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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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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