Adam's Handy Hints - July/August 2012
Never lose sight of your vision
Sometimes it can be hard to stay focussed on the goals you have set with your horse. Things like money, time and family commitments can get in the way, making it difficult for you to realise your dreams.
This happened to me recently as I became depressed at the cost of chasing my dream and began to worry that I was sacrificing my future financial security by continuing to plough all my disposable income into horses.
So I stopped riding, took a job in the city and left horses behind. My idea was to spend a few years working in the city and saving money so that I could go back to horses in a better financial position than when I left it.
Unfortunately (or fortunately!) I realised very quickly that if you really love something, are really passionate about something in your life, you cannot just cast it aside and not expect it to affect you. Leaving horses affected me. Deeply. And I realised that I could not leave them.
So although you might lose sight of your vision, or get disheartened, and although to chase your vision might just mean you have to sacrifice other things like having money, or more time for family and friends, you have to remain strong to your passions in life and try to make it work.
Many roads lead to Rome, and there is always a solution out there to be found, whatever your problem may be. So if, like me, you find yourself occasionally disheartened by the sacrifices you have to make to chase your dream, remember that it probably just means you have something extremely important and worth fighting for.
And that is something worth celebrating!
Improving the condition of your horses hooves
My horse Gandalf has 4 white hooves and having been shod since he was a three year old, the condition of his hooves tend to deteriorate the more he is shod, especially around the outside of the hooves where the nails are placed.
Hoof dressings and dietary supplements do make a difference over time but I have discovered that the best remedy to improving the condition of his feet are to remove his shoes when being spelled.
After the Sydney CDI this year, Gandalf was turned out for 8 weeks, giving me the perfect opportunity to remove his shoes for the first time.
Although he was dog lame for the first 3-4 days, he eventually adapted to a "shoeless life" and after 8 weeks his feet are in perfect condition with no more brittleness where the nails are placed.
So if you ever have the opportunity to spell your horse for a decent period of time, consider removing his shoes to give his hooves the greatest chance of repairing during his downtime.
Recovering from mistakes during a dressage test!
Recently at the Sydney CDI I didn't warm up Gandalf properly and we performed terribly in our Prix St Georges test. Although I had warmed up his muscles I had failed to engage his mind, which is the key to getting a good test out of him.
During the test we were supposed to ride a line of 5 flying changes every 3 strides, but Gandalf did not respond to any of my aids and continued cantering on the same lead across the diagonal!
Instead of composing myself and concentrating on trying to prepare the next movement and get him "on the aids", I allowed the mistake to dominate my thoughts for the rest of the test, resulting in more errors and and poor result.
If you make a mistake in a test, you must train yourself to think:
"...FORGET IT >> PREPARE NEXT MOVEMENT"
Generally you will know before the movement is finished that you have stuffed it up. So right off that movement and use the remainder of it to prepare more for the next.
Don't let your negative thoughts about stuffing it up follow you into the next 5-6 movements. Cut your losses and move on, very fast. A technique that helps me is to smirk at myself during the test, as though I am laughing at myself for the stupid mistake, and then move on - fast. If it's a bad day you can see me pulling all kinds of faces as I try to leave these awful decisions behind and move on to the next! I find if I don't express my disgust externally to a bad riding decision then I will only turn it in on myself internally, which will result in more mistakes.
More gifted riders - and those with sports psychology training - learn how to remain composed (or at least look like they do!) but as I don't have those skills yet I find screwing up my face at myself helps me get over it quicker than doing nothing and stewing on it for the whole test.
It sounds weird but it works for me - so find whatever allows you to move on from a mistake quickly and do it. Roll your eyes, swear under your breath, push it to the back of your mind, whatever!
Remember, there is no right answer, only what works for you.
Think of training as a 'conversation' with your horse
While it is true that training aims to produce a horse with a high level of submission and thoroughness - whatever its discipline - this does not mean the horse should not be able to ?express an opinion'.
It is always helpful to remember there is a difference between submission and oppression. When training our horses, we should try to think of it has a conversation between two people. Listen to the way your horse responds to your aids so that you can start to develop the ability to ?tune into' your horse's language. This helps you to instantly recognise whether you horse understands the aid you are giving him, rather than the rider simply getting angry at the horse for not executing the movement correctly.
When you apply the aid with this kind of mindset, you will quickly begin to ?listen' to your horse to see if he understands it, rather than assuming he is being ?naughty' or ?lazy' or any other pre-supposition you have previously decided about your horse when he does not perform how you want him to.
Since trying to change my training methods to this kind of thinking, I have found myself questioning whether the horse is actually confused rather than simply being disobedient. This has improved my patience as a rider and given me a greater understanding and empathy towards my horse. I am now ?listening' to my horse, and using the cues he gives me to improve my training and in turn, our communication together - a much more rewarding way to train my horse. Try it for yourself and you will notice the difference!
Using the short side of the arena!
The short sides of the arena are often neglected, not just in dressage tests where many movements are not marked as you travel through them, but also in daily training. The short sides of the arena are valuable ?checkpoints' to refresh your position and prepare for the next movement as you turn through the corner onto the long side. You should use the fact that many movements are not marked along the short side in dressage tests to your advantage. Perhaps your horse is not really listening to your half halt very well throughout the test or is a little sluggish to your forward driving aids - so use the time along the short side to ride a stronger half halt or give a bigger nudge without the stress of also having to execute a specific movement. Every elite rider will tell you that preparation is the key to executing a great test, and a great place to improve your preparation is through the short sides of the arena! Riding shoulder-fore into the corners helps straighten the horse and set him up for your next movement. Many horses will come out of the corner with their quarters to the inside in a subtle traver like movement, which, if not corrected quickly, will affect your next movement down the long side, especially in terms of straightness - if you get judges comments on your test sheets that say things like "quarters to the inside" or "not completely straight" then this is most likely happening to you!
So whenever you ride a short side, think ?prepare' and start setting yourself up to achieve better training at home and better marks at competition.
Edward Gal said during the Equitana masterclass last year that riders "should do the opposite of what the horse wants". This is a good point to remember when you get stuck in your training or competition warm up.
If your horse is rushing, slow him down. If he's lazy, make him active. If he's leaning on the bit, get him off it! Horses like to follow the least path of resistance, so make your path the easy one - unfortunately our horses aren't going to want to load their hind legs and carry more weight behind, regardless of how well bred they are! We have to do the opposite of what they want, and make that the easiest solution for them to achieve. Make it hard for them to do what they want!
Competition goals and bad tests!
As I go along my dressage training with Gandalf, sometimes I find myself in a block of training days where I am focussed on improving a particular element of our ride in the lead up to a competition. Because of this training issue - whatever it may be - I have not always prepared the horse well for the weekend's competition, because I have been focussed on achieving or overcoming a training issue. Rather than skip the competition, I turn up in the knowledge that I am probably not about to ride a PB! This is because there are other reasons rather than performance based ones to turn up to competition. Getting the horse used to different venues and environments is an important one for my horse, as is the experience of being floated as he has been difficult to load in the past. Riding lots of tests helps me to get "match fit" and "into the groove" so that competition days start to become "normalised" rather than "major events". Plus there is the simple pleasure of going out with your horse and doing something different - variety. All of these are valid reasons to compete when you might not feel like you are riding at your best. People compete for a variety of reasons and not all of them competitive ones. If I ride a bad test because I've been focussing on pirouettes all week and ignored the other lateral work and paid the price for it in the scores I received, then I have enough self awareness to realise why this happened and so it doesn't bother me. It took me 2 years to feel like I could ride a decent medium test, but I never doubted I would eventually move past this level, despite some average scores along the way! If you can acknowledge and find other positives for competing rather than just performance based ones, then you will develop the ability to have belief in your own convictions so that bad tests don't ever start to overwhelm you.
Adam's Handy Hints - October/November 2011
Perfecting the square halt
Having a horse automatically produce a square halt in his test is the hallmark of all good riders and the easiest way to gain marks and leave a positive impression on the judges at the beginning and end of your tests.
Some horses will produce a square halt 9 times out of 10 but many horses will leave a hind leg out (often the same one each time) or step out wide behind. To try and teach your horse to "auto correct" himself at the halt you only need 2 things: patience and consistency.
EVERY time you ask for the halt ensure you are sitting evenly and drive the horse quietly into a restraining contact and bracing back. Although you are halting think of keeping the momentum forward - this will automatically solve some problems by giving the horse the feeling that it can step further under its body with that stray hind leg!
For those horses that still won't halt square then lightly tap the "offending" leg once with the whip until the horse puts it into place. Increase the pressure of the tapping if your aid is ignored. Initially you are simply after a reaction rather than the correct response, so a simple lifting of the leg by the horse (even if he puts it down in the same spot) is absolutely fine.
Once you are getting a response then you just need to continue asking until the horse presents the correct response. As soon as the correct response is achieved and the leg either brought in or under as desired then praise lavishly and walk on. Be consistent and ask the horse to halt squarely every time and eventually the horse will start correcting himself and those scores will start climbing!
Recovery, recovery, recovery!
What sets many competitors apart from their rivals is their ability to ensure their horse recovers as quickly and efficiently as possible from the stress of daily training and competition and recovery is the vital ingredient in this recipe!
Recovery is more than just chucking the horse back in his paddock with a big meal after a long day competing. The horse's welfare is always at the front of our minds and we should look to do anything for the horse that will assist it to do the job we have asked of it.
There are hundreds of recovery techniques for human athletes and horses are no different, the trick is to find those techniques you can afford and which give the best benefit to your horse!
For instance Gandalf responds incredible well to 2 recovery techniques in particular: ice boots and his Draper Equine Rug. The ice boots are used every day after each training session and although it adds an extra 25 minutes to my day, I make time for them because the benefit far outweighs losing 25 minutes extra sleep! The Draper Equine Rug goes on before training to help warm up his muscles and straight on after training to help him cool down without catching a chill. It also doubles up as the perfect travelling rug to competitions so financially is a sound investment for me because I get the use out of it each day just like the ice boots. I hope my own example has shown how you can find some recovery techniques that are not only financially viable (something we are all conscious of these days) but which also make a huge benefit to the welfare and recovery of your horse.
Because of my commitment to these recovery techniques (and other management factors) I was able to keep Gandalf sound for the entire year with no muscle fatigue or leg injuries, enabling me to continue our training as consistently as possible whilst still giving his body the best chance to recover between daily training sessions and competition.
If you can find some recovery techniques that work for your horse as well as your wallet, then you are more likely to use then more often! And that can only be a good thing for your horse!
Happy riding, Adam.