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The right coach can make all the difference, whatever level you ride. Illustration by Karen Rohlf.

The right coach can make all the difference, whatever level you ride. Illustration by Karen Rohlf.

 

You hear about it all the time: How so-and-so used to ride with him, but now she’s riding with her. How Up-and-Coming-Rider left Fancy-Trainer-One’s barn and is now working with Fancy-Trainer-Two. How your friend used to go to all of that horseman’s clinics, but now she goes to all this horseman’s clinics.

Riders notoriously have a wandering eye–admit it, most of us at one time or another thought someone else could help us reach our equestrian goals a little bit sooner…or had a disagreement that felt like a deal-breaker and sent us scouring trainer websites in search of the one who is really, truly, our perfect match. The thing is, riding with a coach or instructor is a relationship like any other, and sure to come with its arguments, frustrations, and boring bits. The trick is knowing when you just need to work a little harder at it, and when it is time to call it a day.

In COLLECTIVE REMARKS: A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN DRESSAGE EVOLUTION, FEI/USEF judge and former technical advisor to the US Dressage Team Anne Gribbons discusses the ins and outs of rider-coach matchmaking…and how to tame that wandering eye.

 

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The Problem with “Teacher-Hopping”

If you manage to locate an instructor who is a wonderful rider and who also has the ability to make you understand how to accomplish your goals, you can “have your cake and eat it, too.” In the case when you cannot have it all, you are definitely better off with the competent teach­er than with the “big name” who cannot teach. Unless you are a person who can learn by watching and has years to spend doing it, you need someone who can explain why and how to make you and your horse perform.

Your first dressage instructor is likely to become the most profound in­fluence on your riding because he or she will responsible for laying the foundation of your riding and creating your “basic system.” The longer you spend with this teacher, the firmer your base, upon which you will later build by receiving additional help and advice from other sources. The lack of a basic system is one of the problems in American dressage, created by a tendency to enjoy a “smorgasbord education”: The minute something goes wrong in training we look for another instructor, and of course we also have to ride in every clinic offered within reach. God forbid we miss any of the action!

For the novice rider, “teacher-hopping” is confusing at best and dam­aging at worst, and for the horse it will eventually prove detrimental. A horse cannot absorb and adjust to a different method of training every two weeks without losing his confidence and perhaps his mind, as well. It does not matter if the various clinicians the novice works with are all excellent trainers, they are still not going to teach exactly the same way, and at this stage, more is not better. It takes many years of training and riding before a rider can truly profit from a clinic by incorporating the useful parts into his or her program while discarding the ideas that do not work for the horse. You have to be experienced enough to know the difference. The best way to make use of clinics while you are still a novice is to attend tas an auditor, then discuss the experience with your regular instructor, and perhaps try some of the ideas you are interested in during a lesson.

 

A Healthy Relationship

To get the most out of your relationship with an instructor it is important that there is a mutual feeling of commitment, respect, and trust. A teach­er shows his or her commitment, first and foremost, by giving exclusive attention to the student who is paying for the lesson. Conversations on the side and phone calls with others should be avoided if possible. This applies also to a clinic situation, when the temptation of playing to the audience at the expense of the student may be great. At shows the serious instructor is available to school and advise the student before each ride, and will observe the ride and comment on it afterward. For a teacher with many students at the show, this may be impossible due to conflicting ride times, but a schedule can be made up ahead that divides his or her time and gives everyone an opportunity to get some help. However the test goes, a teacher of the right kind stands by his or her student in tragedy as well as triumph, and all post-test corrections and negative criticism that may be necessary are done one on one. A respectful instructor does not harass, make fun of, or belittle a student, never mind how frustrating the lesson or situation may be. There are times when a harsh command—even screaming—is called for, because the student is not reacting fast enough, but if the rider does not understand the command, raising the volume creates nothing but ten­sion and further confusion.

The student has responsibilities as well. The first and perhaps most im­portant is to shut up and ride! A lesson is no time for dialogue, and it is incredibly irritating to have someone contradicting every order or constantly explaining why whatever you ask for cannot be done. This kind of behavior also interferes with the flow of information between the horse and the rider, since the horse senses that the rider is not tuned in to the effort. Questions and explanations should wait until a break or rest period, unless there is some emergency the instructor needs to be made aware of. Complete concentration throughout the lesson, a commitment to practicing what is being taught (even outside of the teaching sessions), and consistency in pursuing the lesson program are all virtues belonging to the “good student.”

 

When to Move On

There may come a time after a long relationship when the student feels there is no progress being made. Before placing the blame on the teacher (always the easy out), take a long hard look at yourself and ask: “How talented, how persistent, and how hard-working am I as a student?” And, “Do I have the right ‘vehicle,’ or is my horse not right for the job?” If, after some soul-searching, you are absolutely certain that the problem is not of your own making, talk to your instructor. There may well be a mutual feeling of frustration and stagnation. If the problems cannot be worked out and you decide to look for help elsewhere, you owe it to your pres­ent instructor to inform him or her about your decision, before he or she hears it from somebody else.

Wherever you go with your riding, remember, when success comes your way, give credit to each person who contributed to your progress. Not just the famous “final polisher” of your now wonderful self, but also the people who put up with you when you and everybody else thought you were hopeless!

 

Read more humorous insight from Anne Gribbons in COLLECTIVE REMARKS, available from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.

CLICK HERE to download a free chapter or to order.

 

Trafalgar Square Books, the leading publisher of equestrian books and DVDs, is a small business based on a farm in rural Vermont.

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Closing the ring finger on the reins is like completing an electrical circuit.

Closing the ring finger on the reins is like completing an electrical circuit.

In her book 40 5-MINUTE JUMPING FIXES, expert riding instructor Wendy Murdoch explains the “Ring Finger Connection” when you hold the reins while riding. According to Murdoch, when you hold the reins and activate your thumb and index finger, there is a pinching action. This action causes the front of your body to flex forward; you round your shoulders and drop your chest. Plus, you are vulnerable to being pulled out of the saddle due to the tension created in your biceps and shoulders.

The muscles attached to the ring finger, however, connect closer to the point of the elbow, so when they activate, they in turn initiate a line along the back of the arm rather than the front. Using the ring finger, you can resist a a pull from your horse with your triceps rather than your biceps. You sit wide and open in the chest and allow the horse to pull you into rather than out of the saddle.

Closing your ring finger (or middle finger when your ring finger is too short to manage the reins) on the reins is like completing an electrical circuit that runs from your horse’s mouth through the rein to your hand, along the underside of your arm to your back, down to your seat (which deepens in the saddle), and cycles through the horse from back to front and to the mouth once again. An “open” hand, in contrast, does not complete the circuit; the horse can easily pull the rein from your hand.

 

Try this simple exercise from 40 5-MINUTE JUMPING FIXES to better understand the actions of your fingers on the reins:

1  Hold your right hand in riding position and pinch your right thumb and index finger together. Now, use the fingers of your left hand to feel how this pinching tightens the muscles on your right forearm. Pull on your pinched fingers with your left hand. Feel how you resist by tensing your biceps and chest. Notice the tendency to round your shoulders as you resist.

2  Now close your right middle and ring fingers firmly against the palm of your right hand and slowly “pulse” the pressure. Feel the lower part of your right forearm with your left hand. Notice how the muscles contract and relax.

3  Wrap your right ring finger around the index finger of your left hand, keeping all the other fingers slightly flexed. Pull against the ring finger with your left hand. Feel how you pull back with your elbow to resist rather than tensing your shoulders. Notice how your collarbones widen and your chest expands.

 

Now think how these minute movements translate through the reins to your horse, and how your hands affect your position and performance when you ride.

 

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Wendy Murdoch’s 40 5-MINUTE JUMPING FIXES, as well as her bestselling first book and companion DVDs, are available from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.

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TSB author Wendy Murdoch at the 2014 USPC Annual Meeting and Equine Educational Symposium, where she was a presenter.

TSB author Wendy Murdoch at the 2014 USPC Annual Meeting and Equine Educational Symposium, where she was a presenter.

We caught up with ever-busy instructor and clinician Wendy Murdoch following her stint presenting at the 2014 USPC Annual Meeting and Equine Educational Symposium and asked her to tell us HOW those fabulous 5-Minute Fixes of hers can really work to make us better riders in no time. Here, Wendy breaks it down for us, while giving us a chance to try one of her favorite Fixes for ourselves.

Wendy’s book 50 5-MINUTE FIXES TO IMPROVE YOUR RIDING has been an overwhelming hit since TSB published it four years ago. Now Wendy’s highly anticipated follow-up is finally here! You can order 40 5-MINUTE JUMPING FIXES at the TSB online bookstore (CLICK HERE).

 

TSB: Your new book 40 5-MINUTE JUMPING FIXES is a follow-up to the bestselling 50 5-MINUTE FIXES TO IMPROVE YOUR RIDING. Is it really possible to improve your riding and jumping skills in only 5 minutes? How are your techniques effective when they require so little time?

WM: Many of the Fixes in 40 5-MINUTE JUMPING FIXES can definitely be done in only 5 minutes! That’s the thing that I think is so important for the reader to understand. It doesn’t have to take months, years or decades to improve your performance over fences. What is necessary is a clear understanding of your own body and how it works.

Take the hip joints, for example. One question I ask at all my clinics is, “Where are your hip joints?” More than 90 percent of people think that their hips are where their belt rests rather than where the joints actually are. I find this misconception of hip location across the USA and Europe, and in riders of all disciplines. (So this isn’t just a problem for people who jump!) But in 5 minutes, you can read the chapter in 40 5-MINUTE JUMPING FIXES on locating your hips from the front, both on the ground and on the horse, and make a tremendous difference in your riding and in your horse’s performance!

Other Fixes may take a bit more time to learn and practice, but once learned it will only take 5 minutes in your mounted warm-up to remind yourself of the lesson and therefore improve your riding. And, of course, there are so many exercises you can do off the horse, which you can practice while at the grocery store, at your desk at work, or while sitting at a boring dinner party!  Doing just a few minutes of your favorite 5-Minute Fixes every day can significantly improve your riding not to mention your ease and comfort throughout your day.

I believe my techniques are effective for several reasons:

 

Accuracy

Accuracy is important because we communicate our desires to the horse through our physical body, which interfaces with the horse through the saddle. If we restrict one joint in the body, all the other joints become restricted. With my 5-Minute Fixes I am not telling you to find your hips somewhere in the general area of your pelvis. I show you how to find the joint from four different perspectives so that you know exactly where this most critical joint is in your own body. When the rider is accurate it takes very little to aid the horse because the message to the horse is clear and concise, something that is very important during a jump round. This degree of accuracy is lacking in most riding instruction.

I hear world-class instructors demonstrate and tell their students that their hip joints are the boney projections on the pelvis (called the ASIS—Anterior Superior Iliac Spine). These instructors will go on to say “put your hips in the saddle.” This is physically impossible! The students try to do as instructed, but because this instruction is totally inaccurate, the riders become increasingly restricted in the hips. The tension in the rider’s body goes right into the horse, who then also becomes stiff. After that, it usually becomes the horse’s problem for not performing correctly!

 

Correct Function

I have spent my lifetime learning, understanding, and teaching good body function for horses and for humans, on and off the horse. When I say “function” I mean the rider’s use of her body in a way that works with how the skeleton is designed. Using our body efficiently minimizes injuries, helps to prevent falls, and significantly decreases fear, as well as improves our horse’s performance.

The nervous system recognizes when we are in good balance on the horse and warns us through the emotion of fear when we are unstable or unprepared to jump a certain height. Ignoring this fear means we run the risk of injury. When my students learn how to flatten their lower back, for example, this fear immediately decreases. Therefore our emotional state is tied to our physical position. If we ignore emotional warning signals, we run the risk of getting hurt. Honoring our fear and learning to be more secure makes riding over fences much safer and more enjoyable.

The first section of 40 5-MINUTE JUMPING FIXES explains this fundamental position of the lower back and pelvis, which is critical a secure position over fences. The position I describe had been taught for centuries as the forward seat since it was first developed by Caprilli in the late 1800s.  Unfortunately, since the 1980s, this basic position has been replaced with a hollowed lower back position, which puts the rider and horse on the forehand and is very insecure. To overcome this fundamental flaw, riders grip, squeeze, lean on the horse’s neck, limit the height of their fences, or quit jumping altogether. Throughout my new book I explain the biomechanics of good function and its relationship to the horse so that the reader understands the basic principles that govern jumping.

 

Simple

It all sounds rather complicated when I try to explain why my 5-Minute Fixes are effective, but I think it all comes down to taking complex concepts and breaking them down into simple practical lessons. In my books the anatomy and function behind the lessons are separated out into sidebars. The lessons themselves are divided into “On the Ground”—meaning off the horse—and “On the Horse” mounted lessons. This way the busy reader/rider can skip the sidebars one day, and just do the lessons, or alternatively study the anatomy or only do an unmounted portion of the lesson on the days she can’t ride.

 

Feeling Differences/Asking Questions

I think the reason my techniques can be so effective is because I teach the student to feel, think, and sense differences, and therefore have the knowledge needed to choose what is best for her and her horse. You might say I make the student responsible to her horse rather than to the instructor.

Most riding instruction is based on a military way of teaching, which takes the student’s power away: The instructor tells you what (not how) to do something, and you are to do that no matter what. There is no consideration for the student’s level of understanding, competency, pain, previous injuries, or ability to comprehend the task. This style of teaching makes the student totally dependent on the teacher who determines what is “right” or “wrong.” The rider is at the mercy of the instructor.

I want my students to be knowledgeable, independent, empowered, and able to make decisions for themselves. When I first start working with a student who has been taught by a very demanding instructor, it becomes immediately apparent that the student is simply trying to please me with her performance. It takes a few lessons before the student can start to move away from this behavior and start to listen to how her horse responds. Rather than telling the rider what I want her to do, I ask her to feel a new position—for example, flattening her lower back vs. a hollow-backed position. Then I have her ride while going back and forth between the “new place” (flat lower back) and the “old place” (hollow back), without judgment!

This is very difficult at first because the rider is terrified she is going to get it “wrong,” which prevents her from feeling how her horse is responding to her position. But after a little while, I say, “The horse gets to vote.” This puts the responsibility on the rider and her observation of the horse’s response to her change in position. 

This style of teaching, where someone is asking you questions rather than telling you what to do, is hard to grow accustomed to, at first. But in the end, the rider who takes responsibility for her learning, experiences, and decisions, while listening to her horse, will achieve the kind of true partnership she is seeking.

 

Wendy was a recent guest on the Horse Radio Network's "Horses in the Morning" show. Click the image to listen.

Wendy was a recent guest on the Horse Radio Network’s “Horses in the Morning” show. Click the image to listen.

 

TSB: How might your JUMPING FIXES apply to riders who don’t jump competitively, or don’t jump at all? What can every rider learn from this book?

WM: That’s the best part about this book! There is so much information that applies to all disciplines, not just jumping. I wanted to write about jumping because there isn’t anything on the market that tells riders how to achieve a good jumping position, but I wrote a book with lessons that apply to all types of riding.

I see so many people who want to learn to jump but are afraid, or who limit themselves to cross-rails because they don’t have a good base of support. I have also taught top competitive jumper riders who are missing some of the fundamentals I outline. The information in 40 5-MINUTE JUMPING FIXES is the basis for the United States Pony Club’s “Basic Balance Position” over fences for all Rating Levels. Once they start using my Fixes, the adult amateur hunter/jumper students I teach are more successful in the show ring and find they can ride without pain, something many of them are experiencing when they first come to me. Of course, many of my students simply want to enjoy trail riding, fox hunting, and being able to jump over a log or get up out of the saddle while galloping with me across the Masai Mara in Kenya (a horseback safari trip I take regularly). The lessons in my new book apply to these riders, too.

I always say: “Gravity is not discipline specific.” No matter what discipline or breed of horse you ride, you still can benefit from knowing how to flatten your back; find your hips; free your hips, knees, and ankles; and soften your jaw. These topics and more are covered in 40 5-MINUTE JUMPING FIXES—while they may be described in conjunction with a forward position, the lessons themselves apply to anyone who rides.

 

TSB: What is one of your favorite JUMPING FIXES and why?

WM: Oh that’s easy. My favorite Fix is “Grounding Your Foot for a Good Base of Support.” This lesson comes from Dr. Feldenkrais, who developed the Feldenkrais Method®, and it is called the “Artificial Floor” to those that know his work. To me, this was the most brilliant idea he ever had because it is so simple, yet so profound. I adapted it to the saddle in 2001 when I started my Feldenkrais Training.

I don’t know if riding instructors have realized it yet, but my books are written in a way that they can be used as lesson plans for teaching—you can take one lesson a week to teach to your students. If there is one lesson I could persuade all riding instructors to use with their students, this one is it!

You do need an assistant or instructor when doing this lesson on the horse, but the unmounted lesson is also fabulous. For years I have taught the unmounted part: balancing a board on the hands and feet and then rolling over. This teaches the students how to have “independent” limbs, coordinate movement, and learn about timing rather than force or speed. Of course, it also causes lots of laughter and it is fun! I have students in their sixties who can roll over with four boards when younger riders can’t, meaning age is not a deterrent, while body awareness and control are the keys.  

The reason the mounted portion of this lesson is so profound is that riders do not realize how hard they push against the stirrups. They become accustomed to the pressure so it becomes normal. This affects their joints, their movement, and the horse’s movement because that pressure is transmitted to the horse’s shoulder area through the stirrup bar. Excessive pressure on the stirrups can cause a lot of problems, especially when jumping, because during the landing phase the force of the rider coming down on the stirrups goes right into saddle through to the horse’s back, which can cause pain and lameness. The “Grounding Your Foot” lesson shows you that you don’t have to brace against the stirrups to be secure in the saddle. Instead, having flexible joints to absorb the horse’s motion is better for both horse and rider.

When riders feel the difference in their legs after doing this Fix, they come back for more—and so do the horses, who immediately sense a change in the pressure on their back. This is such a win-win-win Fix, I hope everyone will try it!

 

Ready to try “Grounding Your Foot for a Good Base of Support,” one of the 5-Minute Fixes from Wendy Murdoch’s new book 40 5-MINUTE JUMPING FIXES? Here are the steps to the unmounted lesson:

Step 1

Step 1

1 While lying on your back place a small board or child’s book on the bottom of one bare foot. Repeat the process of placing the board on and off your foot a few times. For many students this alone is a real challenge! Be patient with yourself. Or, you can have someone place the board on your foot for you. If you are having great difficulty with your foot do Steps 5 and 6 first. This way you can let your hand teach your foot how to do the movements. How much of your foot touches the board? Do all of your toes touch? If you spread them apart can more toes touch? Be sure to relax your toes.

Step 2

Step 2

2 Explore moving the board in a variety of directions: closer to your head; farther away; taking the whole leg to the side; and rotating the foot and knee in and out. Watch your foot as you do this. Can you keep the board from falling off? Go slower in order to control your movements. Do not be frustrated if the board falls. Simply try again going slower next time. The board highlights the orientation of your foot as you move. If it drops off, simply put it back on and continue. Falling off is part of the process of learning. Figure out why it dropped off rather than getting frustrated when it happens. Explore moving other parts of your body (hips, knee, lower back) to keep the foot oriented upward toward the ceiling.

3 Take the board off your foot and rest frequently so that you can sense and feel the effect. Often the learning process happens during the rest. When you begin again you will find you can do the movements more easily than before. Pay attention to where you feel tired or strained, and to your breathing. Holding your breath will make the exercise harder. Go slowly and rest frequently, or leave the lesson and come back later after you have had a break.

Step 4

Step 4

4 Repeat the process lying on your stomach.

5 Roll onto your back and place the board on your hand. Explore moving the board around in all the ways you explored with your foot. Feel how much easier it is to do this! In general, we are much more aware of how to move our hands than our feet. Rest.

Step 5

Step 5

6 Roll onto your stomach and again place the board on your hand. At first this may seem more limiting, but take a few moment to see where you can go. You might even find you can roll over onto your back without losing the board!

7 Put the board on the foot again. Is it easier now that you have explored the idea with your hand? Can you move your leg in a circle without the board falling off? Stand up and walk around noticing the difference between your two feet.

8  Repeat with your other foot and hand. Which limb is easier? Does this easier side correspond to your “weaker leg” when you ride? Perhaps this is your supple leg and it is the other one—the “stronger” one—that is too rigid. When you ride, notice if your legs feel more even when you can do the foot on the board exercise in a similar manner on both sides.

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40 5-MINUTE JUMPING FIXES is available from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.

CLICK HERE TO ORDER NOW

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FEI dressage trainer/rider Yvonne Barteau with Douglas Puterbaugh, author of THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS OF DRESSAGE.

FEI dressage trainer/rider Yvonne Barteau with Douglas Puterbaugh, author of THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS OF DRESSAGE.

THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS OF DRESSAGE is a unique and special book,” says FEI dressage trainer/rider Yvonne Barteau. “I have been a collector of equine literature for many years, and this book has earned a spot on the ‘top shelf’ in my library. I have recommended it to all of my students as a ‘must read’ and will continue to do so. Author Douglas Puterbaugh covers vital and important rider information in an entertaining, engaging, and compelling manner.”

What kind of “vital rider information” will you find in THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS OF DRESSAGE? Check out the attributes Douglas lists as the 10 qualities of a good instructor/trainer—something every one of us should keep in mind as we spend our lives striving to improve our horsemanship and become better partners to our horses.

“Find a good trainer is like finding a good mechanic,” says Douglas. “When you do, embrace him/her because he/she’s the difference between your satisfaction and disappointment.”

 

A good instructor/trainer should:

1  Treat you as an individual and recognize that different personality types require different approaches. He/she should tailor teaching style accordingly.

Evaluate your training goals.

3  Be well-rounded him/herself. A good trainer is constantly trying to improve in his/her own right—studying, practicing, learning from others.

4  Help you improve. A committed student taught by a good trainer should experience skills that improve steadily over time—that is, if the trainer is given enough time and the student is giving enough effort.

5  Work well with you. A comfortable relationship will yield more results than a difficult one. Better to look forward to your lessons than to dread them.

6  Be able to improve diminished gaits or correct spoiled horses. This is a skill, beyond the abilities of many otherwise capable trainers.

7  Not be a bully. A trainer should encourage your potential, not discourage your efforts.

8  Display infinite patience with both horse and pupil.

9  Never grow tired of repeating things that need to be repeated.

10  Be inspiring and kind, for even the most talented trainer will find it difficult to instill confidence in his/her students when prickly or unapproachable.

 

THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS OF DRESSAGE is available from the TSB online bookstore.

CLICK HERE TO ORDER YOUR COPY TODAY!

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