An e-news popped into my mailbox from Katherine Robertson, Adult Clinics Program coordinator for the U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF). The USDF Region 7 Adult Clinic would be held November 1-2, 2008, at El Sueno Equestrian Center, less than an hour away in Somis, Calif. And Jane Savoie would be the clinician. Jane wears more hats than Dr. Seuss's Bartholomew Cubbins, and she wears them rakishly well--dressage competitor, coach, instructor, clinician, motivational speaker, closet humorist and best-selling author. I planned to be the first auditor in line at the clinic.
I Go For It
Then I noticed that the announcement included a call for demo riders. More curious than confident, I clicked on the link and printed out the "Rider Application and Information" form and the "Guidelines for Rider Selection." I read that USDF wanted adult amateurs as well as professional riders, and various breeds, including traditional and nontraditional dressage horses. Hey, CHECK! (If an Arabian/Quarter Horse pinto pony ridden by a vintage-plus amateur wasn't at the far end of that bell-shaped curve, I'd eat my hat.) They DID NOT want "the perfect horse" and DID want training issues that might reasonably be encountered by the average auditor. OH, MY GOODNESS, BIG CHECK! Our issue was so common it should have been pinned on the post office wall: We needed a more consistent, conversational connection, and I wanted to achieve it through training.
On August 28, I submitted my application and for the next three weeks philosophically steeled myself for rejection, as in, "What were you THINKING?" But on September 22, there came another email from Katherine Robertson. The selection committee had had a very hard time making its decision, but of the 25 applicants, I was one of eight selected.
The Friday before the clinic, my friend and fellow dressage rider Maria Norris arrived at El Sueno with a be-spitted and polished Tucker in tow. We unloaded, and after getting organized, I mounted up and rode him into the outdoor arena, where another clinic attendee and several barn residents were schooling. (The covered arena that was to be the site of the clinic was closed for setup.) Tucker couldn't have been more relaxed and happy amidst the hustle and bustle. As we worked around and among the other horses, I could just hear him saying, "Hi! How are ya? I'm so glad to be here. Watch my canter depart. Did you know that your haunches were trailing on that half-pass?" We might have training issues, but in this, Tucker seemed to bear out the statement: "Wherever Tucker goes, that's where Tucker is."
Saturday's Lesson: Food For Thought
It rained overnight, and under threatening skies, more than 100 chilly dressage fans gathered in the covered arena. Jane explained that she was NOT there to help us work on one thing and perfect it. "Otherwise, when you go home, you've mastered one thing." Instead, she would take the "smorgasbord" approach, introducing several skills and exercises sequentially. "You may not be able to do one step perfectly, but as long as you mentally understand it, we go on to the next step." Result: Riders and auditors would go home with as many training tools as possible. Jane also advised us riders to relax and not worry about being perfect. "I want you to make mistakes, because we can all use them to learn. Remember, I'm not going to fix a habit of two or three years in 10 minutes, and I am not here to replace your system. But if you're having problems, you can incorporate what I have to teach. At the very least, you'll have food for thought."
While I watched and took notes on the first lesson of the day, Maria got Tucker out and took him for a leg-stretching hand-walk. Whether because of the chill in the air, the slanting rain, a sleepless night or a slightly amped atmosphere, "He's a bit more 'up' than he was yesterday," she said. We groomed and tacked up, then she stood him up next to a mounting block and I swung a leg over. And Tucker threw his head in the air and bolted! I stopped him within a few strides, but whatever had set him off (we could only theorize that it was a man in a cowboy hat who walked behind us at that moment), he was thoroughly rattled.
As far as Jane was concerned, a brilliant training opportunity had fallen into her lap! Who has never had to ride a nervous horse? And how many of us, in the "heat of battle," remember that the path to relaxation is through work? "But any work done in tension is a waste of time." Suppling was the answer. At the halt, she stood next to us and explained that Tucker was currently in "neutral," looking straight ahead, his head in the middle of his neck. There was no flexion in his jowl--an inward positioning that she called "Plus 1" because the horse is no more than an inch to the inside. (A comparable counter-flexion would be "Minus 1.")
Then she showed me how she wanted me to use an indirect inside rein to manipulate Tucker's poll and get him to flex at the jowl: Close my fingers on the reins; maintain soft contact (not our usual slack, contact, slack, contact, slack); keep my hands within the "work area" (a small imaginary box above Tucker's withers) and this was key--turn my inside wrist as if I'm holding the ignition key and starting the car, so my fingernails face up and my pinky finger is toward my outside hip. But it wasn't just a "hands-y" skill. "You're tempted, when a horse is tense and hot, to keep your leg off, but inside leg always comes before hand so you push him forward to the bit."
She put us out on a small circle at the walk. "First, think about the Training Scale and check your basics. How's your rhythm? How's your tempo? Tucker is tense, and a quicker tempo is just going to make him more tense. So slow him down to drain some of the tension out, but while you're slowing down the tempo, keep the rhythm. You always have permission to play with tempo; you never have permission to play with rhythm."
The next step on the Training Scale was suppleness. To encourage Tucker to stretch down and relax, Jane had me use the indirect rein to smoothly take him from a Plus 1 to Plus 7, which brought his nose about 7 inches to the inside: Inside leg, very smoothly and rhythmically turn the key in the ignition, then unturn for three repetitions. It was "7, 1, 7, 1, 7, 1" and then I maintained, but relaxed, the contact, allowing Tucker to stretch forward and down.
And relax and stretch he did--he may have been temporarily tense and wound up, but he is not an idiot. At that, Jane had us pick up a posting trot on a 20-meter circle and repeat the exercise. She had me accentuate the "marriage of aids" by turning down the quarterline and leg-yielding to the rail. "Feel as if you're dismounting by stepping into your outside stirrup so Tucker goes that way." Each time I put my leg on to ask Tucker to step his inside hind across and sideways, I asked for a 7 with my inside rein. Each time I relaxed my leg, I returned to a 1. After three reps, I relaxed and let him stretch and lower.
None of this was perfect but much of it was pretty good--good enough, in fact, that Jane thought we were ready to move on to the third ingredient of the Training Scale: connection. She introduced the "three-second connecting aids," again, a marriage of driving aids (seat and lower legs), bending aids (inside rein and leg) and rein of opposition (outside rein), which may be why connection remains in many minds and even more bodies the most magical mystery of dressage.
Posting, I closed my calves, created energy and felt a surge into almost a medium trot. I then "captured and recycled" the energy back to Tucker's hind legs by closing my outside fist. Just before he responded by taking his neck to the outside, I used my inside hand to keep his neck straight and encourage him to chew the bit by "twinkle, twinkle, twinkling"--turning the key while squeezing, vibrating, or closing and softening my fingers on the rein. After three seconds, I relaxed the contact (but, she cautioned me, "don't throw your hands forward and abandon the contact") and again allowed Tucker to drop his neck down. To ensure that I applied the connecting aids for only three seconds and no more and no less, as soon as I closed my outside fist, I was to call out, "Add, add, add, relax."
As another way to coordinate these aids, Jane had me ride a 20-meter circle at C. As I approached the letter, I closed my legs to accelerate into almost a medium trot, and at C rode a 10-meter circle, closing my outside fist to turn and "twinkling" my inside hand to both turn and flex. Coming out of the 10-meter circle onto the 20-meter circle, I relaxed and let Tucker lower his neck again, but--and this was the tricky part for us--without accelerating.
By then, Tucker was relaxed and focused, I was thrilled and Jane was satisfied. "You're beginning to see where you're going, and you have something you can take home and practice." Turning to the auditors, she added, "Remember, you can't eat the whole pie at once. You have to eat it a piece at a time.""
Sunday's Lesson: Riding With Truth
It was a far more relaxed and willing Tucker that I rode into the arena on Sunday, prompting Jane to ask, "And what do you want to work on today?"
What could I say, but "More of the same, please." So we reviewed the work we had done on Saturday, including the three-second connecting aids. On my first attempt while tracking right, Jane crowed, "That was a WONDERFUL mistake! You drew your hands behind the work area and his neck got shorter!" I tried again, taking great care to keep my hands in front of the pommel, and in response Tucker's neck got a bit longer. "There! You allowed him to show you that he understood that he could step into your outside hand!"
Then I observed that Tucker usually feels locked in his poll and stiff to the right, so he's not accepting contact on the left rein and pulling, bracing or hanging on the right. "Well, you're his physical therapist," she said. "Let's work his body a little bit." She suggested that when tracking left at home ("this is not for the show ring") I fairly consistently ride Tucker in a minus-1 counter-flexed position and do "reverse connecting aids."
On a 20-meter circle, I picked up a posting trot and first, of course, checked for rhythm and tempo. Then I closed my calves to ask for the surge forward, closed my inside left hand into a fist to capture and recycle the energy, and just before Tucker straightened or flexed to the inside, I "twinkle, twinkle, twinkled" with my outside right hand. Again, of course, it was a loud "Add, add, add" followed by "relax." As Tucker lifted his back and lowered his neck, I FELT more contact on the left rein. Jane cocked her head and said, "That was . actually quite good." We repeated a few more times, because "repetition is the mother of skill," then once again, we moved on.
A lot of Sunday's session was about checking results. "If you practice lousy stuff, what you get good at is lousy stuff. It's important to have ways to test and make sure you're doing quality work--what I call 'riding with truth.'"
To test straightness, Jane had me ride down the long side and smoothly change Tucker's flexion from plus-1 to minus-1 to plus-1 again and again. "When a horse is through the poll, changing the flexion shouldn't affect his body position, direction of travel or the straightness of his neck. By doing this test on the rail, there's no question in your mind whether your horse has or hasn't stayed straight." Tucker, I was happy to see, passed the test.
To test for connection, Jane gave me two tests. The first was ?berstreichen, a fairly untranslatable German term meaning "the release of one or both reins toward the mouth during which the horse maintains the same balance, frame and carriage as before." On a 20-meter circle, I first checked for rhythm and tempo, then, while I held the outside rein, I momentarily allowed a loop to develop on the inside rein, moving my hand halfway up Tucker's neck along his crest. And Tucker obligingly reported a failure of communication by turning his head to the outside. I repeated the exercise, this time setting him up with a better connecting aids and more inside leg for him to bend around, and he stayed flexed to the inside.
To test for connection on both reins, Jane said, we'd use the movement that most of us know from the dressage tests as "The Stretchy Circle." Uh oh. I explained that Tucker's scores were never very good, especially tracking to the right. Oh, he steered and maintained tempo and rhythm, but he either didn't stretch at all or he stretched inconsistently (a nice way of saying that he could have been bobbing for apples--plunging low, then throwing his head as if coming up for air with a gasp).
"People don't prepare," said Jane. "That's the problem." She had me go out on a 20-meter circle tracking to the right. After checking rhythm, tempo, suppleness and connection, I gave the three-second connecting aids, then opened my fingers to see what would happen. And Tucker smoothly and evenly chewed the reins out of my hands, lifting his back, lowering his head and neck, poking his nose forward and down and staying there while he trotted around and around and around. With mock perplexity, Jane shook her head and asked, "Why would you NOT get a good score for this?"
All I could happily answer was, "I don't know?"
And with that, our second lesson was over. I came home with a bunch of great tools for systematically suppling, balancing, straightening. I hope, by writing this article, that I've been able to share them in a useful--and useable--way with you.
- Close your fingers on the reins. You may think you're being a soft rider when you open them, but it just stiffens your wrist. When you close your fingers, your wrist stays supple.
- The walk marches, the trot swings, the canter springs!
- Schooling is for fixing problems; showing is for hiding problems.
- Your forward riding aids are seat, leg and voice. Two legs ask for a transition and the inside leg alone asks for energy within a gait.
- The movements are not an end unto themselves. What's important is understanding the very specific result you're trying to accomplish with a movement while maintaining the qualities of the Training Scale. For example, you don't do a shoulder-in simply because you're bored riding on a 20-meter circle. You do it, perhaps, to straighten your horse or because you want to improve collection. You might do a trot serpentine to promote flexibility and suppleness. Every movement has a purpose, and as your horse's physical therapist, you should know what that purpose is and how to use it correctly to achieve your result.
- Every transition is an opportunity to create more suppleness and, at a more advanced level, improve the bending of your horse's hind legs.
- We're in such a hurry to get a horse's head down. But "sponging" and moving the bit back and forth in his mouth only affects his jaw and has nothing to do with connection over the back. He just ends up "posing" on the bit.
- If you do things with baby steps, in a systematic, progressive way, you lessen your chances of meeting resistance.
- The medium and extended gaits are created by the degree of collection on the short side. You don't hit the diagonal and try to pull a rabbit out of a hat.
- Einstein's definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Anytime you hit a block, stop and ask yourself, "How can I take the difficulty out of this exercise to get my point across?"
Think you'd like to be a demo rider in a USDF Adult Clinic? You must fill out and submit a three-page application, but first go to www.usdf.org and check out the very clear and helpful "USDF Guidelines for Rider Selection." They'll help you make sure that you and your horse are a good fit, and so minimize any possible complaints about the selection process. The most important thing to understand is that these clinics are NOT "ooh and ahhh" events at which we mere dressage mortals watch in awe as superhuman athletes put Olympic-caliber horses through their paces.
- The clinics are geared toward the auditors and toward maximizing their educational experience, so the "heart" of the series is rider selection. Unless you can enable the clinician to demonstrate his or her training techniques, neither you nor the auditors will receive the maximum educational benefits that the clinician has to offer.
- You can be an adult amateur--you do NOT need to be a professional rider.
- The focus is on a horse's training, with exercises intended to correct horse issues. As a demo rider, you have to be ready and able to make corrections and perform the exercises as directed, but this doesn't mean that you must possess a particularly "solid seat" or the ability to make ALL corrections immediately. You just need a good basic seat with reasonably independent seat and hands, and the ability to follow directions and produce positive changes over the course of the clinic.
- USDF wants horses and riders at different levels so that the auditors can see a wide range of training issues. Again, the clinics are NOT intended to showcase the perfect horse--they're for the average horse with training issues that the average auditor might reasonably encounter so that he or she can get the most benefit from watching the clinician's corrections and their effects.
- To the extent feasible, horses of various breeds are desirable, including traditional and nontraditional dressage horses, so that the auditors can see how classical training methods have a positive effect on any type of horse.
- You must be willing to put yourself and your horse in the clinician's hands and be open and receptive to his or her teaching and training methods. You are always encouraged to ask questions if you don't understand an instruction, but resistance to or criticism of the clinician's methods is inappropriate and counterproductive.
- Participation does not come cheap. In addition to the actual clinic fee of $250, count on transportation for yourself and your horse, a weekend's worth of hotel expenses and meals, plus a stall, bedding and feed.
Reprinted from the February 2009 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.