I entered Aspire Equestrian's Blogger's Weekend Challenge as per the post below and this was the training plan that Wiola so very kindly gave me. I think this shows that she has an excellent eye and a knack of getting right to the heart of the problem! It's so lovely to have a real plan to work on and I'm SO grateful to Wiola for taking to so much time and trouble! The joy of clicker training is I know if I'm right and I ask Bella correctly then she'll be right too. The freeze frames that Wiola did certainly show how much she mirrors me!
Lots to work on and I've already begun so it will be very interesting to see what difference a month can make!
Wiola's training plan for me below. There is also a very interesting one for someone else on her website which I've pinched some tips from too. That's here:
It’s a pleasure to help you and I hope you will find my thoughts useful. Congratulations on entering the challenge too My reason for doing the bloggers challenge in this format is so we can all learn from each other. Analysing issues of different riders on different horses is very beneficial for instructors too so I include myself in learners department also.
Let’s have a look and try to help Helen and her lovely mare. I love Bella’s elevation in passagey trot, definitely a talent there! She looks in a great condition, very relaxed and content.
Helen entered Aspire’s monthly virtual coaching challenge on improving your riding and said: “I would be very grateful if you would take a look at some of this sitting trot, especially in the lateral movements. I know I tend to lose the independent, unilateral movement of my seat bones and block her as soon as I ask for sideways movement – too much else to think about and trying too hard! Bella and I have found a big trot together which feels wonderful! I feel if I lose some weight from my ‘top half’ I will be able to sit it better but keeping the big trot and performing lateral movements is definitely a challenge for me! Thank you very much for any help you can give poor Bella to get me up to scratch and worthy of her, and I really do mean that!” She added a video of the issue she would like to improve which you can find on her blog: http://bellaandrico.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/aspire-equestrian-virtual-training.html
PROBLEM ANALYSIS using still frames from the video
I see a few things that stop you from feeling balanced on Bella’s back in lateral work so we will look at those first and then move on to how to work on them. I suggest they are addressed first before moving onto more consistent ability to join Bella’s back motion in trot.
THREE ISSUES I WOULD SUGGEST WORKING ON BEFORE GETTING TO THE ACTUAL “SITTING MORE CONSISTENTLY” STAGE: UPPER BODY STABILITY AND SYMMETRY, BELLA’S NECK AND SHOULDER POSITION IN LEG-YIELD, YOUR INSIDE LEG POSITION
BETTER UPPER BODY CONTROL HERE BUT EXCESSIVE FLEXION IN BELLA’S NECK AND HER FALLING OUT THROUGH OUTSIDE SHOULDER MAKES HER DRIFT SIDEWAYS RATHER THAN LEG-YIELD. UPPER ARMS NEED TO HELP HERE A LITTLE SO WE WILL CHAT ABOUT IT IN A MINUTE
Bella looks like a very responsive mare and you two seem to have a fabulous relationship so I don’t think you will have much problem correcting the issues.
WHAT TO WORK ON
1) Bella needs to be straighter through her whole body as she travels sideways. As it is now, her spine from ears to tail is twisted in an “S” shape which puts you in a defensive position too and creates viscous cycle.
2) Your outside arm, shoulder, side and leg need to help Bella with her shoulder control. As it is she is taking her neck to inside loading outside shoulder and falling out through it. This makes her lose balance and move on the forehand.
3) Your upper body needs to “behave” independently off your mobile hips.
4) Consistent neutral pelvis and spine position both in lateral work and on straight lines.
HOW TO WORK ON THIS
As this is just a mini-training plan and you didn’t ask for Bella’s schooling advice it was important for me to focus on only a few things that might make the biggest impact. In my opinion we need to address the upper body independence/stability and your ability to maintain neutral spine first. This is because unbalanced upper body will always hinder relaxed hips – something in your body will always want to compensate for collapsed waist or rounded back. My plan of action would be to:
1. Wake up awareness of lateral motion and own straightness and ability to “find” neutral spine.
Learn to position yourself in neutral spine posture (this is best done with a good physio or chiropractor so be careful how you practice as not to hurt yourself):
Easiest way to feel it in the saddle is to sit on own hands – you need to feel your seat bones pointing directly downwards (not being rolled forwards – which happens as we round our back – or backwards – which happens when we hollow our back).
Once you can assume neutral spine it’s time to start from practising the motion off-horse. You can do it in the field in which you ride. Stand in neutral spine posture with your hands on your hips holding a long whip or a long stick behind your back and hooked up behind your elbows. Walk forwards and sideways like this keeping the whip/stick perpendicular to the fence/wall towards which you are “leg-yielding”. Notice how much you need to bend your knees and hips to be able to maintain upright torso and perpendicular position of the whip. Pay attention to your waist and shoulders – they must not turn towards the fence but remain square and forward facing. Keep neutral spine posture as you move.
You can start with shallow leg crossing and then increase the sideways motion as your ability to control waist, spine, torso and shoulders increases.
IF YOU HAVE A WILLING VOLUNTEER AROUND YOU CAN DO THE PERCEPTION EXERCISES IN PAIRS – IT’S FUN AND VERY REVEALING!
Practice yielding like this both ways and make notes which way it is easier for you and which way is harder. Compare with how it feels in the saddle.
You can alternate holding the whip behind your back with holding two whips/sticks right in front of you. Keep your elbows by your side and hold two whips as if they were reins (creating corridor for horse’s neck right in front of your belly button). Then move forwards and sideways maintaining whips position and paying attention that it doesn’t change as you cross your legs.
Try to keep the back of your arms in contact with your ribcage (closed armpits) but watch that you don’t feel stiff or tense. Allow your shoulder blades to drop down your ribcage too and try to keep your head up in such a way that you feel the weight of it in your tail bone rather then on your chest…This will help you maintain balance in Bella’s body.
I would do this everyday for 10 minutes each side for 1 month (you can also try this in a jog) either in one go or whenever you have time. Upper body control and symmetry will need to become your No1 priority so you are able to immediately feel when your posture deteriorates during lateral movements in the saddle.
2. Increase self-discipline in the saddle
Positioning Bella straighter before starting to leg yield will help in maintaining your own posture. Try to enter your centre line in a trot that you find easy to sit to. As you prepare to leg yield shift your weight ever so slightly onto inside seat bone (not outside) and try to keep your inside leg underneath your inside seat bone if you can. Shifting your inside leg so far back as you have on your video twists your pelvis somewhat and I would think it also makes it difficult for you not to collapse in your waist.
I would shorten your reins a little too to help Bella in finding a better place for her neck (right in the middle of her chest) – she is often twisting it to inside which isn’t helping her with her balance.
As you leg yield focus on the same feeling of torso, head and shoulders as you had on foot – Look ahead and slightly to the spot at which you want to arrive (not at Bella ) This will help Bella with her shoulder position too.
IF YOU FEEL your waist collapsing, torso twisting, shoulder dropping/lifting, Bella’s neck twisting – immediately interrupt leg yield and ask for active forward, rising trot so you can both straighten up for 10 steps or so. Then go back to leg-yield.
Aim for 2 straight steps as you start and build up to 10-15 after 1 month. Be disciplined. It’s important not to “just carry on” leaning, twisted etc because you would just be reinforcing a bad habit. The less time you spend in a bad posture from now on the better but you do need to develop feel for when bad habits creep up hence importance of doing it off-horse (without pressure and other things to think about) first.
3. Learn to feel the hind legs and time your leg aid in leg yield.
In your video it looks to me as if you were giving Bella one leg aid at the start and then you keep your leg on her Belly as she moves sideways. If this is the case you can add this to the actions that will hinder your feel for unilateral seat bones motion.
Try to only use your leg aid when Bella’s hind leg lifts and travels forward (this will feel like a drop under your seat bone and her belly will swing towards your other leg). When Bella’s leg is in the air your aid and seat can tell her whether you want her to step more under or more across. You touch her with your calf aiding across then immediately let the leg aid come off (at the beginning you can literally take your leg away to train yourself and it’s best practised in walk when everything happens slower). As you progress with your feel the aid might just be inner leg tension, then release and the sequence will be barely visible for onlooker but it’s important not to hold the leg [aid] on.
Correct leg use (in time with belly swings/hind legs motion) will help you tremendously with sitting to leg yield in her bigger trot later on.
4. Pick a pace in which you are most comfortable making adjustments and stick to it.
When perception starts improving, try to also focus on Bella’s trot rhythm. Find the pace for lateral work in which you are both comfortable in – it can be this little trot/stretchy trot you are doing BUT try to make sure that you don’t alter it as you leg yield or as you straighten out and go ahead. It will not only help Bella developing her balance but will also train your feel for her working in consistent rhythm, it will make you more vigilant to any changes in rhythm and it will also make sideways movements more beneficial as a gymnastic exercise.
These are the four things I would focus your training on for the next 6 to 8 weeks.
Only once you are comfortable with all the above would I attempt to address the sitting trot in bigger trot (however, you might find that by then the problem is less complex )
NEXT STEP: CORRECTING LOSS OF NEUTRAL PELVIS POSITION, WHOLE BODY “CURLING/ROUNDING” IN MORE ELEVATED TROT
If you follow this advice I would love to see a video update from you in 4 weeks to see how you getting on!
Regardless though I will definitely be visiting your blog to check how you getting on. Good luck and well done for being brave and entering the challenge.
I would be very grateful if you would take a look at some of this sitting trot, especially in the lateral movements. I know I tend to lose the independent, unilateral movement of my seatbones and block her as soon as I ask for sideways movement - too much else to think about and trying too hard! Bella and I have found a big trot together which feels wonderful! I feel if I lose some weight from my 'top half' I will be able to sit it better but keeping the big trot and performing lateral movements is definitely a challenge for me!
Thank you very much for any help you can give poor Bella to get me up to scratch and worthy of her, and I really do mean that!
Here are some videos taken yesterday. My main conclusion, apart from how incredibly proud I am of Bella, is that I need to lose weight, especially from my top half, if I'm going to ever do her justice and sit that trot properly! I was mainly just trying different things to see how they look on video but I think I can see moments when passage is just a heartbeat away!
I need to work on our canter. She tends to canter 4 time and I throw the reins at her and canter myself in an attempt to obtain more impulsion, which is bound to achieve the exact opposite! I need to leave it more to her while keeping the frame, keep my shoulders still, emphasis the 'up' beat and get her to love canter by keeping some special treats just for canter!
Lots to work on and so helpful to see what we're doing right and wrong! Watching Bella here excites me so much - she's turning into the real deal, imho!!!
I always dreamed that the day would come when I could say that Bella and I had piaffe well in our sights and that day has now arrived!
I began a new strategy to explain it to her in hand. After warming her up as per the previous post I started halting her and asking for hind leg lifts at halt, then began inching her forward, keeping the hind leg lifts going and asking her to lift her front legs a bit higher as well, clicking when they were going in diagonal pairs. Here's a video of the result;
I've continued this for the last couple of weeks, always in the same place (so far) and today I rode her and asked her to do the same from the saddle, in the same spot, and she did! It's only the start of piaffe but it feels great and it's having a tremendous effect on the rest of her ridden work too. She feels so light in hand, so balanced, forward and effortless to ride, she's totally spoiling me for riding anything else!
I have noticed, as in the video, that the first time of asking always seems to produce the best steps, so now I stop and do something else after the click rather than asking again immediately, and I'm doing the same ridden and only asking for a couple of steps once or twice to begin with.
I finished today by doing some rein back to trot transitions and got some really fabulous feeling steps, even for Bella! I need to get a ridden video to see if it looks as good as it feels but it feels as though we're getting pretty close to passage to me!
Probably the most exciting thing about all of this is just the way Bella has started to feel in general. To me, with my limited experience, she feels like a serious dressage horse - loose, supple, free-moving, very well balanced and 'up' in her carriage - a proper dressage pony! Her canter is slowly improving too, even before I start concentrating on it a bit more (I've hardly done any for ages). It's still a bit laboured on the left rein but she feels as though she's even starting to enjoy cantering on the right rein.
She also looks much more of an athlete now. Her stomach muscles look much tighter and more defined and, to me anyway, she looks a really classy, uphill pony.
I think what I need to start doing soon is going for a bit more duration in her trot work. It feels so brilliant that I have trouble stopping myself clicking after just a few strides as I get so excited by the feel she's giving me and so determined not to lose it. I need to start trusting that we both know what we're doing and know how to get back there, and spend more time playing with moving her between shortened and lengthened strides.
It's all really exciting! Bella makes me feel like a proper dressage trainer and gives me so much confidence in what we're managing to achieve together. I've joked to people that my plan with her is to go into affiliated dressage at about Advanced Medium and work our way up! Who knows, it could happen yet!!!
Bella and I have been making real progress thanks to watching Diane Thurman Baker's videos on Horse Hero.
Diane, of Turville Valley Stud, trains horses (and often problem horses) to advanced level dressage using Portuguese in hand work. One of her staple exercises is moving between shoulder in and travers on a small circle, first in hand and then ridden. She also does a lot of rein back on a square, backing a long way rather than just a few steps.
The idea is that shoulder in on a small circle stretches the front end of the horse and travers does the same for the hind quarters. Then the long rein backs shift the horses balance backwards and gets her using her back muscles correctly. I've been doing a fair amount of both of these with Bella (although less of the rein back than the other exercise as I feel mean asking her to back up so far too often, not that she seems to mind).
After doing these exercises ridden I've been doing some of the previous work we were doing with lateral movements into halt and getting really good lateral flexion before clicking. Then I've been asking her to collect in trot and she's been giving me a few steps which feel so extraordinary I have to click, jump off and jackpot her straight away! It's really exciting and I feel as though we are suddenly making huge progress!
In hand I've just had our first session at asking her from halt to bounce forward a little from behind, by tapping her quarters very gently with a whip while piaffing gently myself! I have a real aversion to using a whip with her these days as she tries so hard in everything she does, and I won't do more than touch her incredibly lightly with it, but it's the only way I can think of to give her a clue about what I'm looking for.
She gave me travers, shoulder in, drunken walk and Spanish Walk but I stuck to my guns and waited for any tiny hint of the mobilization of her hind quarters I was looking for before I would click. This is something I find VERY hard as I hate to see her struggling to come up with the right answer but Bella responded with a huge whicker when I clicked after finally seeing the first hint of what I was after, so I don't think it worries her too much when she has to really think hard to learn something new. She was just extra delighted when she finally succeeded!
Diane Thurman Baker also has a neat trick of teaching the horse to halt when the whip is rested on their body, so the whip is also a calming signal as well as an energizing one. I really like this approach and have been doing this with Bella when I halt her in this exercise, so she doesn't take offense at the whip or get over excited by it. It also helps me feel more positively about using a whip.
We need to do a lot more of this before we have anything even vaguely approaching piaffe but it definitely feels like the beginning!
I feel I'm really making huge progress at the moment! With my Straightness Training subscription coming to an end and keen to explore other avenues of inspiration and expertise I took out a subscription to Horse Hero and I'm SO glad I did, I'm learning so much from the videos on there and I've only just begun working through the ones of most interest to me. Next on my watch list are a series of lessons on horse and rider posture by Peggy Cummings but here are some of my discoveries so far.
First I watched some videos of Nicola McGivern giving Horse Hero founder Fiona Price a lesson on ex Olympic dressage horse Active Walero. Nicola McGivern is based not far from us and I had mused with the idea of asking if she would be willing to give Bella and I some lessons. Watching the videos I decided that she seems a bit too scary for us sensitive souls! She did have some really great tips though. The ones I've found really useful are:
Turn or change the rein by tightening your outside buttock and thinking of "putting your inside bottom onto the horse's outside bottom"
Press your heels outwards if you're using your legs too much (I've found this very useful in canter where I have trouble stopping myself nagging them, to keep them in canter).
To canter simply think of putting your inside seatbone forward and down - nothing more than that.
Absorb the movement in canter by thinking of pulling your stomach up into your chest, while always keeping your inside hip forward and down.
To stabilize your seat generally think of pushing your lower abdomen into your hands.
Then I found Karen Rolfe's video on a different approach to riding lateral work and I now use it as a warm up all of the time. She was riding a beautiful young Friesian which focussed my attention straight away. I do love baroque horses, especially black ones!
She said on the video that both riders and horses get tense and anxious about lateral work and so it's very useful to start by taking power out of the movements, so both can relax and get used to the feel of being in the right position before adding power back in.
She begins by walking around the arena and using the corners or circles to set up the lateral movement, then halting and rewarding the horse once it's in correct position. She stands for a while in that position, so they get used to how it feels, then walks on again and sets up the next movement. She then does the same in trot. Once the horse is really confident at organising his body into the right positions for the movements she gradually asks him to continue in the movement for a stride or two before halting and gradually fades out the halt when the horse is really comfortable and relaxed with the whole process.
To me this seemed such an obvious, simple and sensible way of beginning ridden lateral work that I can't now believe it never occurred to me before! I can't begin to tell you just how much difference this has made to Bella, Grace and I! I'm totally at home with working them in all the lateral movements in hand but not nearly so practised in the saddle. Grace has always tended to want to rush when you ask her for anything so this approach is brilliant for her and is making her much softer, lighter, better balanced and more relaxed.
Bella only gets tense in as much as she gets a little 'fiddly' with her bit sometimes in lateral work which negatively affects her balance a little. Using this new strategy she is now staying relaxed in her jaw. I've also adapted the technique a bit and after halting in, say, travers, I ask for a bit more lateral flexion before I click her as she's not the most naturally bendy of horses.
I was a little bit worried about losing 'forward' doing this with Bella so I quickly progressed to doing just a little of this in walk, then in trot, and then continuing in the movements for a few paces in walk and in trot, so I'm clicking and reinforcing her in movement as well as in halt. I've now realised that it was silly of me to worry. Bella understands me, and understands chains of behaviour and lateral work so well that there was never any danger of her getting confused about what she is supposed to be doing.
I thought Bella was lovely to ride before but using this technique has turned her into a complete joy! She is so chilled out, focused and relaxed, with even more power to her trot. It's definitely helping us in working towards passage.
Yesterday I rode her in a very strong wind in our tree and bush lined, spooky outdoor school. She was rampantly in season (so much so that she didn't really want to leave the yard as there was a new gelding in there and she was much more interested in flirting with him than going anywhere with me!) but she never spooked or lost her concentration once and gave me her best effort 100% of the time. She really is the pony of a lifetime and we are going to make the very most of this summer!
I joined Epona TV recently and Gerd Heuschmann's DVDs, along with Alexandra Kurland's Hip, Shoulder, Shoulder DVD and Marijke De Jong's Straightness Training (and watching Anja Beran's Elegant Dressage Training 3 DVD which made me remember why I wanted to do all of this anyway!) have all combined to help me find a few more pieces of my jigsaw.
Gerd Heuschmann talks about the horse only having strong, swinging back muscles if the bends in the S shaped curve of the cervical spine are open, pulling the whither's forward, which means the horse's neck must not be compressed and shortened or the back muscles will be blocked and the hind leg cannot swing forward under the horse's centre of gravity - a pre-requisite of collection and of riding the horse in good balance. Whatever height the horse's head is carried at the neck must be reaching forward to allow the rest of the horse's musculature to move freely and do it's job unhindered (Marijke talks of forward forward, and forward up as the more advanced head carriages).
Marijke De Jong says that horses rise in status in the herd when they are taught to carry themselves proudly and that horses, like us, enjoy realising their own potential. She, like Alexandra Kurland, says that good physical balance leads to good mental balance and Marijke says that beginning by training a forward down head carriage creates a mentally relaxed horse as well as a physically relaxed one. Marijke says that the head needs to be low enough in forward down that the underside of the horse's neck is relaxed.
Both Gerd Heuschmann and Marijke insist that warming up horses in the forward down position (not head curled back and down) is vital to keep the back muscles swinging and moving freely and that forward down should be used regularly in training sessions between movements. Gerd states that the quality of the horse's training can be assessed by the strength of it's back muscles and the freedom of their (the muscles) movement.
I have neglected training forward down a bit with Bella as she naturally carries her head quite low and she is not of a nervous disposition. I've spent a lot of time getting her up off her forehand and I reckoned that she spent most of her time in forward down anyway so I didn't need to train it.
Yesterday I began working with Merlin again following the Straightness Training system. First you get the horse to lower his head when asked and then to bend his neck laterally in both directions at halt, standing in front of the horse. Then you ask for forward down and lateral bend from the horse's shoulder and, when you have both, you walk on with the horse and try and get him stepping under his own centre of gravity while keeping his weight evenly balanced over both front legs.
This was a bit of a wrestling match with Merlin to begin with because, even though he is a left bended horse, he tends to fall onto his inside shoulder and walk into you with the first step on both reins. By applying some gentle pressure on his inside shoulder to keep him off it and to keep the bend to the inside as we walked forward he began to manage some clickable starts. I also realised to help him to be successful I had to make sure his inside hind was underneath him and not stuck out behind, before I asked him to walk on. Merlin was quite tense, pushy and a bit nippy at the start of our short session but by the end of it he felt to me really chilled, relaxed and content.
I did a bit with Grace and Jack as well. Grace tends to find forward down a little tricky but, once we find it, she feels much more flowing and elegant in her movement. Jack LOVES working in forward down and he's very supple in his neck and body, and well balanced, so it's always a given with him anyway!
Then I got Bella and did some forward down and lateral flexion training with her, both in hand and a little on the lunge. Bella is the only one of my horses who is right bended and I did notice that she loses inside bend a lot more easily on that rein when she's on the lunge and has less support from me. I've also realised recently that although Bella flexes laterally she doesn't flex very much - she's a bit stiff in her neck on both sides - and I've been working on flexions at the halt under saddle for a week now, clicking her when they feel right, and I've noticed that she looks so much more elegant and dignified when she gives me a bit more flexion. She feels like a really classy dressage horse.
After a short session doing LFS (Straightness Training speak for lateral bending, forward down and stepping under) I finished by asking Bella for some Spanish Walk. I was totally amazed by what she gave me! She's usually a bit stompy in Spanish Walk, especially after a few strides, but with every stride she gave me maximum reach and put her foot down softly and elegantly. She felt SO chilled, relaxed, happy and at ease, even for Bella. I definitely won't be neglecting forward down and really good lateral flexions from now on!!!
After watching Anja Beran and her stunningly beautiful Iberian stallions I have another movement on my wishlist now, along with piaffe and passage - Spanish Trot!!!
The summer before I turned twenty-one the family I worked for started talking about selling General. I couldn't contemplate staying there without him so I decided to use it as my cue to move on. It was easier in the summer than it would have been in the winter as General was turned away so I wasn't spending much time with him.
A lovely family had fallen in love with Rocky and had been asking to buy him for some time. That gave me the money for a little breathing space so I moved Ben to a big livery yard nearer to home while I decided what to do next. There were over forty horses and ponies there and I loved having so many people around after working mostly on my own for the last few years. There was also that undreamt of luxury - an indoor school, which I made full use of, along with the wonderful forest trails.
After a few weeks the girl who had been running the yard decided to give up horses and get a proper job and I was offered the post. I snapped it up, moved into the on-site mobile home and worked ridiculous hours, often from 5 in the morning until 7 or 8 at night. I loved every moment and no-one could get me to take so much as one day off!
I was offered the ride on a 15.3 bright bay seven year old gelding called Robert. He had been having some fun with his previous rider and it had got to the point where he refused to even leave the yard. I put him in long reins and drove him in and out, and up and down the road for a bit, and then rode him out looking for things to test out our new found forwardness. He was a pussycat really and very quickly decided his previous game was a waste of energy and from then on nothing phased him at all.
I soon discovered that he loved to jump and he soon became the most willing horse on the planet! We started small and worked our way up to 3'9" opens but they were a bit too big for me, as I don't have a reliable enough eye for a stride, so we settled on courses of up to about 3'3". The only problem I had to to begin with was getting Robert into a lorry but, when all else failed, I decided to try riding him in and it worked like a charm. He enjoyed the shows so much that he soon became eager to load, trotting enthusiastically up the ramp, and it was never again a problem. Robert was a very sociable horse and loved shows and being in a crowd.
Robert and I jumping at home - that looks HUGE to me now!!!
A couple of years later I was offered Jonesy on permanent loan. I'd looked after him at the hunter yard for a while and had always liked him so I jumped at the chance. He quickly became Ben's best friend and I took my two horse team to shows together. We always had at least one full lorry going to shows from the yard, and sometimes two, and it was really good fun. I'd certainly achieved the ambition of my teenage years!
I met my late partner just before the owners of the livery yard decided to apply for planning permission to convert all the stables into houses. He offered me the chance to start my own livery yard here and it was perfect timing. I came to have a look at the place and basically never went home! Ben and Jonesy had pride of place and a new chapter began.
When Ben and Jonesy started to get old I acquired two more ponies, a beautiful 14.2 palomino mare called Kelly and a little 13.3 bright bay mare called Rosie. I really bought Rosie to break in and sell on but couldn't bear to part with her. We put her in foal when she was 4 and bred Russell, who is still here today, now well into his twenties.
Kelly was the perfect show pony but she preferred to keep her feet on the ground so I mostly stuck to showing and unaffiliated dressage with her. Rosie loved to jump but didn't have a lot of scope so we just had fun around small courses.
Russell is a beautiful mover and did very well in unaffiliated dressage competitions but he was a bit too narrow for my liking and we always seemed to have unfortunate things happen which always resulted in my hitting the deck. For example, I was warming him up at a show once and a heavy jump stand blew over just as we were trotting past and hit his hind leg as it fell. He understandably shot sideways, catching me totally by surprise, and I fell off and dislocated my index finger. Little things like that always seemed to happen, even out hacking, and they ate away at our confidence in one another. He was incredibly quick and athletic and, in an effort to try and sit his sudden manoeuvres, I read everything I could find about improving my position and worked really hard at it but the harder I tried the stiffer I became and the more easily I fell off. Eventually neither of us was enjoying it at all any more so I stopped riding him. Luckily he is very sociable and kind with other horses so he's always performed an invaluable job here as a companion to youngstock, Rico being the latest. He took very good care of Bella for years after she arrived here as a yearling and I owe him big time for that alone!
When Kelly and Rosie started getting towards the end of their lives I found Bella, and a year later I was offered her half brother, Jack, at a price I couldn't refuse. Bella and Jack, with their huge personalities, led me to clicker training.
I guess I'm documenting all of this here to show that, pre-clicker, I was muddling along OK with horses, if you leave Russell out of the equation, I enjoyed a challenge and mostly managed to find ways to get horses on my side and co-operating. I turned to clicker training specifically to try to fix two problems - Jack being so lazy to ride and Bella's reluctance to accept the bit properly. I had NO idea of the power of the clicker and how it was going to revolutionise everything I did with horses, and beyond, and open up a whole new world of possibilities.
I found out all of that very quickly and it's allowed me to achieve things I could never have dreamed of before. It really has changed my life, and my horses lives. It's given me so much more empathy with them and really opened my eyes to just howincredibly sensitive and intelligent horses are. It's allowed me to communicate clearly and precisely with my horses and opened up a two way dialogue between us. And, best of all, it's given us SO much fun and sheer, unadulterated joy along the way.
My first introduction to horses was a pony ride at a fete when I was three years old. I don't remember it but I'm told I was heartbroken when it ended and I was lifted off the pony's back.
At the age of eight I announced that I wanted to learn to ride. My parents knew nothing about horses and my mum told me that I'd have to find a riding school and book some lessons myself, thinking that would put me off. Not only did I do that but I also managed to buy some second hand riding clothes from adverts in the local paper, all by myself! I've always been resourceful.
I continued to have lessons for years without learning very much. When I was about ten I got a bike which I pretended was a horse, and cycled far and wide looking for horses in fields to visit. In the following years I used plan my weekends by looking up in Horse and Hound where the nearest horse show was and, if it was too far to cycle, I'd work out bus routes to get there. I would end up in the nearest town or village with no idea exactly where the show was but I always managed to find it somehow. I loved watching all those horses and riders gathered together and dreamed of the day when I'd be there too.
After finishing my O' levels with good results I realised two things; that I couldn't face two more years of school and that I'd never be any good at my passion, horses, unless I devoted myself to them full time. My parents were horrified (my mum was a school teacher and had planned on my going to university) but I was adamant. I left school that summer and got a full time live in job at a small riding school. I loved the horses, all the riding and being there all the time but there were a few problems at the riding school. The person who ran it and I lived in two caravans, side by side, on site. She had a boyfriend who she had violent arguments with, culminating in him trying to strangle her one weekend. He went missing after phoning for an ambulance, there were police and ambulance men everywhere and I was a bemused not-quite-seventeen year old who had led a sheltered life up to then, right in the middle of it all!
With the help of a lady who worked there part time and the children who helped at weekends we managed to keep the riding school running, lessons included, for the next few days until the owner was released from hospital but, in the meantime, I had to deal on my own with some irate feed suppliers who hadn't been paid and were threatening to cancel deliveries. With about twenty five horses and ponies to feed, some fully stabled, we got through a lot of feed.
The next drama made me decide that working with horses wasn't for me and to try going back to school for A-levels instead. I was at the riding school alone one day when the hay barn, right next to our caravans, caught fire. There was no innocent reason why it should have done - no bonfires, no smokers around - and suspicion fell on the, now ex, boyfriend. I called the fire brigade and dealt calmly with the incident but, strongly encouraged by parents to do so, handed in my notice shortly afterwards.
I went back for the first year of A levels but didn't settle and couldn't think of anything I wanted to do with my life except be with horses so, when I saw a part time job with hunters advertised in the local paper I applied and was offered the job. It was within cycling distance of home and school and I did carry on at school, fitting in looking after the two hunters as well, to begin with. The crunch came a few months later when the family who owned the hunters - General and Joss - told me they were moving. By then I was totally besotted with them ,especially General (16.2 bright bay 6 year old who was as honest and kind as anyone could ever wish for), so I left school for good, bought a motorbike, and commuted to their new home each day.
I had been winging it until then really - looking up how to feed and care for hunters in books because their owners were as clueless as I was. Their new home had been home to a hunt master and his family and horses and there was a bit of an overlap between our horses moving in and their horses moving out. This meant that I got to work with their very experienced stud groom for a couple of months and he loved having an earnest, keen pupil. He taught me how to clip, plait and turn out horses to a high standard, and how to get them really fit and feed them for peak performance. I loved every moment of working with him and learning so much and I was like a sponge, soaking up all the information I could get. He was a bit tougher with his horses than I would ever want to be (General didn't like him at all and wasn't his usual enthusiastic self when he was around) but I did learn from, and try to copy, his determined, confident attitude around horses.
I stayed with the hunters for a few years and finally acquired my first horse (pony) while I was there. I didn't have much to do in the summer so, when I heard that a little eleven hand black pony who I passed everyday on my motorbike and had always liked the look of, was for sale for £25 I bought him to give local children lessons on. Rocky was so cheap because he was traffic shy but I led him out around the roads from General's back and he soon became bombproof in traffic. He was a lovely pony and the children always thought they could ride because he'd just follow me around so they never had to be led.
I soon had requests to teach older children and the family I worked for were keen for me to find a way to earn enough money to stay on over the summer and offered to buy a cheap bigger pony. I saw one advertised and went to meet a hugely overweight fourteen hand eight year old barrel called Ben. His owners had bought him from a dealer a couple of years before for their daughter but he'd been too strong for her and had frightened her so she'd given up and left him in the field. He was the grand sum of £150, very cheap even then. He was very nervous but had big, kind eyes and I wanted him to be mine so I bought him with my own money.
Ben was scared of everything and a nightmare to catch but he was all mine and big enough for me to ride. I figured he'd had a tough life to end up at a dealer's yard and he just needed a friend. I spent as much time with him as possible and he quickly became steady enough to lead children around on but would run away at the drop of a hat when I was riding him so I dared not let him off the leadrein.
A young friend of one of the daughters of the family I worked for used to help out at weekends and holidays and she took a shine to Ben. She was a competent rider and wasn't put off by his lack of brakes and she riding him out with me and the hunters. A few months later there was a show locally and she begged to take him. We hacked there together and she tried to get him around the clear round jumping but, although he'd jump anything in front of him, he was too strong to steer. She has a go at some gymkhana games with similar results then asked to take him in the Chase Me Charlie. For anyone who doesn't know this is a knockout competition with one fence which starts as a pole on the ground and gets higher and higher until only one pony clears it. The ponies queue up one behind the other to jump it.
The young girl who was riding Ben had never jumped more than about two feet nine inches in her life. Ben just kept on jumping until it was just him and one good showjumping pony, who we knew, left in. The fence was measured at four feet and the serious showjumper went first and refused. Ben grabbed the bit, took off with his by now petrified jockey and cleared it with inches to spare! His rider promptly fell off as he landed and had to be treated by St John's Ambulance for a sprained wrist but was smiling through her tears - they'd won! He was admired and congratulated by everyone, including the showjumper's parents, and we were all stunned and in shock! Ben had arrived at the show as an unreliable pony with no brakes and no steering and he went home a hero and the yard superstar!
From that day on Ben never looked back. He basked in our admiration and became the most trustworthy, sensible, kind, friendly and honest pony anyone could ever wish for. I had him until he had to be put down due to the ravages of Cushing's Disease at the age of twenty eight and I did everything with him from dressage to showing, gymkhanas to cross country, and he always came home loaded with rosettes.He was highly placed in a Pony Suitable for Riding for the Disabled competition, missing the winning rosette only because he still took a bit of a hold going into a jump. I used to do a show in Family Pony competitions where I removed his bridle and did the individual show, jumps and rein back included, with just a neck strap.
We qualified for the South of England Family Pony Championships where he was seventh with his own fan club of spectators who took an instant shine to him (the jumps were quite big, which didn't worry Ben but did worry most of the other chunkier ponies, and a lot people said he was the only true family pony in the final line up). Everyone, from judges and spectators to vets and farriers, loved him and he radiated happiness. He was the most gentle, kind, friendly, affectionate pony I've ever known and he was the reason for everything I did, from getting up in the morning onwards.
Years ago I had a pony called Jonesy who I loved riding above all other horses I have ever had the pleasure of sitting on. Jonesy was a very confident, bossy character who thought he ruled the world, never spooked at anything and looked and carried himself like a stallion. I could ride him out with my reins in loops and he always carried me everywhere in proud self carriage. Everyone recognised and admired him and I always felt like a 'professional rider' when I was on his back, even though none of it was my doing!
Jonesy had never been taught to carry himself this way - he was a pony who lived to jump and hated being schooled on the flat, and as for dressage, don't even mention it!!!! - he just did it naturally. Riding him was pure, effortless joy and I could never get enough of it. He led a long, very sound life and died at the age of 30 and I've missed him ever since.
Jonesy doing what he loved best
Since then I've tried to school my horses to carry themselves in good balance but it's always been hard work and never felt free and joyful like it did with Jonesy. I always felt that I had too much weight in my hands and, although dressage trainers have told me this is correct, it didn't feel good or desirable to me and the horse always seemed keen to revert to slouching along whenever possible so I didn't think it could feel good to them either. I didn't want to work through loads of resistance - I wanted harmony and co-operation not a battle of wills. I wanted us both to feel good about working together.
Clicker training and Alexandra Kurland's 'Riding with the Clicker' exercises have changed all of that. Riding Bella is now very much like riding Jonesy. She doesn't have his boundless energy but she loves to carry herself proudly and even when I'm leading her out to the field she will draw herself up through her withers at the slightest glance in her direction from me. She loves to impress and, judging by her expression which I can only describe as 'smug', it obviously feels great to her too!
That's what I love best about Alexandra Kurland's methods; she has given me a way to train my horses to carry themselves (and me) in effortless self carriage on a loose rein and to do so voluntarily and with great pride and satisfaction. I never thought I'd be lucky enough to have another Jonesy but riding Bella is just as joyful with the added benefit of her loving flat work so much that we can work on the higher level movements together.
Hopefully Bella learning to carry herself in good balance like this will keep her sound and well long into her 30s - that would give us at least another 20 years of joyful "feels like heaven" riding together!
I'm presently studying Alexandra Kurland's 'Hip Shoulder Shoulder' DVD and there is loads of stuff on there for me to work with and play with but that's for the next post!
First and foremost, my lovely Bella (Daloumie Arabella) a registered Dales Pony who will be 11 years old this year and I've had her since she was just turning a year old. I found out about clicker training when she was 5 and it has revolutionised everything about our lives together, but that's all been written about in previous blogs. Suffice to say that Bella did not like being told what to do and did as little as possible (although that was more than Jack, who would hardly break out of a very slow walk if he could help it). Clicker training has turned that around to the extent that she loves working so much I'm always ready to stop before she is, and she gives everything we do together her total attention and maximum effort.
Then there is Jack (Daloumie Crackerjack), Bella's more than half brother (same stallion, closely related mares). He's a year older than Bella and I've had him since he was an unbacked 3 year old. He would be as much of a superstar as Bella if he hadn't been born with only partial sight in one eye. He has come a long way from the youngster who used to go into full blown panic mode on windy days, even when turned out in the field, but I've long ago accepted the fact that he'll always lack confidence in strange places and unfamiliar surroundings so we just play together at home these days; that way we both stay safe, happy and relaxed in each other's company. Jack is the lateral work ace and he's very supple and athletic for a heavily built horse.
Waterside Grace is my other Dales and she is 14 years old this year and a darling. She's never a moment's trouble and totally safe and reliable. She was a bit nervous of traffic and a few other things when I first got her 5 years ago but clicker training has restored her self confidence. Grace is worth her weight in gold to escort riders with young or nervous horses out on hacks.
The other main equine character in this blog will be Rico (Escaro Novillero) who is an Andalusian colt and he will be 2 years old this year. I bought him as a weaned foal. He is very friendly and bold. I haven't done much clicker training with him yet - so far we've only done targeting, manners training and foot handling - but he's very familiar with the click and what it means. At the moment we have no fear issues to work through as I've yet to discover anything he's scared of! Occasionally things make him jump but he's always keen to investigate everything no matter how strange. His dad is a performing circus horse so I guess it's not surprising really!
There are photos of all of the above at the bottom of this page.
My other horses are Dougal, a young mini Shetland and Merlin, a Fell Pony, who were both rescues, and Russell and Guinness who are both elderly and retired. Russell and Guinness are Rico's mentors and keep him from getting too big for his boots but in a tolerant, kindly way. Guinness also plays endless games with him and keeps him exercised. I'm hoping to keep Rico entire but if he gets too much for Russell and Guinness I will have him gelded as I want him to have a normal social life with equine friends and companions.
I use clicker training and Alexandra Kurland's 'Riding with the Clicker' combined with various other influences (Marijke de Jong's Straightness Training being the latest) to improve my horses balance and performance so they can carry me with ease and hopefully stay sound all of their lives. With Bella, who loves to perform and show people how clever she is, I'm hoping we will manage to teach each other piaffe, passage, tempi changes, etc, which I think would make her the first Dales to do so. My dream is to take her to a few advanced dressage competitions and be in there with the big boys, showing how far you can get with clicker training and a rare breed pony from a breed far too talented and versatile to have been allowed to become rare. In a perfect, sensible world they would be one of the most prolific breeds around!
And Rico? Who knows! I'm looking forward to him growing up and showing me what he loves to do the most and we will go from there.