What a wonderful weekend for the Canadians who travelled to Saugerties, NY for the CDI-W this past weekend! Lots of great scores and results, and a clear indication that the Canuck contenders for WEG 2018 are going to be strong.
Some of the wins in the FEI ring included:
Lori Bell & Flirt - CDI Prix St-Georges
Brittany Fraser & All In - CDI Grand Prix Freestyle
Denielle Gallagher Legriffon & Everton - FEI Test of Choice
Loren Hopkins & Denali - FEI Test of Choice (twice!)
Allie Youngdale & Ramiro - clean sweep of the FEI Jr division, winning all three classes
Belinda Trussell & Carlucci - CDI Intermediare I
Belinda Trussell & Tattoo 15 - CDI Grand Prix Special
The best moment was perhaps seeing Canadians finish 1-2-3 in the CDI Grand Prix Special, with Ashely Holzer (she's still Canadian in my heart) and Lindsey Kellock finishing right behind Belinda Trussell.
Onward to Dressage at Devon!
I'm a lucky, lucky girl. Today I had the chance to watch and learn from one of the best. Rien van der Schaft, the national team trainer for the Dutch dressage team, gives clinics at Hill Haven Farm in Hillsburgh, Ontario several times a year and Hill Haven owner Alison Banbury was kind enough to invite me to audit.
I wasn't sure what to expect, to be honest, but am delighted to say Rien didn't offer anything new, or groundbreaking or earth-shattering. Does that sound weird? It shouldn't. Rien emphasized simple, clear communication with the horse and correct basics. Over and over he reinforced the need to maintain a "positive topline" with the horse lifting the back, relaxed in the neck and reaching forward to the bit.
The riders I saw were all very accomplished: well known local trainers Alison Banbury, Daisy Kosa, and Isobel Dopta, along with dressage judge Leslie Kennedy. With the exception of Leslie, all were riding lovely, talented, fairly young horses that they are bringing up through the levels (Leslie's horse is well established in the upper levels). The youngsters each had their own strengths and quirks but also shared a lot of similarities as they worked on finding balance and self carriage in the exercises presented by Rien.
Some tended to get high headed and tight in the neck and back, while others resorted to curling behind the bit and getting heavy on the forehand - both common issues in young horses. In each case case Rien used simple exercises such as nose to wall leg yield in the trot to create a horse that was relaxed, rhythmic, balanced and responsive to the rider's leg.
In the canter he had the riders use a slight leg-yield like movement - just a stride or two to shift the horse's weight - to prepare for the flying change. This simple exercise resulted in much smoother, correct changes, especially in the horses who tended to rush through the movement and change late behind.
The biggest treat of the day was watching Rien ride Sakima, the stunning young gelding owned by Cindy Ishoy and campaigned with great success this summer by Cindy's daughter Kahla. If I sound a little starstruck, it's because I am! No matter how many clinics I watch Cindy teach, or shows I go to where she's busy helping her students warm up, I can't quite get over my astonishment at being in the same room as my childhood dressage idol.
I don't have an educated enough eye to report in detail on Rien's ride, unfortunately, but I can tell you the main things that stuck out to me. He made the horse work - really work - always encouraging him to be more "through" from behind and not accepting anything less. As a rider he was soft, subtle and still 90% of the time, and firm when he needed to be. But immediately after giving a firm aid, he went right back to being quiet and soft, and rewarded the horse for responding correctly to the lighter aid.
Though quiet, his hands were never fixed in place or still. His fingers opened and closed frequently, always maintaining a light communication with the horse, and his wrists often had a slight rolling or wave action to them. Nothing every looked stiff or tight or harsh.
The biggest takeway for me was just how often Rien asked Sakima to do something different. Our coaches tell us this all the time - that we should be doing frequent transitions between and within gaits, circles, change of direction etc. Until this clinic, however, I don't think I understood just how frequent "frequent" really means. I don't think Sakima went more than 4 or 5 strides without a change of some kind, whether it was a few steps of lateral movement, more collection within the gait, a transition to a different gait, etc.
While not all of us are working on movements like passage and flying changes, as Rien and the clinic participants were, we can all put into practice the lessons learned. Nothing replaces lightness, relaxation, balance and self-carriage, and correct, classical basics. We can all work harder and stop accepting less than a good effort from our horses. And we can all do the hundreds of tiny transitions every ride to create a stronger, more elastic, more responsive horse.
If you are interested in learning more about Rien van der Schaft and his methods, he recently launched an online training program that anyone can benefit from. Check out some free sample training videos and learn more at DressagePro.com.
It's always been hard to find good stable help. The work is dirty and physically demanding, the hours are long, the weather is always a factor and the pay isn't great. Good barn staff are worth their weight in gold. Bad barn staff....not so much.
Unfortunately for anyone who owns or manages a barn, the latter is much easier to find. In fact, after seeing what our barn owner has gone through and swapping horror stories with others in the business, I've come to the conclusion that some of these people genuinely don't want to work in a barn. They must be trying to get fired because otherwise, there is no logical explanation which justifies some of the behaviour I've witnessed and / or heard about.
To help those candidates be successful in their quest to fail in the horse industry, I've compiled a list of helpful tips:
1. Don't show up
This one is a no-brainer. Don't show up when you're supposed to, either for an interview or for actual scheduled work. This method is particularly effective if you're scheduled to work only one day a week, and at least twice a month have car trouble, the stomach flu or a family wedding to attend on that day. To be even more effective, don't notify your boss until the very last minute or - better yet - not at all.
2. Suck at your job
This one is a bit more challenging because, let's face it, mucking stalls isn't rocket science. To truly suck you have to do a spectacularly bad job. Try picking only the visible poop and leaving all the pee behind, buried under a light dusting of clean shavings. Or you could go the opposite route and quickly strip everything out of each stall without bothering to sift, filling the stalls back up with an entire month's worth of clean shavings in a single day. If needed, you can always kick it up a notch by "forgetting" to close gates and stall doors. That ought to do the trick.
3. The more the merrier
What's more fun than shovelling poop all day? Doing it with a friend tagging along to entertain you! Bonus points if your friend is terrified of horses or wears flip flops to the barn, or if it's a new love interest and you spend more time groping each other than mucking stalls. If you truly aspire to terrible greatness, take a job babysitting a toddler, bring said toddler to the barn with you and leave him / her completely unsupervised in the arena for three hours while you muck stalls with headphones in your ears and music cranked on max.
4. Know everything
One of the quickest ways to lose your job is to disregard everything your barn owner or manager tells you. Their 30 years of experience can't possibly compete with your very expensive two-year equine management college course in the U.S., right? You're a highly trained expert, so make sure everyone knows it. Offer training and riding advice to the boarders and suggest new feed programs for every horse. Question everything from tack and equipment to vet care. Loudly. If your boss has the audacity to suggest that you follow instructions, simply roll your eyes and sigh each time you're shown how to do something.
5. Slow and steady wins the race
In this case the goal is to get fired quickly; ironically the best way to do this is to go slowly...very slowly. The less you get done in a day, the faster your boss and co-workers will get frustrated with you. Let them! Why hustle when you can take 20 or 30 minutes to clean each stall and not break a sweat? Fair warning - this method may not work at barns where the manager is smart enough to pay a flat fee or per stall rate instead of an hourly wage. In that case I recommend waiting until you are left in sole charge of the stable, preferably when everyone else is at a show. When they return after a 12-hour day to find only five stalls have been mucked, your termination is guaranteed.
I'm curious; how many of you have read the FEI's rules of dressage? OK maybe not every single page or every single rule, but what about the section devoted to the specific requirements and descriptions of each movement? Surely that's something every dressage rider has read...or not.
To be honest, it's not something I had given much thought to until the barn where I board hosted a clinic with renowned trainer Jeremy Steinberg last year. Several participants asked for help improving their piaffe and Steinberg went into a lot of detail about what makes a good, correct piaffe.
The FEI description is very clear:
1. Piaffe is a highly collected, cadenced, elevated diagonal movement giving the impression of remaining in place. The Horse’s back is supple and elastic. The hindquarters are lowered; the haunches with active hocks are well engaged, giving great freedom, lightness and mobility to the shoulders and forehand. Each diagonal pair of legs is raised and returned to the ground alternately, with spring and an even cadence.
1.1. In principle, the height of the toe of the raised forefoot should be level with the middle of the cannon bone of the other supporting foreleg. The toe of the raised hind foot should reach just above the fetlock joint of the other supporting hind leg.
1.2. The neck should be raised and gracefully arched, with the poll as the highest point. The Horse should remain “on the bit” with a supple poll, maintaining soft contact. The body of the Horse should move in a supple, cadenced and harmonious movement.
1.3. Piaffe must always be animated by a lively impulsion and characterised by perfect balance. While giving the impression of remaining in place, there may be a visible inclination to advance, this being displayed by the Horse’s eager acceptance to move forward as soon as it is asked.
1.4. Moving even slightly backwards, irregular or jerky steps with the hind or front legs, no clear diagonal steps, crossing either the fore or hind legs, or swinging either the forehand or the hindquarters from one (1) side to the other, getting wide behind or in front, moving too much forward or double-beat rhythm are all serious faults. The aim of piaffe is to demonstrate the highest degree of collection while giving the impression of remaining in place.
I will likely never be a Grand Prix rider, nor have I ever trained a horse to GP, so my knowledge regarding what a "correct" piaffe looks like relies 100% on the above description. Jeremy is both a successful GP rider and trainer, however, and he is adamant that where piaffe is concerned, the movement often seen in the ring (and often receiving high scores) does not necessarily match the FEI's description.
Instead of a lowered high end, he regularly sees bouncing croups. Instead of forefeet being raised higher than the hind feet, he frequently sees the opposite. Why the disconnect between what is supposed to be the ideal, and what is being rewarded by judges in the ring? Do the FEI's top international judges need a refresher course or does the FEI's description of piaffe in the rules need to be updated?
I had the pleasure of working with Jeremy to write an article for Horse Sport magazine on this very subject, including many of his helpful tips for introducing and improving the piaffe. Enjoy!
I swear I'm not a tackaholic. Well, I probably would be if I could afford to be, but honestly the reason I have gone through two bridles, three saddles and three girths in three years is Gus. He's the freaking Goldilocks of horses: everything is too hard, too soft, too stiff, too big, too small, too flexible, too something.
The bridle issues were easily resolved by giving up my drool-worthy, anatomically-designed, outrageously expensive Swedish dressage bridle for a plain-Jane padded monocrown snaffle with flash. The saddle saga was solved by the Prestige D1 Zero with its incredible shoulder freedom and super narrow twist. I am not sponsored by Prestige nor have any relationship with them, so believe me when I say this saddle is truly amazing. In the past six months four of us in our barn have switched to this model and every single horse has noticeably improved in their way of going, while the riders all say they are better balanced and feel more connected with the horse. A fifth barn-mate is trialing one right now.
The last puzzle piece is my never-ending quest for the right dressage tack is the girth. I started out with a very expensive, state-of-the-art British model, designed specifically for horses with a forward girth groove on whom saddles tend to slip. While it seemed ok for a while, over the past year Gus grew increasingly cranky while being saddled, and started to get small rubs. So I switched to a lovely Canadian made dressage model that claims to self balance. Again it seemed a huge improvement at first, but Goldilocks began to express his dissatisfaction after a month or so. I still love this girth, but think the elastic on both ends allows too much movement of the saddle, at least for my delicate 17+ hand flower of a horse.
In desperation I followed the advice of Liz at Bahr Saddlery, who fitted our Prestige dressage saddle. For a horse with Gus' fit issues, she highly recommended the revolutionary No Pressure Girth, also from Prestige. I was dubious and reluctant, mainly because it is so unusual looking. Ok, let's be honest, it's ugly. The girth consists of a circular padded donut, which rests against the horse's belly, distributing the pressure over a much bigger surface area than a traditional girth. I'm sure there's lots of science behind it that I don't understand, but for whatever reason it really does seem to work. Gus is happy and comfortable, moving freely and lifting his back, while the saddle stays in place without moving side to side or pulling forward.
We've had one on trial at our barn for a few weeks and so far I've been impressed, impressed enough to order one for myself. Fingers crossed that Goldilocks decides this one is "just right."
I know, I know, the Canada Day long weekend is already over but we still have lots to celebrate. Most notably, a few of our top Canadian riders representing the maple leaf in Europe and more than holding their own against the very best horses and riders in the world.
Diane Creech and her daughter Vanessa Creech Terauds are enjoying a dream trip competing at many of the most prestigious shows in Europe this summer thanks to the support of their sponsor Louise Leatherdale.
Brittany Fraser-Beaulieu and Jill Irving are made the Maritimes proud with their wonderful results at the CDI4* in Fritzens, Austria, where the stunning backdrop of the Alps is as spectacular as the horses on display. The Canadian duo will also compete later this month at Aachen, arguably the most famous horse show in the world.
These experiences are validation that Canadian competitors do have both the talent and the horsepower needed to be successful at the highest levels, with the right support. I would love to see more sponsors and owners investing in opportunities like these for their riders, along with Equestrian Canada of course.
What do you get when you take a huge (and handsome) Clyde / Hackney cross, and add in a determined amateur owner and a highly skilled and supportive coach? Proof that dressage really is for any horse, of any breed.
I'm not going to pretend that breeding doesn't make a difference, because of course it does. If you had serious ambitions to compete in Formula One car racing, you probably wouldn't try to qualify in a Toyota Corolla. But if you are an average person looking for a safe, fun and affordable car to drive every day, the Corolla might be a perfect choice.
Dressage horses are much the same. If you genuinely plan to ride at the CDI level and represent your country on the international stage, your chances will be much improved if you are competing on a purpose-bred horse with strong performance bloodlines. However most of us don't have the ambition, skill, time or money to even dream of showing at that level. Most of need the Toyota Corolla of horses; dependable, cute with enough get-up-and-go to get the job done, but safe and reliable for an amateur driver.
The beauty of dressage is that - at the lower levels at least - any horse can do it, and any horse can be improved by it. Breed, size, colour...none of that should be a barrier to success. But getting up the levels - all the way up the levels - is no easy feat even on the priciest warmblood. Huge respect to every rider and trainer who successfully trains a horse to this level while keeping it horse sound, healthy and happy in the work. If those riders happen to be amateurs and the horses happen to be draft crosses, well that ratchets up my respect to a whole new level.
Meet Jacob, the Clyde / Hackney cross I was telling you about. With the help of the supremely talented Meredith Risk of Nobleton Dressage, owner Alison Baxter has brought her former Mennonite carriage horse carefully and correctly up through the levels. At the recent Palgrave show she had what must have been an incredible experience, watching Meredith pilot Jacob through his first Gold show Grand Prix.
Watch and enjoy Jacob's test here:
This is not the post I wanted to write. When I left before dawn yesterday morning I envisioned writing all about my triumphant return to the show ring. The day's rundown would include me facing my fears, Gus behaving beautifully, us killing our tests and bringing home pretty ribbons and respectable scores. He's been going really well; I've been feeling safe and confident and I figured we were ready to do this.
The horse gods laugh at our plans, don't they!
It started when Gus came off the trailer 20 hands high, yelling at all the other horses and nearly running me over in his excitement. Our working student kindly helped me manhandle him to the barn where he settled down quickly, but my confidence was already shaken. Gusty winds, flapping banners and sudden storms were the order of the day, which didn't help my nerves any.
Debbie got on to warm him up and he looked fine...sort of...while he was going well I could tell how hard she was working to keep him focused, which is not normal for him at home. He threw a small tempter tantrum when others horses left and he realized he was alone in the warm up ring. On a normal day, no big deal but this didn't feel like a normal day. I felt less confident the more I watched and really wanted to say "forget it," but didn't want to seem like a wimp.
Debbie called me over and I felt my stomach drop, knowing it was time for me to put my big girl panties on and get down centre line. Instead she said "I don't think this is the right day for you to do this. I think it's not going to go well and I don't want you to have a bad experience or get hurt." She felt Gus never really settled under her and was concerned that he would get in the show ring, realize he was alone, take one look at the flapping banners behind C and decide to get the hell out of Dodge.
I was relieved, but strangely disappointed at the same time. I decided to get on and see for myself. He felt fine one minute - fantastic actually - and the next would be a ball of sticky, balkiness that I knew signalled an imminent explosion if I tried to push him. And then he'd feel fine again, until he caught a glimpse of the wheelbarrows he had already spooked at 10 times.
If he hadn't misbhaved at the last two shows, or if I hadn't fallen off at one of them, Debbie and I both would have voted for suck it up and deal with whatever comes. But in this case she was right to put my confidence first. I couldn't cope with another fall right now. And I didn't want him to think that kind of behaviour was ok off property. She put my needs first and I'm glad I listened to her advice. We had a good school in the warm up ring and he went back to bed happy.Not the result I wanted but a good schooling experience nonetheless.
Debbie has already booked some off property schooling time before the next show and, since I cant ride him in it due to work obligations that week, she or her daughter will be the one going in the ring with him at the July show. So, I'll put my dreams of red ribbons aside, check my ego and focus on learning and improving. That's what this dressage thing is supposed to be all about, right?
I'm afraid. Very afraid. And I don't quite know what to do about it. I sent in my entries for our first show of the season today, and I've been pretty much in a cold sweat ever since.
It's a small Cadora Bronze show at a quiet local venue just a 10 minute drive from our barn. The perfect place to get back in the ring after having the fall last time right? No biggie. While Gus often gets a bit full of himself and pushy on the ground in new settings, he's always been fine when I get on and has never offered anything worse than a little squeal, kick out or headshaking.
His reaction (spin and run) to the bicycle whizzing by which prompted my fall (and concussion and knee fracture) at a show last year was a very honest reaction to something he'd never seen before and which truly looked and sounded scary. If he hadn't spun the other way to avoid a pond in the ring, I likely would have stayed on, continued my ride and not lost more than a minute's sleep over it.
Instead I have a sick feeling in my stomach and I can't help focusing on the one time things went wrong, rather than the hundreds of times they have gone right. We have a plan in place involving the liberal use of Chill (for Gus, not me) and having my coach warm him up at the show first. My head tells me it will be fine but my nerves aren't listening. Any advice, suggestions, for overcoming this block are greatly appreciated! He's going so well and I know realistically we can do a good job on First 1 and 2, if I can make it into the ring. Help me get there!
So I am clearly the worst blogger ever. Sorry everyone! Juggling work, kids, dogs, horses, other work and life in general sometimes gets out of control. I'm back now and will be posting more regularly. Promise!
So much has happened over the spring I hardly know where to start. The good: test ride clinic with judge Elaine Potter. She's not only very skilled, but hilarious! While Gus and I were far (far) from our best, she was able to help us through some issues. A few weeks later our barn hosted a clinic with Brittany Fraser-Beaulieu. This one was of particular interest to me since I knew Brittany when she was a little girl and have followed her career closely. She's a hugely talented rider who has been fortunate enough to have access to world-class coaches and horses. I was curious whether she had the skills and ability to pass that knowledge on - she sure does! Brittany has an excellent eye, clear and easy-to-follow instructions and a positive and encouraging delivery, while still being tough and demanding results. She's coming back in the fall and I'm looking forward to it.
Now for the bad: The spring was definitely one of ups and downs where riding and progress were concerned. I was sidelined by bronchitis for a few weeks and Gus developed uveitis which, though we caught it quickly and he responded well, was still scary. Knock on wood he hasn't had any recurrences so far.
Between coming back from my injury and all these other issues interfering with our training, it was easy to blame our lack of progress on me. But when lack of progress morphs into moving backwards, to the point where simple things like a 20m trot circle become impossible, you start to look for other solutions. I was getting increasingly frustrated and Gus didn't feel like my horse at all. It was like a beginner riding a sour and sore school horse.
Lightbulb! What makes a horse sour and sore? Surely not the ridiculously expensive custom made saddle, just 18 months old, which fit Gus so beautifully when I got it? Sadly yes. Everyone warned be that Oldenburgs and crosses mature more slowly, and that buying a foam saddle with a non-adjustable tree for a 6-year-old was a bad idea. Unfortunately I chose to believe the reassurances of the salesperson and was just happy to find something that he and I both loved, after months of searching.
Now I know there is a lot that can be done with shimming etc. but trust me - Gus has developed the shoulders of a linebacker and there is no amount of tweaking that would make this saddle fit him again. Happily the search for a new one was short this time. A few people in our barn have started riding in the D1 Zero by Prestige. The tree is like none I have ever seen and the saddle is designed to give the most shoulder freedom possible. I can't tell you how dramatic and immediate the change was as soon as I started riding it. Not only was Gus soft, round, forward and straight again, I could suddenly keep my legs in place, sit the trot easily and maintain my balance - issues I had been struggling with for months. Bahr's had a used one on consignment and Liz came out to confirm it was a good fit - done deal!
So now tat we are both healthy (fingers crossed) and the saddle issue is resolved, we can start moving forward again and get back to our goal of showing First Level.
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