Dressage Competition Camp – July 7th & 8th

The popularity of training camps for riders is growing and for good reason. It is a training format that I had never experienced until last week. Although I did not take a horse along to Moulton Equestrian Centre I was made to feel very much a part of the group, which was a lovely experience. I took part in the dismounted sessions and found it to be both thought-provoking and valuable.

Where a camp varies from say a two or three-day clinic is in the scope of the activities that are included; This is where they have particular value. There is scope for both mounted and dismounted learning opportunities, focusing on the mind and body of the rider. Most importantly of all, there is plenty of opportunity for the riders to talk to one another and to the coach in a relaxed and informal setting.

I love to learn from riding in and auditing at clinics. Riders and coaches can learn a massive amount that way, but there are drawbacks. At a clinic there is usually silence prevailing because one or other of the riders is under tuition. When my riding session is coming to an end I have often had questions and invariably the clinician is only too happy to answer them but there is alway the sense of time pressure, sometimes a sense of intruding upon the tiny amount of time a clinician gets to have a drink and momentarily relax between the lessons. If I have four questions then for these reasons I ask only one or two. There have been times that clinics have ended with wonderfully social dinners or even parties, but asking riding related questions at times like that seems downright rude; unless the trainer brings up the subject of my horse or my riding then I am certainly not going to.

Where a camp differs, and certainly where Alison’s camp differed, is that the trainer spends more time with the participants. There are structured sessions and around these there is time where discussions can evolve in a less formal way, questions can be asked and discussions among the group can take place. This is something that, given the right company, I like very much.

Day One – Individual Ridden Sessions

The first day of the camp was dedicated to individual riding sessions, a dismounted session with work on rider mindset, and then a ridden session as a group. There was a positive, inclusive atmosphere from the beginning. The first horse in was Sardra, a beautiful mare who has only recently returned to work, ridden by her owner Tory Dobb. Sardra is in her late teens, but you really wouldn’t know it. Given the rather challenging whether we were having the indoor arena was very hot indeed. All of the horses and riders coped very well and Alison naturally tailored the work to suit the situation. For a horse recently returned to work, I was impressed with Sardra’s willingness. She really seemed to enjoy the work and became much more forward as the session progressed. One of the stepping-stones to this was Alison’s instruction to keep the correct tempo in the walk, not to hurry it and to use the trot to help Sardra think forward.

Let the rhythm come, don’t hurry the tempo!

Encouraging Tory to apply the reins, so that she had a light but more defined contact also helped encourage Sardra to go forward. She made some corrections to Tory’s lower leg position and leg aid application; this helped too. It has a double benefit of improving the rider’s body balance, which encourages a forward mindset in the horse, and it makes the aid delivery quicker and lighter, thus more effective. Tory took this correction on board and the benefit of it stayed in place through the rest of the session.

As Alison pointed out, it was important for Sardra that the gymnastic challenges were kept quite easily achievable. She is clearly a very giving and sweet-tempered horse. When you train an uncomplaining horse it is especially important to keep your demands at a level that will build the horse’s confidence. As they worked between the gaits she encouraged Tory to allow Sardra’s hind legs through into the downward transitions. This is something that we can all do well to think about, in every transition we ride. It encourages us to keep the contact soft and allowing, it encourages us to think forward when we transition down and not block the hocks.

Taking a rider’s focus off of a particular thing is sometimes the first step the coach must take to help them improve it. This was the case with Tory and Sardra’s use of the corners. By asking Tory to initially make easy, blunted corners whilst keeping the bend correct they were able by the end of the session to ride deeper corners in good balance. This doesn’t happen by magic of course and nor simply because of the passage of time. There was a key to the situation and it was all about straightness. Straightness is not simply a matter of travelling along a line that doesn’t wobble, in part it is about the horse using both hind legs correctly, both sides of its body equally, and connecting lightly but evenly to both hands. Early in the session Alison identified that contact was an area for this combination to work on and it was a clear focus through the session.

It was in the canter work that the most obvious changes took place, again due to the influence of straightening the horse and equalising the contact. One of the ways that Alison enabled Tory to achieve the improvement was through judicious use of counter bend. For a few strides prior to the transition she asked Tory to put Sardra into counter flexion and a gentle degree of counter bend. Upon returning to true bend they immediately struck off into the canter. This exercise has a clear gymnastic benefit to the horse and in addition it made the rider more aware of what became her outside rein going into the canter. The result was a clearer moment of suspension, more energy and more ‘jump’ in each stride. This was a great demonstration of the principle that straightness allows impulsion to develop in the mind and body of the horse.

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Many riders don’t get to experience riding in a 20 x 60 metre arena on a daily basis and Karen Browne mentioned this at the start of her individual session with Harvey. Riding in the long arena when you usually train in a short arena, can challenge both the stamina of a horse and the spacial awareness of the rider. Harvey, an eighteen year old Welsh section D gelding, has belonged to Karen for nine years and they have explored a variety of activities together. Karen has an interest in biomechanics and is keen to explore dressage in greater depth with Harvey. They have taken part in tests at Prelim level before and also have experience together in endurance riding and jumping. Harvey is a gorgeous horse, with the energy levels and positive attitude that are so often found in Welsh horses. His basic gaits were very good and showed all the promise you could want for future development. What has struck me many times, and did so again with these horses, is how a well cared for horse in its late teens or early twenties often moves better than a poorly trained horse of six or seven.

The main focus for Karen in the early part of the session was a correction to her upper body position. Harvey had initially shown a tendency to fall in. There is a wise old saying that “a crooked rider never made a straight horse” and this applies to us all to some degree or other. We are endlessly correcting our bodies to correct the bodies of our horses. There are those who teach only the effect of hand or leg in cases like these but Alison is of course a far more educated teacher! She made numerous small, relevant changes to the positions of the riders throughout the camp and it was lovely to see that connection in place. Alison corrected Karen’s upper body position relative to the line of travel. She did this skilfully by asking her to bring her outside shoulder around, rather than by asking her to take her inside shoulder back. This has the advantage of avoiding excessive twisting of the upper body and the collapsing that can go along with it. It is also easier for the rider to maintain the outside hand position and rein contact when it is done this way.

It is great to work with riders who have done ‘a bit of everything’ rather than those who have dressage focused tunnel vision. The reason for this is that, like Harvey, their horses often have a lovely unspoilt basis to begin training. There was no incorrect training to undo, no hand imposed tensions in the poll or the back. The flip side, if it can even be called that, is that Harvey had not yet learnt to gather his body under him and explore its full power and gymnastic potential. Even at eighteen you could see that he had plenty of scope for this though. Alison gave Karen an idea, an image to keep in her mind. It was of a big elastic band around Harvey’s whole body, there to encourage spring and elasticity in his movement. It gave Karen the idea of elastic connection. Throughout the session I could see this starting to grow and develop. Like the corrections to a rider’s seat, a transformation like this is gradual and takes an ongoing effort to make sure it takes root.

“I loved this clinic. It was relaxed and everything was broken down so it was easy to understand. Roll on my next Dressage!”  Karen Browne

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A positional correction will usually feel alien to the rider at first. As Karen put it “it feels right and wrong at the same time”.  It is the reward the horse gives the rider that becomes a marker of the change and acts as a motivation to sustain the change. Harvey discovered a more springy, softer way of going through the session and the contact improved. Karen noticed his lower head carriage and Alison described it very appropriately as “a wonderful by-product”; Harvey had in fact begun to noticeably soften and lift his top-line into early stage roundness. It was a lovely transformation, that showed his movement to even greater advantage. Working into the canter transitions Alison gave the following set of instructions:

“Build the trot, engage the outside rein and think canter”.

The result fitted exactly with the imagery that she had suggested to Karen at the start. It was as though Harvey had a big elastic band around him, he had become more elastic in body and mind.

One thing that I noticed throughout the sessions was how the horses all gravitated to Alison when they had the chance; at the start and end of the sessions and when she stopped them to explain something to the rider. This is always a good sign to me. The horse, the rider and the coach are a unit of three and trust has to exist between all parties.

Karen Kendall’s thirteen year old piebald cob Seamus had previously hacked and taken part in endurance rides. Karen is aiming to improve his work in the school, with the goal of taking part in a riding club quadrille this September. Karen has Arthritis in both hips and, because of this, her legs take time to relax into position at the start of every ride. Improving a rider’s seat is as much about ensuring the rider has time for relaxation and comfort as it is about body alignment. Alison made a quick correction to encourage soft bend in Karen’s elbow, with a virtually immediate improvement taking place in the contact. Seamus’ primary issue has been with going forward. From my experience with horses of his type, and no doubt this was the case for Alison too, it is clear that fitness and coordination are the underlying factors, rather than a lack of willingness. Like many horses with substantial bone structures, Seamus will take time to develop the muscle power he requires to work at his absolute best.

Seamus and Karen have only begun working with Alison very recently and it was clear that they are both building self-confidence thanks to her knowledgable and patient approach. In the two ridden sessions I saw Seamus grow in confidence and offer work willingly that had apparently been something of a battleground in the past. A key factor in this was the rider’s tone of voice. How can something so subtle, that is not a body aid make such a difference? Well, I think it is because tone of voice reveals the rider’s underlying state of mind.  Alison picked up on some underlying mental tension and quietly reassured Karen, asking her to make a very specific change to her tone of voice if she uses it for upward transitions. From that moment on an upbeat, positive, friendly voice aid backed up the leg and it took both horse and rider onto an upward psychological spiral that was lovely to see. Seamus definitely needs a tone that says “you can do this” much more than he needs a tone that says”you will do this”.

 

Seamus offered much more sustained forwardness as the session progressed and many of the improvement that were coming into Seamus’ work were by products of this. Controlling his shoulders on the circles was an area that Alison and Karen focused on. Keeping the shape and dimensions of the circles depends first on controlling the shoulder mass of the horse and only then can consistent bend exist. By the end of the session Karen had a great deal more control of Seamus’ shoulders. He was flowing around the circles in trot better than ever before. The physical change in him was clear and he had a happy look on his face, as did Karen! Looking at Seamus I could clearly see his potential; given time to get stronger and lighter, fitter and even more confident he will make a beautiful quadrille horse or competition horse. There is no such thing as a dressage horse. Dressage is a process that exists to serve the horse and the rider. As they continue to train with Alison I am certain that this process will be the making of Seamus, mentally and physically. He showed a lovely hint of things to come in the free walk towards the end of the session when he stretched down, held the connection, lifted his back and his walk got a rather lovely swing to it.

“I really benefitted from the ridden sessions and then discussing and breaking it down into chunks. I feel positive about our future in dressage and excited to move on”  Karen Kendall

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Mindset Session

We chose to take the dismounted session outside. Once the horses were settled into their stables we found a bench in the shade. I took part in this session and so my impressions are those of a participant as much as an observer. Preliminary 13 was the test Alison had chosen to look at for the session. We began by talking about how we learn tests. For me letters don’t really come into it much because I learn patterns, usually linked together in blocks. Alison asked us to begin learning the test, she then stopped us part way through to focus on one particular movement. Our minds were in a focused state at this point. The movement that we focused on for the visualisation was the section of trot along the wall after the corner and a twenty metre circle halfway down the long side – working trot H to E, with the circle at E. There is a give and retake of the reins on the second half of the circle as you cross the centre line. We used this movement to create a visualisation.

Despite being familiar with visualisations and accustomed to using them in training I did something that surprised me. I set myself up in my mind, trotting down the wall and onto my circle. The sun was warming me, the scent of gently perspiring horse was rising to my nostrils, I could feel the stirrup treads gently under my feet and my seat bones  were moving with the horse, the birds were singing and all was well. The trot tempo was steady, the contact was nice and the bend was rather pleasing. Then I came to the give and retake. I did a quick, token arm gesture totally unlike anything I would normally call a decent give and retake. I need not have moved my arms at all during a visualisation. The phrase “what I should be doing” came up from one of the riders and although I hadn’t said it, I too had thought it. Alison suggested we reframe that as “what I would like to do”. The way we talk about ourselves and to ourselves is critically important; language really matters to mindset. When I went through my visualisation again I made sure that my give and retake was the real thing! In our visualisations we must not mark the movements but fully create them in our mind.

For riders who might not have worked with visualisation before, the main surprise and the main challenge too is that they must be in real-time. It must take you as long to ride your movement in your visualisation as it would to ride it on your horse. The second thing is that they are multi sensory. Alison encouraged the riders to think about what they could see, hear and feel through the visualisation. For the exercise to work it is vital to make the experience as real as possible. We all jotted down what we had been aware of. Because I have been trained to soften my eyes, look up and, on a circle I take my outside eye line to the inside ear tip of the horse, the view for me was a wide-angle, soft focus, constantly moving panorama of my current home arena. I was aware of hearing birdsong and the footfalls of the horse. The perceived sensation of movement revolved around my hips and seat bones primarily, with the pleasant rein contact and the stirrup tread contact being part of my awareness too. Overall I was aware of my body positioning for the circle. My thinking felt clear and calm because of the soft focus and the steady tempo. My state of mind could have been categorised as calmly alert. That is probably the ideal state to ride and also to compete in. This is one of the ways in which repeated visualisations really do help riders.

We were then asked to choose a movement in the test which we would find challenging. I thought of a particular horse I know and decided that the free walk would be our greatest challenge in that test. It is a quietly challenging movement and not to be underestimated. In Prelim 13 it carries a double score and that in itself says something about the challenges and importance of that movement as an indicator of quality training. One of my teachers used to say to us

“Remember it is free walk on a long rein, not long walk on a free rein!”

Whilst there will be less contact than in an extended walk, there is still a connection to preserve through the stretch. With a horse that is nervous and who can be inattentive it is often easier to ride an extended walk, where the horse remains on a more defined contact and therefore is more easily kept on the aids, than it is to ride a free walk. That was what I jotted down for my “issue” with the movement. I was asked to make a second column for what I wanted in the movement and it looked like this:

  • Staying focused, taking the contact down, moving freely into a good over-track, with the back lifting and swinging under me.
  • Remaining focused and on the aids for as long as I want the stretch to last.

Exploring the things I wanted gave me the blueprint for how to change the issue into the things I wanted. I was able to come up with a plan. I decided that I would not try initially to go for gold in that movement. In training I would ride it progressively from a smaller stretch, keeping the connection between horse and I, to a greater stretch as time went on. In a very spooky environment I would ride for a modestly respectable mark, so as not to wreck the movement altogether. I have always believed in knowing when to ride for a modest gain, a solid confidence building result. Showjumping taught me that. There is definitely a dressage version of the slow careful clear round and it is a valuable thing. Like all of the participants I had, through this exercise, found my own solutions. Therein lies one of the differences between coaching and teaching. An exercise like this helps riders to draw on their own reserves and that is something every rider can benefit from. It really creates confidence.

“I love the inclusivity of the session and the opportunity to discuss and process the ridden sessions. It was really helpful to share experiences and have the chance to learn from each other”  Tory Dobb

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The Group Ridden Session

We were all back indoors for the group ridden session. This was designed to have some shared objectives and some individual ones. Some of the shared objectives were about using the space and getting used to sharing the space. Sooner or later we all come up against others who warm up in a less than friendly fashion. Alison had some great, constructive advice for dealing with this. It involved positive body language and making a polite personal connection with the rider in question. A confident smile or a compliment can go a long way. It enables you to feel pro active rather than reactive to that person. Many riders don’t get the opportunity to ride in with others on a day-to-day basis and warming up arenas can come as a shock to the system. Having a group session built into the camp was a very good idea for this reason alone.

When it came to deciding the individual objectives it was clear how much confidence all of the riders had gained throughout the day. Rather than focusing on more of the same from their earlier session, they wanted to explore some lateral work with their horses. These choices were very appropriate extensions of what they had already been working on. There is nothing like shoulder in or quarter walk pirouettes to help gain control of the horse’s shoulders and increase straightness. For some horses it was the very beginning of their work in these movements and others had already made a start. By the end of the session all of the riders were more at home with the aids, more relaxed in their bodies and the horses showed some very nice responses. All through the session Alison built upon the basics that had been put in place earlier, keeping the riders aligned correctly and the horses on an even contact through both sides of their bodies. The work was approached very correctly and the horses all showed better walk, trot and canter as a result. That is the mark of correct lateral work, that it improves the forwards locomotion on a single track. You can’t ask for more after a day’s work than for greater longitudinal balance, better lateral balance and a marked increase in the beauty of  a horse’s movement.

Day Two – BD Competition at Moulton EC

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The second day of the camp was dedicated to the competition itself. Not all of the riders from the previous day were planning to compete and two new horses joined the group. The beautiful Stella, who belongs to Diane Underwood, totally lived up to her name. I watched Alison work with this combination at the start of the day and again through their warm up. Stella worked with great consistency and focus. She has the ride-ability factor and seemed, admittedly on short acquaintance, to be an absolute sweetheart. Her movement clearly had the potential to be big and I really liked that Diane and Alison kept her in good tempo and good balance throughout. Stella’s movement is cadenced, but soft, which shows that she habitually works in a state of relaxation.

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Stella clearly has a high level of confidence in Diane. She worked in a strange arena just as though she’d been there forever. That attitude to life is a wonderful thing to work with; it means you can focus on the technical aspects of training rather than on managing behaviours. I suspected that she might, at some point in her life, have been ridden in a way that had destabilised the base of her neck. This usually leaves a mark on the horse’s way of going that takes skill and determination to correct. As Alison put it “she is learning that we are not at home to wiggling the neck”! Stella was showing very sound Elementary level work with lots of promise for reaching the higher levels. Keeping the focus on straightness and balance is certainly the way to do exactly that! Diane and Stella produced a really lovely test to take second place in the BD Elementary Freestyle to Music.

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I also got to meet the very handsome Beau, who belongs to Tamasine Thompson. It is clear that Beau is a horse with a lot of personality. He and Tamasine clearly have a very strong bond. I can totally understand why someone would fall for this horse. Something that seems paradoxical in horses applies to him; I realised I had met yet another example of the brave but spooky horse. Beau had quite a career as an event horse and his courageous, idiosyncratic nature is written in every line of him and every gesture. His eyes have a powerful look I’ve seen in great racehorses. On the other hand he clearly finds the world a spooky place to live in. This paradox is familiar to me and I have ridden several horses who exhibited similar behaviours of high courage and high reactivity. My conclusion is that they are the ones most determined to remain alive, the successful ones in survival terms. When asked to do a job other horses would balk at, they get on and do it, but if a leaf blows off a tree then you’d better fasten your seatbelt!  That Beau showed some tension in his test was no surprise. From observing him outside of the arena I was pretty much expecting it. He’s the kind of horse that can give you fireworks, of the sort you want and the sort you don’t!

There were some issues with the sound system and before the test got going Beau was met with a screeching noise that would have put the wind up many horses! He dealt with that really rather well but I don’t think it increased his general happiness level with that particular environment. Each time Beau had a spook Tamasine handled it tactfully and effectively; encouraging him to relax and listen. You cannot force relaxation, it is impossible. If the tension comes from the mind of the horse then all you can do is ride correctly, confidently and reassuringly whilst you wait for it to pass. Of course the tension levels will have a domino impact on other factors in the horse’s way of going. It would be my hope that as Beau advances in his training he will offer more of his best and exhibit less of the tensions. I say this because when Beau settles he shows movement that is eye-catching, athletic, and cadenced. He has all of the presence you could ever want, but of course it tends to be the challenging horses who do.

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Sardra’s test in the BD Preliminary Freestyle to Music was absolutely lovely to watch. In spite of being recently back in work, having travelled on both days of the weekend and having worked fairly hard on the first day, she was if anything more forward. Her canter work was enthusiastic and she looked like she was really enjoying herself. Some horses just come alive to music and I wonder if she is one of them. All of the improvements that Alison and Tory had worked on through Saturday were visible in the test and it was great to see everything fall into place. Not only was the test a pleasure to watch, it had a very successful outcome; a good score and a red rosette, but most importantly of all a happy horse and rider!

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The level of support that Alison gave each of the riders was wonderful. Having a coach on hand to help you warm up is something that many riders don’t get to experience very often. Knowing that they will be there to talk through their impressions of your test is valuable too. What a rider remembers of a test is often a little at odds with what an observer sees. The judge has no context on you or your horse, they must comment and mark within fixed parameters. Your coach knows the background and context and can offer vital input as well. It is ironic that the riders with the most experience, who may well be coaches themselves, are the ones most likely to have coaches of their own in attendance when they compete. This particular camp format gave the riders a taste of what it is like to have the support system that some, though by no means all, professional riders experience.

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Reflecting on the experience of the camp in general I would absolutely recommend it. I did so beforehand because I firmly believe in Alison’s capability as a coach. Now, my conviction is even stronger. Although I was there as an observer I felt very included. The company was great. I realised that it did me a lot of good to sit and chat with other riders. Had I been planning to compete on that Sunday I would have felt like part of a team. Camps offer us a chance to be open, to share, to support one another. One of the things I wanted to do when I began writing was to show the connections and common ground that exists between all riders. The two days of the camp were full of opportunities to learn, to build confidence and to have fun. I won’t be able to be at the next one, but I really wish I could. I will look forward to hearing how all of the horses and riders are getting on though and hope to meet them again before too long!

There was a lovely goodie bag for each of the riders and one for me too! A big thank you to Alison and to Equissimo, Laura Mary Art and Equilibrium Products for putting this together; it made a great weekend even more memorable!

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Alison Kenward

A big part of my original vision for Dressage Perspectives was to meet and write about interesting people, to share their stories with you. When I started to make that vision a reality I knew that Oxfordshire based dressage rider and coach Alison Kenward was one of the first people I wanted to IMG_1470connect with. I noticed Alison through her Twitter account @solitaireDTM and I really liked her attitude to dressage and to her coaching career. After talking to Alison over the phone I knew that she was one hundred percent the kind of person that I wanted to interview. We met for lunch in Towcester and talked for hours!

I was fascinated to hear about Alison’s experiences out in New Zealand, working cattle in a remote and unforgiving environment. Now, I’ve enjoyed riding cattle working horses. They are agile and lightning quick in their responses, bright and super fun. I have never in my life herded cattle though! Alison has and I was deeply impressed. It is interesting that this work, riding with your body weight, usually one-handed and on the lightest of contacts, translates to our dressage riding very well. There are challenges in it for sure though and we chatted about those. It can take some getting used to riding with divided reins again and having a more defined contact. There is value though, as Alison pointed out, in learning to be resourceful because you are alone with animals in a vast landscape. She often took out young and unknown horses, getting to know them as she and they worked together. In half a day out there, she said, you can get to know a horse pretty well! Remembering those days is the perfect antidote the Alison’s inner control freak! I found myself thinking I could do with a dose of that.

Alison has great clarity of vision, a real ability to see the way forward and develop her skill set accordingly. I quickly discovered that she has a great intellectual curiosity about the whole learning experience. As a coach, as with all the other facets of her life, she is dedicated to becoming the best that she can be. Alison is currently working towards her UKCC Level 3 (Dressage Specific) qualification but her interest in coaching is much broader. It has led her to look beyond equestrian sports for information and inspiration. She is mentored by Sir Clive Woodward, the coach who successfully took the England Rugby team through a period of great transformational change. What really impressed me about this was not only that Alison had the confidence to go right to the top in her selection but she had the foresight to recognise that a person from outside of her own sport would make the ideal choice.

Of course, as trainers it is not just our coaching skills that matter, it is always the content that we have taken onboard from various sources that matters most. That is what we have to pass on to our pupils. Alison has a strong foundation as a rider and as an instructor. Currently Alison is a BHSII and has gained her Stable Manager’s qualification too; we talked about the challenges of the BHSI exam and how it fits within the overall framework of her career plan. We discussed our shared respect for the BHS training system and a belief in its ongoing importance. As the individual competitive disciplines have become increasingly popular with the riding public it is so important to have teachers with a broad skill base. IMG_6681

As a competitive rider Alison has shown the same focused and logical approach to her personal development. There are riders whose coaching choices are based on very flawed logic but wise riders always have a sound rationale behind the decisions they make. James Burtwell is Alison’s primary coach. This is a long-term situation and they have a strong rapport. James had been one of the Central Region coaches whom Alison worked with in the 1990s, before going out to New Zealand. He was the person she chose to work with on her return to the UK and his faith in Alison’s ability was such that he offered her a training bursary.  Thinking with the coach headset and the rider headset simultaneously can be paralysing. Sometimes we need a coach to take control of our own control issues! Working with James helps Alison to focus in the moment, to simply ride without constantly being under the magnifying glass of self-criticism. He is an excellent competition coach with a focused and positive attitude.

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Alison also trains with Emile Faurie from time to time. This is an experience which she described as magical. He also encouraged her to get rid of her fear of making mistakes and to be less apologetic for the mistakes she made. She was impressed not only with Emile’s attitude to her but also with the warmth and affection he shows to horses.

“The training environment is spot on. He’s got the knowledge, the patience, the empathy but he is also incredibly sport driven and competitive. I felt safe and incredibly challenged.”

Both Emile and James are people who Alison can turn to for help and advice. Both encourage Alison to think for herself and will gently remind her that some of the answers to her questions are ones that she is able to figure out for herself. As Alison pointed out, if we become too dependent on our coaches it breaks down our confidence and our ability to problem solve.

Alison has also been visiting Summerhouse Equestrian to work with Sarah Gallop on her Grand Prix schoolmasters. Riding fully trained horses is an essential element in a rider’s personal development. The connection that the coach has with the schoolmaster horse is vitally important. Together they work to help the rider. This requires the coach and horse to have a history, ideally it will be a horse that the coach has trained. The coach is an interpreter to help the rider understand what the trained horse is trying to say. As Alison said, left to her own devices on the fully trained horse she might have resorted to staying in walk and trying to perfect everything. With Sarah to guide her she was able to overcome any misunderstandings with the horse and gain a lot from the sessions.

I asked Alison, aside from her coaches, who had influenced her development. The book that first sparked her interest in dressage was Judith Draper’s “Guide to Show Jumping”. As a twelve-year-old child with a 13.2hh pony Alison had been mad about show jumping. After many struggles and lots of falls she turned to Judith’s book for help. The first few chapters are dedicated to flatwork. Alison was about to skip that part and get to the sections on jumping when she noticed something. At the start of the section on jumping, the book listed a range of basic dressage figures and movements and it said “if you cannot do all of these things with your horse then you need to go back to the beginning of the book and try again.” Alison spent a whole summer working on the flat. When she did go back to jump at a local venue people were amazed. This young girl who had always been falling off not only stayed on but jumped succesful rounds. The appreciation of dressage as a process was for Alison the forerunner to her love of dressage as a sport. In this, I think she was both fortunate and wise; it is far better that way around.

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As so often happens when you get along well with someone, you find out that you share common ground in terms of tastes and influences. As Alison ran through a list of the books and training DVDs that she loves I was smiling because her list is more or less my list too! Podhajsky, of course, Mark Todd on everything but especially show jumping and the value of grid work, Kyra Kyrklund for the sheer logic of her training system, Paul Belasik on energy states of the rider, and of course Charles de Kunffy! The list went on and my smile got wider!

“Who has influenced you” is perhaps the most important question to ask a prospective coach. The teachers they have chosen will define the quality of information they will transmit to you, the books they have read, the clinicians they have spent hours watching will be a big part of that as well. I know that Alison’s pupils find working with her hugely beneficial and her reputation as an intelligent and effective teacher is growing.

Tamasine Thompson, one of Alison’s students recently tweeted this

“I can testify that a good coach is 100% the difference between improving or stagnating – thanks @Solitaire DTM”

I should probably add that the tweet began with “MY BRAIN” and a ‘rolling on the floor laughing’ symbol! Now that, to me speaks a volume of positive things.

Alison blogs at http://alisonkenward.blogspot.co.uk and I am delighted to announce that she will also be joining Dressage Perspectives as a guest contributor!

Next time I will be writing about the horses in Alison’s life, their day-to-day training, the products that support their care and how she has found the ideal approach to competition for each of them!

Christine xx

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Successful Lateral Work

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If you are finding that you lose impulsion, balance and cadence as soon as you start riding a lateral movement it might be because your focus is on how to ride the movement and not on the gait that you are riding it in. Internalising the movement means practicing it on as many horses as possible, maybe going for a schoolmaster lesson with a good coach, and getting to the point where you can ride that movement in your sleep. You might already be there and not realise it. Many riders keep focusing on the how to, or the how to not go wrong, for far longer than they really need to.

Getting your mind off of the movement, trusting yourself to know what to do, is really important to riding it really well. What makes all the difference to the quality of the movement and therefore the score that you are likely to get is the horse’s way of going. It is the quality of the walk, trot or canter that reflects success in both the competition arena and daily training.

Key Stages of Learning

A key factor for success is to recognise where you are on the scale from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence. For anyone unfamiliar with this, there are four stages:

  1. unconscious incompetence – eg: when I knew what a Half Pass was but did not really know that I lacked the skills to ride Half Pass. A lovely pupil of mine told me that when she began learning to ride she anticipated learning all of the dressage movements in around six months. I met her three years after that and eleven years after that she could ride Grand Prix!
  2. conscious incompetence – eg: when I realised that I did not have those skills but wanted to acquire them. When it looks easy but you discover it isn’t!
  3. conscious competence – eg: when I could ride a Half Pass if I focused consciously on what aids to give the horse.
  4. unconscious Competence – eg: when I could breeze into a Half Pass and focus on keeping the trot expressive, the tempo regular and the horse loose over his back.

Which stage are you at?

If you are at the first or second stage with a particular movement then this is a wonderful phase of learning too. In discovering dressage as a sport what you have really discovered is a process, a whole load of valuable things to learn and to teach your horse. Approach each at the right time, with the help of a good coach. You will be able to establish the skills you need to ride the movement, practice them and move in turn from riding them competently to riding them beautifully.

When you are learning a new movement you will be at the third stage and holding there for a while. That is valid and necessary; don’t be in too much of a hurry to move on from competent to spectacular just yet. Get it fluent, become familiar with how the movement feels at all training levels by riding different horses. The Shoulder In of a young horse will feel very different to that of a fully schooled horse. That of a pony will feel different to that of a Thoroughbred or Iberian horse. Gain lots of diverse experience and hone your skills.

It can be difficult to know when you have become unconsciously competent, because you remain always consciously competent too. I know innately that I can ride a Pirouette but naturally I know it consciously too. One key shift can be determined in the way you describe how to do something. If asked how to ride some movement that I have a level of unconscious competence in I will have a sensory memory pop up, which I then have to put into words. When I was at the stage of conscious competence I would have been more likely to think in words rather than in memories. If someone asks you how you ride Shoulder In and your mind supplies a strong memory, a muscular memory then you are almost certainly already there.

If you suspect that you are one of those many riders who might be getting stuck at the third stage then the message in this post is most of all aimed at helping you. Sometimes we stick at that stage out of sheer habit or because we are too self -critical. Can a dressage rider be too self-critical? Yes, I think they can in this case. If you are getting a sub-optimal result it could be the result of over thinking the movement itself. So trust yourself, let go of analysing the aids you are giving because your body already knows what to do. Success will follow when you get your focus onto the beautiful walk, trot or canter that you could be in.

When you know that you know, you can relax into the movement and really set your horse up to shine!

If you would like more help with your lateral work then check out these articles in the #BetterDressage series:

Riding Renvers & Travers.

Better Dressage – Shoulder In

Better Dressage – Exercises for improving lateral work.

Better Dressage – Key Skills for Lateral Work

Review of the Passion K Dressage Saddle from Prestige Italia.

Needing a Dressage Saddle often starts with a saddle fitting problem…

At the end of January a pupil of mine took over the ride on a very interesting little dressage horse who really needed a new saddle. Her owner had already tried just about all of the high quality second-hand saddles she could find and it was obvious that the fitting was going to be too complex for that approach, so I recommended calling in a very good saddler. Undoubtedly the best saddler in the region happens to be a Prestige Italia stockist. I had ridden in one of their gorgeous saddles before and really admired it for comfort, lightness and the design. As the coach and someone who rides the horse regularly I had a vested interest in making sure that the saddle was as great for the rider as for the horse. I was optimistic that he would be able to find us a really good saddle to take both the horse and my pupil’s training forward in.

What I look for in a Dressage Saddle & why I love with this one.

You will notice that this particular saddle does not have an excessively deep seat. I believe a rider must develop a seat that is independent of the saddle, otherwise the saddle is just masking problems and even contributing to tensions. My ideal saddle is barely there; it is pared down, minimal and close contact. In my late teens I was told by my coach that a saddle cannot give me a deep seat and nor can it keep my limbs under control, those things are down to me. It is equally now my responsibility as a coach to make sure my pupils develop good seats. A saddle that gives me the freedom to sit well, if I can, is all I can really ask for.

The saddle must not make us sit badly, beyond that it is our responsibility to sit well.

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There is a relatively flat space at the deepest point of the seat. This ensures that the pelvis of the rider can be held upright, which in turn allows the knee to drop down. The twist of the saddle is wide enough to encourage the rider’s hips to open, but not so wide as to be uncomfortable and thus create tension. The cantle is not excessively high, which I like. The saddle with a high cantle behind you can become a trap under the wrong circumstances. I have seen a rider, in the process of being thrown, get her leg caught around the very high cantle of her saddle which frightened the horse ever further and prolonged the problem for them both. Easy in and easy out is preferable for me! So the seat of this saddle ticks several boxes for me. I think it is an excellent choice for my pupil because it will offer her the freedom to sit well but will not influence her seat excessively.

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Given my love of close contact saddles, the fact that this is a mono-flap was always going to be a selling point. The less that there is between your leg and the horse the better your communication will be. As I discussed in Better Dressage -Contact the leg is a two-way interface, not just a means of issuing instructions. Through a mono-flap saddle you can read the horse more easily and give an aid more easily; a small aid will be more easily felt. I often aid through my inner thigh and knee too, and this is inherently easier to do in a mono-flap saddle.

Now I come to one of the few things that I do not like about this saddle, the relatively big knee block.  To put my tastes in perspective, the following photo is of another student of mine riding in a different saddle, a Podhajsky by Ideal. I first encountered these saddles through my coach and I have recommended them ever since. They are perhaps the perfect saddle to suit my preferences.

M3391M-1011This saddle allowed me to ride advanced dressage, hack out and jump small to medium-sized obstacles in it with equal ease. It was, after all, designed by a person who believed in all round riding and training for dressage horses. Although clearly not the saddle for a specialist show jumper or event rider, it is brilliant for the advanced dressage rider who likes to vary their routine without changing saddles to do so.

 

When it came to fitting a saddle for the mare in question however, I wasn’t about to quibble over knee blocks! If it had been a knee roll I might have done. A roll, if it is too big, can push the knee away and can contribute to closing the back of the hip, thus blocking the energy flow over the horse’s back. Ideally, the inner thigh of the rider should lie as flat as is possible. A block should act only in a worse case scenario, for example if the knee is suddenly displaced by a more than usually violent movement. Under normal riding conditions I would expect the knee to sit with its inner surface flat on the saddle flap, not exerting any pressure on the block. If a riders knee is jammed against a block then there is pressure, upwards and backwards through the thigh bone, which can act against the horse’s attempt to push the seat-bone forward. Whenever we grip inwards into a knee roll or jam the knee against a block we reduce the free movement of our hips, which the horse needs in order to move freely forward.

It is important that, however much it sticks out, the block doesn’t sit in a place that affects the rider’s usual leg position. The block on this saddle actually allows the knee to sit softly on the flat of the saddle flap and is therefore no problem at all.

 

 

The fit of the saddle for the horse was very good. I was really hopeful as we went into the arena that it would prove to be the solution we were looking for. It all depended on how the horse moved in it and how my pupil felt when it was her turn to ride in it. Everyone knew from my smile that I’d fallen in love with it at least! The difference a really good saddle makes to the way a horse works is massive. I knew quickly that the saddle was meeting with the horse’s approval too. Her hind legs were engaged, her back was lifting and swinging, her shoulders were free and she was working happily with plenty of power.

From a rider’s perspective I found the saddle comfortable and easy to ride correctly in. My hips could move freely with the hips of the horse, I could feel her back clearly and my leg felt relaxed and stable. The location of the stirrup bar in relation to the deepest part of the seat is one factor which can influence your leg position and stability a lot. Having a saddle that is the correct size for you has a great bearing on that as well. I was able to use more seat and less seat at will to influence her movement through collection and extension. When there isn’t enough room in the saddle you can end up wedged on your seat-bones and unable to either emphasise or de-emphasise them. When I engaged a little more seat we had big open extensions there for the asking, which meant that she was reading my seat as easily through the saddle as I was able to read her back. The seat is the primary communication interface and it is vital that the saddle lets all of the messages through clearly, both ways! This saddle certainly does that. The leg contact was great too, as you’d expect with a mono-flap saddle.

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How the saddle is working out and why we need a jumping saddle now.

Three months down the line it has proven to be a sound investment. It is a great saddle to ride in and also supports my role as a coach very well. Now that it has been in my life for a while I can say there is nothing I dislike about this saddle. It is comfortable and does absolutely what we need it to do. The little mare is progressing well in her training and seems very happy with our choice.

Do I like this saddle as much as the Podhajsky by Ideal? I’d have to say almost. The Podhajsky remains my absolute idea of perfection! In terms of the seat the Prestige is equally likeable. The main difference, for me is that knee block. I know that if it were the Podhajsky we were dealing with, I’d be able to pop my stirrups up and go for a gallop, or jump a little grid, without that knee block getting in the way. But then, on the other hand, I wouldn’t have the excuse to be tempted by the gorgeous Prestige Italia jumping saddles either! I am now feebly resisting the idea that a  jumping saddle is necessary. After all cross training dressage horses over jumps is really important and you can’t do that in just any old jumping saddle. That is my story and I’m sticking to it 😉

For this particular horse the Podhajsky would not have been a viable option. It starts at 17″ and the Passion K that fits her so well is 16.5″. Sometimes for the smaller horse it is not just the seat length that is an issue with a larger saddle, it can be the length of the points. The points on a saddle designed for a larger horse can obstruct the shoulders of a smaller horse or large pony. The fact that the Passion K was available in 16.5″ makes it a good choice for the larger dressage pony too.

We know that along with all of the other benefits, the Passion K dressage saddle has built-in adaptability as our little mare develops her physique. This is a really practical advantage, that I imagine would appeal to a lot of horse owners. The adjustment requires a saddler to visit of course, but that would always be the recommended course of action anyway.  In terms of price the Passion K, like the Podhajsky, costs a substantial amount, but is not especially expensive in comparison to many specialist saddles. If you are looking for a saddle that will support correct riding, only cost a small fortune, and let your horse move to the best of its capabilities then these are both very good options to check out!

https://www.idealsaddle.com/assets/brochures/Ideal_Dressage_Saddles.pdf

https://www.idealsaddle.com/catalogue/view/2/dressage-saddles

http://www.prestigeitaly.com/#

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Keep the balance, don’t burst the bubble!

 

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Imagine that there is a bubble around you and your horse. It moves along with you as you ride. At any time we could hit a pause button and ask the following questions about everything within that bubble:

  • Have I got enough engagement?
  • Do I have the full attention of my horse?
  • Are we correctly aligned?
  • How is our balance?

You are answering only for that moment – it comprises of:

  1. The last stride, which is fading fast from the mind of you and your horse but has a residual bearing on the stride you are in.
  2. The stride you are currently in with your horse, which it is not too late to influence. This is why we build the speed of reaction in a dressage horse and why riders value a ‘quick’ hind leg. What they mean by that is a quick brain to leg reaction.
  3. The stride you are moving in to, which is the most important one of all.

It is impossible to store up impulsion for the future. The body of the horse is not a battery. You cannot create impulsion in one moment in case you need it half an arena later, or even 30 seconds later. If you give in to that temptation you risk ruining the tempo or takt of your horse. If we drive on with our legs, or even our seat, too fast we will end up supporting an unbalanced horse in our hands. This is something that riders can get away with at certain levels. For the horse that moves too quickly, the work of high school that is the basis of FEI levels will never come easily or well without a total re-think in training.

So what might tempt us to ride too quickly? Usually it is a fear of lacking impulsion. My advice is this:

Do not panic about impulsion. You do not create impulsion, that is the job of the horse.

Impulsion is a product of training, not an ingredient. It is second to last on the training scale for a very good reason. rhythm comes almost at the beginning, also for a very good reason. Not everybody loves the training scale, but I do. I have kept to it faithfully and it has been the bedrock of success in even the most challenging remedial training cases.

When you ride only in the moment you will not run the risk of making the horse move too fast. The horse will have good tempo and therefore will be rhythmical, relaxed and balanced. That is when the horse will offer you all of the impulsion it can. Many of us are familiar with the advice not to confuse speed and impulsion. That is great advice but doesn’t really explain the difference. Of course we can legitimately exert a forward driving influence over our horse. It is simply a matter of knowing when and how much is right for that moment. Years ago I watched Lucinda Green give a clinic. The riders were amateurs with various levels of experience. One of the key skills that she outlined was knowing when to use the leg. She said we must identify the moment that the horse questions us and be swift with the leg then, we must not be using the preventative leg half a field away. The context is different but the advice is the same. Riding cross-country, out hacking, schooling dressage, it is all the same deal. Ride the stride you are in and let the future take care of itself, because if you do then it will!

There is more detail about how to use our contacts to communicate with the horse here:Better Dressage – Contact

and more detail about the importance of takt and balance here: Better Dressage – Developing your horse’s trot.

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Dressage Perspectives Featured Riders

I was told once that the horse world polarises people; that I would see the best and the worst of humanity within it. That has been so true. On the whole I have seen far more good than bad. I have been lucky and, where necessary, I have been ruthlessly selective. My advice to people entering the industry – find the good people, walk away from the wrong ones quickly and keep putting the horses first.

The creation of Dressage Perspectives arose from a conversation with a group of friends. One of the issues we discussed was the trend towards celebrity riders and the need for riders to represent themselves, or be represented professionally, in a more aggressive way than ever before. To consumers of publicity it is easy to imagine that it just happens, as a natural consequence of having talent or being in some way interesting. Of course this is not so. How does an article usually end up on the pages of a magazine, digital or otherwise? For that you must explore the synergy between Public Relations and Journalism. The mechanics of that process might shock some people; for me it just invokes a wary cynicism. Too much hinges on what riders win, which studs they ride for and the market value of the bloodstock that carries them to victory. The commercial wheels of the industry have to turn, I guess, but there is far more to the horse world than that. There are so many really wonderful people out there. My mission is to discover the inspiring teachers, the small-scale horse breeders so passionate about what they do that they operate for decades at break-even point, and the riders who, win or lose, plainly adore their horses. Those are the kind of people I want to write about.

There are those who would have us believe that media will only appeal if it is seamlessly slick and relentlessly aspirational, that the attention span of our audience is currently around a nanosecond, and that all we merit is the victory of style over substance. I disagree and this is why. Equestrians might enjoy escapism as much as anyone but the reality we inhabit is bounded by mud, love, discomfort and joy. Our best friends tread on our feet and sneeze all over our clean clothes. We struggle to forge careers that make no sense to our friends, families and bank managers. We have to be tenacious if we are in it for the long haul. Our stock can rise and drop with the state of an animal’s health. Oblivion is always beckoning. There are those around us who only love a rising star, those who want your style to cover for their lack of substance. Those people will be gone quicker than a rat up a drain if your luck turns for the worse. Knowing this, it is vital to identify and cherish the people who will still be around, those sponsors who will stick with you through a dry spell, owners who will say no to those who covet your rides, pupils who are there for what you know and not who you know. One of the more valid measures of success in our careers is the relationships we build and sustain.

A lady I know once said to me ‘it is all about bred by, ridden by, trained by and owned by’. Initially I shrugged off her cynical take on an industry I thought I knew better than she did. But, in a way, I must admit she was bang on the money, she identified exactly where the money is to be found. She was very wide of the mark when it comes to finding happiness, friendship, decency and humour though. I suppose that in life you find what you go looking for. I have found kindred spirits, equine and human, in the most wonderful and unlikely places. For me this world (not just the horse world) is all about the connections we make with other creatures. The connections between teachers, pupils, friends, mentors, grooms, owners, sponsors and above all that between the horse and its rider; these are the fabric of our world. It is those strands of connection I want to explore.

This Featured Riders series is an opportunity for me to talk to those riders who I think deserve to be talked about for all the right reasons. So far this year I have had the absolute pleasure to meet with Rowan Crosby and Alison Kenward, both of whom are true horsewomen with fascinating stories to tell. I am currently trying to do those stories justice as I write about them. We never know who will turn out to have a positive influence in our lives, however great or small. The more we connect with others and find common ground, the better our own lives and our horses’ lives will be. Sharing our stories and finding inspiration in one another is something I really believe is important. I hope that this new dimension to Dressage Perspectives is something that proves insightful and enriching!