NOVEL WAY TO DEAL WITH LOCKDOWN

NOVEL WAY TO DEAL WITH LOCKDOWN

What a bizarre situation we all find ourselves in at the moment. However, every cloud has a silver lining and I think Rozzie and I and our staff are exceptionally lucky.

The downside is none of our lessons are able to travel to us and all of my clinics and our competitions have been cancelled. Sounds grim. The upside is we have some 40 horses in work. Many of these belong to clients and all are worked every day and so we do have some income. Working these horses, along with staff and in-house lessons, we are flat-out from dawn until dusk.

What is really startling is how well the horses go when they are ridden every day, and every day ridden really well. No clinics, no outside lessons and all of a sudden our horses are going super dooper!

So, when your horse is going really well, what do you do then? Well, the obvious answer is the education progresses and the quality of the paces becomes more and more exciting. This is a critical mental manoeuvre; you need to experiment with developing ideas and qualities that in the past you were too busy to contemplate. Now is the best time you will ever have to get out of the square.

So right now, we at Ryans are experimenting with developing the trot on our eventers and dressage horses. Everyone is very familiar with the theory that when you are buying a horse, the walk and the canter are the most important paces to assess because the trot can always be improved. There is not much you can do to improve the walk and canter.

Realistically, no one practices this philosophy and an expansive and expressive trot is the pace that people most want to see when assessing the paces with a view to buying. If you are buying, you want a nice trot because that makes a huge difference to your dressage scores, and if you are selling, you want an expansive and expressive trot because that makes a huge difference to the amount of money a horse is worth.

So how do you improve the trot? Well, lots of work and time does indeed with some horses produce improved paces. It’s a bit of a lottery, really, and often involves faith or lots of praying. Well, here at Ryans we are in the middle of an experiment! It’s actually fool-proof, and in this Covid-19 lockdown all riders who are at a reasonable standard, say 95cm eventing and Elementary level dressage, can improve the trot relatively quickly, without strength and without involving in most cases lots and lots of time.

The busy arena at Ryans hasn’t slowed down much during lockdown! © Peter Stoop

When I say improve the trot, I mean encourage the horses to put their legs up around their ears! Of course, I must point out that for the horse to be suitable to address this “big trot program”, he needs to at least be five years of age and a reasonably confident, secure individual. Providing riders resist being forceful or overdoing the program, it will not challenge a horse much physically, but it can challenge a horse mentally. For this reason, the program can be started and taught to horses that are 20 years of age — there is no problem at the other end — however, there is a problem with starting horses that are too young.

Do you and your horse tick these boxes? Read on… 

“When your horse
is going really well,
what do you do then?”

For those of you who are reasonably well-read and aware of the dressage world internationally, you will be familiar with the English rider Charlotte Dujardin. Charlotte is the individual dressage gold medallist from the 2012 London Olympics and also the individual dressage gold medallist from the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Charlotte is quite outspoken and can be easily found online doing dressage masterclasses where she openly says that she can make any horse have a fancy trot no matter what!

Charlotte says it’s easy –  “Just teach your horse to do passage and then move it forward into trot” – end of story. That is actually quite an interesting out-there comment, as most Grand Prix dressage riders develop piaffe firstly and then passage. There is always a great traditional wariness about muddling trot and passage. We as students of classical dressage are always warned away from mixing passage and trot. Well, times have changed and the sooner you get over that the sooner you can train your horse to move in a way which the dressage judges will reward wonderfully well.

So, how do you train passage? Well, here is the Ryan version, which is guaranteed for dummies, and so long as you stick to the rules it looks after the wellbeing of the horse both mentally and physically.

Firstly, you need to school half-steps. Half-steps are basically a grandmother’s jig-jog around the arena, which is almost at a walk speed but jogging. Preferably the horse is on the bit but not absolutely necessary! This pace is embarrassing for the rider in front of spectators or friends. It is easy to sit on, so done in sitting trot. For the horse the pace can initially be confusing, as it is not trot but it is also above walk.

To start with, horses will go faster to trot and then walk as the rider tries to restrain the horse below a standard trot. The half-steps sometimes take you 10 minutes to teach. The half-steps have a very small moment of suspension and are not to represent a pace that is challenging to the horse or the rider. Initially the challenge is to find and define the half-steps which can be thought of as a new pace. Not walk, not trot, not piaffe and not passage. It is easy and a rider should do at least three laps of the arena on the left rein in half-steps.

Once you have done three laps on the left rein without walking and without trotting, you then introduce what I call piaffe steps. The piaffe steps are nothing more than a shortening of the half-steps for, let’s say, no more than three strides and then back in to half-steps. When the rider encourages the horse to do piaffe steps, the horse is going to want to walk. With the most gentle tap of the dressage whip, the rider will restrain for three steps with the reins, and just ever so gently with the whip encourage the half-step rhythm to stay in the shortened steps, which I am calling piaffe steps. It is really important that the horse does not get a fright from the whip. The whip is being used as a conductor’s baton and trying to keep the horse to a metronome rhythm.

In most instances of riding life, the whip is usually used when a rider is asking for more. I want the whip to move into the other end of the spectrum where it can be used as an endorsement or a rhythm maintainer. The horse should become completely confident in the whip and its communication virtues, as opposed to always being associated with more, more, more.

These three piaffe steps are done in the middle of each long side and then the horse returns to half-steps. The piaffe steps never are on the spot. Always the piaffe steps are moving forward, however, they are just shorter than the half-steps. Once a rider has done three long sides with three piaffe steps in the middle of each long side, they can take a break and a walk on a loose rein and repeat the exercise on the right rein. Three laps on the right of the dressage arena in half-steps, and then three more laps with three of four piaffe steps in the middle of each long side.

Now let me tell you, that will be physically really easy but mentally it will nearly kill the rider with boredom! That is 12 laps on the arena and we have only just started. The real difficulty with this exercise is that the average rider has little or no hope of withstanding the repetition and the boredom. So that means that although I am sharing a wonderful secret, I will get pretty much a 98% failure rate with all of you who care to try this technique, as you just cannot maintain enthusiasm. This is the great difficulty with this technique. This exercise being boring really only lasts for four weeks before results start to become significant. You have to last four weeks. This pattern in actual fact has the most amazing results in the quickest of times; however, you have to survive the beginnings.

VIDEO EXAMPLE ONE

VIDEO EXAMPLE TWO

VIDEO EXAMPLE THREE

The core Ryans team (photographed pre-covid and social distancing!) L-R – Breanna Tillitzki riding Desigual, Cathryn Herbert, Rozzie, Heath, Sappho Ransan-Elliot, Sarah Clark and Hazel Shannon on Gretta. © Peter Stoop

So, after four weeks what starts to happen is that in tapping with the whip the horse very gently starts to activate the hind legs in the piaffe steps. At all times the piaffe exercise has to keep travelling forward albeit shorter than the half-steps. This agitated hind leg action is the key to piaffe and to passage. Now you do need to always keep the horse confident. Some horses will now start to produce some fascinating piaffe steps which you just use common sense with and continue the evolution of piaffe. However, some horses will not be naturally inclined to do classical piaffe but they will still start to have an agitated, rhythmic hind leg action.

Once a horse is confident with three to eight agitated piaffe steps, we start the passage training. The eventers really don’t have a great use for piaffe, however, the passage can revolutionise an event dressage test. The dressage riders should continue on with the piaffe development in the first instance. Of course, piaffe is critical for dressage competition at the Grand Prix level. So here is how you go about starting the passage after four weeks of half-steps and piaffe steps.

Firstly, you go through the whole program until you get to the piaffe steps section and then, instead of shortening for the piaffe, you very gently use the whip for the agitation and encourage the horse to go forward towards trot. When you actually do a little bit of trot you immediately inherit a greater or lesser moment of suspension depending on the horse. As you go forward towards trot, you tap with the whip and encourage also the agitated hind leg steps. You will get the tiny edges of passage almost straight away. I always pull up even at the tiniest hint, or sometimes even when there is no hint of passage, and pat the horse and relax the horse. You have to back yourself here and you are indeed living in the world of “I nearly saw a spider”!

Once the horse is relaxed in the halt, you proceed again in half-steps. When you reach the middle of the next long side you again encourage the horse forward gently towards trot and tap with the whip, encouraging the agitated hind leg action. You do three passage efforts on the left rein and three passage efforts on the right rein. At first the passage may well be nothing more than a figment of your imagination. Never give up – and being conservative here and pulling up and patting even when you are very suspicious you have achieved nothing, will still indeed guarantee you a passage outcome. On the other hand, if you succumb to frustration and/or greed and belt the horse too aggressively with the whip, all will be lost. Being aggressive here will lose everything. Back yourself!

Nevertheless, within four weeks of a rider going through this process every day after they have already done four weeks of half-steps and piaffe steps, you will indeed have passage starting to evolve so that even your mum and dad or your partner or your riding instructor has to acknowledge that you have trained something that might be a baby passage.

VIDEO EXAMPLE FOUR

So, at the end of the eight weeks you can then start maintaining the passage and not stopping. It’s simply a matter of practice makes perfect, and from the tiniest beginnings in four months you will have full-blown passage. This passage will be done so that it is not strong in the reins, and if you are clever it will be pretty much on the bit. But if being on the bit has always been a bit of an issue, the horse will be still passaging just a little above the bit. No problem. This piaffe-passage exercise will make huge inroads into horses coming onto the bit.

Once the passage is a party trick that will amaze everybody, you then need to start experimenting with going even more forward in the passage until you are travelling at a full-blown trot speed. Some horses find this easy and some horses can take 12 months to hold the swing and elevation of passage at a proper trot speed. The result of this trotting passage is take-your-breath-away stuff and everyone will ask you, “Where did you find a horse that moves like that?”

VIDEO EXAMPLE FIVE

VIDEO EXAMPLE SIX

VIDEO EXAMPLE SEVEN

VIDEO EXAMPLE EIGHT

This is exactly the system that Hazel Shannon used on WillingaPark Clifford, who always did a reasonable dressage test but due to his very thoroughbred sewing-machine trot he always struggled to score in the dressage arena. In recent times Clifford is now scoring over 70%.

So good luck with that. It will take patience and this Covid-19 lockdown is just perfect for this project. If you can behave yourself and keep your horse happy, you will have a revolutionised competition horse when it comes to the dressage arena, whether you are an eventer or a dressage rider aspiring to challenge Charlotte Dujardin. EQ

Cheers, Heath

The first photo is Hazel Shannon and WillingaPark Clifford winning the Adelaide 5* three day event in 2018. The second photo is 12 months later, after training the half-steps, again back in the Adelaide five-star three day event where Hazel and Clifford again won. In this second photo, you can see the magical difference that the development of passage in Clifford’s resume has done to his trot. The scores, once Clifford mastered the half-steps and then the piaffe and then the passage and then the Charlotte Dujardin trot, are now over 70% and now mean that Hazel and Clifford are a serious threat for individual medals at the Tokyo 2021 Olympics.

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