When I’m there, he’s there

Within the last month or so, I feel like I’ve finally started to really, truly, legitimately have moments in which I’m riding a connected horse, back to front, in good balance – for the first time, ever. While still fleeting, I can recreate these moments fairly consistently on my own, without Christy micromanaging my every move which is what it took to get me to this point.

Well, that and a lot of riding – five to six days a week, for four years.  Along the way, I also read a variety of books, educated myself going to clinics and shows, and (most importantly) am getting myself into better, stronger physical shape.   Despite these efforts, I am still schooling training level, meaning that I’m probably lacking in the natural talent department (though Christy does note that I’ve started over three times, twice with horses that were very green to dressage, so I guess I feel marginally better.)

That said, I have progressed from simply godawful (no steering, no seat and no clue) to being able to put together a correct Intro level test, and over the last year (with Maddie) starting to delve into some more interesting things, like trot lengthenings and leg yields. I’ve also developed better feel, timing and a certain degree of instinctive responsiveness.

However, that work on Maddie – despite the fact it represents what was technically my most “advanced” work – pales in comparison to the awakening I’ve had over the last month.  And after attending the Dressage Through the Levels symposium with Steffen Peters and Janet Foy this weekend, I think I can finally elucidate what I’ve experienced.

Simply put, generating correct gaits and (at my level at least) movements is easy – dead easy – when the rider is the correct, balanced position, and the horse is connected.

Mind you, getting to that point of correct balance is a bitch, at least for me.  But during those fleeting moments when I’ve been properly aligned, I’ve felt some amazing things.  I’ve felt Derby’s walk transform from a pokey shuffle into a fluid, rolling, swingy walk with overstep.  It feels unlike any walk I experienced on Jag or Mads, and Maddie was a much fancier horse.  I’ve felt him pushing from his hind, over his back, and into my hands at the trot, and I’ve felt that trot come uphill.  I’ve had the odd lovely, quiet, prompt, balanced canter depart, and a couple days ago I felt his back come up when we were cantering, and almost fell off from surprise.  I’ve done a leg yield that felt like floating, with the horse moving away from a quiet aid.

When I’m in that sweet spot, I don’t have to even think about muscling the horse into a movement.  I don’t need to kick kick kick to get the work done – I can whisper, and he hears me. When I’m there, he’s there.   Once I’m there, it’s easy.

When I’m not there, it’s hard.  I struggle to keep the horse going and bending, and invariably, as I’m trying to muscle him into one thing, something else goes wrong – a haunch drifts in, a shoulder pops out.  I’m getting better at recognizing those moments and responding correctly by fixing what’s wrong with me, rather than trying to correct the horse.  Because when I’m out of whack, I can’t blame the horse when impulsion slows or a haunch drifts.  What he does is in response to the ride I’m giving him at the moment.

At the Foy/Peters symposium, the second day started with a session on rider biomechanics. It wasn’t quite what I expected, but was marvelously illustrative nonetheless.  Two lovely riders on lovely, well trained horses were the “victims” for this session.  I say ‘victims’ because Janet Foy instructed the riders to adopt a variety of poor postures, enabling us to see the effect unsteady hands or uneven weights in the stirrups or posting with all your weight on your toes had on their horses.   She emphasized the point that in most cases, the problem with the movement in the test was the direct result of a rider inadequacy – not the willful behavior of the horse.

So now I’m doubly aware of those easy moments that signal I’ve found the sweet spot. Challenge is to figure out how to live there, not visit infrequently.

George Morris schooling grand prix …. dressage


I consider the George Morris clinic I audited last fall to be one my top 5 equestrian experiences.  He is an amazing horseman, period.

His emphasis on the importance of correct fundamentals -correct bend, working the horse over its back, suppling and use of the outside rein – also made an impression on me.  Because in his sessions schooling high level jumpers, he talked about dressage a lot – directly and indirectly. Christy echos him when she says that dressage can improve any horse, and any rider.  So does Liz, when she says that she wouldn’t be able to have Cloud out on the trails if she didn’t have the tools she acquired learning dressage.

Dressage – with its foundation in the cavalries of yore, and with its application in the jumper ring and elsewhere today – is about pinpoint, precision control of every aspect of the horse and rider.  It’s about immediate response, and cultivating balance and power.

The video above, of George Morris having a fun ride on Catherine Haddad’s fantastic firecracker Winyamaro, is so fun to watch.  Obviously, George knows his dressage and is an extremely sensitive and tuned-in rider.  And Winyamaro is a fully fledged GP horse, and he’s a hot one, right up George’s alley.   Piaffe, passage and a line of 16 one-tempis are no problem for George.   I’d love to see him in a dressage ring! Who’s with me?

Catherine Haddad & Win hauling in a 74.8% in the Kur at last year’s World Cup:


George Morris suppling a horse (and doing quite a bit of basic dressage along the way)

Channeling Robert Dover (or trying to, at least)

I have nine pages of notes and hours of video from the weekend’s clinic with Robert Dover, hosted by Wyngate Equestrian, and I really will try to synthesize all that info and share it with you.  For now, I’ll stick to just a couple key things I took away from the experience.

First and foremost,  Dover focuses on the basics.  He tested almost every rider’s connection with their horse, and proceeded with the lesson based upon what he observed during the exercise, no matter what level the horse and rider were at.  One rider, who was mounted on one of the most fabulous horses in for the clinic (and that is really saying something, folks, there were truly some world-class animals there, including one that had been shortlisted for the Pan Am Games) that was purportedly schooling all the FEI work wound up working on getting the horse through and into the bridle honestly!  It was an astounding lesson, from the standpoint that someone at that level could have such fundamental weaknesses.  And this rider wasn’t alone.  Another GP rider had similar issues with connection, and a third rider who was competing at fourth spent most of her lesson working on bend.

It was fascinating watching Dover work with these three in particular, because I really wasn’t expecting to see people with issues to which I can really relate.  The difference in the riders from the beginning to the end of their lessons was amazing, and one rider must have done extra homework, because her ride the following day was truly extraordinary, drawing applause from the auditors, myself included.

In addition to his emphasis on the basics, Dover also emphasized perfection. “Walk perfectly,” he said dozens of times, going on to say that if your horse wasn’t through and on the aids at the walk, it wouldn’t be through and on the aids anywhere else.    He required riders to follow his instructions precisely, and had them repeat the movement when it wasn’t up to his standards.    As Christy noted in her first recap of the clinic, every rider rose to his challenge.  In our chat about the clinic afterwards, Christy and I both noted that the charge to expect more of you, and your horse, was one that we would be taking back to Silver Fern.

Finally, the last big take away for me was around forwardness and responsiveness.  I *know* that you need your horse to be forward and attentive, willing to respond instantly to the subtle aids that make well-ridden dressage so beautiful. Dover emphasized the fact that how we ride trains our horses, and essentially, we have to ride them like we want to ride, and require them to respond.

As I said, I have a lot more to share about the clinic, but now I need to talk about today.

Derby’s abscess seems to have healed nicely, but he’s been short on his right hind (the abscess was in the left.) I had the vet out, and while she did support putting him on Adequan and said he would need to have his hocks done at some point, the issues I’m seeing are more about weakness and tightness in his SI region. She prescribed a course of forward, correct work.  Which means that between what I learned from Robert Dover and what my vet says the horse needs, I need to make some changes.

It’s been two weeks since I really rode, so I did a short lesson to get back into the swing of things.  I told Christy to take no prisoners, and my formerly sweet trainer turned into a demanding taskmaster.  But that’s what we needed, and we had a good ride  – despite his reluctance to use his back end and step under himself, I was able to get him to do both, with constant coaching from Christy.

Because the correct work is now an absolute imperative, I’m taking lessons each night this week, and on Saturday, and will probably repeat the same next week.  I need to channel Robert Dover and get the perfect work Derby and I badly need.

Robert Dover is coming to town!


This coming weekend (October 15 & 16), Robert Dover will be giving a clinic at Wyngate Equestrian in Walworth, Wisconsin.  Wyngate is where I board Jag, and I am auditing both days.   I’m especially excited about Sunday, because Christy is riding in the clinic that day.

This will be my first big time dressage clinic.  I’ve seen a couple with local trainers, and they were informative.  And the George Morris clinic I audited last year was incredible – I learned a lot even though the focus (upper level jumpers) is not in the least bit germane to my riding and my goals.

Robert Dover represented the US in the Olympics six times, and in the World Cup seven times.  He’s also reputed to be an excellent clinician and teacher, and is probably the preeminent coach in North America.  This is simply an amazing, amazing opportunity.    And yes, I’ll be taking copious notes, which will end up right here.

If you are in the area, come join me at the clinic – here’s the information about auditing:


Photo courtesy of Wyngate Equestrian and Robert Dover.

George Morris: “Good enough” isn’t good enough.

George Morris clinic

George Morris suppling a horse

When a couple friends invited me to audit a George Morris clinic with them, the first thought that popped into my mind was this: “What would a dressage rider get out of auditing a George Morris clinic?”

What a stupid question that was.  Fact is, any rider can learn from George Morris.  Any.

While much of the clinic’s focus – upper level jumping – was far over my head and well out of my realm, I was struck at the emphasis GM put on the fundamentals – many of which are echoed by Christy during my dressage lessons.   Take the outside rein, for example.  My struggles with developing honest contact and using the outside rein to bend are well documented.  And I do – I really do – understand how it works.  But seeing the outside rein in action today was illuminating.

In one exercise, the riders had to jump an in-and-out, and then turn and go to a big oxer in four or five strides.  GM talked the group through how one walks a course and plots strategy.    In a jumpoff, saving one stride saves micro-seconds on the clock, and in most cases, would be preferable.  Horse after horse came through the course, and as they turned, it was easy for me to see which had been turned more correctly – bending into the outside rein – and which had turned because their heads were hauled around.  Horses that had executed a more tactful, well-organized turn were markedly better balanced, taking a true line to – and over – the jump.   GM asked all of the riders to halt almost immediately after the jump, as well – and those that were well balanced before and over the jump were able to halt with style and accuracy.  Many of  the others had to avail themselves of the arena wall to halt.  The key to executing that critical turn with grace? Proper bending into ye olde outside rein.   Importantly, however, GM stressed the importance of holding onto the outside rein and maintaining contact, even when traveling in a straight line.  “Straightness is the result of balance between the inside leg and outside rein, ” he told us.

GM addressing the group in the first clinic session

All throughout this exercise (and many others) GM repeated the “outside rein” mantra, while also reminding riders to close their fingers and take a feel on their horses’ mouths.  Elastic contact was another principle that was repeated throughout the day.  GM emphasized the importance of getting the horse on the bit – and of doing so correctly.  “Contact isn’t just pulling the rein.  It’s pushing.  Push first, then take rein and bend,” he said. “Push-take-bend.”    He went on to emphasize what dressage riders call “riding back to front” – generating push from the hind end, over the back, and through the reins to develop honest, forward and elastic contact. Elasticity of contact was also stressed.  “Softness comes from give, not from holding,” GM told the group.  Develop elastic contact by softening when the horse gives.  He encouraged all riders to soften their elbows, while keeping their fingers closed.

To help everyone get their horses onto the bit, GM started the sessions with suppling, stating that it’s important to supple the whole horse, not just the neck.  Riders rode shoulder-in, shoulder-out, haunches-in, haunches-out, counter canter and a variety of circles and serpentines to bring their horses onto the bit (while making correct use of the inside leg and outside rein.)  In the second session, he got on one of the horses and within minutes had the big jumper moving easily and what the dressage world would call “through” – fully connected to the bit and over the back. According to GM, “A horse bends from the ribcage. This new bending at the neck I see everywhere…I don’t know where this came from, but it’s WRONG!”

During the clinics, GM reminded riders often about pushing the horse to the bit with the legs, maintaining contact and bending into the outside rein, especially as the exercises got more demanding.  At the end of the last session I watched,  the riders were asked to jump a vertical that was set above 4″.  They had to gallop to it, and then, because it was set almost to the corner of the arena, they needed to immediately turn or stop.  GM was asking them to stop.  Now, all of these riders were using automatic releases – but GM still issued frequent reminders about maintaining feel to and over the jump, which was undoubtedly necessary if in order to maintain communication in order to make that halt so soon after galloping to and then clearing that big vertical.

On perfection
A few times during the clinics GM stopped to explain his insistence on perfection. “I’ve had great successin this business by being a perfectionist,” he told the group, repeating the old adage, “Perfect practice makes perfect.”   On the subject of practice, GM noted that the first time you do anything, it’s difficult.  Eventually it becomes easy. Then it becomes habit. Finally, it becomes beautiful.  In order to get there, he advocates a specific approach to training and practice: Explanation-Application-Correction-Practice.  The new skill is explained (and demonstrated if necessary.)  The rider gives it a try.  The trainer makes any necessary corrections.  The rider practices the skill correctly.

It’s clear that GM is an intensely competitive guy, even today.  Throughout the day, he lamented the watering down of courses, especially with respect to the controversial removal of liverpools from top-level events.   “That’s catering to spooky horses,” he snorted. “If you can’t jump a liverpool, you shouldn’t be there.  (He then made sure that every rider in his clinics could jump a liverpool, focusing specifically on educating horses on spooky jumps).

“Good enough” isn’t good enough, he stressed. “Getting through the day isn’t the objective.  The goal is quality.  Excellence counts.”


Updated: one of GM’s riders has a blog detailing her experience. Well done, Megan, it was fun watching you ride!  Here’s the link to her recap. http://thegmchronicles.blogspot.com/2010/11/chicago-clinic-is-wrap.html

A special shout-out to Thoroughbreds:

Most of the horses in the clinic were supremely fancy warmbloods.  However, the the two boldest jumpers in the later, more advanced clinic, were both Thoroughbreds.  They never as much as looked at a jump, clearing each with enthusiasm and answering every question asked of them. “Put your stick away,” he told both riders at certain points, as neither horse needed any reinforcement.  “I love Thoroughbreds,” GM said more than once.

George Morris schooling riders on how to educate horses to spooky jumps: