Gifted Memorial Fund for Adult Amateurs Recipient: Mosie Welch (Region 2)
Events with horses seldom turn out as expected, but my immersive dressage experience through The Dressage Foundation's Gifted Memorial Fund for Adult Amateurs grant was as close to perfect as possible, even with a few scheduling and health issues thrown in. Fortunately, we had put backup dates in our original plan for weather and other contingencies and remained flexible during the week of training.
My training goals going into this dressage immersion included working with my own trainer Emily Gill. I wanted to work on skills to improve my seat and the timing of my aids, the ability to ride in a way that improves the suppleness of my half-Welsh pony, Aleksandr Robyn WH (aka Alaska), and develop a more stable seat through transitions. We had been working on my ability to consistently ride Alaska forward with impulsion all winter, especially at the canter, and we wanted to continue that work. I was hoping to gain the confidence needed for Alaska and me to compete in a recognized show or two by late spring.
Emily and I talked at length about how to achieve these goals and our concerns regarding the unpredictable weather in northeast Ohio in the winter, how to keep Alaska in a mentally positive frame of mind during the week, and what tools we could use to accomplish all our goals.
We came up with an extensive training plan. It included a lunge/seat lessons on Alaska. We used Working Equitation obstacles to focus on dressage basics, I also received the opportunity to ride Emily’s Grand Prix horse, Coulee Bend Kahlua. We did long lining Kahlua and Alaska; and of course, dressage lessons. We added observation of key lessons and rides on training horses, and we built a full week of activities. Even though I had no idea that I would receive the Gifted grant, just putting a plan down on paper during the application process helped focus my riding and lessons, so that was a win right there. I was ecstatic when I was notified that I’d received one of the Gifted grants for Region 2 for 2023. The anticipation began in earnest! Much to my dismay, I got a nasty sinus infection the week before we were planning to start and we had to shift to our first backup week. Otherwise, the weather was unseasonably warm for February in Ohio, and we packed everything possible into six days as planned.
Finally, Day 1 arrived, and I moved Alaska into his stall at Kachina Farms. I’m lucky because Alaska travels well and settled in easily.
Emily set aside a two-hour window from noon to 2:00 pm daily for lessons on Alaska and/or Kahlua and to observe her ride or do groundwork with one of them. AND Emily had a surprise! After my lunge lesson on Alaska, I got a short lesson on Kahlua so I can become familiarized with his movement and gaits so my lessons on him could be more effective!
Today was a seat-focus lesson with Alaska. We started with in-hand work ensuring he was focused on me to “set the tone for today’s ride.” In the saddle, we warmed up with rider stretches and then moved into trot warm-up. We worked on transitions within and between walk and trot, as well as bend. Going from the right bend into the left bend is always harder, and we did several repetitions until the bend was more fluid in both directions. Then we did a little canter in each direction before Alaska and I were loosened up for the lunge.
Alaska is a star lunger, but we liked to keep the sessions short. We went to no hands work and repeated the earlier exercises and then worked on position and balance exercises at the trot. At the trot posting with the hands on the hips, we started with sitting two strides and staying up one. This was the easiest rhythm for me to maintain a good position. I lost my balance and fell back into the saddle with the second exercise: staying up two strides and sitting one. Once I focused on keeping my weight in the ball of my feet and engaging my core, I had some success.
Coulee Bend Kahlua (Season's Forever French x Coulee Bend Anticipation) is Emily’s 16-year-old, 15.1-hand Grand Prix Morgan gelding that she trained from a two-year-old right up the levels. I watched Emily warm up while she explained that Kahlua is super safe but a more forward ride than Alaska. Emily wears no spurs and does not need a whip. Her advice was “ride him – you won’t break him, he’s not fragile.”
When I got on, I spent a little time on a loose rein, then picked up the reins and tried a little shoulder in into haunches in the walk, and he just did it. But every time I asked Kahlua to halt, he would and then back up. I needed more leg into the halt followed by softening the hand when I got the transition. No holding in the halt - it was Kahlua’s job to maintain his topline at the halt. Emily constantly asked me to explain what I was feeling. We tried zig-zag leg yields and WOW! Kahlua was so responsive. Then he eased into his “suck back mode” so it was time for trotting to get the good rhythm back. We repeated the leg yield again, keeping a more forward trot with more leg, a better position, hands in the workspace, and softening. Emily said, “when you’re on a new horse, it’s always best to go from less to more as needed because you are learning the reaction of the horse.”
The canter work on Kahlua was amazing because he was very comfy and just stayed in the gait. I had to exhibit commitment and correct aids to each transition and staying straight on the line of travel. It was easier to work on my following seat and quiet hands because he was so steady in his gaits. Emily noted that Kahlua’s inside ear was tipping in time to the canter, something he does NOT normally do. When I softened my hand and kept the weight on my elbow, Kahlua’s ears stayed level. This horse was a very honest and generous tattle tale! Emily said the quiet and softening hand was something we’ll focus on during our week.
Day 2 was an amazing full lesson on schoolmaster Kahlua. The goal was to work on me so I could translate the skills to Alaska. I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to ride Kahlua the day before because I was more confident going into the lesson. Today, there was no backing at the halt, and the canter transitions went just fine. We worked on feeling the transitions within the gait. Then we shifted to transitions between gaits. We tried a little forward and back at the canter and Kahlua was good at letting me know if my hands got a little too busy with that bobbing ear. We tried shoulder-in and haunches-in at the trot, leg yield, and serpentines. All through the lesson Emily asked what I felt, what was easier for Kahlua, and what felt harder for him. I was glad my husband was able to tape this lesson as I was able to watch it several times and am still gaining nuggets of information from it.
I warmed up Alaska and we had a short 15-minute lesson working on all the things we had been trying out on Kahlua. I was amazed at how the feel of Kahlua allowed me to be more trusting of my seat on Alaska. Alaska is better balanced than he used to be, but it seems I am trying to do too much to balance him rather than using my good position and following connection to allow him to find his better balance himself. I began to feel glimmers of improvement in my aids allowing Alaska to be more supple and forward.
Next, I observed Emily ride a handsome six-year-old Oldenburg gelding. He was a little spooky and unsure of himself which was evident in his tension at the beginning of the ride. The horse required leadership and reassurance, Emily stressed that it is important to be consistent with the aids and seat because the horse needed to learn how to find his own balance and connection and keep his mind focused on his job. Otherwise, he would find something to fill his mind. By the end of the warmup, he had less tension, and his good gaits came shining through.
On day 3, Emily chose three different working equitation obstacles. Throughout the session, Emily and Kahlua demonstrated what Alaska and I needed to be doing while I observed. When I went through the obstacles, it was both mentally and physically challenging because completing a movement while preparing for a transition or the next movement is required to be successful. After working on individual obstacles, I tried both trotting and cantering between the obstacles. I handled the overall accuracy when trotting much better. The canter required so much more preparation and so many more transitions. Our changes of bend were our strength. Alaska does appreciate an obstacle day, but these obstacles do NOT lie, they let a rider know where work is required.
Next, I observed a 12-year-old Thoroughbred mare who raced extensively on the track and has come a very long way mentally and physically. Working on forward and connection, this horse would brace and lift its head hollowing the back much as Alaska did earlier in his training. I learned that it was necessary to engage her hind end and allow the horse to find a connection in the frame the rider requests. It takes practice to accomplish over time as the horse builds strength. The second horse was an 18-year-old Clydesdale gelding who was a little pokey. Emily rode with no whip or spurs and expected the horse to listen to her leg. She said being reliance on tools often prevents riders from learning to use the aids properly. She pointed out that this Clydesdale should give me insight into how I should approach Alaska in relation to moving off the leg.
Day 4 was longlining/driving with Kahlua and Alaska. Kahlua long lines and is being taught to drive. After going over all the safety rules, we went over equipment and set up cones so we could work the horses on an easy course as well as in a circle. I watched a demonstration of long lining and driving techniques with Kahlua including turning, changes of direction, and navigating through cones. It was interesting to watch how in tune the horse and handler were and how they looked as they moved through the paces. I practiced with Kahlua and there was so much to manage with two lines, but Kahlua went forward with well-off voice commands. He was very responsive, and just like under saddle I was able to practice quieter aids with him. Soon I was navigating Kahlua at the walk and trot and even managed to change directions and steer through our small cone course. Now Alaska would get his first session in the long lining.
Alaska was a very competent and obedient horse on the lunge, so after a quick warm-up lunge, we put on a surcingle, his bridle, and long lines. We talked about how we would progress today strictly based on Alaska’s responses. While I held him on the lead, Emily moved the lines along his back and got him acclimated to them while he got a lot of praise. Alaska was a gentleman, so Emily asked Alaska to walk on while I led him, but it was easy to tell that he didn’t know if he should focus on me or Emily. Once I moved away and stood on the sidelines it dawned on Alaska that Emily was at the other end of the lines, and he directed his focus to her. Alaska calmly navigated the cone course at the walk, trotted circles, transitioned, and changed directions. We decided it was safe to try a canter. When it was my turn I felt, “all thumbs and long lines” with a spotty connection. Changes of direction took more space and time, but we got the basics of it. I could feel how important the outside rein was in the process of turning, but my timing was off. I tried a little trot and canter in both directions and his transitions were very smooth. He got lots of praise throughout. I did resort to old bad habits of widening my hands, getting too far forward, and not having even connection with the horse’s mouth, but what a huge success!
I observed two lessons on day five. A handsome Third Level Arabian gelding was ridden by his owner/trainer who bought him as a weanling. I observed her start out with dressage warm up with the lesson moving to working equitation obstacles. I learned that managing the horse’s anticipation and keeping one’s shoulders on the line of travel were important takeaways. The second lesson I observed was a young rider on a lovely young horse who was often behind the leg under the saddle but was in a “go” mood that day. What struck me is how relaxed this rider was. She was able to easily follow directions and be in the moment. The horse became more relaxed and connected as the lesson progressed. I sometimes think older riders lose their comfort level with riding in the moment because overthinking and the wrong kind of rider anticipation take over. I need to trust and anticipate that the positive will occur because overwhelmingly that is what happens with Alaska.
Day 5 was a dressage lesson on Alaska focusing on putting “it all together.” I was happy to see his attitude was positive and he was forward because I was a little worried that he would get sour by the end of the week. During this ride, I really felt the results of trying to have a “ride every stride” plan and carry it out with a more correct preparation believing that Alaska would do his part. Even still, with an eagle eye on the ground, Emily asked where did you lose connection? Where should you have half halted? She was always drawing me to think it through before she shared her observation. "This," she said, "is how you become a thinking and a feeling rider."
On day 6, the last day of our intensive, we decided I would ride Kahlua and take another longline lesson with Alaska.
The lesson on Kahlua was all about connection and energy from the hind. Emily wanted me to feel the difference between riding Kahlua in a snaffle and a double bridle. Again, not something we discussed in advance, but she assured me this would really help me to feel connection, along with the “upward” energy of collection. The first part of the lesson was a safety talk - the dos and the DO NOTs when riding in a double bridle. When I got in the saddle, I spent time picking up the reins and dropping them and then at the walk. We went over shortening the reins without impacting the horse’s mouth. Kahlua felt more over his topline, marching forward, but so put together and very willing to collect himself and move back out. I could feel Kahlua’s shoulders move along the desired track at the smallest request with the snaffle which also activated some of the curb. Moving into the trot, I tried a little forward and back using my seat and allowing the recycling of energy over the topline. Kahlua uses his own engine IF the rider does not restrict him. I did feel the energy coil up and continue over the topline when going from working to collected trot instead of the feeling slowing down. Kahlua was very honest and giving in his movement, so we tried things that allowed me to feel just some of the nuance that the double bridle has to offer. After a little trot work and lots of praise for this generous horse, my valuable time with Kahlua had come to an end. I’m so grateful that Emily made the exception to allow me to ride Kahlua during my Gifted Memorial Grant Dressage Intensive because this gentleman taught me so very much.
Alaska and I long-lined for our second time, and I was determined to focus on my good position – to have a good upper body, to have relaxed elbows, and to keep my hands in the workspace. All of that while managing the coils of the reins, which looked so easy in the hands of the experienced long liner. Alaska exhibited none of the confusion of the first session and was relaxed and responsive throughout. We accomplished walk, trot, canter, and change of rein at the walk. When I lost him a little in the change of rein it was a strong indication that I needed to get a better feel of the outside rein and how to change the outside rein effectively. But overall, we had a better connection.
We had packed so much into six short days. It’s a good thing that TDF recommends journaling and that we video throughout the week, or I would be in trouble. I let things settle, rested, and caught up with some home chores before getting started on my report.
I feel like I exceeded my goals. I may not yet be the rider I want to be, but I learned that trust puts horses and riders in a more successful place, especially when learning something new. Less really is more; don’t fill the space between asking for something and giving the horse time to respond with another demand, be patient and allow. And most of all, by keeping things fun and changing the tools and exercises we use to practice skills, both horse and rider learn more. Throughout the week, we laughed a lot and talked about the positives, while focusing on fixing my weaknesses and I think Alaska really enjoyed himself. The true test came in the rides and lessons after my intensive was over. Emily was so happy with Alaska and me because he was mentally happy and ready to go and I was showing progress by exhibiting skills and thoughtfulness in my riding that we had worked on. Emily and I decided we should sign up for a recognized show in late April!
As usual, the horses are our kindest and greatest teachers. Alaska let me know that we have developed a darn good partnership on our five-year journey. Very willing to try, I know he works for praise and really appreciates not being bogged down with drills. He also proves that the rider is “the problem,” and we must continually strive to allow our horses to be their best by working on ourselves.
Emily Gill made the week fun, and educational, with lots of laughter along with learning. I was a little worried about holding up physically under the full schedule we had planned, and I was worried about all the new skills I was going to try. What was I thinking when I wrote the training plan? I’m grateful for trainers like Emily Gill who have their horse and rider combination’s best interest at heart, “read the room,” and adapt to make learning a joy. I feel like I became a better student during this process, trusting my trainer and not letting my fears prevent me from stretching outside my comfort zone.
Experiences like this weeklong dressage intensive are priceless to an adult amateur. I’m so grateful to The Dressage Foundation for the work that they do to support dressage riders at all levels. I’m grateful for each donor, at any level, who made this grant possible. I look forward to continuing to learn and grow with Alaska, taking this experience of goal setting, flexibility, and focused education and applying these lessons so they serve us well into our future.