"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Clinic and Bits

One of the trainers at our barn had a clinic this past Thursday. He is an eventer, and I've seen him ride Sally's mare Jezebel, an OTTB-he has a beautiful riding style, very light on the hands and leg. A very classical style, and his tendency is to sit more in a dressage seat than a jumper seat. Jezebel is very green, but within minutes he had her going in a nice, relaxed uphill frame, almost effortlessly. At that instant, I had decided I wouldn't mind taking lessons with him, so the clinic seemed like the perfect opportunity to give him a whirl.

The clinic had 2 sessions-the first session had the older horses and riders, the second session had the hotter horses with more experienced riders. I was in the second session. It was supposed to be 3 riders each, but the 3rd horse in my session was out with a sore back, so it was just Anna on her little Arabian mare Jazzy, and me on Lily. Jazzy is quite feisty with other horses, but apparently can be lazy under saddle, so the trainer had to get creative with us, as the two mares were complete opposites. He had Lily and me working on halt-walk transitions, then trotting with small 10m circles in the corners. After that, he had us work on spiraling in and out at the trot, which was pretty awesome-we hadn't done that exercise in a year, and man, did Lily feel different doing it now!! WAY more organized, way easier to keep her butt from swinging out, and  our spirals were round. I can't find the original post now, but we were doing this in lessons sometime between September and November of last year. It was so hard back then!

Afterwards, we did work over grids: first ground poles, then cavaletti. It was very simple: just trot over a straight line of 6 poles-but the point of it was to organize the horses before and after this. Something I can do, but I hadn't done this in a long time. The trainer then changed it up, raising one end of each cavaletti alternately, making them look like tiny crossrails from head-on. Lily handled this beautifully. The idea was to set the horses up correctly so they could use themselves properly over the grids, thus creating trust in us, the riders, and confidence in the horses themselves.

Jazzy has navicular, and around this point, though she looked spectacular doing a sort of passagey trot over the poles, was starting to become sore. Anna and her little mare left, and the trainer worked with Lily and me for what was probably another half hour, doing more spirals with the goal of getting Lily to lengthen her frame and stride. He then asked to see our lateral work, and this was my fault because I didn't organize her properly-she was pretty sloppy as we alternated haunches-in and shoulder-in down the long side of the arena. That, and the fact that we are just getting back into this after all of the setbacks in FL and due to the move north, plus I'm always going solely off of feel, on exercises that I have done with no other horse! I have never had access to arena mirrors, other than the 2 small ones we now have in the indoor at this barn. I think our consistently best lateral workout in the past 4 months was the one that Charles photographed. My point: the trainer wasn't terribly impressed, but he gave me some more tips to improve this, and then we kind of left it at that. We could have done a whole other lesson just on cleaning up Lily's and my lateral work. My favorite tip was that he suggested I post higher, to get more air time. This automatically slowed my posting (I post conservatively because I've always tried to prevent slamming the horse's back), and helped Lily lengthen without losing momentum. It was a variation of a common suggestion, but this phrasing really did it for us. After a lifetime riding, all a trainer had to say was "Post higher" instead of "slow your post" for me to really do this effectively!

I had to laugh when he described Lily's movement as almost excessively uphill and her neck as drafty! This is what my mare looked like when she first came into my hands a year and a half ago:

May 2011 pic

September 2011. She wasn't underweight, she just didn't have any muscle along her topline.

This is her now:

All beefed up. July 2012

December 2012

So the "drafty neck" comment was taken as a huge compliment!! And "uphill"? OMG! She used to be soooo on the forehand! Regardless, the trainer thinks I should work with Lily on stretching down more to lengthen her muscles more. I guess sort of like Pilates for her. This is easy-just give her a snaffle and she works in a long and low hunter frame when she's not trying to invert:

This past March, before starting work in the Spanish bit/Pelham. She was in her Myler Comfort Snaffle in this photo. She is in a perfect Training Level frame in this pic, but see how her left hind is leaving the ground before the right front? She was on the forehand. This is the drawback of long & low work-it is almost impossible to keep them off that forehand.
I specifically asked the trainer if he recommended a different bit-he did ask why was I using a pelham on Lily, but he said I know my mare best and he didn't want to recommend anything and have it end in disaster. He did suggest riding her with both sets of reins, which I had stopped doing here for now because we were just getting back into more serious work: I have always felt like the double reins are more demanding. I guess not, though-when I use the double reins I do tend to ride her more with the "snaffle" reins than the shank reins, so it really is kinder. 

I did like the idea of Pilates for Lily, so on our next ride, I brought out my biothane halter-bridle with the Myler snaffle. She was very good in it-we worked long and low, but it was hard keeping her together, especially at the canter-she was trying to get strong, so I had to really sit up and tighten my abs to bring her back onto her haunches. We ended up doing a lot of walk-canter transitions to get her "up". Her trot, when trying to extend, had a greater tendency to get quick with the snaffle, IMO. I was having a hard time getting more hang-time posting to make her strides longer without slowing her down, so we practiced more spiraling in and out, and this did the trick. I have always loved double-jointed snaffle bits (especially anything with a French link mouthpiece; I hate regular snaffles and think they are actually more severe than a lot of ported bits out there...) and am a big proponent of using the mildest possible bit. Even so, I don't understand the taboo of leverage bits-almost everyone at the barn has questioned my use of a pelham with Lily. I'm not cranking on her mouth, and I can slip 2 fingers between the chain and her jaw-it barely comes into play with the amount of pressure I use. I use the pelham because it works, period. I don't have to worry about her losing her shit anymore out of the blue like she used to, and I can get her to do what I want with minimal effort. Having said this, I have been looking at other bits for MONTHS trying to figure out which gentler bit will work the same as our current pelham.

However, working Lily in the snaffle again reminded me why I hate using this kind of bit so much with her-to get the same results that I get with the pelham, I had to use a lot of contact. A LOT of contact. Maybe it's me-maybe what I think is a lot of contact is normal for the average rider. I learned to ride on Paso Finos where Weymouth bits were traditionally used (nowadays they have these monstrous spoon bits-a subject for Fugly Horse...) and you use your seat and a feather touch on the reins to get them to collect and turn. Then when I was riding one OTTB after another for years and years, I discovered that riding them with very soft hands was a lot more effective than hanging on their mouths. I like riding with the most minimal contact possible, and this is one of the things I was having a lot of problems with with German-style dressage. I personally think that if you have a horse with a sensitive mouth, a lot of contact ultimately creates a hard mouth, regardless of the kind of bit you use.

So yes-with the snaffle, it felt like I had to really keep her up with my upper body, whereas with the pelham, I barely have to touch her mouth to get her to flex, bend, or come up. Look back at the last 2 photo posts-there is slack in the reins in almost every picture! This is how I like to ride. And this is my favorite part of classical dressage: minimal contact.

I'm still looking at bits. I'm afraid of putting her back in something too light after our little bucking episode on the trail back in FL (the one time I tried to ride her out on the trail in a mullen mouth snaffle...I couldn't pull her head up when she started bucking!) I've had my eye on a ported Myler D-ring on eBay and on some other Myler bits, but for now ended up going with a mullen rubber-mouth pelham with very short shanks-they're just 4", vs the 6" on mine. I honestly didn't set out to get 6" shanks when I first purchased that pelham, so the shorter shanks will be nicer. Plus I think the rubber mouth will be much more comfortable for her as it continues to get colder. And at $12, it was way, waaaaay cheaper than any of the Myler bits...

Regarding the trainer at the clinic, I really liked his style. And while he is not, as he himself admitted, a proper dressage trainer, he has a good eye and the quiet, effective way of teaching that has always appealed to me. He corrected all of my usual faults (I've also started hunching my shoulders when riding...this is a new and very bad habit!!) and gave me new angles and exercises to work with. I will definetely be taking more lessons with him in the future. His training facility is about 20 minutes from my barn, and lessons there are $10 less. He has a string of Irish Draft horses he is training for eventing and resale-it would be fun to take a lesson on one of these guys, especially since this trainer's riding style is so light and minimal. We shall see. :)


  1. Dayum. What a transformation. And really cool that you have nearly identical shots on different dates!!

    I'm definitely taking away some of these exercises to try with Q. I need flat work ideas for winter!! As much as I love, love her canter I recognize that I need to take a few (many) steps backwards and work on walk trot stuff so that we're better developed. We can go fast come summer when we're endurancing (yes, that's now a word) again.

    How's Lily gonna like the snow? She better get ready, haha! Its'a comin'.

  2. I think she's going to love the snow! She is SO happy with this cold weather! She was so miserable in the heat. It was one of the reasons behind our move north. :)

    If you want even more ideas for flatwork, I LOVE the book 101 Dressage Exercises. I have to dig it out of storage myself, as I've been running out of ideas. They have some really good & simple exercises that make a big difference in a horse's conditioning.