Learning to teach dressage is a journey. September marked the beginning of my fourth year of business. I’m just starting to learn how to teach beyond the rider, beyond the basics of the horse, and really learn how to see. When I started learning and teaching the theories and practice of Legerete I had to change a lot of my understanding of dressage. I had to change the method I used to get a horse on the bit, the progression used to school a horse, as well as technical differences in the preparation and application of particular exercises and movements. It’s a journey that I learn and grow from each and every day.
My first lesson:
I remember the very first night I taught a lesson as a “professional”. It was a family of 6 kids, and 4 were old enough to ride. I had just hung out my shingle and ran an ad in the local Pennysaver. The mom was looking to get her kids into riding. I made a quick deal that gave saddle time to all four kids two nights per week (30 minutes each). I taught the basics. In hindsight, I realized that I pushed the kid’s way too hard. I could recognize the basics of a good seat, and I could recognize the fear in the 10 year old’s response to sitting and posting trot, but I didn’t know how to handle her fear. It took my about a year to realize that not all riders are CRAZY like me. They do have fears and no, you can’t tell them to tough it out.
When I first started teaching I focused on the rider. I focused on fixing their seat and their leg, the position, how they used their body to direct the horse, and perhaps some of the function – how they post, how they use the reins, how they stop, turn, and go. Then I started teaching exercises. I could comment on their circles like “that was an amoeba, try again.” Or, “Try to do a broken line with a 10 meter circle between X and E,” was usually more like “hmm…that was kind of like a cursive zig zag. Try to have a rounder circle next time,” but I didn’t know how to string it together. I could try to tell them how to get a better circle, but I didn’t know the perfect words to make it work.
Then I started hosting clinics with Fred Kappler, a former trainer that I rode horses for while in College. I watched Fred teach some Training and First Level students at a clinic held at my farm and I noticed that he hardly ever commented about the rider. Yet, he produced these amazing results. Horses were collecting and lengthening their strides, dancing down the long wall in leg yields, and putting on a great display. I started to listen to him closely and realized that he wasn’t commenting on what the rider could or couldn’t do. He was telling the rider how to influence his or her horse. So, at the ending of year one I began of journey of teaching the rider how to influence the horse. Easier said than done.
Anyways, somehow my students survived year one. J
I became a lot better at teaching the rider how to influence the horse. My students were progressing. We started basic lateral work, but they weren’t advancing like I wanted. Granted, not all my students had a deep riding background. Many of them were still solidifying their basic foundation. I could see the basics like, “the rhythm is too fast, the horse needs to slow down, try to do a series of progressive circles” but I couldn’t answer questions like, “How do I make this student and horse understand a leg yield, or shoulder-in or something like that? What do I need to do to help them progress?
I flew to British Columbia and audited the Teacher’s Course in Chase for a session. I went home with a brain filled with exercises, they looked neat to watch, but I had no clue how to execute. I also rode in a clinic with Nicole Weinauge, a certified instructor of Philippe Karl’s School of Legerete. It gave me a basic overview of Legerete, but I was still missing a lot of information. I shouldn’t be so harsh on myself, by the end of year two I could put a solid seat on a student, correct a posting issue, and helped all my dedicated students become better riders. I was also starting to understand students and their fear issues. I realized that I couldn’t push them anymore or they just breakdown and get scared.
I year three honed my ability to fix a seat in rapid time – at least in walk and trot. I also learned not to push those rider’s that are not ready to canter. Most importantly, I learned how to throw out my agenda for progressing each student. I realized that I often pushed my students too hard because I worried that others would judge me if my students didn’t progress. I’ve come to realize that students will progress at their own rate. I love getting students that want to be pushed and do their homework, I also love teaching the young kids riding at my barn, but I’ve realized my timeline for their progress doesn’t matter – I can lay out the guidelines – but it’s up to them to progress.
As for training, year three was a whole new ball game, complete with X-ray vision. Yes, I teach a lot of seat lessons and fix a lot of seats. But now I am teaching a lot of students with dressage horses that want to progress. I’ve also ridden in three open clinics with certified instructors from the EDL, and I’ve audited three of the teacher’s course sessions in Pennsylvania and one in British Columbia. All I can say is get your goggles on.
Watching the instructors affiliated with the school of legerete has helped me recognize a whole new understanding of quality. Before, I saw a shoulder-in. Three tracks lining up looks like a shoulder-in. Good job if you didn’t A. Crash into the wall, B. Get disorganized, fall over the inside shoulder, and wind up in the middle of the arena or C. Mess up the rhythm. Now, I can see so much more. I can see balance – I ask myself while teaching, “where should the horse be at this time in their training to find the best balance to execute the exercise?” I can also see muscle contractions. Is the horse tense in the neck, in the back, in the poll, etc? If the horse is tense in position x, what exercise can I do to loosen that up? If the horse is too contracted, I work him more in neck extension. If the horse is too much on the forehand, lift up and rebalance to the hindquarters.
Last week I had the privilege of watching four teacher’s course student’s work on shoulder-in at the same time in the arena. You could see one of the horses was contracted in her muscles and needed work in a longer frame called neck extension. Another was too low and twisting at the poll, she needed to be lifted and worked in a higher frame to find her balance. One of the horses had way too much bend, it was more like a neck in, and another horse was running and losing the rhythm because the rider was asking for too much bend.
I’ve become much more demanding on the quality of work that my students and horses present. I want Quality Quality Quality (unless they are learning of course, then we forgo the quality while they learn how to do the movement).
I think the real test is to be able to watch a shoulder-in and recognize the deficits in quality and be able to have your student make the proper correction. I ask myself, “What do I need to tell Student A in order to help her pony be lighter?” Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, I think it’s best to get on the horse and get a feeling for what is really going on.
Plans for Year Four
After watching the courses held in Pennsylvania I’ve seen the clinicians work with several horses with irregular gaits. Rather than making comments that the horse is off, the clinician chooses the correct exercises to change the gait. Just like you and I, sometimes horses are stiff and not really lame. But not working the horse you are doing nothing to improve the gait. However, if you choose to work the horse and pick the proper gymnastic exercises, then a lot of progress can be made.
I’ve seen a lot of horses with irregular gaits improve and become more regular. For example, if a horse is really lame on the right hind, he might choose to have the rider do more gymnastic work that puts weight on the right hind. By creating awareness of the right hind leg, the horse is more likely to become regular in the gait when he is straightened.
I recently spoke with my vet about this topic. He mentioned there are studies at Cornell on the gait abnormalities of thoroughbred racehorses. He said if they have time off, and heal the unsoundness, then they can come back with an abnormal gait even though they are sound. He said the solution was to run the horse straight on the treadmill. Because the horse is forced to move straight, they can reprogram the way their body moves. Since movement in a horse originates from the spinal column, this makes a lot of sense.
My plan for year four is to come up with a targeted gymnastic plan for one of my horses with intermittent lameness. Kate often has trouble with her right hind leg when she is asked to canter beyond her abilities. She’s okay when I canter her 1-2 times per week, but if I work her in a steady schedule of 4-5 times per week with canter work she tends to go lame behind. I think this is a strength issue, so I’d like to be able to recognize these gait irregularities and be able to come up with the proper solution.
That’s my plan for year four of my teaching and training. Finding my x-ray vision to see balance, the nuisances of rhythm, gait abnormalities and their solution, and the subtleties of muscle contractions and how they influence movements – and to help Kate.
I will be hosting one more clinic with Stephanie Durand, a certified instructor of the School of Legerete, November 8-11. Stephanie is a fantastic professional, wonderful teacher, demands quality, and has x-ray vision in seeing horses. She knows how to think out of the box and come up with a plan and solution for every horse. There is still time to sign up to ride and audit. Everyone is welcome to attend and don’t worry about the level of your horse’s training. We’re all on a journey and we’re happy to learn at my barn. I guarantee that you will walk away from this clinic with a solid understanding of Legerete. Please contact Lane Cove Dressage for more information.
There’s an old saying that anything you teach a horse will be used against you as an evasion. There should be a saying for OTTBs, that anything you teach them will be anticipated to the highest degree after only the third repetition. One of my trainers always said that you teach a horse by doing many repetitions. This creates quite a conundrum. How do you repeat the exercise without creating anticipation?
I’ve been teaching my horses according to the progression outlined in Philippe Karl’s book Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage. I find that after one or two schooling sessions my girls just “get it” and then they are mentally ready for the next step, but not always physically ready to step it up. What do you do when this situation arises? I have to outsmart the queens of anticipation and change the game very quickly. Much easier said than done.
Take for example the counter bending to canter transitions on the half volte. This is a really fantastic exercise to set a horse up for success in striking off on the correct canter lead. Tracking left along the wall in the trot you counterflex your horse to the right and then execute a counterbending half volte. When you almost get back to the wall (now tracking right) and the balance begins to change you ask for your canter strike off. This exercise makes a lot of sense because as you approach the wall in the counterbend position your horse’s weight is towards the outside, the bend is to the inside, and it is very easy for the horse to correctly strike off on the correct lead.
My five-year-old OTTB, Lell, has a lot of difficulty with her canter strike offs, so I thought this exercise would set her up for success. I tried it just a few times one evening and it helped her pick up the correct lead. In the past I did a lot of counterbending turns with her at the trot to mobilize her shoulders. However, now I combined the counterbending turns with the aid to canter, and as a result, any time I ask for a counterbend half volte in the trot (regardless if I want a canter transition), she thinks it is time to runnnnnn! Oh the benefits of a highly sensitive horse. Now I am back at the drawing board and asking for counterbending turns in the trot and while maintaining the counterbent position until she is relaxed.
The counterbending turn on the volte is also used to teach renvers. First, your horse must know how to correctly counterbend on a volte, and secondly, your horse should know how to correctly shoulder-in. To get renvers on the volte, you simply teach your horse the counterbending on the volte, and then push their quarters to the outside. Voila, your renvers is right there on the volte.
Except then I ran into trouble with the other Queen of Anticipation, Kate. I ask for a simple counterbend volte and she gives me a renvers position Every. Single. Time. She doesn't let me choose between one track and two track movement. I spoke to some of my mentors about this anticipation and they mentioned to be more precise with my aids, or ask for a counterbend zig zag across the arena. I am grateful for the intelligence and sensitivity of my lovely OTTBs, but outsmarting their anticipation always keeps me on my toes.
Two weeks ago I held a clinic at my farm with Andrea Walz, a certified instructor of Philippe Karl’s School of Légèreté. Légèreté is the French word for lightness. I find Mr. Karl’s philosophy and training methods to be very complementary to the tact needed to correctly ride OTTBs. At our clinic Andrea mentioned, “Your horses are like deer. They are so soft and sensitive to the hand.”
I have to thank Stephanie Durand (another certified instructor from the school) for teaching me precisely how to create lightness in my horses. I never truly understood lightness (and yes, lightness in the hand with the poll the highest point, not a horse backed off behind the bit/behind the vertical) until I rode with Stephanie last month. She taught me the key to achieving lightness with a horse is descent de main. It’s so simple, but the lifting and then quickly releasing the aid and lowering the hand (while still maintaining contact), teaches the horse to carry himself without leaning on the hand. Of course, this method varies with breed. Take for example a tank pony chugging along on the forehand and you might have to use some big upward acting demi arret with vibration to get his attention, while too much hand with an OTTB will cause him to overreact and invert.
Stephanie also taught me how to create lightness in my horses with action reaction. High and wide hands are a technique used by the school, known as action reaction, to teach a horse to take the contact with the hands. (Side note, action reaction is only done after the correct foundation using flexions in hand is established). It is not used on every horse, but if you are riding dressage with an OTTB, you will probably use a lot of action reaction. You also don’t do action reaction once the horse has learned to take the bit, or it might be more subtle than high and wide hands, perhaps a simple opening and closing of the fingers.
In the past I was making huge arm movements (yes, the school of high and wide hands), to achieve action reaction with my horses. On occasion my horses do need this reminder that they must push into my hands and take the contact. However, Stephanie taught me that OTTBs are very fine and delicate in the mouth. Rather than lifting my hands, waiting for the horse to take the bit, and then lowering, she preferred that I slowly close my fingers on the reins before I lift, and open my fingers before lowering. This subtle distinction in my hands is what my horses prefer – and it created a tremendous change in the quality of their contact. This soft and upward creates a horse with a very fine and delicate mouth that is truly a pleasure to ride.
The methods taught by the School of Légèreté differ greatly from what is traditionally taught in modern dressage. These methods are nothing new, but rather forgotten. The main idea is that you never act backwards on the horse’s mouth. When you use a backward acting hand on the mouth (see sawing your fingers backwards, pulling backwards, anything that draws your hands backward), you are essentially pulling on your horse’s mouth and inflicting pain. This is uncomfortable for the horse, and the reason why many horses do not accept contact with the bit, or if they do accept “contact”, they aren’t truly on the bit but behind the vertical.
So, how do you ride a horse if you cannot use a backward acting hand? Mr. Karl clearly outlines the solution in his book Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage. By acting upwards on the corners of the horse’s mouth (occasionally lifting the hands) the rider can communicate with the horse without inflicting pain. As a result the rider has a better connection with the horse, the horse is more likely to trust the rider’s hand, and the horse becomes much more obedient to the aids because the rider is communicating in a language that respects the horse.
Philippe Karl clearly outlines the training progression of a horse in his book Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage. By following the book, auditing clinics in Pennsylvania, and hosting open clinics in New York my horses have made tremendous progress. Once you teach your horse to trust your hand they will do (almost) anything for you.
Trust is an important condition to communicate with any horse, and the School of Légèreté is the only school that explains in detail the use of the hands to the rider and the meaning of it to the horse. In classical dressage school it all begins by the jaw yielding (flexions in hand that mobilize the jaw by lifting gently on the corners of the mouth) to relax the strong jaw-poll-neck muscles and initiates the communication and trust between the horse and the rider’s hands. This is all necessary to teach the correct language before action reaction begins.
This week I am headed off to Pennsylvania to audit the EDL Teacher’s Course taught by Bertrand Ravoux. In less than a month we have another open clinic at the barn. Stephanie Durand will return to teach a Légèreté clinic November 8-11. This is an open clinic and everyone is welcome to attend. If you haven’t had a chance to audit and learn a bit about Légèreté this is your last chance before winter cold sets in.
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