This winter, I’ve sought out serial clinics as a way to push my training with Charlie Brown forward. Fortunately, I found a series of four clinics over three months, hosted by Kate Chadderton at her farm about an hour away from our barn.
She has a full barn of her own horses, many of whom are now in Florida until spring, which opens things up for visitors like us. Plus, she has an indoor arena which gets us around any potential weather-related riding issues. So when she comes back up north, we get the opportunity to have Kate for lessons. The clinics all run for two days. Because of my own schedule, I’m participating in one day for the first two, and both days for the last two.
The first January clinic weather was messy, fluctuating between overcast and sideways rain. But the hospitality was warm and inviting. Since the facility was new to both Charlie and me, I tried to take every opportunity to walk him around, let him look at everything, let him get comfortable. While he wasn’t totally naughty, he wasn’t well behaved either. He used every available excuse (the snack table, the spectators, the door, the windows, random plastic blocks, horses in the fields, etc.) as a reason to be distracted, and thus not work.
Since this was our first time training with Kate, and since we were mutually unfamiliar with each other, we chose to take the first lesson on the flat, and figure some things out. To begin, Kate calmly offered that Charlie’s time was over, and now it was my time to ride. I had to be more demanding of his attention.
Unless a pack of rabid wolves ran into the arena, Charlie was to focus on me, and work as I asked him to. So we deliberately chose to work at the challenging end of the arena where all the diversions were located. The idea was to start on a smaller circle, desensitize him to the environment, and gradually reward him with a larger circle as he ignored the distractions.
So this became a lesson about attention and quality gaits. We began with transitions. Walk, trot, and halt went well. Canter was more of a challenge. When I asked, we got a bit of a bounce or a buck, which then strung out to an elongated trot, but no canter. I started to get frustrated with myself, and embarrassed at my horse’s performance. Then I remembered that this was the entire reason we were here. If we could do it all perfectly, then we wouldn’t need a trainer.
Kate also noticed that when we did manage a canter, it was an odd 3-1/2 beats, instead of a clean three beats. She spotted my tendency to pull back or keep too short a rein right at the point when I ask for the upward transition. Finally, she observed that I was holding Charlie back into about the smallest, most compressed canter that his enormous 16.2 hand body could muster. (Please notice that I said “compressed” not “collected.”) I would need to trust him just a little bit more, and allow him a larger stride proportional to his size in order to get the fluid and rhythmic three beats the canter needs. But she also stressed that a bigger canter didn’t give Charlie a free pass on being responsive.
My mixed signals to him were how my nervousness about the new venue and conditions manifested in our ride. So while they didn’t go so far as to make Charlie anxious, they did cause the clumsy transitions and the awkward canter gait.
The fix for this was for us to stay in a circle at one end of the arena, where we did numerous transitions — both for his benefit and for mine. We worked on a pattern of seven strides of canter, four strides of trot, and back to seven strides of canter. Part of the idea was to keep Charlie so busy that he didn’t have time to pay attention to anything but my instructions.
I made my best effort to rise to the challenge and work through our difficulties myself. I appreciate Kate’s asking if I felt up to it. I did, but only to a point. When we finished, Kate asked if she could ride Charlie for a bit just to see exactly what I was working with.
Kate kept Charlie out for quite some time. She wasn’t harsh, but she did insist that he do exactly what she asked. And with her more practiced seat and leg, she was able to get him to stretch out into a larger set of strides at all three gaits, all the while maintaining his attention, getting prompt responses to her aids.
When she finished, I got back on, and took him out again. Only now, he was more respectful of my leg, and responsive to my instructions. We quickly expanded from our initial smaller circle to a larger one. Once it was respectably big, I lengthened my reins by an inch or two, sat tall, and asked for the canter again. This time, we picked it up. Only now, the canter was faster, but more controlled, and had three distinct beats, so the whole thing was much smoother.
Counterintuitive, but not unexpected. Demanding, but not harsh. Simple but not easy. You know… Riding!