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.