Showing posts with label Practical Horseman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Practical Horseman. Show all posts

Monday, August 7, 2017

Confident Cross-Country Water Jumps

Part 1: Make your horse’s initial education fun and positive to create a solid foundation for life.

MAY 2, 2016

Jumping cross-country water elements is an essential skill for all event horses, but many people don’t realize just how much homework it takes to build a horse’s confidence over this challenging feature and to sustain that confidence throughout his career. | Amy K. Dragoo

One of the most important aspects in an event horse’s training is exposure to cross-country water jumps. With a positive, well-planned introduction, you can avoid the all-too-frequent heartaches that many riders experience when their horses refuse or are eliminated at this inherently challenging element. In this two-part series, I will walk you through the training plan that I follow with both green and experienced horses. This month, I will help you see water jumps through your horse’s eyes and will explain how to overcome his initial fear and hesitation in your first training sessions. Next month, I’ll show you how to teach him to jump fences in combination with water.

Let’s begin by recognizing exactly how difficult this task is. Horses don’t magically go into water without being trained to do so. Most have a natural wariness of it because they cannot easily judge its depth or the quality of the footing underneath it. Even the bravest horses need to be reassured that they will only be asked to tackle safe, doable water jumps.

Building your horse’s trust in you, however, is more than just a matter of getting his feet wet once or twice; it requires multiple, enjoyable, logically progressive schooling sessions. In addition to building his confidence, these sessions must teach him how to approach, enter and exit the water in a steady, balanced, relaxed manner, maintaining the same speed and stride length from beginning to end. These are fundamental skills necessary for safely and cleanly negotiating obstacles into, out of and in the middle of water jumps—challenges he will face as he moves up through the levels.

When you see a horse make a spectacular leap into water, however impressively brave it may seem, he’s actually revealing a lack of education. A well-schooled horse should pop into the water and over each obstacle with minimal fanfare, making it look almost boring.

No Bad Memories

Select a schooling water jump with good footing, shallow water and inviting entrances and exits. A variety of small "in" and "out" jumps will also be helpful later as your horse progresses through his education. | Amy K. Dragoo

Achieving this level of comfort requires a step-by-step, multiday—even multiweek—plan involving a carefully selected venue, uniquely qualified helpers and a patient yet determined attitude. In each schooling session, you must be prepared to spend as much time as necessary to reach a happy conclusion without ever getting mad or frustrated. The goal is to make water fun and easy so your horse never dreads going in. A single bad experience can leave an indelible mark on his memory. If you allow a session to escalate into a battle of wills with excessive whipping, spurring and hollering, every time your horse faces a water jump after that, he’ll have flashbacks to that experience and will think, “Oh no, here’s where I get beaten.”

Even if your horse’s first water school goes well, you must reinforce that success with additional positive memories. Just like a fisherman whose great catch gets bigger every time he retells the story, your horse may mentally exaggerate his first water venture over time. Weeks after coming home to tell his barn-mates, “It wasn’t so bad,” he may begin to remember the water as having been 10 feet deep and terrifying.

That’s why it’s so important to follow the first school with many additional sessions, both in the short term and periodically throughout his career. Even four-star horses with excellent foundations need occasional water schools in between competitions. In fact, the water questions they encounter on course are so challenging that they often need to practice simpler exercises at home to bring their confidence meters up. As is true in so many other areas of horsemanship with horses of all levels, the best rule of thumb is to school water “little and often.”

For many eventers in the U.S. who have limited access to suitable schooling facilities, this may sound like a near impossible task, especially for those based in the West, where even natural water resources are scarce. This is a disadvantage, but it doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker. Think about how much money you invest in a single competition. Then imagine throwing all that money away by getting eliminated at the water jump. You’ll be much better off spending the same amount of money trailering to a good schooling facility—even if it’s hours away—and hiring a professional to guide you through the process. Making your horse’s water education a top priority will be well worth the investment in the long run.

First Schooling Session: Get His Feet Wet

1. Every water session should begin with a confident, yet relaxed, attitude, as Elizabeth Bohling’s 4-year-old Shannondale Suvio is demonstrating. Before approaching, Elizabeth has established a forward walk and a deep, secure position with her upper body centered, her lower legs closed and her heels down. | Amy K. Dragoo

2. At the water’s edge, Elizabeth gives Suvio time to sniff and paw the water. She sits quietly in the saddle and follows his mouth with her hands but also keeps both legs closed on his sides to make it clear that turning or backing away from the water is not an option. | Amy K. Dragoo

3. When Suvio refuses to go farther into the water, I ride alongside him on a more experienced horse and attach a longe line to his bit. With a good role model and a gentle tug on the rope, he bravely walks in. | Amy K. Dragoo

4. In the middle of the water, I unclip the rope and Elizabeth walks him quietly out the exit ramp. | Amy K. Dragoo

5. In their next approach, I ride alongside again but this time without the rope. Suvio hesitates but then … | Amy K. Dragoo

6. … follows my horse into the water. | Amy K. Dragoo

7. Finally, Elizabeth approaches the water alone again. This time, Suvio walks in confidently. She walks him in a circle, allowing him to continue sniffing the water and familiarizing himself with the new sensation of moving through it. | Amy K. Dragoo

Make a Plan

A young and/or green event horse can be introduced to water as soon as he’s trotting and cantering on the flat and over fences in the ring, hacking outside the ring and going up and down hills under control. Give him this invaluable education before his first competition or clinic to avoid the potentially crippling fear created by a negative experience. Incorporate the following factors into your introductory schooling plan:

1. A suitable schooling facility. Legendary U.S. Eventing Team Coach Jack Le Goff used to say, “It’s possible to teach a horse to jump into a swimming pool—once!” In other words, you will lose your horse’s hard-earned trust if you ask him to do something unreasonable. Be sure that every body of water you ride him into has the following qualities: footing that is firm and level, not muddy or boggy; water no deeper than 24 inches; and overall dimensions of at least 24 feet wide and 24 feet across. Anything narrower than that might invite your horse to jump the entire thing. Finally, your chosen water jump’s introductory-level entrances and exits should be invitingly gradual—no steep Man From Snowy River banks!

Our farm’s water complex has an added benefit of banks on either side of the lower-level entrance, which serve as wings. They help to channel the horse into the water both physically and mentally. We keep the complex filled all the time so it is available for daily schooling year-round.

For riders who don’t have easy access to a water jump specifically built for eventing, think twice before practicing in a nearby creek, stream, pond or lake. Such natural features can actually add to a horse’s fear and distrust if they contain steep, rocky banks; boggy, sticky footing; deep water; strong currents or any other potentially disconcerting characteristics.

2. A good support team. All amateur eventers should introduce their horses to water with the assistance of a knowledgeable, qualified trainer, ideally mounted on a quiet, experienced horse. As I’ll explain later, having a “Steady Eddy” equine companion who can tell your horse, “Hey Dude, it’s no big deal,” while accompanying him into the water is the best way to instill confidence. It’s important that this companion be extremely calm and unflappable, as he may have to tolerate some dramatic behavior on your young horse’s part, such as big “leaps of faith” into the water.

You may also find it helpful to have a ground person with a longe whip willing to stand at a safe distance behind your horse as he approaches the water. This person’s role will merely reinforce your “go forward” message in an encouraging—never abusive—way.

3. Proper equipment. One of the pieces of tack I never go without on cross country is a breastplate with a strap across the withers. This provides you with something to hold on to so you don’t risk pulling on the reins and punishing your horse in the mouth accidentally if he suddenly launches into the water and throws you off balance.

4. Plenty of time. As I mentioned previously, to guarantee your horse a positive experience in the water, you must give him the feeling that there’s no rush. When time is tight, tempers flare and horses quickly pick up on your negative emotions. This is why a clinic is not the best scenario for introducing a horse to water. Clinicians are obligated to spend time on other horses and riders and other cross-country elements. Instead, for your horse’s early water lessons, plan to focus entirely on him and the water jump. Even if you travel a long way to a schooling facility, if you arrive late in the day, don’t try to squeeze in a practice session that evening and risk running out of daylight.

Getting Started

In the beginning of each schooling session, warm up over a few easy, straightforward cross-country fences—logs, coops, etc. The goal is to get your horse feeling confident and in front of your leg (forward and responsive to your leg aids). Be careful not to overdo it, though. Especially when you’ve gone to great logistical and financial lengths to set up a cross-country school, it may be tempting to get your money’s worth by jumping every obstacle on the course. This increases the risk of you and/or your horse arriving at the water jump mentally and physically fatigued, which can drastically reduce your chances of success.

When you feel adequately warmed up, approach the water jump in an active, purposeful walk. Sit squarely and securely in the center of the saddle with your legs wrapped around your horse’s sides, holding the breastplate strap with one hand. In your initial approach, have your lead horse follow several feet behind you so you can see how your horse reacts to the water on his own. This will give you a good reading of his aptitude for the sport. If he walks into the water with little hesitation, that’s a good sign. However, if he hesitates or stops, that’s not necessarily a bad sign. Many top-level horses are cautious about water in the beginning of their careers.

Your reaction to hesitation is critical. Think offense, not defense. Immediately encourage him with a cluck, a nudge of your legs and perhaps a tap with the stick on his shoulder. Be firm and positive but committed to preventing the situation from escalating into a fight. Give him a chance to test the water. Allow him to sniff and paw at it if he wants to. Then gently ask him to step in. Whatever you do, don’t turn him away from the water’s edge. Trying to re-approach from a longer distance or at a faster speed will only get you stuck farther away from the water. Instead, hold your ground and make it clear that his only option is to go forward.

If after a few minutes he is still unwilling to step into the water, ask your companion on the lead horse to walk alongside him and clip a lead rope to his bit. Then ask her to walk her horse calmly forward into the water, simultaneously giving a gentle tug on the lead rope. Nine times out of 10, the green horse will follow the experienced horse into the water. Again, be prepared for a dramatic leap—and ready to praise your horse the moment he takes it.

If he still isn’t willing to enter the water at this point, it may help to have a ground person stand behind him—far enough back to be safe from a kick—slowly waving a longe whip to reinforce your forward aids. She can even lightly tap him on the haunches with the whip. Again, be very careful to keep the mood encouraging, not punishing.

In extremely rare cases, it may be necessary for you to dismount and remove all of your horse’s tack. Your expert on the lead horse can then work directly with your horse to persuade him to enter the water. This can be especially beneficial if you are inexperienced and/or anxious about the situation. With time and patience, even the most stubborn horses can be convinced in this way to overcome their fears.

Once your horse is in the water, he may still want to sniff and paw at it, familiarizing himself with these new sensations. Give him time to do this. Then quietly exit the water and re-approach it in the same positive, forward way you did before. Do this several times until he’s walking into and out of the water confidently.

Throughout this first session and the next several ones, do everything at the walk, asking your horse to maintain the same speed and stride length as he crosses the water. Save trotting—which creates more of a splash and requires more effort to move through the water—for the fourth or fifth schooling session.

If your horse is entering and exiting the water fairly confidently after 10 or 20 minutes, leave the water to do something else briefly—for example, jump a few other types of fences. Then, if he still feels fresh and positive, come back to the water at the end of your ride for one more mini-session. This way, you get two schools in one.

Introduce the Trot

1. When Suvio is really comfortable walking through the water, Elizabeth picks up a balanced, steady trot. | Amy K. Dragoo

2. As they reach the water, she keeps her legs closed on his sides and her shoulders back to encourage him to continue moving forward. At the same time, though, she softens her fingers on the reins so he can stretch his nose down toward the water. | Amy K. Dragoo

3. You can tell by Suvio’s expression that the bigger splashes from his trot are a little disconcerting at first. With repetition, though … | Amy K. Dragoo

4. … he gets used to the splash and trots through the water in a nice rhythm and pace, staying straight and relaxed. | Amy K. Dragoo

Trotting Through Water

Once you’ve gotten your horse’s feet wet for the first time, your job is far from done. Even if he seemed confident, it’s important to follow up with another session to reinforce the lesson and quell any initial worries he had. If you’ve traveled a long distance to a schooling facility, plan to stay there for a number of days to fit in these invaluable follow-up sessions. Otherwise, find a way to get to a water jump again soon—ideally within a few days.

After the first two or three schooling sessions, you should have a good idea of your horse’s comfort level. If he is on the braver end of the spectrum, he may need only occasional refreshers every few weeks or so. If he’s on the more cautious end, he may need to revisit the water daily or near daily for several weeks. When we have green horses sent to us for intensive training periods, we take them down to the water jump almost every day, even in their dressage saddles after a flat school.

As your horse’s confidence grows, follow a logical, step-by-step training process, building on his skills gradually and giving each new challenge time to sink in. After several successful sessions at the walk, try trotting into and through the water. Be prepared for his reaction to the new sensation of water splashing in his face. Also continue to encourage him to regulate his speed and stride length throughout the exercise, just as you did at the walk.

Depending on how much access you have to a good water complex, it may take your horse weeks or even months to graduate from this phase of his training. Give him plenty of time to solidify this foundation. The more confidently he is walking and trotting through a simple water question, the easier it will be to introduce him to the next step: jumping obstacles in combination with water. I’ll explain how to do that next month.

Originally posted on

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Bernie Traurig: Keep At It Until You're An Artist

The need to “practice, practice, practice” the American forward riding system is the message from Bernie Traurig’s recent workshop.

 SEP 7, 2016

Bernie Traurig taught a three-day workshop with the focus on the American forward riding system at Coker Farm in Bedford, New York. In the background are (from left) Tiffany Avon with Forever Z, Jennifer Wright with Logan and Phillip Williamson with Edingburgh. | Amy K. Dragoo

Most riders want to improve their riding. Whether the goal is to complete their first 2-foot-6 hunter course or win at the grand prix level, the desire to create a better partnership with the horse is pretty universal. And for legendary rider and clinician Bernie Traurig the recipe for that success is simple: adopt the right system of riding and then practice it relentlessly.
“A famous pianist once said that the amateur practices a melody until he gets it right. The artist practices until he never gets it wrong,” Bernie explained to a group of riders and auditors who attended his recent workshop in Bedford, New York. “And the only way you get good at this, is to practice it.”
Bernie is a highly regarded rider, teacher and horseman. As a junior, he won both the AHSA National Hunter Seat Medal Final and the ASPCA Maclay National Championship in 1961. He represented the U.S. Equestrian Team at home and abroad (including the 1982 World Championships in Ireland) and has won more than 60 show jumping grands prix. He was inducted into the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame in 2009 and in 2010 he founded the video learning website
Throughout the three days of lessons and lectures during his workshop at historic Coker Farm in Bedford, New York, Bernie emphasized that perfecting the basics of the American hunter/jumper forward riding system would propel each rider’s eventual success over fences. “We focus on the simplest of things,” he said. “Trot into a line. Halt and back up. Canter out. Halt and back up again. It’s the very basics of schooling.

Bernie emphasized that perfecting the basics of the American forward riding system would propel each rider’s eventual success over fences. “We focus on the simplest of things,” Bernie said to the riders including Jennifer Staniloff riding Princess. “Trot into a line. Halt and back up. Canter out. Halt and back up again. It’s the very basics of schooling.” | Amy K. Dragoo

“Yet everything we do here is the basis for show jumping. Horses have to instantly go forward and come back and respond to the lateral aids in both directions. You have to be in charge of the track. You practice everything you will need for the show ring.”
The forward riding system was developed by Federico Caprilli in the early 1900s. It was further refined by Brig. Gen. Harry D. Chamberlin, Capt. Vladimir S. Littauer and Gordon Wright, among other horsemen. Today, the system is endorsed and taught by George Morris and is advocated by the U.S Hunter Jumper Association Trainer Certification Program. Bernie, who trained as a junior rider under Capt. Littauer, said the system is “the basis of everything I do.
“The system we teach is based on three parts: the position of the rider, the way we use our aids and a schooling system,” he explained. “Those three parts, when they come together, make a great product.”

Dressage: Just a French Word for Training

Bernie is one of the few professionals to reach the top of the sport in all three international equestrian Olympic disciplines: show jumping, dressage and eventing. Throughout the three days, he emphasized the critical difference between the fundamentals of classic dressage and the “non-clashing aids” of the forward riding system.
“People have confused these two systems for decades, but they are different,” he explained. “Dressage is based on the combination of coordinated driving and restraining aids. This is necessary for the sport they do, but these are highly sophisticated aids.
“It takes a long time to develop understanding in the horse and a long time for the rider to be able to delicately coordinate these aids,” he added. “Without a lengthy step-by-step process of training, coordination of aids can easily become clashing aids that confuse the horse. Or as Littauer once said, ‘a razor in the hands of a child.’”
 Bernie explained that dressage is based on collection and central balance with the rider balanced on the seat. A dressage rider in a downward transition engages the hind legs by riding the horse forward with her seat and legs, riding the energy up to a gathering hand. By contrast, the forward riding system is based on forward balance and nonclashing aids with the rider primarily balanced in the stirrups.
 “Our rideability comes from repetition of smooth, prompt upward and downward transitions. We ask a horse for a downward transition by closing our fingers, increasing the contact with a direct rein. If our downward transitions are practiced in a prompt way, we encourage natural engagement. The promptness of the transition rebalances the horse automatically, engaging the hind leg automatically, developing agility and strength,” he explained.
“The leg still supports the downward transition but without a forward-driving effect,” he elaborated. “Therefore, it’s a non-clashing aid. In its simplest form: legs to drive forward, hands to come back.” 
 Tiffany Avon was struggling with downward transitions with her 12-year-old gelding Forever Z. It gave Bernie an opportunity to demonstrate how her clashing aids confused her horse. “In the canter downward transition, you sink, don’t sit and you open your upper-body angle a little bit. You are always in balance with the horse, but don’t sit too early as he begins the transition or the seat will act as a driving aid,” he explained. “Just sink and be light—you could put a piece of paper between your butt and the saddle.” She lightened up in the saddle and Forever Z gave her crisper transitions.

Make Your Warm-Up Productive
Bernie asked Phillip to demonstrate a suppling exercise for the horse’s neck: Phillip put his bay gelding, Edingburgh, on a small circle to the left then widened his inside hand and applied pressure directly back outside his left hip until the horse gave in his mouth. | Amy K. Dragoo

Each of the riders was challenged to warm up their horses thoughtfully, using basic but specific exercises to make their mounts attentive and reactive to the aids. “Every moment in the tack you are either training or untraining your horse,” Bernie declared.
He encouraged the riders to start their sessions with a forward walk with impulsion and rhythm, adding that “there are only two ways to walk: a relaxed walk with a long and loose rein or with contact, marching forward and following the neck movement. And NOT on the cell phone,” he added emphatically. “Think of discipline, think of making every minute productive.”
After asking riders to create an elastic contact with their horses at the walk, Bernie moved into a series of exercises, including upward and downward transitions, lengthening and shortening, circles and half circles, serpentines and halts. He challenged the riders to be specific in their warm-up choices.
“So am I going forward because he is behind my leg? Am I using an open rein to turn him sharply? Am I going deeper in the corner because he’s avoiding the corner? Am I doing walk–canter transitions because he’s fresh? What’s your plan?” 
Phillip Williamson, one of two former USHJA Emerging Athlete Program riders who received grants from Bernie and the USHJA Foundation to attend the clinic, demonstrated a suppling exercise for the neck. “Horses are stiff and usually have a stiff side on the left,” Bernie explained. “This is a great way to loosen the neck up.” He had Phillip put his gelding, Edingburgh, on a small circle to the left then widen his inside hand and apply pressure directly back outside his left hip. “It is a bit awkward. You tactfully overbend the neck, wide left hand, hold until something gives. As soon as he softens up, go back to the normal bend. The timing has to be good. If you hold the bend and let go before he gives, it is meaningless. Hang in there until something melts.”
As the riders loosened up their horses, Bernie encouraged them to work toward being prompt in their transitions. “When you turn your horse out in the field and he is fresh, he may passage or piaffe. Then he is running to the gate and you think he is going to jump it. But he stops in three strides. And he can stop because he is using his hind end. That is natural engagement,” Bernie explained. It is the promptness demanded in upward and especially downward transitions that encourages a horse being ridden to engage the hind end naturally and improve his balance without the rider’s driving leg, Bernie said. “Littauer taught this. Our system won’t work unless you practice promptness. You do thousands of these transitions to make your horse rideable. It doesn’t happen in a day.”
He used the canter depart as an example of where riders needed to perfect their transitions. “If you put your leg back and the horse doesn’t pop into the canter, you get haunches-in. The horse has to react to your leg instantly,” Bernie said. In a canter depart to the right, “left leg back, lighten your hands and ask for the canter. That’s simple sign language for canter at a basic level.”

Mobilize Your Leg
To help Nancy Buzzetta avoid giving her horse, Shimmer, two different aids while halting, Bernie had her practice an exaggerated braced leg to help stabilize her in the tack. | Amy K. Dragoo

Creating a deep heel and the ability to change the position of the leg are critical to being effective, especially during downward transitions, Bernie emphasized. He described three potential options for the leg: the normal position with the stirrup leather straight up and down; a displacing leg, set farther back to affect the haunches, used for canter departure and haunches-in/out, counter-canter, etc; and a braced leg, where the heel is driven down and the leg moved slightly forward of the vertical.
“You know, you are taught to sit and don’t move,” Bernie explained. “Nonsense. You need mobility and range of motion. It’s called mobilizing your lower leg.”
He worked closely with Nancy Buzzetta, who was struggling to achieve a crisp halt with her horse, Shimmer. During downward transitions, her leg was slipping back and her heel was sliding up. “You are giving him two different aids accidentally by losing your position,” Bernie explained to her as he grasped her lower leg. “He can feel a fly on his skin. Your leg goes back, and you are squeezing and brushing him with your heel. See that tickle spot there? He can feel it, and this is sending your horse forward.
“Not to withstand that if that horse stumbles or stops, you are a missile over your knee,” he added. “You need a deep heel, a stable leg in the halt. If necessary, a bit of a braced leg. This stabilizes you in the tack.”
Bernie explained the benefit of exaggeration in training. He stood in front of Nancy’s horse and told her to “waterski” her legs. “Show me the soles of your feet,” he demanded. “Just shove that foot right to his elbow.” He then had her trot around with her leg in and out of a braced position.
“It is a half-inch difference between toppling over your knee and stability. We can’t change it if we don’t exaggerate it. I want you to think ‘soles of my feet’ before you increase contact in a downward transition. If you do that exercise, if you are disciplined, you will fix it in a month.”

The ‘Epidemic’ of Inside Leg to Outside Rein
To encourage riders, including Shaina Humphrey riding Blink, to go deep into a corner and jump an oxer on an angle to a vertical, Bernie placed an orange cone in front of the oxer that riders had to canter around. | Amy K. Dragoo
The group addressed a popular concept that Bernie emphasized was misunderstood, overused and overtaught.
“It started because many people would go through a turn abusing the inside rein diagonally across the wither, overbending the horse. Many trainers started to preach inside leg to outside rein to help people keep their horses straighter,” Bernie explained. “What has happened is an epidemic, a virus, of inside leg and outside rein.” 
He said that inside leg to outside rein is useful in many situations for more sophisticated horses and riders. “Shoulder-in, shoulder-in on a circle, engagement of the hind leg, straightening effect—all great examples of use of the inside leg to outside rein. But your inside hand and outside leg still play a part in the orchestra.” 
Bernie doesn’t stress the technique for intermediate riders, however, especially on hunters and jumpers. “We have two hands and two legs. I would like both the rider and horse to understand and obey all rein and leg effects, coordinating them properly where they apply, before they focus on inside leg to outside rein.”
He suggested that intermediate riders adopt a simpler technique. If their horses were simply cutting a corner or popping a shoulder inward, they should move both hands, separated “as if they had a steel bar between them,” together toward the outside. On the left lead going around a corner, for example, this would mean using a right opening rein and a slight indirect rein in front of the wither toward the outside, adding a little inside leg for support.
“If I want to ride a turn or change my track, this is where you use your hands together,” Bernie explained. “The indirect inside rein affects the shoulder toward the outside and it gives us a little shape of the neck; it flexes the horse. The right opening rein slightly holds the horse out in the turn and the inside leg is applied.”
Bernie had the riders practice the technique by trotting straight toward him then moving the front end of the horse toward the arena wall. “Keep our hands separated— two hands steady, connected by that steel bar. Move both hands toward the wall,” he coached the riders. “You are affecting the shoulders of the horse. The hindquarters will follow. Once you practice this, it becomes invisible. You barely move your hands toward the outside and he moves over. Bending lines, controlling shoulders on short turns, it is so useful.
“All those horses I rode, all those hunters, you would see nothing—invisible aids— and they moved laterally like cutting butter. It’s a beautiful thing,” Bernie added.

Shape Your Track to Nail Your Distance

Bernie emphasized that once a horse was responsive to the aids, the rider could shape the turns and control the track to improve a difficult distance. Here Jennifer Wright jumps Logan over an oxer as part of a course. | Amy K. Dragoo

The ability to control the horse’s shoulders and move them laterally (to “shape out” in a turn) became critical as the riders advanced to exercises over fences. Bernie set a challenging bending line that started with a tight right turn out of the corner to an oxer then six or seven strides to a vertical. He wanted the riders to go deep into the first corner and jump the fence on an angle toward the direct line to the vertical for six or jump the oxer straighter and ride a bending line to the vertical for seven. Most of the riders struggled to get it right. 
“This is very difficult, to shape this tight turn. Most people can’t do this because they don’t have control over the shoulders,” he said, eventually placing an orange cone in front of the oxer to force the riders to ride farther out to angle the fence. “Use your hands together to shape out and set up that angle. Or get that first early distance and then a quiet seven in the bend.”
Bernie emphasized that once a horse was responsive to the aids, the rider could shape the turns and control the track to improve a difficult distance. “Manage the track according to what you see. Don’t commit to the track until you see your distance.
“Where do you think this might come in handy?” he asked. “In a bending line, if I want to use the wide track I use my hands, shift them out and the horse would move right out. Beautiful! Or in a tight rollback. Maybe when I face the jump, I don’t like the distance. I’m going to shape it out and now there is a nice distance because I have changed the track.
“Shape it out until you see it or until you like it,” he concluded.
As the riders practiced controlling the track over higher fences and with tighter turns, Bernie warned them not to create a track that left less than three strides to the fence. “Three strides out is very fast on a jumper. Watch the videos of the best in the world. They are rarely less than three strides out to the big oxers. It gives you time to work a situation out,” he counseled.

Be Purposeful in Your Practice
At the end of three very intensive days of training, Bernie reminded each rider of specific techniques that he or she could take home and practice. He recommended using poles on the ground or low cavalletti to reduce the wear and tear on the horses.
“What is the most important part of your body in riding?” he asked. “Your brain. This is a thinking sport, right? Don’t get in a hurry and do it again, do it again,” he said. “No. You stop and think about what went wrong and make a plan to correct it. 
“The only way you get good is to practice. How do you practice? Daily poles on the ground. You see these cavalletti? If your stable permits, you do hundreds of them. Keep at it until you’re an artist at it.”

Bernie's Basics On Bits
Bernie checks the bit of a horse. At the clinic, he switched out more aggressive bits for a rubber dee-ring snaffle. | Amy K. Dragoo

Bernie Traurig shared his belief in using the mildest bit possible for a horse, taking into consideration the rider’s ability as well. On several horses in the clinic he switched out more aggressive bits for what he called “the basement bit”—a rubber dee-ring snaffle. “This gives us a baseline for the mildest bit, and we can work up from there,” he said.
“Don’t put anything sharp in his mouth because he has to submit to pressure. If the bit is too strong, he can’t take the pressure. I want him to obey my rein aids nicely without pain. A strong bit might work for you in the ring, but not for training.”
A good example of this philosophy was Caroline DeVincenzo’s horse, Keaton, who showed up in a twisted full-cheek bit. On the second day, Bernie switched the horse into a rubber dee-ring snaffle.
“We saw some impressive results with this horse,” Bernie said after the horse worked in the milder bit. “On the first day he was angry, kicking at her. He wouldn’t stand still and he wouldn’t go forward. He was unhappy in his mouth, he had pain. He was sticking off the ground yesterday, afraid of the bit.
“We put him in a rubber dee, she had plenty of forward. I am loving this: by downsizing the bit, he is accepting the pressure and you are now able to school the horse. He is accepting the milder bit and even giving you flexion. Little by little, it will come. He is a trainable horse in a rubber snaffle.”
Bernie advised the group that most horses could be ridden without the gimmick bits that “deviated from the classical. You’ve got to experiment with horses. Just put a normal bit in his mouth and see if he likes it better.”
Go to for more from Bernie Traurig about the American forward riding system and clashing aids. For more information on Bernie Traurig’s clinics and workshops, go and click on clinics/workshops.

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Beezie Madden: Gymnasticize Your Horse

Part 2: Beezie Madden develops athleticism and rideability at the 2016 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session.

“My goal today is to share knowledge and make better horsemen by doing gymnastic work and rideability work,” said Beezie Madden. After jumping the liverpool with Esprit 373, Eve Jobs and the other riders returned to gymnastic work to get the horses’ shape and rideability back. | Amy K. Dragoo

New Year’s Day dawned unseasonably hot and humid at the Winter Equestrian Festival showgrounds as two-time Olympic gold medalist Beezie Madden perched a George Morris action figure aboard a golf cart to preside over the second day of the 10th annual George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session. Day 1 had featured Olympic bronze medalist Christine Traurig’s schooling of the clinic’s 12 riders in dressage in Wellington, Florida. Beezie’s plan was to work on gymnasticizing the horses with the goal of building on Christine’s lessons.

“George’s passion for teaching, his system for teaching and his passing it on to the rest of us has been a driving force in this training session for all these years,” Beezie said. “My goal today is to share knowledge and make better horsemen by doing gymnastic work and rideability work. We’ll introduce the water jump and feed off what Christine said yesterday and try to keep balance and rhythm while we do everything.”

Although the clinic’s namesake was unable to be at the training session, Olympic gold medalist Beezie ensured that a George Morris action figure presided over the lesson, placing him in the golf cart to oversee the young riders. | Amy K. Dragoo

Beezie introduced the concepts of her teaching method to them first in a demonstration ride. The day’s theme was developing a horse’s adjustability and how that helps when jumping a course. She worked on getting the horse “in front of the rider’s leg” by engaging his hind end because, she said, the horse can’t accept hands on the reins until he is in front of the leg. “I like the horse’s hind legs to feel like they’re stepping underneath my seat.” 
Transitions, Transitions, Transitions

Beezie also stressed getting the horse to work from his hind end into and through transitions. She often uses transitions that require leg to school this concept, like a shoulder-in. “In this lateral movement, I have to keep the hind end underneath me to do the transition,” she explained. “If the horse tries to raise his head up, I correct him so that he is underneath my seat.” 

As an example, Beezie said riders could ride a shoulder-in at the sitting trot, then transition to the shoulder-in at the walk for a few steps before returning to a shoulder-in at the sitting trot. Or each could ride a half-pass at the sitting trot, then ride a transition to a half-pass at the walk for a few steps back to a half-pass at the sitting trot while making sure the horse’s hind end is underneath the rider’s seat. Then riders could change it up: ride a half-pass, change direction, walk, trot, walk. Horses could memorize a pattern, so finding the correct balance between repetition and overdoing an exercise is key. 

Variety is the Key To Training 

Tori Colvin uses her inside leg coming out of the turn to put Whisper Z onto the outside rein while shaping the turn and keeping the balance so she can ride straight to the pole. | Amy K. Dragoo

Still riding, Beezie introduced a series of three rails, each placed 48 feet apart, to test the horse’s rideability with frequent gait changes over various patterns while regulating his rhythm and tempo. She rode transitions from canter to walk, then walked over a rail, then picked up a trot to go back and forth through the straight line of rails. At the canter, she rode the rails in a straight line and changed the number of strides between them, going from three strides to a rail to four strides to the next one. Then she mixed it up by asking for five strides to the second rail and three strides to the first rail. “My concern is that the horse’s balance and his frame stay the way I want it all the way down the gymnastic line. When you are at the level of grand prix, your horse should be able to do that like an accordion. You need to be able to do the open water to the double of verticals combination. It’s a test every time. You have to be able to make the adjustment and keep the horse’s brain together so he is able to do something bold and then move to something very short.” 

Before Beezie added jumping to the gymnastic exercises, she moved her stirrups up a hole. “You should have a little longer stirrup for the flat than jumping,” she advised. “Don’t take your foot out of your stirrup to adjust it since you’re never going to know what will spook your horse. If you’re ever on a young horse, you have to have that skill.” Then it was back to the business of adding variety to the workout by introducing three vertical jumps set on a line 20 feet apart with ground rails placed midway between each. She also set takeoff and landing poles 10 feet before and after the line. She rode the line and had the horse halt after it.

“The landing of each fence is the starting of the approach to the next fence so it is important to be critical of your horse’s schooling,” Beezie said. “He should halt on the bit, not flying backward or rooting. He’s got to be disciplined enough to halt in the contact.” 

Again to add variety, she would sometimes ride the line and then ride through the corner. She emphasized working on making tidy turns to prepare for the tight time allowed on many courses and the speed often required in jump-offs. To sharpen the turns, she used her inside leg to put the horse onto the outside rein, which keeps him from cutting in. “If the horse is on the outside rein through the turn, the turn becomes much simpler,” she explained. “If the horse is cutting and not on my outside rein, it becomes a battle into the turn. Not only does it distract the horse, it slows him down, too.

“Jumping is a sport of concentration,” she continued. “Every horse we put in a class could jump over the fences or we would be idiots to put them there. The real test is can the horse concentrate and be schooled enough to jump those fences in a strange environment with the trickiness the course designers like. We always think about the riders, but the horse has to concentrate, too. His concentration has to be mainly on the fence. Responding to the rider and the rider’s aids has to become a force of habit.”

Put the Jump in the Middle of the Arc

Beezie began Day 2 of the 10th George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session with a demonstration to introduce the day’s lesson: developing adjustability of the equine athlete and how that translates to jumping. | Amy K. Dragoo

Beezie said training the horse to jump so that his arc is over the middle of the jump is important. A rider does this by keeping the horse’s hind end engaged and maintaining an even rhythm so the takeoff spot is accurate. “A horse that jumps too early will have the back rail. I want enough rideability that I can keep my horse together in rhythm.” As long as a rider keeps the rhythm and the connection, the horse can jump well from a variety of spots.

As Beezie cooled down her horse before bringing the young riders into the ring, she encouraged him to stretch and relax his topline. “It’s a nice exercise physically and mentally,” she said. “Even though he’s in a long frame, I’m still stretching out the muscles in his back” while keeping him in front of the leg with light contact. There is “still connection between leg and hand even though I am letting him rest and relax,” she added.
When riding the final downward transition to the walk, Beezie pointed out that riders should not just plop down on the horse’s back and let him fall behind. Everything you do on a horse is training him, she said. “When I’ve done this nice flatwork and I end with a bad transition, I’ve pretty much ruined the session. Details, details, all the time. Even in the barn you are training your horse.” 

First Training Session 

“I learned to think about every part of the course and not take any part for granted,” said 20-year-old Dani Roskens. She also learned to use her whole body as a unit to affect the weight of the horse. | Amy K. Dragoo
As the first six riders entered the ring, Beezie instructed them to warm up by walking in a lively rhythm with the horses in front of the riders’ legs. She asked them to establish contact with the horses’ mouths by pushing them into the bit, not by pulling on the reins.

Throughout the session, Beezie insisted the horses react to the aids. Not a fan of digging the horse with a spur at every stride, she explained that the horse needs to be respectful of the aids and ready to respond to them, but he can’t be afraid of them. “It’s got to make sense to him,” she said. “There’s a progression. You don’t want to go from no leg and then attack the horse.” You start with the amount of pressure you want the horse to respond to and if he doesn’t, “he gets a little reprimand” with a stronger leg or a kick. 

Beezie asked the riders to move into the posting trot, reminding them that their first goal was to make sure the horses had enough impulsion for self-carriage. The horses should be trotting in a nice forward rhythm with a light contact. If the horses evaded the bit by pulling or getting behind it, she instructed the riders to raise their hands to put a little pressure on the corners of the horses’ mouths. When the horses changed the head position by accepting the bit, she explained that the riders needed to immediately soften the contact while maintaining the leg. 

As Vivian Yowan’s horse became fussy with his mouth, Beezie suggested she try to keep her hands as steady as possible while using her legs to push him up to the bit. When he put his head down and relaxed his jaw, Beezie told her to relax her hands. 

Once again, Beezie stressed transitions: walk to trot, sitting trot, collect a little, shoulder-in in a walk to a sitting trot, shoulder-in in a sitting trot to a walk. She explained that to achieve the shoulder-in, a rider adds pressure with the inside leg at the girth to push the horse into the outside rein. The horse’s neck stays bent to the inside but not overbent. The hind legs should feel as if they are stepping up underneath the seat without going faster. She added that a rider should always work the horse in both directions. The riders were often asked to sit the trot so that they could use their seats and backs to influence the transitions. 

Tori Colvin, 18, was reminded to lean back when doing transitions instead of forward. She said she’d remember what Beezie said about carrying the hands, making sure she’s not pulling on the reins and legging the horse for impulsion. 

Just when the jumpers thought they might be finished with dressage, Beezie introduced a half-pass. A half-pass is performed with the horse parallel to the side of the ring and slightly bent in the direction in which he is moving forward. Beezie reminded the riders that looking at the horses’ heads will not put them into the right position, but looking where they wanted to go will help create the roundness of the horse. 

Then riders tackled the ground rails, using transitions to increase rideability and adjustability. “Working with the horse’s rhythm and balance, the horse’s hind leg has to come underneath you,” Beezie said. “Think of the rails as references where you make the transitions. The horse should feel like an accordion. He should feel short in his neck and then lengthen a little.”

Kelli Cruciotti liked changing the number of strides between three ground poles in a line. “That was a great exercise for me to think about and take home to my other horses. I am going to think about the shape of the horse and making sure he has that accordion feeling.” | Amy K. Dragoo
Beezie chided the riders for sloppy halts. In the downward transitions, the seat and back need to remain fixed with the shoulders slightly behind the hips. She instructed Eve Jobs, 17, to brace her heel a little so her leg could slide a bit forward in the halt and to give a little with her arms. Then Beezie told Vivian, 18, to think of a halt more like waterskiing with her shoulders behind her hips. “If you get your shoulders in front of your hips, the horse has a big advantage,” she cautioned. “He’s much stronger than you. Our only method of riding is by having leverage. You get the leverage by having the correct position and style.” 

Riders then start incorporating verticals and oxers with turns in between. Beezie told them to put their horses on the outside rein to shape the turn and keep the balance while looking to finish the turn. “Once you have the horse on the outside rein, you don’t have to keep fading, fading, fading to the outside standard of the next fence,” she explained. “You’ve got to put the horse on the outside rein to put him into a position to come in on the turn. If you don’t look to come in, you’ll have to make time up.” As more jumps, including oxers and a water jump, were added throughout the session, riders were urged to supple their elbows to increase connection with the horse. “When they react to the hand, we reward them by becoming more and more supple ourselves.” 

Beezie told 17-year-old TJ O’Mara to keep his elbows bent and elastic, causing him to note afterward that “it really made the course so much easier because sometimes I stiffen my arms and the horse will sometimes resist it. It made my horse listen to my aids and she felt amazing.”

Mitch Endicott, 17, learned he needs to focus on staying square in the saddle. “Around the turns, I don’t stay square with my body,” he said. “I tend to lean in. That’s something I need to work on.”

Second Session

Lucy Deslauriers rides a line of three vertical jumps, each set 20 feet apart, with ground rails set midway between each fence. This helped emphasize that the landing of each fence is the starting of the approach to the next fence. | Amy K. Dragoo
The second group of riders had the same warm-up. Beezie urged them to create energy in the walk on a long rein. She instructed them to liven their horses to the leg but not by increasing and holding the spur into the horse’s side. “What that does is create the horse being duller to your leg,” she said. “What you do is you ask with the pressure you would like for him to react from, and if he doesn’t answer to that, attack him a little with the spur. Try to surprise him a little so he starts to anticipate when you do put a little pressure on his side. He’s got to be ready to react to that. If the horse is reactive enough to the leg, I shouldn’t see what I talked about in my demonstration of people spurring the horse every stride and slapping the saddle with their seat to try to create the impulsion. I want to see the horse light enough to the leg that I don’t even see that you’re doing anything.” 

When 20-year-old Dani Rosken’s horse began jigging in the trot, Beezie told her to be more sympathetic with her leg. When horses are reactive enough, don’t keep trying to get more and more horse. In addition, Dani said, “I learned to use my whole body as a unit instead of just trying to use one part to affect the entire weight of the horse.”

Daisy Farish’s horse was a little too reactive to the leg, so Beezie coached her to apply a half-halt with her outside hand to recycle the horse’s energy back into the hind legs. Afterward Daisy, 15, said she learned how her position could strengthen the rideability of the hot horse. “Beezie helped me with the way I sit and with keeping my shoulders back to make it easier to control him.”

Beezie told Ransome Rombauer, 17, to bring her hands above her horse’s withers because when she carried her hands too low, she risked pulling the horse’s head down and creating resistance than suppleness. Instead, Beezie told her to raise the hand, keeping the bit in the corners of the horse’s mouth until he sought a different position and gave in the jaw by lowering his head. When that happens, the rider can reward him by relaxing the contact though not allowing a slack in the reins. 

As riders moved on to riding over the ground rails and jumping, Kelli Cruciotti, 18, said she liked using different stride lengths over the set of three ground poles. “I am going to think about the shape of the horse and making sure he has that accordion feeling,” she said.

At the water jump, Beezie had more advice. “You don’t want to ride the water like you would a tall vertical. You don’t want to get there having to compress the stride a lot.” Many of the riders were aboard borrowed horses for the training session so the coaching often involved how to navigate a horse whose quirks weren’t known. “When you know you have a sophisticated water jumper, that’s a good time to compress a little and let the horse jump bigger. When you don’t know your horse, you want to be able to build a little for the water the first time.” 

After the riders schooled over the water jump, Beezie had them return to the gymnastic exercises. “Schooling the water creates kind of an aggressive horse. Any time you do a water school or you’re schooling natural jumps getting ready for a derby-type show, remember you probably need to do something after that to get a little more gymnastic and get the horse’s shape and rideability back together. Even if they’re good about that stuff, it still creates a bold, long, kind of aggressive horse.”

Riders at the 2016 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session watch and listen to Beezie Madden describe what Day 2 holds (from left): TJ O’Mara, Ransome Rombauer, Kelli Cruciotti, Mitch Endicott, Lucy Deslauriers, Eve Jobs, Katherine Strauss, Ailish Cunniffe, Daisy Farish, Vivian Yowan, Victoria Colvin and Danielle Roskens. | Amy K. Dragoo

As the day wound down, Beezie again praised George while acknowledging his tiny action figure set in the golf cart overlooking the training session.

“He’s the driving force behind this training session and, thanks to him, we have a good program here,” she said.

Katherine Strauss, 17, found that working on fundamentals such as smoothly extending and collecting, basic flatwork, lateral work and making sure the horse is responsive to the aids was helpful. | Amy K. Dragoo

Re-published article from Practical Horseman.