Judi DeVore: 2018 Region 5 Gifted Grant Recipient
Carol Lavell Gifted Scholarship—Lessons Learned
Roughly a year ago, I applied for the Gifted Memorial Fund Grant for Adult Amateurs and was ecstatic when I received the scholarship. I applied to work intensively on my seat and position with Sarah Martin. Sarah regularly clinics in our area, but usually only for two or three days at a time and generally there are two month breaks in between. The scholarship allowed me to work with her for five consecutive days. I hoped to accomplish two things—get tools to help me self-correct my position, and develop a more sensitive connection with my mare, Believe WS (aka Twiggy).
Taki Chi, the Martin’s barn, is situated at the base of the stunningly beautiful Mount Blanca in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. I traveled with barn-mate, Karen Harkin and her gelding, Milo, and met another riding friend, Donna DuBois and her mare Persia for this excursion.
On arrival, I was dismayed to discover my mare was in heat. Milo and Twiggy were very much in love after their amorous six-hour trailer ride together and frantic when separated. Twiggy was uncharacteristically difficult to handle on the ground and I resorted to lunging to get her calm down, which was marginally successful. I was fortunate that a huge part of Sarah Martin’s training program involves natural horsemanship ground work, tuning into the horses behavior and helping them reconnect with their handler.
Over the course of the next four days, we began every morning with ground exercises which included:
- Tick Tock: In this exercise the horse must give the handler space. The handler stands with their back to the horse and holding a “carrot stick” whip (four-foot long whip with five foot braided lash) at belly button height. The handler starts moving the stick like the hand of a clock around toward the horse. If the horse is in the way of the four-foot distance between the handler and the end of the carrot stick, they receive a tap on the nose which drives them out of the handlers “bubble”. The exercise is only repeated if the horse moves back into the handlers space. They are allowed to move wherever they want outside of the “bubble” if it does not encroach on the distance between the carrot stick and the handler. Cessation of the exercise is the release and reward for a positive response to the exercise. Timing of the release is very important to the exercise. If the horse responds with even a slight move in the right direction it should be rewarded. As they get more used to the exercises, the demands can be increased for more precise responses.
- Blind-Man Walking: In this exercise the horse is led on a relatively loose line. Their job is to follow but stay out of the way of the handler. With your back to the horse you start off walking on a straight line, tapping your carrot stick back and forth on the ground as though checking for obstacles in your path (i.e blind man walking). Before reaching the edge of the short side, the handlers were instructed to do a pivot on their foot toward the hand carrying the lead and continue in a straight line, continuing to sweep back and forth with the carrot stick. Generally this maneuver put us square in the path of the horse, but the horse was pushed to yield the right-of-way by tapping the carrot stick on the ground in their direction. If they did not yield, they received another tap on the muzzle which promptly initiated their exit from our path. They quickly learned to steer out of our way after only one or two turns and became more in tune with our movements. When we stopped, we had to check to make sure the horse was outside of our “bubble” and if not, repeat the tick tock exercise until the horse gave the appropriate space. After a few repetitions, he horses quickly responded and sometimes moved back just raising the carrot stick to attention.
- Processing and Relaxation: Sarah had us tune in to the horses’ behaviors following the exercises we completed. We looked for signs of relaxation and processing, visible by our horses’ necks lowering, their eyes blinking and going closed or half-mast, and licking and chewing. Often the horses would give a release of their back muscles with a flamingo stretch of their hind legs while standing. When the horses were showing processing behaviors, we were not allowed to start a new exercise but to wait until their relaxation was completed, their eyes were open, and they were looking around. By the third day my mare had become such a deep processor that she decided to take a nap and laid down in the middle of our practice arena, surrounded by her other equine schoolmates. She reminded me of a kindergartner who won’t wake up from their nap to continue their schoolwork. We all found the morning exercises created a relaxed but not tired state in our horses, and they became less dependent on each other.
Day 1: Our first ride began with relaxation walk work with the following exercises to assist with loosening and suppling the horse.
- Overstretching on a circle bending the neck to a ten o’clock and two o’clock position while asking the hindquarters for more and more crossing. To maximize this warm up you want to get to a hock height crossover with the hind legs and the neck is stretched over and down, giving the most lateral and longitudinal stretch.
- On a 20-meter circle, as you cross the quarter-line, begin a leg yield to the next quarter line and then return to the circle until you cross the quarter line again and repeat.
- To keep my hips swinging during sitting trot, Sarah had me post three strides and sit three strides and repeat. During the sitting trot I was to keep “thinking” posting trot to keep my hips actively swinging so that there was no change in the rhythm of the trot from sitting to posting. My horse became quite relaxed during this exercise as I focused more on my position than on what she was doing. This is an excellent reminder to me on a sensitive horse how crucial it is that the rider is balanced.
- I had an errant right leg that did not want to stay connected to my horse and Sarah had me canter in two-point position with my reins on Twiggy’s neck and using only my legs and not my hands to steer through the turns. Not using my hands definitely made a difference in having to keeping the outside right leg on to negotiate the turn.
Day 2: Today was more reinforcement of day one with my right leg. We also worked on getting Twiggy’s canter more forward with a better separation of her strides. Her canter is naturally collected so we worked at measuring strides between the letters trying to go from five strides to four to improve her reach and swing of her back. Because of my “absent” right leg, Twiggy developed a tendency to the left and therefore I was instructed to use my right leg on both the right and left directions to keep her evenly connected more. Sarah also insisted I use more seat and leg and less rein to guide her.
Day 3: Today’s lesson was circles and more circles. There was more reinforcement and practice, practice, practice with moving Twiggy off of my right leg. We started with a 10-meter circle leg yielding to a 12-meter circle. We did multiples of these leg-yielding circles all along the arena. “USE LESS REIN and MORE LEG” was a common refrain. Sarah had ridden my mare prior to me getting on and noted that she was behind her right leg and not moving into the left rein properly, a result of me often not keeping my right leg connected with her. Sarah rode her very forward in an effort to gain the connection between the leg and seat.
Day 4: Today’s lesson was leg yielding, shoulder-in and haunches-in exercises following our warm up of days one, two and three. One leg yielding exercise I particularly liked was to begin with head-to -the-wall leg-yield to the left from H to E, then leg yield off the wall to the quarter-line and then straighten and ride a diagonal to K, followed by a 10 meter circle at K. This exercise was very effective at getting my mare to move off and be more responsive to my right leg and illustrated to me how important my right leg was in not just influencing the leg yield to the left but also defining the outer boundary of the 10 meter circle to the left.
During all the exercises, I was reminded to keep my “A-frame.” This is a great visual tool to remind me to keep my belly button and seat bones aligned vertically so there is no tipping off to the left or the right or in front of or behind the vertical while doing the lateral exercises. Also she wanted me to use my “J,” which was shorthand for my spine to have energy flow down and under my tailbone to keep my back from hollowing. Sarah said some people refer to this as a conveyor belt where the energy flows down and under the pelvis and back up the front. The conveyor-belt visual helped me to keep my seat moving with the motion of my mare.
During the shoulder-in and haunches-in exercises, the focus was keeping my shoulders aligned with Twiggy’s shoulders along the line of travel. Sarah said a common mistake a rider makes when doing a half-pass on the diagonal is starting with the haunches on the diagonal line of travel. The correct path is to bring the horse shoulders in line with the diagonal first and then ask for a haunches-in, moving forward with the shoulders aligned with the diagonal.
Day 5: This day began with Karen and I taking a trail ride around a portion of the Martin’s 140- acre property. It was a departure from our usual morning ground work but equally effective in relaxing for the horses and they came into their arena work already ready for the last day. Our work today was focused on warm up prior to a show and determining what the horse needs prior to a test. The goal is to check in with your horse’s relaxation, suppleness, quickness off the leg and connection, in that order. You want to tune in but not over tune, and leave your best work in the warm-up arena. Since we had already done our trail ride relaxation work, I did a little of the suppling exercises to check for lateral bend which was good, followed by some trot using the same leg-yielding circles described before to see if there was good quality of bend both directions.
Instead of lengthening at the trot in her warm-up, Sarah often opts to do lengthening at the canter to check that the horse is moving off the leg and if that is well connected and forward. She frequently skips the trot lengthening since the canter work helps the trot. Following our warm-up, she coached me through my freestyle ride, and added commentary where I needed that darn right leg or to not rush or hurry to get to a specific spot in my music. “Remember to dance with your horse,” she said. The judge does not know your pattern and it is better to flow with the music rather than trying to hit a prescribed pattern that doesn’t match the music.
Something to mention to those who may not be doing this, have your instructor talk into your cell phone using a voice recorder app as they are giving your lesson. By doing this you can replay your lesson, word for word, which is much like another lesson with the instructor. It is very useful as a reminder for the issues that haunt us when we are working on our own. It helps to reinforce the key points and gets the instruction more ingrained and hard-wired. That way the next lesson isn’t a repeat of the same issues, but rather a starting point for additional training.
Our time at Taki Chi with Sarah Martin was very fruitful. It was especially helpful to have two of my riding friends there to watch and learn from their lessons. Having others available to video my rides added to the long-term benefits I gleaned from this experience. I heartily appreciate the financial assistance from the Carol Lavell Gifted Memorial award, which allowed achievement of the goals I had set. I know the information gained over the five-day intensive sessions will carry me forward into a very productive riding summer and successful show season.