Rowan Crosby Para Dressage

Rowan Crosby is one of the most charming and modest young riders you could possibly meet; she is also a rising star of Para Dressage in Great Britain. I have admired her ability and her ethos for some time. When I decided to create the Featured Riders series, it was very much with riders like Rowan in mind.

I met with Rowan and her family last summer and we got along so well that I stayed hours longer than I’d planned to! Then when I sat down to write I honestly struggled. I’m not usually at a loss for words but there was something about Rowan and her story that I found I could not quite do justice to. It comes down to the fact that when a person impresses you this much it is very difficult to write about them. Para athletes tend to be tenacious and courageous people by definition. The conditions that Rowan overcomes to succeed are very great indeed. Rowan has Dystonia and Paroxysmal Dyskinesia, which are both severe neurological disorders. The practical implications for a rider are not only severe pain but unpredictable muscle spasms. Different muscles every time. For the rider, horse and coach this presents a set of challenges that change from day-to-day.

For me, Rowan’s story is about far more than the obstacles and the struggle; that is not where I wanted my focus as a writer to be. I spent a wonderful afternoon with a wise, funny, clever young woman. Beyond those attributes, I was aware that there was a very unusual quality to Rowan. It took time to work out what it was. Strangely enough realising what it was finally unlocked my ability to write about her.

As a horsewoman, as a rider Rowan is extremely sensitive to her horse and it’s needs. As a competitor she is utterly focused and she has all the determination that marks out an elite athlete. Those factors do tend to combine in the best of the best riders. It is unusual however to meet a person who is as serene as they are powerful.

Rowan has a quiet grace about her and an obvious love for animals. I think that is partly what makes her the rider that she is. Her sense of humour is quick but never unkind, most often it is self-deprecating. She related anecdotes that showed me a whole other side to the Para Dressage circuit. There is a level of camaraderie and pragmatic humour less often found in competitive dressage among able-bodied riders.

Olympic Ambitions

Becoming an Olympic athlete was something that Rowan aspired to as a very young child, long before she ever sat on a pony. In fact she first expressed this wish when she less than three years old and it was all the more remarkable because at that point in Rowan’s life she rarely communicated verbally. In spite of speaking very little, Rowan told her parents that she was going to be in the Olympics. This was before Rowan had taken up any sport. When a person says something with that kind of certainty it often does manifest in reality. The earlier in our lives that we articulate such intentions then the more deeply embedded they are in our psyche. I will not be at all surprised to see Rowan Crosby on an Olympic podium. She has absolutely the right spirit and the right attitude.

When I drove down to meet with Rowan she was still in the middle of her GCSE exams. Rowan’s determination to take GCSEs and her plans to go on to take her A levels had necessitated her moving schools. Leaving the peaceful familiar atmosphere of a special school for the bustling environment of a mainstream secondary school has been a big adaptation. It is an added factor in managing Rowan’s energy levels. She is at school for half days, specifically tailored around her GCSE subjects.

Rowan’s Dressage Horses

So many times in the hours we spent talking Rowan spoke of her desire to make her family proud; of her love for her horse, a beautiful young Connemara mare called Tiger Lily. Rowan describes Tiger as her best friend and her ‘peace’ at the end of a long exhausting school day.

Rowan spends a lot of time creating activities to build her partnership with Tiger. Picnics together, wheeling around the arena learning tests with Tiger following behind her, grooming Tiger herself and hacking out with her friends. All of these things are strengthening an already firm bond. What I noticed though was that Rowan didn’t put the emphasis on doing things that she enjoys. Rowan spoke always from the perspective of what Tiger might enjoy and what she thinks might make Tiger happy.

Tiger has carried Rowan to high levels of competitive success in a very short time frame. They qualified for both Winter and Summer Championships and represented both Wales and Great Britain within their first year together.

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I asked Rowan what it is about a horse that she likes, what enables her to build the kind of bond that she wants. She told me that what she loves about Tiger is her willingness, her friendly and interactive nature. Tiger is a horse that wants to please and make you proud. Her bond with her first horse Tex, a Welsh x Arabian was different. Tex was rather more aloof in some respects, but loving, willing, cheeky and loyal too. Rowan described his wonderful medium trot as something she really misses. He was a horse that needed a lot of support and input from his rider to do a really good test. A judge once commented that “you get no marks for free from that horse”. It all comes back to finding the perfect balance between brilliance and consistency. Tex was generous and always took care of Rowan, but the sensitivity to his environment made competition more of a challenge. After discovering dressage with a hotter type of horse, Rowan can now enjoy the wonderful pragmatism of a Connemara! As she said, it is wonderful to know that the horse is not going to spook; you can just relax and focus on the riding. Oh how true that is!

It is clear that at the heart of Rowan and Tiger’s relationship is mutual love and trust. As Rowan repeatedly said throughout our chat “the horse comes first”. When she and Tiger were representing Great Britain Rowan described hearing the applause and saying to Tiger “that is for you. That is because of you” whilst hugging her neck all of the way out of the arena. Some dressage combinations are horse centric and others are rider centric, where horses are the means to an end. Rowan is 100% horse centric in her approach to the sport and I just love that.

The bond which a Para rider shares with their horse and the challenges of being a Para rider’s horse were subjects that we kept coming back to. There are times when the horse must simply step into the breach and take charge, because in that moment his rider cannot. A Para rider’s horse can never be afraid of its rider, never be trained by force or fear. That would be far too dangerous. It is a strong, trust based, relationship that is required. In certain moments a Para rider can become extremely vulnerable and the horse has to be a true friend and partner. It must never, as Rowan’s mum put it, have been pushed to the point where it says no to the rider and learns that this is an option. The coaches who ride that horse and who work with that combination absolutely have to be on the right page in terms of training methods and personality.

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Coaching Choices

Rowan’s highest priority in planning her coaching is to work only with people who have the horse’s best interest as their first priority. Rowan has worked with her coach Claire Cooper -Wyatt for eight years now. They have a very strong bond. According to Rowan’s mother they have very similar brains, with a shared love of analysis. This is something which struck a real chord with me too; analytical minds lend themselves well to understanding dressage. When Claire trains the horse that Rowan is riding she rides as Rowan would, one-handed, without using her legs. Coaching a Para rider is something that takes a strong nerve at times. I was once told that the first thing for a coach new to working with Para riders was not the be over protective. Rowan spoke of the courage that Claire has to coach her on the very bad days in terms of her health and her pain levels. I can really relate to how that would challenge me as a trainer. Getting to know the individual rider and their horse is part of the process, but getting to know the medical condition that the rider has and how it can vary from day-to-day is at least as important. As Rowan said, a Para rider’s horse may well have a subtly different rider to adapt to every single day and so in effect can their coach. When she began coaching Rowan, Claire was new to working with Para riders. It is a relationship based on openness, on a shared work ethic and a fair amount of humour too; every day is ‘pick on a Para’ day!

Claire is also there to support Rowan in competition, helping Tiger to adapt to the environment and helping Rowan to find the right state of mind in which to compete. This is something that she is very good at, having a strong understanding of the psychological approach to competition herself. Claire’s commitment to Rowan is incredible, using her holiday days up to ensure that she is able to give the level of support needed. Rowan is also unswervingly loyal to Claire.

Claire has been enjoying a lot of success with her beautiful AES Licensed Oldenburg stallion Devivo. Devivo (known as Albi) is by Desperado (Vivaldi) . His Dam by the legendary Rohdiamont. You can connect with Claire by following So Very Sportshorses on Facebook.

In addition to working with Claire as her primary coach, Rowan also goes to Sarah Rogers and Tracy Ormrod, both of whom are coaches that Rowan trusts implicitly to put the horse first. When it came time to find Rowan’s first dressage partner Tex a new home, it was Tracy Ormrod that they asked to help them. After meeting several prospective buyers, she instinctively recognised when Tex had chosen the right young human to be his next partner. Horses make clear choices if we give them the chance to, but it takes a true horse person to recognise and interpret the behaviours and body language of the horse at a time like that.

Influences and Inspiration

It is not just the choice of coaches that makes us successful as riders. We talked a lot about what it means to be a good pupil. Rowan’s work ethic, her manners, her attitude to her coaches are clearly a reflection of the values she has been brought up with as well as her own personality. The way a rider handles their growing fame and the ups and downs of their career matters as much as any other aspect of the sport. In fact I think it matters more than many of them.

As riders we all have influences who are not necessarily coaches or even people in the horse world. I believe that sharing who and what these are is a way in which we can offer great insights to one another. Sophie Chrisitiansen CBE is the rider who Rowan most admires, particularly for her elegance and accuracy. She produces the most beautiful, fluent tests; as Rowan said “if she can do it, I can do it”. A rider with a first class degree Masters in Mathematics, who has combined winning multiple gold medals in two Paralympic games with a career as a statistical analysis for Goldman Sachs is a fitting role model for Rowan and indeed for me too. A theme emerges here I think; dressage and quants!

Rowan cites Black Beauty as a book which influenced her. It was reflecting on the many changes of home that a horse can go through that made her determined to find the best possible home for Tex when the time came.

We spoke of fellow competitors who have impressed Rowan greatly over the years. Fellow Welsh team rider Lorna Lee for her kindness and for the gentleness she shows to her horses and Emma Douglas for her amazing test riding.

Life as a Para Equestrian Athlete

Riding competitively has been a part of Rowan’s life with horses from a very early age. I could see that it is a source of motivation and strength for her. Rowan has a wonderfully supportive family. This is always something that makes competitive dressage far more enjoyable and more successful. Whilst it is possible to go out there against all of the odds and succeed, it is far more likely to happen if the people you are surrounded by are on your side. We talked about the fun of putting together freestyle tests. Rowan and her mother Elizabeth collaborate to create her freestyle tests. They share a love of creating the floor plans and finding the perfect music. Fortunately Rowan’s grandfather is a sound technician and he helps ensure that her music is professionally put together. This highly creative aspect of competitive dressage is something that I love too. Music generally and specific songs also help Rowan to keep herself in the right zone during competitions.

Although Rowan grooms Tiger at home, she has help with this at competitions. In order to avoid the risk of her body going into spasm during the test, her entire day at a competition is geared around avoiding any unnecessary exertion. Rowan’s primary focus is her state of mind and riding the test itself. Her coach Claire is allowed to warm Tiger up and then Rowan takes over at a just the right moment. The game plan for each competition depends on variables like how Rowan is feeling, her energy levels, how much work Tiger has been in during the run up to the competition. Adaptability is very important. It is challenging to get on a horse that is already warmed up and ride well when you are not. Finding the ideal balance and judging the right moment is a real skill.

We talked about the experience of progressing from early competitive experiences to the full on formality that Rowan encountered for the first time at Bishop Burton CPDI. No matter how kind or well disposed officials may be at such competitions they are more aloof, more formal and quite rightly more focused on ensuring that rules are adhered to. They are under a level of scrutiny themselves that cannot be particularly comfortable. Her first International was a steep learning curve in itself but Rowan was genuinely able to enjoy her first opportunity to represent Great Britain, winning the Jane Goldsmith Award for the young person with the highest score. The most meaningful accolade of all to Rowan though was that Tiger was named ‘the pony that everyone most wanted to take home’!

Managing mindset & using pain for a purpose.

It is difficult to say sometimes why a particular rider ends up on my radar. In Rowan’s case I can pin point the very moment I realised that she was a particularly interesting young rider. She posted a photo to her Facebook page of her sitting in the car before a competition. She was taking time out to get into her ‘zone’. I commented that it was so good to see a young rider focused on optimising their mind-set.

As we talked I realised that Rowan has a wonderfully mature and professional attitude to managing her mind-set.  I really believe in riders at all levels learning how to do this. Finding the optimal mental approach to what we do is important for all riders but for Rowan, who lives with a level of pain that I cannot even imagine, it is vital. She has times when her condition and the pain it brings can induce a state that her mother described as ‘dormant’. Rowan described how this closed down state of mind feels, how it feeds upon itself in a vicious cycle when she is too ill to ride.

It is at those times that the people around her need to let her know that she is not being the version of herself that she really wants to be. At just the right time they can help her come back to herself and start fulfilling her potential and her choices again. I have never known that level of pain but, like many of us, I can relate to experiencing a state of mind which in which we become a different version of ourselves. Getting out of that without external help is next to impossible. For Rowan what helps is to re-visit her short, medium, and long-term goals. There is one key question that she comes back to

“What are you going to do today, to change tomorrow?”

That is a question I realise I ought to ask myself on a regular basis. In good times and bad it has a beneficial effect on the mind. There have been occasions that Rowan’s mum has booked her in to competitions in order to give her a focal point in time to work towards. Riding clearly plays a huge part in bringing Rowan back from dormancy to the positive state of mind she wants to exist in. Once she is riding again, she is happy.

“I would rather be outside, riding a horse whilst being sore than inside being sore and doing nothing”

Hearing Rowan say that she actively uses pain to help her focus as a competitor surprised me at first, but on reflection it made perfect sense. It is a spur, something that brings out an even greater level of determination. In this respect Rowan acknowledges that she has found possibly the only positive use for her pain. We talked about mental health issues too, including my own, and how any pain could take us into upward spirals as well as downward ones. As Kenji Miyazawa said “We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey”

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Working with Jennie Killilea, World Class Programme Sports Psychologist, has been a massive help. With maturity and a growing awareness of psychology Rowan is increasingly able to lift herself out of negative states, with less and less assistance. Rowan’s mother put it this way.  “It is never that she has fallen out of love with the riding; it is just that other things have muddled the way.” I think that is something that a lot of us can relate to.

Rowan and I have both worked with visualisations to help our riding. She pointed out that it is a very tiring thing to do if you do it right. I would totally agree with that. Your mind has had the experience, it is very real and you will feel a sense of expending energy even though it looks like you are doing nothing. We also agreed that getting the technique right is more difficult than it sounds. The need to make it multi sensory and keep it in real-time are two important factors.

Physiotherapy and body work for horse and rider.

These elements are increasingly recognised as beneficial for all dressage riders but they have of necessity been a bigger than average part of Rowan’s life. Para Equestrian athletes are accostomed to taking thier bodies towards limits which might seem downright alarming to some people, less alarming perhaps to the able bodied equestrian than to the non rider though. All riders share a common determination to let nothing stand between us and our particular goals. Within the equestrian community those of us who are able bodied tend to be quite in awe of our Para equestrian colleagues.

With this in mind I was dismayed, though perhaps not surprised, to hear, about the attitudes which some Physiotherapists have taken to Rowan, an already established Para Equestrian athlete. A non rider might look at Rowan and form the opinion that she ought not to engage in so physical and potentially dangerous a sport. That would be a failure on their part to understand the importance of riding and competing to Rowan. A failure also to estimate the impact of suggesting that she remove from her life the greatest achievement and motivation of all. Rowan knows that certain activities, like cooking for example, are difficult and even too dangerous for her. The fact that she is independent on the back of a horse, that she is doing something that she does well, is very important to her. It is where she feels free. It is her element.

Some therapists have even suggested that she should stop doing whatever she is doing if she feels pain. As she said, the pain is a constant regardless of what she does. Like her RDA first teacher, Anne, I am of the opinion that Rowan can do whatever she sets her mind to. She and her family know best of all how to decide what she should be doing and what risks she should be taking. The role of a physical therapist is to support her in her choice. I can see how that takes courage, but if anyone deserves the people around them to keep their nerve it is Rowan.

Rowan has Hydrotherapy twice each week, she sees a Neurophysiotherapist through Alder Hay hospital occasionally, and she sees a functional physiotherapist on a regular basis. Finding the right people, with the right attitudes has been a key to successful treatment. Alongside the professional skills there has to be a belief in Rowan and what she is achieving.

One of the most surprising things Rowan told me was that she has taken up Boxing. It was initially a response to being told that her physical strength would only deteriorate. Not only does it help to counteract this loss of strength, it is also, according to Rowan, a great way to use your pain and work through it. Inspired by Rowan, her boxing coach has set up his gym as a fully accessible facility for disabled people. He found that Rowan’s ability to lift weight and to punch is way beyond what her appearance led him to expect. He likens her to Yoda and I think this comparison works on a number of levels! Together they work on a customised blend of Boxing, Strength and Conditioning and on Kick Boxing.

Rowan has used her competition winnings to invest in gym equipment for her to use at home. There is an exercise bike in the barn so that Rowan can cycle on it and chat to Tiger at the same time! The riding itself is part of her physical therapy and she finds that lots of hacking helps to keep her strength up. There is a fine line between exercise helping Rowan’s body and sending it into spasm. This has a direct bearing on her training schedule with Tiger and the decisions she makes around warming up at competitions. Warm ups are limited strictly to a maximum of twenty minutes. Training sessions can last up to twice as long but Rowan can do nothing the day before.

Tiger, of course, sees a physio regularly – Laura Clinton helps to Tiger comfortable and thus working optimally. Laura is a wonderful physio and although at the time of writing this she is away on maternity leave, you can find out more about her work at http://www.equiflexion.co.uk

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Rowan’s Advice to Other Riders –

I asked Rowan what advice she would most like to pass on to other riders, as a result of her own career experiences. This is what she said:

To Para and Able Bodied riders – that you can do whatever you put your mind to, to enjoy what you do, and that in training or competition there is always something good to take away from the session. Sometimes, when a competition goes badly, all you can take away from the experience is that you get to take your pony home safe and well. Then you realise that this is everything that matters.

Another maxim that Rowan lives by is

“Fail to prepare and you prepare to fail”.

Expanding on that point we talked about the importance of preparation at all levels of competition, from local unaffiliated to Internationals. There is no competition that is unimportant when you are representing yourself, your horse, your coach and the people who love and support you. It always matters. You don’t need permission from anybody to take yourself seriously as a competitor.

Having started her journey with horses through the RDA, Rowan is keen to make her contribution and qualify as a coach. Clwyd Special Riding Centre sounds like an idyllic place, which Rowan describes as being more like a social club. She has grown up there with a group of young riders who still spend a lot of their free time there together, this long after she moved through from RDA to Para Dressage. The volunteers and coaches at the centre have been a constant source of support for Rowan and I think she, in turn, will make an excellent teacher.   

I am so pleased that I contacted Rowan and that she agreed to be interviewed. There were so many instances, during the time I spent with her, that I felt my gut instinct about her was utterly vindicated. To me, the most important quality of a horsewoman is love for the horse and seeing Rowan interacting with Tiger made it clear that this is a quality she has in abundance. I wish her the very best of everything for her future and I am looking forward to staying in touch and keeping you all up to date with her news and achievements.

 

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Dressage Perspectives – Delighted to be featured by Pegasebuzz!

Dressage Perspectives has been chosen by Pegasebuzz founder Roxanne Legendre to join a hand-picked group of equestrian brands whose content is featured on the app! It was a lovely and unexpected compliment to be asked to join this group because in Roxanne’s words “We select each of them for their renowned experience in a field or their expertise on a specific subject”. It has been a pleasure to connect with some of the other brands who have been chosen by Pegasebuzz; some like Mirror Me PR are already familiar and others such as Pierre Beaupere Dressage , who has a training philosophy I love, and Ecuerie Active , who are designing stable environments with the needs of the horse in mind, were delightful new discoveries!

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I absolutely love Pegasebuzz, it is a visually stunning app, available in both French and English. Your experience is tailored exactly to reflect your personal interests. The content is diverse, chosen to appeal to equestrians across disciplines, but it is all brought together in a delightfully elegant online environment.

Your personal profile is the centre of your experience, where you tailor your preferences and create your world! It is really easy to navigate within the app. It is easy to comment, share and save your favourite posts to your profile. Moving from one post to the next is simply a matter of swiping across.

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My feed is built around my interests; the blend of articles about dressage, fashion, people and events keeps me amused and engaged. I love that I can be reading a technical article about dressage one moment, exploring an upcoming Show Jumping event the next and then looking at beautiful images from a high fashion shoot. I even found myself falling in love with a stunning pink jumping saddle from LGM Sellier.

 

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Pegasebuzz is a wonderful resource if you are looking for a job within the industry. There are positions listed all over the world from entry-level and internships to boardroom positions, from niche equestrian brands to national governing bodies. You set the filters to focus on exactly what you are looking for. Employers should certainly keep Pegasebuzz in mind when they are hiring. It fills a gap in the market for business focused recruitment within the equestrian sector. As a marketing graduate with an equestrian background I found this particularly interesting. I found my finger hovering over the apply button on a few occasions. Whether you are just browsing like me or searching with a stronger intention, this is a great place to look!

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If you would like to discover Pegasebuzz you can download the app free via the App Store and Google Play. I have the IOS version and have found it to both user-friendly and stable. Even the loveliest design concept needs to be strongly functional and this app really is.

You can connect with Pegasebuzz across all of the major social platforms too. I particularly love their Instagram account – roxanne.legendre  where I can get lost for a while in a world of beautiful show jumpers, dream barns and luxury brands. Roxanne Legendre is a photographer with a talent for capturing unusual angles and curious details and I really like this. Not only is this high quality photo journalism from the most exclusive sporting events, it has originality and a distinctive vision. For me as an artist and a keen amateur photographer this is really inspiring.

I enjoy following all of the Pegasebuzz social accounts because they each deliver a subtly different experience whilst keeping the same sense of community. There is always something new to discover and share.

Pegasebuzz will be a great way to keep up to date with our posts and so much more – make sure that you don’t miss out on being part of this beautiful equestrian world!

Download on iOS here 

Download on Google Play here

 

 

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Are You Winning on the Warm Up?

No more stressage! Here we will explore the art of making show days fun and productive.

It is often said that competitions are won or lost in the warm up arena. There is a perfect point at which to leave the warm up and go ride your test. The trouble is that, even when you have learnt to identify that moment, you realise it will be different with every single horse. Not only that but, even with the same horse, it may be quite different from one competition to the next. There are variables outside of your control. Day shows and stay over shows both have advantages and challenges built-in. On the whole I would say that the longer you spend in a particular environment, the more relaxed you and your horse will be.

Relaxation is key because it is the foundation of good dressage; which is why good dressage is harder to produce in an unfamiliar place. Relaxation for your horse starts with you. There is a learning curve with competitions that is quite unique; no matter how experienced a rider you are when you begin competing there are pitfalls to avoid and best practices which will make your life easier. Chatting to other riders, to professional grooms, reading blogs and watching the Vlogs of competitive riders could yield really good ideas and advice. Take on board a lot of ideas, filter it all to work out what suits you and your horse.

For my part I think you can distill the raft of important things down to two main elements:

  • Time – you will need more of it than you think. Take your class time and work back from it. Allow time for each necessary activity and add an extra ten minutes to each. I have arrived with less than two hours to spare before a test, but I don’t like to. Two and a half hours for a day show suits me best. The Forty Five mins for warming up is absolutely sacred. You might not need it with every horse but allowing for less is unwise.
  • Organisation – make lists and don’t check anything off of them unless it is already in the lorry. If you delegate anything to anybody make sure they know exactly what they need to do or pack and when. Only delegate to people you know will be efficient and timely.

Your state of mind at the competition is going to help define that of your horse

Some horses don’t care if the humans around them flap like budgies but the majority will. Generally speaking a flight animal is not going to be a steadying influence. Your horse will look to you for the leadership and reassurance that it needs. Be there for your horse and be calm at all costs. Organisation and timing are the things which will allow you to do this more easily. You might know that your heart rate is up and your voice has turned shrill because you forgot thread and a plait has come out; your horse will possibly suspect that imminent death is looming because you’ve spotted a mountain lion on the edges of the lorry park.

One familiar sight at day shows is a bunch of horses getting into social mode because they are in the presence of horses they have never met before. It is a bit like walking into a full bar or nightclub. You have fairly formidable competition for your horse’s attention. The stronger your leadership / friendship bond is on a day-to-day basis, the more of a chance you stand of keeping your horse’s mind on you.

Your test depends on the warm up and your warm up depends heavily on the kind of day your having. So plan well, be calm and happy. You’re well on your way to a good warm up and a successful test!

Take a moment to connect with your horse

Get the horse tacked up in the stable or on the lorry. Get yourself ready to go, down to the last detail, and then wait a moment. Take a moment with your horse and send everyone else away. Look your horse in the eye and have a quick friendly chat. Remind yourself that you are there with your beloved animal who does not understand what winning or losing even means. You are just going out there to do what you do everyday in training. It is no big deal, even and perhaps especially when it is a big deal. Ground yourself and take a few deep breaths.

Now you are ready to go warm up for your dressage test

I’m going to quote the wonderful Charles de Kunffy again!

When competing, ride the horse, not the test. Charles de Kunffy.

Your test, however accurately you ride it, can only reflect the quality of your horse’s way of going. We will assume that the test is at a level that is quite easy for you and for your horse to do. We will assume you know that test inside out and backwards. There are three times to think about a test prior to riding it:

  1. To analyse it strategically – this is done weeks or even months before you ride it in competition.
  2. In positive visualisations – in the days and hours running up to the competition you can ensure that your sub conscious mind has built-in ‘memories’ of you riding the test optimally.
  3. When your horse is warmed up and ready to go through you will factor in five to ten minutes to walk around on a long rein. Use this time to make the final mental preparation to ride the best test you can.

From the moment you enter the warm up until the moment described in point 3 above there is one rule – you will not think about your test at all.

You will think only of riding your horse as well as you can. Ride as though the test were cancelled, or as though it had never existed in the first place. Horses live in the moment and you need to be in the moment 100% with your horse, not thinking about something that is about to happen in half an hour’s time.

This advice is probably going to be superfluous for the more experienced competitors but for anyone who feels that they are not yet warming up in an optimal way then here is a quick checklist of things to include:

  • A relaxing walk on a long rein – to start, to rest occasionally and then for a few minutes at least before you go in to ride your test.
  • School figures – they will help you get your horse to the best degree of straightness and suppleness that you can on that day in that place. Although the best result comes from responsive, adaptive riding you could simply work through a list of movements if you suffer from nerves and or find that your mind goes blank.
  • Lateral work – stay away from anything your horse is just learning but use whatever is already established to your advantage. It can be combined with the school figures to help not only with suppleness and throughness but most importantly with balance.
  • Transitions – between the gaits, within the gaits, progressive and then direct, your transitions should be many and carefully ridden. They are there to help get your horse on the aids to the degree that you will need for the test to go well.

You need to feel that you have control of the shoulder mass, that the horse is able to bend both ways as well as possible and that the longitudinal balance is good enough to navigate the test movements at your chosen level. At the most basic level you need brakes and steering; everything else is a progression from that! Hopefully with your focus off of the test and onto the horse instead you will have a much better way of going by the end of your warm up. Knowing when to stop warming up is very important too.

If you are going to give your horse a little while to relax before going through to the test arena, deciding when to do that really matters. There are some horses who you couldn’t let down at all once you get them to the right pitch but they are rare. There are no rules to this business, only generalised guidelines. Identify the point in daily training that you think would be optimal if you were going in to ride a test. Memorise the way your horse’s body feels, how the contacts feel. There is always that sweet spot where the horse is tuned in mentally, physically supple, balanced and pinging off the floor. Now work out what you did to reach that point; there is the blueprint for your warm up. It will need some adaptation for sure, but there you have the basis. So many people say that the horse they ride at home is not the one they ride at competition. That is true, the horse has challenges there that don’t exist at home, but we are often not the same rider or even the same person to our horse that he or she has at home. It cuts two ways. We can understand this and work on it, the horse cannot and so the ultimate responsibility lies with us.

Nobody knows your horse as well as you do, with your coach probably a close second! Every horse warms up differently and changes over time as well. That is why they say it takes a year to really get to know a horse. Talk through your ideas with your coach or even consider paying them to go along and help you warm up a few times. Ultimately success is down to thought, to honing your show day strategies, and careful experimentation until you find what works.

Listen to your horse, keep an open mind and be responsive to its needs.

Good luck and most importantly, have fun!

Christine xx

 

 

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“Dressage Formula” by Erik Herbermann

 

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When I was eighteen years old I bought a copy of Erik Herbermann’s “Dressage Formula”. At that point in my life I was trying to train a grumpy 14hh show jumping pony and a green 6-year-old OTTB. I had a great thirst for knowledge but knew very little. I was earnestly trying to put into practice what I read and so the wrong books could have been a real problem. I could not have bought a better book than “Dressage Formula” though. There is such a wealth of information in it that I will always be able to pick it up and learn. It is written by one of the world’s greatest horsemen after all. But if you are new to dressage, as I was then, it is accessible and the format is absolutely reader friendly. As you can see in these photos, there are illustrations throughout, bullet point lists break down the ideas very clearly, everything is streamlined and simplified. You could not possibly end up confused by this book.

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One of the things I have always loved about this work is the choice of horses that Erik Herbermann chose to feature throughout.

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Atlantis – a 16.1hh Percheron – Thoroughbred cross. Atlantis is described as having ‘Klunky’ gaits, he was a family hack and hunter who started his training with the author at the age of 10.

Meteorite – a 15.3hh Standardbred cross who had been down the severe bit route and utterly ruined. Herbermann states that his ‘mind and body were knotted with tensions’ but that he was by far the most athletic mover of the horses featured in the book.

Barty – a 14.2hh Arab x Pony with choppy gaits and a thick-set throat area. Barty is described as having a very willing disposition.

Not only are these horses relatable for so many riders but, through the pages of the book, we get to see them transformed in the hands of a master horse trainer. Sadly this is not something that we often see! I have this book to thank for the initial understanding that there are great riders out there who love and totally see the point in training the ‘ordinary’ horse. If anything it helped a young person validate her instinct that these horses are perhaps the most interesting of all to work with and help.

Erik Herbermann’s love and respect for the horse shines through in every line of this book. It is a serious work, suited to the most expert riders and yet it made sense to me when I knew very little. That is rare too and I suspect it is a reflection on the brilliance of the author. Whatever stage you are at in your dressage education and whatever the challenges you face with your horse I would absolutely recommend buying a copy!

Christine xx

“Dressage Formula” by Erik Herbermann was published by J A Allen and is available from ABE Books and Amazon as well as from Trafalgar Square Books as an audio CD

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#wednesdaywisdom from Erik Herbermann

Our riding will more consistently embody beauty and joy when we are motivated by respect and love for the horse. This outlook, above all, helps us to overcome the inevitable difficulties

Today’s quote comes from ‘Dressage Formula’ by Erik Herbermann. I chose this photo of Emile Faurie because he is a rider who embodies the spirit of the quotation – in his work there is beauty and joy because there is love and respect for the horse. As riders we all inevitably encounter difficulties in training but it is how we approach those challenges that comes to define us.

Photo Copyright – Dressage Perspectives.

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Somerford Park Premier League 2018

Why the Prix St Georges is essential viewing!

You will always see some very interesting dressage at a Premier League competition. I usually gravitate to the arena where the Prix St Georges class is taking place. This is always the most interesting class to me because it is where the equine stars of the future are to be seen; horses that have been on my radar for a few years in some cases, and sometimes horses who have been more or less kept under wraps. PSG reveals a lot about the future potential of a horse. All of the building blocks for the future are shown at this level.

I was looking out for the horses with the balance, the suppleness, the strength to go higher through the FEI levels and to do it well.

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Aside from Young Horse classes, there are two key competitive levels for me – Elementary and PSG. Each is an important milestone in the training and I have a personal theory that you can see the PSG horse in the Elementary horse and you can see the future Grand Prix horse in the horse at PSG.

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Premier league competitions are an inherently interesting mix because of the riders that they are designed to appeal to. There are many motives for riders to attend these prestigious shows, but some of the main reasons to be there are

  • To showcase horses with international potential
  • To help horses with that international potential gain exposure and experience
  • To gain direct qualification to the National Championships

I saw a lot of lovely horses and some very nice riding yesterday but there were those who stood out from the crowd. Deliberately setting aside the matter of fame or prior accomplishment, I will say this:

The best work was, in every case, produced by the riders with the best seats, the riders who’s aiding was both subtle and precisely controlled.

They had the most engagement, the most suppleness, the power in balance; they produced the best dressage.

What you need to be looking for in a dressage horse at Prix St Georges.

  • Strength combined with suppleness – a flexible but well-developed physique.
  • Power in balance – more power and slower tempo. More lifting, less pushing.
  • Confident connections – a calm, prompt response to the leg. Happy with the hand and settled in the mouth. If there are any persistent contact issues at this level they absolutely must be resolved otherwise they will return to haunt you later!
  • Lightness – all of the above combine to produce the marked cadence and brilliance that tells me I’m looking at a potentially good future Grand Prix horse. Put simply we are looking for airtime!

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One indicator that a horse is developing along the right lines is the ability to flex the hock joint and bend the knee more. Engagement that comes almost entirely from articulating the stifle, where the hock is not bending so much, is often seen when a horse is travelling too quickly and is offering a the type of movement that one of my coaches used to call swan paddling! To succeed through from PSG to GP the horse will need to flex the hock and sit.

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If you look at the front of the hock joint you will see that these horses are closing the joint well and if you look at the degree of knee bend you will see that it gives a soft, suspended impression. Horses that are pushing from behind and not lifting enough through the shoulder will rarely if ever show this quality.

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In extended gaits this quality of suspension can give the (false) impression that there is a lack of power. Good power, that is to say balanced power often looks quite different to how it feels! The wrong kind of power, rapid motion and excessive pushing from the hind legs will feel tiring and produce tension in the horse and in you. Soft, balanced power is a wonderful feeling, exciting for the rider and soothing to the spectator! The skilled eye will always know which horse is travelling powerfully in slow tempo and which horse simply lacks impulsion.

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There is nothing so necessary at higher levels as this balanced power; it is the foundation of all of your work in higher collection. The lack of it is why many combinations get to PSG and hit a ceiling. As we develop higher collection and greater extension in the gaits there is more airtime at every step so one thing to keep in mind is this:

Air time takes time!

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Several horses showed strong indications of future talent for the higher levels. River Rise Escarla is confident, strong and admirably supple. Her work was consistently lovely. This mare has an expressive face and she looked utterly happy and positive about her work, very enthusiastic and focused. A horse like that in the hands of Charlotte Dujardin is bound to be quite something! Quentano 2 ridden by Emile Faurie, was my favourite though. This horse had moments of insecurity and in less tactful hands I think things could have gone wrong. Emile provided the horse with mental space and the lightest hands at just the right moments and together they produced a stunning test to take second place. This horse showed a more developed ability than any other in the class to sit and elevate the forehand. The balance was consistent and the cadence breathtaking. If he progresses in training, as I imagine he will, then he will really shine at Grand Prix.

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A strong Grand Prix class & why I have yet another reason to admire Carl Hester!

The stand out combinations in the Grand Prix class reflected the same principle I mentioned earlier, that a good riding style leads to a superior way of going in the horse. It was a competitive class with some superb riding. I am often rather disinterested in the results of a competition, watching it more for the key skills and general impressions rather than for the sake of the competitive outcome, but in this class the placings reflected very clearly the quality of the skills in question. Matt Frost, Isobel Wessels  and Michael Eilberg all rode superbly but it was Carl Hester that really surprised me. I have seen him develop as a rider over a couple of decades but it has been almost two years since I have seen Carl ride in person. Many riders rest on their laurels well before they reach his level of excellence but Carl Hester just keeps on improving.

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There was a memorable moment during his test when Hawtins Delicato surged out of the canter pirouette to the right with more power than he had gone into the movement with. That in itself is impressive. The movement was beautifully executed and as the horse lifted out of it and cantered straight forward Carl reached down and rubbed the horse’s neck in a gesture of reward and thanks. It was a private moment between horse and rider, blink and you’d have missed it, but it is indicative of the kindness and the intelligence which Carl brings to the training of his horses.

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Dressage as a sport can accidentally encourage the mindset that we measure success by what a rider wins. Another measure of success is how we sit and how we communicate with the horse. There are dressage riders who sit well enough to do the job, then there are riders with very good seats and then there is Carl Hester! He had the basis of this seat at nineteen years old and it has just got better with time. That was what struck me as he rode into the arena, before the test even began.  It is not only that he produces one fabulous horse after another, he has continuously improved as a rider as well. If I had to choose two factors which set Carl Hester apart I would say that

  1. He has a seat that is the equal of any great rider, past or present.
  2. His horses work forward, but in the slower tempo than enables superior balance.

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FEI Pony Tests

Before I went over to watch the Prix St Georges tests I made some time to watch the FEI Pony Team Test. For those who are not familiar with this test it is a moderately challenging one, with elements from Elementary and Medium levels in it. For riders between twelve and sixteen years old, many of them on ponies they have trained themselves, this is a challenging prospect.

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The arena in which the ponies were competing was closest to the trade stands and at one corner of it there were several flag poles, complete with flags whipping in the wind. Some of the ponies were more disturbed by this than others but I noticed how calmly and kindly their young riders dealt with the situation. One rider in particular impressed me because, when the tension became too much and the work deteriorated as a result she simply patted her pony on the shoulder and withdrew from the test. She did the best thing to conserve the trust and confidence of her pony and handled what was no doubt a disappointing situation with professionalism that a rider of any age would be proud of!

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There was one pony rider whose test I knew I simply couldn’t miss and that was Mollie Whitham! Mollie has a massive following on social media and I have seen her progression as a rider over the last few years through her Twitter account @poniemadmollie.  She is a very dedicated young rider and has owned and brought on her young pony DZL Royal Sunrise from backing.

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I understand that last year Mollie watched this event at Somerford Park and declared the intention to ride there the following year. I am delighted to have watched her do just that!

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Seeing riders who are right at the start of their dressage careers is a positive thing and also thought-provoking. I saw some beautiful ponies and some very promising young riders. If those riders are to fulfill their considerable promise and make their dreams come true I would advise all of them to look very carefully at the best available role models. On a day like yesterday they need to look at Emile Faurie, at Matt Frost, at Carl and Charlotte, at the Eilbergs and decide clearly what kind of rider they want to become. Look at how those riders sit, look at how they aid, and at the quality of the connection they develop with their horses. There is nothing more important than that and it is never too early in a rider’s career to begin honing those key skills.

That thought has brought us full circle, back to the idea that how we sit and how we use our legs, seat and hands, will ultimately come to define the quality of work we create with our horses and ponies. Excellence in those areas will often lead us to success in competition but it will always earn us the respect and affection of our horses.

Christine xx

All of the above images are my own and are subject to copyright.

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#Wednesdaywisdom from Charles de Kunffy

Charles de Kunffy is a rider, coach and author who has inspired me a great deal over the years. Back in 2016 I was at a training seminar that he gave and I found it utterly fascinating. So much so that I took down pages and pages of notes! He is truly one of the greatest horsemen of our time and his love of horses shone through in every last detail of his work.

I discovered that he has shared a number of interviews on YouTube. There is a lot of valuable information in them for all riders. It made me reflect that there is no real link between the quality of content and the number of people who connect with it online. Unless you go looking, as I did, or unless the marketing is right then it will sit there undiscovered except by a fortunate few.  Although Dressage Perspectives is not a YouTube content creator (yet) it has a presence there in order to curate interesting and valuable content from other people.

Here is a link to one of the Dressage Perspectives playlists, which features some of the interviews which Charles de Kunffy shared. I really hope that you enjoy the wisdom and dry humour of this wonderful man as much as I do!

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLKb41zORXi-P0A4Rj9ObjnWDZE7MMKrsM

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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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“Rider Biomechanics” by Mary Wanless

It might seem odd to start a book review by talking about the cover design but I think it is a really important facet of what makes a book successful. As soon as I set eyes on this book I was intrigued. The colours are well chosen and the design is clear, modern and attractive. Just above the title of the book there is a circle in which it says “An Illustrated Guide – How to sit better and gain influence”. This is the essence of what rider biomechanics can offer you. This is the crux of the entire matter for me. The ability to sit is what gives us influence; it governs every aspect of how we ride and how successful we are in achieving our chosen outcomes. When books about dressage talk about harmony between horse and rider it can seem nebulous. Many riders are left thinking that it is an ideal they are doomed to fall short of. This book makes its practical and effective message clear from the very start.

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Before I get carried away with talking about why I loved this book I want to get a tiny little quibble out of the way. It is the use of the word “elite” to describe certain riders and “average” to describe others. I was a little put off when I first encountered this description; this is why. As I may have mentioned in a previous post, I had a teacher early in my career who did me a massive though quite unconscious favour. The horse I was on kept falling out of balance and out of canter. I had been riding for a few months at this stage. I was very average and no way was the future me visible. I’m sure I looked like a soggy mess. He said to me “When you can ride Grand Prix I’ll expect you to be able to hold a horse in balance.” I believe that it was critical that he didn’t say if, he said when. Added to that I was in a place where I could watch incredibly competent, highly trained riders training horses every day. I knew there was a gap between them and me but I never though in terms of “I am average, they are elite and I want to be more like them”. I knew I could become one of them if I did the work; and so I went on to do the work. So I don’t like to talk about ‘elite’ riders and ‘average’ riders as though they were somehow separate groups of people. After all, thinking you want to become like an elite rider could still lead to you feeling inauthentic, even when you have essentially become one. A Zirconia can be very like a diamond but it isn’t one. Perhaps I’m arguing semantics, and it is only my personal opinion, but the impact of words on the emerging rider’s mind can be more powerful than we realise sometimes. That said, this book will certainly help any rider get from where they are to where they want to be.

I don’t doubt that maybe this book was written with the rider in mind who might self-identify as average. Personally I think that this book has a lot to offer any rider, no matter how educated or ‘elite’ they might already be. For all the wonderful inspiring horsemen and women who have been my teachers, mentors and muses, none have given me any of the information on which this book is based. They could not have done. The science behind this work is cutting edge; it is not within the accepted cannon of equestrian wisdom yet. I believe it will be and I really hope it will be.

For the rider who is in an early formational stage there is a wealth of clear, accurate insights, which they can apply to their personal learning and the training of their horses. For the rider who has an established seat, and even the rider who already has an advanced skill set, there is much to value in this book. Even if ideas that are pointed out for the benefit of the less experienced rider seem obvious to you, there will be a great deal that is new. For me it was not so much the ‘what’ as the ‘how’. I know how I must sit and I know the consequences for my horse if I fail in a particular moment to be what the horse needs me to be. What this book offers is a fresh evaluation of why and it never hurts any of us to gain a better understanding of why. It will make me an even more mindful rider and it will help me immeasurably as a teacher. This could really do to be a core text for trainee instructors. There is a lot here for the general riding instructor and for coaches in the specialist disciplines.

Thomas Myers meeting with Mary Wanless and the recognition that each had of the other’s expertise was a fortunate thing for all of the riders wise enough to read this book. When experts in seemingly separate fields meet they often see in one another ideas that will translate or inform something seemingly unrelated. I happen to think that all things are related.

This book is too well written ever to over face the reader but it certainly demands our focus. If you want to get the best from it you cannot skim read, but that is true of most really good books. It deserves and demands our full attention. The excellent illustrations supported my growing understanding of just what the Fascial Net is and what it does. My understanding of it prior to reading this book was minimal and hazy. It was possibly at a similar level to many riders. Thankfully part one of the book walked me through the basics that I would need later on. It is entitled “The Fascial Net and Feel”. The explanations are clear and gave me confidence that this book was definitely going to make sense to me. One measure of a good teacher is that they can explain a complex matter simply. This extends to writing and Mary Wanless is highly skilled in both teaching and writing.

Part One is designed to equip us with an understanding of the concepts that underpin the rest of the book. I felt that it does that very well. The subsequent parts are structured to lead us deeper into our understanding of how the human body functions on the horse, the role of the Fascial Net in that functionality, how it interacts with the Fascial Net of the horse and how that impacts the functionality of the equine body. The interplay between our body Fascia and that of the horse is the heart of the matter and the heart of the book. Far from being a dry academic synopsis of what can go right and what can go wrong, this book offers no nonsense advice for how to put things right between you and your horse. In this regard we get the best of Mary Wanless as a riding teacher as well as a glimpse into a fascinating aspect of biology, which is relatively new to the mainstream understanding. The knowledge that this book offers really needs to filter out into the mainstream and add its weight to the growing general interest in rider biomechanics.

I always say there is one caveat with any book about riding or training horses. Understanding alone will not make you a better rider. Only a combination of reading and riding will allow us to improve. The riding must always be the greater proportion of this equation but the reading is also essential if we truly want to change. This book inspires me to think, to reflect and, most importantly, to get on a horse and try to be better at what I do.

I would highly recommend this book to any rider, at any stage of their personal journey. I would particularly recommend it to teachers of riding at all levels. For those of us who want to make our students and their horses happier, more comfortable and more successful there are valuable keys in this book to achieving that. If you decide to get a copy please leave a comment and let me know what you think. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did!

Rider Biomechanics by Mary Wanless is published by Kenilworth Press, an imprint of Quiller Publishing Ltd. My copy of this book was kindly provided by Quiller Publishing.

You can buy a copy directly from www.quillerpublishing.com

You can find out more about the work of Mary Wanless at www.mary-wanless.com