Should you go to a clinic?

Star and I have struggled a little with finding a steady connection with the bit. Star’s automatic reflex is to raise her neck and brace herself, especially if she is a bit tense or nervous, becoming quick in her gait and keeping her back hollow. Ick.

Of course I would like to slow her tempo, adding cadence and push from her hindquarters, engaging her back, and getting a nice, steady connection with the bit. It’s a work in progress.

Right now I’m in the midst of a three day clinic with Corinne Dorrepaal, a wise and experienced trainer from Holland who comes to the USA for clinics occasionally. Lucky me!

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Much improved connection, thanks to Corinne’s help at the clinic

Clinics are expensive – each lesson usually  two to four times what you normally spend on a lesson – and I found myself thinking about that cost. Is it worth it?

It depends. In Corinne’s case, Yes! Here’s my metric for deciding whether to spend the money on a clinician:

  1. Is he or she an effective teacher?  Many clinicians offer years of experience, having seen literally thousands of horses and riders of all sorts. They draw on that vast resource of knowledge to quickly solve your riding problems.
  2. Does this person treat the students and horses with respect?  A positive attitude with respect for horse and rider is nonnegotiable. They must not drive the horse into the ground with too much work during the clinic (and if you feel the work is too hard, Speak Up!), or use their authority to abuse horse or rider.
  3. Does this clinician offer something different from my current teacher, but not conflicting with her general methods? If it’s just more of what your teacher offers (without further depth), why bother? If it conflicts with what you do at home…you will have a problem continuing the work and either lose all you gained at the clinic, or have conflict with your trainer. Don’t do it.
  4. Do I finish the lessons with practical exercises to take home and a clear understanding of what I need to do, practice, work on, aim for?

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    Starlight in a nice uphill collected canter. She can’t maintain this very long yet, just a few strides and then we let her go bigger for a few strides, then collect again..

  5. Is the clinician open to questions and discussion when I need more clarification?
  6. How did I feel about the lesson(s)? I always try to have my clinics videotaped, as many of the sessions as I can. I’m a visual learner, not auditory, so watching video helps me understand what happened and reinforces what I felt. It also helps me decide if it is worth going back to the clinician because the real question is…
  7. Does this clinician make a positive difference in my horse and me quickly and effectively? 

Day one of the Corinne Dorrepaal clinic, within 15 minutes she had my horse looking so much better! Of course, in my lessons at home, this happens too. A little warmup and some coaching does a lot of good. But I felt we made some important strides forward in the area of getting a good connection over the top.

What I took away from my first day:

  • The gray areas matter: always pay attention to the little things, don’t be sloppy. Every transition, every moment.
  • Keep asking Star to lower her neck (from the base of the neck) all the time. Be wary because she starts to bring it back up and you don’t realize it. Especially in the transitions, lower the neck, it improves them and also makes her stronger.
  • Slow the tempo down in trot and canter. Keep the energy through frequent transitions within the gait (“almost walk, trot on”), but keep the tempo fairly slow.

More insights in a few days! And here is a small portion of the lesson video, focusing on collecting for a few strides, then lengthening for a few strides exercise, all while keeping the neck low to engage the back. We begin with a little walk work and proceed to trot.

 

 

 

Getting better all the time…

Starlight is at a stage where progress happens fast. I know  plateaus will come soon enough, but I’m enjoying her willing attitude and aptitude for dressage.

What a dance partner she is!

A fellow blogging friend challenged us to a “before and after” post about our horse, so here we go: the first five months with Starlight

Starlight in March 2016 when I bought her:

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Talking to Starlight before the vet check. You’re going to be my girl now (assuming you pass the vet check)!

A few weeks later, under saddle as we got to know each other. Looks at those happy smiles.DSC02965

 

In April, at the Woodside HorsePark on a cold windy day, having a clinic with Miguel Tavora, Starlight gets a little TOO enthusiastic about the canter depart!

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Whoa there, girl! I don’t want to play Calamity Jane in this partnership!

Our first show, Training Level, six weeks after I bought her. She was very tense, but obedient and safe.

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Notice how shiny her coat is as she sheds out the bleached winter coat and grows in a nice shiny black summer coat. I feed her Platinum Performance and Chia Seed which helps with shine, too.

By our fourth and last show at Training Level (hooray!), she feels like an old campaigner. Works beautifully in a crowded warmup ring, has no problem with the judge’s booth or the flowers on the ring, knows her job and does it. A little tension in the first test but performs very well.

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See how much more grownup she looks now!

While we continue to struggle a bit with reaching over the top for a solid connection with the bit, Starlight improves weekly and always has a willing spirit. I can’t say enough good things about the Andalusian – when you find a good one.  For me they are the perfect combination of trainability, willingness, good sense, forwardness, comfortable gaits, and beauty. You can tell I’m besotted. This horse would follow me anywhere and do anything for me. It is a precious trust.

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Starlight in May 2016, finishing a Training Level test and feeling quite pleased with herself.

 

Growing pains

It was a cold and breezy day, and young Starlight was full of Vigor and Vim! She was at her first dressage clinic at a brand new place, and WOW WAS IT EXCITING!!!

Her mind could not take it all in fast enough, and she trotted around tensely, resisting the bend and chomping on the bit. Soon, the instructor suggested we try a canter. With some trepidation, because I could feel how high she was, I gave the aid.

WOOHOO! I was riding a dolphin, not a horse, as she took three giant leaps up and down. She just could NOT contain her exuberance. Here’s our unplanned levade/canter depart:

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You can’t hear my squeak of dismay, but you can imagine it…Fortunately, my kite soon came down to earth and stayed there.

From flying, Star decided that instead of cantering she would be a Pogo Stick.

Bounce, Bounce, Bounce, around the circle we went, with me laughing nervously.

It was kind of funny, but not terribly useful in a dressage lesson. Ah well, we got through it, and after a few minutes she settled. The instructor, Major Miguel Tavora, took us through a series of exercises designed to relax and supple the horse. Things such as trot/a few steps of walk/trot on; shoulder in on the circle; small circles at the walk focusing on getting a soft bend from the horse, and more made a big difference in how Starlight carried herself.

And look what we ended up with: a beautiful dance with a supple and obedient horse. 

Yay for my lovely horse, and Yay for Major Miguel Tavora, who patiently talked us through the steps to get from worried and distracted to more focused and supple. We look forward to the next two days and hope we don’t have to go through the Kite/Pogo stick part tomorrow…

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A field trip for Starlight

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“You can do this, Starlight. I know we’re at the big, scary Woodside HorsePark, but keep it together and don’t kill mom, O.k.?”

We’ve spent the last three weeks practicing calmly and easily loading and unloading from the horse trailer. Starlight had limited trailering experience when I bought her a month ago, and had never ridden in a straight load trailer (except when I bought her and brought her home). So she has needed some time to get used to the idea. We’ve established the inside of the trailer as home of the Magic Bucket of Joy (with delicious pellets) and Place Where You Get Lots of Pats and Carrots. It’s working.

Starlight eyes the trailer for a moment of two, weighs the pros and cons. “Gosh I really want that magic bucket…but I’ll have to get in the trailer…hmmm, I guess I should just do what mom wants and get in. She’ll be happy, and I’ll get the bucket. Sure, what the heck.” And in she goes. Yahoo.

 

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Focus, my child. Focus.

Big day today: our first field trip to another place. Having owned a horse who periodically would REFUSE to load back into the trailer (stranding me in places like the county park for hours upon end), I have a bit of trailer PTSD. But I am trusting Starlight to do the right thing. So far, so good. And I have to take the plunge at some point. Besides, Starlight and I are going to shows, trails, clinics, etc. We need to trailer places.

Starlight was very excited at the Horsepark – and who can blame her? It has wide open spaces, many arenas, lots to look at, and I wasn’t able to take another calm horse to babysit her.

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EEEK! Just so you know I don’t show you only beautiful shots. Hollow back, head in the air, not a pretty picture. Fortunately, this was a minority of the time and only at the beginning.

But once I was on her, she was willing to focus on the work and within 10 minutes I was able to do somewhat decent work with her.

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Much better here…As she sheds her bleached winter coat, her coat is becoming an interesting “tiger’s eye” color. She’s Black on her registration papers, but I’m not sure what color she’ll be when she sheds out.

Star is a SUPERSTAR and I’m very pleased with how she did in her first outing!

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Practicing our dressage in the Big Covered Arena. Garbage cans in the background.

 

Where is your energy ball?

“Keep the energy ball in the middle of the horse!” the clinician reminded me. 

My horse tends to be more laid back (very safe and non-spooky) and while he is a willing worker, the idea of having a Big Ball of Energy in the Middle of the Horse was a useful one. Rather than trailing hind legs that I continually nag to “keep up, keep up!” I’ve started thinking about having a crackling lightning ball of energy.

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Or, as another teacher once put it,

Think of riding a great, big, bouncing Beach Ball. Fun!

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Calm horses feel like the energy is behind you, so the rider needs to activate the horse and bring the energy ball forward under the seat. Be careful not to rush the horse forward into too fast a tempo in your desire for energy. A horse that runs along in a quick trot cannot balance himself. Half halts and frequent changes of gait, plus lateral work, will help activate the hindquarters. An occasional brisk hand gallop forward sometimes helps, too!

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Here we see Finn’s energy is not yet under my seat.  You can see that I am driving with my seat and legs, but he’s not reaching and moving forward into the contact or bending his hocks.

 

Some of you have the opposite problem: energy that gets out in front of you, a feeling like you’re being pulled along, perhaps, or racing along too fast.

High energy horses tend to have the energy ball get in front of the rider. In that case, using half halts and the seat brings the energy back into the middle of the horse. Be careful not to pull on the horse, as this will just lead to a tug of war. Horses generally win any pulling contest (they outweigh us, in case you hadn’t noticed). Frequent circles, changes of gait, and some use of lateral movements can help a quick horse slow down and focus.

Always we want a sense of energy in the middle of the horse, under our seats, so that we feel the hind legs pushing energy through the back, being softly received into the hand and circled back through to the hind leg again.

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Finn warming up at the same show. He is more engaged, although things are still a “work in progress.”

 

Ideally, there is a sense that you can go forward or slow down at the slightest touch. It is a very elastic feeling when it works! It begins with getting the energy ball in the right place: in the middle of the horse.

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Different show (hot day, coats were waived). But you can see Finn’s energy ball is balanced under my seat as he begins this working canter pirouette.

Will work for cookies

What will you do for a cookie, my pony?

Many cookies shall be yours, my good pony.

I am not one to give many treats by hand. Having owned a fair number of ponies along the way, I’m familiar with their swift and compelling obsession with the hand in the pocket: GIVE IT TO ME NOW, NOW, NOW!!! Or I take the hand, too.

And yet, I’ve noted that the use of an occasional treat really sweetens Finn’s demeanor and motivates him to work harder. It reinforces training.

Finn would probably make an excellent circus pony. Cute, highly trainable, very motivated by treats.

So I keep that in mind as we do our dressage training. The occasional carrot or cookie reinforcement is not a bad thing.

When Finn first came to me, he was perfect in almost every respect except that he expected a cookie to stand at the mounting block. This is common, many people train their horses this way. However, I believe a horse needs to just stand for mounting with no treat, because what if I don’t have one some day? I might be on the trail and have to get off and on for some reason, or be at a show and not have anything in my pocket. I don’t want to run around looking for a treat at that moment.

So we began mounting block training. The first four days, Finn threw a fit at the mounting block each day. WHAT? NO TREAT??? He fidgeted and wouldn’t stand still. I mounted rapidly (this is the dangerous moment), and then he would throw himself backwards and have a temper tantrum. “Where is my TREAT??? I want my mommy!!! You’re not a nice mommy, you’re not doing things the right way!” He even reared a little (naughty pony). The tantrum only lasted 20 seconds each day, but it was impressive and dramatic.

Then we would be on our way and everything was fine. I’ll say this for Finn: he can let it go and move on.

For four days, Finn threw bigger and bigger tantrums, trying to intimidate me into his way of thinking, but I am made of sterner stuff. I would win the battle of the mounting block! On the fifth day, he stood quietly (if a bit sullenly). He realized it was a new day, a new deal, and he wasn’t going to win this one. I praised him copiously but did NOT give him a treat.

Nowadays Finn often get treats from me for good work, and sometimes just for being cute, but never anywhere around the mounting block. If someone else rides him and gives him a mounting block treat, it resurrects that behavior (oh no!) although I’m able to pretty quickly re-establish the right behavior again. He knows what I expect at the block and he’s perfect now.

“I worked hard, mom. I need a cookie.”

Treats given judiciously and with the right timing are a useful training tool, and we enjoy giving them, so why not?

Extra effort, or some new training, should be rewarded with verbal praise, a soft pat, and sometimes a treat. Studies have shown that intermittent reinforcement is more effective than rewarding on a schedule, so it’s best not to give a treat EVERY time your horse does something well. Vary your rewards, but do reward your horse. She appreciates it! And sometimes it just feels good to give your horse a carrot, because it makes him SO happy. Of course, if your horse is insulin resistant, give low sugar treats or stick to pats and verbal praise.

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