Cadence for young horses

 

With some curious and friendly young connemaras at Elliott Blackmon’s place

U.S. Eventing Team coach David O’Connor was teaching in Ocala early this week on the topic of training 4 year old horses. He shared a story about a cadence he drills into his working students while they are working with the four year olds:
“What are we riding?”

“Four year olds!”

“What are we doing with them?”

“Waiting for them to be 6 year olds!”

Sure ride them. Sure walk, trot and canter. But ever playful. Show them things and let them learn that you are generous and friendly and that work is fun.

Qi Gong

Image

Qi Gong folks in New York City

So I do yoga about 20 minutes a day 5 days a week because it makes me feel good.  I sleep better, my shoulders feel better yada yada.  Really it isn’t as big a thing as people make it.  I am always surprised when people say they are afraid to try yoga.  What?  Or that I must be really flexible because I do  yoga.  Um, I’m really not flexible, which is why I do yoga.  They say a woman must really love a thing if she practices it with no hope of mastery.  That is me and yoga.

Because I do yoga, I am on a few yoga email lists and I had a very interesting thing come across mid-week last week:  Qi Gong classes.  My acupuncturist (don’t get crazy about that either.  No big deal) said it would be really good for me.  I have no idea what that means, but I wasn’t there to argue the finer points of that comment.

‘Qi’ means ‘life force’ and ‘Gong’ translates to ‘work’ or ‘practice’.  It is a 5 week class and I signed up for it.  Starts tomorrow night.

So, of course I googled Qi Gong and found out lots of interesting stuff, but one thing really was super cool.  It said that Qi Gong is about ‘going with’ rather than ‘doing to’.  Interesting that they didn’t say ‘going with’ or ‘doing to’ your body.  They just said, ‘going with’ rather than ‘doing to’.  My guess is that it is a whole lifestyle thing.

Hmmmm…

So as I always do, I thought about that and horses.  Some of my best rides have been when I have had the feeling of ‘going with’ the horse rather than ‘doing to’ the horse.  Of course there are times when we have to ‘do to’, especially with green or unsure horses, who need to be shown the way.  But when I get on and provide direction to a horse and then ‘go with’ it rather than ‘making sure it gets done’ in a micromanagement manner, the result is always not only better, but more enjoyable for both of us.

I am reminded of my yoga teacher who says that ‘how you do something is more important than what you do’.  There’s a mind bender.

Inside leg

Charlie and I on a recent hunt. Yes, we're both very tall. He's 17 hands, I'm 6'3". My friend and her horse are normal-sized.

I haven’t had an unsound horse for a long time – until recently.  Now I have two on the injured reserve stall rest list.  Charlie and Sammy.  The prognosis is good for both of them.  We’ve now done the first 10 days of strict stall rest, the week of stall rest plus 10 minutes of hand-walking per day and now we are on to stall rest with 15 minutes of walking, this time mounted.  I’ll admit, I had some trepidation about getting on Charlie, a thoroughbred who, a few years ago, had a habit of bucking and now had a few weeks of stall rest under his girth.

But he was an angel.  Never set a foot wrong.  Of course, the horse that I thought would be easy peasy, Sammy, started with a humped-up back and had a few moments of corkscrew ears and some mumbling about how he could buck and he was a wild, wild horse.  Yeah.  Wild Sammy.  You can stop that now.

He didn’t buck, by the way.    Contrary to his wonted bad boy image, he’s a good man.  Sammy at an eventer derby

Anyway, now I am walking the two goofballs around the indoor for 15 minutes per horse every day.  It just so happens that these days I am also reading Charles De Kunffy’s book Training Strategies for Dressage Riders (on my rockin’ Kindle Fire, that thing is just stupid cool).  So I’ve got 30 minutes of walk to do and I start fooling around with CDK’s comments on use of the rider’s legs.  He says the inside leg is the driving leg and the outside leg is the guarding leg when asking for a bend.

So I walk and walk around the arena on a loose rein thinking about this.  Of course, the first time I put my leg on to play with it, each fresh horsie decides this is an invitation to trot.  Hmmm.  No, not the right button.  So then I make sure not to drop my leg back even an inch, but use it more straight toward the girth, leading with my ankle bone.  That got me leg yield.  Hmmmm, right idea, but not quite.  So I walked around a little more and thought about it.  Maybe if I…  What about if…

Sammy, in case you don't follow video links.

So I got to thinking about using my whole inside leg, from the hip down.  This would have to be without pinching with the knee. With my long-legged conformation it is not possible to use my lower calf/ankle, while keeping my knee against the saddle, so I keep my calf on and allow the knee to come off the saddle if necessary, but usually it is just a softening of its contact with the saddle.

After performing this thought experiment, I gave it a try.  What I noticed was that when I used my whole leg, my seat bones were more precisely placed and probably clearer to the horse.  I got really cool results.  The first night, after a few wobbles and comedies of errors, I could do a large figure 8 in my arena using only seat aids.  It was terrific!  The second night, not really believing this was possible – maybe the horses were so smart they were memorizing the pattern – I threw in a random circle.  Sure enough it worked.  Then I started playing with different-sized circles.  Some learning curve there, and after what has now been an hour of walking around, I am getting a handle on that.

But back to CDK’s idea of the inside leg being the driving aid.  Turns out that when I use that leg in a more energetic manner (still quiet and rhythmic, but a bit more emphatically) I get a tighter turn that remains in balance.  In retrospect, this makes perfect sense.  Look at the reach from the inside hind on this horse learning canter pirouette.

Yeah, what she said

 

The stalling point

 

So the arena has been stalled at an unusable point for a month due to the construction crews moving to a cow/calf operation project that had to get done before calving. Um, arg.    This has effectively eliminated any chance of riding to days when the footing happens to be perfect in the pasture or on the gravel roads, which doesn’t happen with frequency in February in Iowa.  Of course, before the indoor arena project I had an outdoor arena which I could use with some regularity in winter, but the location of the indoor is where the outdoor was, so I am now effectively hamstrung for riding, until construction begins again in mid-March.

So I’ve been reading.  The latest book is “Dressage Masters, Techniques and Philosophies of Four Legendary Trainers”.  It is an interview book, simply written and it is really wonderful.  I bought it because it has my dressage hero, Klaus Balkenhol, as one of the four, but I’ve found also that the other trainers – Ernst Hoyos, Dr. Uwe Schulten-Baumer and George Theodorescu are equally admirable.  It makes me feel good every time I realize that all good trainers sound fundamentally the same.  They all have first a love of the horse.  That seems obvious, until you meet a trainer who doesn’t love horses.   I bought this book for my Kindle for like $15 or something.

 

Ellen Schulten-Baumer

The quote from it that I want to share with you was spoken by Ellen Schulten-Baumer, whose father, Dr. Uwe Schulten-Baumer, trained her.  She currently has 5 Grand Prix dressage horses in her barn that she and her dad trained from 3 year olds.  I’m just going to share this quote and get out, because I can add nothing to it.  Rock on, people.

 

“I learned something very important from my father.  When a horse doesn’t perform a lesson as expected, I first have to ask myself whether the horse is capable.  If the answer is yes, then I must think about how I apply my aids.  I must use them better so the horse understands exactly what I want.  This may involve riding more preparatory exercises.  If I can’t get it right fairly quickly, then I go to something else.  It is unfair and unproductive to drill a horse; this causes too much physical and mental stress.  I tell my students this also.  If they just can’t get it right, they can think about their aids overnight and try again tomorrow.  Then the horse and rider get a fresh star together.”

Training, simplified

Piaffe

When Jay and I were watching dressage at the WEG, we were using the headsets in which a commentator was, well, commentating.  I don’t know if this happens to you, but sometimes a particular turn of phrase will have such an undeniable “truthiness” (oh how I love that word) to it that I find myself putting everything else immediately aside to think about it.  The commentator was acknowledging a particularly beautiful piaffe in an afternoon of piaffing excellence.  She said,

“When you train a horse you have to do two things:  You have to teach him the mechanics of what you wish him to do, and then you have to teach him that he is good at it.”

Upon hearing that, I didn’t really see the rest of the test, though I was looking.  It was like a lightning bolt hit me, and I sat there, stunned.  That one sentence encapsulated all that I do with horses.  A trainer has to know the correct mechanics of any skill she is trying to teach (what are the footfalls of canter?  How does half pass start?  How does a horse arrange his legs in all stages of a jump?).  The trainer also has to know when the work is correct, or even close while they are learning, and communicate that to the horse.  Congratulate him, even.  When the horse gets his paycheck in praise for doing a thing as we wish, pretty soon he likes to do that thing.  When he likes to do that thing, he performs it with increasing confidence, which, if nurtured, becomes brilliance.

So the horse piaffing with joyful brilliance in front of us that day had mastered the mechanics of the movement, and he clearly knew he was good at it.  It was a joy to see.  Now that’s training.

The cooler side of horses

Bot fly eggs on a horse's front leg

Last week, temperatures were in the mid-90s most of the week, with high humidity, mosquitoes, biting flies and afternoon thunderstorms.  The downside was that it wasn’t fun to be a horse or, for that matter, to ride a horse.  The upside was that I didn’t have to water my potted plants.  So I had that going for me.

This week, on the flip side of the cold front that broke the back of summer, a cool breeze blows from the north, the AC is off in the house and the horses’ tails flick lazily in the breeze or lie still as they nap in the benevolent late summer sun.

Autumn crickets chirp and the bot fly eggs are back.  I’ve been blessed to have horses all my life and I think I may have actually tried every technique to remove the eggs from the horses’ legs so that I can, if even slightly, interrupt the parasite cycle in the little dearies in my charge.

My preferred method of removing bot fly eggs these days is picking them off one by one, between my thumb and index fingernails.  I resisted this  method in the first place because it seemed like it would take forever.  It does take a while, but it can be a lovely while.

Eddie likes to be petted.

My horse Eddie likes to be touched and stroked.  When petted in long appreciative strokes, he will take a deep breath and put his ears forward and his eyes become soft.  When I spend 10 minutes fussing over his legs taking the bot fly eggs off, he practically purrs.   My cross ties are slack enough that he was able to bend his neck around and put his muzzle on the top of my head, where he breathed several long slow breaths in my hair.

After I was done with my task, we tacked up and went out for a hack.  As we warmed up in walk, he swung along, confidently checking out the scenery, and all was right in his world.  Mine too.

Playful, playful

Fabulouso and Camie at the Radnetter clinic

This weekend’s horse adventure was to ride in the Herwig Radnetter clinic at Wildwood Hills put on by the Iowa Lipizzan Association.  I’d heard that Mr. (Herr?) Radnetter, of the Spanish Riding School (SRS), was an excellent teacher.  He’d been teaching annually in our area of Iowa for the last three years.  My friend Susan, the immutable force behind Catalpa Corner Charity Horse Trial, proclaimed one day that I needed to ride Fabulouso in the clinic.  She said it was time to see if I could make a foray into Real Dressage Land, continue to expand my education (an addiction of mine), and perhaps not have the entire local dressage community be astonished that any horse allows me to swing a leg over them.  Bottom line is that I pretty much do what Susan says, so I signed up for it.  I’d have her horse, Fabulouso (aka Elliot or Fatboy), under tack.  He classes up any joint, so I felt that if worse came to worse I could simply fade into the background and count on the mesmerizing effect of 1,000 years of German breeding oozing forth from Elliot’s genetic code.  That was my plan, and he is always good with being adored, so we were all systems go.

German breeding on display and the monkey-in-the-tack basking in the glow at the Otter Creek Horse Trial:

I should explain about the “Fatboy” name. I’ve always liked off track thoroughbreds, so I’ve gleefully decorated our pasture with them and taught them all sorts of fun games, like eventing, foxhunting and dressage.  Physically, the thoroughbreds all run a little lean, of course.

Then one day Susan suggested that I teach Elliot to event.  So he came to our house for the winter.  Hanovarians, to say the least, are a bit easier keepers than the usually high-metabolism off track thoroughbred.  Elliot arrived in the autumn, just when we were starting the transition from pasture to a lovely part grass/mostly alfalfa hay mix for the winter.  All the thoroughbreds stayed in work and held weight beautifully through the fall and winter months.  The warmbood, Elliot, stayed in work as well, and held weight spectacularly, shall we say exponentially.  That winter in the frozen tundra of our pasture we had a group of fit, fuzzy, slightly angular tbs and one grinning bay marshmallow with whiskers.

Susan shows her love with food.  Every time I visit her house, I have to go on a week-long workout program to mitigate the effect of the deliciousness she provides everyone within her sphere of influence.  With this mindset, she fretted over Elliot’s weight all winter long, since it was one of the first winters he was going to be in significant work.  The emails went back and forth.  “Is he holding weight?”  “Yep, just fine.”  <two weeks>  “How’s Elliot’s weight?  I could bring over some hay.”  “Lookin’ a little pudgy.”  <three weeks> “With all this riding, is he doing ok with holding weight?”  “Ok, Susan, I’ll fess up, around here we call him ‘Fatboy’.”  “Super!”

Susan Brigham's Fabulouso, aka Fatboy aka Elliot.

Time passes, we do some prelim level events, the AECs, develop a partnership and represent ourselves pretty well.  So now Fatboy and I were riding in the Herwig Radnetter of the SRS (still pretty cool to me) clinic in front of much of the local dressage community, who, I suppose, consider me a bit of a wild child eventer/foxhunter sort, which I would have trouble effectively arguing in any court.  However, truth is, that I am able to do those things reasonably well because I base all my training in dressage principles.  So the foxhunters think I’m a dressage queen, and the dressage people think I’m a foxhunter wildthing.  All good, call me anything, just don’t call me late to go riding.  As an aside, you can read a fairly hilarious “she must be from another country” critique by Geo. Morris about this picture.

The lesson with Herwig Radnetter was great, but not in the way I expected it to be.  He talked about all the things that you’d expect-position, engagement, connection, a cajole about the fact that I didn’t clean my tack that week (guilty!), rhythm, balance, transitions and more.  But the one concept that stuck in my head was ‘Playful’.  He was saying this in reference to rein contact.  In that lovely light Austrian (German?) accent with a faint smile on his face.  When he said it I didn’t know precisely what he meant, as in what exactly a Playful thing to do with the reins is.  But I did know the feeling of Playful, so I went with it.

“Rounder, rounder, rounder and playful with the reins”.

I was getting somewhere with it and we were all three moderately happy with the work, but Herwig said that he would ride the horse.  Interestingly, he didn’t ask.  I didn’t mind, so that worked out well for both of us.  He got on and even though Fatboy is mesmerizing, I focused on what Herwig was doing with his rein contact.  He was doing all the things we know already to do: still outside hand, active inside leg (but I note even the leg was Playful but without the prodding busyness we see sometimes).  The inside hand was also still for the most part, but there was definitely a give and take in showing the horse what was appropriate.  At some point during the lesson he said the ubiquitous “We do not pull” which we’ve all heard a hundred times.  But now I finally understood that we can take momentarily, but the big brother of “take momentarily” which is pull, is not the answer.  “Quicker and smoother and the release is The Thing.”

This can be an epiphany for riding.  To know that you can take, but you can not pull.  To be playful.  Think of two kids playing with a toy together.  It is fun when one interacts with the other by good-naturedly and momentarily taking the toy toward himself with a smile and a sparkle in his eye.  The other kid laughs and takes the toy back toward himself and the first kid acquiesces because he knows it is a game and the interaction joyfully continues.  If, however, one kid grabs the toy with a stern expression and pulls it toward himself in an effort to overpower the will of the other, resistance ensues.  Whether the two interactions, which are essentially the same, are resistant and angry — or flowing and joyful –is a matter of intent.

Rounder, Rounder, Rounder, Playful, Playful. When it echoes in my head, it comes out as lovely gratitude in my horses.

Do you have scripts in your head that show in your horse when you ride with them in mind?  What are they?