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!