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Heather McCullough - 2016 Lindgren Recipient

Rocking “Plan B”

The week of my training was a long-anticipated week for me. Last year I wrote an application to The Dressage Foundation to request support for a week of intensive training with Stacey Hastings. The goal was to train on my schoolmaster and to develop a more sophisticated ride at the Intermediaire level. I was so appreciative to be selected for the Lindgren Grant and had the highest hopes for coming out of it with a very solid understanding of how to improve riding at the upper levels. I have long used Major Anders Lindgren’s book, Teaching Exercises: A Manual for Instructors and Riders, for my own rides and with my students.

I had explained in my application how several things occurred over the previous year to slow my training and teaching. The first was simply all the additional work that my husband and I have been doing since purchasing our own farm, the second was the death of my lesson horse (who I had had for over 20 years!), and the third was taking off two months from work and away from the farm to care for my mother when her cancer returned. 

I was awarded the grant and scheduled a week of training with Stacey Hastings, USDF Gold Medalist and USDF Certified Instructor Training through FEI. However, when I arrived for my first lesson, Maggie, my horse, was clearly “not right.” She had a hitch in her get-along, as they say, that had been off and on for a month or so. She always seemed to work out of it. However, on this day, the first day of my intensive training week, she didn’t work out of it. I trailered Maggie home and called the vet. He diagnosed fibrotic myopathy which, thankfully, isn’t painful. However, it did mean the end of her working career. Sigh!

My young horse was too young to ride or do too much with. I decided to find a horse to ride and work with while waiting for the young horse to mature. I lucked upon a super cute little six-year-old rescue pony that had only had 30 days under saddle. She is certainly an entirely different ride than my confirmed FEI horse. I cleared changing my training program and the new horse with The Dressage Foundation and Stacey and I found a new week for the training.

The entire year had already seemed like a series of “Plan B” moments, making adjustments when unexpected challenges or tribulations came my way. I was really pleased to be poised to actually start training. And then, in late April, my dear, sweet mother who had been doing so, so well over the last two years suddenly wasn’t doing well. Her cancer returned and was aggressive. Very sadly, she passed away three weeks before my training week. I got to spend a lot of time with her and for that I am so grateful. I considered postponing or even canceling my training, but realized I definitely needed something enjoyable to look forward to and that my mother would have insisted I keep the scheduled training. So I did and I share here the report from our week and a couple of lessons we’ve had since then.

Day 1: Monday, June 19, 2017

Mademoiselle, a.k.a. “Ellie,” had only had 30 days under saddle and is super green. I’ve been lunging her at home and riding her. We are at the very beginning of her training.

Stacey helped me see that I needed to confirm the forward energy before we do much of anything. She also helped me see that for the green horses, mileage and consistent training are essential and as much a training component as anything else. Ellie simply does not know (yet) what she is being asked to do.

Today we focused on going forward in walk and trot. Doing this so she is pushing from behind will help her become more steady in the contact. It’s okay if her head is up and her nose out. We want her moving forward into the contact. Stacey reminded me to have “elastic elbows” that will be forgiving of Ellie’s seeking the contact and her unsteadiness. 

Because I’ve only been riding her consistently for about five weeks, I haven’t yet cantered her under saddle (I have been having her WTC on the lunge). So, at the end of today’s lesson, we put her on the lunge line and cantered! She was a champ.

I am so proud of the little rescue pony and her first day of training. She took in a lot of new surroundings and stimuli and really held up well. She paid attention and minded me very, very well. I know that learning to work with a green bean will help me considerably with Ruby, my young horse. So, towards that end, perhaps it is better to bring Ellie here than Maggie.

I am dedicating my week of training to my mother who was always my biggest cheerleader and who loved all our horses and animals very much.

Day 2: Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Contact with the bit is entirely new to Ellie and she seems pretty reactive and worried about it. Therefore, we approached it slowly and patiently. First we lunged without side reins; then we added the inside rein only and very loose so she had space to move. Working in this way allowed her to feel the weight of the bit, but also gave my timid little pony a feeling of not being too constrained. Once she was working comfortably with the weight of the side rein on one side, we then added both side reins loosely so she simply has weight on the bit. From a training perspective, it was truly enlightening to remember that we must unpackage and teach our horses everything we are asking of them. For some it is easier and for some, like Ellie who is a worrier, it’s a little harder.

Under saddle and on the lunge, we trotted. I worked to push her out to the outside of the circle using my inside thigh. I asked her to move forward to the bit, keeping my hands quiet and low and with a bend in my elbows so they remained elastic and the contact very soft. In working on my own position, I tried to keep my lower back flat, keep my chest up and shoulders back and down. It was tempting to tip forward in an attempt to “help” my pony move forward, but this only compromised my ability to influence her positively with my seat and core.

Stacey reminded me that with a horse this green, the time spent in regular and consistent training would pay dividends.

Day 3: Wednesday, June 21, 2017

We started on the lunge again with the goal of having her move forward to the bit with energy.  Already, Ellie was clearly understanding more than on Monday and I was able to attach both side reins a little sooner.

Stacey reminded me of the importance of praising Ellie when she relaxed a little. Since Ellie doesn’t know what we are asking for at this time, it’s essential to make it as clear to her as possible. We tried to keep it very, very simple for her — I was only asking her to accept contact. Since it’s all so new, if she got a little too deep I did not correct her in order to avoid giving her mixed signals. 

Day 5: Friday, June 23, 2017

By Friday, I was able to start with shorter side reins right away (we were only lunging for 10-12 minutes each day). In the trot, Ellie moved forward well and I focused to keep contact with the outside rein. She was much more trusting in the contact by the end of the week. However, I can tell she is going to be a very sensitive horse and so will have to be exceptionally fair and careful with what I ask of her. 

By Friday, my thighs were uncharacteristically sore from pushing to the outside rein. Being a little sore myself reminded me that I need to use my core and seat to position the horse’s body rather than the reins.

Day 6: Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A month after my training week, I returned for a lesson with Stacey. Ellie had progressed so much in a short time. Her contact with the reins was more consistent and we were able to WTC off the lunge (it’s the little things!). We began introducing turn on the forehand and I will try to develop this exercise into leg yield over the next couple of months until I see Stacey again.

 

Summary:

At this stage in Ellie’s training, consistent work with clear goals are essential. My goal is to help Ellie understand and feel confident in the connection so she can begin learning her job. While this is not the level of work I had anticipated doing with the Lindgren grant, it will ultimately be very, very useful as I bring along my other young horse and as I work with riders to learn the fundamental steps in the training pyramid.

I also had the good fortune to watch Stacey Hastings and her talented assistant trainer Caitlyn Oikemus ride almost each day. Their riding was so beautiful and nuanced. In particular, I tried focus on their use of reins and their connection which has always been a very elusive aid for me to improve. For both of these talented professionals, the reins were supportive and never the primary aid. I saw how their horses were accepting in all cases of the contact and how tactful they were with the rein aids. I will keep this image with me for a very long time and try to emulate it on my own.

As I mentioned earlier, I frequently refer to Major Lindgren’s book. Because I ride a lot on my own now and it is often a month or more between lessons, classic training manuals like this one are essential resources for me. Before retiring Maggie, I was using his exercises for Fourth and *Fifth Levels. However, I am now back to the front of the book and look forward to using the elementary exercises with both of my younger horses over the next months and years ahead.

As always, a highlight for me was to be in a supportive environment with generous friends. My friend Rhonda came every day and helped Ellie and me. My friend Barbara came the last day to meet Ellie and my dear husband came the last day to videotape my ride.

I am eternally grateful to The Dressage Foundation whose support made this valuable learning opportunity possible and I am committed to sharing what I have learned.

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*Fifth Level in Major Lindgren’s book follows Fourth Level and includes exercises for the highest degree of collection.