If you follow my Dressage Addict Facebook and Instagram feeds, you probably already know that last I week I ticked an item off my bucket list, by having a lesson with Canadian icon Cindy Ishoy. Caprice was an absolute star, as usual, and didn't put a foot wrong. I worked harder than I've worked in years and realized that I'm stronger than I think. Meredith's not going to let me take as many breaks now, which is going to hurt!
Lesson-wise, as with any good dressage trainer, there was no magic. Simple, consistent riding of the horse from back to front, working on the basics of my position, and keeping Caprice moving honestly forward to the contact. Really forward. Way more forward than my muscles are used to in sitting trot. Farewell comfort zone!
For me, the magic was simply the opportunity to learn from a legend, the person who inspired me to take up dressage. So many people commented on how lucky I am and they are right. But those of you who grew up in the GTA are probably thinking, "What's the big deal? Anybody can call up Cindy and book a lesson or clinic."
That is a big deal. A very big deal.
I was 16 years old and still living in Newfoundland in 1988 when Cindy and Dynasty danced their way to Olympic bronze, along with Ashley Holzer, Gina Smith and Evi Pracht. At that time I had never seen a double bridle in real life, didn't know that reins could be be used for more than turning your horse's head, and didn't have a clue that "on the bit" was a thing, let alone understand what it meant. I had no idea what I was watching when I saw Cindy and Dynasty, but I knew I wanted to ride like that.
Being able to call up a Grand Prix rider to book a lesson was unthinkable. At a time when nobody in the province had competed any higher than the equivalent of Second Level, even watching somebody ride the Grand Prix was unthinkable. Even after living in Ontario for 19 years I've never quite gotten over the thrill of watching my trainer school her upper-level horses at home, or hanging out by the warm up ring at shows, seeing riders in person who were once simply mythical names in a magazine to me. I've had the pleasure of knowing Cindy for a few years now and have interviewed her a number of times for articles, but having the chance to ride in a lesson with her was very, very special.
The opportunities that arise out of living and riding in the GTA are easy to take for granted if you've never owned horses anywhere else in Canada. It seems entirely normal here to have a choice of stables with indoor arenas, and of competition venues and show circuits. On any given weekend we can audit a clinic or book a lesson with national and international stars. Riders have a choice of farriers, a choice of vets, and even a choice of equine hospitals with MRI machines, surgical suites and rehab facilities. We've got countless equine nutritionists, message therapists, acupuncturists, physiotherapists, and even psychics to keep our horses in peak physical and mental condition.
The depth of talent and resources here in Ontario is astounding. Not everyone else in Canada is nearly so lucky. Watch for an upcoming blog post about a new rider development program created by Ontario Equestrian, aimed at using those resources to help more Ontario riders reach the podium. In the meantime, I'm happy to share my good fortune with you, by sharing two of the exercises Cindy had me work on. Good luck!
This one sounds deceptively simple (and maybe for other people it is, but not for me!). Ride a three loop serpentine, wall to wall, with simple changes through walk over the centre line, and a 10m circle each time you reach the wall.
I've heard it said many times: "Every horse can be a dressage horse." Is that really true? The answer is yes. And no. And it depends.
Every horse can and should do dressage, no doubt. Dressage is simply the systematic, correct training of the horse, ideally following the training "pyramid." This type of training is the foundation of every discipline and will help every horse improve strength, suppleness, straightness and the quality of the gaits, in the same way that ballet classes can help every person improve their strength, posture and flexibility.
Although ballet training can help every person, not every person is destined to become a prima ballerina, no matter how many classes they take. Body type, conformation issues, injuries, natural talent and work ethic all play a key role. The same is true of horses.
Not every horse has the physical conformation needed to progress to the highest levels of the sport. A physically unsuitable horse is more likely to develop injuries, or hit a wall in the training beyond which they cannot or will not progress. Some horses are simply more naturally gifted than others; some horses have all the talent in the world but lack the mental focus or willingness to work that is required. Forcing such a horse into a job they can't do, or don't enjoy doing, is a recipe for frustration and heartbreak.
Thanks to decades of careful breeding we have built a better dressage horse - one designed specifically to have the physical attributes and temperament to progress to the highest levels of the sport. While you don't NEED a purpose-bred horse to be competitive, and there are still no guarantees of success if you do, starting off with a horse that is suited to the job is a huge advantage.
In the barn where I board we have three amazing draft crosses who were highly competitive at the FEI levels - two made it all the way to Grand Prix and one is currently on his way there. But they are the exceptions, rather than the rule. There's a reason why we see such a wide range of breeds and types enjoying success at Training and First Levels, and predominantly dressage-bred warmbloods and Iberian breeds at the upper levels.
Whether you believe any horse can be successful at dressage depends on your own definition of success. If your goal is to have fun in local shows at the lower levels, absolutely you can be successful and competitive on almost any sound, healthy horse with good training.
If your goal is to represent Canada on the international stage, or to piaffe and passage down centre line in the Grand Prix, your chances of success are greatly improved by having the right horse for the job.
Think outside the box
If your goals don't match your budget, think outside the box. I was lucky enough to buy a high-quality, imported Hanoverian, PSG schoolmaster for less than the cost of the average used saddle. How? I was willing to take a risk that a 22-year-old horse would stay sound and healthy and was able to give her the quality home, training and care her previous owner wanted her to have.
There are several top quality young warmbloods in our barn who were priced very low due to a lack of handling or late start - problems that should be easily addressable by a skilled trainer. And of course we have our FEI draft cross superstars - not traditional dressage horses by any means, but they all have suitable conformation and a first-class work ethic that has been key to their progress.
Bottom line: choose the horse that is right for you - your budget, your personality, and your goals. Find a skilled trainer who can maximize your horse’s potential through correct dressage training and can guide you in setting realistic expectations and goals. Enjoy your horse and enjoy dressage!
When I was a child, I dreamed of owning a horse. Any horse. it didn't matter what size, breed, or colour; I was obsessed with them all. I railed against my parents who followed the doctor's advice not to let me ride, since I tested highly allergic to horses (and everything else with fur or feathers too). It wasn't until I was 14 that I managed to wear them down and convince them to let me try one lesson a week for the summer. We all know how that "just one lesson" scenario works out!
I part boarded and leased a few horses over the years but my dream of ownership didn't come true until I was 17. I had fallen in love with a handsome QH x TB in our barn, and when he came up for sale I couldn't resist. He was the horse of my dreams! Problem was, I was far from his dream rider.
Said horse was rising three and had only a few months' training under saddle - probably not the best match for a novice teenager who didn't even know enough to know what she didn't know. We struggled. A lot. There were high points, low points, victories, and hospital visits.
My coach offered to take him back in exchange for his older and better-trained half brother. I refused. I LOVED my horse and I wouldn't dream of giving him up. In retrospect that was a huge mistake. But our teenage years are for making mistakes, right? As I gained more knowledge and had the opportunity to work with a few knowledgeable dressage coaches, we turned things around. He was never destined to be a superstar but became a fun, (mostly) safe all-around ride who could hold his own in the show ring or take care of my adult beginner students in a lesson. When I finished university, got a full-time job, and faced the financial reality that I couldn't afford a horse, he ended up with a wonderful family in Nova Scotia and I closed the door on my equine adventures until I got back in the saddle for "just one lesson a week" at the age of 42.
I came up with another wild and crazy dream. Not only was I going to own a horse again, I was going to learn my way up the levels and compete him at Third Level before I turned 50. Again I found my dream horse - the huge, sweet and (mostly) safe gentle giant you all know as Gus, then 5 years old. Again, I was far from his dream rider, but I sure tried. We struggled. A lot. There were high points, low points, victories, and hospital visits. We made it into the ring at Second Level this winter - a huge milestone for both of us - and he was able to do all the Third Level movements at home, to the best of his ability at least.
But I was bit naive, having never ridden past First Level before, and didn't fully appreciate just how physically demanding the collection and self-carriage required at Third is. At that level the horse really needs to be an athlete and athletic is not a word anyone would use to describe Gus. He tried his heart out but with a conformation most unsuited to dressage and a chronic medical condition to manage, he started letting us know this spring that he was unhappy.
After changing everything we could (tack, bits, medication, pads, etc.) and having many consultations with the vet, the conclusion was simply that his body was not going to hold up to this level of work and that continuing would cause him pain. He deserves better. We could have retired him, or kept him as a low level pleasure horse, and if we hadn't found the perfect home for him that's exactly what would have happened.
However, just because he was no longer the horse to help me reach my dreams, didn't mean Gus wasn't someone else's dream horse. His new mom reminds me so much of myself when I first got him. Badly in need of a confidence booster, she loves the fact he stops when she loses her balance and, on her second ride, felt safe enough to try cantering for the first time in over a year. He will work at a lower level on a lighter schedule and will be wonderful at his new job. He'll hear "good boy" over and over again and will be doing what he's best at. She is his dream rider, plus she adores him and thinks he's the handsomest horse in the world. She's right.
There's Gus-sized hole in my heart at the moment but I know things have worked out in the best way for me, for him, and for his new owner. My dream of Third Level is on a temporary pause but that's ok. Taking care of my horse is more important. I believe there's a horse out there who thinks I'm their dream rider (ha!) and will love teaching me the next steps.
Poor Gus. When it comes to the tail department he's not exactly well-endowed. He suffers the thin-tailed curse of many of his fellow chestnut Weltmeyer descendants - an issue made all the more obvious by just how out of proportion his under-sized tail is to his over-sized body. And because his tail breaks just as easily as it tangles, it's hard to keep it looking sleek and smooth when brushing only serves to make it even thinner.
I know, #FirstWorldProblems, right?
But a problem nonetheless. So when the folks at Equi-Spa contacted me to see if I was interested in trying their products and whether I had any specific grooming concerns, my answers were yes and yes. They suggested two products: Fairy Tails Lotion and Fairy Tails Orchid Oil Gloss and I readily agreed to give them both a try.
*Full disclosure: This is the bit where I have to tell you that the products were provided to me at no charge in order for me to review them. There was no financial consideration and no suggestion that the review should be anything but my own unbiased opinion, based on my own experience and actual results with the products. I don't have a stake in the company and don't personally know any of its owners or employees.
The lotion comes in a regular bottle and is applied by hand. It's thick enough that it doesn't run out of your hands, but thin enough for easy application evenly throughout the tail. I used a generous amount on the first few applications, but with regular use needed less each time. I always applied it to a clean, damp tail after shampooing.
The gloss comes in a spray bottle but is thicker than other sprays I've previously used. It comes out in more of a stream than a spray and doesn't apply quite as evenly as finer sprays. I preferred spraying it into my hands first and then rubbing it into the tail. I tried it on a clean, damp tail but also applied it several times to a dirty, dry tail and it definitely helped to keep the hair smoother and free of tangles between washings. A little goes a long way with this product, making it more economical than I first thought.
I've been using both products for almost a month now and I'm pleasantly surprised. I've tried a variety of lotions and potions on Gus's tail in the past and while most of them do help with detangling, with repeated use they seem to leave the hair either dry and brittle, or a bit sticky. Based on the consistency and initial results, I suspected Fairy Tails would lean towards the sticky side as well, but that hasn't been the case. The more I used it, the more I like it. While the tail doesn't have that silky, slippery feeling that silicone based products create, it has remained smooth and tangle free, even through rainstorms and mud baths. The tail also feels (and perhaps looks?) a little thicker and fuller than it did before, although that may just be wishful thinking on my part.
My only complaint? Both products, but particularly the gloss, are very heavily scented. It's a pleasant floral scent and isn't overwhelming in a barn setting but I quickly discovered that if I didn't wash my hands thoroughly afterwards, my allergies would go into overdrive. That being said, I am allergic to everything and super-sensitive to floral scents, even naturally-derived ones. YMMV.
The verdict: I give Fairy Tails a 4 out of 5 for being easy to use and doing exactly what it promises. At $16 (US) for the lotion and $20 for the gloss, they are comparably priced with other "natural" coat care products. However, since the products aren't available in Canada yet, you have to factor in the exchange rate, shipping costs and any duties which may apply. Once my free samples run out I would definitely order more of the lotion (because it is less scented than the gloss) and would consider trying some of the company's other products, such as the Kiss A Frog foot wash, which claims to protect the hoof from fungal and bacterial issues such as thrush and mud fever.
See for yourself! Bearing in mind that Gus' tail is usually a tangled mess just one day after washing, conditioning and detangling, check out this little video clip on my Instagram. This is him straight from turnout in a muddy, dusty field with no brushing or finger combing before taking the video. It's been about 4 days since I washed his tail or applied any Fairy Tails product and even though it's dirty, it's still smooth, shiny and tangle-free.
If you've me say it once you've probably heard me say it a thousand times: I hate horse shows. Except I don't really. After going to our local CDI as a spectator this past weekend I realized that I just hate showing. I resent the amount of money I spend on doing something I dread. I hate running back and forth to the port-a-potty because my anxiety is in overdrive. I hate that I can't conquer the overwhelming feeling that I might die if I encounter the water truck on the way to the warmup ring (even though my horse has only spooked hard about 5 times in his entire life). I hate that some people take showing so seriously and get worked up over a mistake or a low score as if they were life-or-death issues. At the end of the day we're not doing brain surgery; it's horse dancing.
So why do I show? Because I suck at it. And my mental state makes my horse suck at it. While he seems to enjoy "camping" with his buddies back at the shedrow and watching all the goings-on at the wash racks, he's not particularly enthusiastic about having to perform in the ring. So we'll keep doing it until we both get comfortable enough that getting through a low level test without a major error or meltdown is possible.
But this weekend he got to stay home with an abscess while I enjoyed all the fun of a show with none of the stress. All my past whining about showing negates the many, many good things about it, so here's a quick list of 3 things I love about shows:
1. Dressage shows are for everyone
Many horse sports have a reputation for being elitist, but getting up at 5am to feed or braid has a way of putting everyone on an equal footing. FEI competitors can be found hand-grazing their six-figure mounts next to little kids and their lesson ponies. Want to meet one of your Olympic idols? Sure there was an autograph booth for that, but you're just as likely to meet and chat with one at the manure pile, by the warm-up ring rail, or in the line-up for coffee. I saw competitors of all ages, all shapes and sizes (so confidence boosting for me to see several plus-sized riders looking awesome and riding fantastic tests) and all skill levels. Likewise I saw horses of every breed, size, shape, colour, description, and price point.
2. Dressage shows are inspiring
Unless you're lucky enough to winter in Wellington, or board somewhere with Grand Prix riders, we lower-level riders don't get the chance to see top-level dressage in person nearly often enough. Being able to watch riders warming up and competing at the highest levels is inspiring and educational in and of itself. But so is watching the pros put their young horses through their paces at the lower levels. So is watching an amateur with her self-trained draft cross hold her own against pros on fancy warmbloods in FEI classes. So is watching a rider struggle through a challenging warmup or difficult test, and live to knock it out of the park the next day.
3. Dressage shows are fun
Hands down, the best part of any show is the camaraderie. The dressage community in Canada is small and closely-knit, despite being highly competitive. Shows are a place to reconnect with people you haven't seen since last season, and to meet in real life some you "know" through social media. Everywhere you go there's a small army of family members, friends, barn-mates, and supporters taking off boots, holding horses, giving pep talks, and offering congratulations or condolences. At the end of the day it's not unusual to find small groups gathered outside of each shedrow, often trading war stories and laughs over an adult beverage or two, as their horses contentedly much hay nearby. Dressage may be an individual sport but these moments are a great reminder of our team spirit.
Does your bit fit? It seems like a simple question but in fact if you are like me, you probably only have a vague idea. Most of us were taught to assess the height of the bit in the horse’s mouth by the number of lip wrinkles, and to choose a bit just slightly wider than the horse's lips. But when it comes to more detailed fitting, not to mention choosing from the wide range of bit types and styles, many horse owners operate on a trial and error basis.
I'm old enough to remember when we bought saddles simply by choosing we liked out of a catalogue. Today we understand just how much damage an ill-fitting saddle can do, and enlisting the help of certified saddle fitters has become the norm. Will using bit fitters become commonplace too? I suspect so, and for good reason. Seeking expert advice can save you time, money and frustration in the long run.
“My recommendation to anyone would be to invest in a consultation with a certified bit fitter who can come to your barn and evaluate your horse in person,” says Tammy Levasseur, the owner of On the Bit Tack & Apparel and a recently certified bit fitter herself.
“They’ll ask questions about your current training regime, goals, and any issues you are having, and will observe your horse being ridden in your current bit. They’ll examine your horse’s oral anatomy and identify issues related to bitting, and will measure the mouth width and the height of the inter-dental space (the “bars” of the mouth). They’ll also check the height and shape of your horse’s palatine arch, as that plays a big role in determining the optimal bit thickness and shape. There are a lot of bit-fitting myths out there, like the belief that a thicker bit is more gentle and comfortable for the horse. However if your horse has a low palate or small inter-dental space, a thinner bit may actually be much more comfortable.”
I interviewed Tammy for a detailed article in Horse Sport magazine about the many different factors to consider when choosing a bit, including mouthpiece type, cheekpiece type, material and size. Check it out in the most recent issue (the one with Erynn Ballard on the cover, or read it online with a digital subscription.
Tammy came to the barn to meet Gus and evaluate his current bit - I go back and forth between a French link Baucher and a double jointed Myler snaffle. The first thing she pointed out is that both bits are too wide for his mouth. Despite Gus' giant stature, his mouth measures only 5.5 inches wide, meaning a 5.75 inch bit is the best fit for him, not the 6-inch+ ones I had been using.
She found no abnormalities in the size and shape of the inter-dental space or the palatine arch, meaning there were no special considerations needed for bit thickness or shape. Gus does tend to get fussy with his tongue in certain bits, so the one Tammy recommended was the Neue Schule Turtle Tactio. It looks like a pretty standard double-jointed snaffle, however the mouthpiece is angled differently and the lozenge in the centre is unlike any I've ever seen. According to the Neue Schule website the design "focuses rein pressure to the central part of the tongue whilst diverting pressure away from the sensitive regions near the bars."
There is no magic bullet with horses and no bit, no matter how scientifically engineered or costly - will ever replace good training. I'm not expecting this new bit to solve my riding problems (although I wish it would!) but if Gus is happy and comfortable working in it, and it allows me to communicate with him in the lightest way while still being effective, then that's a good thing. I've had a couple of rides in it and so far that seems to be the case. Stay tuned for updates and I'll let you know how it goes.
What kind of bit do you currently use and why? Let me know in the comments section below!
The four 6- and 7-year-old horses featured in the clinic are living proof that development and training don't happen on a strict timeline; each horse is an individual and will progress at different rates and react to stressful situations differently. Despite being more or less the same age, they ranged from First to Third Level, and all but one showed varying degrees of stage fright in the large venue. However they all demonstrated superb quality and excellent potential for the future.
Recognizing that no two horses progress at the same pace, Charlotte still has a basic set of expectations for her own horses at this age; shoulder in, travers and half pass should now be well-established and she likes to introduce the single flying change between age 5 and 6. "There's no hurry to get the change in but it shouldn't be a big deal for most horses this age. If you have trained a good collected canter, it's not difficult to teach a good flying change," she said. Lateral work is particularly important at this stage to develop suppleness and strength.
Jaimey Irwin and Fortissimo (6yo, First Level)
This big, impressive-looking gelding captured everyone's attention the minute he walked into the ring. Charlotte cautioned that with a horse that naturally has such big movement, you want to encourage it to move smaller and in a more easy way, to reduce wear and tear and preserve the horse for the long run. "My goal with every horse is always the Grand Prix. I don't care about winning young horse classes or at the lower levels; the horse has got to last if it's going to be successful at Grand Prix."
Fortissimo was extremely nervous in the main ring and despite Jaimey's best efforts, never really was able to completely relax and focus on the job at hand. It was a wonderful demonstration of patience and tactful riding from a skilled professional who quietly worked through moments of tension and rewarded moments of relaxation. "We can all see how nice this horse is and we want to see what he can do but there's no point in trying when he's this tense and worried," said Charlotte. "In a situation like this the only goal becomes getting the horse to breathe, getting him to a point where he's not afraid and finishing the session on a positive note." Specific notes on the work they were able to do included:
- Use lots of serpentines, circles and changes of direction with a nervous horse to keep it guessing a little, keep its mind off the scary situation.
- Shoulder in and travers on a circle are excellent to build suppleness on the stiffer side and make the horse more even from right to left.
- Horse has a high quality canter, up and out with a lovely use of the shoulder and very active hind leg. A round and active canter like this indicates horse will have a good flying change and pirouette down the road.
- Horse is clearly nervous but keeps trying, never says no. Keeping this horse going is never going to be a problem.
- An experienced rider like Jaimey is exactly what this horse needs; he can gain confidence from the confidence of his rider. Inexperienced rider on an inexperienced horse is not a good combination.
Leah Wilkins and High Energy STH (6yo, Second Level)
This elegant mare showed her nervousness in the arena by sucking back somewhat, and bearing down on the hand a little when Leah used her legs. In horses as in life, forward fixes almost everything. "Sometimes you just have to forget about dressage and go for a good yee-haw," Charlotte said, encouraging Leah to have a good gallop around the perimeter of the ring. Once the horse was more relaxed, she moved into the lateral work at the introduction of the single change (which unfortunately I missed, due to a badly-timed phone call which I couldn't ignore.) Charlotte's advice included:
- Use lateral work to occupy the horse's mind and keep her from spooking.
- Do shoulder-in away from the wall to test if horse is drifting or not. Leah is doing it very well but lots of people cheat by pushing the quarters out, rather than bringing the shoulders in.
- Then try moving between shoulder in and renvers on the same line by changing the flexion.
- Travers is the best exercise for suppling as it bends the inside while stretching the outside of the horse's body. When the mare resists bending on her stiffer side, just keep correcting and riding through it.
- Half pass is simply travers on a diagonal line. Ideally it should be parallel but not when teaching a young horse. Make it easier at first for them to succeed by allowing the it to trail slightly.
-As horse gets stronger over time work on making half pass more parallel without allowing the rhythm or contact to change.
- Set up the half pass correctly in the corner before. If you ride a bad corner you will ride a bad movement.
Justin Ridgewell and Jolene (7yo, Third Level)
Justin unfortunately encountered much the same situation as Jaimey did. Despite the fact she schooled comfortably in the empty arena the night before, Jolene was simply too afraid of the large crowd on Saturday to demonstrate much of the Third Level work. "Justin is thinking 'this is horrible,' but everyone in the audience is learning from it because their horses all do the exact same thing," said a sympathetic Charlotte. After canter work settled her down, Jolene was able to show off the qualities that made Charlotte say, "This is the type of horse I go for. She's very go-ey, very athletic looking and quite uphill by nature." Specific comments included:
- Keep the poll up; you should be able to see the top piece of the bridle.
-Make little corrections when she drops down to keep the neck up and open.
- Rider needs stronger seat and stronger core to sit up and back more - tendency is to tip forward from the hip somewhat.
- Horse is very supple laterally, finds it easy to switch between shoulder in and travers
- Increase difficulty by starting in leg yield from centre line towards wall, then switch to half pass.
- By age 7 horses should be working on the pirouette. Start with a 15m circle in shoulder in, followed by a 15m circle in travers, then spiral the circle in towards more of a pirouette feeling.
- This horse shows ability to sit and hind leg does not get slower, keeps a good jump in the canter. Will be capable of a good pirouette.
- Another pirouette prep exercise is to gradually collect the canter more and more with smaller steps until almost cantering on the spot, then forward again for several strides.
- Think walk with your hands and canter with your legs. If horse doesn't stay in front of the leg in the collected steps go forward into medium canter right away, or even a good gallop.
Janine Little and Billionaire (7yo, Third Level)
The handsome gelding Billionaire received my "rock star of the day" award. Despite his young age and relative inexperience, this horse didn't bat an eyelash at the crowd, the constant movement, or the indoor environment. He has the training to show the audience some of the more advanced movements and he and Janine treated us to a lovely, harmonious demonstration. Having taught Janine privately before, Charlotte joked she could be tougher on her at the clinic. Her comments included:
- At this stage the horse is more balanced and can be kept together with the seat and legs, not the hands.
- Begin with canter work to activate this horse - he's a little sluggish by nature.
- To prepare for flying change work, begin with travers down the long side.
- Some horses just put the hip in without truly bending. Make sure you are really achieving a stretch through the outside of the horse's body.
- Be brave and forward in the tempi changes. Cover more ground, make the change happen higher off the ground.
- Do the changes on the wall to help the horse stay straight. If horse jumps to the right in the change, think leg yield a little to left.
- Need to ride the actual canter as bravely and forward as the changes. Changes are bigger than the regular canter.
- In the trot work this is the stage where you can really start to add suspension.
- Horse can keep the suspension on straight lines currently but struggles in the lateral work. Keep the angle of the shoulder in and travers more shallow to make it easier for horse to maintain suspension.
- "That's your trot!" after the medium trot, Janine found a new gear for this horse with much more energy, activity and expression, sitting more and truly pushing from behind.
That's it for now. Come back tomorrow for a recap of the four FEI level sessions!
So apparently there are people out there who not only want me to write a recap of the Charlotte Dujardin masterclass at Caledon Equestrian Park this weekend, but are actually waiting for me to do so! That's very flattering and I hate to disappoint, so will get right to it with no futher ado.
Was it awesome? Yes.
Was it the same as last time? No. While the clinic followed the same format as Charlotte's 2016 masterclass and the Carl Hester one last year, there was a completely different group of horses, and therefore was a completely different learning experience.
Instead of recapping each day, this time I'd like to break it down by level. It was interesting to compare the differences and similarities between the horses each day. Let's begin with the babies who were featured in the first session of each day.
Charlotte prefers to buy young horses around the age of two and start their training herself. She looks for correct and easy - but not necessarily spectacular - gaits. Although big gaits are becoming increasingly prevalent in the young horse classes, that extravagant expression is something she prefers to develop over time with training, saying that working in a huge trot at a young age will increase the wear and tear on a horse over the long term. She avoids the young horses who already walk for a 9 or 10, knowing that enormous walk will be difficult to collect later on. A 7.5 is her ideal walk at this stage.
By the time they reach age 4, like the horses featured in the clinic, Charlotte expects them to go forward from the leg, maintain straightness, steady contact and a steady rhythm. She keeps their training periods short - 20 minutes at most. Maintaining balance of the young horse is the rider's job and they have to be brave, allowing them to go forward without restricting them. Horses have their whole lives to be collected. Allow young horses the freedom to make mistakes, then correct the mistakes. That's where the learning happens.
With three out of the four youngsters featured this weekend, Charlotte wanted to see the riders work towards a more uphill outline with consistency in the contact, without sacrificing the energy, activity and rhythm. The fourth horse - a lovely mare ridden by Neil McIntosh - was a bit the opposite. She wanted this hotter and more sensitive mare to show more relaxation, slow down the tempo and reach forward more to the contact.
Inga Hamilton & Brigitte (4)
This elegant young mare is a half-sister on the dam's side to Cyrus, whom many of us have seen competing under Tom Dvorak. I've always enjoyed seeing Inga ride her spectacular stallion Fabregas, and equally enjoyed seeing her give this much younger, greener horse a lovely ride. Charlotte complimented the horse on her nice rhythm, easy movement and relaxed nature. Key points from her lesson included:
- Don't expect to see a 4yo in a Grand Prix outline but would like to see her a little more balanced uphill and less over the front end.
- Keep lifting the next sightly without disturbing the nice, easy rhythm.
- Think more forward and active but not faster.
- Make her work hard to carry herself more uphill, then reward that work with a stretch break.
- In the canter when the weight is rocked back a little more on the hind end, the whole quality of the gait changes. Mare has a lovely, super canter when balanced correctly.
- Transitions from canter to trot are still difficult for her at this stage. Until she can shorten the canter stride in balance the transition to trot won't be balanced.
Neil McIntosh & Juweel of Lichty (4)
He may have been a last-minute replacement when Harma Fraser opted not to make the long journey with her horse from PEI, but Montreal-based Neil McIntosh rose to the challenge admirably on this very nice young mare. Charlotte's comments to the pair included:
- Keep the leg on. Tendency is to keep the leg away from a hot horse but we need to do the opposite.
- Horse tends to slow slightly when Neil asks her to bend - indicates he is using the hand without enough leg aid to back it up, a common mistake on a sensitive horse.
- Maintain one single steady rhythm - no speeding up or slowing down.
- Lots of walk/trot transitions (good ones, on the aids and straight!) are really beneficial for this horse.
- Horse will have a really impressive trot in a few years.
- Keep testing the contact in the canter. Can you give without the balance and rhythm changing?
- Use shoulder fore to create straightness
- Maintain contact in the stretch trot - don't just throw the rein away
Magda Moyseowicz & Sam I Am (4)
The only amateur in the master class, Toronto-based Magda did an impressive job with her big young gelding. Charlotte encouraged her to persevere through occasional moments of resistance and not let the horse dictate what amount of contact he was comfortable with. Her words of wisdom included:
- Don't be a passenger you have to be the pilot.
- Canter is easier for this horse right now so go with it. Train the canter work first, then work on the trot once the horse is looser and happier.
- Horse likes to be a bit long and flat in his outline - working on long straight lines only encourages this more. Use lots of circles, serpentines and changes of direction while really asking the horse to bend and carry himself more uphill.
- It's easy for him to stretch long and low so he's happier there. Use that as a reward after harder work in a more uphill balance.
- Work uphill for a bit, then stretch for a bit. Rinse, repeat.
Alexandra Reid & Jewel's Idokarde (5)
At this stage, an extra year of maturity and training makes a big difference. By age 5, Charlotte expects to see the basic paces well established and horses moving forward from the leg with straightness. Now it's time to increase the suppleness with lateral work. Though "Dreamy" had a few cheeky young horse moments, Alex calmly and patiently continued to push the horse forward through the resistance, resulting in a much more relaxed and swinging trot by the end of the session. A great performance from this young professional and a super-talented young horse. Charlotte's tips for Alex included:
- Horse has a lovely looking, big trot with nice swing to the movement but isn't actually swinging through the body.
- Increase suppleness and encourage the legs and body to work together with walk/trot transitions. Lots of them.
-Horse keeps hind end underneath himself very well - sign he will have a great piaffe later.
- Leg yield is the first lateral movement for the young horse. Set horse up for success by starting as if on a diagonal line, then add the sideways.
- Will really highlight which side is the horses' stiff side - tend to over bend in one direction and not at all in the other direction.
- Horse has to go sideways from the leg, not from the inside rein. Pulling the inside rein results in horse falling out through the outside shoulder.
- Working with young horses takes patience and perseverance. You can't try to fix everything in one day. Bit by bit work on making them more uphill, more together, softer, more supple.
- After working through the resistance, by the end Alex was able to demonstrate a lovely stretch trot and canter with the horse swinging nicely through his back and body.
There's so much more to cover but I have a 9am lesson tomorrow and a full day of work and chauffeuring kids around, so it's off to bed for me! Stay tuned for the next installment, featuring the 6 and 7-year old horses.
So I had promised a while back to provide periodic training updates on Gus's new program and I'm happy to report it's going well. As I'm sure you all know, the training process isn't a straight line from A to B - far from it!
The biggest challenges initially were to get Gus moving really freely forward and learning to balance his weight better off the forehand. He made huge progress over the first few weeks, then hit a bit of a wall as muscle fatigue and a touch of Belgian draft stubbornness set in.
Now we're past that wall and back in a progress phase where every day seems to come with a big breakthrough. He's feeling fitter, his balance has improved enormously and with that so has the quality of his gaits. It's exciting to get glimpses of the horse he will be six months or a year from now. While he's never going to be a world-class FEI horse that's ok - I'm never going to be a world-class FEI rider either! ;-)
I know another plateau is lurking around the corner so I'm enjoying this fun phase while it lasts.
On my end, I'm still struggling to improve both my fitness and my position. These aren't exactly new issues, as every coach who has ever taught me will tell you! But they are slowly getting better, and the difference in how Gus goes when I am steady and strong in my position is really noticeable. (Again, something every coach I've ever had is saying to themselves "I told you so!" right now). I'm also learning to focus on the positives from each lesson, rather than over-analyzing the negatives and dwelling on them.
I hope you are all enjoying your horses this summer and making progress on your own journey, whatever your goals are.
Onwards and upwards!
It was my great pleasure to spend this past weekend scribing all three days for the Spring Dressage Jubilee at Caledon Equestrian Park. Thankfully I scribe much better than I ride, and always enjoy the chance to watch dressage and learn from the judge I'm paired with. There's no better way to realize what you do wrong in your own tests than sitting at C and watching dozens of rides from the judge's perspective.
Three days is a LOOOOOONG time to spend locked in a a tiny hut with a stranger, so when scribing for a multi-day show it's important to choose your judge wisely. The right judge not only makes the experience educational, but also fun. Luckily I was matched with Rene Huyge, a true gentleman with a great sense of humour who never seemed to mind answering my countless questions during breaks and generously encouraged me to develop my eye,
I've got some overall thoughts about the show to share, along with some specific tips and tricks for riding a better test - things we all know but somehow fail to remember when we enter the ring at A.
The fact this show even exists goes in the "good" column. Kudos to EMG Group for taking over the running of these shows and ensuring Ontario dressage riders have the opportunity to compete at this world-class facility.
Over three days I saw horses and ponies of all shapes, sizes, colours and breeds, and riders of all ages and abilities. Dressage is for every horse and the entries this weekend reflected that - from Western dressage and National Pony Cup classes, to Walk Trot through Grand Prix.
Looking at test sheets from all the different rings, it was great to see judges using the full spectrum of marks. There were 9s and there were 2s, sometimes on the same test!
It was disappointing to learn that the level of volunteer support needed to run a big show like this just wasn't there. Kudos to the many CEP staff members who gave up their weekend and stepped in at the last minute to help. Aside from the very busy pros and coaches, I think almost everyone at the show, either competing or supporting a rider, could find the time to volunteer a few hours over the weekend to run tests, hand out ribbons, or add up scores. This is probably a topic for a blog post of its own - what would it take to get you to volunteer? Would a discount on future entries help? Any other incentives? If you haven't volunteered at a show, why not? This issue goes far beyond this one competition to every show across Canada.
I saw very little ugliness at all during the weekend - no rough riding, no abusive coaching, lots of positive support from fellow competitors. As much as I love sitting in the booth though, the experience always makes me relieved to not be skilled enough to judge. So much pressure and so many factors go into assigning every score!
If you get a score you don't feel you deserve don't take it personally. It's one moment in time and it's based on what the judge saw in that moment. Another judge may see the same thing and mark it quite differently. That's part and parcel of a subjectively judged sport, unfortunately.
While some judges do mark lower overall than others, I can say with 100% confidence that every judge wants to give a good score. They want to see you ride for an 8 or a 9 and are disappointed when a bobble or mistake brings that mark down to 5 or 6. Every judge I've ever scribed for has rooted for each rider to succeed.
Tips and tricks for better scores
Test after test I saw riders losing marks for simple mistakes - the same mistakes I make when I go into the ring too. Especially at the lower levels, accuracy is EVERYTHING, as there's not much else to be judged on. Pay attention to the details as much as you can and your scores will go up.
Find centre line and try to stay on it. Sounds obvious but you'd be amazed how many people enter at A two metres off centre line and stay there.
Use your corners well. If a movement starts at F or H, for example, use the corner before to ensure you begin the movement right at the letter. If you start your diagonal line or shoulder-in three strides past F, you're giving away marks.
Get to X. In all the tests with loops to X and back to the rail, perhaps 3 or 4 riders actually hit X. This is one error which is glaringly obvious from C so really pay attention when in the show ring - chances are your ring at home is a slightly different size and it may not feel quite the same, especially with all the distractions of show day.
Circles don't have corners. Sounds obvious too doesn't it? Really work to show a difference between the arc of the circle and the corner when you are going large - this will also help with your circle size and shape.
Circles have to be not only the prescribed size, but also placed correctly. A 20m circle at B or E can't go all the way to the P-V line. Find a marker on the fence that’s at the outside point of the circle and use it as a guideline.
Free walks and stretchy trot circles need to show way more stretch than I imagined. Watching your test videos back can be helpful here - personally I’m always surprised that what I thought FELT like a good stretch was actually quite minimal when I watch it after.
Go forward - really forward! Especially at the lower levels, having that energy and activity often is the difference between a 6 and a 7 or even higher. It also really helps with a spooky or looky horse.
Use your time before the bell wisely. Again, this is a great time to really make your horse go forward and not give them time to spook or get distracted. Canter if it helps get your horse energized. It’s also a great time to find your markers on the rail that will help you ride the most accurate test possible.
Don’t sweat it if things go wrong. Riding at shows is not like riding at home and sometimes the easiest things at home become nearly impossible to achieve in the show ring. Judges and scribes have seen every mistake under the sun and they have nothing but empathy for riders when they just aren’t having a good day.
About the author
I'm a middle-aged, overweight, rusty re-rider who refuses to let any of that get in the way of my passion for dressage.