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.

Da Capo – Lunging Part II

We have just completed a second week of work at the lunge.   Overall he has made very good progress in a short time, indicating a good trainability.  It is important to remember that he has spent most of his life in pasture and was only “broken in” to saddle.  He willingly accepted this “event” in his life but overall has had no real working connection with human beings.  Therefore, he has needed to learn to relate to and trust us, and then accept to learn and work calmly.

As a result of our efforts for the past couple of weeks, we have been rewarded with an increase of his awareness of his handler, and he is less focused on his surroundings.  He stands more quietly for grooming and tacking up, and finally “looks us in the eye”.  For me, that is very important and is the foundation for developing a good working relationship.

Before I describe the events of the past week’s work, I would like to explain how we are now attaching our support reins, and why.  As you can see from the pictures, we are using leftsidehookupa modified version of a “de gogue”.  Normally this is a device with a line running through a ring on a strap attached to the girth, which runs then through rings attached to a strap over the pole, then goes through the bit rings and back to the ring attached to the girth.  However, this arrangement does not provide support to the horse, helping him balance according to his “laterality”.  Therefore, rather than taking the reins back towards the girth attachment (between the legs) we go from the bit back to the rings on the surcingle.  Since this horse is right handed, we attach DSC01862the left line low, and the right line high. (Clearly demonstrated in photos.)   If I were riding, I would also support him with my right hand a little higher than my left.   It is very important to note, we do not want to restrict him or place his nose behind the vertical.  To the contrary, we want him to use the support to feel confident to stretch out and down, freeing his shoulders and back, and allowing the hind legs to push through.   He has responded beautifully to this work both in free lunging and on line.  He is trotting more calmly with a very good working rhythm and canters with increased balance and regularity.

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Finally, as he has progressed so well in the flat lunging, we added a small cavaletti at the trot.  After his first inclination to tackle it as a jump, he began to trot to it calmly.  After a couple of days he was trotting and cantering over it with confidence.

This work has also made

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changes in his conformation, most notably his neck looks longer and not so thick, and his back is rounder and stronger.  We are very happy with his progress in all aspects, and look forward to the developments of this next week.

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 – Lunge work

After giving Da Capo (Capi) a week or so to settle  in, we began his work on the lunge.  It was  immediately obvious that (1) he was aware of his surroundings and not totally concentrated, (2) when wanting to escape something strange he escaped left, (3) going right he cut the circle smaller or wanted to change back to the left, and (4) that he has a very sensitive mouth.  It was also apparent that he had not yet learned to stretch down.  So while he accpets to be lunged and ridden (thankfully), the real training has to start from scratch.   Out approach for his first work is outlined below.

For the first couple of days, we decided to make his support connected to his halter rings rather than the bit (our lunging caveson is no longer with us).  So, we fitted the bridle, minus the reins, and placed the halter over the bridle.  We used elastic support lines and connected them from the surcingle to the halter as follows:

  • left support (he is right handed) placed lower on the surcingle ring than the right, at a length that gave support without restricting;
  • right contact in the form of a wedge, that is to say a line runs through a lower surcingle ring, to and through the side ring on the halter and back to the surcingle, connecting to a higher ring.   Please note that the photos below indicate what we are looking for in the stretching, not the support described above.   Since this post is more for sharing our  observations and work  than “teaching” something I opted to show the results.
Learning to stretch

Learning to stretch

At this point, we free lunged him until he was calm but forward at the trot.   After a couple of days, we also asked for small amounts of canter.   The purpose and goal of this work is to ask him to find his balance, with the help of the support reins, by learning to stretch down and seek the contact.

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He seems to be very trainable and by the end of the week he was stretching down for short periods and was much calmer.  Also, this gives us a little preview of what his gaits may be when he has more training and confidence in his balance.  he also began to relax is jaw and swallow, producing a small amount of  “lipstick”.

Overall, in just this short period,  we also see some body changes.  Having been “taking it easy” in life, he had no real muscle development, was a little dropped in front of his withers, had no extension of the neck and was not using his back.  After this type of work, he has already lifted himself a little, smoothing out his topline.  In a word, he looks “taller” and has become smoother in his conformation.

Next, we will begin to work with contact to the bit.  We are optimistic it will go well.

French National Dressage Championships

While everyone knows that dressage is not well developed in France, it seems there might be some hope for the future.  This weekend  the French National Dressage Championships were held in Saint Lo, rather than Saumur, which made it easier for us to attend.  One indication of change was the number of non-French bred horses participating at Grand Prix.  In the Pro-Elite Grand Prix class on Saturday, out of 15 horses only 3 were bred in France, indicating the realization of French riders that quality of gaits is important in today’s competition..  The remaining 13 horses were either German or Dutch bred.  Since the the French concentrate their breeding program on producing superior jumping ability,  the quality of gaits is not generally considered, though there are a few breeders who have begun to breed specifically for dressage, using for the most part, German-bred horses.

What was interesting watching most of the top dressage riders and horses in France at the Pro-Elite Grand Prix level (in France the Pro-Elite are separate from the Amateur-Elite) were differences in technique and expectations.  For example, overall the horses were longer in the neck, more elevated in the withers and softer in the contact than you typically see at international competitions.  However, I think there was in general, less engagement and expression, as a result of the softer connection.  The horses overall responded quite well to the aids and seemed supple in their work, and relatively calm.  There was not a dramatic difference in the quality of horses competed, but the overall influence of the training and riding is where the final result differed.  While it is always difficult to marry the softer contact with the power and expression that wins, it is possible.   The dressage community became, in my opinion, too much about high quality gaits, expression, even if mechanical, and audience appeal,  I believe there is a trend back toward athletic horses working in more self-carriage, resulting in a lighter contact, and a more fluid expression of the gaits and movements.  Here I think the French have the knowledge and desire to present horses in this manner.  What for me is missing, is the power and expression which comes from a better connection,  out of which develops the lightness of self-carriage.

However, the DIFFERENCE that was most noticeable was the judging.  At Grand Prix and not a CDI, there were five judges.  At the lower levels there were three judges.  At even most local shows, there is a minimum of three judges, so much less chance of politics getting in the way.  The scores were anything but inflated, with the best rides scoring in the high 60’s.   The high profile riders were NOT given a “boost” based on momentum or past performances.  I believe they were judged on a level playing field, and a bad ride got a bad score.  Also, while most of the horses were of good quality, there were of course differences in athleticism and gaits, but overall I believe the judges scored the training (use of and response to the aids) and movements (correctly ridden and with good transitions) rather than the WOW factor of the horse.  For me, this was refreshing to see.

Overall, it was an interesting afternoon, encouraging about the direction of dressage in France, and satisfying to realize the  we are not the only ones searching for a ride that shows training which  results in a straight, balanced, supple and elevated horse who goes forward without being forced.

For anyone interested in watching the winning ride, you can view it at this link:http://youtu.be/1shfS28JO8Q.   This horse won I believe on the quality of his training, the presentation of the rider and not spectacular gaits.

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.

Some Solutions on Circles

To complete my discussion of the circle, I will focus on some solutions to problems I originally described.   It is very important to note that the horse’s laterality or “handedness” plays a HUGE role in finding solution.  In short, we must teach the horse to be straight, and this means even on a circle.  To quote Ulrick Schramm (The Undisciplined Horse),crookedness is an everlasting curse.  Even a very accomplished horse will evidence at times some degree of one-sidedness and this has to be corrected repeatedly by the limbering exercises on circles and two tracks”   So let’s discuss those limbering exercises.

Stiffness

Stiff

Reactions (or resistances) by the horse are nearly always related to his desire to balance himself, and when he begins a circle his lateral tendencies will magnify themselves.  He will cross a hind leg and lean, he will drift out, speed up or try to avoid consistent contact.  Therefore, the rider’s work is to teach the horse to relax and become supple through his body, not just his neck, in order to maintain, or regain, his balance.

Following are some exercises to be performed on a circle to develop this suppleness.  (Here I assume the horse has learned to respond to the basic leg, seat and rein aids, and can perform a shoulder-fore and haunches-in on straight lines.)

  • first, for purposes of perspective, mark a circle of 10 to 15 meters, making a clearly visible track.
  • attempt to walk the circle keeping the horse, as well as possible, on the track.  Review the hoof marks afterwards, and of course perform this effort in both directions.
  • attempt a shoulder-fore on the circle (first renew your clean track).  Remember, the shoulders move slightly off the track with the haunches on the track.  This is really more difficult than it seems and only a truly supple horse can accomplish this and leave “correct” tracks (not wobbling or shifting or stepping wide).
  • attempt a haunches-in, maintaining the front end on the track and without any leg crossing.  Maintain the neck parallel to the shape of the circle (this will require a supple and soft activity of the reins, not holding or forcing the position of the neck).
  • finally, attempt a counter shoulder-in on the circle.  This movement, done correctly, really serves to loosen and supple the shoulders.  It is not easy and can take sometimes weeks to accomplish with some horses.  Be patient and do not expect good results on the first attempts.  The horse has to learn how to move his body this way, and any forcing of the process will be counterproductive.

Developing control of the haunches

Once you can perform these exercises quite easily your ability to perform even the smallest volte will result in a straighter, more rhythmical and active horse , as he will be able to maintain his balance.  As General DeCarpentry noted in his book,  Academic Equitation, “there is no better procedure than bending work on the circle……..to obtain and to develop the lateral suppleness of the back–which determines suppleness in the vertical plane”.

Once good results can be obtained from the exercises described above, you can then begin to manage your bend on turns and circles with the use of your outside aids, and not just a bend in the neck from the inside rein.  You can begin your circle by guiding gently the haunches to the new direction, and then maintain control of the shoulders with your outside rein.  You are also able to support the horse with your outside aids to prevent  the falling in on the circle without the horse stiffening and losing balance.

When the horse learns to performs these exercises on circles, not only will his circle work improve, but his laterality becomes much less of an issue in later movements because of his “learned” flexibility in both directions.  And as an added bonus, you horse will very likely stay sound longer.