December Stephen Check-in

Stephen Birchall teaching Pig and I in August
Photo by Liz
I've started treating Stephen Birchall's clinic visits as "check in visits." Moments to get pro eyes on Pig and I as a pair, and shape the path of our training for the next short period. Stephen is excellent at giving me feedback on the progress we've made, good or bad. I can then pick his brain on the direction we should be heading in, and concepts to explore to make our work better.

At this point in Pig's career, everything is about refinement and relaxation. There aren't a lot of new concepts to introduce. He knows the basics of every aspect of dressage (except the piaffe and passage work, but I don't think that's ever going to be a worry for us). Our training refrain has just become "More, Better." Stephen helps me figure out how to get more, and how to make it better.
A critical eye is always helpful! Even (especially!) in established partnerships.
Photo by Liz
Last time Stephen saw us, Pig was in desperate need of a stifle injection. We had been struggling with connection, namely a quick enough hind end to support the connection. He encouraged me to do more posting trot in my saddle, and be tactful when asking for more from the weak leg. 
Thankfully, that funky right hind seems to be much more comfortable now!
A little after Stephen was here, Pig ended up finally getting his injections. Since then, we've been working on coaxing him through his residual anxiety issues as they relate to the weak joint. On Sunday, Stephen immediately remarked that he saw an improvement in the way Pig was responding and moving. While I have a sneaking suspicion that he is just impressed a 19 year old thoroughbred is still going, I'm not going to peek too hard at his compliments.
Looking good for an old man!
I prefer having time between lessons to work out concepts and ideas on my own, to bring my progress and questions to the teacher for the next lesson. At the last lesson we'd explored a few tactics on getting Pig even in both reins as well as work on improving Pig's responsibility for his own balance. I was able to report back what was working to get him in both reins, and further drill down on those tactics. 

We also explored how far we could remove support from Pig before he started to panic under the weight of his own responsibility. We really drilled down here when it came to the canter departs.
A stuttery and surprised depart to start...
Pig's first canter depart was dull. He was a bit dead to my aids, and when I tapped him he stuttered into the canter. Stephen immediately had me bring him back down and try again. 
A bit more explosive...
The second depart was certainly not dead to my aids. Pig lurched forward, giving me a lovely head toss. It was as if he said "Woman! I'm listening! Geeze!"

Stephen remarked, "I'm not seeing that he's being bad, I'm just seeing that maybe he's trying too hard." This is accurate. When we tried the next depart, Pig was determined to nail the depart. I guess he did?
Third depart. Now with more explosion!
I'd like to point out that my aids for these departs are pretty minor. For the most part, all I'm doing is shifting my outside leg slightly back and lifting my inside hip. The horse is just incredibly sensitive and very concerned with doing the right thing. It's that thoroughbred hotness coming through. 
Example: I didn't really ask for this depart. I did, however, lift the wrong hip at the right time. Whoops!
I mentioned to Stephen that Pig's reactions tend to get bigger when he feels like his shoulders are in his way. Instead of shifting or lifting them, he just explodes through them. Stephen suggested some of the work I was doing to lighten the shoulders and shift weight to the hind end in the walk might be causing Pig to fall out of alignment.


Lovely depart!
The moment I stopped micromanaging the depart and let Pig travel straight before cuing, all our tension melted away. Pig stepped right into a lovely canter. 

Note to self: The horse is better at figuring out where to put his legs in a canter depart than me. Let him do his job.

Stephen wasn't even worried about the downward transitions. Those are looking lovely right now.
Just sit up and let the walk develop. Could be more uphill, but I'm not worried about it for now.
The canter itself is feeling much better than a couple of months ago! Pig is finally starting to use his stifle again without panicking. His canter is still fairly flat, but it's stopped being so horribly 4 beat. I'm also slowly adding in exercises to help lift the shoulders and create more jump from the hind legs.
I could watch that right hind sit all day long, because some days it just doesn't.
The collection is there, I just need Pig to be more comfortable moving more uphill to be able to consider debuting him at 4-1. There's a lot of work ahead to see if we're even ready, but I am happy to try as long as the horse keeps wanting to do the work.
Werk that right hind, Piggy.
On the agenda ahead?
- Increase uphill balance in the canter.
- Continue working towards relaxation before and after changes.
- Confirm ability to change 3x on a diagonal without totally misplacing our brains (see point above).
- Increase bend and self carriage in the half passes and shoulder-in. Continue working on horse carrying his own balance, instead of my micromanaging everything (and failing).
- Continue developing a more even connection in both reins, coming from a more even hind end.
Till next time, Stephen!
Photo by Liz


  1. Oooh love that last canter depart! You're both looking awesome!

  2. Hot diggity dog! Or maybe hot diggity Piggity? Regardless, you two are looking beautiful and three cheers for lightbulb moments.

  3. lol i feel like i've ridden one or two of those canter departs on Pig haha.... so you say he's sensitive, eh?

  4. Wow you two look amazing. I hope to clinic with Stephen sometime!

  5. Replies
    1. HAHAHA! Well, TECHNICALLY he's only 18. But he's really damn close to that 19th birthday, so I'm calling it.

  6. Wahoo, 19 and showing us all how it's done!

  7. PIg is AMAZING!! You are both looking SO good and I'm just silly excited that you are staring 4TH LEVEL IN THE FACE!! :D

  8. You guys look fantastic! (And extra credit to Pig for looking so fantastic at 19.) I always find myself shocked at how well my horse knows how to manage his own legs if I just let him (though honestly, he can hardly manage them half the time, so it's not like I don't have a reason for trying to micro-manage).

  9. What an incredible improvement on that transition


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