Friday, November 20, 2015

Ten Things to Do When the HoneyMoon is Over with Your New Horse

Buying a new horse is scary!   I haven't had to do it too many times but each time what should have been a fun experience turned out to be a long drawn out affair that was miserable.  It starts out with excitement but then turns into just pure worry -- What if I buy the wrong one?  What if he goes lame? What if the seller lies me and this horse that seems like a dream is really drugged and will kill me when I get home?  What if I can't ride this horse the way the trainer does and it will just be a dud for me?  What if I shouldn't get a horse at all?

Then you bring the horse home and hopefully - at least in some cases -- the horse is beyond all your expectations.  Of course, your expectations were pretty low because certainly it couldn't be true that you actually bought the right horse!  When I brought my new horse home this summer I couldn't believe how great she was.  She was only four but despite my worries, she was the same sane wonderful mare she was when I saw her at the breeders.  We went on some trail rides and she didn't kill me!  She seemed happy to see me when I came out with her halter and considering I couldn't get her to to walk or canter well when I tried her out, we made some crazy good progress in the ring.   Life was grand!  

Then small stuff started happening -- she decided mounting wasn't her thing, some of the quick progress we were making slowed to what I could optimistically call "stable" and well to put it in a short summary... it just wasn't as grand.

Before I got too far into my head (a dangerous place to be), I had to take a few steps back and realize all was okay and it was just that the honeymoon was over and it was time for the reality of the real work that comes with owning a horse.

Here are some things I realized:
  1. Take inventory of what you have accomplished.  I was feeling as if we weren't getting anywhere but when I thought about it in the three short months we were a team, we had gone on countless trail rides, attended a clinic in a large indoor, attended weekly off farm lessons in different locations, completed our first dressage show, rode with strange horses... well shoot... for a new team and a four year old we had done okay.

  2. Go back to basics.  The dressage pyramid training scale was developed for a reason.    When my mare started hesitating in going forward I realized that maybe we had perhaps gone too far up the pyramid without establishing the base.  The base is Rhythm with Energy and Tempo.  If you don't have a horse moving with energy and tempo, you certainly are not going to get bend. And just because she was able to do all three the day before, does not mean that she will stay there.  If things aren't going well, it probably means you need to step back to the basics.

  3. Try a different method.  When we hit the "hey I don't want you to mount me anymore so I'm going to move my butt away from you" discussion, at first I just tried to stay patient and keep putting her in place at the mounting block.  What I was teaching her was that if she stayed persistent she would win.   If what you aren't doing isn't working, then you need to come up with a different plan.

  4. Get advice.  When I got stuck with the mounting issue, I reached out to my mare's breeder and trainer, a person I trusted because she had done a great job giving her a good start.  She suggested creating a chute so there was no option of moving away.  Of course I should have thought of that myself as I had used it two years ago with another horse but in the heat of frustration and test of patience, I had forgotten.   With that said, if you ask ten horse people for a solution, you will get ten answers so keep it to a minimum who you ask.

  5. Be consistent.  Which brings me to this point.  If you try one thing and it doesn't work and ten seconds later you try something else, its not your horse that is the problem - its you.  All you are creating is confusion.  Give your horse a chance to figure out what you want.  Break it into small bits they can understand and succeed at and then give them the reward of rest.  Then move onto the next bit so they (and you) can succeed at that too.  

  6. Do what you do well and do it often.  Find the thing that you do well and do that for one of your schooling sessions.  It will increase both you and horse's confidence and remind you that riding is supposed to be fun.   Its also important to interact with your horse as much as possible.  Don't worry if you only have ten minutes -- do something in those ten minutes.   The biggest mistake we can make is to wait until we have enough time for a long schooling session.  Frequent is always better, even if its short.

  7. Do something on the ground.    Don't keep banging your head against the proverbial wall.  Do something you and your horse will enjoy.   Spend a whole session just grooming.   Set up some obstacles like a tarp and practice progressively getting your horse used to it so she will cross over.   Work in hand on moving lightly off from a touch.   Set up some jumps and lunge your horse over them. Anything you do on the ground will build your relationship with your horse and make the under saddle work better.

  8. Take lessons.  A good person on the ground consistently giving you lessons is invaluable.   Set the dates up in advance and then show up.  Make them a priority.

  9. Be patient and be realistic.  Its hard to remember sometimes that this horse training takes time and there really is no such thing as the perfect horse.  You may be remembering your prior horse and all the things you could do and forgetting all the work it took to get there.  Or maybe this is your first time not on a school master.  This training stuff takes time.  Not days.  Not weeks.  Years.   Be patient and enjoy the process of learning.   

  10. Give up.  Yup... sometimes you really did purchase the wrong horse. If you have gone through all the things above and someone you trust who is not emotionally tied to the decision agrees that its time to throw in the towel, it may be.   Cut your losses and find your horse a more suitable home.  Then take some time to reflect on what worked and what did not so hopefully the next horse is the one that meets all your dreams.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Dressage Clinic with Ulla Parker

I attended a clinic with Ulla Parker on September 13th at the fabulous facility of Cedar Creek Farm.     Ulla Parker is a Danish native and resides on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She is a Master Bereiter and USDF silver medalist. She has trained with and worked for top trainers in both Europe and the States, among them Mikala Gundersen, Lars Petersen and Scott Hassler. She has ridden in clinics with Michael Klimke, Debbie McDonald, Ingo Pape and Steffen Peters.  She won the East Coast Selection Trial for 6 year olds in 2012 and was qualified to go to Verden. In 2014 her students earned Silver medals, Regional Championships, BLM championships and placed in the top 10 at the National Championship. 

If you can’t tell…. Ulla is a great trainer and gets great results!

I have to admit when I saw the lineup of riders I was a bit nervous.   My trainer, who is a fabulous rider of course, was riding two horses at the clinic and some of the other riders were Ulla’s regular students and rode as high as Prix St. Georges and have won multiple medals and awards.   Pretty intimidating company.

I recently purchased a four year old Quarter Horse who is just learning dressage and as a rider I have only shown Intro Level.  I had to wonder if I was shooting a bit high coming to a clinic with so many good riders.  Would I be disappointing to teach?  Would the other riders wonder why someone at my level thought I could come to the same clinic as them?  But I had helped organize the clinic and figured I should certainly attend and do my best.

I arrived shortly after my instructor starting riding so I got to watch some of her lesson.   It was going fabulous of course – her and her student’s horse looked great and Ulla was giving out her trademark phrase of “Yaaaah.   That looks good.”  Not that I wanted something bad to happen during their lesson but I may have felt a bit more confident going into mine if it wasn’t going quite so well!

I was next in the lineup and we began in the walk, working on bend and staying on the circle.    Ulla pointed out that when my mare’s outside shoulder drifted out I needed more inside leg because it meant we were not going forward enough to get the proper bend.  I had been giving her a bit more outside leg so this was a good “aha” moment for me.    Forward movement is key to getting good bend.  Ulla said, “think of it like a bicycle.  If you aren’t going forward enough, you won’t be able to steer.”

She also pointed out that I let my mare get away with bits of naughtiness without correcting it immediately.  For example, there are times she evades by moving off sideways and she reminded me I need to correct it strongly and quickly or she would learn evasion was possible.  It has to be 100% clear to her that she won’t get away with any evasion, ever.

Other items we worked on were the fine line between going with the forward movement without giving it away and making sure the inside hind leg was pushing.  I have a tendency to ask for more forward motion but then guard against what “might” happen.  It’s a bad habit because it will shut down a young horse that should be learning forward is a good thing.   With a little bit of coaching, I got the trot and the kudos from Ulla we were searching for, “Don’t accept anything but this trot…. Yaaaaah!”

I learned a lot during my lesson but I learned something really monumental as I watched the other lessons after mine.   I kept hearing the same things I had heard during my lesson.  Sure they were doing more advanced movements and wow, their horses were beautiful and strong and talented but in the end dressage is about the basics over and over again and even at the higher levels, the basics are essential.

I heard, “Get the hind leg and keep her connected.”  Later when one rider was practicing their counter canter, I heard, “you need to ride counter canter just like you do regular canter – don’t be afraid to let it out and bring it back in.   Be careful she is not running.  She needs to push.  Bring her back in with a quick hind leg.”   And then, “Tell those hind legs to push, not just move.. … yaaah… beautiful!”  

Later I heard, “Goal is to keep the same rhythm in the trot…Collect a bit more but keep the same rhythm.”

Okay… so they were doing much more advanced movements than us but in the end they were still working on keeping the hind leg pushing and keeping a regular tempo, just like me and my mare.   

After the clinic I asked Ulla who she likes to teach, expecting her to say the top level riders.   She surprised me by saying, “what I love is the ‘aha’ moments and that happens at all levels.  I just like to teach someone with an open mind who is willing to learn.”

What an ‘aha’ moment for me.  There is no reason to be intimidated about riding in clinics, no matter the level of the other riders.    Dressage is about where you and your horse are at that moment, trying your best and improving on what you did yesterday.   At every level the basics are still important and something we all go back to over and over again – keep that pushing power going from behind, maintain the bend, straightness and relaxation.

Some other great tips I heard:

  • Half halt before and after the movement so she doesn’t get too strong in your hands.  Always start and finish with a good half halt.
  • The half halt needs to be a little bit stronger when she is not engaging in the back end right at the start so you don’t have to correct so hard later.
  • It’s not enough that she comes back in collection, she needs to keep the swing her back too.
  • Keep steady, positive tension in the reins.  He can’t come through if you keep throwing it away.
  • Use transitions.  Bring her back, push her forward.   Change the transitions up to get that inside hind leg working.
  • Don’t use the outside rein to hold him to the track.  He has to do it because of your inside leg.

So what is my take away message?  Attend clinics!   I hear from folks all the time why they don’t attend – “I don’t like people to see me ride.”  “I need to get more lessons before I can go.”  And my favorite, “I’d be a waste of the clinician’s time.”

You aren’t ever a waste of a clinician’s time.  Remember that they all began at the bottom and most of them begin at the bottom over and over again as they bring along new horses.   What is important is that you come with the open mind Ulla mentioned, the willingness to learn and the ability to listen and work hard during your lesson. 

Hope to see you at the clinics!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Richard Malmgren Long Lining Clinic

Photo by Sophie Ghedin
I had the opportunity to audit a clinic with Richard Malmgren recently.  A native of Sweden, Richard came to the US to become a working student for Scott Hassler and Hilltop Farm.  He eventually became a fulltime employee for Hassler Dressage and played an integral role in building the training and education center at Riveredge, in Chesapeake City, Maryland. In 2013, he formed his own business focusing on his long lining skills.  He splits his time between Delaware and Wellington, Florida.

For this particular clinic, each horse was slotted for a 45 minute long lining work session where Richard worked the horse with some commentary for the owner and auditors so we understood the goals he had for the horse and how the horse was doing.  I watched him work two horses, both with different “issues”.

As he began the work, it was obvious the mare he was working wanted to come into the circle.  As Richard said, “she wants to put her inside shoulder in my lap.”  He quickly moved into the canter as the “canter has tension and tightness so you can use it to fix the straightness and then reinforce in a slower gait.”    He also said he sometimes uses the wall as its easier for the horse to find straightness along the wall.

The owner of the mare reinforced the thought by letting me know that, when “you get on the next day <after he works the mare> its so nice and straight and even in both reins.”

Richard said the goals of long lining are simple and in this order – Straightness, thoroughness/connection, and stretch.  “Long lining is about the basics – not the tricks.   When I work the upper level horses, sometimes the owners think we are going to be doing piaffe but I don’t want them to piaffe because that is their evasion and they are not relaxed when they are doing it.  You can only build muscles once the horse is relaxed.  The recycle of energy happens when you have them relaxed, supple and through.”

“Its like going to the gym and doing so many push ups or sit ups.  I am the coach making sure she doesn’t cheat and encouraging her to do just a little more – ‘No, you didn’t do that chin up all the way – keep going.’”

One goal that seemed to be common with both horses was that Richard wanted the horses to learn that evading or resisting just meant that they needed to work harder because he expected them to ‘carry their own weight’.   He didn’t punish them for spooking or speeding up or really anything they did.  Instead, the horse learned that misbehaving just meant more work and so eventually they settled into their work.  

We discussed when to quit or give breaks and when to be satisfied.   “Knowing when to quit is an art.  Sometimes you don’t go long enough and sometimes you go too long.   For example,   I was about to be satisfied and quit but then she just gave me this big release and relaxed so we kept going for a little longer.  The key is knowing when to stop and give them a break where they don’t need to work.”  He proved his point but shortly after stopping the work and letting the mare amble around for a bit.

That doesn’t mean you are looking for perfection though.  “I want her to stretch a little more – yes!  But we will get there and I am very happy with this.  That is the perfectionist, the ideal.  But this is a huge improvement with more swing in the back so its good enough for now.”

The next horse was much more forward and his evasion was to go forward, buck and go faster.   Richard said the best approach was to ignore the bad behavior and keep with the program and eventually he would come back to him.   “Patience, consistency, persistence.  Keep your cool.  Don’t let him take advantage but if he wants to evade with a bit of exuberance, he will realize he needs to carry himself there and its more work that way.”

Because he was looking for forward energy, a faster gait is okay.  “If he chooses to go up to canter that is okay because I want forward energy.  If he chooses to go down to trot, its my job to push him forward.”

Photo by Sophie Ghedin
Richard pointed out that when he is long lining, he is not on a circle but its more of a diamond shape.  He walks along with the horse’s movement and the diamond shape occurs because he is looking for straightness which is easier to obtain in a diamond or octagon than in a circle.

Once the horse settled into his work, Richard offered the horse the chance to stretch and relax but when he did the transition was not obedient so he started again briefly and once he was working well again, offered the reward of a break again.

I wondered why long lining is so effective – why can’t riding achieve the same goals?   Richard pointed out that, “when spooks happen in the saddle, there is the richochet effect and seat bones, hands or whatever.  But on a long line that does not exist so they have to carry themselves so the horse obtains understanding quicker.”

Ambidexterity is also important.   Most horses are weaker to the right but Richard always starts the horses to the left since that’s the most common way of handling a horse.  Once he knows the horse and if he/she has difficulties to their right he might try to start going that way first to see if the fresh energy of the horse can be used to work the more difficult direction. 

Towards the end of the clinic, Richard summed up one of his end goals – to make the horse feel like a success.  “My job is to set him up for success.  If he can’t hold the canter for long then its my job to get just a few steps of quality canter and then move him back down to trot so he understands and feels good about what he did.   If I get a horse that is scared and worked up by the long lining that never settles down and his nostrils are flaring and breathing heavy when the session is over, I would suggest trying one more time another day and if the result is the same the next time then long lining might not be a tool for that horse.”   Richard quickly added though, “SO far I haven’t had a horse that didn’t end up having a relaxed content look in his eyes and feeling fully proud of himself.“