“Not the boom,” Jeremy Steinberg encouraged as he shuffled beside Leah and myself during our half step focus on the clinic’s blustery Sunday afternoon.
A few months ago, my local group membership organization, Alamo Dressage Association, announced their hosting of this event: a symposium featuring two top professionals within the dressage industry. Allison Brock, 2016 Rio Olympic Team Bronze Medalist, and Jeremy Steinberg, former USEF Youth Coach, were coming together to work with two riders across the board of levels from Training to Grand Prix. At first, I hesitated to enter, as budget restraints weren’t looking too grand. I went back and forth, grappling with the “should I or shouldn’t I,” but when an ADA representative sent me a text explaining how they were looking for FEI riders, I knew it was a sign to just take the plunge.
After all, education is the best investment.
I am lucky enough to have ridden with Ali last summer, one of the best clinics in my book, and took two insightful lessons with Jeremy back in February of 2017. Semi-familiar with their teaching techniques, I approached this weekend as an opportunity for a tune-up with a fresh set of eyes on the ground. Sometimes, I feel as if I get stuck in a rut when it comes to utilizing the same techniques day in and day out. New suggestions and constructive criticism light a fire under my booty, and this clinic proved no differently.
Promising a detailed recant of what I picked up during these two days, I’m here to share my takeaways, combined with my friend, Diana, and fellow demo-rider’s notes. We’ll start with my two sessions, and then transition into general bullet points from the overall big picture.
Oh, Leah… You are always striving to keep your human humble and continually prove that you ARE challenging, opinionated, and headstrong… especially when there is a full crowd of auditors watching your every move. But really, I love you unconditionally.
Judging by that prelude, one can gather that Leah was in a serious mare-diva mood when we entered the arena on Saturday. Not naughty, not spooky but terribly offended each time I’d touch my outside rein for a half-halt. She pulled her usual shenanigans of bracing and pulling, and before my frustration level rose any higher, I asked Jeremy if he would help me school this through. I’m the first one to pick my battles with my mare, and given the circumstances, this day was not the time to enter into a pissing match.
I chuckled as Ali joked with the crowd, egging Jeremy on by asking everyone if they wanted to see him ride. After a resounding yes, he obliged and climbed aboard the one and only Locomotive.
Jeremy swiftly turned his attention to self-carriage encouragement, something I’ve been striving to attain for the past three years. He demonstrated a few helpful tips while in the working canter on a twenty-meter circle, like tapping the whip on Leah’s croup as opposed to her hip for a more subtle yet clearer aid. As he did this, I watched Leah almost “bounce” her hindquarters, her inside hind leg really coming underneath her core to raise her back. The head and poll were last priority as establishing this feeling of lightness and back engagement reigned supreme.
Once the message began to register within Leah’s mentality, Jeremy transitioned into half step world, explaining their glorious benefits for a horse like L. Half steps help create adrenaline within Leah’s center of gravity; this is an exercise we often revert back to at home. What I found most interesting was the way Jeremy incorporated rein back into the half step exercise. Leah must stay supple, and rein backs help reinforce that memo. She might’ve protested a few times by locking her hocks and threatening to rear, but Jeremy calmly allowed her to voice her opinions without using force, and that is something I truly admire.
Towards the end of his conclave with Leah, Jeremy admitted that getting Leah to her "optimal" feeling was comparable to fitting a toothpick into a micro-sized hole. He complimented her talent, but alluded to the fact that she’s suckered me into believing she is not as lazy as she leads on. Busted, L! As I listened to his encouraging words, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of pride. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve read or heard backhanded remarks about the stereotypes of “schoolmasters” or “made” horses. Moral of the story? Leah is not easy, and flipping Jeremy Steinberg just backed me up on that testament.
I’m not a woman who needs validation, but damn, that sure felt good to hear.
Wrapping the session on a positive note, I swung a leg over my mare once more in order to quickly feel what Jeremy was aiming to achieve while in the saddle. I was bound and determined to make a Sunday a better, more “rideable,” day, and that’s exactly what we did.
No Sunday Scaries
My alarm blasted promptly at 6:00 the next morning. Through puffy eyes and a groggy brain, I slid into my gym shorts, grabbed my car key and headed to the clinic venue to feed Leah, Caliente, and Zakomo. Conveniently enough, the facility is located whopping 10 minutes from my house, which automatically volunteered me for morning chores and night check.
Actually, I volunteered myself, because I love that kind of thing and desperately miss doing such tasks when the horses were at home. Diaries of a horse girl...
I was not expecting to feel so tired on our second day, but there is a large amount of mental and emotional energy that goes into riding in front of a live studio audience. If you’re like me, this type of environment can be all around draining. Much like riding, there’s only one way to go, and well, that’s forward.
Leah came to work on Sunday feeling much looser and softer through her body. Already, I felt my musculature begin to relax and settle into the schwung of her supple, stretching trot. We remembered what the outside rein was, and someone happily accepted my half-halts without defensive mechanisms. Warm-up was shaping up to be a much more cohesive start than the day prior.
Here are the bullet points I stowed away in my mental filing cabinet from Sunday with Jeremy:
· Use an 8 meter-circle haunches-in as an exercise after a walk break. This loosens the hips and pelvis, and engages the hindquarters. The outside hind leg must go over and the inside hind leg must go forward.
· Walk forward, rein back, walk forward, rein back. This helps soften Leah through her poll while driving home the point that her hindquarters must come underneath her center of mass.
· When working through half-steps/piaffe, Jeremy noted he’s looking for several factors from Leah. First, the “coming under,” secondly, the poll up, and third, the firing from the inside hind leg.
· I have to feel Leah’s “coming under” enough times in my life to trust her. He encouraged to not use so much leg during the piaffe, as it becomes too trot-like. You don’t want to generate trot, but more along the lines of “coiling” the energy. The coil produces adrenaline; adrenaline translates into the horse’s natural flight instinct. How is that relevant for piaffe? Well, trot steps, threatening to rear or rearing, bolting – but obviously, none of us want that! Ideally, the flight instinct creates “just the next gait,” as Jeremy explained.
Funny side note: during our in-hand work, Jeremy approached Leah to pet her hip, and she’s promptly chopped her bit, backed up a few strides, and snorted. The audience chuckled, and Ali narrated Leah’s thoughts…
“Ohhhh, don’t touch me, you foul man!”
I mean, where is the lie from Leah’s thoughts? It’s fine, Jeremy, we still appreciate you. Okay, I still appreciate you… The jury is still out about Leah…
· When Leah tries to rear while schooling through piaffe, just halt. “Don’t buy into her drama.” She must stay quietly contained, hot, but not stupid.
· Everything is mind over matter.
We immediately transitioned from piaffe into canter, putting the newly blossomed adrenaline to good use.
· The “pump,” the roundness of the back created by the piaffe; we must work it! Leah mustn’t dive down in the contact; she needs to stay there with her “ass underneath,” and light in the contact.
· The feeling we trained in the walk/piaffe is something we want to translate into the canter. Jeremy interpreted that we want to be able to tickle Leah on the top of her croup without her overreacting, but instead, feel her tuck her hind legs under and coil up throughout her core.
· The positive tension is a necessity, however, Jeremy noted, “she doesn’t need to do anything with it, and neither do you, we just want it to become okay, and let it live in you.” Sounds like lyrics from an emotion-packed ballad, right?
· The driving force of your leg sends the horse forward, the tickle of the whip, whether it’s on the croup or on their side, snaps the hind leg under. So, in Leah’s instance, Jeremy stated he’d rely more on small tickles using the whip than his leg because she “needs more tucking under.”
I feel as if I’m a broken record saying “hind legs,” and “under,” and “tucking,” and so on and so forth SO MANY TIMES.
Clearly, you can see where our weaknesses lie.
· The stride repeats, repeats, and repeats; you don’t change the frame, you don’t change the balance. The two consistent factors are your core stability and the stride. Horses begin to learn that these two things are married together, but it’s not a marriage that needs too much hand. Your hand works more to say “no, don’t feel like that,” while your seat or your leg, that’s your constant.
· Utilize the halts or transitions when the horse tips out of balance; this is something Jeremy uses frequently when training his own horses.
So, there you have it, but if you’re thinking that concludes this blog post’s talking points, then you are mistaken! I’ve complied a broad spectrum of notes, some from my notebook and some from Diana’s as promised. Hopefully, you can take away bits and pieces and apply them to your own riding.
· As a rider, you are responsible for placing the horse’s feet. The tempo is yours, not theirs.
· We must work in a calm, non-aggressive manner. However, standing our ground is key. The horse must come to you. If you reprimand your horse and their reaction is kicking out or bucking, for example, you must keep after the issue until they react correctly or you will reinforce the bad behavior. Of course, once they do what you are looking for, praise, praise, praise.
· The rhythm of the gaits is the most important thing.
· If you have a horse with a tendency to curl underneath the bit, think about riding above the bit.
· One can use stretching as a reward for the horse, but remember that it is not a free for all, simply a break in the pressure.
· Walk breaks are vital as they provide a chance for the horse to relax mentally, emotionally and physically – you need the muscles to recover and you need to improve the overall muscle memory.
· DO NOT over prepare your downward transitions. You’ll risk destroying the quality of the gait you’re currently in. The transition should be quick.
· If your horse tips down on one side, carry that hand a little higher for a few strides.
· Don’t go from one mistake to another mistake.
· The horse must be on the bit and OFF THE HAND where they are carrying you.
· If the horse falls on in on your inside rein, loosen that rein, half-halt and give. If he falls again, give him a swift kick with the inside leg.
· If the horse falls on your outside rein, make sure you are turning the horse with the outside leg, not the rein.
· Haunches-in during the canter helps load the outside leg, but the rider has to be elastic in their hands so the horse does not feel trapped.
· In the canter, influence the outside leg by carrying your whip in your outside hand. The outside hind is the most important because it is the 1st leg of the 3-beat canter sequence.
· Think sharp, quick “tic-tac, tic-tac, tic-tac” to mentally encourage rhythm and jump of the canter.
· If you “dumb down” the canter too much, you won’t have the impulsion for the flying changes later on. The rider must create the jump in the canter where the outside leg activates. Never be afraid to ask for more “jump.”
· Ali explains her half-halts by “feeling like you’re pushing your belly button forward.” Half-halts should primarily be ridden through your seat and core, not your hand.
· The timing of the half halt is a 1 beat contraction from the rider’s knee to rib cage: one step, think “whoa,” give with the hands, add the leg.
· Politely speaking, IF YOU DON’T RIDE YOUR CORNERS AT HOME, YOU WON’T RIDE THEM AT SHOWS. This, coming straight from Ali’s mouth. Practice your corners at home, my friends! If you ride a bad corner, nine times out of ten you will ride a bad movement.
· If your horse leans through the corners, add an 8-meter circle in that corner to realign the balance.
· Ride into your corners one step more than you think is possible.
· You have to fight for the ownership of maneuvering into your corners.
· Be extremely careful that the horse isn’t stepping out with the outside hind leg to create the angle. This is a very common mistake seen by trainers and judges.
· Elastic arms are so important. You almost want to feel as if you’re flicking a set of sheets to put them on a bed.
· You also want to feel like you have the weight of your rein in the back of your elbow.
· Bend your elbows, carry your forearms and strive to make them soft. Your body should feel as if it’s dropping down between your arms.
· Holding a whip across both hands (if your horse is sane enough, also, consider trainer supervision for this) exposes how much you rely on your hands to steer instead of your outside leg.
· Don’t be afraid of the bounce, follow it!
· Land heavier on the horses back during the downbeat of the trot to create more suspension.
· To fix a rider that has crooked hips (example one is more forward than the other), have the rider look at the horse’s tail in the direction of the crooked hip. This should help bring the hips more into alignment.
· The horse’s chest should be facing across the diagonal. Imagine this: if the horse had a light on its chest, it should illuminate the diagonal marker you are half-passing towards.
· Don’t just randomly think, “I’m going to half-pass now.” Always have a point of destination.
· Point the ears, eyes, and shoulder across the diagonal and THEN add your haunches-in.
· The forehand should not waiver from the diagonal line.
· Come through the corner in shoulder fore, and then take the haunches sideways.
· When your horse hollows into the halt, you are loosing their pelvis. You almost need to go into the halt with more power and with the horse off the hand… Almost think a sliding halt.
· Own the halt! The rider’s body must stop and the horse cannot pull you in any direction. Again, think about pushing your belly button forward.
· Some days, you just need 100 halts.
· Halt to trot – don’t halt for too long. Use the transition to make your horse hotter.
· If the horse braces into the halt, perhaps give a tick with the whip into the halt to help bring the horse’s back up.
· If your horse curls down in the halt transition, immediately send them forward.
· Every trip down centerline is preparation for the big day.
· Riders should be willing to throw away scores in order for the horse not to learn that a test is opportunity to become unrideable.
· Be prepared to really school a horse in the ring, even if it will impact your score negatively, then when it is time for a “big” competition, the horse WILL be more rideable and you won’t have to compromise movements.
Last but certainly not least, ride the look you want to achieve first, thinking about the rhythm, the gait, the poll, and the balance. Then, listen to your horse and assess the feeling he or she is producing.
To the Alamo Dressage Association and our wonderful volunteers, thank you for organizing such a fantastic opportunity for us dedicated dressagies. The time and money needed to host such an event is astronomical, and I greatly appreciate the hard work that went into making this weekend a reality. It is because of our fantastic GMO that us Adult Amateur (juniors and open too) riders are able to bask in knowledge from esteemed professionals such as Ali and Jeremy. You all are simply the best, and I'm proud to be part of the Alamo Dressage Association family!
Of course, to Ali and Jeremy, thank you for creating a memorable experience and one that I'll always cherish as yet another bucket list item Leah has led me to achieve. I am grateful for your outstanding techniques, humor, and positive outlook that our community still so desperately needs. Riding with you two was and is always an honor. I hope to do so again in the near future. Come back to Texas soon, please!