Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Training Update for Suki and Auditing the Arthur Kottas Clinic

Yikes!  Time flies when life is crazy busy!  With that bear of a report finished (until the client requests changes, additions, etc) I have a few days of breathing room.  Once again with my busy schedule and the hard footing in the arena I have had to slow down a bit with working Suki and Nikki.  Important to protect those legs!

As much fun as it is to have Suki working in full tack it is quite time consuming to do this with two horses on an abbreviated schedule!  I have found that some weeks it is easier to alternate the days they work. Some days the horse that doesn't get ridden or lunged has a stretching session or in hand exercises without tack.  Other days the non-working horse just gets groomed.  It still rounds out to a busy week, but then neither horse is rushed and I am able to focus on each one's work.

Not that I am complaining about having to put a saddle and bridle on Suki!  It is something  never expected to happen, and I am thrilled!  There is so much support from all over the world, which I find heartwarming.  I think there is just something about Suki that has gives her this instant connection with people…..even those who have never met her.  Sometimes, when I am having a bit of a tough day (for whatever reason) reading comments about Suki's FB posts just makes me smile.  How can we fail with so many people cheering us on!

With Nikki I am trying to work on attaining more collection and showing a clear difference between working, medium and collected.  To achieve this I have been changing out a variety of exercises to keep Nikki from being bored and to focus on different aspects of the gaits and transitions.  Overall I am pleased with how Nikki is working.  I am disappointed in myself for not having as much time as I need or want to make it better.  Often our rides are shorter than I would like, but I try to make that time as productive as possible.  We have had some humid days with the green head flies in attack mode.  In fact this past Friday (31 July) I cut my ride really short.  The green heads were landing on Nikki's chest so she was diving at them with her teeth.  Landing on her face so she would shake her head trying to get them off.  Tenacious little buggers.  A twitch of the skin does not usually get them off.  Following her shower, Nikki loves to be towel dried and have her face rubbed.  I put the entire towel on her head and rub.  She loves it!

Suki is progressing nicely and I know that it is time to get on.  So I have to plan.  She is very nonchalant about going to the arena and working.  Saddle: no problem.  Flapping stirrups: who cares?  Mounting block: piece of cake.  Leaning and lying over her back: time to nibble on the grass by the mounting block.  So I guess at this point it is a bit of my own anxiety.  I lie over her and pat her right side and she seems to not be bothered by it.  So it is just that next critical step….swinging the leg over and sitting in the saddle.  Yes, I have anxiety about what she will do…..but I also worry about the additional weight on her back, and how that will feel to her, which of course affects how she reacts.  We are still using the treeless saddle most kindly loaned to me by Louise.  The new saddle pad, so generously sent to us by Ecogold seems to work beautifully!  So comfort wise I think she seems fine.  Thank you Ecogold!

It's funny, I am always really sensitive about putting on the bridle.  Suki still sometimes has issues about her ears, so I am ever so careful about putting the bridle over her ears.  This morning I was not even thinking about it.  I was hot and sweaty from riding Nikki, tired from my long day yesterday (Arthur Kottas Clinic) and I just put the bridle on Suki.  One-two-three.  While I was securing the throat latch I realized what I had just done.  Very cool.  She really is becoming just like any other horse (well, in the getting ready aspect!).  Today's work was amazing.  She was hardly stiff, and the recent rain gave us a bit softer footing so I did not even see any foot soreness.  After lunge work we did a few turns on the forehand and haunches then finished with the mounting block.  Of course it is easy to say this now, showered, a glass of wine at my side and watching the birds attack the feeders, but had I been wearing a helmet I probably could have gotten on.  Though no one was there and I do want someone at her head!  Woulda, coulda, shoulda!

I received another generous gift recently also.  Suki wears several different fly sheets of varying weights, and three of them are Weatherbeetas.  We often struggle with her staying cool underneath them on hot days.  Although she is inside during the day, even with a fan Suki doesn't wear a sheet inside.  But going out at 4 in the afternoon it is often still quite hot.  On the hottest days she just wears sunscreen.  Weatherbeeta very kindly sent Suki a CoolKoat fly sheet.  It is surprisingly cool underneath and fit nicely into her rotation.  Another problem is that the moisturizer on Suki's back makes the fly sheets dirty and oily on the inside, so I have to wash them frequently, making it necessary to have many options available as at least one is always out of rotation due to being washed or repaired!  So many thanks to Weatherbeeta!

Isaiah also had another dressage show on July 26.  He did a great job and received good scores and feedback from the judge.  And two blue ribbons to add to his growing collection.  The first test was better than the second and Isaiah referred to the second one as "horrific".  It was not horrific!  Because of the location of the arena, horses had to enter from the side then trot around the inside of the arena to go down center line.  During the second test Rusty considered making an exit but Isaiah quickly corrected him and prevented that from happening.  It was nice to see him respond and prevent.

I was unable to attend the Andreas Hausberger clinic at Waltzing Horse Farm due to difficulty finding an acceptable place to stay (I am already looking for next year!) which actually turned out to be fine because work was busy and I would have had to do some work in the evenings while away.  But another opportunity to audit a clinic given by a Spanish Riding School (former) chief rider just 2 hours away so I was able to attend one of the three days.  The Arthur Kottas clinic was held at Four Winds Farm in Bridgeton, NJ.  Horses were clean and braided and riders were dressed appropriately.  Very nice.

Arthur Kottas-Heldenberg was a member of the Spanish Riding School from 1960 to 2002. In 1980 he was made Chief Rider and was the youngest person to have held this post in the 400 years of the School's history. He is a trainer and instructor of the highest international repute who has successfully trained riders and horses up to Olympic medal standard. His classical schooling methods do not rely on the use of force by the rider. The following quote from Arthur Kottas-Heldenberg, helps summarize his training philosophy, “ If the horse enjoys his work, then it will always have fun. You have to keep them very happy, so the horses are not thinking, God, I have to come to the school again. No, no, if they could talk they have to say, I like to do it, take me there; I’m ready. A horse in piaffe, enjoying the moment of suspension, and its own strength and lightness. You know, they are still animals, and you have to remember that.” (excerpt from AK biography page)

Mr. Kottas began the session by explaining that he was not there to criticize, but to help.  He stressed the importance of the horse as a partner and how the rider must "invite" the horse to work.  "You must love the horse."  Amen!

So rather than get into individual rides and commentary, which might hurt feelings (though I would just be repeating what was said during a lesson), I will address common themes throughout all of the lessons, and specific comments without identifying.  I must also preface this with saying that I was not in the saddle.  I give the riders credit for going up in front of such a dressage master.

AK stressed the importance of rider fitness.  Overall he observed that many riders were not really fit.  "You expect a certain fitness level from your horse so you must also be fit as the athlete rider."  Many people only ride one horse each day so fitness must come from off the horse training.  AK was appalled if someone said that they only ride 4 days a week, but for some that is really the best they can do.  He wants horses ridden 6 days per week so if you are unable to do it yourself enlist help.  Best to ride horse 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the afternoon.  I completely understand his points, but some of those expectations are unrealistic.  Okay, but fitness, good seat and quiet hands are not an unrealistic expectation.

A few riders had some difficulty with sitting the trot.  AK pointed out how tight their backs are and therefore were not absorbing the horse's movement.  He asked several riders to do turn on the forehand, because he feels that this is a good indication of how much the horse has been trained to the seat and leg.  And working on TOFH and turn on the haunches can be used to help the horse understand seat and legs for lateral work.

Another common theme was level of the horses.  Several horses were said to be at 3rd level, but AK felt that they did not have the collection to compete at that level.  This was obvious in watching the horses being worked.  He feels that too many people say "Oh, my horse can move sideways so he is ready for 2nd/3rd level."This is a very common theme in the US, especially in schooling shows.  Part of the problem is that I think people get bored.  They are tired of doing 1st level so if they sort of have the "tricks" down they move up.  But it goes hand-in-hand with the fact that anyone can call themselves riding instructors, which is not the case in many European countries.  That said, we do have some amazing trainers/instructors in this country.

Okay, so back to the collection issue.  Several riders were asked to do simple changes of lead which led to some difficulty. Many were unable to perform very clear walk steps before asking for the canter in the opposite lead.  As AK pointed out, if you can't do this the horse is not ready for flying changes.  This was also demonstrated by some pairs.  The changes were not clear or correct.  When asked to do a simple change they had some difficulty achieving the very clear walk steps before asking for canter again.  Without that collection during the walk steps, the canter depart was late (or through trot steps) with the horse's hind end out a little behind instead of stepping under.  Working through the simple changes rider was able to make her horse understand what the intention was.  The rider told AK: "He always does this."  Of course AK is not accepting this as an excuse, because the horse "does things" because he/she is asked (perhaps inadvertently) or does not understand. This was demonstrated by a rider who could not keep her horse in the right lead canter on a 20m circle.  He kept switching to the left.  Her comment too, was "He always does this."  AK pointed out that she kept moving her inside leg back so the horse perceived that as asking for the change.  The rider didn't realize that she was doing this.  AK was getting a little frustrated with her, which I understand.  However, habits are hard to change in an hour!  As a rider we intellectually get what you are telling us and we may be able to do it for a few minutes before reverting back.  So it is frustrating for the rider as well.  When I rode Lion (a schoolmaster at BHF) he did the lead switching thing on me from time to time.  I was slightly shifting my seat, which for Lion was enough to say "flying change!"  I'll bet that on the second day of the clinic the rider was more prepared for that.  I had originally planned to attend the clinic for two days because it is nice to see how the riders and horses progress.

Lengthening of stride at the canter.  A couple of the riders were able to achieve this fairly well.  Most just went faster.  But again it came down to the horse being too far on the forehand and unable to get the big push from behind, necessary for a true lengthening.  AK Had the riders count strides down the long side in the regular canter.  For the medium there should be 4-5 fewer strides.  That really helped the riders feel it and you could see the improvement as they sat more to get the push they needed to actually lengthen the stride.

Hands were another big issue.  AK felt that the majority of the riders had busy hands and that a problem he sees quite often is riders thinking hands before seat.  Seat and weight must be first.  Improper balance of weight in the seat and stirrups will prevent the horse from having appropriate bend and step.  Again he went back to the busy hands and balancing off the hands.  Too much inside hand observed in shoulder in and half pass.  He doesn't think that many people understand the importance of the outside rein.

AK stressed the importance of time spent on the lunge to develop an independent seat and to properly learn to use weight to influence the horse.  He asked several people how often they read about dressage and watch videos.  Both instructional and competition.

Overall it was a great experience, but I enjoyed watching Andreas Hausberger a bit more.  AK talked about himself a fair amount, which AH didn't really do.  AH was also more engaged when auditors asked questions, and had each rider tell a little about themselves and their horse. He also did some in hand with just about every horse, demonstrating the benefits of this type of work.  AK did not do this with the riders at all, with the exception of one rider who had apparently requested it as part of her lesson.  She did not attend on Saturday so I did not see that work.  The caliber of riders was higher at the AH clinic, so perhaps some of the arrogance I was observing at the AK clinic was frustration.  AK did compliment riders when they corrected something appropriately or rode a piece well.  And he was kind at times.  He even joked occasionally.  But let's face it, training can be harsh as well as a reality check.  It would have been interesting to see the next two days of the clinic to observe changes that the riders made.  Kudos to the riders for putting themselves out there and riding with someone of AK's caliber.  It is most likely that they have never before ridden with anyone like that.  He is an excellent instructor and his corrections and requests were easy to understand.  It is always a treat to be exposed to someone of that caliber and observe their training philosophies and process.

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