Monday, March 6, 2017

Checking on Our Training: Working Toward 4th

Pictured: All of us looking for 4th level. Not pictured: Anyone finding it.
At this point, Fourth Level looms at me like something from my nightmares. On our best days, Pig feels like a confirmed horse. On our worst, I feel like I'm trying to coerce a shoulder in out of a thrashing fish. (There's a visualization for you!) In an effort to give myself a little more focus and confidence in our training and progress, I've started looking more closely at the requirements of fourth level and the test I'm focusing on the most, 4-1.

USEF states the purpose of Fourth Level is: "To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and has developed sufficient suppleness, impulsion and throughness to perform the Fourth Level tests which have a medium degree of difficulty. The horse remains reliably on the bit, showing a clear uphill balance and lightness as a result of improved engagement and collection. The movements are performed with greater straightness, energy and cadence than at Third Level."

Let's break that last bit down:

1. Horse remains reliably on the bit.
Exhibit A. Horse on bit.
This is really not an issue for us any longer. We have mild blips, but he's very willing to get back to work after them. I would call this quite reliable, and much better than last year.

2. Horse shows a clear uphill balance and lightness as a result of improved engagement and collection.
This is a bit harder for me to see. With Pig being a thoroughbred, uphill tendency tends to look a bit different in him than the fancy warmbloods I'm used to seeing. Plus, his tendency is to travel fairly earthbound through his shoulders. That said, I think we have some improvement to our basic gaits.
Our average trot right now.
The trot is much improved since our work last year. Pig finds lifting his withers much easier, and doesn't struggle as much in the connection when I ask him for more. We could use more overall engagement, but for a daily work trot I think this is good. He'll give more when I ask, but I'm leery of stressing that stifle more than necessary.
Status of the canter, more questionable.
The canter is less confirmed. I spent the autumn and early winter fixing the incessant 4 beating fault we'd developed during our quest for relaxation. Now I'm working on reconciling that with a lifted wither. We really struggle when it comes to getting Pig to lift his front end at the canter and keep his back loose. I'm 99% sure that difficulty comes from a reluctance to articulate the hip/stifle. When he feels good, this is easier. When he isn't as confident he can do it pain-free, it is not. We take things day by day. That said, the gait quality is much better than it was last fall and the roundness hasn't totally disappeared. I'll take it.
Gait quality = some improvement shown
Also, that walk photo on the right. Wtf horse. Did you forget that leg was attached? Jesus.
3. The movements are performed with greater straightness, energy and cadence than at Third Level.
Here we are making big strides. Last fall our changes were on the aids (finally) but were wildly out of control and usually late behind. Now, our single changes look a lot more like this:
Can I get a HELL YES? Seriously. Can I?
The left-right change is nearly always clean, straight, and relaxed now. It's my fault when it's not almost every time. Pig is getting very confident here. The right-left change is a bit more difficult. While it's on the aids, typically straight, and relaxed, it's not usually clean. I'm not sure if this is because the left hind is slow or the right hind doesn't want to push. I'm leaning towards the latter issue, and working to address it. Right now that means our r/l change can look like this:
It's clean...er?
I'm extremely happy with how quickly he comes back to a balanced and relaxed canter following that... ahem... moment. There was a time a wild effort on a change would have left us bolting headfirst into the wall, or me nearly flying out the window. Let's give a momentary cheer those days have started to recede into the background.

Other movements are coming along, too. Notably the half pass where we are working to increase the bend (and therefore the engagement).
Needs more bend, gets more bend. That left ribcage is quite the stubborn thing. But, NBD. We're fixin' problems like a boss.
The struggle here, as always, is getting Pig to lower his haunches without resistance. He's getting much better about it, especially as he learns I won't make him stay down in that heavy squat for the rest of his life. #noonelikeswallsits

Now, as we look specifically at the 4-1 test, there are a few new movements for the test: collected walk; very collected canter; walk pirouettes; multiple flying changes on diagonal.
Accurate representation of our exact reaction to those movements.
I have no video evidence of the walk pirouettes or very collected walk. It's coming along, though. Turns on the haunches have been our strength for a very long time, and Pig is translating that work to walk pirouettes like a champ. I'm not too worried, as long as I can keep that left hind from stepping wide when it should be stepping in.

The very collected canter, developing into a working pirouette by the end of the the level, is something we've really started to hit hard.
Moar sit now, plz.
While we're making progress, I need to be sure not to wear out Pig's joints with this work. It's really hard, and when he's sore he's a total pill about literally everything else (and who can blame him?!). It's not worth it to push this too far. He's getting the idea and building strength.

Right now the biggest issue is keeping his power up when we finally get the hip to drop. I'm paying close attention to my reins, as any pulling will just STOP his hind legs in their tracks. Still, it's a careful balance. I find myself using haunches-in on a circle to help develop the feel, ala a Jeremy Steinberg clinic tip.
Sitty, sitty, spinny, spinny
This exercise forces Pig's hip to sit, allowing me to ask for more power and a yielding ribcage. It's really a great exercise, and is helping us develop lift in the shoulders. Again, I need to be conscious of not over-using it. Keeping the circle large is also key to ensuring this exercise doesn't earn me a one-way-ticket to tantrum land from my poor overworked creature.

Finally, we get to the truly nightmare-inspiring addition: multiple flying changes on diagonal. As a single change was a major struggle until recently and I am no wizard at teaching or riding changes, it makes sense why this addition intimidates me. I don't think I'm alone, either. Tempi changes take a lot of organization, relaxation, and timing to pull off. I think everyone moving up to 4th feels like they could use a lot more of all of those skills.

Still, I've been pretty confident in our ability to at least get three changes across the diagonal. (Noticeably much less confident about our ability to do them cleanly or not careen through the wall of the arena at the end, though) The development of relaxed single changes has given me a lot more confidence in this, and I've started adding multiple changes into a few of our rides. Just to test, you know.
Hold your applause, please. You'll spook the horse. Also, yes. I know that second change was really late. See above about fixing that one.
At the moment two changes without bolting headlong into a tree is pretty reliable. Even on a bad day*. This is crazy to me. We can get three, but usually that's a bit too much for Pig to keep a lid on his exuberance. At that point I tend to lose a half halt for at least 5 minutes. Not exactly ideal, but we're getting there. This is huge news. Honestly, this is news I never thought I'd share.
(*Note: All these clips are from days I would call "not our best" and "pretty stiff and resistant". Yeah, I know. What is this madness?!)

I'm keeping work on multiple changes to the long side for now. It's easier to keep them straight over there, and easier to keep the wild dragon at bay. For some reason changes in the middle of the ring are crazy exciting. Horses are weird.
Too bad they don't offer a pas de deux with dogs in USEF. We'd nail that.
Just sharing this post makes me feel a lot more confident about what is ahead this season. While I'm sure we'll struggle to get anywhere close to a 60% at 4th this year, I'm insanely excited to give it a try. Especially on this happy red horse. We just have a lot of muscle, timing, and confidence to increase this year.

What upcoming challenges are keeping you up at night? Do we have any in common?

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Jeremy Steinberg: A lecturing clinician

Living in an affluent equine area might have a few drawbacks (the price of veterinary care, for one!), but one huge plus is the easy accessibility of excellent clinicians to audit. Jeremy Steinberg, past USEF Dressage Youth Coach and prolific clinician, has become quite popular in my area. In the last 6 months, he's been out three times and I have been lucky enough to audit his clinics.

While I would love to ride with Steinberg when he comes, my finances have not allowed me to splurge on such a thing. At first I believed my horse and our work not to be worth such a clinic, but I am starting to change my mind. With our work towards 4th improving monthly, I do think it's time to bite the bullet and sign up. Of course, that means eating less, cutting the fun budget entirely, refusing to turn on the heat, and no driving except to the barn. Oh, the joys of riding and training dressage on a budget!
Plus his tattoos are pretty stellar!
Thankfully, Steinberg is an amazing clinician to audit. I am able to take what I learn from auditing and apply it to Pig, getting plenty of bang for my auditing buck. If you get the chance, I would highly recommend sitting in on his teaching. As expected from someone who spent a great deal of time instructing young riders on the theory of dressage, his lecturing skills are fantastic. He is comfortable guiding a young rider through the how and why of developing contact, asking pointed (but kind!) questions to discover the depth of the rider's knowledge. At the same time, he is comfortable working with an upper level rider on refining the aids and balance for Grand Prix work.
Working with a rider on developing consistent feel in the piaffe
As an audience member, I feel Steinberg always has an awareness of his auditors. His style is definitely to lecture-heavy. In fact, riders might feel that he talks more than they ride! In some cases this might be true. However, he is so analytical in his teaching that riders are put through their paces to discover exactly where the training holes are in their partnership with the horse.

Most ride more than once in multi-day clinics, adding to the fun. While not always to easy catch from a time management perspective (damn you real life and your responsibilities!), it is fun to see a horse and rider pair change over the course of the weekend. Jeremy holds his riders to a high level of accountability. A pair is expected to have absorbed the lessons from the day before and not need the same lesson two days in a row. While he is content to call out a reminder of the work from the previous day, it is clear he expects to be able to move on an work on other concepts. The message is clear: "Riders! Do your homework!"
Steinberg lecturing a rider on the relationship between bend and power generation in the canter.
When it comes to style and approach-ability, Steinberg is a master. He cracks jokes throughout his lectures, and maintains a light and easy demeanor with riders and auditors alike. He is very friendly and open to questions. During his teaching, he often draws comparisons between riding and other parts of daily life. This makes his teaching memorable and easy to visualize. Some of his favorite comparison topics are weight lifting, cars, and Finding Nemo seagulls (mine!).

A rider warms up while another lesson finishes.
A few gems from recent clinics include:

- "You're the personal trainer for your horse. Personal trainers have to be a little tough. If they aren't a little greedy, they'll never get their client results. But, a good personal trainer has to balance that greed with an awareness of the emotional and physical abilities of their client. You can't push your horse past what he can take emotionally, nor should you wear them out working on an exercise."

- "Think of the horse as a seagull from Finding Nemo. They are simple minded creatures, with a tendency to get fixated on something. If you spend too long trotting around to the left, they might develop a fixation on that outside rein thinking 'MINE! MINE! MINE!'. It's best to avoid that whole fixation in the first place by mixing up the work before they can latch on to something. Changes of direction, tempo, and gait should come more quickly with a horse who tends to zone in and fixate."
Steinberg, explaining his theory of horse psychology.
Often Steinberg will mix up these comparisons with some delving into horse psychology. "If horses were people, they'd be psychopaths," he said at a recent clinic. "They have no ability to regret. They don't understand human emotions. You can't train them like they do." That said, he obviously has a lot of love and respect for the animals he works with, advocating often for fairness in training. His belief in understanding horse psychology seems to come from a desire to do right by the animals.
Steinberg explaining why a horse pushed to go too fast in a gait may struggle and fall off balance.
When it comes to working a horse through a tough spot, Steinberg's focus on psychology really comes out. "Horses are pathological liars. You'll ask for something and they'll tell you 'I can't do that. It's too hard.', 'my leg doesn't move like that!', or 'there isn't enough room for my body to do that.' The interesting bit of pathology is that they believe their own lies." Moving forward, he went on to explain the rider has to show the horse that their belief is a lie, but the approach to the issue differs whether the problem comes from emotional or physical problems. Either way, "You want the horse to take ownership of his own mistakes. If the mistake comes from a resistance from the horse [the example in this case was a horse swapping leads rather than sitting more in the collected canter], don't fix it for him. That was his mistake, and he has to figure out how to resolve it."

Obviously Steinberg doesn't put all the blame on the horse. "Now, you have to be careful with this. It's the job of the rider to know when a mistake is their fault. It's a partnership, you both need to be responsible for your own balance and actions to work together effectively. Neither you or the horse can hold each other's hand through the work."
Rider and horse working to maintain balance in increased collection.
Steinberg's style is straightforward and tailored to the horse and rider pair he works with. His breadth of experience seems to make him a good fit for most, which seems rare to me. I tend to take copious notes during my time auditing. I'll throw some of those notes up on the blog in the coming months to share the knowledge! That'll just take some editing as I go through them.

I know some California bloggers recently had the pleasure of auditing and riding for Steinberg. Does anyone else have experience with him or want to tell me about any other dressage clinicians you love?