Suitability

One of the aspects that makes a successful dressage rider is the desire to achieve near perfection, knowing that it is a difficult journey, fraught with setbacks, and requires determination, persistence as well as education and experience.  By definition, we are not “quitters”, therefore it takes years of experience for such a person to know when it is right to quit.  I have been reflecting on this subject for some days now as we have come to the conclusion, after much effort, reflection and discussion that Da Capo is not a suitable horse for our ambitions in dressage.  The good news is that he shows some potential as a jumper, and has caught the eye of a young rider who wishes to make the effort to develop him in a different direction than we would take.  So, we are happy that he will be able to pursue a path that he might be more suitable for, that we can move on to search for a horse that likes the discipline of dressage.

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This situation has prompted me to think about the subject of suitability.  I am not referring to the often discussed issue of experienced horse for beginning rider, or expressive gaits or natural jumping ability.  I am referring rather to the horse/rider combination, and their mental compatibility.   Their desire to do the same thing.

I will take for an example the situation with myself and Da Capo.  What attracted me to him in the first place was the dressage characteristics:  a bloodline proven to produce top dressage horses (Donnerhall/Pik Bube), large expressive gaits, a free shoulder movement, strong active hindquarters, and a conformation (though it needed developing as he was living in a pasture) that looked promising.  And since I am not thinking serious competition, his size was nice because it fit me and my size.  Also, I was optimistic since he went under saddle easily, accepted the rider without bucking and was very comfortable to ride.   He was also easy to manage on the ground, and very friendly with people.

So what finally made us find him unsuitable?  Something as simple as “attitude”.  As he became more fit and stronger, he became a bit resistant.  Without  changing his routine at all, just the same consistent work to develop his muscles and strength through lunging, rather than becoming calmer and more confident, he became more resistant.   It soon became clear that there were things he liked to do, and things he could do, but not willingly.

From the tine spent working with Da Capo it became clear that he was an elastic talented horse.  It also reminded me  that in the end the horse has an opinion also about what he wants to do.  After persisting with the riding I realized that he could be “forced” to work, and eventually would submit, but it was not pleasant for me or him.  And in the end, forced work does not produce the kind of results I am looking for when I train a horse.  Therefore, I chose not to try to force him, but to try to seek a situation for him where both he and his rider can enjoy their time together.    I know there will be a willing partner for me  and I plan to go out and look for him.   As a good friend of mine reminded me, “when one door closes, another opens”.     So I am maintaining my “hopes and expectations”, they will just develop on a different path.    This is the part that I think the “seriously driven” rider finds the hardest, accepting that they cannot make everything work, and sometimes have to just  “quit” and move on.   This requires both experience and maturity, and putting the ego aside.   DONE!!

Hopes and Expectations for 2013

With the beginning of the new year I am  in a “forward thinking” mode regarding my hopes and expectations for the months ahead.  DaCapo has just started his basic work under saddle which will be combined with some continued work on the lunge.  There is not much to examine or illustrate at this point.  The primary focus is on “forward” and “exposure”.

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Regarding the first days under saddle in his new home, there is much to see.  Fortunately, he is easy to mount and relatively calm with the rider.  He responds to the “forward” request, though is not at a point where he moves totally on his own initiative.  So, this will be the work for the the next weeks.  He is also exploring the various arenas (there are three, with one being a full sized dressage arena under cover, but open on one side to the large jumping arena).  He has also walked under saddle around the entire facility and has explored a field.  While he is alert and curious, has a “stop and look” attitude at “scary” things,  he does not yet show any worrisome resistances.   He can get a little panicky but calms down very quickly, and has shown himself to be quite smart.  As long as he uses that intelligence in the right direction, things will go well.

So just what am I hoping and expecting to accomplish this year.  I will set my goals, and and evaluate mid-year if I have been realistic.  First, I hope to take this young gelding who has spent most of his life in the field, to learn to not only trust me, but also to understand the enjoy the work we do together.  My specific riding goals will be to teach him to react to the leg and seat, accept and understand the rein aids, and develop a good physical condition with nice musculature.  I expect that he will develop a good rhythm, move forward readily, and begin to understand the aids of moving from the leg, in the form of leg yielding, turns on forehand and haunches,  and the bending aids.  That he will readily accept to push forward in the lengthening of his strides in trot and canter, and come back to working gaits with balance.  And of course, become attentive to the rider, trusting but retaining his own personality, which in my opinion, gives the horse a sense of “pride”.  I have never been one to insist that  submission comes through a form of “subjugation” and I have always believed that a calm horse is not “dragging his feet, and sluggish” but is working hard with a clear mind.  These are the characteristics I seek in my horses, and this is what I hope to achieve with Capi.

Ralf home

In addition, I hope to develop our Equestrian Excursions for 2013.  We have nearly concluded arrangements in both France and Germany with facilities and trainers where we can offer lessons and tours for individuals and small groups, in both dressage and jumping.  We have located very nice housing, gained access to trained horses, and are working on the “events” calendar in order to offer dates which can include the “show” experience, among others.  We are very excited about being able to offer this opportunity to  anyone interested in equestrian activity in Europe.

Finally, we have been working diligently on our website and hope to have it up and running as we would like by Spring of 2013.  We are preparing many articles, photo galleries, and reviews of equestrian activities worldwide.  In addition, we will offer some online photo/video evaluation and “question/answer” sections.  Getting really ambitious, I am trying to set up an online forum and hope that this can stimulate some thought-provoking issues among participants.

As you can see, I have high hopes and expectations for 2013.  Now, it is time to move forward and begin the journey.  I will continue to share for any of you who would like to accompany me as I face the challenges I have placed before myself.

So….best wishes to all for a healthy, happy and successful 2013.

Interview with German Master Rider/Trainer, Ralf Hannover

Ralf on WebbieSitting down at dinner with Ralf Hannöver is the best way (if not only way) to interrupt his hectic schedule of training, teaching, showing, trying prospective young horses, and like all successful business people today, getting him away from his cell phone.  But, over a good meal and a nice glass of wine, we were finally able to talk about his life with horses.

As a young boy, as with so many young professional riders in Germany, he grew up on a breeding farm where he, along with his brothers and sisters rode ponies and horses for as long as they can remember.  His father was his mentor, developing his riding and showing skills for many years.  Ralf was a successful young competitor and eventually became German Junior Jumping Champion.  As he continued to ride, train and compete, Ralf made the decision to pursue horses professionally and began his training as a Bereiter.  Originally scheduled to train under Holger Schmezer, due to a previous commitment on the part of Herr Schmezer, Ralf was trained instead by Herbert Rehbein.  He was eventually to spend 6 1/2 years working under Rehbein’s guidance.  I asked Ralf what is was like to have worked with one of the greats in the dressage world.  He responded by saying “it was one of the best times of my life.  Herr Rehbein never held back on what he knew” and gave him countless opportunities to sit on many excellent fully trained horses.  It was through these experiences he was able to feel the correctly trained movements, the use of the aids and the horses responses.  He felt privileged to have had those years and realizes it was an opportunity limited to a few.  He stressed that Herr  Rehbein’s style of teaching was not to stand and instruct your every move, but rather to supervise your work, making corrections as needed and to allow you to experience the training of horses through the levels to Grand Prix.  Quoting from the biography of Herbert Rehbein by Karin Drewes “Ralf Hannöver was the overall best student trainer for Rehbein” (Translation from German).  Having had the opportunity to work with Ralf myself, I can see that he has applied a similar technique to his own students.

After receiving his Berieter Diploma, Ralf worked under Herr Rehbein for three years, as is normal in the German system, before beginning his work towards his Meister Prufung (Master’s License).  I asked what this entailed and he explained the test is in 4 parts:

  1. Riding and Teaching (Practical)
  2. Theory (Advanced)
  3. Economics (Business Aspects)
  4. Pedagogy (Rules, Relationships, etc)

He attended the classes, did all his preparation and his final exam in Warendorf and Münster.

After 6 1/2 years at Grönwohldhof with Herbert and Karin Rehbein, Ralf took the job as dressage trainer at Vorwerk, where he remained for another 4 1/2 years.  There he trained, among many others, Rubenstein and Rohdiamant.  Reflecting back  on that period, he told me that Rubenstein was possibly his favorite horse to train.  He remembers him as being a kind, trusting and intelligent stallion, exceptionally willing and extremely trainable.

Young StallionAfter a number of years training for others, Ralf decided to go into business for himself and today operates his own training and sales business in Gehrde, Germany.  There he has numerous horses in training from amazing 3-year old youngsters  to fully trained Grand Prix horses.  He has a variety of international students as well as German riders.  He currently conducts clinics throughout Germany, as well as regular trips to Switzerland, Sweden and the United States.

Finally, I asked Ralf about the difference between the horses of the years past, and the modern breeding of today.  I wanted the opinion of someone who has sat on so many horses, from every pedigree imaginable and who could provide a truly educated and experienced response.  He responded “of course the quality has improved.  In former years the horses were not so willing and often required the skills of the professional rider to put them to work.  Today, the horses are more elastic, more athletic, with a better attitude, more willing to work”.  When I asked what characteristic was most important to him as a trainer, he responded without hesitation “the horse must be rideable”.    From my experience with Ralf, if the horse is rideable, he can take care of the rest.

For anyone interested, Ralf has both young and trained horses of outstanding quality for RalfClinicsale at his facility in Gehrde.  He is also available for clinics worldwide.  If you would like to contact Ralf, sent me a message for information.

Da Capo – First Week

It was interesting to begin working with an untrained horse.  By that, I mean a horse that has accepted to have a rider on his back, and reacts to the request to go forward and can turn with varying difficulty according to his “handedness” (laterality).  So now I will relate what I felt as I got to know my horse a little and how I feel he will respond to training.  So, let’s begin.

On the first day of riding, I was focusing on determining (1) if he was nervous, had a high energy level, was lazy, and what was his  level of responsiveness,  (2) his laterality (or handedness) and (3) finally how his laterality affected his balance and way of going.   All of this information helps me decide what sort of character he has, how naturally  crooked or straight he is, and how naturally balanced.    What I discovered about my horse is that he is not “hot” but is a little unsure, and definitely takes a “look” at things.  He seems to be of a good character and willing to work in the sense that he is responsive to the “driving” aids.  He is not too crooked naturally, but is definitely right-handed.  He carries his weight left and shifts to the right, that is to say, he pushes from his right hind to his left shoulder.   I did not feel he had an inclination to buck or run away,  but could get a little strong.

Over the next few days of riding I began to attempt to apply some simple aids to help him move easily forward by working with the issues of his laterality.  For example, he is heavy to my leg and seat on the left, and rather empty to my leg on the right and not moving forward to the right rein.  Since he knows very little, and only moves forward from the leg, (there is no sideways or bending yet) I began with the following work:  Going left, I tried to maintain a connection with the left rein, keeping my left leg on the horse, and then working  with a slightly elevated right rein and slightly active right leg to prevent the shifting to the right.  To my surprise he reacted quite well to this work, and for a few strides was softer  on my left rein and leg, and took a little contact right, and gave me a place for my right leg. However, it was only for a few strides at a time, which is normal, but a good sign for the training to come.    Going right, I maintained my horse straight to the left rein, seat and leg, and worked softly with the right rein and active right leg to ask him to lift the right side of his body, rather than falling right, and move forward.  Again, a good response, and a few strides of a feeling of even contact and even pressure against my legs.  At this stage, I cannot ask for more, but work to develop more strides of this response.

As the days progressed, and the more responsive he became to my aids, I was rewarded with the development of some strides where there was a feeling of a “pushing rhythm” rather than a horse just trotting over the ground.  He developed a little swing and some suspension.  During the moments he does not push, he falls a little behind the contact, but I work, even at this stage, not to let him got too low.  This is tiring for him so I work only for short periods and reward with a little walk but still asking for a forward energy toward the contact.

Obviously in one week you cannot expect to do more than introduce the aids, and analyze the responses and reactions of your horse.  These responses give you a reasonable expectation of how easily your horse might learn, and hopefully a little hint of his potential.  In my case,  I am very happy that he felt better and became calmer each day, and indicated to me he has a good work ethic and is athletic.  I am optimistic about his trainability.

He will be relocating to France next week, and therefore will have some time to settle into his new surroundings (and learn a new language!!!).  I will resume posting as soon as we begin his work with pictures and explanations of new developments.  Most likely I will start with lunging, and will explain what we are looking for, what equipment we use, and why.

I am looking forward to this new journey, and hope those who join me through this blog will find it interesting, if not educational.