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  • Grace Owsley

Clinic Coverage - Day 1 - Downward Transitions, Shoulder Control, Accepting Awkward & More

For the first time since COVID-19 took over the world, I was recently able to get coaching from Tara Stegen from Wellington. I never really got my PIXEM robot camera set up for remote coaching, which I could have done, but there is something different about getting instruction right there in person. I love the idea of getting coaching anywhere anytime, but I much prefer having someone right there with me to be honest.

What's Happening on the Inside

We started with "Toes," who is a 12 year old Oldenburg mare that I have been working with for roughly a year and a half. At the beginning, I explained to Tara how the training has been going and some concerns I had with her way of going since she saw us last, several months back. My personality has the tendency to internalize the issues, so if a horse isn't performing as I believe they should be (in my dressage rider perfectionist mind), I automatically assume that I'm the problem and that I'm causing the issues. In horseback riding, the unfortunate reality is that the human DOES in fact cause a lot of issues, but there are many other variables to consider. Tara asked me about her supplements and the possibility of ulcers. She also asked about joint supplementation later on in the ride. I knew that her supplement had gut and joint included, but it made me realize that sometimes it's easy to just assume something is working well for the horse because of the claims on a label. It was a good reminder that it's important to constantly evaluate and re-evaluate supplements and make changes where needed, not just assume that they are doing their job. After consulting Toes' owner, we decided to add a bit more joint support, and although we aren't sure if ulcers are a possibility, we are going to investigate it to be on the safe side.

Downward Transitions - Too Much Leg at the Wrong time

Have you ever heard the adage, "work smarter not harder"? It was a fairly accurate way to describe what we worked on with Toes that day (more like worked on me, let's be honest). In the warmup, I like to do a lot of transitions, and Tara noticed that Toes was coming underneath herself just fine in the downward from trot to walk, but for some reason I was getting held up on keeping her active in the transition. If I thought she was going to hesitate at all in the transition, I would add leg and push her walk forward. That might sound good, right? You want an active walk after the trot. My problem is that I wasn't even giving her the chance to do the transition correctly. I was already pushing her forward before we even got there. I was adding leg INTO the transition instead of AFTER the transition. She was already half halting, underneath herself and transitioning well. I was just getting in her way, making myself work too hard, and then overusing the leg aid so that when I actually needed it I was already pestering her and micromanaging instead of allowing her to go on her own (and then allowing for correction IF NEEDED).

Tara had me concentrate on softly using my seat for the transition, and then once she transitioned I gave her a slight tap with the whip afterward if she needed to go forward. She said I shouldn't have to use the leg within the transition; wait until she's walking. It's better for her to make the mistake and learn the correction than for me to prevent her from making a mistake and micromanaging her actions. I could already tell a difference after playing with this correction to my timing.

See the video below!

Checking In With the Outside

Tara had some good observations about Toes that day. She noticed that she bulges out to the right because she doesn’t want to lift her left shoulder up and in. I tend to think about her right side more when this happens, since I notice the bulge out, so I tend to get hung up a lot on the right side being the problem. This observation about the left shoulder made me think about it differently and I started to notice what the left shoulder was doing (or not doing)!

“Tara reminded me that the horse always has to respond to both the inside AND outside leg.”

To help with straightness on the circle, especially going left for us, Tara had me thinking leg-yield in from the outside, but without actually doing it. It was the positioning and attention to the straightness from the outside that helped with alignment and shoulder control. We also did a step of leg-yield in from the outside into a canter-trot downward transition to keep the straightness and activity. Tara reminded me that the horse always has to respond to both the inside AND outside leg. That’s not just on straight lines, but curved lines, circles, and most other movements.

Supple BEFORE Half Halt

The canter on Toes was a bit of a challenge on day one of the clinic. She came out especially stiff that day, and I was having a hard time getting her supple and the half halt just wasn’t there. When you have a clinic ride, you're hoping to come out with your fancy pants already on, but you get the most benefit when things go wrong and your clinician is there to help you work through them! Tara had me make sure the neck was suppled BEFORE doing any half halting. Don’t expect any half halt to work if she’s not supple in the jaw. We played with suppling in the canter, and then once she would release I would ask her into a forward, almost medium canter. To bring her back I would first make sure that she would supple and release before softly bringing her back, and the suppling again before asking her forward again. Toes needed to be suppled to bring her neck down first and then move forward off the leg. She definitely started to let go after practicing this, and she was responsive off the leg to the point where she could bascule with her back better than she was before.

"Don’t expect any half halt to work if she’s not supple in the jaw."

Canter Quality & Straightness for the Wiggle-Butt

Next up was the clinic ride on DJ. His owner hopped on first and had a good warmup lesson with Tara before we switched riders and I finished the second half of the ride. DJ is an Arabian cob gelding that I have worked with for a while now; about a year I believe. He is smart, he is talented, and he’s super wiggly (hence the wiggle-butt title above). He’s hard to keep straight.

At the canter, Tara remarked on the visible improvement to the quality since the last time she saw him about three months ago. It is (VERY) nice to get that conformation about something you’re doing that is going in the right direction. She did suggest that I ask for a bit more forward/active in the canter and more jump to improve the quality further.

See the video below

“Instead of trying to fix the crooked hip, the shoulders needed to be the focus in order to fix the rest of the alignment.”

Canter to the left is a bit of a struggle for DJ. It’s definitely his “bad side.” He likes to push his hip left. Tara had me put him in a shoulder-fore positioning. In order to achieve better alignment/straightness, first the shoulder blade needed to be adjusted, then the rib cage could shift out, and the haunches follow in alignment. Instead of trying to fix the crooked hip, the shoulders needed to be the focus in order to fix the rest of the alignment.

In order to help DJ into that shoulder-fore positioning, I had to check in with my inside hand. I was keeping it too close to his neck. I needed to open my left hand (while going left) a tad wider on that left side so I don’t block his shoulder. Keeping my hand too close to his neck wouldn’t allow his body to move over. The video I posted above includes a bit of this as well.

Allowing the Awkward

We finished with a shoulder-in on the long side with 10m circles spaced in between that would help break up the shoulder-in and allow me to check in with the quality of the trot. The ride on DJ was successful with little fixes that made big changes. Something that we talked about that really stuck out to me was the concept of allowing the horse to be awkward. I don’t know if it’s a dressage rider thing, an equestrian thing, or just me, but I really have a hard time when the horse feels incorrect and unbalanced. I have an urge to immediately fix. What Tara is helping me realize, and what I think is making me a better trainer overall, is that it’s ok for the horse to feel awkward and unbalanced for a time when you’re working through exercises so that they can settle and figure out where they are supposed to be. I have to avoid my perfection complex and be more patient to let the horse work through something that is more challenging. It’s ok for them to feel awkward and out of balance. It’s good for them to have those moments that are awkward; we just have to guide them to where we need them to be and allow them to work through it so they can get to that point and figure out what we are asking of them.

"’s ok for the horse to feel awkward and unbalanced for a time when you’re working through exercises so that they can settle and figure out where they are supposed to be"

Overall it was a very successful day, and we had another set of rides to look forward to the next day. After our own rides, we went to another stable where we watched our friend ride with Tara for the first time on her new handsome Lusitano. It’s always good to watch your clinician teach other people!

I hope y’all are able to see your horses now and get some riding in. If not, keep looking forward because things will change for the better! Stay tuned for part two of this blog, covering Day 2 of the clinic weekend!


OneK blue celestial helmet from Salado Creek Tack Shop

SanSoleil UPF sunshirt (discount code EQSOL)

A braided belt I had in my closet

Roeckl gloves

PIKEUR breeches

Petrie boots

Toes wore my swallowtail style dressage pad from Riding Warehouse (discount code GOWSLEY) and her Toklat boots.

Shoutout to NUUN HYRDATION for keeping us hydrated through the training and on that particularly humid day!

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