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When you hear that international rider and trainer, Tara Stegen, is coming to town again, and that she’s coming sooner than you expected, you jump on the opportunity to clinic with her! Unfortunately, I was only able to do one ride on one horse that particular weekend, but it was a fantastic ride! Tara taught me while I was on my client’s Arabian pony, DJ, who I have been calling the “superstar” lately. This little guy has such an awesome work ethic and continues to try so hard for me.
Lucky for us, Tara had her own transportation and was happy to come to us this time. I’m sure most all of you equestrians can appreciate when you don’t have to pack and load a trailer, haul, then subsequently unpack the trailer all in the same day. It’s always beneficial to get your horses out to different places, but so convenient to clinic at home!
Getting Back the Focus
Our ride started out a bit wobbly, as DJ was very concerned about the thoroughbred that rode before us that would not load into the trailer to go home. The banging sounds and the unfamiliar horse had DJ jumpy and distracted. He craned his neck and spooked and spun a little, so Tara told me to put him to work at the walk. We started to do walking shoulder-in and half pass. It didn’t matter if he was jigging or not perfectly aligned on three or four tracks, it didn’t have to be perfect. The point was to gain back his attention by giving him something else to focus on. After a few minutes, he settled into the work and we could be a little more precise, and then went right back into our trot warmup as if nothing happened. It was a good thing it happened, because now I have something in my toolbox to work with if I am riding him (or another horse) whether at a show or at home, and they are distracted.
"...it didn’t have to be perfect. The point was to gain back his attention by giving him something else to focus on."
Moving the Leg Too Far
Shortly after, we started doing lateral work at the trot. Tara pointed out to me that I was moving my leg too far in the lateral work on DJ. Keep in mind that DJ is about 14.2 hands. He’s a little guy, and although I have a lot of experience on ponies, most of the horses I tend to ride are over 16 hands. I already have a bad habit of moving my leg a tad too far in the lateral work at times, but on a little guy like DJ with a fraction of the barrel size, moving my leg back from the girth much at all is a huge difference, especially compared to doing so on a larger horse. So for the lateral work, she made me that much more aware of my tendency to put my leg too far back, and told me to keep my leg under me on that small of a horse to avoid putting my leg in the wrong place, helping keep my leg aids or guarding leg where they are supposed to be.
Unlocking the Outside
One of the struggles I have on DJ is the right side contact. Straightness to the left is harder for me to get from him, and getting that right side of the contact supple can be a challenge. In the canter, Tara had us do a 20 meter circle tracking left. She then had me counter bend and flex to that right side while traveling left, and have DJ give to that side before straightening and true-bending left again. It was a good reminder to make sure that side of the contact is addressed early on, and counter bending so that they get soft on that side is a good exercise to do it. It’s something that could be done at the walk and trot as well.
"It was a good reminder to make sure that side of the contact is addressed early on"
Check out this video to watch some of this exercise from the clinic, so you can see the difference it made for me and DJ:
Too Much Body Turn
We cantered going the other way shortly after, and then another rider position fix was made when Tara pointed out that I was turning my upper body too much. Looking at my riding videos, it’s not easy to see, but good clinicians catch these things! She felt I was rotating my upper body too much to the inside into the turn. So I was rotating my upper body towards the direction we were turning a few degrees too much. That threatens the straightness, and it also throws off the weight and evenness of my seat bones and hips. Turning your upper body too much to the inside can actually throw the horse’s hips to the outside! She instructed me to make sure that my shoulders and hips were straight and aligned with each other, shoulders square over hips, and that I turn WITH the horse. I didn’t even realize I was doing it, and it was ever so slight and maybe hard to notice, but I could tell a slight difference in the alignment of both myself and DJ after this was addressed. Goes to show how little changes can make a difference!
"Turning your upper body too much to the inside can actually throw the horse’s hips to the outside!"
Check out this video of our canter on the right rein after I started riding better aligned. Pretty awesome to hear your clinician say things like "Super!" and "I love this!" and "It's Perfect!" when you're riding! Little boost for me, I can tell you that :)
Stop Looking Down!
Here is another little reminder she gave me, which is a common one: STOP LOOKING DOWN! This is something a lot of riders do, especially in dressage. We really like to look down and check in with the horse’s positioning and all sorts of things we can see down there. Looking down all the time messes up your riding position, distracts you from what you’re doing and from preparing for what is next, and can be dangerous if you’re not paying attention to your surroundings. I definitely need somebody to remind me once in a while to keep my eyes and head up!
Give the Horse a Chance
We had an interesting discussion near the end of our session. I told Tara that I have been introducing DJ to more advanced lateral work very gradually and with small baby steps. She felt I was being too conservative and cautious and not giving DJ a chance. How is the horse going to succeed if we don’t give them a chance to try? How is the horse going to succeed if they don’t get a chance to 'fail' and then learn what is correct and expected? She encouraged me to go ahead and start trying to school the half pass and other more difficult movements to see what would happen. The point was basically, don’t be afraid to give the horse a chance to try and a chance to learn from it. Obviously each horse will be different, but with DJ’s disposition to really try, it was worth seeing what would happen. We did some haunches-in at trot on a diagonal line (basically half pass) and gave him the opportunity to figure out his balance. We also did haunches in and out on the long side. It wasn’t expected to be perfect, but it was a chance for him to work through it and try to figure out where to put his body.
"The point was basically, don’t be afraid to give the horse a chance to try and a chance to learn from it."
To Post or Not to Post?
The exercises we challenged DJ with lead into another concept to think about: posting or not during lateral work.
A lot of the time, I automatically sit the trot when riding through the more advanced lateral movements. I feel like this is a common thought process in dressage. I’m guessing because, in the USA at least, we are required to sit the trot in dressage tests from second level and beyond. This level is where shoulder-in and travers (haunches in) are introduced. Also I think we dressage riders want to sit so that we can get our hips and seat bones in place for the movement. Tara pointed out that it is much easier for a horse to figure out their balance and lift their back while learning these new concepts if the rider is not sitting in the trot. If I’m introducing these more advanced lateral movements to DJ, he is going to have an easier time figuring himself out if I get off his back and post instead. There’s nothing saying I have to train these movements while sitting. Once I got off his back, it did feel like he had better balance and freedom and we could focus better on the exercise. It's something I'm up for playing with in the future!
Given the fact that this was all from one clinic ride on one day, I would say that it was time well spent! I left feeling very encouraged and reinforced that my training of DJ is progressing the way it should be and that I’m leading him on the right track. I also got some quick position fixes that should make a lot of difference for all horses I ride, plus some further direction for making the basics even better, and also challenging the training - so we have some homework.
I hope these things were helpful for you as well!
*****As always, let me know your thoughts or ask me any questions you have via my email, my contact form on my website, or message me on Instagram or Facebook. Don't forget to SUBSCRIBE to this blog for more training themed blog posts, equestrian product reviews, clinic coverage and a whole lot more!
Big thank you to my sponsors, SanSoleil, for their support and for this awesome shirt I wore to the clinic, and for making the BEST SUNSHIRTS out there! Check out their website at Sansoleil.com and use code EQSOL for 10% off!
Also a big thank you to Riding Warehouse, Salado Creek Tack Shop, Nuun Hydration, Dave Raaum: Riverdogs Crossing for their ongoing support and fantastic products & services!
Thank you to Tara Stegen for the coaching and encouragement. So happy we found you and I'm really looking forward to future instruction and guidance!
Last but not least, a huge thank you to Kathy Harlan, who owns DJ, and has trusted me with the training of her sweet Arabian. We trainers can't do anything without the support of the AMAZING OWNERS!