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Gifted Memorial Fund for Adult Amateurs Recipient: Kelly Artz (Region 7)

When I first applied for the Gifted Fund, I had envisioned a much different learning experience than what transpired. I had always wanted to learn the process of making an Intermediaire 1 (I-1) freestyle and had been very excited to break down the prep work and share this process with other adult amateurs because I feel a lot of riders often stumble through this on their own for the first time. Structured time for prep with a coach off the horse, for this, is not part of traditional programs and I thought it would be a great idea for this grant project.

I had always wanted to do a small tour CDI with my Dutch Warmblood gelding, Winston, but he was always a bit tricky when it came to putting tests together. He had been my partner for my bronze and silver medals, and I worked very hard getting him to the point where he was able to do all the movements in the I-1. The year before, he had been injured and down for six months, but I had rehabbed him, and he was sound and ready to go. We were all excited and ready to rock. 

Carly Taylor-Smith and I met and sat down to begin choreographing our I-1 Freestyle. We drew out a series of “arenas” on a sheet of paper and broke down each portion of the freestyle of my chosen movements onto these boxes to make sure that we had everything in the list of required movements. Then our plan was to ride through this proposed choreography while I started to consider music selections and see what we needed to move around. 

For the next week, we tried to ride through the canter tour. If we were schooling individual combinations of movements, it was all good, but when we went to put them together it was no dice in the canter work for Winston. He would have explosive fits, bolting, spooking, or bucking/kicking out in one of the collected canter movements. He was 18 now and I really began to think “ok, maybe this just isn’t right for him.” Winston has always gotten tense in his canter tours, and I knew at this point I had really given this my all. 

I had done everything vets said he needed, and it was clearly not a rider issue because he would act out with Carly on board as well. Even though he was sound as a whip, and he knew how to do the movements, my gut said that the level of work was just too hard for him. I had noticed that the day after we had done any of the Prix St Georges/I-1 canter movements he would be strong and stiff in his back, and I knew in my heart it was time for him to step down. His body just was not recovering from the work, and he was uncomfortable after his efforts. 

So, it was no dice. My freestyle plans needed to be canceled--because my nine-year-old mare, Kailaani, was not ready for an I-1 freestyle of her own yet. I was at a point with her where I really wanted to focus on training and setting her up for the future, so doing a lower-level freestyle felt a little like going backward.

I wrote to TDF to request changing my lesson plan to suit the next steps for Kai. She had just turned nine and I was thinking it was time to start working more on the half steps as she continued to develop. Carly and I had played with them a little while I was on her back but Kai was very tense and I felt like it might be a good idea to do a little work with her on the ground first. 

I was very happy with Kai’s current progress, pace, and attitude, so I also wanted to be careful about bringing too many new cooks in the kitchen as well. I felt I had a good support system now, as I was riding with Carly weekly and Gareth Hughes from the United Kingdom twice a month over video. I was also getting mentored by Allen Clarke occasionally with her to help me with trailer loading when we would be in Temecula, and I wanted Allen to help me introduce Kai to the concept of piaffe.

To give a little back story on Kai, she is HUGE. It’s generally the first thing that anyone notices about her. She is all legs and stands at 18.1 hands high. She is very uphill in conformation and compact in the body lengthwise. The thing about Kai is she is a total alpha mare and if she doesn’t want to do something, you cannot force her to do it, it won’t happen. We had a phase in 2020 where we worked with Allen Clarke because she would not get into horse trailers and this challenging time had paid off and really solidified our bond. I spent a few days with Allen working on the trailering and after he taught her to go into pressure instead of away from it, I saw an entire shift in her work ethic, happiness, and attitude towards everyone. If she was confronted with a new question and I put pressure on her, she didn’t go backward or freak out anymore. She had a way of understanding how pressure could be removed once she complied and it had changed everything. Suddenly I had the horse everyone loved in the barn because she was kind and easy to handle, when I used to have the horse everyone thought would run them over. It sounds like a simple fix, teaching a horse ground manners, but Allen is different. 

As California locals know, Allen fixes a lot of horses that no one else can. The ones that many top professionals say are a “waste” or have a mental block that is stopping them from success or sometimes even having a home. Allen is an expert, in my opinion, in the thought process of horses, and I had already learned so much from him. 

After my time working with him on the trailering issue, we had discussed Allen helping me introduce the piaffe. He said it would need to be a dedicated week where I was there to be on her back as well, so it was a great project for the Gifted Fund grant. I had a feeling, because of how sensitive Kai is, and how she easily could get frazzled that I needed to do it with someone on the ground who could help me introduce it in a way that she would understand, first, and not piaffe out of tension. Kai always must understand what you want, otherwise, she will get very frustrated. In this way she is a messy learner because often we must have a conversation where she will try 10 different ways to do something before, she goes, oh that’s what you want, well you should have just said that before. I have always believed in Kai immensely because I think this messiness really comes from a place of trying to do what you want before she understands—and this all comes out because she is smart.

Allen's Outdoor Arena

A big thing Kai had learned in the last year was how to learn. She had learned how to behave and manage her fear if she was afraid of something from Allen, and I felt he would be the best person to help me start this conversation with her. I put together a program with Allen for introducing the piaffe and with TDF’s approval made plans to take Kai for a week in August to his place in Temecula.

The best part about being at Allen’s place is there is stuff to look at everywhere. Things flapping, waving, etc. it’s the perfect environment to really build a horse’s confidence—a great environment for horses with any tension at shows. So, in August, (I know a great time to spend all day in Temecula) I took Kai down to Allen’s to spend the week.

Kai Checking out an Arena Cow

Day 1
We arrived on a Monday morning. I took Kai off the trailer and then we gave her a few hours to rest and eat/drink while I unpacked and parked the trailer. It was super-hot, so we waited until it had cooled off a bit. Allen had me tack Kai up in her saddle. He said this was so she could associate the groundwork with “work” and then we put her in a D-ring snaffle. Allen took her into the covered arena, which is quite small, about a 15’ x 60’, with lots of distractions, large bouncy balls, and flapping banners. 

For this first day, Allen assessed my initial introduction to the half steps at home. I had started teaching Kai to pick up the foot that you touched and so Allen was able to see that he could get a reaction from Kai right away when he indicated that he wanted her to pick up a leg. Then Allen had her parallel to the wall, and once he was able to see she would not run him over and go forward/picking up her feet he would start to create a rhythm when he touched her legs. He created an alternating rhythm, having her lift one back leg and then the other back leg with a slow, but set tempo. He would cluck consistently in the sound “click, click” that way Kai would associate that sound with the question as well. 

Allen said the next step was getting her to start bending her hocks and getting her legs under her belly. Since the whole point of the piaffe is that the horses sit, Allen said that the first step was teaching them where you want them to be. He would have a rhythm and tap the left hind leg and right hind leg and then see if when he tapped the belly just in front if she would give the same response. He would do this back and forth a bit to start to introduce the concept which will later become my leg, to indicate that we want her to sit and shift her weight. What’s important to note is that when Kai tried, Allen would stop. Immediately he would take off the pressure so that Kai knew she had done the right thing. He would walk her forward away from the wall and then explain to me what he was doing, then once Kai was relaxed, he would ask again, giving her these breaks to think about what had happened. 

He would do these five-minute bursts and then let her have an immediate reward when she would say pick up in two steps at the tempo he wanted. This session probably went on for about 20 minutes and then, because she was making such an effort, Allen had me take her back to the barn and we then went on a hack exploring the hills. Allen said that the most important thing is that Kai associates piaffe with positive tension and therefore being able to take her on a nice hack after. It really helped Kai to see that everything was fine and pleasant. It was just another day in the office for her.

Day 2
For Kai’s second day I came first thing in the morning and gave Kai her Regumate and put her in the turnout. She took a nice roll in the sand and then I tacked her up. Today, Allen worked a bit more on Kai’s other side, as she had done the steps with her right side facing the wall. Allen worked both sides focusing on getting her to activate her lazier hind leg-- which for Kai is the right. He did five or six burst sessions (with the standing or walking breaks) on the ground and made sure she was shifting her weight and then also had me stand next to him and indicate with my voice so that she would start to associate the same question with how I make the ‘click, click’ sound. Allen had me mount up so that Kai could have me on her back while beginning to transition the aids. The whole point of the week was to give Kai an introduction to the piaffe, Allen says it takes a very long time to teach it completely but the goal this week was that Kai has enough understanding that I would be able to work on the piaffe on my own, with a whip, or with Carly or Gareth and Kai would have some concept.

In the past Kai was a bit nervous and defensive when she would be approached with a whip when someone was on her back, so Allen spent a few minutes petting her and letting her know that the whip did not always mean pressure. This was something he would do consistently throughout the work if she ever seemed tense. I sat on her without spurs and Allen asked her for the exact same thing he had from the ground without a rider. 

I put my leg back in the piaffe position and we both clucked away. Allen said my leg position was to let her start to feel the aids and the difference in my seat as he was asking her to take these little steps. For Kai, this was at first a little confusing and I began doing rein backs. Allen said we don’t want to punish Kai at all because previously when I slid my leg back and applied leg and my seat, I was asking for the rein back and this showed her trying. Now she needed to pick up on the subtleties of my seat becoming light, versus leaning back/deep. He said we had to help her see although the rein back is one choice, it was not the choice we wanted right now, so we positioned her with the butt perpendicular to the wall, so she had to make a different choice, and kept asking and showing her the way be rewarding her effort. When she made even the tiniest steps forward shifting her weight, an attempt of a step or two we immediately rewarded her with a walk break and Allen had me even hop off her back twice when she made a big effort. After a few bursts, as Kai tried so fast, we were finished, and I then took Kai for a hack and gave her the rest of the day to enjoy herself. I went to lunch and then came back at the end of the day and took Kai for a nice hand walk around the “spooky” arena so she could check out all the different obstacles and funky objects.

Allen also asked me to sit on a dressage horse that had come in for training that had some issues with getting stuck and acted out in the walk and canter pirouette. I got on him and just worked on a lot of suppling exercises, I didn’t have any problems with him letting me put my leg on. I worked a bit on getting him to stretch more forward to the contact, as he was rather short in the neck and behind the contact, so I used a lot of shoulder-fore and shoulder in to warm him up and get him loose before using my outside aids to start asking for haunches in positioning. I could keep asking him to bring his heck out more and reach up in his shoulders in the half pass off my inside leg. Allen came and watched him go for a bit and was happy so then we put him back.

Trail Rides with Kai

Day 3
Our morning routine was about the same. Turn out, feeding, and then I brought Kai in, and we tacked up and went into the jump shoot. In the middle of the jump shoot, there is a small pen that is like a large round pen, and so we worked on the half steps there. Today Allen warmed her up asking to do a few steps without me on her back, while I clucked for her, and then I mounted up. She made such an effort and did not try to rein back at all. She seemed to really get it. The big thing was that I kept a good hold and was ready to pull on the rein where Allen was, so under no circumstance could she turn her hind end towards him. This was more to keep him safe asking so it should be noted although Kai never did that. 

There was one time she kicked out when we first started but it was kicking more at the stick than at Allen, and he said you must read her intention to decide the response because she was just making a choice about how to move her leg. That time it was her making another attempt to have the pressure come off and kicking at the stick didn’t make it go away so she didn’t do it again. Then she made a few little steps got her immediate release. 

What is so interesting about this process is the mental side for Kai, she can figure out what we want. We only worked for about three attempts and then she was so good he had me get off, then we talked for a bit and gave her a break. Then I got back on again and we asked one more time. She made another effort and he had me immediately get off again. The session was rather short but because she was trying so hard, keeping it short is how it is effective. 

I took her to get a drink of water and then took her out for a little hack exploring the hills, just the two of us. I am really proud of how much she will just follow me now, as before she would have been very nervous to go out in the hills alone, she has matured and is quite confident alone on the trails.

I rode the black horse again today just working more on his connection and the walk pirouettes. Allen had said the horse was now accepting the aids but that the walk pirouette needed more shoulder control, so we worked on that a bit and made sure that when the shoulder would move round that the inside leg would stay active. He was a good boy, and it was so hot we just did a short bit and I worked getting him a bit more supple in the rib cage through the trot which then helped the pirouette work overall.

Day 4
Today was a good day. The morning routine was the same, and then I watched Alan working with a Grand Prix show jumper that was in to get some brakes because he braces and turns. They did a lot of trot fences, and he was working with the horse to be able to grab the outside rein and use the shoulder to keep the horse straight, and from leaning and would slow down. 

Kai had her nice turn out first. We tacked up and went into the jump shoot for another session. Today was about the same type of work but was the first day that she really offered the half steps. I just initially moved my leg and didn’t even use the voice and she offered the half steps immediately, so I feel like she is really starting to get it. Allen and I talked about it a bit because I was also feeling like she was very on the spot and I had a stuck feeling, with a ton of squatting. He has been working to help her creeping on the wall more and going forward and maintaining a light soft feel on the contact. He doesn’t want her leaning down, or too light when we are moving out of it because he wants her to have good contact. 

After that, they pulled out the black horse. The working student got on and they wanted to work with her a bit on the walk and canter pirouettes and half passes and make sure he is ready to go home. I felt like he was a very nice horse and didn’t have a hard time with him. Allen said that the horse’s trot had improved since I had been riding him this week so that was cool. The working student started working on the canter with him but was leg yielding him quite a bit instead of half passing, so Allen asked me to hop on and show her the difference between half pass and leg yield. I went around in the western saddle which was a bit tough to get my leg on with, and I couldn’t use my seat bones as much to help him as I had the past few days in my dressage saddle. But we made do.

We worked on the canter pirouettes a bit as well. Allen had me breaking up the horse’s body a bit with counter flexion and make sure he was understanding the concept of moving the shoulder around as this was the root of this particular horse’s tension. I felt like for the quality of the pirouette long term he would need to work that collected canter on a larger circle first because he was falling in a bit on my inside leg and would then get a little behind my leg so I was chasing him back out--but the biggest thing Allen needed before sending the horse home to keep getting that training was to make sure the horse was safe and sometimes you have to deviate from textbook “correct” if the horse has mental blocks. 

Those are the kinds of horses Allen is dealing with, horses that someone has tried to do everything “correct” and it’s like the mental side can’t connect the question. From working with Allen, a bit, I think it really comes from riders and trainers asking for too many things at the same time and the horses get really confused.  For right now with this horse, because he was getting ready to go home, we needed to make sure that in the event the horse was asked to do the pirouette on a line that was too small, and the quality went south (as what can happen in a lesson with a new amateur) the horse wouldn’t get tense and freak out and would be safe. He was a good boy and now has some bandwidth and confidence in what he is being asked to do, so he won’t panic if it doesn’t go perfectly right away. He could now go home and work on the training and the quality with his normal riders. 

With Allen everything stems out of what the horse is thinking. He is always asking do they understand what you are asking. Before you can do anything to work on the “correctness” or quality of a move they need to understand what you want them to do and have a concept of the reward, or when the pressure comes off. The latter is the most important part, you get a willing partner when the horse is trying to reach that moment. Where a lot of horses get mental blocks, Allen says it that you can’t ask a horse for more than one thing at a time when they are learning something new, it’s too confusing. He explained therefore right now he is also not concerned about Kai sometimes being a little too “on the spot” in the half steps. It takes a long time to get a good piaffe, and in one week she won’t “get it” 100%, but what she will have is the ability to keep learning about it in a safe way, with a mental understanding of what she is being asked without a ton of stop-go-stop go pressure.

Yes, we want her pushing more and able to go more forward, but he wants to make sure she understands how she is expected to move, and right now asking her to go forward while asking her to pick up her legs and sit would be asking for two things and once. He believes you must break it down into parts for the horses mentally to really understand and then put it together. After she has an understanding, you can say “Okay, I know you get how to do it on the spot, can you follow me just a tiny bit, can you stay with me if we creep it forward?” because we can’t tell her to do something different when she is making such an effort to do what we ask.

I would agree with Allen that is a great way to fry their brain, asking for too much too fast, and in this way, I am very grateful to Allen for teaching me this concept because I know the confidence of all my horses will be better for this. We tend to get very “textbook” and over-complicate dressage, but it needs to be simple. Horses think simple. While you definitely don’t want to reward something that is totally incorrect and be showing the horse the wrong way, in a situation like with Kai’s piaffe, as Allen says, you don’t get any points for it moving forward in a test, it’s supposed to be on the spot, so don’t punish her for making this huge effort and lower her croup, because that’s where you want her to go. Let her get confident in the question and then teach the next part. Allen believes a lot of dressage horses get their brains fried in the piaffe work this way, asking them to go forward and come back and move their legs and then go forward but not giving them anywhere to go with a ton of pressure. It’s a lot of information for how horses think, and every horse is different, but how they think about the question you are asking needs to be paramount.

After I finished with Kai and the black horse, I got to watch Allen do some work in the round pen with another trainer that had brought an extremely difficult horse in to get help with backing. The professional with him backs horses for a living but was having a really hard time backing this particular horse and it was getting to the point where everyone was really concerned about whether or not the horse could have a future it was so dangerous. The horse would like bronc and almost dive into the ground and work to get his rider off. It was a bit scary, as the horse had no self-preservation, and Allen said he also did not understand what the leg meant. Allen first had to work to get the rider safe, because right now there was not even time to teach the horse what the leg meant before he would try to send him flying. So, while the measure might be extreme it was necessary, after doing some groundwork, they worked to get the horse to allow a person to sit on his back in the canter without “broncoing.” I can’t even say it was a buck because it was so much more than that. Once the rider could sit on his back, they started to teach him that when he got touched, he should go forward, also teaching him the voice. They worked a bit on that, and the rider would have to ride a little defensively, constantly turning the horse into the boards and changing direction when he would think about digging in. 

He had about one-tenth of a second to turn or it would dig in, but by the end he got it. It was very good to watch because this was an example of a horse who has a personality that makes it difficult to start with, he is super smart, trying to get out of the work, but also has no concept that the easiest way to get out of the work, is to be good. 

The thing about some of these horses is that it would be very hard for them to have a good life if they behave like that and that’s really where I have a lot of respect for Allen because I feel the same way about training dogs or anything else. Untrained animals have very hard lives because they are unwanted, so the most important thing you can do for a horse or dog is sometimes to be very strict. It can look harsh to an outsider that thinks you should just be nice and tell them how to do everything gently, but some horses do challenge for alpha status and the faster they learn the lesson young, that pressure comes off when they submit or behave, the easier they are to train in anything. Horses that have become “naughty” often tried to get out of work by escalating and applying their own pressure, whether that be, pulling back, rearing, kicking, or bucking, and if the handler or rider backed off, they learned that being naughty was how to get the pressure off, so they keep doing it. That’s how these unruly behaviors escalate. These are the realities of training horses, they are not computers, so sometimes conversations deviate from the “textbook of correctness.” In this way, I think a lot of very talented, intelligent horses, need time and good horseman, not just “correct dressage.” I think smart horses will keep trying to do different things until they figure out what works, so they need someone who knows how to show them a clear path because then they will really work for you and come to challenges with a sense of confidence and enthusiasm if shown the way.

Friendly Reminder on Allen's Mounting Block

Day 5
We had the same usual morning routine. The black horse went home so Kai didn’t want to be in the turnout for very long and was happier to be up in the barn. She had a nice roll and then went to have more breakfast. I got her ready and we went into the covered arena and worked on the half steps again today. We did the same process and Allen has me thinking a lot more about keeping her going forward into the connection. She did one rein back today, but I was seated too deep and leaning back so she was getting it right, and I was getting it wrong. I needed to lift my seat to give her more of a space to understand. 

Allen wanted to see how she could maintain the relaxation if we got her a little more ‘jazzed up’ so instead of just asking for the half steps we would add in some other work to preserve the question. We worked a bit on my canter first, and the flying changes. I have struggled a little with Kai’s flying change to the right- she is never late, but if I don’t have enough of an active hind leg in the canter or I let the canter get at all too flat, she will almost come up in the change instead of staying forward, but she will also get feisty and then kick at my right leg and jump up too much with the right hind, so it comes through and it’s a correct change but it’s a bit funky sometimes. Allen wanted to see it and worked me on having more control of my right leg, instead of using my heal, Allen had me just pretend I was riding towards a jump and ‘whisper’ change with my body. He was like just think change, don’t ask for it with your leg because for right now the leg was too much and like distracting her from the question. He said this will just keep improving as she gets more confident with the smooth change but right now when I put my heel on, it causes her to react and think her canter tempo or stride should be different, so for now I need to remove that and go back. My leg is still on correctly, it’s just very soft---I had to chuckle a bit at this because of course, this is a mare. She’s like just ask for the change, stop telling me “Change now!” Allen also said that long term this will be helpful because my aid for the change won’t need to be this massive event with my leg swinging far, which will make my zig-zags and tempi changes better when the time gets to be tighter. 

After we did that for maybe 15 minutes, we went back to the piaffe, because now Kai was excited, and Allen wanted to see her focus that energy back into going more forward in the piaffe and make sure that we could control any tension and bring her back to me. Kai was cantering in place a bit but then we did a few little steps, and Allen had me reward her with a nice trail ride. 

I gave Kai a nice bath and went and watched them work with the difficult gelding that they were backing from yesterday in the round pen again. They flanked the horse to get it de-sensitized a little so that it wouldn’t buck and successfully have the aids removed before the rider got on. After that, they did some more groundwork making sure the horse would canter off the voice aids. The horse was fine in the walk and trot and very responsive. He remembered all the cues and the lessons from the day before, but the horse bucked the rider off when they went to the canter. This sort of happened because he was holding the buck strap and it was causing him to put his weight a little forward when the horse made a sudden turn and went to dig in. This made it just that much easier for the horse to put its head between its knees and get him off, so Allen was saying he needs to push into the buck strap not lean on it. This horse also needed to be turned super-fast, so once the guy was holding the reins with both hands and direct reining the horse fast to change directions, turning into the wall like every four to five strides, he didn’t have time to buck. Then they started to make real progress. The horse is very challenging, and I really felt for the guy because of course, you’d want to hold the horn or the buck strap, but he just couldn’t. He had to keep the horse’s rib cage from always locking on him. If the ribs got straight, then the horse had his number and could dig for China. This was a great effort and a moment where you were really seeing some “cowboy work,” I think the kind of thing most dressage riders don’t want to see is the reality of training horses that have a lot of attitudes. I really respect Allen in this way because he can fix these horses and he will also deal with them. A lot of people will just be like no, I don’t want to do it and kick the can down the road. I understand that this is because they don’t want to get hurt, and I think if a person doesn’t have the skills to deal with a horse like this it’s important to definitely get help from someone that does, because every time you take pressure off a horse like this, they learn it works.  It will just get harder to train them after that. I think this horse had gotten so bad about it because he was brilliantly successful in his early attempts to buck everyone off. 

Day 6
Kai had a nice turnout and morning routine. We worked on the half steps again and she understood it so fast that we only did a few attempts and then let her stand for a bit while we chatted about Allen’s process with the bucking horse yesterday and the mental side of that horse’s behavior when getting started. Allen was explaining to me that sometimes it can look a bit harsh to do things like flank a horse, etc. but at this point learning this stuff fast is this horse’s best chance, because if he can’t learn these things eventually, he will get sent to a kill pen. It’s a hard reality for horses and sad because I think that horse is super smart, but it needed direction, fast. 

After we gave Kai a break, we did maybe three flying changes in the canter, and then Allen had me work on entering the arena down the centerline. The biggest thing that seems to help Kai is if I make sure I am not pulling or really having to keep her together, she must be in a good self-carriage but not flat to get the right change. I think it's about keeping her rocked back on active hind legs. She is very big, so this is a bit more of an event with her than a smaller horse, but I think we are making great progress. I just must “think” about the change and not make a big move with my body. 

Next, he had me use Kai to help with a three-year-old that is there in training because Kai is great with other horses in the arena. The filly was tied to the ceiling of the covered arena (it’s a pretty low ceiling) and so I would ride past her and work on my trot entrances and halt trot send-offs maintaining my connection. Allen wanted to work on getting Kai’s half steps more forward to the positive contact. At the same time, I would sort of ride past the baby so that she could get confident with horses coming towards her as she was getting ready to go home as well and Allen wanted to make sure that the horse was well exposed. After we did this for about 10 minutes, and I was getting a nice straight send-off into my connection I took Kai for her little hill adventure/hack. 

We came back and went to lunch and Allen, and I decided to work on her trailer loading again, just to make sure Kai was confident and mentally prepared to fly, as Allen had been helping me to get Kai ready for this, knowing I would be taking her over to the United Kingdom to train with Gareth sometime in the next few months. She had been so good in the half steps we didn’t want to do anymore but why not get her out again. Allen had a bit of fun with it now because Kai is a very good trailer loader and he decided he would have her load herself with us sitting on the fender. We had her get on a few times standing on the outside and then loaded Kai sitting on the fender. It was quite funny. My horse from just under a year ago that wouldn’t get into a tiny two-horse trailer without a fit was now self-loading happily. I am grateful to Kai for not always being ‘easy’ with everything because it has led me to learn so much more from my mentors as we work through challenges like this. I feel it has really solidified our bond too. I am not nervous when Kai spooks or nervously doesn’t want to do something because I know for sure that she very well can and I’m confident I can figure out how to show her. 

It was great to actually put this to use in the last month as well because I did finally fly Kai to Europe, and she was a champ. We had a rather intense loading experience at the back of the Los Angeles airport cargo where you have to offload the horses from a trailer, into a chut, and onto the airline container. We had to do all this in the loading dock in the middle of the 9 A.M. semi-truck loading spree. It was total chaos, complete with tree trimmers with chain saws, but Kai was perfect and followed me right onto the container. What was even better was that the container/trailers have become a place of “reward” or a place where the pressure is off, so Kai is happy to be in there, and I noticed that even though it was her first time flying, she was more relaxed than many of the horses that were seasoned flyers. 

Kai Practicing Self Loading

Day 7
Our last day in Temecula with Allen. We did our normal morning routine and did another half steps session. Allen had me warm her up while he had another horse jumping in the arena, I think hoping it would get her all jazzed up so she would need to be worked back down and we could make sure it didn’t cause any tension in the half steps that we couldn’t neutralize—but of course, it didn’t because after being at El Campeon for two years with show jumpers she does not care about jumping horses at all, so that was kind of funny. The half steps session was very short today just a few little bursts and then we took a break, and the other horse would jump, then we would do a little attempt again. 

It was a short session, and she made such a good attempt Allen had me get off and put her away. And then he had me get on her again a bit later and we asked two more times, Kai got it right away and we did a few trot-offs from the halts right away. We also worked on our halts. Making sure that I could get an actual halt without her getting tense and jigging in place. Allen would have me do a one rein stop with her when she would start to wiggle which made the jigging when in the halt stop right away. We could start to get some clear relaxation in just standing for the halt where I was able to pat her or touch the saddle without her thinking we should do half steps because I wasn’t indicating for that with my seat or my legs. 

I took her for her little trail ride loop and brought her back. Then we gave her another break for an hour and then loaded her again in the trailer for about 10 minutes, and then Mallory came and did FES and bodywork on Kai so she could have a nice recovery before going home. 

Something that makes Allen’s program a bit unique is that the horses get worked with A LOT throughout the day but in much shorter time periods than the average training sessions, so they get these large rest breaks in between these like 15-20 minutes where they are asked to do whatever it is they are doing. This is all about giving them these big mental rewards and making sure they really understand. What I have noticed with this approach is that while it might not be ideal for fitness training, it works for teaching horses how to get over mental stumbling blocks quickly. They understand the release with the utmost clarity. 

After Kai had her nice bodywork, I tucked her in for the evening and got the trailer packed up to head home.

Day 8
This was the last morning at Allen’s. We had our same morning routine with turnout. We had a last mini session with Allen on the ground and Kai made a few nice tiny steps as he led us up the rail and then I took Kai on a final spin round the hills so she would be ready to stand in the trailer to go home. 

Allen and I discussed how this was just an introduction to the piaffe that of course now it will take time to develop and get more push for the transition out to the trot but at this point we just wanted to show her what we were asking. She now has a good foundation for someone to work with her on the ground more without getting nervous. There is a clear understanding of being touched with a whip or stick from that ground person so in the future if someone is helping me, we will get a reaction that is not coming from tension. This is the most important thing for her long-term development in the sport. We had a great time and got everything packed up and ready to head home.

Then in a bit of a wacko moment, my dog Coco Puff seemed to have vanished, and I spent an hour looking for her so we could leave before getting a phone call that she had been on the edge of the driveway and a delivery man had picked her up. Figures—he wanted me to meet him at the end of the road in about 10 minutes on his lunch break so I could grab her.  Thank goodness for all that trailer practice! Quick like a bunny Kai had to get in the trailer so we could go pick up Coco. We loaded up and went down to the main road to meet him and get Coco before heading back to LA. 

This was one of those moments that reinforced how this kind of work with Kai is essential for me and will be with all my future horses. In an emergency, she must get in the trailer fast, whether it be medical or a fire, or heck a Coco crisis. I think too often as dressage riders—and I even see this with professionals too, the focus is so much on the sport training that there isn’t a lot of time for the training of the horse overall. 

I believe sport horses also need to just be “good horses” in that they need to be easy to load, clip, trail ride, handle and respond to stressors in their environment in a way that is manageable, because that is how they are set up for a bright future.

I think it’s great if a horse can go and win a bunch of ribbons because it has all this quality and movement, but a horse that is well trained as a horse is a pleasure to be around regardless of its win record. Good horses will always have homes regardless of the prizes they win, and a future when they need to step down from top sport or become a teacher for a less experienced rider.

For every horse in a class that gets the ribbon, there are a handful of others coming in below him, and I really believe that those horses are deserving of the training and attention the winners get too. They are worthy of a rider who sees the stars in them at any level.

I am grateful to The Dressage Foundation for letting me use my week to work with Allen and continue to develop my mare in this environment because all of this helps her to be a better competitor in the actual work. Too often you see we are tiptoeing around spooking or setting off the horses in dressage and I am grateful that I have a system and learned an approach so that I don’t have to do that. 

Working with Allen has helped me teach Kai how to handle stressful situations better and helped me to really learn more about the thought process of my horses. This in turn translates to teaching them anything new. It has shifted Kai’s confidence in me, and I have seen firsthand how this work reflects in the progress of her formal dressage training. At the end of the day, Kai is a pleasure to ride and be around, no matter what level she is doing or if she is winning or not--she is my favorite horse to ride and learn on and I wouldn’t trade being on her journey for a horse that could do the Grand Prix’s tomorrow.