Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Brent Hicks Clinic

For the first time, I rode in a clinic instead of auditing it. Brent Hicks from California clinics at a barn near me a few times a year. I've been impressed with the progress trainer friend Jaime makes with his tutoring... and they needed more riders this time... so I signed up.

My first impression after the clinic on Sunday was that Brent loaded me up with TMI: too much information. I could not absorb it fast enough. We started out with walk/halt. His method of halting seemed somehow different than what I normally do but I couldn't think fast enough to figure out what was different or why Mr. Smith moved out of the halt at this clinic before asked.

Today I rode and puzzled it out. I realized that I don't release with my legs when Mr. Smith halts if my brain is busy figuring out what I'm doing. Brent told me to put my shoulder blades together and sit down. After concentrating on what I normally do, I figured out that I stop my core muscles, which is pretty much the same thing: I've just never analyzed the pieces. If I think about what I'm doing my legs forget to relax when Mr. Smith halts and so he moves off, as he did over and over again at the clinic.

The second impression I had after my ride Sunday was: Why am I not tired? Usually when I get off Mr. Smith, even after a half hour ride, I'm wiped out. Sunday I rode for much longer with extended periods of trot and canter, yet I was fine. Today I figured that out, too. Normally, I work too hard keeping Mr. Smith ahead of my leg. Brent kept telling me not to use my leg, no spur (he finally took my spurs off), but I didn't think I *was* using my legs or spurs. Then he said the magic words: toes up.

I've always had trouble keeping my heels down. I tense my legs and everything sucks up. I've tried thinking knees down instead of heels down: it made no difference. But, for whatever reason, "toes up" did it. And once my toes stayed up, my legs could no longer tense against Mr. Smith and I quit irritating him with my leg... and wearing myself out. Magic.

Another huge problem of mine is stiff arms. When I concentrate on one thing, my arms freeze in position. Although Brent and Jaime, my Friday teacher, both frequently reminded me to relax my arms, I kept returning to stiff arms when concentrating on something else. I still need a magic solution like "toes up" for my arms. Perhaps if I tied my elbows to my sides as Shannon Peters did to one rider at a clinic I watched, I would not be able to straighten and stiffen my arms.

My goal for the clinic was to learn how to adjust my position to convince Mr. Smith to accept the bit and get his hind legs under him to save his once-foundered-always-compromised front legs. Plus for jumping I need him to use his back end to take off and land properly... and save his front legs. At the clinic, I thought Brent was working on a lot of stuff I wasn't interested in, because I have no intention of showing dressage (or anything else). But now I realize there were nuggets of information that could make a huge difference.

However, no one knows their own horse as well as the rider and I knew that some of what I had been told at both the Friday lesson and Sunday clinic were not working for Mr. Smith. He will do whatever is asked of him if he understands what is wanted. But I realize now that my annoying legs and stiff arms were ticking him off and making him resistant. Brent thought Mr. Smith was just "playing games" with me but I'm quite sure my horse was simply fed up. Various instructors have told me various strategies: "keep a firm hold until he gives in", "let go so he has nothing to pull against", "correct him sharply when he dives his nose and pulls". None of those things have worked consistently. So today I worked hard on keeping my arms soft and my toes up, to remove the irritations that have created the problem.

Then I remembered a clinic I watched years ago when Bettina Drummond, Nuno Oliviera's stepdaughter, rode a horse at a trot for a very long time doing, apparently, nothing but letting the horse trot. She said not a word, just trotted around and around. We auditors were talking among ourselves, having lost interest in the seemingly pointless trot work. After at least twenty minutes, we noticed that the horse had softened, raised its back, and was looking very different than when it began. Bettina later reminded us that there is no time limit in dressage training. It takes as long as it takes.

So today I tried that with Mr. Smith. I stopped worrying about where his head and neck were and just concentrated on toes up, arms relaxed, looking ahead where we were going and not at his head. It was relaxing, just like at the clinic, instead of tiring as my riding usually is, since I was not continually trying to push him ahead of my leg. Gradually, I needed to shorten my reins as his mouth was coming closer to my hands with no effort or asking on my part. And then again, a little closer still. I switched to sitting trot and felt lift and swing in his trot. This time, he did not bounce back and forth with his head as he usually does... giving for only short periods. This time, the giving was his idea, not mine. Eureka!

We then worked on canter, which has been pretty chaotic. I did the same thing: just sat there, arms relaxed, toes up, keeping a constant contact no matter where he put his head and just enjoyed the ride. Again without any effort on my part, his back came up and his head came closer to my hands. I'll bet he was thinking "It's about time she figured this out! She's been driving me crazy!"

Not all horses are like Mr. Smith. But trying to convince him to do something is pretty much useless. I have to figure out what I need to do to make him want to do it. With help from clinicians and instructors who I may not understand at first, I now believe we will get where I want to go. However long it takes.


  1. That was wonderful! It reminds me of how my relationship with God works sometimes.

  2. Jan, one of my favorite quotes is by Thich Nhat Hanh. I've not thought of it in terms of my dressage journey before but it fits: "The problem is whether we are determined to go in the direction of compassion or not... If I lose my direction I have to look for the north star. I will go to the north. That does not mean I expect to arrive at the north star. I just want to go in that direction."