Stephen Birchall Clinic Part 1: The Defenestration of Austen

"Defenestration: n. Developed from the Latin. Roughly defined: the action throwing a person out of a window as a way of removing said person from power. See also: The Defenestration of Prague, an obscure series of historical window-throwings from the time of the Protestant Reformation, reminding all of us to stay away from windows during times of political upheaval in the Czech Republic."
-- Pig, Equine Historian, Ph.D.
Last weekend, we had another opportunity to clinic with Stephen Birchall. Though I've been in desperate need of a lesson and really been looking forward to this clinic, I somehow let the whole thing sneak up on me. Adult amateur problems, yo. Unfortunately, this meant I went into my Saturday lesson kind of unprepared and mounted on a fire-breathing red dragon.
"I saw a mouse!" -- Pig
I've always said that some of the best lessons come when you are not at your best, and I suppose that could be said of this one. Maybe. I think I'd prefer to have had my A game, though.

The lesson started with me explaining that we are planning to show Third this year, in an attempt to collect our final Bronze Medal scores. I went on to explain that I feel our collection is finally developed enough, but the canter work is feeling much weaker than the trot. I think I called it "flat and tense." The changes, I went on, are much more confirmed, though exuberant and "bolty."

Obviously, that intro meant we had a brief warm-up followed by nearly exclusive work in the canter.

Once cantering, Stephen picked out immediately that I need to get better body bend from Pig. This was one of the things I'd had brought to my attention by the judge at our recent schooling show, and something I was hoping we could work on. To address this issue, Stephen had me take more inside rein, using my inside leg to keep Pig stepping into the bridle.
"They tried to make me go to rehab. I said 'no, no, no'..."
-- Pig, Emperor of Tense Bend
As per usual, Pig reacted to this insist aid for more bend by tensing his whole body and popping out his outside shoulder. But when I tried to correct this by using my outside rein, Stephen stopped me.

"You're blocking him with that rein." Huh. "Give with the outside when you take on the inside. Otherwise he feels trapped and just goes tense. Use your seat and legs to straighten him out and keep him in the bridle." Oooh.

What resulted was a careful dance. I would put Pig in the bridle solidly, and he would be very straight. Then I would put on my inside leg a touch more, and ask for more bend with my inside hand, giving slightly with my outside. Once I had more, I carefully took a half halt with both reins, ensuring I followed that up with enough oomph from the hind end to get more jump, not a flatter stride. The outside rein release was barely a breath. Any more release, and Pig reacted like I had dropped him and refused to go into the contact again. (Stephen was quick to emphasize that I needed to pay more attention to my hands. They are getting too noisy during moments they should be quiet.) The breath release allowed him to feel like he could lift his shoulders and have the room to contort his body into the deeper bend.  If he took too much advantage to the outside, I kept my outside rein, but used my seat and a thump with my outside leg to remind him not to blow through me. This is very similar to a lesson from the last Stephen clinic.

Stephen is big on emphasizing those loose leg bumps as a way to keep the horse relaxed and "breathing". It seemed to work to defuse a tense situation. The solid but not constant bump of my leg seemed to break through Pig's muscle tensing and get him to relax a split second. Sort of like slapping a person who is having a nervous breakdown.
Maaaaybe less dramatic, though.
At this point, Stephen pointed out that I needed to be more aware of my inside leg when asking for bend. He kept repeating to me to keep my heels down and my leg longer. He also kept nailing me for moving my right leg back to catch Pig's wayward haunches. Oops. He seemed to think the severe issue with Pig's right haunch falling in may be both learned (he's been able to get away with it) and residual pain response. He pointed out that Pig seemed to have no issue actually using that leg normally once I corralled it appropriately.

He tried to have me fix the issue by leaning to the outside, forcing Pig to straighten up. This did work, but the alacrity of Pig's reaction caused Stephen to exclaim "So, he's awfully sensitive!" He suggested this issue would be more fixable with my seat by catching it early in the warm-up.

At this point we moved on to a little counter canter, but it was pretty obvious that I didn't have enough control of the shoulders and haunches to keep the counter canter. Stephen had us come back to the 20 m circle, practicing haunches in and shoulder in at the canter on the circle to get a better control over Pig's body.
Pirouette canter on the horizon?
With controls reinstalled, we headed back out to do a ton of 3 loop serpentines, holding the lead. Within the counter canter sections, we worked on getting a steeper bend. This not only helped me to keep the lead, but also helped Pig stay balanced over his "outside" hind leg. In other words, more bend meant we weren't falling out of the canter as much.
Better balance = better half halts
Once we had the counter canter pretty confirmed, and Pig wasn't so tense that he was tuning me out and swapping constantly, we moved on to add a single change.
Pictured: Exuberant and "bolty"
Stephen didn't seem too horrified by our ugly changes (or at least he hid his horror pretty well!), but he was insistent that there is a lot more I need to do with them (obviously...). His biggest issue related to bend (notice a theme?). He pointed out that after our changes, Pig is still bent in the original direction.


Basically, I need to do less celebrating that we got the change and more riding the movement and the strides directly after the change. Maybe keeping my butt in the saddle during that leap n' flail would help, too. This issue is entirely rider error, so it's really up to me. Even though Stephen pointed this out, I struggled to really get this all weekend. Chalk this up to something I'll be working on.

We quickly moved from this movement to the centerline -> half pass -> change movement from 3-2. Stephen was happy with Pig's half passes, calling them "quite nice" and suggesting that I be careful not to allow more angle to develop when trying to increase the bend.
Things we do well...
We fooled around with this movement quite a bit, trying different prep approaches to get better bend switching in the change. Pig was getting very sharp to my change aids in the process, leading to one extremely explosive change when I cued him the "normal" amount, but he thought it was way too much. In his normal way, Pig let me know I was riding too aggressively by nearly pitching me right out the open window of the arena...
Pictured: A classic power shift via defenestration. Not pictured: My face when I realize I can see the ground outside and just might be landing on it head first...
Sensitivity. Thy name is thoroughbred.

I think the whole moment really shook Pig and Stephen the most, and it honestly ended our lesson. Pig's brain was shot after this. We did some more work, but the horse made his opinions on repeating this exercise very clear by flat out refusing to half pass to that corner...
Straight up noping.
He also tried the his classic move: bolting when I tried to half halt from my seat, and slamming to a halt when I closed my hands...
"What part of 'nope' was hard to understand?!"
At this point, I just walked Pig out and explained to Stephen that the only way to get his brain back at this point was to just walk and take off all pressure. I told him sometimes he comes back enough to take a little pressure, but sometimes he doesn't.
Pig's feelings on the whole thing.
Stephen agreed and we ended up just chatting more about some things I can do. He stressed that above all, I need to be much more tactful with this horse. I already know I need to be a quiet and tactful rider, but Stephen suggested I take it even further. He said that I don't "crank and spank", but that with this horse any sort of correction is going to be taken as punishment, and I have to be very judicious in my application of the aids.

It was kind of an interesting discussion, especially when I later realized this is one of the first times Pig has brought all of his nervousness to bear in a lesson and I knew enough to realize exactly what was going on. Stephen seemed very wowed by how sensitive Pig proved himself to be in this lesson, but seemed interested when I said that most of that sensitivity has to do with pressure. If there is no pressure, his sensitivity is much lower. As we've started schooling higher levels, he feels the pressure more easily.

All of that aside, I left this lesson still feeling like Pig and I are capable at the level and feeling more empowered in our working relationship. That might seem odd, but maybe it was just due to splitting a bottle of champagne with Emma afterwards...
"Look, Lady. I didn't actually toss you out the window. You should gimme some bubbly as a gift of gratitude."


  1. Looks like a very beneficial lesson. Fiction is the same way - the slightest correction makes him lose his mind. These types of horses are crazy tough to ride :( But you do a fantastic job!

    1. Balancing enough aid and too much aid is so tough!!

  2. I love that last picture! And that near window toss was quite spectacular, way to bring the sticky seat. That is interesting about how Pig gets more sensitive as the pressure increases.

    1. Lol. These breeches aren't actually very sticky... maybe it's time to invest in some better ones.

    2. I was actually referring to your butt, but edited it to seat because sticky butt sounded too weird... :)
      You have some impressive stickability.

  3. I feel like Henry and Guinness have a lot in common.

  4. omg "defenestration" LOL classic, Pig. also i <3 stephen, he definitely has some very useful and valuable insights!

  5. I love thoroughbred sensitivity. It can definitely be a challenge, but it's much better than riding some dullard. It sounds like you got a lot of good information during the ride.

  6. What a great clinic! You gifs are awesome!

    1. There's just something fun about fail gifs. Haha!

  7. Love all the insights Stephen was able to give you about Pig and his... dramatic reactions. It's so encouraging and motivating to have a lesson like that and know that you are on the right track!

    1. "I'm just holding out hope that riding this horse will make me a better rider."

      "A more patient one, for sure."


  8. It's definitely more helpful to have the meltdowns in a lesson. Plus you got an awesome GIF out of the deal too! His half passes are so steller, I love them.

  9. Dazam! What a lesson! I have to say I am super impressed with how Stephen took it all in. I feel like a lot of trainer's and clinicians may not have been as helpful in those situations. Above all you know your horse and he recognized it and worked within Pig's sensitivity parameters.

    1. I think he was pretty thrown by near window-accident, and Pig's immediate and strong reaction to it. Haha. Good thing that horse and I are practically an old married couple by now. :)

  10. Maybe you should give Pig the champagne BEFORE the lesson? Might help him relax a little lol!

  11. Ries gets sensitive too as we "move up the levels" (training level to first level lol)

  12. "Any sort of correction is going to be taken as punishment." Forever the thoroughbred struggle. Val never was quite this sensitive on a regular basis, but it was still something we struggled with for a long time. For a while we had to work on getting him a little more dead to the aids, just so we could kind of reteach a proper response. It was a real struggle bus, and I still fried his brain with a pony kick the other day because I'm a dum dum. It sounds like Stephen addressed most of this really well though and had a lot to offer.

    1. Yeah, I definitely don't handle the sensitivity well every single day. It doesn't help that Pig will start out a ride behind the leg, and gradually turn into a dragon.

  13. Ok first off your gifs are HILARIOUS.

    And second I think our horses are twins. I was really hoping the sensitivity would decrease as we moved up the levels, but maybe no? uh oh.

  14. Aside from all of the drama, you guys worked on some interesting things. With both of my horses, my trainer has had me do a lot of work with increasing the bend with the inside rein. Not just getting a bend, but over exaggerating it. At our lesson this week, we moved on to the outside rein and getting the bend with the inside leg. There are so many different ways to explain it to the horses and so many different purposes you can achieve with different exercises. Of course, it's much easier to do when you and the horse stay together in the same building. :0)

  15. Damn. So sensitive. I admire how in tune to it you are! Definitely kind of a blessing and a curse that it came out in the lesson as it did, but always good to learn more about how you can improve such shenanigans. ...that window incident tho! Oh dear!!!! Your write ups are always amazing. The captions and gifs in this are so spot on, too.

  16. I just loved reading this post- it was hilarious commentary! But actually great that Stephen got to see Pig in all his glory to allow for a beneficial discussion! I think you two are fabulous!

  17. That last gif is Kika's go to "no" response also, if i don't release pressure at this point and change the question I end up on a circus horse waving at the crowd.

    Fab tips in this, all miles above my skill level, but deff sounds like a fab lesson. As embarrassing and disappointing as it is at the time i prefer my horse to throw the toys out of the pram in a lesson so the professional can see exactly what I'm dealing with and give me more tools to counteract & balance the reactions...Sadly through cost is always what eats at the bank balance *gulp*


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