Pole Position

This is a lesson that Andrew taught me a few weeks ago, and if you ride with me at Harwood Hall you will recognise it well. Pole work isn’t something that I naturally think of doing very often, but there are a lot of benefits to using poles in training, the main one being that they demand accuracy. One little fall or poorly prepared turn and you get the distinctive clunk of failure. No one likes that noise.

I was in the very best of equine company for my lesson; Rois has featured in several articles previously (he’s the bay horse in the Parade ‘episode’) and he’s one of my favourites. He’s 19 this time, a fairly complex and understated character, and a real grafter; he’s a long horse with a straight hind leg, so I start him off with lots of reverse turns, parades, and shoulder-in/leg yield patterns. Andrew spoke about maximising the effect of the reverse turn (recap, a reverse turn is when you leave the horse on the outside aids when you change the rein, and then gradually change the bend once you are on the new rein), which meant making sure the horse was absolutely through on the outside rein before rolling him round to the inside.

That sounds incredibly obvious, but sometimes I can be a little bit superficial about things and don’t get into the horse enough. The line between doing something a bit and doing it enough can seem thin, but it makes a world of difference; learning to feel throughness is a long journey, because like anything with horses there are different requirements at certain stages of training, which are distinct for each horse, naturally, and depend on many things, including whether the moon is in Scorpio or Virgo. But here’s a starter for ten; you can tell when the horse is through enough because the line of top-line muscle runs in a continuous tube all the way into the shoulder. It shouldn’t disappear before the wither, or get thinner at any point. There is also a distinctly different feeling about the horse’s back when it’s properly through; the best way I can describe it is like sitting on a rising tide that lifts up your inside seat bone (or outside, if you’re on the outside aids). After working on this for a few minutes, and adding in lateral steps, Rois felt rather glorious and I was very pleased with myself. For now.

While all this was happening, Andrew was laying out the below exercise:

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The square is only as wide as one pole, and you can imagine what happened the first time I tried to walk Rois through it. Clunk. Curse. Clunk. Curse. Clunk. When he stopped laughing, Andrew explained that I needed a balance of three things; number one was a balance between the slow and the go. If I had my way I’d spend my life in school trot, but apparently that’s not how it works, and in order for me to be really able to place the horse I needed to have the walk more active but also under my seat. I got this by using a vertical half halt accompanied by feather light touches of the whip on his croup – I used my legs to guide his body and keep him straight.

It surprised me that the walk I needed, once I had myself organised, wasn’t particularly slow. Number two was an accurate turning aid. I say this to people all the time and one can’t hear it enough; your shoulders have to go where you want your horse’s shoulders to go. This will mean that the outside hand is slightly over the neck, if the figure is small. The inside seat bone is the anchor. The outside leg is in canter position. The third thing was a more elevated hand position – there were many points to the exercise but one of them was to help the horse to engage the hind leg and take more weight behind, which results in a higher, open neck carriage. Therefore the hands have to heighten accordingly. Remember the image of the Number Six Stretch – the horse is like a number 6 on its side: the barrel of the six is the hind end and the tail of the 6 is the horse’s back and neck. The arching out of the neck remains the same, but as the hind end loads and tucks more, the height of the neck is raised. The neck does not shorten in collection; it is elevated.

But I digress; you were watching me wobble and cuss my way through a pole exercise. Well you’ll be glad to know that having implemented the above corrections, it was going really well, even in spite of Andrew’s dastardly attempt at narrowing the poles. Ha. Then naturally it was time to change the rein. Shoot. Clunk. After some more giggling we got it right on that rein as well, and then the really interesting part began; Andrew said “ok, now take him out onto the circle and just tell me what you notice”. What I noticed, dear reader, was that outside of the square the horse wobbled left and right like a drunk person on Maidstone high street. This was, of course, my fault. The mistake I made was leaving the poles behind mentally was well as physically. In order to be able to properly place the horse, I, you, all of us, have to ride as if we are aiming between two poles all the time. All the time. I rode back into the square and got myself together before venturing out into the wild expanse of the rest of the arena – but this time, I didn’t allow my riding to change. Aha, now we were cooking with gas. Rois stayed immaculately through, but there was also no fall at all. We were pinpoint accurate every stride (apart from the bit at B where I lost it but we won’t talk about that).

The next challenge was to ride through the square and then come out and do shoulder in up the three quarter line. And I achieved some of the best shoulder-in I’ve ever ridden, because the square forced me to prepare properly. I now always carry that square in my mind.

This pleased Andrew, and so naturally he made everything more difficult. He told me to step into the middle of the square, and then shut me in:

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We were trapped. The inside of four jump poles is a pretty small circle, let me tell you, and the first couple of rotations passed in a blur of screaming abs and gritted teeth. But sure enough Rois and I organised ourselves, and bit at a time the space started to feel bigger, until actually it was very comfortable. The key was the half halt. This didn’t necessarily mean slowing down – remember that the half halt is a pause in the middle of a stride, not necessarily a slowing down of that stride – but just giving us the time it took to organise and keep our ducks in a row. Then Andrew told me to introduce quarters in, and we had the humble beginnings of a walk pirouette. We didn’t know ourselves.

After this came some trot, which was so through and swinging and suspended that I briefly future predicted to Tokyo 2020, but that wasn’t really the point of this lesson. The point of the lesson was that we, the rider, have to take responsibility for where we place the horse. To quote Andrew, horses don’t fall, they are pushed. Unless one can say where the inside fore will land every stride, then one doesn’t have everything they need. And there is always another level of throughness. And although slowing down is often appropriate at the start of the training, it doesn’t pay to stay there too long. Slow work is a land which we must all travel through before we arrive at the shores of engagement, and there the sun rises.

 

The Parade

So I have a little confession to make – last week I wrote an article that referenced The Parade a lot, and I could have sworn up and down that I had already written about this particular technique. I would have been wrong. So, I’m very sorry about that, and here’s an article to clear up any confusion. Note – The Parade is the name that Andrew has given to this particular technique, but it has existed in classical horsemanship for centuries.

Andrew Speaks:

It’s important to understand that the Parade is not a rein technique; it is a half halt that andrew-murphyuses a particular rein position. The rein is actually the icing on the cake – as with all half halts that are done well, the seat and leg are the first to act. The rider uses a vertical pressure with the seat, which raises the horse’s back by lowering the haunches, then the inside leg activates the hind legs. The hand then lifts the bit into the corner of the horse’s mouth, away from the action on the bars. This causes a flexion in the poll and relaxation in the jaw. To be clear, this isn’t about a backwards motion of the hand at all, but a vertical rising which allows the horse to connect in a different way. When the horse releases to the half halt the hand returns to its normal position with a forward and round action to bring the bit softly back into place.

Traditionally the rider raises the inside hand, because the outside rein is needed to stabilise, but there are some instances when raising both hands is appropriate, for instance, when riding in a straight line. Where the rider is aiding laterally, then the raised inside hand is the most correct. I can’t stress enough that this technique is about helping the horse to take more weight on its hind legs than it is about the position of the horse’s neck, which is merely a symptom of everything else being correct. It is a way of changing the horse’s balance and ensuring that the horse stays supple through the poll.

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The Lessons

This weekend has been all about The Parade at Andrew Murphy Dressage. It’s an amazingly useful technique as it addresses many of the things that make riding complicated – balance, straightness and throughness. It helps the horse to take more weight behind, which allows the back to come up, instantly creating paces which are more sittable; it straightens the horse, develops the rider’s coordination, and is a fantastic aid to throughness. Also, because it’s a very mild aid, you can do it as often as you need or want to, and your horse will love you for it. Although it can look a little bit dramatic, when done correctly it is a very mild and unobtrusive aid – I find that horses respond to it very well, and even become almost psychically attuned to it, so that eventually the tiniest movement from the rider will produce the desired effect. Andrew has given an explanation of the sequence above, but I’ll do so again from my considerably less finessed perspective.

  • Sit sit sit. The seat has to press down vertically. This can be with or without a lean back, depending on what the horse needs. I found that I always used it with a lean back until this weekend, as I found it easier to use my seat effectively in this position. If you use the half halt with a lean back then make sure to sit up again afterwards so that the lean back doesn’t become your new normal. Please note that the lean back is not used to pull back against the horse, but for the rider to learn how to use the seat vertically.
  • The engagement. It’s no good raising the back if you don’t send the movement through the horse – the hind leg has to engage, otherwise you’ll get a horse which ends up buried and behind the vertical. This doesn’t mean rushing around; you can still go slowly and have enough engagement.
  • Raise the inside hand. DO NOT PULL THE HAND BACK. It is literally a lift upwards vertically. You can do this with a bent or a straight arm. I like to use a bent arm most of the time, although I’m probably a bit too conservative as a rider, but the straight arm is great if the horse is really disconnected. Once the horse connects then you can either release the hand by moving it in a) an outwards and down fashion (The Clock Face Parade) or b) in a forwards and down motion. The point is to keep the connection and not drop the horse, and to return the bit position to normal without jolting or disturbing him.

I’ve been using The Parade for a while now, but even so this weekend contained a lot of lessons for me, and ended up being a lot about my position as well. From previous articles and pictures you will observe that my lower leg is far too far forward, my lower back is too hollow, my shoulders are too rounded (and the right one is a bit of a maverick) and my elbows sit too far back. Not much to fix then. This is one of the great things about The Parade – it does amazing things for the rider too, because of the coordination that it requires.

 

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The more subtle bent arm Parade. I’m getting this wrong because the inside hand is too far back, but you can roughly see the position. Andrew was in the middle of the circle which is why the horse looks weird.
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Demonstrating the straight arm Parade at halt. Echo looks bemused.

Day One

For the first lesson we used Rois, a fairly new Equinerd. Rois is 18, completely gorgeous and reliable, with a shy and retiring character and a dislike of turning right. His dislike of turning right is of course down to balance and straightness (or the lack thereof) and so he’s an ideal candidate for The Parade. We started off by addressing my position; Andrew had me adopt light seat while he held a whip along my back (not as kinky as it sounds) in order to give me a reference point for how straight my lower back should be. I then had to sit down while keeping my pelvis tucked underneath, which took a couple of tries. I could really feel a different once I was in the correct line-up, and this helped me to use my seat vertically without having to lean back.

Rois is quite long with a straight hind leg, so he needs a bit of help to step under. In order to help him to use himself we didn’t let him carry his neck too low initially. Stretching is great, don’t get me wrong, but actually sometimes the result is that the horse drops the head and disconnects the hind end, which is better than a lot of the alternatives, but still not exactly the point. With Rois we used a high Parade in conjunction with a shoulder in position on the circle. This allowed him to connect on the inside without losing his balance. As soon as I released the Parade I started another one, so he was in a constant cycle of balance and reward. This resulted in a very consistent and relaxed position – he didn’t struggle to maintain himself on the circle and after about 5 minutes he was 100% through. We then changed direction onto the dreaded right rein, which was easier than normal, but we still got the continental drift to the outside and over exaggerated neck bend. Now here’s something interesting; Andrew told me to Parade again immediately, and I got all snidey, because how would that work when the horse was bending too much to the inside? The man was clearly demented. Andrew explained that if I kept a low outside hand and Paraded as usual with my inside hand, then this would straighten the horse as well. And it did. The combination of supportive outside aiding and the inside Parade straightened Rois’ neck within one circle, and all of a sudden he could circle without pinning his ears back or disengaging. He became a brand new horse. Andrew was kind to me and wasn’t smug at all. The man is clearly a genius.

We did another Reverse Turn with a Parade as I resolved the bend to the inside, and then another amazing thing happened – the horse began to be able to stretch without disengaging, because I was able to keep him through and on his hocks. The great thing about the Parade is that because it’s a half halt, things get better as soon as you do one. And I mess things up a lot, so frankly it’s been a God send. Rois’ trot began to take on a more passage-y feel, even with the neck relatively low, and I  watched his top line muscle inflate before my eyes. Once thing that is really useful is to combine the Reverse Turn and the Parade; you keep the Parade going with what was the old inside hand, until you are ready to change the bend, at which point you swap the Parade over to the new inside hand. I find that this helps me to keep everything really consistent. The result of the lesson was a horse that was balanced, through, and could turn right anytime, anywhere. Hurrah.

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Lower back too hollow
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Lower back looking more like it

 

Day Two – Return of the Fjord

I’ve got a bit of a pash going on for this horse – I’m sure you can see why. As I mentioned last time, Echo is small in a huge way (you’ve got to see the shoulders to truly appreciate them) and I was excited to work with him again. We left out the laterals this time, and started the same way as with Rois, with a whip up my back (still not kinky) making sure that I could go from the lean back to sitting upright without letting my lower back hollow, which took a few goes. My hips don’t scream anymore by my abs still do.

Once again I was told off for my elbows go too far back – because I’ve got a little body I have to carry my elbows a little further forward so that they can actually nestle into my side. Just to recap – Echo tends to barrel towards the outside track and can ‘nap’ (I don’t like this word because it implies that napping is a behavioural defect whereas actually it’s about a lack of balance) so the Parade is really helpful in helping him to balance and straighten. We started off in the walk with a straight arm parade. This required a lot of concentration for me because for some reason when my arm is straight I’m more likely to want to pull back, which is an absolute no no. Echo told me off for this by shaking his head, making Andrew laugh and saving him a job, so I soon learned not to do it.

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We didn’t get a moving picture of the straight arm Parade, but you get the idea

Unlike Rois, Echo immediately lowered his head a lot in response to the Parade, which in his case is absolutely brilliant, as he needs the neck to come out of the wither more. I then wasn’t quick enough to repeat the half halt, so I got a huge lurch to the outside and a sudden and unwelcome increase in speed. Andrew told me to treat the Parade as a preventative rather than a cure, and to do it before anything had gone wrong. We fell into a cycle of Parade, yield, repeat (follow with Reverse Turn for best results 😉 ) with me varying my seat from a lean back position to being more upright. During this session I found it easier to use my seat vertically without the lean back, and in some pictures my lower leg is in the correct position, which is cause for celebration in itself. Echo could then maintain a completely consistent rhythm, with all suggestions of rushing being a distant memory. His back was soft and supple, hind legs engaged.

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Embracing the stretch

Echo is still at a stage when he tends to push into the trot rather than lift – for this I found it beneficial to Parade with both hands whilst asking for trot. Once he was in trot I brought him back to walk and asked again, until he got the idea of stepping underneath rather than propelling forwards. Then I was able to stretch him forwards without any loss of balance or quality, and we had the makings of  self carriage.

Important lessons:

  • The lean back is a great tool but don’t let it become Business As Usual, you have to sit up again
  • Parade pre-emptively rather than reactively
  • Take time to correct your position, it’s a great investment
  • The Parade is a vertical lift, don’t allow yourself to pull back
  • Use the correct frame for the occasion – the horse doesn’t have to start low and end high. Do what is best for the situation you’re in
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Not relevant, purely here so we can appreciate how pretty he is

 

 

Case Study 1 – The Fjord Horse

Why hello there! We’re sorry we’ve been away for so long – we’ll try not to do it again.

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Age – 6

Breed – Norwegian Fjord Horse

Level – Fairly novice. Walk and trot established, competing at Intro.

Temperament – laid back but up for a laugh. Very clever.

 

Breed profile

Andrew and I are both firmly pro-Fjord. They are versatile, tough, personable, and fully capable of training up the levels. Due to their physique they face a couple of challenges which other horses might not – they have huge heads on big necks which are welded on to powerful shoulders and wide, short backs. They are incredibly strong, but often quite weak in other ways as well – it’s hard to stay on your haunches when your front end weighs the same as a small elephant. This can often lead to behaviour which gets classified as napping (it isn’t, just a coping mechanism) and they can have choppy movement and be heavy in front if they don’t have the right help. However if they do have the right help then they are truly fantastic little horses, and the content covered in this lesson will be helpful for anyone school a native breed, anything croup high, or a horse that ‘naps’, or a young or green horse.

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The Reverse Turn

The Warm Up

Andrew hasn’t trained Echo before, and I had ridden him for a total of 7 minutes before today. He is naturally very forward, which I’m suspicious of in horses which are not through and engaged, and it wasn’t long after I started to put him together that the ‘nap’ appeared, in this case manifesting as a fairly dramatic lurch towards the track, coupled with speeding up. To put Echo on the aids in the first part of the lesson we used a parade with the inside hand, which is great for mobilising horses that are thick at the throat, and a low outside hand in order to help him to stay straight. I was leaning back in order to mobilise Echo’s back and to allow me to half halt effectively. The half halt was vital, and had to be used virtually every other stride to help him stay engaged and on his haunches. Andrew told me to combine the parade with an inside leg pump to help him

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I am starting to release the parade here, so the hand isn’t as high as it can be, but you can see the effect. Note – the horse is a little BTV; this was corrected once the parade was finished.

connect onto the inside rein and step under with the inside hind, and to keep the horse in a shoulder in leg yield position. This is where the shoulder comes in on the circle and the inside hind crosses over. This immediately straightens and uprights the horse, and is really good for getting your leg on early doors. A reverse turn revealed that he is weaker on the right rein, and the lurch to the outside became more pronounced if I wasn’t completely bang on with my timing. Which I wasn’t. Often. After about ten minutes this sequence of movements produced a horse which was through, much straighter, available and flexible. He began to be able to follow the rein down and accept a stretch. It was really important to keep a consistent inside shoulder position – on the right rein he wanted to carry me in left position, and this is something I find with lots of horses. In this situation the rider has to have the discipline to stay in right position no matter how much they want to ‘go with’ the horse. So – outside hand low; inside hand parade with a flutter forward motion when the horse connects; inside leg pumps in time with the parade; leg yield shoulder-in position; lean back, reverse turn, wash, rinse, repeat.

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Pivot!

A quick note before we start – it is our intention to start using pictures again. We’ve had a chat about it and decided that if trolls can’t handle pictures of horses in real life training situations then it’s up to them to get a life and not up to us to stop publishing. It takes a lot of pictures to find a perfect one, and sometimes a nose is a little behind the vertical, a hind leg is a little out behind, and the poll is often anywhere but the highest point. To them we say – get over it.

However, we were down on manpower today and the weather was frankly shocking, so there aren’t any pictures today. Next time!

For today’s lesson I was once again partnered up with my long time buddy Otis. For those who are new here, Otis is an ex racehorse – you’ll find out more about him in previous posts – and it’s a shame we didn’t have a picture from today because he’s come on an awful lot. The lesson began with a hysterical dash up the long side on account of a digger making a loud noise further down the yard, so I was fairly chuffed when he settled into a rather marvellous walk a few minutes later.

The exercise we started with involved a fairly small reverse turn – reminder, this is where you change the rein and maintain a counter bend – which I then had to turn into a pivot, also called a turn on the forehand. Imagine you are riding on the left rein. You are in the middle of the arena, on the centre line. You begin to turn away to the right, but you maintain left positioning with your body and use your left leg so that as your horse turns he stays flexed to the outside. At this point you feel him get more upright through the shoulder, and the neck deepens as the back comes up. This is the moment that you change to inside positioning on the right rein, picking up the horse with your right leg so that you keep the throughness. Now you apply a half halt to keep the horse on the spot, and use your right leg to ride a pivot around the forehand. Then walk on, ride another reverse turn, and turn that into another pivot. Wash, rinse, repeat.

What I was really pleased with in this part of the lesson was how relaxed and functional Otis was during the lateral work. As you know, historically he was quite angsty about lateral work on account of being croup high and having a very straight hind leg. The fluid nature of the sequence meant that he stayed relaxed and engaged, as the each part of the exercise doesn’t take very long. He stepped under and across evenly and consistently, which produced a lovely round but open frame. His back, which can be a bit tight, also felt really accessible and supple.

After one particularly good pivot, Andrew asked me to leg yield out on the circle. Otis promptly sailed away from my inside leg and I swelled with pride.

“No”, said Andrew. “You can’t let him fall through the shoulder.”

I had a bit of a scowl as I didn’t like my leg yield being criticised, but I held my tongue as Andrew has this way of being right about things. He said something important –

“When you do a movement like this, really ask yourself about whether the hind leg is moving first. If it isn’t, the horse is probably falling.”

He made me repeat the pivot, and then leg yield literally one step at a time. For the first two strides Otis stayed completely underneath me, but on the third stride there was this almighty lurch to the outside.

“See?” Said Andrew.

I did see. I carried on with the tiny, one step at a time leg yield. The trick was to keep a very vertical feel with my seat, an almost constant half halt, whilst using enough inside leg to move sideways but also enough outside leg to stop the horse falling. Bit by bit I was able to increase the amount of movement so that we had a lovely ground covering leg yield which also stayed completely under my seat. By this point Otis was completely in self carriage and I could feel the contact in my elbows rather than in my hands. We changed the rein and whoa, the horse shot out through the shoulder like greased lightening. I realised that this is probably how I’ve always let him go, only now I could feel it. So we started again – back to the pivot, line the horse up underneath, half halt the shoulder, and over we go.

By now the horse felt better than he has ever felt – completely through, nicely engaged, on the aids and in self carriage.

We went to the trot – spiral in with an inside leg pump to get the hind leg stepping through, spiralling out with a little lateral feel, and then do a reverse turn. This created a trot which was open but not fast with a lovely swinging back, and the same consistent self carriage.

Otis can struggle with the canter transition because it’s difficult for him to step under . Andrew’s solution to this was to use the reverse turn to help the canter. The moment that you change the bend is the ideal time to ask, because in this moment the hind leg is placed underneath the horse. This helped Otis to lift rather than push – therefore he was able to stay through and didn’t fall onto the forehand. The resulting canter was absolutely knockout, which caused me to start squeaking excitedly.

The moral of the story – always ask yourself if the horse is falling through the shoulder. If it is, remember that horse’s don’t fall, they are pushed. Luckily it’s easily rectifiable – all you need is twenty five minutes and the exercises above.

Happy training!

A Fond Farewell To The TTT

When I was 19 years old (clue – not yesterday), on a cold but bright September morning, myself and three others piled into Caroline Douglas’ 4×4 and began the drive to the TTT.

I’d heard a lot about the seemingly mystical farm, having frequently admired Caroline’s eventing pictures, taken at the now sadly gone Shamley Green cross country course, and felt a great sense of anticipation at seeing Charles teach. I was bound to be well received – I was, after all, the best rider in the world.

Ten hours later I trudged back to the car, clutching a membership pack. I hardly spoke all the way home. Once back at the yard I cried into my horse’s mane, mixing snotty ‘I’m sorrys’ with remorseful wailing, until he got fed up with me and went and stood at the back of his box. I was, after all, the worst rider in the world.

I went ‘on my feet’ to the Trust as often as I could after that, until Caroline had retrained me enough that I wouldn’t be disgraced at an SIC. Since then there have been many SICs and International Clinics, on a carousel of horses provided by many excellent friends. I met my now husband and several life-long partners in crime. I’ve introduced people just as I was introduced. I’ve watched classical dressage go from something that was just for us lucky few, packed under the heat lights in the indoor at East Whipley, to something that is beginning to really challenge modern methods.

Then in November the news came out that we would have to say goodbye to the TTT. That was it. The final SIC would take place at the end of November, and after the arena doors closed after the last horse at the last clinic in December, there would be no more.

What will we miss? Everything. We’ll miss Charles ritually breaking the microphone. We’ll miss Stephen’s jokes, Tucker’s huge smile, William falling over under a huge sack of carrots at the raffle. Andrew’s hilarious introductions, Ali’s warm welcome. We’ll miss the cobbled yard, the warm up arena on a cold morning, the clunk of the arena doors behind us. The bunk beds in the club house, from underneath which I was once pulled, screaming, in the grip of a nightmare.

We’ll miss the newsletter, the thrill of the indicative booking form, the bigger thrill of the confirmation letter. Hell, we’ll even miss that £1 a go shower.

But amidst the sadness, there has to be hope. Those of us lucky enough to learn from Andrew, Ali, Charles and Arthur need to take the torch and run with it. We may have to work a little harder, travel a little further. We still have access to great resources – I may be biased, but if Andrew isn’t one of the best trainers around today then I’ll eat my hat – we just have to get organised. The TTT made us all bright lights in a big dark sky. All we have to do now is shine.

To the Sewell family, and everyone who made the TTT what it is – thank you. Thank you so very much.

The Charles Lessons

I know this site is dedicated to all things Andrew, but I figured that as it’s Charles de Kunffy we’re talking about, I could make an exception. The TTT don’t allow for publication of images taken there (trolls ruin everything. Everything.) so we are once again image free.

Lesson 1

After the lean back lesson with Andrew the previous weekend, I thought that I knew what Charles was going to say about Otis. After a week of what I can, without being a self-aggrandising knob, call revolutionary progress, I no longer had any idea what Charles was going to say.

We got there, the horse warmed up really well, and then it was time to go in. Otis wasn’t keen at first so I had to shovel a bit. This caused my toes to point outward slightly, and Charles told me to halt so that he could correct my position; by the time he came down from the box I’d corrected myself, so he went back up again. We didn’t spend long at the walk, and the only correction was that it wasn’t forward enough – a dropped ball from me, but so far so good.

We went to the trot, and the crookedness emerged fairly quickly. I’d be tempted to blame it on Otis being wary of the walls in this new arena, but I know that wouldn’t pass muster with any of you, and it certainly wouldn’t with Charles. It was also noted that Otis doesn’t track up with his left hind. Charles went on to state that the horse has a good topline and mobility over his back (silent cheering) but that Charles has no idea why this is (silent crying).

He then told me to start with some leg yield in from the track and back out, which highlighted that Otis didn’t want to cross his left hind either. To remedy this we had to do shoulder-in on the centre line, which was good to the right, but to the left curled around my leg and ended up in a strange quarters-in type waddle. The answer to this, said Charles, was to alternate between shoulder-in and leg yield from the centre line back to the track, to help him cross the hind leg and straighten out his body. This did a significant amount of good, and we began to see the makings of a correct inside bend, and a few strides at a time of a very proper shoulder-in.

Then I heard those fateful words:

“Go to the wall, and halt at A.”

You who were there know what’s coming next. I had to give away the outside rein until Otis chewed down to the inside.

“Now depart the canter.’

Bless the horse. To both our surprise (Otis’ and mine, Charles is clairvoyant) we made it. I don’t think Charles appreciated my yelp of glee, but that’s tough. He told me to keep my inside hand low, and to lean back, which produced a through if still rather speedy horse, although Charles made no bones about this, presumably knowing when to pick his battles. We repeated this on both reins, and despite several wrong strike offs, the canter got steadily slower and more rhythmical. Either I was getting better or the horse was shattered. I’m choosing to believe the former.

Charles wasn’t done. It was back to the shoulder-in, but this time on a 10m circle, following by another leg yield, then back on the circle. Wash, rinse, repeat, until finally a perfect shoulder-in appeared. Now, the shoulder-in wasn’t really the point. the point was that I (ok, Charles) had managed to solve the horse’s crookedness and make him functional, so that he was able to do shoulder-in and all the other lovely things. We went back to the canter, and it was better again, so we didn’t hang around in it, finishing off with some lengthened trot strides. Lesson one was concluded; I was puce, but I had a straight, functional horse who could track up, and even if Charles wasn’t about to credit me with his swinging back, I was pleased as punch.

Lesson 2

On the second day I was the first in, so I thought I’d be clever and warm up inside. To my dismay Charles was already sitting in attendance, so my 15 minutes of quiet warm up turned into 15 minutes of Charles-led warm up (which is better by far, but not restful).

We spent longer in the walk at the beginning, for which Otis and myself were very grateful, and began with the same exercise of leg yield in from the track and back out. The bend was markedly better already, and although he didn’t want to completely cross at first, he was easier to maneouvre. Charles then asked for rising trot with lots of changes of direction – it was easier to change the bend than yesterday and the throughness was also very reliable, with not a trademark head toss in sight. We then went back to the shoulder-in; which, to my dismay, didn’t happen. Not a whiff of it. This time I was aware of the quaters curling around my left leg, but I have to say it was fairly heartbreaking after the previous day’s hard work.

Charles had another solution. We came back to the walk, and I had to do a turn around the forehand, which Charles calls a pivot. Otis reacted as though I’d suggested a hack down to the horse meat factory, and I got told off for moving my hands. After a couple of bizarre looking rotations we managed to settle into the pivot, and got some good crossing behind, so we went back to the trot and tried the shoulder-in again. Still no good, so it was back to the turn around the forehand. This time the shoulder-in was better, but still not quite up to snuff, so we had to do the turn around the pivot again. The third time really is the charm, because the next time we tried the shoulder-in, we nailed it.

We repeated the shouler-in on both reins what felt like 375 times, but in reality was probably about six, before I was cordially invited to demonstrate the halt to canter. Otis struck off wrong a few times, and I got internally pissy at Charles because I felt defensive of Otis, who always does his best and never gets asked anything like this, but then realised that the point of doing it is to highlight the things that need fixing. It also helps to fix them, because when the rider lines the horse up correctly and asks correctly, the horse can canter from halt just fine. Sorry Charles, I thought as Otis floated away up the long side after an excellent transition.

It was canter plie time. For those who are new to all this mumbo jumbo, a canter plie is a leg yield in canter from the three quarter line or centre line to the track. It doesn’t get called a leg yield because the horse can’t cross the hind legs in canter. It straightens the horse and acts as a natural half halt, making the strides more suspended and helps the horse to move more through the back. We did the plies in both directions, and everything was fairly heavenly by now. Then it was back to trot, and another shoulder-in each way to prove that I wasn’t fluking it, before the important final phase of amplifying the gaits.

It turns out that Otis’ medium trot is pretty fantastic. We threw in a couple more canters with the horse nearly on the buckle, followed by another stupendously free moving trot, and called it a day.

Charles is a phenomenal trainer. However I also have to credit Otis’ excellent mind and capacity for the work for the result that we got. Charles commented on the horse’s good temperament and brain almost the moment he walked into the arena. It was a very proud weekend – thanks to all those who made it possible.

 

Next time, on Equinerds…

A transcript of Andrew talking through his methodology live whilst schooling a horse. There may even be pictures!

Fundamentals

Hi all,

Apologies for the lack of pictures in this post – we’re fresh out of up to date ones, and the horses, particularly Otis, have all come a long way since the last lot were taken, so you’ll have to use your imaginations for now. Also last time I used pictures I got trolled for them so maybe it’s best avoided anyway.

On with the show;

This is the first part of a two part mini series that primarily concerns itself with two lessons that I had with Charles de Kunffy, and the week of prep beforehand, but is actually about so much more than that. At its core it’s about an important and brutal lesson that I’ve learned about paying attention to the fundamentals, and how quickly paying attention to those fundamentals can change your horse. It’s also about creative riding, using the arena to your best advantage, and abs of steel.

Most of you will be familiar with Otis by now, but for those who aren’t he’s a 16hh ex-racehorse, who just so happens to have taught me an awful lot in the time I’ve known him. In the early days he hated the aids, struggled to bend his hocks at all, had a head that was on at a 45 degree angle, and a back that never moved. It’s taken me a long time to get him where he is, mainly because of a lack of knowledge and experience, but also because I don’t have access to him all the time. He belongs to my friend Miranda, who is a lovely rider, and takes him off for all sorts of fun things, including galloping around sponsored rides, jumping and showing classes, and quite right too. I teach Miranda on him once a fortnight, and ride him once a week. Remember this point because it’ll come up again later – Otis is an odd shape. He’s croup high, a little cow hocked and has these little dips under his saddle where he never fully used his back.

By dint of accident and injury, loan horses going back, etc, by the time it came to select a horse to take to Charles, Otis was first in line to the throne. That meant an Andrew lesson beforehand, and I have to say I was feeling the pressure a bit. I warmed him up as usual and it was a bit all over the place; I was having trouble getting him to bend left, and everything was far too fast. I started to wonder what on earth I had gotten us into, booking lessons with Charles. Andrew, who has the wonderful quality of being able to state the obvious without being the least bit patronising said;

“You need to get into the horse’s back more.”

If you’ve seen Andrew teach before then you are familiar with the lean back, and that’s exactly where I found myself. As well as leaning back I had to sit into my inside seat bone, and use my inside leg to lift Otis’ ribcage. At the same time I was told to keep my outside rein flush along his neck, and open my inside rein. This alone made a huge difference to how the horse felt – there was some initial squirming, and I had to be very disciplined about holding my position – but after a few minutes and a couple of rein changes he was considerably softer, more available, and relaxed.

What hadn’t totally improved yet was the bend and reliability of the thoroughness – we were still dealing with the kink to the outside on the left rein, and the odd random head toss. So, with abs a-screamin’, I listened as Andrew explained the next stage. He described something called a satellite circle; a small circle used in conjunction with the lean back, which helps the rider to use the inside leg and seat more effectively, therefore helping to align the horse under the rider. The circle needs to be as small as possible whilst keeping the horse in balance, so it’s important to listen to your steed when you do this. Accentuate the lean back, rock more into the inside seat bone, and pump more actively with the inside leg. I must stress, this is not about being stroppy with the horse or dragging it around in tiny circles. This is about helping the horse using the natural dynamics of school figures.

By doing this I was able to control the bend more and more with my seat, which turned it into genuine bend rather than a turned neck. I was also able to aid more subtly as I went on, and with the help of reverse turns the throughness and positioning became a lot more solid (in a good way) and the head tossing and inconsistencies vanished.

At this point we were still walking, but I could obviously feel the benefits as I naturally wanted to sit upright again. Otis was in a correct inside position rather than bulging out around my inside leg in a slightly quarters in way, which previously has been his want, and was completely quiet and settled in the rein. His back felt great, soft and supporting at the same time. I gave Andrew a smug little smile and went to trot.

“I’d lean back again if I were you,” he said mildly halfway through the transition, and I did – Just. In. Time.

There was a moment in which I nearly lost everything, but the lean back saved me. I kept Otis through-ish, but we shot off awfully fast, so as well as the leaning back I also had some vigorous half halting to do, proving that my seat can actually multi-task. By leaning back I felt like I could really feel where the horse was, which allowed me to plan ahead. Needless to say, our first couple of satellite circles were like turning the Queen Mary. But it got better, and soon I was able to lean back less and less, although I quickly shot back at the first sign of trouble.

An exploratory canter showed how much better everything had become, because it was the first time I managed to get him through in canter without being in light seat. We finished off with some lengthened strides in trot, and I found that if the throughness started to feel slightly vulnerable, I could open my inside hand and pump with my inside leg to get it back again. I also found it useful to slow down, do another satellite circle, and then push the trot on again once I was back on the straight.

The real ‘wow’ moment came when I untacked – those hollows under the saddle had inflated considerably. After another ride they were even more diminished and we had to book an emergency pre-Charles saddle check. I rode him twice more like this before the clinic, and after the last ride they had gone completely. Fancy that.

 

Next time, on Equinerds:

THE CHARLES LESSONS!