Last week I was lucky enough to take a long weekend and travel up to the USDF Sport Horse Prospect development forum with Willy Arts and Scott Hassler, hosted at the gorgeous Shannondale Farm. Both coaches were explanatory, helpful and encouraging, the horses were insanely talented and the riders were gracious and upbeat. What a revelatory weekend.
Day one I left for the evening a bit discouraged, these three and four year olds were lightyears ahead of Fritz. Like whoa. They steer. They do serpentines. They CANTER. One of them did walk-canter for crying out loud. The nerve of that show off! My hopes were slightly restored when I bumped into Willy and Scott at the hotel that evening and told them offhandedly about my comparative fears. They were kind enough to offer encouragement. Willy said, “each horse has his own schedule. Don’t feel like you have to rush it to catch up.” Warm fuzzies.
On day two, expectations seemed a bit more realistic, thank God. About half of the crazygood horses were tired and/or sore and had some sticky moments throughout their sessions. I’m slightly ashamed to say, but it made me so relieved. Sorry! (Not sorry?) To see these gooooorgeus horses also have some mild training hiccups (think bucking, balking, spooking) was so refreshing: they’re not perfect magic-filled unicorns! I apologize in advance. Sorry riders, I realize that my delight in your mount’s refusal to pick up that canter is borderline cray.
The other beautiful thing about Sunday; I got to pester a lot of the very lovely riders and chat about their particular horse’s challenges and how they get through them normally. Turns out, they were (mostly) all holding together each ride like you would a test. It wasn’t effortless, they were trying to make it look as if it were… and succeeding.
I started paying closer attention to the aids during turns to see how they were achieving a feat as monumentally difficult as turning right. Scott kept saying “don’t bend!” and the jovial riders would holler back “not trying to!” They were just trying to turn. Omg. Yay! They have to open their inside rein to turn too! And in a covered arena with walls to boot. It turns out, these riders were simply masterful equestrians. Obviously, we still have a lot of work to do, but my goodness it’s nice to know we’re not the only ones who have hiccups.
Throughout the weekend, both trainers stressed three common themes;
The horse must have confidence in his rider, light aids are the goal, and forward. Always forward.
Here are some of the highlights of the training for me:
- Use trot-walk a lot for relaxation, tempo and lengthening the topline.
- If you’re helping him keep the canter, fundamentally his back isn’t working correctly
- Use the whip when the horse is thinking forward, not when he is behind the leg. That isn’t the moment to teach.
- Aids = conversation. Don’t yell. Just like humans, a horse will detune to yelling.
- We want “every transition to have a forward rhythmical desire” – Scott
- The most reassuring thing to a horse is to leave something when it feels good, on a positive note.
- Control of shoulder = balance
- Make sure to say thank you for the correct response. Here is the concept, he complies, say thank you.
- “If the horse doesn’t want to work, great gaits are useless” – Scott
- Ride the hindquarters and let the shoulders come around. He turns from behind and follows your hand, not turns from the hand. “The engine is at the back of the boat” – Willy
- Stretch in the trot at the end of your work but go back to working trot before the final walk transition.
- Stay off the rail so they don’t depend on it for steering
And I think by far, my favorite theme of the weekend was “just keep
riding.” When a horse would get sticky, spook, toss his head, pull at the reins, try to come off the rail – the coaches both said “just keep riding.” When the horse misunderstood an aid and picked up the canter, “that’s fine, just keep riding.” The response wasn’t no don’t canter! Trot now!
This is April Schultz with the three year old Hanoverian mare Rainbow R. Scott emphasized training light aids during this session. Our goal is to teach the horse to respond to the lightest leg possible. If they do t respond to a whisper at the walk, trot off. They’ll release the back and understand forward. Willy echoed the same thoughts in the prior session, that access to the hind leg is learned in the trot. Collect and bring together, then on. Collect, then on. They’ll learn to engage the hind leg quicker.
Scott also said during this session, “when you have a happy confident horse, you have the right to ask for something more difficult again.”
It was a wonderful, inspiring weekend that made me remember how much I love equestrian sport, training and the community that inherently comes with it. Time to ride!