Last weekend, I took a lesson with a French Olympic rider who comes to my stables once a month to coach two other ladies. One of them, Nicole, rides or lunges Qrac for me once in a while if I’m away or can’t make it to the yard. I’d only ever seen this trainer once, a few weeks ago, when he gave Nicole a lesson on her three year-old, big moving German Warmblood mare. But since I was riding Qrac while Nicole took her lesson, I didn’t really get the chance to watch.
Nicole raves about this man, as does the other lady, so when they invited me to take a lesson with him I was excited. I looked him up on the Internet because, although I’ve been into dressage for a long time, I’m not familiar with many international riders. This man’s track record is very impressive; he’s been French champion at least once, has won numerous Grand Prix’s, and participated in the European Championships, the World Equestrian Games and the Beijing Olympics.
So early last Saturday morning, I saddled up Qrac and lead him into the arena. Nicole, rosy-cheeked and sweaty, was winding up her lesson on her young mare. I walked Qrac around the arena on foot for a couple of rounds, then climbed into the saddle and headed towards the trainer. “What do you want to work on?” he enquired, to which I replied, “Well, pretty much everything.” explained how I have problems getting Qrac to take the left rein, particularly in canter where he tends to lean onto his inside shoulder, still occasionally switching leads. I told him I try to work my horse in shoulder fore, using a ton of inside leg, but that it’s really hard work. I also told him that I try to keep the tempo slow and regular in all three paces as Qrac has a tendency to fall onto the forehand and run. So, lots of things to work on. Lots of basics.
The trainer asked me to pick up my horse and begin my warm up session. I took my time as I always do, concentrating on the tempo, on getting him between my inside leg and my outside rein before asking him to trot. Qrac is a Lusitano. He’s very short-backed, extremely supple, and loves to escape by wiggling. I have to really work on keeping him on the contact, but it’s a work in progress (and I must say we’ve made a lot of progress since I bought him last April). He tries to evade by coming above the bit, or by dropping behind the bit, or by wiggling around somewhere in between. Often he’ll transition into a beautiful trot for two strides, then ruin it by coming above the bit, which is what he did on Saturday when I asked him for the first walk trot transition. I worked on getting him slow and round and regular on the left rein, but only had the chance to do about two or three rounds on a big circle before the trainer told me to switch rein, which somewhat threw me. I did as I was told, concentrating on trying to get Qrac to take more contact with the outside rein, but before I knew it, the trainer told me to switch reins again and to move into canter.
Canter?! Already?! I usually work Qrac for at least fifteen to twenty minutes in trot before I canter because I’ve found that it helps him stay in rhythm, helps me keep him balanced and focused and quiet. I’ve found that if I canter too soon, when I go back into trot he has more of a tendency to fall on his forehand and run after his feet. But, last Saturday, I wasn’t going to argue with an Olympic rider, so I did as I was bid.
It was awful. When I asked for canter, Qrac got all flustered, wriggled, went above the bit and fell into a fast, rushy trot. I steadied him, asked again, upon which we managed and ungainly, croup high trot canter transition. We did about two rounds, and were then asked to transition back to trot and change the rein. The right lead canter felt choppy, but at least we didn’t do any uncalled for flying changes. But I was disconcerted, out of my comfort zone, unsure. I was also already dripping with effort.
After a few rounds of right lead canter, the trainer told me to transition to walk. He told me Qrac needed to be more active, more regular in a more forward cadence. He told me to transition into trot, and clearly wanted that transition RIGHT NOW, IMMEDIATELY, whereas, as I mentioned earlier, I like to prepare my walk trot transitions for as long as it takes to get Qrac ready. Yes, I probably prepare them for too long, but at the stage Qrac and I are at, surely there’s a happy medium? Nevertheless, I obediently transitioned, and set upon steadying Qrac between the outside rein and the inside leg, working towards a slow, regular rhythm. But the trainer didn’t want “slow”. He asked for more activity, for me to ride him far more forwards. Uh-oh, I thought, doing what I was told. Sure enough, Qrac’s trot immediately became choppier, rushed, running after his own feet. I lost his back, lost his concentration. “Ten metre circle at every other letter,” ordered the trainer. But that’s all he said. He didn’t offer any detailed advice, the way Marie-Valentine does. It was simply “ten metre circle”.
We skidded around. I felt horrible. Qrac felt horrible. I did my best to try to recuperate the rhythm, trying to get Qrac to relax into this quicker rhythm, but it didn’t feel right. Soon the trainer asked us to canter again. Off we went, both of us dripping with sweat. It felt uncoordinated, ungainly, unattractive. I felt like a beginner. Qrac felt nervous, unsettled, stressed out.
“Ten metre circle at every other letter,” ordered the trainer. “Balance him. Balance him. Keep him active. Keep him in front of your legs.” But again he didn’t give me any personal tips on how to balance him.
To cut a long, sweaty story short, by the end of the session, Qrac and I had managed decent ten metre circles in trot and canter on both reins. And the final left-rein shoulder- in felt very good, with Qrac light on the contact and very uphill. When I asked him to stretch into the cool-down trot I thought he felt easier to balance than usual and that his trot felt bigger and a tad loftier. But maybe it just felt bigger and loftier because he’d felt so choppy and rushy in the beginning. I don’t really know.
The weird thing is that I came away from the lesson quite enthusiastic. I felt like I wanted to work with this trainer again, which is strange since my general impression during the lesson was “oh dear me, I’m really not sure about this.” But I’m a person who likes to please and who tends to think that other people know best. Besides, who was I to question an Olympic rider?
Later in the day, I went to watch him teach more lessons at another stable close to where I live. He was friendly and charming with me, a real gentleman, and all the riders seemed to idolize him. Yet I couldn’t help thinking that, compared to the way Marie-Valentine teaches, he wasn’t precise enough, wasn’t involved enough. It was repetitive, all “ten metre circle”, or “shoulder-in” , or “pirouette”, but with very limited technical advice on how to actually perform or improve the movements.
I looked forward to riding Qrac on Sunday, as, when it comes to riding, you often reap what you sow on the following day. Unfortunately there was a lesson going on, as well as quite a few other people riding at the same time, and someone lunging, too, so I didn’t really a good idea of whether or not the session with the French trainer had been beneficial.
However, on Monday afternoon, when Marie-Valentine came to give me my lesson, Qrac made it clear that Saturday’s session had not been beneficial. He ran after his feet, wouldn’t settle, fell on his forehand, fell on his inside shoulder and generally felt super-stressed. The canter was such a nightmare that I finally asked Marie-Valentine to get on and tell me what she felt. Being a brilliant, sensitive rider, she soon worked him through, but got very sweaty in the process. “Wow, shoulder-fore is a real workout,” she gasped, working away. This was reassuring; clearly it wasn’t just my crappy skills in shoulder-fore!
After ten or fifteen minutes, she dismounted and handed Qrac back to me, encouraging me to get back on for a couple of rounds to see if he felt any different. He did, of course! I always feel as though my horse has grown by ten centimetres after she’s ridden him. And he was far more balanced, far softer. Much nicer to ride.
She and I talked about the negative effects of the Saturday session, both of us agreeing to mull over the different approach, and to discuss it over the phone over the next few days. Marie-Valentine has no problem with her students working with other trainers, and is always interested to hear what they have to say, what they suggest. But we soon both agreed that the French trainer’s approach hadn’t worked for Qrac and me. I can’t help wondering whether he’d have a different approach the next time I took a lesson with him, whether he’d have thought about how my horse reacted to being “rushed” into the exercises, whether he’d be willing to try things from another angle. I feel that a true professional should be open enough to do so, but then again, I’m an amateur, and he’s been to the Olympic Games, so clearly his method worked pretty darn well for him! Nevertheless, when he comes back in February, for the moment I’m not chomping at the bit for an encore.
Have you ever done a clinic with someone with amazing credentials, yet with whom you didn’t click, “equestrianly speaking”? Would it be a shame to give up on this trainer so quickly? Would it be more sensible to try it again and see how it goes?
The thing is, when I think of the session I did last October with Bernard Sachsé, the ex-stuntman confined to a wheelchair since 1994 following a terrible horse riding accident, who has since been French Champion several times, and who participated in the Para-Olympics, there is simply no comparison in the quality of the coaching. Like Marie-Valentine, Bernard offered personalised advice every step of the way, and didn’t just content himself with ordering a series of ten-metre circles. Lessons with both Bernard and last Saturday’s trainer ended with Qrac moving nicely, but Bernard’s route to the nice movement made far more sense to me, and I’d definitely jump at the opportunity to do further sessions with him (I think he’s coming back to my area in March).
Of course, it’s good to be challenged, to try new things, to step out of your comfort zone. But the more I think about it (and writing about it today has really helped), the more I believe that when it comes to horses, you have to choose one path of training and not stray too far off it, especially if the path you’ve chosen seems to be working for you. After Monday’s intense “fix-it” session with Marie-Valentine, I took the pressure off Qrac for two consecutive days by lunging him in a slow, gentle cadence. Today, when I got on him, he felt like himself again.
What do you think? Am I over-analysing the whole experience? Could part of my reaction to the Saturday lesson be ego-related, highlighting my short-comings as a rider? Or is it simply a case of what works for some riders and horses simply doesn’t work for others?