turn to the left, the horse has then the task to learn "turn left means to go right." Pretty hard. Horses are pretty wonderful and do learn to compensate, but when they must compensate they are not so fluid because they have to hold their bodies against their natural responses and often have to "learn" what is being expected of them. An example I often use to explain this is for us to think of having our own reflexes tested by a doctor. The doctor should tap us right under our knee for this test. If, instead, the doctor tapped us in the middle of our shins and then punished us when we didn't respond, we would become more and more "defensive," muscles tensing up, worry developing. At some point we would kick our leg when the doctor taps our shin, and then the doctor would pat us and tell us how "good" we had been. Then we would be frantic to try to put together the "good"--the effect--with the cause--what did we do to get the "good."

The problem in training is figuring out whether a horse is resisting leaving their comfort zone because of pain or the remembrance of pain. I was very lucky to have worked with a sports medicine vet for 22 years. He helped me with every horse that I trained, helped me answer whether the horse had an actual physical problem or simply needed to be pressed into "raising the bar." As a trainer, I was often pressed to take the horse to a level faster than was comfortable for the horse, but while I had to do that, I was able to do it humanely. I have to say that in the 25 years of training horses for the show ring, I never had a horse go lame from the training, and as a judge recently told me, "Your horses always looked so happy."

I think the horse should participate in the training. He needs to be guided; he needs to be conditioned; he needs to be improved physically; he needs to have confidence in the rider and she in him. Riders in the lower levels of eventing are far away from the collection that Jimmy is talking about in his article. Let go of your horse, and learn how to put him in a position so that he can become more supple so that he can become overall more elastic and stronger.

In jumping, the horse has a lot of decisions to make and he must be allowed to do so, must have the confidence to be able to do so. Horses that jump in competition know about jumping. Deer know about jumping. Horses in competition have the terraine, the rider's balance, and the turns and combinations to deal with. I believe that a horse, whether negotiating a jumping course or a dressage test, must be put into a position of being able to do what is being required of him and then allowed to do it. The best we can do for him is train him so he is physically able to respond to the test--either jumping or dressage--put him in a position to perform and then allow him to do it by staying with him and not throwing him away.
A horse should become a dancing partner not a servant. The rider must allow the horse to mature and take responsibility in the dance or this will severely limit his capabilities to grow. Otherwise the horse is limited to the rider's control and direction and can gain no confidence in his own ability to negotiate the obstacles.