Friday, February 27, 2015

The Huge Benefit of a Consistent, Systematic Warm-Up

The competitions for 2015 have begun, and with quite a bang I must say! Just a quick recap of my results for this month:

6th Feb: 1st in Elementary 53 with 71% on Chad at Summerhouse

12th/13th Feb: Winter Regional Champs at Addington, Chad 6th in Elementary Open with 69.4%

19th Feb: Seb at Solihull got 73.7% in PSG and 69.7% in Inter 1 - his highest scores ever!

26th Feb: 1st and 2nd for Julius in the PYO class at West Wilts doing PSG and Inter 1 (his second ever), with 67.9% and 67.5%, again personal bests for him!

I really must admit I have never had such a good competition record, and putting all the hard work and hours of training aside, there is one thing I feel which has been absolutely fundamental to the success - a systematic and familiar warmup.

I have learnt from Emile that every time I ride Seb, I must start in exactly the same way. I have weekly lessons with him, but quite often I'll have to ride Seb without Emile there so he will tell me to always start how we do in the lessons. First quite steep leg-yielding in walk to get his joints and limbs moving, then easy forward trot around the edge of the arena, then trot leg-yields across the arena, some shoulder-in down the long sides, then canter leg-yields and shoulder-ins.

Seb is now 100% familiar with that routine and warmup, so when we do it he is confident, able to do the things that loosen his body up, and affiliates the routine with work-time, switching his brain on to me and starts to listen. When the warm up is finished and I have worked him through into both reins and reacting equally well off both legs, I can pick whatever movements I want to work on and he is ready for it. Often I will do canter half-passes, then to pirouettes or tempis, then some trot shoulder-in and half passes and finishing with medium/extended trots. Of course we don't do all of that every day though, sometimes only bits of it and sometimes we might cover all of it.

When I took Seb to Solihull Emile was able to stay and help me warm up which I was hugely grateful for, and he made sure I changed absolutely nothing - that I did exactly what I had done at home. It made a seriously huge difference. When Seb got a bit full of himself and opinionated (as he can be when competing), I strictly reinforced the exercise we were doing while warming up and he very quickly realised that we weren't doing anything different to every other day, and he went exactly like how he went at home. It was amazing.

Chad at Regionals - saved by the familiarity of
our warm-up!
The same result occurred with Chad at Regionals. I had been doing the same warm-up with Chad as I had been doing with Seb (except taking a little longer to get him unlocked and with a lot more leg-yielding) and planned to do that at Regionals too. I was running really late for my warm-up though because of traffic, so I didn't have long at all to get him set up for the test. I kept to my plan of doing what I did at home though, just being a bit more assertive to get the result quicker. Goodness I'm so glad I had that plan because it really did save me. Chad had never been to Addington before and was quite on edge and hardly listening to me, but as soon as I started my leg-yields and shoulder-ins it was almost like he said "ohh is this all we are doing here? This stuff again? Oh ok, I can do this" and he went like absolute magic.

The one horse I haven't quite managed to forge a consistent warm-up with is Julius, because he kind of changes how he feels every day. Some days he may just need loads of transitions, and the next he will need to do a lot of shoulder-in and travers. I really felt the disadvantage of not having my "go-to" warm-up when I competed him on the 26th, as he went a bit inside of himself and lost confidence from being in a different environment. I felt that if I had some exercises he knew so well and exactly in which order, he would have started to listen to me and get his confidence back quickly to start working properly for the test. Instead, I had to pull every single tool out of my box, swiftly chucking each one away as it proved unsuccessful. Eventually we managed to pull something together to create a couple of decent tests but I do feel we can do a lot better.

So my advice to those that go out competing and want to feel more confident in their warm-up and therefore through their test, is create a solid warm-up you can ride through every day and make sure your horse is 100% confident with it. Guaranteed when the outside factors like a different environment, other horses, nerves, time-pressures, etc. come in, you have a fix-all tool in your tool box that brings your horse back to you and the job at hand.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Key to a Locked Jaw

This week I've been focusing on a particular theme when riding. It has been helpful in itself to simplify things down to one key area, which was the relaxation of the horse's jaw. We know that the horses mouth should be relaxed and chomping/salivating, accepting the bit without tension. But when was the last time you really checked how relaxed his jaw and jowl is in response to your rein pressure? When you ask for flexion left or right, how quickly and easily does he react to that pressure down the rein? He should easily turn his head at the poll left or right, but if you have to pull harder to get him to respond, the bit pulls through the mouth too much and the whole neck has to bend just to get some sort of movement, he isn't truly relaxed in his jaw.

I was brought to this seemingly obvious, but difficult, realisation when I took Bertina (6 yrs old by Dancier) for a lesson with Emile (Faurie). She does have a difficult mouth, I never really knew why exactly but I knew she would always lock against me whenever I asked her something. I usually worked through it but without knowing exactly what the problem was. When I started my lesson with Emile, I thought she was nice and round and soft in the neck - a good start. However he immediately told me to halt, and her jaw locked and neck stiffened when I did. He knew it would too.

He explained to me that the softness doesn't come from the neck muscles as such, it starts with the mouth. He showed me that I could make her as deep as I wanted, but she would only come behind my contact (still with a locked jaw) and not be through. The key was to flex slightly in the halt, focusing on how she felt in the mouth, and massage the corners of her mouth (I've heard people say that a thousand times but admittedly only truly understood the meaning of it then!) until she gave and I could walk her forward into that soft, elastic contact that we all so desire.

That is the first step, achieving that contact in halt. The it can be moved on into walk, trot and finally canter. And what happens when the horse relaxes the jaw, is that they stop pulling or resisting the reins and balancing on the hand for support, and start to use their hindquarters to propel themselves forward in their own balance and therefore have self-carriage. It is essential that when the horse does give in the flexion/softening of the mouth, you push the horse forwards to create more energy for a better connection. And then, the elastic yet constant contact is needed for the horse to stay connected to the bridle, allowing the hind legs to push through into that soft mouth you've just created.

I feel like this is like rocket science to explain written down, but honestly it is quite simply all about the connection. The hindquarters are engaged and pushing the horse through over the back and into an elastic connection with the rein, completed with a soft, relaxed jaw that willingly receives positive pressure down the rein. The horse will then salivate and get a foamy mouth, which is either closed or quietly and inoffensively playing with the bit. Basically what happens when this connection isn't created, you will find that when you come with your leg it is received with tension in the mouth and a pulling/resisting horse, often with its mouth open.

Or, on the other side of the scale, when you come with your leg, you receive nothing in the hand and the horse ignores you resulting in what we call "the lazy horse". In my experience of training "lazy horses" and teaching riders who struggle to get their horses to go forward, all that is needed is some connection down the rein so the rider's leg aid can be received and answered. Too often riders throw their reins at their horse and kick, kick, kick, thinking that because they aren't pulling the horse is going to go forward. This is not the solution, and as strange as it feels for the rider to take up the rein and hold a contact on a horse that doesn't go anywhere, as soon as they start to communicate with the mouth and create relaxation, they are amazed at how freely the horse can swing forward without much leg, only by keeping that soft, communicative contact down the rein.

After this lesson with Emile when all of this stuff dawned on me, I applied it to the other horses and in particular Julius, one of the Small Tour horses. Good Lord did it make a difference with him! He has always had the weirdest contact ever, mainly because everything he knows is what I've taught him since I was 15 so theres plenty of wrong lessons he's had to learn. But just by releasing his jaw (trust me, it felt impossible for the first couple of days) he is now consistently starting out his session soft, through, not pulling or resisting, and we are banging out our movements like clockwork. Miracles can happen!

So readers, next time you ride your horse, just take a moment in halt to feel how he is in the mouth and jaw. You may be surprised... I certainly was!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Great Weekend Despite Disaster with the Lorry!

My weekend started with a disaster on Friday with my lorry. I was heading up to Emile's to pick up Seb to take home to ride him in different arena as a practice for a competition on Thursday - he can get spooky when he hasn't been out somewhere different for a while. As usual, I was in a rush to leave and jumped in the lorry without checking everything was close properly. The one time I forget to check just HAS to be the time that the loading ramp on the side wasn't locked in.

About 5-10 minutes into my journey I heard a bang. I looked around in all my mirrors but didn't pick up on what had happened until the fallen ramp which had been dragging along the road, had smacked into a telegraph pole as I drove past. The force took the ramp clean off and it flew into someones fence!

I was absolutely mortified, and even more embarrassed to have to drive a lorry with a big hole in its side with the destroyed ramp shoved in it. And now the lorry sits in its spot next to the barn with its damage right there for all to see. I have even had the builders make fun of me, yet no one seems terribly surprised that such an incident could happen to none other than myself! So now we are tracking down a temporary lorry to use for a competition this Friday and Regionals at Addington next week!

Thankfully, I had the most amazing Saturday to more than cheer me up. I had a ride-teach-ride-teach system going on, which I found was a lot of fun. I taught mostly new clients which is always exciting because everyone has a story behind their riding passion. Whether it's teaching an 8 year old to get her pony on the bit for the first time, or for someone to feel just a few strides of a movement where they can't help but say "wow" because they got a good feeling, it is the most rewarding thing I've ever experienced. I now can hardly believe I was so afraid of teaching, and it goes back to what I said in my "Fear of Failure" post that just as there's a chance of getting it wrong, there's a chance of getting it right. With teaching, the fulfilment of getting it right far outweighs the fear of getting what you're teaching wrong.

Since last weekend I've had a sprained wrist (from none other than playing a spot of squash!!) so have been a little bit useless on the chore side of things around the yard, but on Sunday it felt quite a bit better so took off my bandage and wrist support and gave all the horses a good bath. I got a girl in to clip them as they needed doing but I couldn't hold the clippers, so now they all look gorgeous and shiny with their new clips and glossy clean coats! So satisfying :)

Competitions start again this week so myself and the horses are working hard on general suppleness and way of going to aim for good solid 7's in our tests, nothing too flashy, just correct, soft work. It's all going to plan so far (for once!) and the horses are feeling great so fingers crossed I didn't just jinx myself and it stays that way!