Posted in Dressage, Training

A lesson in simplicity

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When the opportunity to train with Aussie icon Brett Parbery lined up with the Easter long weekend, I knew I wanted to be there. I’ve been a long-time fan of Brett Parbery, having watched him on horses such as Victory Salute and Aber Halo 29. Brett lives and trains in New South Wales Australia, but regularly competes in Europe. Last year he was one of six Australian’s competing for a place on the Australian Olympic Dressage Team, this is no small feat for someone based in Australia.

On Good Friday, my co-pilot Steve and I embarked on the 12 hour drive from Mackay to the Sunshine Coast and arrived at ‘Riverlyn’ which would be Nonie’s home for the next week at about 7pm that night. With my first lesson scheduled for Saturday afternoon, Mum had kindly arranged for Nonie to have a massage (which just so happens to be one of her favourite things), to help relieve the strain of the previous days lengthy journey.

My coach Dani hosted the clinic at her beautiful property on the Sunshine Coast Hinterland. You enter the stunning property via a solid wooden gate edged by a sparsely wooded area. The pure white sand arena overlooks a gentle valley and one of the properties two dams.

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When the horse and rider combination prior to me finished their lesson and Brett looked down at his list and called my name, I have to admit I nearly fan girled out. Nearly! But what struck me almost immediately about Brett was his relaxed and down to earth manner. We got stuck straight in with Brett asking, “What would you like to work on today?” I explained that we had recently started work on the flying changes, but that I also felt that Nonie would benefit from increased mobility through her shoulders. To me, it was the lack of mobility that had been contributing to some difficulty in the lateral movements especially the canter half pass. It was at this point that Brett asked me the question I dread, “What aids do you use to move the shoulders?” Now I am not sure why, but at this point my mind went almost entirely blank and I stuttered out some answer about how I use the outside rein and leg to guard the shoulders. Brett went on to explain that our hands and shoulders control the horses shoulders, while our legs control he quarters – of course this was not new to me. A coach, Linda Van Den Bosch, who happens to be a very successful western trainer and rider, that I have worked closely with previously has drilled this into me.

Given that I was well warmed up Brett had us go straight into canter and we began to look at straightness in the canter. The exercise was simple, I visualised a box around Nonie and myself, and my job was to ensure that Nonie stayed straight within this box and bring her back into it if she strayed outside the box, but to leave her alone once she was inside it. Almost instantly I felt Nonie soften and compress, the canter was easier to sit but still felt active. We then took this feeling down the long side and asked for some gentle shoulder fore, and our line fell apart. Brett reminded me that it was my responsibility to keep her barrel on the line with my leg – we are still working on this one.

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The next step was to begin using half halts to collect the canter, while the overall use of my position in the half halt was similar to what my coach Dani had taught me, Brett had me think about the half halt starting from between my shoulder blades and lightening my seat. I was surprised and delighted when I felt Nonie’s frame and stride compact and her back lift up underneath my seat.

Over the course of the two lessons we had a look at the flying changes, whilst I have felt these become much easier to ride as I allow myself to relax mentally, they are not there yet. Brett gave me some home work for these. The first and most important thing was to ensure that at all times Nonie stays on my line, at my rhythm and tempo, no exceptions. If she alters from either of these I need to ‘abort’ the change and bring her back to my line/rhythm/tempo. He also highlighted that the flying changes are just a simple change without the walk transition and that our aid for the flying change should have the same amount of pressure/lightness as that for a walk canter. It sounds obvious now that it is written down, but at the time the simplicity of this statement felt like a revolution.

Brett showed me a few different exercises  to improve the preparation for the changes, including riding a line from the long side across to the centreline and taking her across to the new flexion all the while focusing on maintaining my canter. I instantly saw how helpful this exercise would be in improving the changes.

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While Nonie and I have ridden in Dani’s arena a number of times, this particular weekend Nonie found something greatly offensive in the bottom corner. On day one we largely ignored this, however when she continued to spook and run away from it on the second day, Brett brought us back to the walk asking if Nonie often spooked. Brett explained, that there are two aspects to a spook, speed and line and if we can control those two things we can control the spook. When Nonie began to speed up and come away from the long side of the arena in her spook we brought her back to walk and then made her halt in front of the spot that she found particularly offensive. After doing this a few times I began to feel Nonie relax and we were then able to ride straight past the spot without issue.

The thing that really stood out to me from these lessons was the importance of simplicity. As the saying goes, “Any darn fool can make something complex, it takes a genius to make something simple”. He explained to me how all of the higher level movements, even piaffe is simply a combination of lower level aids applied in a new sequence. I learnt so much during these lessons, it was worth every kilometre of the drive and I cannot wait until Brett comes back up to Queensland.

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Unit next time, happy riding. xo

Posted in Dressage, Training

Flying Changes and Mind Games

Toward the end of last year, Nonie and I started work on the changes. Flying changes!!! Being deemed ready to ride this brand new movement felt like a huge accomplishment, it felt like we had arrived! Having now started them, I can’t help but feel that my initial eagerness belied my naivety. I have come to understand that the changes are a challenge which require strength, relaxation and timing. There is an additional layer of challenge because you either complete one or you don’t. Sure there are varying levels of excellence within this movement however learning to ride the changes is vastly different from other skills where you are able to gradually develop them. For instance, when beginning shoulder in you may feel a glimmer of brilliance before it slips through your fingers, you continue to build upon that feeling until suddenly you can ride a whole long side in shoulder in.
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The changes started well under the watchful and analytical eye of our coach Dani Keogh, but when we started to work on them on our own it was a different story. We would warm up well and progress on to school the flying changes. After achieving maybe one or two each way that were fine Nonie would brace against me, take over and speed off. Maybe because she is an exuberant horse, or more likely this was the natural result of me asking with a far bigger aid than required. So I would go home and read articles, watch videos and find a new exercise to try. I would try it a couple of times with success but then Nonie would again take over.
The reason we were struggling with the changes wasn’t necessarily that my position is weak or because Nonie’s canter needed more jump and strength (although in some respects it does), rather it was because whenever tension would enter in the canter work, particularly on the right rein Nonie would push in through her her right shoulder allowing her to brace against me and avoid my aids. Ironically this is the exact issue that Dani had spent a large chunk of time working on with us in our last lesson. Who’d have guessed!
It’s not the first time that I have learnt a lesson in this way where I’ve been told something a million times and then suddenly the lesson clicks and the light bulb goes off! Eureka, we have understanding! I suspect a few factors play into this. I belive that timing is essential and that in order to deeply understand a lesson, we must be in a place were mentally we are ready for it. On the other, it may have more to do with hearing the lesson explained in a way that makes sense. You know how 4+5 equal 9 but 3+6 also equal 9. Or maybe it’s a combination of all of these things.
So I took  a few steps back to focus on the prerequisites for a good change such as the transitions, the balance, the tempo control and keeping her wrapped around my inside leg, and only occasionally asking for a change. This approach did help to create some progress. However I sensed that my mind was also holding me back. This sense came more from past experiences of my mind having got in the way than a true understanding of exactly what was happening at that point in time.
I suspected that a phone call to my performance  and mindset coach Danielle Pooles from Dressage Plus would be helpful. So that was exactly what I did. I have sought Dani’s assistance previously with great success. Anyone who has ridden dressage knows that it takes a great deal of athletic ability, but it equally requires great strength of mind and the ability to remain clear headed under pressure. When learning a new movement or in other situations where our equine partner may be unsure, it is up to us as the rider, to step up and be the leader, and gently guiding our horse to understanding.
Talking through the difficulties I was having with Dani helped me to figure out exactly what was going on, bracing against Nonie, holding tension in my thighs and my mind going blank at the vital moment I needed to ask for the change. We then worked out a strategy, including breathing at critical moments to help manage these issues. I got to try the strategy out the very next day and low and behold I was excited about the prospect of riding the changes rather than being nervous about how she would respond. We only got a quick ride in due to me leaving work late but we managed a calm easy change on each rein, no more speeding up into the change no more barreling down into the reins after the change no more excessive use of aids.
The changes are not yet perfect, but they are certainly improving and at the end of the day that’s all you can ask for. Little improvements each day add up to big changes in the long term (pardon the pun!). This experience has reinforced for me the importance of mindset. Riding is as much a mind game as it is an athletic pursuit.
Until next time, happy riding! x AP