BetterDressage

“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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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

#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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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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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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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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Riding Renvers & Travers.

Renvers is an often neglected lateral movement. Travers by contrast is something most riders use a great deal. Why would this be? Well, I’m tempted to be a little cynical and say that Travers is easier (though not necessarily easier to do well). Done correctly these movements are identical; if you rode travers down a narrow corridor, just wide enough for your horse, travers relative to the left wall would be revers relative to the right wall.

So, if they are the same, why would some riders find Travers easier? It is often a perception problem. Naturally enough the rider often focuses on the one part of the horse they know must move off the line.

“One of the keys to dressage training is that the horse learns to move towards you weight and away from your leg.”

The two elements of this advice are blended together for best results but each  also works in isolation. The first element, drawing the horse towards the weight, is the really valuable one. It is always a great feeling when a newly trained horse begins to understand this concept. The second element is the easier one for many riders to grasp in the beginning. Though it continues to be important throughout the training of the horse, and is in no way an inferior type of aid, it is also the more dangerous and can lead us into difficulties. We are faced with the issue that the hindquarters of the horse are generally far easier to displace than it’s shoulders. It is temptingly easy just to push one part of the horse or other away with the leg.

A rider participating in a clinic with me put it this way: “When I am asked to ride a lateral movement I still feel under pressure to get it right, to make it obvious. I feel silly if I don’t get ‘enough’ of the movement when lots of people are watching. I’m not thinking about setting it up properly. If you say Travers I think leg back and push. So thats what I do and I hope for the best.” Whilst some riders tend to panic a bit, because they don’t feel totally at home with lateral exercises, there are also a lot of experienced riders who fall into this fault for the opposite reason; they become blasé and can become mentally disconnected from the movement because it is so familiar.

That susceptibility of the horse’s quarters to displacement leads to a number of problems. These are just a few, off the top of my head.

  • In pirouettes at canter a heavy outside leg can cause lateral steps. This looks like a little sideways stagger on the circle the hind legs are describing.
  • In the counter change of hand, when we change direction, the quarters can start to lead even if they were not doing so in the initial half pass. This happened to me a lot in canter! My outside leg was too heavy in the change.
  • Haunches flying all over the place in tempi changes – and in single changes for that matter. Again I speak from experience of committing the error and then patiently working to correct it.

So you get the picture! This a problem for a lot of riders at absolutely all levels.  The answer for everyone is relaxed, focused preparation.

Renvers challenges riders in part because they have to move the shoulder mass of the horse away from the wall whilst keeping the bend towards the wall. Bottom line is, you can’t just push one end of the horse away from the line and hope for the best. In Renvers, just like in the Pirouette and the Half Pass, it becomes necessary to draw the horse towards your weight in the direction of interior bend. Relying on the ‘push’ element of the aid in not sufficient. The gymnastic value to the horse is only part of the benefit; I have found that getting good quality Renvers helps riders to make better Pirouettes and Half Passes. We get habituated to motion in the direction of bend and get better at drawing the horse towards the direction of travel with our weight aid. 

There are two particular exercises I like to use in teaching this movement. One is to ride in shoulder in, then gradually change the flexion, change the bend, but keep the position relative to the wall. I certainly didn’t invent this one, its a classic! You can transition gently from Shoulder In to Renvers and back again; which is great for suppling. The second exercise is really a perception trick. Imagine that corridor, or create one with movable boards, a little wider than the length of your horse’s body. Ride Travers away from the boards. Now glance at the wall or fence of the school and you are in Renvers relative to that wall. Once you get used to the movement you can get rid of the boards but keep them in your mind if you ever feel confused or flustered by the exercise.

To create higher quality lateral work in general we need a whole body approach to the movements. Don’t think about one part of your horse. The positioning for the movement involves its entire body.

Here is a quick checklist to run through:

  • As you prepare for the movement, have you got inside flexion?
  • Check your body position and weight distribution.
  • As you begin to deliver the aid which will displace the haunches or the shoulders, is your outside rein gently monitoring the degree of bend in the neck. Most importantly is it preventing excessive bend at the base of the neck where it joins the shoulders?
  • Is your inside hip relaxed, your inside hand relaxed enough to let the horse step under with the inside hind, closing the stifle and enabling the quarters to sit around your softly relaxed inside leg?
  • Does the gait you are in continue to flow forward in the same tempo?

In all lateral work the quality of the gaits is paramount – once you have got to grips with a movement, forget it and focus on the walk, trot or canter that you are riding it in.”

If the gait is really deteriorating through the movement it is worth riding straight out of it and getting the quality movement back. When you try again go for a little less angle and/or a little less bend. Make it easier and let it flow. As you get more proficient and the horse gets stronger and more supple you can ask for a bit more.

This really isn’t designed to be a ‘how to’ guide; it is just a few reflections on the subject. If you have very little experience with lateral movements and want to do them I would recommend finding a good teacher, ideally one with a schoolmaster horse. In my opinion, riding regularly with a coach is the very best way to understand all of this. Books and articles are only really designed to support that practical learning.