A few weeks ago the big lady and I headed off on another adventure, this time to a dressage clinic with Heike Holstein. The horse (the half hanoverian) twigged that she was going somewhere as soon as the travel boots appeared and decided to dig a hole in her bed in excitement, as you do. We set off for Redhills Stud in Kildare. Redhills is one of my favourite places as it really is a yard that is a home from home – there is always someone to greet you and open a gate, someone to give you a hand and you are never let leave without a cup of tea, a pastry and a chat. The horse loves it too as there is always someone telling her she is pretty or giving her something!
I had never had a lesson with Heike before but had met Gisela Holstein when I did HSI Stage 1. The poor woman probably thought I was mute or just a bit touched as I spent most of that session completely awestruck. Heike teaches a friend who highly recommended her and Redhills Stud had told me how successful the first clinics were so I was looking really forward to the session. I got the horse out and let her snort about like a dragon on the lunge for a few minutes before mounting for our session. I was in a semi private with another rider. We had an introduction with Heike who asked what we want to work on. I explained my current dilemma of having the horse at the nice stage where she no longer has a party at dressage competitions, will go into and stay in the arena and no longer resembles an S hook on the right rein however despite her feeling nice we get marked down a lot for engagement from behind. I was asked to trot off as I normally would. I managed about two steps of this before a horse unloaded very quickly and loudly from a lorry beside the arena and the mare leapt into the air and bounded off in her road dressage passage. I was grateful I managed to keep my ass in the saddle as having previously been known some years ago as ‘the girl who got bucked off in dressage’ I really didn’t need to be known as ‘the girl who fell off in the first thirty seconds of a dressage clinic’. With that spectacular first impression out of the way we went up and rode in the ‘safe’ end of the arena.
The evaluation I got was so interesting and made so much sense to me. Heike explained that the horse naturally holds herself in the ‘competition’ outline and is well built for dressage but that she needs to work in a lower outline to get her working through her back and working up from behind. This made so much sense to me. I’ve been able to ride other horses in a longer outline (not correctly though! as I learned at the clinic) but with this mare as she is so happy riding on the contact I find it hard to get her to stretch and end up just wandering along on a long rein which achieves nothing really. Heike also felt the horse moves and bends better left (which is so true). So we got to work. Heike explained the aids to me (hold with both hands, push forwards, ask for the drop) but the horse was making it hard for me so we stopped and she showed me how to do this in halt and then we progressed to walk. I tend to be a bit half ways about some things and was told that for this I needed to really hold and really push. We got the horse doing this in walk and progressed to trot. I was to ride on a long rein in this outline and to keep my hands quiet. If the horse came up I needed to hold and push again to get her working downwards and to come back to walk if necessary. I worked on this while Heike worked with the second rider and it gave me some time to really get a feel for it.
Next we worked on an outline but with a contact and worked on walk and trot transitions. I learned that I have quite a few bad habits that I will be working on. I have a habit of moving my hands too much, something that I drive myself mad doing! I also have a habit of looking up but a movement ahead instead of looking at what the horse is doing, it’s a habit I got from being told to look up over fences I think as I used to be a nightmare for looking down. I struggle with my right shoulder thanks to my crooked back but it only dawned on me at the clinic that when I put my right shoulder back I also twist my neck and head which is making it very uncomfortable so I worked on getting the shoulder back while looking at the horse. I also tend to half ask for right bend, I suspect because I always think I am dreadful at it. I was advised to work on smaller circles and to really ask for bend from her because she is well able to do it. This was hard hard work but we definitely were better at it towards the end! We progressed to canter on the right rein and Heike advised me that she could see how the horse changes when she canters on this rein. To help me with it she had me ride fifteen metre circles at two points in the arena.
We wrapped up and Heike gave us both advice on next steps. I was to practice riding in the lower outline and to set myself specific exercises with circles to do on both reins in trot and canter. I asked about lunging and also got advice on how to help her bend on the lunge. What struck me about the session was how hard we had worked in 45 minutes and how much we got done. The horse was happy and tired. I was wrecked and happy. During the clinic what was interesting was the horse’s level of attention, she never once got distracted while we worked and felt very focussed on what we were doing. I really enjoyed it as I could see and feel results already and all instructions I received were clear, easy to understand and well explained. I also felt that the ways I was asked to ride agreed with how I in theory would like to ride (ask and reward, repetition etc) and I was delighted to be told about the importance of walk and trot transitions as it is something that I do religiously with people that I teach and when I am riding.
So after a lovely walk around the fields to cool off and chat and a cup of tea with the Redhills residents we set off for home. I was away just after the clinic so decided this past week was time to put this all to the test. To start with I was lucky enough to exercise a horse that I know was worked with Holsteins before and was an ideal guinea pig. Sure enough as soon as I asked him to go down he was trotting along with his nose almost on the track. This felt amazing and reinforced that I have learned the aids to ask. So Dolly got a work out. Now I will admit I almost bottled it the first evening as the wind was up and I had a spooky mare on my hands but I persevered and have worked on this each day. The result? Amazing, really amazing. I sat on the horse yesterday and the first thing she did when I asked her to walk on was stretch out down low! We worked on a circle in walk and trot transitions and she remained in the lower frame, canter on the left rein feels amazing, canter on the right still needs work but when I really asked for bend the other day I felt the horse really step under with the off hind which is huge progress. This has in turn helped with spooking and inattentiveness because as soon as I hold and push she refocuses and drops down again. Out of curiosity I took her back up into competition outline and she felt really good she was swinging along and felt really fluid and smooth. Best of all the horse is happy with this method of riding she has a nice bit of froth on her mouth, is working harder in the same amount of time than before (I am attributing this to her working differently and using muscles differently) . I have found her more tired after these sessions which shows me that she is working. However she is very relaxed afterwards which is a great thing to see.
Finally I tried this on a little mare I have worked on for the past number of weeks who had initially been riding in a hollow frame with a tense neck and with consistent incorrect bend to one side. We have worked successfully over the past while to getting her in a consistent outline, riding on the contact, flexing and bending in both directions and bending correctly through her body. Yesterday I added what I learned at the clinic to the mix and within ten minutes this mare was trotting along in a relaxed low frame something that she has never done before. When I collected her up for jumping I felt a huge difference in the power and impulsion from her back end. Interestingly, now that I am aware of my tendency to look one movement too far ahead, last night I focussed on this and concentrated riding my turn and looking at my turn before looking at my fence, it made a great difference to my approach to the fence and the horses. I will definitely be coming back for more and feel this clinic really made a difference to my riding. I am just annoyed at myself for not doing it sooner!
You can find more information on Redhills Stud here: