Monday, April 20, 2009

Ground Work and In-Hand Exercises (Pardon Me While My Hair Melts)

In my last post, I recommended that horses "in transition" often benefit from an intensive course of good ground work before being fitted for a saddle, since rather dramatic changes in musculature can occur in just a few weeks with correct work. This led one of you lovely people to query me regarding just which exercises I would recommend - which opened my own Pandora's Box of Ground Work Exercises.

Sure, it seemed simple at first, but when I tried to think of a few exercises, I - as often happens - drowned in the details. Trotting ground poles is one of my favorites, but it can be done on the longe or on long-lines OR as a ground-driving exercise. Longeing in sliding side-reins is great, but you can do it on a 20 m. circle or a 15 m. circle OR you can spiral in or out and transition every 5 or 10 or 12 strides.

By the time I got to the in-hand stuff, I was up to my eyeballs in exercises I'd learned from a bunch of people dealing with different horses that all had different issues over the last 40+ years, and I thought my hair was going to melt. I had to go lie down.

(Keep in mind that in middle-age, I've become such a Spam-brain that I can't remember appointments if they're not in my book and often call my husband, sons and dogs by each others' names, and nouns commonly escape me - but I can recount in excruciating detail the very first ground work exercise I ever learned ... when I was about 6. Go figure.)

When I recovered from this overload, my course of action was clear: lay this on someone else. I knew there were good books out there on the subject ... I'd just never read them. So I e-mailed Sharon Parker, a dear friend of mine who's a whiz at ground work (she kindly came here and taught a clinic on it a few years back) and an incorrigible reader of dressage literature. She would save my sorry butt.

And indeed she did. Here are her recommendations:

Horse Training In-Hand: A Modern Guide to Working from the Ground: Long Lines, Long and Short Reins, Work on the Longe, by Ellen Schuthof-Lesmeister and Kip Mistral. (Available for pre-purchase at Amazon at Sharon says, "I'm really looking forward to this book. Kip's articles are the most step by step, easy to understand with great pictures, information on the in hand work that I've seen. I've spoken with her (in fact bought one
of Brant Brenderup's cavesson reproductions for use under the bridle
from her and a great in hand cav that is light, easy, and the most
functional I've ever seen) and she starts you out at the ground level
with the jaw flexions at the halt and goes up from there. She is mostly
Iberian/Portuguese influenced, but has worked with Brenderup and several
others with a solid base in the German classical approach. She stops
well short of modern Baucherism. I like her the best for starting at
ground zero. I do have to admit I haven't seen a copy yet since I'm
behind on my shopping this spring. I am assuming it will be like her
articles so far as style, knowledge, and clarity."

Schooling Horses in Hand by Richard Hinrichs (Amazon, and Long Reining: The Saumur Method by Phillipe Karl (ditto: Her comments:
"These are both classical works but make a lot of assumptions about what the reader already
knows. They are excellent. Hinrichs' video is superb too, including dogs and goats practicing Spanish Walk. I've haven't seen the Karl videos, but would surely like to some day."

Sound advice from a good source - and far more succinct than I would have been!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Timing is Everything

Saddles are sort of like the pants you wore in high school: what fit you fine back then is probably a whole different story today. (And if you're over age 35, have had at least one child, and can still wear your high-school pants, I do NOT want to hear about it.)

One of the unavoidable facts of life with horses is this: the saddle that fits your horse today probably won't fit your horse forever. Sad, but true. The saddle that fits your four year old isn't likely to fit when your horse is 8 or 10, and the saddle that fits your 8 or 10 year old horse very well may not fit when your horse is 22.

It seems that lately I've been running into a lot of people whose horses are in some sort of transition. Either they've recently bought the horse, or they're changing disciplines, or their horse is coming back from a long and debilitating lay-off -but whatever the case, they're going to be facing some pretty dramatic changes in their horse's backs.

And of course, they're all looking for saddles.

So what do I do? Do I fit the back I see right then? If I do, what happens when the musculature changes - what if the saddle no longer fits? On the other hand, if I don't fit the back I'm seeing right then, how will the rider be able to work the horse and effect the musculature?

Fortunately, this isn't really tough to solve. I just don't sell you a saddle - at least for a little while.

Before I sell a saddle for a horse "in transition", I recommend a course of good ground work. In my "other" life, I was a dressage trainer and instructor, so I know that correct ground work (longeing, long-lining and in-hand work) can be used to create incredible development in a horse's training - and in his/her back. Six to eight weeks of correct, consistent ground work should be sufficient to develop a "base line" back. I do recommend taking a template of your horse's back every couple weeks to see how the back is developing - it will be helpful in choosing a saddle, since you'll have a kind of graph of the muscle growth and can make educated guesses regarding future development. We might have to use a shim or other correction pad for a while, and we might have to do some flocking adjustments, but with luck, the saddle we choose for the "base line" back will fit much longer than if we'd fit the "right then" back.

Here's a good illustration of how radically a back can change. Both tracings are of the same Tb gelding. The first one was taken in Oct. of '08, when he was just coming back to work after a month's lay-off:

The second tracing was taken in March of '09. According to his owner, the horse wasn't in intense work, just a lot of "long and low":

Here are the two, with the most recent tracing in blue, and the first tracing in red:

You can see very clearly how much change was accomplished in 4 month of gentle work - so you can imagine how much change you'll see in 6 or 8 weeks of intense work. You can also see why it's not usually a good idea to buy a saddle for a horse who's in transition - unless you have a very healthy discretionary income.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Sally Swift 4/20/13 - 4-2-09. Thanks, Sally.

Centered Riding founder Sally Swift passed away on April 2. I was lucky enough to have worked quite extensively with Sally back in the early 80's, when I was farm manager at Signa Read's 3 Meadows Farm in Peru, VT.

Sally was a wonderful woman and an amazing instructor. She was my very first dressage instructor (I'd ridden western until I started working with her), and took me from the heels-down ramrod posture so popular back then to a much more fluid style of riding.

My most memorable lesson with Sally occurred when I was riding a retired fox hunter named Randolph. Randolph was a marvelous horse in the field - he took care of his rider, was very clever over fences, and never put a foot wrong. In the arena, however, he was another story: he had no notion of how to use himself correctly and spent most of his time going around like a turbo-charged giraffe. Bending corners was not in his lexicon - he usually opted to bank them, preferably at a hand gallop. And being a beginner at dressage, I had no notion of how to correct this.

After a very tough and frustrating half-hour, I was about ready to quit horses entirely. No matter what I did, I couldn't get Randolph to do anything I asked. He and I were both dripping sweat, and I was so tired I was literally shaking. Sally sensed that we were both coming undone, so she told me to take a break. I dropped my irons, threw my reins out to the buckle, and let Randolph walk along the rail while I contemplated careers that didn't involve riding horses.

Suddenly Sally (who had an amazing voice for an elderly little woman) hooted, "THERE!! THERE, Kitt - that's EXACTLY how I want you to ride!"

I wasn't sure I'd heard correctly. "But, Sally, this is how I rode when I was a kid."

"YES!" she answered. "That's how you SHOULD ride! You're relaxed and moving with the horse rather than fighting him! You're not worrying about forcing your heels down or keeping your back straight - you're riding the way you should!"

Needless to say, the second half of the lesson - and all my subsequent lessons with Sally - opened a whole new dimension of riding. I carried those lessons with me, and used them in good stead when I was teaching dressage in Los Angeles at Linda Mason Training Stable, and again when I moved back home and continued teaching.

And I still use Sally's lessons to this day - not only in my riding, but in my martial arts, as well. Sensei is always talking about blending with the opponent, learning to yield and flow like water. One of these days, maybe it will be as easy for me in the dojo as it is in the saddle.

So thank you, Sally. You taught me some outstanding life lessons. Good journey to you.