A very successful weekend up at Equine Affaire, with the weather in the mid-seventies, the sun shining, and lots of sparkly horses rounding the grounds. My particular faves are always the Friesians, because seeing these medieval beasts up close is like encountering a group of supermodels having lunch at your local diner. Their good looks are so jaw dropping that they almost appear out of place alongside the typical gamut of rangy TBs and big hipped stock horses that one typically expects to see. Not that I don't love both, but Friesians seem to possess a big helping of that "extra something special" that truly makes them standouts. 2009 IFSHA Horse of the Year "LionHeart" was stabled on the grounds, but unless he was the magisterial Friesian stallion that I caught cantering around the Rod's Covered Arena engaged in a private warm-up, I missed seeing him in the flesh.
The highlight of Equine Affaire for me (besides that feeling of "ahhhhh" I always get as I take in the sites and smells of the breeds barn) is getting to watch a variety of top clinicians do their "thang," and learn from their various perspectives on riding and training. As soon as we got to Equine Affaire, my mom and I rushed to the Coliseum at the Ohio State Fair Grounds to catch Stacy Westfall's clinic on transitioning to brideless riding. She's just wonderful, and her lighthearted demeanor and sensitive outlook on horse training make her potentially my favorite trainer/clinician currently on the circuit. She was doing her clinic from the back of her legendary mare Roxy (Whizard's Baby Doll) who has been pulled out of retirement after several years off. It was nice to watch Stacy meandering around the arena on her famous partner, all the while discussing how to make a horse successful at going bridleless. A few of the insightful points from her clinic:
1. Horse personalities rank on a scale of -10 to 10+ in terms of temperament. A -10 horse is so laid back it's basically dead, while a horse on the 10+ end would be akin to a NASA rocketship, always at the ready to take off. Stacy mentioned that her horse Roxy had a default personality of -3, and tended towards the laid-back side. Stacy's theory is that at "0" a horse is perfectly engaged but also perfectly under control. If your horse, therefore, is on the hot side (my first Quarter Horse was probably a +4, for instance, and he loved to go on all sorts of wonderful "running away" adventures with me when he became too overstimulated) it is useful to do lots of "chill out" exercises, but if he's on the laid-back side (my super lazy -4 Paint gelding), you'll need to concentrate on a lot more "get moving" exercises. The point is to get the horse's energy evenly balanced at "0", so that he is perfectly controlled and focused enough to give a safe bridleless ride. The closer a horse is to zero by default, the better he'll be as a bridleless mount because he'll give you less dramatics to worry about.
2. An oldie but goodie: make the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy. To get your horse to succeed when learning any new task, push him to work harder when he's not giving you what you want. Apply enough pressure that he wants to seek out whatever action will provide him the release. That action, of course, should be the training point you are seeking to institute.
3. Bridleless riding, naturally, is all about controlling the horse's body in lieu of having access to his face/mouth/neck. Spurs, while only advisable when used by someone with significant body and leg control, provide the best way to deliver highly specific and localized leg cues. Stacy's control of Roxy's body at all gaits was, not surprisingly, very impressive, and much of it had to do with the fact that she had conditioned "buttons" all along her horse's sides and shoulders, each of which cued Roxy to make a certain maneuver. Stacy could tap the "shoulder over" button at any speed, for instance, and Roxy would move her forehand laterally, resulting in everything from spins to shoulder ins. As Stacy explained, trying to tap those buttons with a heel provides a much broader and more general cue than tapping them exactly with your spurs, so the spurs are a better choice once the horse is at an advanced level of responsiveness and sensitivity.
4. Stacy's final insight was perhaps the most important, that the point of riding is not to eventually go bridleless and impress the pants off everyone in your riding sphere, it's to develop a highly sensitive and responsive level of communication with your horse. Once you and your horse are ready to go bridleless, it will be because you have succeeded in developing an enviable level of communication with the bridle on. Bridleless riding is only the final step in truly testing that connection. And, ok, it also looks really cool!
To anyone who hasn't experienced Equine Affaire, I highly recommend the experience. I also got to see clinician Chris Cox (two time Road to the Horse winner) take a previously uncanterable horse and canter her in perfect circles, as well as an impressive display of dressage talent from the Lusitano people. To cap it all off, we returned for the evening's Pfizer Fantasia, which featured acts as diverse as a drumline of Icelandic Ponies tolting down a fire-lined straightway, and an eight-horse Haflinger hitch. Lots of fun, lots of horseflesh, and I'll be back next year!
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