Alison Kenward

A big part of my original vision for Dressage Perspectives was to meet and write about interesting people, to share their stories with you. When I started to make that vision a reality I knew that Oxfordshire based dressage rider and coach Alison Kenward was one of the first people I wanted to IMG_1470connect with. I noticed Alison through her Twitter account @solitaireDTM and I really liked her attitude to dressage and to her coaching career. After talking to Alison over the phone I knew that she was one hundred percent the kind of person that I wanted to interview. We met for lunch in Towcester and talked for hours!

I was fascinated to hear about Alison’s experiences out in New Zealand, working cattle in a remote and unforgiving environment. Now, I’ve enjoyed riding cattle working horses. They are agile and lightning quick in their responses, bright and super fun. I have never in my life herded cattle though! Alison has and I was deeply impressed. It is interesting that this work, riding with your body weight, usually one-handed and on the lightest of contacts, translates to our dressage riding very well. There are challenges in it for sure though and we chatted about those. It can take some getting used to riding with divided reins again and having a more defined contact. There is value though, as Alison pointed out, in learning to be resourceful because you are alone with animals in a vast landscape. She often took out young and unknown horses, getting to know them as she and they worked together. In half a day out there, she said, you can get to know a horse pretty well! Remembering those days is the perfect antidote the Alison’s inner control freak! I found myself thinking I could do with a dose of that.

Alison has great clarity of vision, a real ability to see the way forward and develop her skill set accordingly. I quickly discovered that she has a great intellectual curiosity about the whole learning experience. As a coach, as with all the other facets of her life, she is dedicated to becoming the best that she can be. Alison is currently working towards her UKCC Level 3 (Dressage Specific) qualification but her interest in coaching is much broader. It has led her to look beyond equestrian sports for information and inspiration. She is mentored by Sir Clive Woodward, the coach who successfully took the England Rugby team through a period of great transformational change. What really impressed me about this was not only that Alison had the confidence to go right to the top in her selection but she had the foresight to recognise that a person from outside of her own sport would make the ideal choice.

Of course, as trainers it is not just our coaching skills that matter, it is always the content that we have taken onboard from various sources that matters most. That is what we have to pass on to our pupils. Alison has a strong foundation as a rider and as an instructor. Currently Alison is a BHSII and has gained her Stable Manager’s qualification too; we talked about the challenges of the BHSI exam and how it fits within the overall framework of her career plan. We discussed our shared respect for the BHS training system and a belief in its ongoing importance. As the individual competitive disciplines have become increasingly popular with the riding public it is so important to have teachers with a broad skill base. IMG_6681

As a competitive rider Alison has shown the same focused and logical approach to her personal development. There are riders whose coaching choices are based on very flawed logic but wise riders always have a sound rationale behind the decisions they make. James Burtwell is Alison’s primary coach. This is a long-term situation and they have a strong rapport. James had been one of the Central Region coaches whom Alison worked with in the 1990s, before going out to New Zealand. He was the person she chose to work with on her return to the UK and his faith in Alison’s ability was such that he offered her a training bursary.  Thinking with the coach headset and the rider headset simultaneously can be paralysing. Sometimes we need a coach to take control of our own control issues! Working with James helps Alison to focus in the moment, to simply ride without constantly being under the magnifying glass of self-criticism. He is an excellent competition coach with a focused and positive attitude.

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Alison also trains with Emile Faurie from time to time. This is an experience which she described as magical. He also encouraged her to get rid of her fear of making mistakes and to be less apologetic for the mistakes she made. She was impressed not only with Emile’s attitude to her but also with the warmth and affection he shows to horses.

“The training environment is spot on. He’s got the knowledge, the patience, the empathy but he is also incredibly sport driven and competitive. I felt safe and incredibly challenged.”

Both Emile and James are people who Alison can turn to for help and advice. Both encourage Alison to think for herself and will gently remind her that some of the answers to her questions are ones that she is able to figure out for herself. As Alison pointed out, if we become too dependent on our coaches it breaks down our confidence and our ability to problem solve.

Alison has also been visiting Summerhouse Equestrian to work with Sarah Gallop on her Grand Prix schoolmasters. Riding fully trained horses is an essential element in a rider’s personal development. The connection that the coach has with the schoolmaster horse is vitally important. Together they work to help the rider. This requires the coach and horse to have a history, ideally it will be a horse that the coach has trained. The coach is an interpreter to help the rider understand what the trained horse is trying to say. As Alison said, left to her own devices on the fully trained horse she might have resorted to staying in walk and trying to perfect everything. With Sarah to guide her she was able to overcome any misunderstandings with the horse and gain a lot from the sessions.

I asked Alison, aside from her coaches, who had influenced her development. The book that first sparked her interest in dressage was Judith Draper’s “Guide to Show Jumping”. As a twelve-year-old child with a 13.2hh pony Alison had been mad about show jumping. After many struggles and lots of falls she turned to Judith’s book for help. The first few chapters are dedicated to flatwork. Alison was about to skip that part and get to the sections on jumping when she noticed something. At the start of the section on jumping, the book listed a range of basic dressage figures and movements and it said “if you cannot do all of these things with your horse then you need to go back to the beginning of the book and try again.” Alison spent a whole summer working on the flat. When she did go back to jump at a local venue people were amazed. This young girl who had always been falling off not only stayed on but jumped succesful rounds. The appreciation of dressage as a process was for Alison the forerunner to her love of dressage as a sport. In this, I think she was both fortunate and wise; it is far better that way around.

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As so often happens when you get along well with someone, you find out that you share common ground in terms of tastes and influences. As Alison ran through a list of the books and training DVDs that she loves I was smiling because her list is more or less my list too! Podhajsky, of course, Mark Todd on everything but especially show jumping and the value of grid work, Kyra Kyrklund for the sheer logic of her training system, Paul Belasik on energy states of the rider, and of course Charles de Kunffy! The list went on and my smile got wider!

“Who has influenced you” is perhaps the most important question to ask a prospective coach. The teachers they have chosen will define the quality of information they will transmit to you, the books they have read, the clinicians they have spent hours watching will be a big part of that as well. I know that Alison’s pupils find working with her hugely beneficial and her reputation as an intelligent and effective teacher is growing.

Tamasine Thompson, one of Alison’s students recently tweeted this

“I can testify that a good coach is 100% the difference between improving or stagnating – thanks @Solitaire DTM”

I should probably add that the tweet began with “MY BRAIN” and a ‘rolling on the floor laughing’ symbol! Now that, to me speaks a volume of positive things.

Alison blogs at http://alisonkenward.blogspot.co.uk and I am delighted to announce that she will also be joining Dressage Perspectives as a guest contributor!

Next time I will be writing about the horses in Alison’s life, their day-to-day training, the products that support their care and how she has found the ideal approach to competition for each of them!

Christine xx

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Successful Lateral Work

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If you are finding that you lose impulsion, balance and cadence as soon as you start riding a lateral movement it might be because your focus is on how to ride the movement and not on the gait that you are riding it in. Internalising the movement means practicing it on as many horses as possible, maybe going for a schoolmaster lesson with a good coach, and getting to the point where you can ride that movement in your sleep. You might already be there and not realise it. Many riders keep focusing on the how to, or the how to not go wrong, for far longer than they really need to.

Getting your mind off of the movement, trusting yourself to know what to do, is really important to riding it really well. What makes all the difference to the quality of the movement and therefore the score that you are likely to get is the horse’s way of going. It is the quality of the walk, trot or canter that reflects success in both the competition arena and daily training.

Key Stages of Learning

A key factor for success is to recognise where you are on the scale from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence. For anyone unfamiliar with this, there are four stages:

  1. unconscious incompetence – eg: when I knew what a Half Pass was but did not really know that I lacked the skills to ride Half Pass. A lovely pupil of mine told me that when she began learning to ride she anticipated learning all of the dressage movements in around six months. I met her three years after that and eleven years after that she could ride Grand Prix!
  2. conscious incompetence – eg: when I realised that I did not have those skills but wanted to acquire them. When it looks easy but you discover it isn’t!
  3. conscious competence – eg: when I could ride a Half Pass if I focused consciously on what aids to give the horse.
  4. unconscious Competence – eg: when I could breeze into a Half Pass and focus on keeping the trot expressive, the tempo regular and the horse loose over his back.

Which stage are you at?

If you are at the first or second stage with a particular movement then this is a wonderful phase of learning too. In discovering dressage as a sport what you have really discovered is a process, a whole load of valuable things to learn and to teach your horse. Approach each at the right time, with the help of a good coach. You will be able to establish the skills you need to ride the movement, practice them and move in turn from riding them competently to riding them beautifully.

When you are learning a new movement you will be at the third stage and holding there for a while. That is valid and necessary; don’t be in too much of a hurry to move on from competent to spectacular just yet. Get it fluent, become familiar with how the movement feels at all training levels by riding different horses. The Shoulder In of a young horse will feel very different to that of a fully schooled horse. That of a pony will feel different to that of a Thoroughbred or Iberian horse. Gain lots of diverse experience and hone your skills.

It can be difficult to know when you have become unconsciously competent, because you remain always consciously competent too. I know innately that I can ride a Pirouette but naturally I know it consciously too. One key shift can be determined in the way you describe how to do something. If asked how to ride some movement that I have a level of unconscious competence in I will have a sensory memory pop up, which I then have to put into words. When I was at the stage of conscious competence I would have been more likely to think in words rather than in memories. If someone asks you how you ride Shoulder In and your mind supplies a strong memory, a muscular memory then you are almost certainly already there.

If you suspect that you are one of those many riders who might be getting stuck at the third stage then the message in this post is most of all aimed at helping you. Sometimes we stick at that stage out of sheer habit or because we are too self -critical. Can a dressage rider be too self-critical? Yes, I think they can in this case. If you are getting a sub-optimal result it could be the result of over thinking the movement itself. So trust yourself, let go of analysing the aids you are giving because your body already knows what to do. Success will follow when you get your focus onto the beautiful walk, trot or canter that you could be in.

When you know that you know, you can relax into the movement and really set your horse up to shine!

If you would like more help with your lateral work then check out these articles in the #BetterDressage series:

Riding Renvers & Travers.

Better Dressage – Shoulder In

Better Dressage – Exercises for improving lateral work.

Better Dressage – Key Skills for Lateral Work

#Wednesdaywisdom from Charles de Kunffy

Charles de Kunffy is a rider, coach and author who has inspired me a great deal over the years. Back in 2016 I was at a training seminar that he gave and I found it utterly fascinating. So much so that I took down pages and pages of notes! He is truly one of the greatest horsemen of our time and his love of horses shone through in every last detail of his work.

I discovered that he has shared a number of interviews on YouTube. There is a lot of valuable information in them for all riders. It made me reflect that there is no real link between the quality of content and the number of people who connect with it online. Unless you go looking, as I did, or unless the marketing is right then it will sit there undiscovered except by a fortunate few.  Although Dressage Perspectives is not a YouTube content creator (yet) it has a presence there in order to curate interesting and valuable content from other people.

Here is a link to one of the Dressage Perspectives playlists, which features some of the interviews which Charles de Kunffy shared. I really hope that you enjoy the wisdom and dry humour of this wonderful man as much as I do!

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLKb41zORXi-P0A4Rj9ObjnWDZE7MMKrsM

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Review of the Passion K Dressage Saddle from Prestige Italia.

Needing a Dressage Saddle often starts with a saddle fitting problem…

At the end of January a pupil of mine took over the ride on a very interesting little dressage horse who really needed a new saddle. Her owner had already tried just about all of the high quality second-hand saddles she could find and it was obvious that the fitting was going to be too complex for that approach, so I recommended calling in a very good saddler. Undoubtedly the best saddler in the region happens to be a Prestige Italia stockist. I had ridden in one of their gorgeous saddles before and really admired it for comfort, lightness and the design. As the coach and someone who rides the horse regularly I had a vested interest in making sure that the saddle was as great for the rider as for the horse. I was optimistic that he would be able to find us a really good saddle to take both the horse and my pupil’s training forward in.

What I look for in a Dressage Saddle & why I love with this one.

You will notice that this particular saddle does not have an excessively deep seat. I believe a rider must develop a seat that is independent of the saddle, otherwise the saddle is just masking problems and even contributing to tensions. My ideal saddle is barely there; it is pared down, minimal and close contact. In my late teens I was told by my coach that a saddle cannot give me a deep seat and nor can it keep my limbs under control, those things are down to me. It is equally now my responsibility as a coach to make sure my pupils develop good seats. A saddle that gives me the freedom to sit well, if I can, is all I can really ask for.

The saddle must not make us sit badly, beyond that it is our responsibility to sit well.

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There is a relatively flat space at the deepest point of the seat. This ensures that the pelvis of the rider can be held upright, which in turn allows the knee to drop down. The twist of the saddle is wide enough to encourage the rider’s hips to open, but not so wide as to be uncomfortable and thus create tension. The cantle is not excessively high, which I like. The saddle with a high cantle behind you can become a trap under the wrong circumstances. I have seen a rider, in the process of being thrown, get her leg caught around the very high cantle of her saddle which frightened the horse ever further and prolonged the problem for them both. Easy in and easy out is preferable for me! So the seat of this saddle ticks several boxes for me. I think it is an excellent choice for my pupil because it will offer her the freedom to sit well but will not influence her seat excessively.

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Given my love of close contact saddles, the fact that this is a mono-flap was always going to be a selling point. The less that there is between your leg and the horse the better your communication will be. As I discussed in Better Dressage -Contact the leg is a two-way interface, not just a means of issuing instructions. Through a mono-flap saddle you can read the horse more easily and give an aid more easily; a small aid will be more easily felt. I often aid through my inner thigh and knee too, and this is inherently easier to do in a mono-flap saddle.

Now I come to one of the few things that I do not like about this saddle, the relatively big knee block.  To put my tastes in perspective, the following photo is of another student of mine riding in a different saddle, a Podhajsky by Ideal. I first encountered these saddles through my coach and I have recommended them ever since. They are perhaps the perfect saddle to suit my preferences.

M3391M-1011This saddle allowed me to ride advanced dressage, hack out and jump small to medium-sized obstacles in it with equal ease. It was, after all, designed by a person who believed in all round riding and training for dressage horses. Although clearly not the saddle for a specialist show jumper or event rider, it is brilliant for the advanced dressage rider who likes to vary their routine without changing saddles to do so.

 

When it came to fitting a saddle for the mare in question however, I wasn’t about to quibble over knee blocks! If it had been a knee roll I might have done. A roll, if it is too big, can push the knee away and can contribute to closing the back of the hip, thus blocking the energy flow over the horse’s back. Ideally, the inner thigh of the rider should lie as flat as is possible. A block should act only in a worse case scenario, for example if the knee is suddenly displaced by a more than usually violent movement. Under normal riding conditions I would expect the knee to sit with its inner surface flat on the saddle flap, not exerting any pressure on the block. If a riders knee is jammed against a block then there is pressure, upwards and backwards through the thigh bone, which can act against the horse’s attempt to push the seat-bone forward. Whenever we grip inwards into a knee roll or jam the knee against a block we reduce the free movement of our hips, which the horse needs in order to move freely forward.

It is important that, however much it sticks out, the block doesn’t sit in a place that affects the rider’s usual leg position. The block on this saddle actually allows the knee to sit softly on the flat of the saddle flap and is therefore no problem at all.

 

 

The fit of the saddle for the horse was very good. I was really hopeful as we went into the arena that it would prove to be the solution we were looking for. It all depended on how the horse moved in it and how my pupil felt when it was her turn to ride in it. Everyone knew from my smile that I’d fallen in love with it at least! The difference a really good saddle makes to the way a horse works is massive. I knew quickly that the saddle was meeting with the horse’s approval too. Her hind legs were engaged, her back was lifting and swinging, her shoulders were free and she was working happily with plenty of power.

From a rider’s perspective I found the saddle comfortable and easy to ride correctly in. My hips could move freely with the hips of the horse, I could feel her back clearly and my leg felt relaxed and stable. The location of the stirrup bar in relation to the deepest part of the seat is one factor which can influence your leg position and stability a lot. Having a saddle that is the correct size for you has a great bearing on that as well. I was able to use more seat and less seat at will to influence her movement through collection and extension. When there isn’t enough room in the saddle you can end up wedged on your seat-bones and unable to either emphasise or de-emphasise them. When I engaged a little more seat we had big open extensions there for the asking, which meant that she was reading my seat as easily through the saddle as I was able to read her back. The seat is the primary communication interface and it is vital that the saddle lets all of the messages through clearly, both ways! This saddle certainly does that. The leg contact was great too, as you’d expect with a mono-flap saddle.

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How the saddle is working out and why we need a jumping saddle now.

Three months down the line it has proven to be a sound investment. It is a great saddle to ride in and also supports my role as a coach very well. Now that it has been in my life for a while I can say there is nothing I dislike about this saddle. It is comfortable and does absolutely what we need it to do. The little mare is progressing well in her training and seems very happy with our choice.

Do I like this saddle as much as the Podhajsky by Ideal? I’d have to say almost. The Podhajsky remains my absolute idea of perfection! In terms of the seat the Prestige is equally likeable. The main difference, for me is that knee block. I know that if it were the Podhajsky we were dealing with, I’d be able to pop my stirrups up and go for a gallop, or jump a little grid, without that knee block getting in the way. But then, on the other hand, I wouldn’t have the excuse to be tempted by the gorgeous Prestige Italia jumping saddles either! I am now feebly resisting the idea that a  jumping saddle is necessary. After all cross training dressage horses over jumps is really important and you can’t do that in just any old jumping saddle. That is my story and I’m sticking to it 😉

For this particular horse the Podhajsky would not have been a viable option. It starts at 17″ and the Passion K that fits her so well is 16.5″. Sometimes for the smaller horse it is not just the seat length that is an issue with a larger saddle, it can be the length of the points. The points on a saddle designed for a larger horse can obstruct the shoulders of a smaller horse or large pony. The fact that the Passion K was available in 16.5″ makes it a good choice for the larger dressage pony too.

We know that along with all of the other benefits, the Passion K dressage saddle has built-in adaptability as our little mare develops her physique. This is a really practical advantage, that I imagine would appeal to a lot of horse owners. The adjustment requires a saddler to visit of course, but that would always be the recommended course of action anyway.  In terms of price the Passion K, like the Podhajsky, costs a substantial amount, but is not especially expensive in comparison to many specialist saddles. If you are looking for a saddle that will support correct riding, only cost a small fortune, and let your horse move to the best of its capabilities then these are both very good options to check out!

https://www.idealsaddle.com/assets/brochures/Ideal_Dressage_Saddles.pdf

https://www.idealsaddle.com/catalogue/view/2/dressage-saddles

http://www.prestigeitaly.com/#

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Visualise your Inspiration!

Optimise your riding mindset.

Visualisations are a powerful part of a rider’s tool-kit. Often we don’t come across them until we reach an elite level in sport and I think this is a real shame. They are for every rider and can help with confidence as much as performance. Learning to use them is best done with the help of a professional because, to be really effective, they have to be a focused, multi-sensory experience in real-time. I have used them for more than a decade. Usually I would make use of the time before sleeping or just after waking to run through whatever aspects I have decided to focus on.

A few weeks ago I was chatting to a friend who uses similar techniques to help with her competitive career. She offered to send me a mp3 file that she had been using to good effect, so that I could try it out. This would be a bit different to what I had done before because the recording would guide me into a meditative state at the start. It would then focus on skill optimisation. Meditation has been a part of my life for some time. I try to make time for it on a daily basis. I find it calming and it gives me clarity of purpose through the day. I had never thought to combine it with my sports focused visualisations though. I really can’t believe that I didn’t put these two valuable ideas together before!

Become the rider you really want to be.

First of all the recording helped me to achieve the calm, soft focus state and then it began to guide me through the steps which would concentrate on skill development. This was exactly what my friend had told me would happen. What I was totally unprepared for though was the request for me to focus on a sports person in my field that I would choose as a role model. When I have been asked that question before, in a fully conscious state, I have always said Reiner Klimke. Of the many riders I admire, he is the person I always pick if I have to narrow it down to just one rider. But in a deep meditative state, not far off of a trance state, I chose a different rider. Without analysis, without any weighing up of possibilities, out of pure instinct my mind went to Uta Graf. My admiration for Reiner Klimke is undiminished but my subconscious had chosen differently to usual. Through the steps of the visualisation exercises I revealed to myself why I had chosen Uta to model myself on.

I honestly could not say that I admire one of the above riders more than the other. It is not a question of that. I chose the one that I, as an individual, need to learn the most from right now. I have spent my entire adult life on a mission to sit, aid and train horses like Reiner Klimke. I admire the man more than I can say. What became clear was that I was not just choosing a rider for how they sit, for how they aid, for how they train. There are any number of fine examples I could have picked for those reasons. This had gone to a deeper part of my mind, where I knew I needed more joy and more expression in my riding. It will do me good to model my riding on Uta’s in so many ways, but what I need most I think is to smile like her when I am training! I need to be playful as much as I am perfectionist, to be fun, dynamic and positive. I had instinctively chosen a person with an irrepressible sense of joy in life and in riding, a person with a beautiful smile who laughs a lot.

On a physical level, as I worked through the visualisation, I learned that it was the elasticity of body, which Uta has, that I most wanted to acquire. Elastic precision was the way my mind described it. I have always thought of riders like Uta as organic; it is as though they put down roots through the body of the horse and with it become part of it and part of the earth it moves upon. So that is how I would like my skills to develop on a physical level. I have a respectable enough seat and I’m fairly proud of it. Now I have a new level to take my seat to – the organic level, the Uta Graf level! It was only partly about the physical though. My journey as a rider is mostly going to be about my mindset.

My respectable seat has been the product of perfectionism, relentless self-criticism and striving. I think though that I was striving not to be bad, striving to eradicate the faults of my youth. So I have got a decent, functional, dressage seat and I can ride over fences fairly well too. I can apply the aids for all movements sensitively, with a fair degree of subtlety and I have learned a great deal about training and retraining horses over the years. That is a good foundation to build on. As a rider in early middle age I do not want to stagnate and yet in a way I realise I have become stagnant.

Move towards your future self – what to take with you & what to leave.

The change that is to come will be about changing my mindset, about cultivating different sides to my personality. I have always let my horses have a sense of fun and play in training. That is an attitude I already have in common with Uta Graf. I like my horses to express themselves fully. When I ask them a question they soon realise there is no wrong answer, so they can relax. The only thing I actually punish is aggression towards other horses. I ride positively to get the result I want but there is no punishment or even admonishment involved. I ignore what I do not want and I reward what I do want. If someone asked me what I am proud of it would be these things –

  • I have brought about great and positive changes in the bodies of the horses I have trained. I can build relaxed and powerful physiques by building relaxed and happy minds.
  • I can communicate concepts clearly to horses and find it easy to teach them new ideas. Horses learn quickly for me, they are mentally calm and retain what I have taught them.

It is nothing short of a miracle that, given how hard I am on myself, that I am so enlightened and generous to the horses in my life! I would never approach their development in the way I realise I have habitually approached my own. Here is an idea that might seem contradictory at first glance. To take my riding forward from this point I am going to be kinder to myself. I am going to work on finding happiness whilst I am improving. I am going to treat myself a little more like I would a horse that I had begun to train. My goal is no longer to have legs as relaxed and still as Reiner Klimke, that goal has been internalised long ago, so I know I will never stop aiming for that. My new goal, as yet not internalised, is to be more like Uta! Specifically that means for me:

  1. To become an even more supple, more elastic rider physically.
  2. To develop a more joyous and positive mindset towards everything I do.

It should not surprise me that these two things are linked, inexorably bound together in fact. It is no less than Losgelassenheit for the human! After all I know very well that a horse must be free of mental tension to be free of physical tension and I have seen this clearly with my human pupils; so why oh why has it taken two decades to apply this logic to myself?

In a curious way I have just received a lesson in the power of my subconscious mind. I discovered that Uta has produced a book and a series of DVDs and the titles are uncannily appropriate to me right now. This is the publisher, Trafalgar Square Books, description –

Uta Gräf put joy into dressage training for rider and horse

  • Uta Gräf’s Effortless Dressage Program
  • The Joy of Dressage — DVD 1
  • The Joy of Dressage — DVD 2
  • The Joy of Dressage — DVD 3

So here is to the power of meditation, visualisations and the inspiration that is Uta Graf!

 

Readers in the USA can order them from http://www.horseandriderbooks.com/product/UTAGRAFSET.html

In the UK they are available from ABE Books and Amazon at the links below:

https://www.abebooks.co.uk/servlet/SearchResults?an=Uta+graf&bi=0&bx=off&cm_sp=SearchF-_-Advtab1-_-Results&ds=30&recentlyadded=all&sortby=17&sts=t&tn=effortless+dressage

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Books-Uta-Graf/s?ie=UTF8&page=1&rh=n%3A266239%2Cp_27%3AUta%20Graf

 

 

 

Riding Renvers & Travers.

Renvers is an often neglected lateral movement. Travers by contrast is something most riders use a great deal. Why would this be? Well, I’m tempted to be a little cynical and say that Travers is easier (though not necessarily easier to do well). Done correctly these movements are identical; if you rode travers down a narrow corridor, just wide enough for your horse, travers relative to the left wall would be revers relative to the right wall.

So, if they are the same, why would some riders find Travers easier? It is often a perception problem. Naturally enough the rider often focuses on the one part of the horse they know must move off the line.

“One of the keys to dressage training is that the horse learns to move towards you weight and away from your leg.”

The two elements of this advice are blended together for best results but each  also works in isolation. The first element, drawing the horse towards the weight, is the really valuable one. It is always a great feeling when a newly trained horse begins to understand this concept. The second element is the easier one for many riders to grasp in the beginning. Though it continues to be important throughout the training of the horse, and is in no way an inferior type of aid, it is also the more dangerous and can lead us into difficulties. We are faced with the issue that the hindquarters of the horse are generally far easier to displace than it’s shoulders. It is temptingly easy just to push one part of the horse or other away with the leg.

A rider participating in a clinic with me put it this way: “When I am asked to ride a lateral movement I still feel under pressure to get it right, to make it obvious. I feel silly if I don’t get ‘enough’ of the movement when lots of people are watching. I’m not thinking about setting it up properly. If you say Travers I think leg back and push. So thats what I do and I hope for the best.” Whilst some riders tend to panic a bit, because they don’t feel totally at home with lateral exercises, there are also a lot of experienced riders who fall into this fault for the opposite reason; they become blasé and can become mentally disconnected from the movement because it is so familiar.

That susceptibility of the horse’s quarters to displacement leads to a number of problems. These are just a few, off the top of my head.

  • In pirouettes at canter a heavy outside leg can cause lateral steps. This looks like a little sideways stagger on the circle the hind legs are describing.
  • In the counter change of hand, when we change direction, the quarters can start to lead even if they were not doing so in the initial half pass. This happened to me a lot in canter! My outside leg was too heavy in the change.
  • Haunches flying all over the place in tempi changes – and in single changes for that matter. Again I speak from experience of committing the error and then patiently working to correct it.

So you get the picture! This a problem for a lot of riders at absolutely all levels.  The answer for everyone is relaxed, focused preparation.

Renvers challenges riders in part because they have to move the shoulder mass of the horse away from the wall whilst keeping the bend towards the wall. Bottom line is, you can’t just push one end of the horse away from the line and hope for the best. In Renvers, just like in the Pirouette and the Half Pass, it becomes necessary to draw the horse towards your weight in the direction of interior bend. Relying on the ‘push’ element of the aid in not sufficient. The gymnastic value to the horse is only part of the benefit; I have found that getting good quality Renvers helps riders to make better Pirouettes and Half Passes. We get habituated to motion in the direction of bend and get better at drawing the horse towards the direction of travel with our weight aid. 

There are two particular exercises I like to use in teaching this movement. One is to ride in shoulder in, then gradually change the flexion, change the bend, but keep the position relative to the wall. I certainly didn’t invent this one, its a classic! You can transition gently from Shoulder In to Renvers and back again; which is great for suppling. The second exercise is really a perception trick. Imagine that corridor, or create one with movable boards, a little wider than the length of your horse’s body. Ride Travers away from the boards. Now glance at the wall or fence of the school and you are in Renvers relative to that wall. Once you get used to the movement you can get rid of the boards but keep them in your mind if you ever feel confused or flustered by the exercise.

To create higher quality lateral work in general we need a whole body approach to the movements. Don’t think about one part of your horse. The positioning for the movement involves its entire body.

Here is a quick checklist to run through:

  • As you prepare for the movement, have you got inside flexion?
  • Check your body position and weight distribution.
  • As you begin to deliver the aid which will displace the haunches or the shoulders, is your outside rein gently monitoring the degree of bend in the neck. Most importantly is it preventing excessive bend at the base of the neck where it joins the shoulders?
  • Is your inside hip relaxed, your inside hand relaxed enough to let the horse step under with the inside hind, closing the stifle and enabling the quarters to sit around your softly relaxed inside leg?
  • Does the gait you are in continue to flow forward in the same tempo?

In all lateral work the quality of the gaits is paramount – once you have got to grips with a movement, forget it and focus on the walk, trot or canter that you are riding it in.”

If the gait is really deteriorating through the movement it is worth riding straight out of it and getting the quality movement back. When you try again go for a little less angle and/or a little less bend. Make it easier and let it flow. As you get more proficient and the horse gets stronger and more supple you can ask for a bit more.

This really isn’t designed to be a ‘how to’ guide; it is just a few reflections on the subject. If you have very little experience with lateral movements and want to do them I would recommend finding a good teacher, ideally one with a schoolmaster horse. In my opinion, riding regularly with a coach is the very best way to understand all of this. Books and articles are only really designed to support that practical learning.

Keep the balance, don’t burst the bubble!

 

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Imagine that there is a bubble around you and your horse. It moves along with you as you ride. At any time we could hit a pause button and ask the following questions about everything within that bubble:

  • Have I got enough engagement?
  • Do I have the full attention of my horse?
  • Are we correctly aligned?
  • How is our balance?

You are answering only for that moment – it comprises of:

  1. The last stride, which is fading fast from the mind of you and your horse but has a residual bearing on the stride you are in.
  2. The stride you are currently in with your horse, which it is not too late to influence. This is why we build the speed of reaction in a dressage horse and why riders value a ‘quick’ hind leg. What they mean by that is a quick brain to leg reaction.
  3. The stride you are moving in to, which is the most important one of all.

It is impossible to store up impulsion for the future. The body of the horse is not a battery. You cannot create impulsion in one moment in case you need it half an arena later, or even 30 seconds later. If you give in to that temptation you risk ruining the tempo or takt of your horse. If we drive on with our legs, or even our seat, too fast we will end up supporting an unbalanced horse in our hands. This is something that riders can get away with at certain levels. For the horse that moves too quickly, the work of high school that is the basis of FEI levels will never come easily or well without a total re-think in training.

So what might tempt us to ride too quickly? Usually it is a fear of lacking impulsion. My advice is this:

Do not panic about impulsion. You do not create impulsion, that is the job of the horse.

Impulsion is a product of training, not an ingredient. It is second to last on the training scale for a very good reason. rhythm comes almost at the beginning, also for a very good reason. Not everybody loves the training scale, but I do. I have kept to it faithfully and it has been the bedrock of success in even the most challenging remedial training cases.

When you ride only in the moment you will not run the risk of making the horse move too fast. The horse will have good tempo and therefore will be rhythmical, relaxed and balanced. That is when the horse will offer you all of the impulsion it can. Many of us are familiar with the advice not to confuse speed and impulsion. That is great advice but doesn’t really explain the difference. Of course we can legitimately exert a forward driving influence over our horse. It is simply a matter of knowing when and how much is right for that moment. Years ago I watched Lucinda Green give a clinic. The riders were amateurs with various levels of experience. One of the key skills that she outlined was knowing when to use the leg. She said we must identify the moment that the horse questions us and be swift with the leg then, we must not be using the preventative leg half a field away. The context is different but the advice is the same. Riding cross-country, out hacking, schooling dressage, it is all the same deal. Ride the stride you are in and let the future take care of itself, because if you do then it will!

There is more detail about how to use our contacts to communicate with the horse here:Better Dressage – Contact

and more detail about the importance of takt and balance here: Better Dressage – Developing your horse’s trot.

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Riding Renvers & Travers.

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Renvers is an often neglected lateral movement. Travers by contrast is something most riders use a great deal. Why would this be? Well, I’m tempted to be a little cynical and say that Travers is easier (though not necessarily easier to do well). Done correctly these movements are identical; if you rode travers down a narrow corridor, just wide enough for your horse, travers relative to the left wall would be revers relative to the right wall.

So, if they are the same, why would some riders find Travers easier? It is often a perception problem. Naturally enough the rider often focuses on the one part of the horse they know must move off the line.

“One of the keys to dressage training is that the horse learns to move towards you weight and away from your leg.”

The two elements of this advice are blended together for best results…

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Recommended Reading – a review of “Rider Biomechanics” by Mary Wanless.

It might seem odd to start a book review by talking about the cover design but I think it is a really important facet of what makes a book successful. As soon as I set eyes on this book I was intrigued. The colours are well chosen and the design is clear, modern and attractive. Just above the title of the book there is a circle in which it says “An Illustrated Guide – How to sit better and gain influence”. This is the essence of what rider biomechanics can offer you. This is the crux of the entire matter for me. The ability to sit is what gives us influence; it governs every aspect of how we ride and how successful we are in achieving our chosen outcomes. When books about dressage talk about harmony between horse and rider it can seem nebulous. Many riders are left thinking that it is an ideal they are doomed to fall short of. This book makes its practical and effective message clear from the very start.

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Before I get carried away with talking about why I loved this book I want to get a tiny little quibble out of the way. It is the use of the word “elite” to describe certain riders and “average” to describe others. I was a little put off when I first encountered this description; this is why. As I may have mentioned in a previous post, I had a teacher early in my career who did me a massive though quite unconscious favour. The horse I was on kept falling out of balance and out of canter. I had been riding for a few months at this stage. I was very average and no way was the future me visible. I’m sure I looked like a soggy mess. He said to me “When you can ride Grand Prix I’ll expect you to be able to hold a horse in balance.” I believe that it was critical that he didn’t say if, he said when. Added to that I was in a place where I could watch incredibly competent, highly trained riders training horses every day. I knew there was a gap between them and me but I never though in terms of “I am average, they are elite and I want to be more like them”. I knew I could become one of them if I did the work; and so I went on to do the work. So I don’t like to talk about ‘elite’ riders and ‘average’ riders as though they were somehow separate groups of people. After all, thinking you want to become like an elite rider could still lead to you feeling inauthentic, even when you have essentially become one. A Zirconia can be very like a diamond but it isn’t one. Perhaps I’m arguing semantics, and it is only my personal opinion, but the impact of words on the emerging rider’s mind can be more powerful than we realise sometimes. That said, this book will certainly help any rider get from where they are to where they want to be.

I don’t doubt that maybe this book was written with the rider in mind who might self-identify as average. Personally I think that this book has a lot to offer any rider, no matter how educated or ‘elite’ they might already be. For all the wonderful inspiring horsemen and women who have been my teachers, mentors and muses, none have given me any of the information on which this book is based. They could not have done. The science behind this work is cutting edge; it is not within the accepted cannon of equestrian wisdom yet. I believe it will be and I really hope it will be.

For the rider who is in an early formational stage there is a wealth of clear, accurate insights, which they can apply to their personal learning and the training of their horses. For the rider who has an established seat, and even the rider who already has an advanced skill set, there is much to value in this book. Even if ideas that are pointed out for the benefit of the less experienced rider seem obvious to you, there will be a great deal that is new. For me it was not so much the ‘what’ as the ‘how’. I know how I must sit and I know the consequences for my horse if I fail in a particular moment to be what the horse needs me to be. What this book offers is a fresh evaluation of why and it never hurts any of us to gain a better understanding of why. It will make me an even more mindful rider and it will help me immeasurably as a teacher. This could really do to be a core text for trainee instructors. There is a lot here for the general riding instructor and for coaches in the specialist disciplines.

Thomas Myers meeting with Mary Wanless and the recognition that each had of the other’s expertise was a fortunate thing for all of the riders wise enough to read this book. When experts in seemingly separate fields meet they often see in one another ideas that will translate or inform something seemingly unrelated. I happen to think that all things are related.

This book is too well written ever to over face the reader but it certainly demands our focus. If you want to get the best from it you cannot skim read, but that is true of most really good books. It deserves and demands our full attention. The excellent illustrations supported my growing understanding of just what the Fascial Net is and what it does. My understanding of it prior to reading this book was minimal and hazy. It was possibly at a similar level to many riders. Thankfully part one of the book walked me through the basics that I would need later on. It is entitled “The Fascial Net and Feel”. The explanations are clear and gave me confidence that this book was definitely going to make sense to me. One measure of a good teacher is that they can explain a complex matter simply. This extends to writing and Mary Wanless is highly skilled in both teaching and writing.

Part One is designed to equip us with an understanding of the concepts that underpin the rest of the book. I felt that it does that very well. The subsequent parts are structured to lead us deeper into our understanding of how the human body functions on the horse, the role of the Fascial Net in that functionality, how it interacts with the Fascial Net of the horse and how that impacts the functionality of the equine body. The interplay between our body Fascia and that of the horse is the heart of the matter and the heart of the book. Far from being a dry academic synopsis of what can go right and what can go wrong, this book offers no nonsense advice for how to put things right between you and your horse. In this regard we get the best of Mary Wanless as a riding teacher as well as a glimpse into a fascinating aspect of biology, which is relatively new to the mainstream understanding. The knowledge that this book offers really needs to filter out into the mainstream and add its weight to the growing general interest in rider biomechanics.

I always say there is one caveat with any book about riding or training horses. Understanding alone will not make you a better rider. Only a combination of reading and riding will allow us to improve. The riding must always be the greater proportion of this equation but the reading is also essential if we truly want to change. This book inspires me to think, to reflect and, most importantly, to get on a horse and try to be better at what I do.

I would highly recommend this book to any rider, at any stage of their personal journey. I would particularly recommend it to teachers of riding at all levels. For those of us who want to make our students and their horses happier, more comfortable and more successful there are valuable keys in this book to achieving that. If you decide to get a copy please leave a comment and let me know what you think. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did!

Rider Biomechanics by Mary Wanless is published by Kenilworth Press, an imprint of Quiller Publishing Ltd. My copy of this book was kindly provided by Quiller Publishing.

You can buy a copy directly from www.quillerpublishing.com

You can find out more about the work of Mary Wanless at www.mary-wanless.com