Archive for June, 2013

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Top Horse Boarding Facility’s Lessons Learned – Part 1: Dressage, Rhythm and The Base of the Training Pyramid

June 10th, 2013

As the Head Trainer at Whispering Hope Stables, we pride ourselves not only on providing the best horse boarding facility in the Raleigh, Cary, and Apex area, but on educating and training our equestrian athletes and their riders. We focus on dressage basics as the necessary groundwork for other disciplines including hunters, jumpers, cross-country and pleasure riding.

This is the first in a series of six articles explaining the Training Pyramid with the focus of this installment on Rhythm – the pyramid’s foundation.

Dressage, imagined by the majority of Americans as the elitist white-gloved sport of dancing horses attended by the Romneys and other royalty, is in reality based on ancient military maneuvers.  At it’s highest level, the refinement of these basics can be demonstrated by setting each footfall to a carefully paired piece of music, making some movements seem like spontaneous dance steps. The root of this exactitude (simply the French word for “training”) lies far from entertainment; however, dressage began in Greece with a cavalry officer named Xenophon, a disciple of Socrates. He decided to train horses to do the movements necessary for cavalry.  It was necessary for the horses to not only perform pirouettes to quickly maneuver their way out of danger, but to half-pass to the side and march in parade(s). This needed to be done with signals mainly from the seat and through the legs of the officer as the hands were occupied in battle.  This type of military training had to be methodical and simple.

Despite the sometimes confusing language used in dressage today, there is a clear method to the training of a happy dressage partner. Known as the Pyramid of Training, the road to collection and, the ultimate goal of dressage, begins with rhythm. As one progresses through suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness, and finally to collection and, it will be necessary to continue to play up and down the pyramid as breakthroughs are made in fine-tuning.  In other words, with each step forward, the basics must be revisited to be sure that the essential elements of good training are maintained.

Why is rhythm the base of the training scale if any sound horse should have a basically pure rhythm? The answer is simple: rhythm is disturbed by tension, and tension is created by riders that pull.

Above every lateral, two-beat walk (both right legs, both left legs, camel-style) is a rider pulling on the reins or squeezing the horses back muscles in an effort to collect. Rhythm and relaxation go hand-in-hand, which is why training level requires a free walk and a stretch at the trot to demonstrate that when the rider releases the reins, the horse can stretch forward and down to the bit, maintaining the rhythm and tempo, and demonstrating relaxation of the top line musculature. Unfortunately, the truth is that this is often the only part of the test where the horse does not appear constrained and is able to track up-step past the hoof print of the front leg with the hind leg on the same side-to show the maximum reach of his natural gait. Releasing the reins demonstrates that the seat is affecting the horse’s speed and that the rider is not being dragged around by the bit like a water-skier.

The horse is being ridden with the reins as a hand brake if releasing them results in him getting frantically faster or if he has been leaning on them so much that he loses his balance and has to step forward to catch himself if the rider drops the hold on his face. If this is the case, the rider needs to begin to incorporate half halts -the same combination of legs, seat, and hand that creates a full halt, but then continues on without stopping and this rebalances the horse without breaking gait-until the reins can be used as a quick and gentle signal instead of an emergency brake. Tension on the reins can only happen if pressure is coming from both sides, meaning the rider is pulling. The pressure must be released, if the horse accelerates, the speed can quickly and gently be corrected by a half-halt then all pressure must be released again. At first, it may be possible to only get two or three strides before he is hurling himself forward again. Adjust, release, and continue, as the horse will quickly learn that changes in tempo result in corrections while a constant temp results in him getting to continue in peace.

The trot rhythm is easier to distinguish, as anything other than an even one-two-one-two is either a lameness or rein-lameness. Rein-lameness shows up most often in the lateral movements-leg-yield, shoulder-in, half-pass, but can happen anytime a rider creates tension in the neck and back muscles by blocking the horse’s freedom of movement with the reins. This is cured, as if by magic, when one simply releases the death-grip of the reins. Balance with the seat moves the horse forward or sideways with the legs and directs the head and neck with a guiding, soft touch. Correct gently and quickly then release.

The canter offers a number of rhythm issues. Dr. Hilary Clayton, who holds the McPhail Chair at Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, is considered the leading expert on equine biomechanics. She has recently shown that an extremely collected canter, such as one needed to perform a pirouette, has four beats. The significance of this is that a four-beat canter has always been considered a fault of lacking impulsion and/or engagement. In proper collection, the elevation of the front end would disassociate the diagonal pair-the rear leg would land first because the front leg of the diagonal pair would be elevated-which is not faulty. The fact remains that unless one is watching the canter in freeze-frame, the fourth beat should be indistinguishable and the naked eye recognizes a 3 beat rhythm. If four beats are obvious, it is likely that the rider is constraining the horse, hollowing the back, and causing the rhythm fault. It is possible and incorrect for a horse to cross-canter, in which the legs confuse the order, essentially using the hind legs in the reverse order. This can occur with or without a rider and is due to a weakness, lack of balance or possibly injury and should be thoroughly evaluated if it happens consistently.

As we add contact, impulsion, straightness, collection and perhaps a few prayers, there should be an elevation of the front end as the horse lowers the croup and carries his shoulders higher. We will get there. But for now, let’s begin with a canter that has 3 beats, a relaxed top line, stretching–not pulling– down to the bit, in an even tempo, managed by your invisible aids balancing every step.

The pyramid style of the training scale can be slightly misleading in that it is not possible to master rhythm without suppleness-incorporating a steady contact and some impulsion. Creating a steady rhythm will create relaxation, which is the necessary component of the next building block, “Suppleness”. A steady rhythm will indicate a subtle communication between horse and rider that is managing speed and tempo. The horse must be paying attention to each footfall and listening for the rider’s signals. A steady rhythm demonstrates that a pleasant communication has begun and that a better horse is being built.  Again, our next article will focus on suppleness.

Written by:  Laurie Hutchinson

 

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Raleigh’s Top Horse Boarding Facility Announces the “Never Too Late” Club

June 4th, 2013

Whispering Hope Stables is excited to announce the start of their “Never Too Late” Training Program for women having the desire to get-up in the saddle. The Never Too Late Club is for moms, businesswomen and caretakers that once had a passion for equestrian training and horsemanship or always aspired, but never did, accomplish that dream of riding. This is an opportunity to re-focus on your childhood dream of riding horses, whether this is your first or second time around.

This club is a group training session with other like-minded women that will spend 1 hour training with one of WHS’ horses or their own horse and then will wrap up with a drink of choice in the WHS’ Crown Lounge (http://www.whisperinghopestables.com/lounge.html)

Laurie Hutchinson, Grand Prix rider and active FEI Developing Horse and Young Horse Program competitor, will be providing the training. With fantastic footing, premier horses and miles of trails through hills overlooking Lake Wheeler, Whispering Hope Stables is Raleigh’s top horse boarding and training facility and a truly relaxing sanctuary for its’ members and trainees.  If you would like to learn more about the “Never Too Late” program for you and your friends, then please contact Whispering Hope Stables’ main office at (919) 851-6237 and ask for either Amy Peters or Laurie Hutchinson.