Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Cold day at a dressage clinic

Sunday, February 3, 2013

This morning I woke up early as per my usual routine and fed the dog and cats. My plan was to hit the treadmill to get a few miles in. But when I went outside to put birdseed in the feeders I felt the cold air hit my cheeks and kicked the fluffy snow as I walked. The salt trucks had not yet been through so I decided to take Ripley for a walk in the snow. Forty minutes after Ripley's breakfast, I dressed him in his coat (Ripley is a Weimaraner and it was only 15 degrees). The silence of early morning and fresh snow is at the same time relaxing and invigorating, giving me the opportunity to think about what I had observed in the dressage clinic that I audited on Saturday. Ripley likes to walk at a brisk pace so up and down the hills we trekked, encountering only one other morning walker. Feeling quite refreshed after our walk, Ripley and I plunked down in front of the fire while the rest of the house remained silent (at 7:30 AM, Michael and Isaiah were still sleeping). Not wanting to get up for my laptop or ipad I grabbed a notebook from the cabinet near the fireplace and jotted down some clinic notes the old fashioned way!

But now I am back in front of the window watching the birds feast in the snow. This picture of the squirrel watching me from the gazebo feeder is from last weekend.

So Saturday morning, February 2, I left my house at 8 AM to make the 45 minute drive to audit a dressage clinic. The temperature was 12 degrees with a brisk wind when I arrived. I hoped that there was a heated viewing area with sound to watch the lessons, but was not overly optimistic that I would be so lucky. Wearing flannel lined jeans, thermal socks and winter paddock boots, I packed my car with heavy coat, scarf, hat, mittens and two wool coolers. Okay, that stuff pretty much lives in my car much to my husband's dismay (he refers to it as the black hole). Whenever we can't find something Michael turns to Isaiah and says "Go look in Mommy's car. EVERYTHING is in there!" : ) I had inquired about bringing a chair but was told there was seating, so that would not be necessary.

I am not going to name the clinician (who I am not familiar with) or the farm where the clinic was held. There will be descriptions of the horses and level of training at which they are working. The clinician is a USDF Gold/Silver?bronze medalist and has trained a few horses to Grand Prix. I am not an expert...but I have ridden dressage for a number of years with some excellent trainers. These are my own observations, and I am not trying to be an arm chair quarter back....

I arrived in time for the first lesson of the day. It was brutally cold and no, there was not a heated viewing area. I walked into the indoor with me gear and saw a bench. As in one place to hold 3 people. I will always carry my own chair from now on just in case. The bench was fine. I put down my cooler to keep my butt warm and wrapped the rest around my legs. The bench was situated near the open door, and a harsh breeze blew in on occasion. There was only one other person auditing so the seating was sufficient. Beyond 3 spectators there would not have been enough seats, but it is possible that there were some type of additional chairs around if that had become necessary. We have some really comfy folding chairs that fold compactly which I keep in the dressing room of my horse trailer. You just never know when additional seating would be necessary. I should know better, anyway.

The first combination was the farm owner and her Arab gelding working at Prix St Georges/Intermediare I. Something that I was taught early on in my riding career was presentation of horse and rider for a clinic/lesson. The clinician teaches at this farm once a month, so many of the riders know her fairly well, and perhaps that leads to relaxation of standards. But I was taught that out of respect for the instructor and your horse, a clean, tidy and appropriate presentation is in order. It was super cold, so it is difficult to look really tidy, but clean boots, and proper attire can still be accomplished. This first rider was not wearing a helmet. I know, not everyone does, but this was the farm owner/trainer and I feel like she should be setting a better example. The horse was very fuzzy, and I am a firm believer that if you are going to train seriously and regularly through the winter it is in the horse's best interest to clip them. Not even necessarily a body clip. A blanket clip would have helped this guy. Maybe because there are enough people to take the horses from the rider for cool down it is not deemed as important. But this horse was drenched in sweat 30 minutes into the lesson. His tail was tied in a tail bag, and not neatly. I realize that this is common practice for this breed, but again, for a lesson I feel like the tail should be let down and presented nicely. (I feel like George Morris in Practical Horseman Magazine's jumping clinic, with my presentation criticisms!).

So the plan for this combination was to work on the one and two tempi changes at the canter and half steps to work toward piaffe. My initial reaction was that they did not do enough warm up. It was EXTREMELY cold, and they launched right into collected canter. It is possible that the horse had been lunged before I arrived, since some of the other horses were lunged later. But even so, once the rider is mounted a nice loose warm up to get the horse moving through its back really should be done (in my opinion, as this is how I was taught, but I am not an expert). The horse was quite stiff in the neck during the collected canter, but moved out fairly nicely when she asked him to go forward after a line of changes. The 4's and 3's were more honest and clean, but they have just begun the 2's so that is not surprising. I liked that the clinician had the rider do 2 or 3 one tempis followed by a working canter. The exercise worked well for the horse and he relaxed a bit more when asked again. The work in half steps actually looked pretty good, but I still thought the horse was a bit tight in the neck.

The second combination was a gray Arabian gelding with a rider that had not been workinng with him for very long. Apparently the previous rider kept a tight hold on his face making him somewhat nervous about contact. I was appalled by the dirt on the horse's hocks, and again tail in a bag. I had a gray mare, so I know all too well how difficult it is to keep them clean. But I do think that a clinic warrants the extra effort. He too was very fuzzy. I was glad to see the rider wearing a helmet. They worked primarily on getting the horse to move from seat/leg into a soft contact and it was nice to see the horse visibly relax. The rider was nice and quiet with her hands and they produced some really lovely trot work including the spiraling in/leg yielding out circles. In the canter he became a bit tense again, but with some work on and off the 20 meter circle he softened into his rider's hands and relaxed. Then they worked on a little shortening and lengthening exrcises and he adjusted fairly well once he understood. The most appalling event of this lesson was when someone came into the arena with a horse that was wearing a driving harness. She brought him to the corner and hitched him to a cart. Another person got in and immediately trotted away out the arena door! I think they could have at least walked out? I know that horses need to become accustomed to many things but I felt like it was an inappropriate activity for a clinic. The horse being ridden lives at the farm so maybe he is more used to it. (although he did scoot when the cart came lying out of the corner). I feel like I am beginning to sound like a snob or a DQ, but really, I am not! The rider did a fine job and got the horse working nicely under the clinician's instructions.

The third pair. Hmmmm where to start. The horse was a combination of saddlebred/TB and Arab gelding? Also fuzzy but cleaner than the rest. His rider seemed very nervous. She had brought him in earlier to lunge without tack. She was impatient mounting him because he would move his feet a little, but honestly it took her a REALLY long time to get her foot in the stirrup! The horse had been purchased from the clinician a year or so prior, and this person was now training with the farm owner who also rides the horse for her several days a week. They seemed to start off okay, but then the horse began to completely ignore her within the first 5 minutes, exhibiting some of the same tightness issues of the first two horses. The clinician made them face the wall and told the rider to have the horse move sideways while remaining perpendicular to the wall. The horse basically ignored her, swishing his tail, backing up....pretty much doing anything except what was being asked. Over the next 20 minutes or so the clinician held onto the reins and smacked the horse with the whip to get him to move sideways. He kicked, bucked, etc, but eventually would give in for a few steps at a time. There was some yelling at the horse going on as well, which I don't really think helped. Any way, eventually the rider went back out on her own and made the horse stay on the rail and not fall in. He looked much better and almost softened into the contact. However, every time he tried to drift in the rider screamed no at him. While I don't think this is a great tactic, I understand that she wanted to show that she was in control. So in some ways...kudos. They did finish on a positive note. During this lesson the farm owner/trainer brought in a draft cross in a harsh bit because the day before the mare bolted and would not respond to the snaffle. Trainer's comment: "I really though I was going to fall and get a concussion". So you get on the horse AGAIN without a helmet?? During the lesson she was also yelling at the student because she is her regular instructor. I thought this was inappropriate, since another (more qualified) instructor was teaching....whatever! Ultimately the lesson ended well. Clinician said that she would not have done that if he did not know the horse so well, but she knew how he would react to such work. My impression was that he was not behaving quite this way at the time of purchase. Farm owner/trainer has been doing dressage for 6 years and is basically a jack of all trades. TRying not to be too critical but I think that many people completely misunderstand what dressage really is. This woman seemed to have a good seat but the finer nuances do not appear to bethere which shows as holes in the training.

Fourth pair: farm owner on arabian gelding (did not hear age)doing Prix St Georges. Another rider was going to be riding this horse later in the day I each were going to do 30 minutes on him? Again, no real warm up. Launch into canter work with tight neck and work on pirouettes. I liked the way the clinician explained what the issues were regarding activity of the hind legs. Ultimately he ended up doing some nice pirouettes at the end. The person who was going to ride him later in the day has been doing dressage for 6 months and wants to start showing. She has to show the horse at 3rd level because he cannot be ridden in a snaffle bridle.....ugggh. I kind of find that inexcusible. I remember watching footage of Debbie McDonald demonstrating grand prix movements on Brentina....IN A SNAFFLE! Now I understand that some (many?) horses have difficulty doing the upper level movements in a snaffle, but can be ridden in a snaffle to do much of the lower level work. I cringe at the thought of untrained hands holding a curb visual is not pretty, as I have witnessed this on many occasions. The change to allow 3rd level tests to be ridden in a full bridle was a bit controversial as many people felt that even MORE inexperienced riders would be skiing around on the curb rein. YIKES!! In all fairness, I did not get to see the second rider because the snow started to come down heavier during the next ride and I had a 45 minute hilly ride home ahead of me.

Fifth pair was a 10 year old paint cross gelding and with a rider who really has not done any dressage. She sat next to me watching the other lessons before her ride and was very interested in learning. Her horse had been started at age 2 and then did not do anything for the next 7 years. She has owned him for about a year. The horse was fuzzy but clean. Rider was wearing jeans but I imagine that is what she ordinarily rides in. This pair impressed me beacuse the rider listened to the instruction and the horse responded beautifully and quickly. So although she lacked dressage experience and needs work on seat and legs, she really looked to me to get the most out of the lesson. The horse was softeneing into her hand nicely and the pair was performing some very correct leg yielding at the walk by the end of her lesson. Her warm up consisted of walk, trot and canter, nice and relaxed. During her lesson Farm owner came in twice with reining horses doing the spinny thing (I apologize reiners, I have no idea what that is called, but is pretty cool!)and making quite a ruckus. The next horse that she got on must have done something that I didnt see because she was slamming him into the corner of the arena screaming at him. I won't comment further. Neither horse had a warm up, although they were lunged for 5 minutes earlier in the day.

During that time another person came in to ride and the horse would not move after she got on. She was kicking him and trying to spin him...nothing. The farm owner was riding another horse and talked her through it. This horse had similar issues to the other farm owned horses.....

So it was an intersting day to say the least, but I enjoyed it. There are always take away lessons even if it is what NOT to do. But I did pick up a few interesting tidbits, and even though my teeth were chattering fiercely when I got in my car I was glad that I had attended.

Driving home I thought about the training scale and how it applied to what I had observed that day. Instead of a pyramid, the majority of the horses looked like they had been trained with the small block on the bottom as the foundation, with toppling inevitable. The cute paint, in spite of his 7 year sabatical, managed to have more of a Lincoln Log foundation......very nice to see, and I commend his rider.

The girls were in by the time I got to their barn so I was happily greeted by their eager nickers when I called out to them as I opened the door. Being smothered in snuffles by each of them I took in their beauty, thankful for their presence in my life. Smiling to me self, I said good night, closed the barn door and stepped out into the swirling snow.

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