Sorry, this is rather long, but if, like me, you have been having chronic problems with improving a tense horse, it might just be an epiphany, as it has been for me…
I had the opportunity of a lifetime early last month, and I grabbed it with both hands. Grand Prix Judge, FEI 3 & 4 star Eventing Judge and renowned Dressage Trainer Peter Shaw was coming to the U.K. from his native Australia, and would have a few days to kill between his commitments as President of the Ground Jury at Burnham Market 3* and Belton 3*, before then heading over to Ballindenisk. I leapt at the chance to have him to stay and also to have some much-needed intensive help with my dressage.
I drove over to collect him at the end of Saturday at Burnham, and soon learnt that in spite of not having had anything to eat all day, and “I only brought summer clothes – I was told it was Spring here, I’ve been freezing all week” near-hypothermia, Peter’s enthusiasm to help people (and their horses) is absolutely boundless, and overrides all other concerns, including his personal comfort! We’d had a good chat about my dressage issues on the way, and he instantly said “saddle one up then if you like, we can do a session or two now.” I didn’t need telling twice…
I am lucky enough to have 3 lovely horses here at the moment for an owner, all dressage bred, as well as my eventer Daisy, who has been proving pretty difficult in the dressage department, partly due to her conformation and way of going (naturally high head carriage) and partly due to my apparent inability to persuade her to work correctly over the back and to truly give at the jaw and the poll. Nobody else has ever schooled her so there’s nobody else to blame, which makes me feel even worse about it. She wasn’t ruined, she now has a very good work ethic and doesn’t object to flatwork, but she just didn’t seem to ‘get it’ at all, and tension was making things difficult, but I didn’t seem to be able to solve it.
My long-term trainer hasn’t been over for a long time, and I have tried various other people without finding someone who really helped, so I was very keen to have an expert eye on us, and to find out exactly how Peter trains. He was a schoolteacher and Principal for 22 years, and has been coaching for 40, so safe to say that he knows HOW to teach, how to get the message across, and not just what to teach, something that I think some equestrian trainers lack – especially those who are total naturals in the saddle! We dived right in.
Wow. Just wow. It was fantastic to have a horse-centric trainer who has such an expertly analytical eye. He never made me feel stupid or useless, but he was quick to correct me, and to point out things that I was doing that were causing problems, in spite of all my best efforts and attempts to improve both myself and my horses.
He was also extremely encouraging the moment either of us did anything right, and “Good for you!!!” or “Good for her!!!” and “Good thinking, ninety-nine” (who remembers Maxwell Smart’s clever side kick?!) – when I managed to do the right thing at the right moment before he said anything – singing out in that Aussie accent became a sound to treasure.
There was the odd moment of slight exasperation, when an old, bad habit reasserted itself subconsciously and I was slow to react to his correction, but this just made me try even more, which was no bad thing!
In case anyone else is having the problems we were having, I will share his words of wisdom and what has worked here for us.
He saw things that I have never ever been told before, which have made a huge difference, such as the fact that although my hands are soft, my arms become too firm, which is of course the wrong way around.
He also pointed, out, crucially, that “the horse’s neck will only ever be as soft as your arms are.”
I need “jelly arms”, an image that helped me a lot. Firm, closed hands that hold the bit in place in the horse’s mouth, with jelly arms that will instantly follow and allow.
When I would unwittingly lock my arms and make the rein harder, he would say “think of the reins as being made of strands of silk, and your only lifeline to the horse’s mouth, be careful not to break them.”
We worked 4 horses every day for the next five days. I was desperate to try to instill these new good habits as much as possible.
We also had a couple of nice outings: to Stamford and Burghley (my most local event… and I truly hope Peter may be on the Ground Jury there one day!), a quick shopping trip for him to stock up on thermals and warm jackets (as Ground Jury Duty is obviously no fun at all when seriously feeling the cold), plus I partly repaid Peter’s extreme generosity by driving him to Carl Hester’s for their monthly demonstration, organised through some of his sponsors. Peter had a personal invitation to this, arranged through mutual friends in Australia, so we got to see Charlotte, Amy (Carl’s stable jockey) and Carl working their horses and to listen to Carl’s talk – an unforgettable opportunity to watch and learn from the best of the best, and most similar to the basics and philosophy we were working on at home with Peter. [I have asked for permission to write an article about our visit to Carl’s and am awaiting a response – not surprisingly they have been a little busy in the few weeks, something to do with Las Vegas!]
Anyway, back to the instruction. The effect of this intensive help on the horses here was clear. Although they are all very different, all made clear progress with me riding in this new way. Actually it’s just really good, simple horsemanship and sympathetic understanding of the horse’s mind, body and spirit within the guidelines of the training scales. The relaxation, rhythm and throughness definitely improved across the board.
Daisy was, of course, the most difficult. Although he did not choose to ride, Peter did, a few times, take pity on me (or her?!) and come and walk beside us, holding the reins – luckily he is pretty tall and she is not! – and teach her what the rein aids actually mean. He was not harsh at all, just clear, and he immediately rewarded even the slightest inclination to go in a better way.
It was interesting to see that Daisy finally understanding that the bit meant stop, and the immediate reward of her better and better tries, actually had her offering a softer neck, flexion at the poll. It also improved her calmness – it was clarity for her.
Peter said “that clarity and reward are the horse’s sympathy. We riders want to be sympathetic in the wrong way, more as we are to humans, but horses are horses and they think differently.”
It was quite amazing how she finally, finally, started to lengthen her neck and soften her whole topline, simply by making those four aids clear and separate until we knew she understood them.
This was something I have been really struggling with for literally years with her, I am not afraid to admit it – she was argumentative and I suspect it was because I wasn’t ever rewarding quite fast enough because I didn’t believe she had got the message at that nanosecond and that she was definitely responding correctly… big lesson to me about exact timing and reward!
This sort of relegated me to beginner status, just sitting there and putting the leg on, but I didn’t mind at all. I was able to see how Peter used his hand not his arm, and also able to start to co-ordinate the adjustments and fixes as I didn’t have the reins, I only had my legs, seat and back. Peter would get me to get a response in the back legs when I pushed with the leg, which made her step underneath herself, allowing the neck to be rounder as the back rounds.
As long as she finally understood, it was absolutely worth it, and I didn’t feel like a beginner for long, as I had jobs to do and the improvement was evident. He did admit that she was far more difficult than he had anticipated, but the penny finally dropped, and I ended up with a transformed horse. She is more relaxed and happier in herself too, a profound difference. Also to my surprise, within days we could see the improvement and development in her topline muscles, especially in front of the wither.
Here are a few more of the things he pointed out that have helped me hugely:
Slow the horse down with the back, seat and legs. He made me think of the back of my body, and slowing the pace with that part as well, in effect: simply slowing my rising or limiting the motion of my hips to help to put the horse on the seat, not the hand so much. (I wasn’t quite sure how this works, or what I did – sometimes! – to make it work, but it really does. I guess I draw myself up more and think of using the muscles in my core and back to sit against the motion of the horse in relation to the length of stride, and create my own length of stride and speed; I think initially I was slightly stiffening my back. He made me rider faster rising trot, slower rising trot, faster rising trot etc until I had realized my seat could create this length of stride and tempo.)
I understood it more when Peter explained about conflicting aids, where the body is telling the horse to continue in the same stride, tempo, pace, but the hands are saying stop. With a fight or flight animal, this causes conflict, which we see as more or less minor or major resistance.
Not chasing my horse into a transition downwards (in a misguided attempt to keep the energy) certainly helped her not shorten and stiffen her neck (his advice was to slow the trot right down before going to walk, for now), and then when I asked with the leg for the hind legs to step under her, I had roundness, even in the halts.
I had to constantly tell myself, slow the tempo with my body not my hands – again, not always easy, but when I get it right, it really really works. That elusive perfect half-halt is perhaps a little closer now…
He quite radically changed the way I hold and use my hands. The new way is to hold them slightly wider apart, with wrists bent in a little, thumbs facing the opposite ears, keep wrists flexible and a little ‘cocked’, not blocked and rigid, and then to use the fingers a little closed around the reins, but lightly, to ‘use the bit to feel the mouth’.
I think of it as being more like holding a child’s hand while they take you somewhere safe, no hint of danger in the connection in my hand. There should be no fiddling with the bit, just feel, and if initially it doesn’t work, be patient, don’t pull back but maybe flex the wrist or take the hand a tiny bit away from the horse, but not really backwards.
I have seen lots of riders fiddling with the bit and can totally see that the correct way is much more comfortable and less noisy for the horse. I had to remember to be patient with the mouth but come with the leg way quicker and expect that response to be much more crisp. When I was patient with the front end and encouraged it to lengthen out of the wither away from me, voila! It’s a different feel but makes a massive difference.
“Arms like a ballerina” was a great image he used, which really helped too… I think of a lovely curve, fluid but poised, elbows slightly out, so my arms make almost an oval, as in a ballerina’s First Position, with hands above and/or in front of the wither, but following, no impediment to the reach at this stage. This keeps them more relaxed and guards against my worst riding habits, preventing me from locking my arms and sending a trapped message to my dominant mare (who does not appreciate that!), making it easier for me to do the right thing subconsciously.
In reality, I have to learn to have soft arms with my elbows by my sides, touching the front of my shirt, or hip bones, but keep myself in the saddle through my seat, back and legs, not my shoulders or rotator cuff. This makes for so much more of a stable seat and gives me more independence in my hands and arms to develop that lovely forward feel into the contact.
The absolute basics:
Send FORWARD with both legs to both hands. If this forward response is not quick enough, think about an allowing hand and in extreme cases, give the reins until the horse understands, there is an open door for them to go forward through, always be ready to soften so the reward is immediate. Horses learn in the softening phase, not the pressure. Don’t trap the horse’s neck or head with my arms, but hold the bit still in her mouth with my closed fingers. Peter got me to take my hands a little apart to try to develop a new pathway in my brain, Neural Linguistic Programming, NLP. This changed my system to enable a new pathway to be learned.
Be light and instantly reward the slightest try. (Because this mare has been so difficult, I think I was waiting to get more of a try before rewarding, I wasn’t trusting that anything had happened yet or that it would continue to go in the right direction if I softened immediately, I seemed to just give it away which made her think ‘okay, I will just stick my head up again.’ He changed that and it has helped a lot.)
To use my fingers closed on the rein, don’t use my arms, that is far too much.
Use my back and seat and legs, to make the horse rounder from behind into more closed hands.
If the horse tenses (which D was doing a bit initially, including almost always in the same place), my first reaction should be:
slow the tempo with my body and my rising, keep hands slightly apart to allow my brain to learn this new pathway, with the leg on, and flex the horse to the inside slightly, particularly around the leg, being sure to allow a little with the outside rein without losing the connection to the bit with my fingers. Basic stuff I know, but if you are doing it even slightly wrong, on a sensitive and/or dominant horse, you get nowhere…
If there is a problem, the solution is to think of pushing the back end between the two hands.
My way of overriding my bad habits is to think that “LEG is the solution”, the hand is the problem, if I don’t do it right!
I have to use my outside leg, the whole length of it, more. Keep toes in, use entire leg. Peter would sometimes say the horses were “obediently crooked”, with way too much inside leg on, either too far back or simply too much on, pushing the horse out of the circle all the time. “Ride them straight! Speed and line!”
Trot to walk transition – make the trot smaller, then use the SEAT to initiate the walk.
Don’t give up till it works! Don’t back off. Wait till the right thing starts happening, then reward much faster, with a soft arm, elbow and shoulder, sometimes with a full stroke down the neck with the inside hand. Just make sure my reward was a genuine one, and not a half-baked one in case the horse didn’t stay the same when rewarded. “Reward enough correctly at the right time, and the horses soon learn what we want from them.”
He noticed that I was, unwittingly, using the outside edges of the arena, rather than using my aids, to keep her on the circle and on turns. I need to pay a lot more attention to the circles being spot-on in shape. I had NO idea I was doing that… again, it isn’t anything that anyone else has ever mentioned, so had become a very bad habit, but Peter made me correct it, each time, and finally when I realized I was actually letting the wall turn my horse not me, having the horse on my line, at my speed, between my legs, reaching to my hand, wow, it sure makes a difference, and is quite a different feel from what I had been asking for unwittingly and getting.
To get the 1/2 halt through: be more consistent, do more of them, before every transition, corner, every time you are needing to ask the horse to change something, line, speed, pace! If you really think about it, there are so many chances for us to half halt on a simple circle. It doesn’t have to be a blatant one, just a simple half halt followed by the release.
Play around: smaller and bigger steps, sending on and bringing back.
Don’t stay on the same circle (a bad habit of mine!) – play around, do different shapes etc.
Of course we chatted a lot (an 8 hour round trip to Gloucestershire without turning the stereo on has to be a record?!) and I learnt an immense amount. One particular story really struck me.
Peter’s non-horsey parents didn’t really understand this love of horses, as they’re not horse people – we all know that happens and doesn’t make them bad, just non-horsey! He won at the Australian Championships and so many more competitions, in fact he usually won almost each time he took his horses out, but they hadn’t really seen him ride in anything much. Peter’s was now 44 years of age and his family came to watch him compete for just about the first time. He had entered his mare in the Prix Saint George and Intermediare 1 at the Masters Games. His mother watched him, along with everyone else in the class competing, knowing nothing really about horses or dressage, she told him confidently that he was going to win. Having his parents and twin sister and younger brother there for the first time in his riding life, Peter said to him mum, “apart from being my mum, why do you say that?”
“Because you are the only one not arguing with your horse.”
She was right. He and his mare won.
If there’s one thing I am taking away from his instruction, it is that. Don’t argue with a dominant horse. Be softer, but still precise, and be more indulgent in a way. Instantly reward the slightest, tiniest try. Don’t put them in a position where they feel they have to go into fight or flight (even if the ‘fight’ is just tension, it is a big negative). It makes a huge difference.
The magic continues to hold: I have a starting-to-be-transformed horse. My friends, who have witnessed my long term efforts and frustrations with trying to improve this mare on the flat, have been astonished by the difference in her. Peter has taken a horse which went high and tight at the least excuse into one who stays soft, relaxed, swings, and lets me soften her neck and let her become rounder any time I want.
Previously, if I managed to get her to stretch down, she felt on the forehand. Now, because I am giving aids that are asking for her to come through from behind and she is letting the aids through, she is working correctly, so the feeling is completely different, far more balanced.
The other three continue to improve too. The older mare is the easiest, she instantly rewards me when I do it right, and vice-versa. The gelding is feeling far more securely forward, and the young mare is growing in confidence and less prone to moments of drama! Their owner is pleased with their progress, so I am very happy.
Peter really is a miracle-worker. Obviously it is my job to keep the improvement going and maintain this great feeling, but we have a good base to start on now, for which I can only thank him most sincerely and profoundly.
Obviously some of the descriptions he used for me won’t work for everyone as they were specific to my riding (and faults), and he found a way for me to understand with his imagery, but the system works for every horse.
He will be back in the UK to officiate at Houghton International 3-Day at the end of May. I am going to move heaven and earth to have more instruction from him – either here at my yard, or, if his schedule does not permit that, I will box up and go to wherever he is. There will be spaces in his clinics on Sun 24th, Mon 25 and the morning of Tues 26 May, probably in Bury St Edmunds. If anyone is interested, please let me know. He is 100% worth it.
I don’t say it lightly… he’s the best trainer I’ve ever found. I just wish Australia was a bit closer… and I seriously envy those there who are able to benefit from his training long-term!
All photos by kind permission of Peter Shaw except the last one, taken by me.