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Leighanne Erickson: 2018 Region 3 Gifted Grant Recipient

I had the absolute pleasure of training with my eight-year-old breeding stock Paint mare, Sonnys Lunar Eclipse (Luna), at Greta Wrigley Training in Alachua, Florida, from February 4-9, 2019.  Having worked with Greta for more than six years in clinic settings, I knew we would be in for a week of hard work and compassionate training to achieve the goals I had set for us.  The Gifted Fund Grant for Adult Amateurs from The Dressage Foundation provided the essential support that facilitated this incomparable experience!

I entered this week of training with five specific goals aimed at preparing Luna and I for the requirements of the Training Level tests.  We had been languishing in the Intro Tests for the past three years for many reasons--injury and lameness (both of us), the dreaded “giraffe neck” (hers), poor timing and technique (mine), and irrational fear of the canter (also mine), to name a few.  Some harsh words (or “tough love” to put it kindly) from a different clinician spurred me to step out of my Intro bubble and into the intimidating world of Training Level.  Eight intense lessons with Greta plus one bonus ride with an international trainer prepared us to tackle that next step.

GOAL 1: Develop steadiness, relaxation and rhythm in the walk and trot

We started our lessons working towards this goal--counting strides between arena letters on the long sides and working to make the numbers consistent.  We then worked towards compressing and extending the stride to increase and decrease the number of steps between each set of letters.  We moved outside the dressage square to a round arena and repeated the exercise on the quarters of a circle.  For an additional challenge, Luna had to learn to maintain her striding going through the large puddle on one side of the circle.  And what a challenge it was! She side-stepped, she stopped, she broke stride, but finally she walked and trotted in rhythm through that water!

GOAL 2: Develop consistent and responsive canter transitions

We dedicated a short portion of each lesson with Luna to canter work, usually early in the lesson to capture her energy.  She has the capacity (and the will) for a Standardbred-blasting-around-the-track-speed trot rather than transitioning to canter so we worked on cues that would prompt the desired response.  Strategy one: trot across the diagonal and cue for the canter approaching the arena wall as we change bend to the new direction.  Creating an anticipation for the cue helped her recognize the request.  When she showed a penchant for leaping into the canter while avoiding the above-mentioned puddle, we used a low cavalletti to encourage the transition.  Adjunct lessons on Greta’s I-1 horse, Spanky, allowed me to develop a new comfort in the gait as well as the muscle memory for leg placement for the upwards cue.  Knowing where to put your legs and how to apply them correctly really helps communicate with the horse--who knew?

GOAL 3: Utilize lunge exercises to develop rider seat and confidence

Two of my lessons were lunge lessons on saintly-horse-of-the-year, Spanky, mentioned above.  Officially known as CF Tshazam, this lovely gray Arabian gelding is owned by Jean Chance and ridden and trained by Greta.  We worked in all three gaits, with and without reins, to help me develop trust in my mount and in myself.  I practiced arm circles, body swings, relaxation, following with my hips and actually looking around at my surroundings. I discovered that yes, you can look at squirrels, dogs and cars driving by without falling off!  I also developed better balance and better feel for the movement of the horse’s body.

GOAL 4: Develop straightness and responsiveness to outside aids for straight turns
GOAL 5: Teach lightness in response to leg aids for bend

Throughout the course of the week, I learned that these two goals really go hand-in-hand with each other and are built on a solid foundation of correct application of the aids and actual response by the horse.  As in, “I apply this leg and you move away from it.”  Greta guided us through exercises of turn-on-the-forehand, turn-on-the-haunches, leg yields and serpentines.  When I struggled with my timing of half-halts and leg cues in the leg yields, Luna’s haunches would lag behind her shoulders by nearly a body width, telling on me every time!  Learning to coordinate these cues while riding Spanky helped me with the feel and timing necessary to achieve a straighter leg yield with Luna.

Time and again (as in, every single lesson!), I found that if I sit up and look where I want to go, my body follows my head and magically, my horse follows my body.  I recall this from my hunter days when I was told to look where I want to go and my horse will follow.  And yet, I find myself looking down at Luna’s neck as if it holds the key to life itself.  Look up!!  In my journal, I wrote on Day 3: “For the love of God, look up where you are going!!!”  And yet, telling myself to look up and having Greta tell me to look up somehow was not enough.  So I made myself a reminder that I cannot soon ignore--a bright red piece of tape on Luna’s crownpiece that says “Look up!!”  And you know what?  It helps!

After a wonderful week of progress working with Greta, she encouraged me to take advantage of an amazing last-minute opportunity.  A riding spot became available in a clinic hosted by Silver Oak Farm with World Medalist Jennie Loriston-Clarke of Great Britain.  Jennie was a gracious but firm teacher who helped Luna and I work through some resistance to rounding down and accepting the bit.  She also helped me discover my tendency to lift my hands when Luna throws her head which only serves to enhance her naughty behavior.  Jennie, in her lovely British accent telling me to kick Luna forward and keep my hands down, will play in my mind in future rides as Luna and I progress together!

This opportunity provided by the Gifted Fund Grant exceeded my expectations in what Luna and I achieved together.  We have learned many practical tools to help us move forward in our training, my confidence has grown, and Luna and I have fostered a stronger partnership that will no doubt last for years to come.

Look out Training Level--here we come!

And LOOK UP!!!