Alfredo Hernandez Piaffe Clinic #2: Good Girrrrrrrrrrrrl

Alfredo is a character. Six feet or more of imposing Spanish presence, his english excellent but the accent strong (occasionally briefly incomprehensible with comic results). He has Personality  and Presence with a capital P. The horses stand up straighter when he comes nearer, and if they don’t, he makes sure they do and they don’t forget it. Justice is swift but very fair and clear.

My lesson began with work on the 20 m circle, collecting the horse, then letting him trot bigger. Most of the work was quite collected, as we were warming up and suppling the horse. Alfredo made the point that this is not the trot you would use in a show, but that it is an excellent training trot as it spares their legs the pounding of the bigger gaits, building strength in the topline and abdomen. Lots of transitions within the gait, shoulder-in for a quarter of the circle, then straight for a quarter of the circle, then shoulder-in again, etc. Occasionally when I got it right I got the praise of

“Good Girrrrrrrrrrl! Thas right! You got it!”

Then it was on to Piaffe! Anxiety kicked in. Would I do it wrong?  Would my horse freak out? Would I fall off? Would I cry and make Alfredo mad? Would I be able to earn a “Good Girrrrrrrrl?”

In the end, it was all pretty simple. Put the legs back a bit behind the girth, sit lightly and quietly, keep the horse on the aids. Alfredo taps him with the whip. BAM! LEAP! That’s not piaffe, that is an evil leap and buck! Wait a minute, Finn just objected to that big time. Kicking out, bucking, backing up. Stop, move him forward, do it again, and BAM! No, Finn, that is NOT the right response!

“You’re kiiiidding me,” exclaims Alfredo. “You’re kiiiidding me!” and keeps the pressure on, while I try to keep Finn in position, thinking to myself (sit deep, keep his head low, back up, legs back, don’t grip, don’t hang, relax – ha ha ha!), and then….

PIAFFE! My pony did Piaffe.

Good! Pat him and free walk. And Alfredo says,

“No, that was too easy. This pony has already been trained in this. It’s never that easy. But let’s do it again.” 

We did it again, and again a couple of times, and the pony has a pretty nice Piaffe. Turns out the former owner had done some Piaffe work, but hadn’t mentioned it. Yay, saves me some effort! So Finn knows how and he’s pretty good at it, too, once he gets over his initial objection to having to work that hard. He is, as Alfredo puts it, “a little Napoleon.”

And let me tell you, Piaffe is FUN. I want to do it again. Unfortunately, Finn and I don’t yet know how to do it without someone helping us by standing there with a long stick clucking and occasionally tapping. But give us time, we’ll get there. Piaffe shall be mine!

That piaffe stuff is hard work, mom!

That piaffe stuff is hard work, mom!

Alfredo Hernandez Piaffe Clinic # 1: Don’t let him see you cry

Recently I attended an Alfredo Hernandez passage/piaffe clinic. My pony Finn and I are training at 4th level/PSG and it seemed a good time to introduce a bit of piaffe. Not to mention I have always DREAMED of riding piaffe and I finally own a horse who maybe could do it. Let’s try it! So I signed up.

I asked my friend, who had been several times, what should I expect? What does he do? My friend is very no nonsense and an experienced horse woman whose horse is well on the road to doing piaffe and passage (yay!). She doesn’t mince words.

“First of all, he can’t remember your name so he calls everyone Princess or Gorgeous.”

I don’t mind that. I’m now at an age where it’s rather rare to be called gorgeous so I’ll take it when I can, even if it’s just because he can’t remember my name.

And if you’re scared, don’t tell him, because he’ll just laugh at you. Just deal with your fear. Don’t let him see you cry, because that just makes him mad,

she said, looking at me with a warning shake of her head.

Why would I cry?

“Well, a lot of these women have really big warmbloods that they’re kind of scared of already, and when they start training piaffe, the horse starts leaping around, rearing, or bucking, or backing up fast, and the women get terrified. Alfredo gets annoyed if you can’t just deal with it. It’s your job as the rider to deal with it, or you shouldn’t be there.

"Mom, why did you tape my tail up like this? It feels weird."

“Mom, why did you tape my tail up like this? It feels weird.”

Hmmm. True. But also making me a little nervous now. One of my riding goals is NOT-TO-FALL-OFF, and before you diehards scoff, when you get to a certain age, it’s a good goal to have. We don’t bounce like we used to. But the lure of Piaffe is strong, my trust in my pony is deep (most of the time), and so: off to the clinic! Did we piaffe? Read our next post to find out!

Clipping – so many choices, so little time, so much hair, oh boy!

finn_02There may be people who enjoy clipping, but I am not numbered among them. C’mon – it is nitpicking, your arms get tired, within the first minute you are sweaty and covered with itchy hair that goes down your shirt and sticks to your sweat, and it’s so hard to get it right. This is fun? Sounds like dressage. No wait, we were talking about clipping.

There is a certain satisfaction to transforming your formerly hairy, shaggy beast into something relatively sleek. I say relatively because I usually end up with some track marks and a few little missed spots. Yes, the perfectionists among us are shuddering, but when I want a perfect job, I hire someone to do because I just can’t. For basic clipping when I’m not going to a big championship show, I save myself lots of money and do the dirty deed myself.

Choices! We have choices in clipping. Whole horse, of course, which looks gorgeous and sleek but requires blanketing and takes a long time to do. Head, legs, the whole thing.  At our barn, we pay extra for blanketing, so I don’t body clip until the winter show season starts. Meanwhile, though, if I don’t take some hair off my ponies they are drenched with sweat 10 minutes into their exercise and take forever to dry. Not going to work! Here’s where the Trace Clip is a good choice. You remove the hair from the lower half of the horse, leaving the top half covered. Most horses, in a reasonably mild climate, do not require additional blanketing even if it rains or gets chilly, since their top hair keeps them warm. Of course, those of you in really chilly climates may beg to disagree and I’m sure if you clip a horse and it’s 0 degrees, yeah, it needs some kind of blanket. Here in California a Trace Clipped horse can go all winter with no blanket, although I usually put a sheet on if it’s 45 degrees or lower.

Great article on body clipping, “how to”:

Illustrations of types of clips:

Finn after the somewhat disastrous Trace Clip

Finn after the somewhat disastrous Trace Clip

One last caution: be sure your clippers are up to the job – heavy duty, well maintained, blades sharp, and all the things you need ready such as Blade Lube, etc., etc. It’s an excellent idea to have a backup pair ready as well. Yesterday I got two thirds of the way through Trace Clipping my horse and the clippers just…stopped. Nothing. I have no idea why (yet). Fortunately a kind soul came by and offered me an old set of hers to finish the job. I finished sloppily (her clippers were not working quite right either, although they sort of functioned) and God knows what I’ll find when I take off his sheet today and look at it in the cold light of day, but at least the basic job is done. I can clean it up later. Lesson learned: have back up clippers ready at hand for any job bigger than small trimming.

The Value of Video: a look in the mirror

I am a visual learner. Tell me something, and I’m unlikely to remember it. If I do it, there’s a better chance, but just talk at me and 9 chances out of 10, I won’t remember it at all.

My friends know that vague look I get when they say, “remember, I TOLD you that already.” Really? Huh. So riding lessons are problematic for me. I learn kinesthetically (from doing the riding), and occasionally I will remember some particularly great illustration the instructor gives me, but so much of what they tell me just evaporates from my brain. I hear it in the moment and think it’s wonderful, but then I forget it.

Videotaping my lessons and clinics allows me to repeat the lessons, so I can SEE what the

Video is a look in the mirror and a reality check

Video is a look in the mirror and a reality check

instructor meant and increase the impact.

Sadly, I don’t always quite believe my riding instructors until I see the evidence with my own eyes; kind of like not realizing quite how much weight you’ve put on until the doctor makes you step on that scale. Reality check.

I think some of us avoid video because we don’t really want to know. Hey, I know how it is. There are times I have refused to watch my videos after a particularly painful clinic or dressage test. But isn’t it better to know the truth?

Someone very wise said, “the truth shall set you free.” The truth will also help us become much better riders because we will be free from misconceptions about how we think things are going.

That judge we thought was blind in one eye and couldn’t see out of the other? Turns out she was pretty accurate after all. The video shows it all. It MIGHT even show us that some things are BETTER than we thought! Imagine that.

In order to get better video (less “vomit cam,” as my husband endearingly calls it), bring a tripod for your videographer. Of course you can take short videos on your smart phone and those are better than nothing, but there are many good small and inexpensive cameras out there now that will do a better job for you and you can put them on a tripod and even just leave it set up during your lesson.

A caution about video, though: be kind to yourself. We’re all in process and none of us is (yet) perfect. Before you rip your riding apart, be sure to find things you are doing right. I cannot emphasize this enough.

Make a rule that you have to make at least as many positive as negative comments while you watch your video. Catch yourself doing things well and praise yourself!

elliejumpYou can tell I’m a bit of a perfectionist, but I suspect many of us suffer from the same affliction. Some of us can be too hard on ourselves and a little kindness and grace would be a good thing. True of much of life, and not just riding, so be kind to yourself today, o.k.?

Tell that inner critic to take a break and recognize the progress you’ve made and the good job you are doing in many areas of your life.

And then keep working on the rest of it, knowing that you are still learning, still growing.