Thursday, January 26, 2012

An Equestrian Hiccup?

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?


Laura Crum said...

Francesca--Since you've been reading my posts for awhile, I bet you can guess what I'm going to say. If it were me, I would SO MUCH not work with the French trainer again. But, of course, I don't want to work with a trainer, in general (see my previous post), so you might want to take my advice with a grain of salt (!) However, I have seen a lot of this sort of thing. Believe me, your horse could get seriously messed up and you could have a lot of problems you don't need to have, if you work with a trainer with whom you and the horse don't "click". Especially if said trainer is not open to your feedback. This is, in my experience, a very common "trainer" attitude and it can do all kinds of harm to horses/students. He has his way, he wants his students to learn his way, and he is not interested in or open to trying to figure out what way might work best for each individual horse/rider pair. Mind you, I'm not saying the French guy is like this--I don't know him, obviously--but there are many, many trainers who are that way. Also, life is short, and you want to enjoy your horse time. Anything that gives you a bad vibe should be avoided--in my not so humble opinion, as they say. I do understand about wanting to stretch yourself and learn all you can, and that sometimes that process isn't easy. But, well, again, see my previous post for the harm that I think can be done by over training.

Susan said...

Just because the guy's a brilliant rider, it doesn't make him a great teacher. The women fawning over him would be a turn off for me because it seems there's a lot of ego involved.

But, hey you learned something, maybe not what you were looking for, but a good lesson just the same.

Francesca Prescott said...

Laura, when I read your post this morning it occured to me that what I was about to write was something like a response to what you wrote. I wanted to comment on your post but got carried away writing my blog. I also had to go riding, which always takes four hours out of my day as it's such a long drive. In regard to what you wrote, I wanted to tell you that when we bought Kwintus as a fifteen year old schoolmaster, there was never any intention to "re-train" him as he'd been classically schooled, and corresponded perfectly to Marie-Valentine's style of training. It was only a matter of maintaining him, and he always made it clear when we were asking him something he considered wrong.

Susan, you are so right. It might not have been a great lesson in the usual sense of the word, but I definitely got a lot out of it!

horsegenes said...

I agree with Laura. I think that training randomly with different trainer can be very beneficial but it can also be very confusing for you and your horse. If you tried it and it didn't work out then move on. If you felt that he has more to offer and will listen to you about your concerns then maybe try it again. It is hard to walk away from someone with impressive credentials but sometimes they have tunnel vision and only see the goal they have in mind for themselves - and you may not be part of that.

Hey Laura... Still waiting to hear your thoughts on Bob Harley :)

Cassie said...

I have worked with a lot of trainers and clinicians both indipendently and through Pony Club. Most are amazing and I take away something useful from them. But there have been a few that just didn't fit my goals and training style, they didn't understand how my horse worked, he is a sensitive thoroughbred. I was often somewhat forced to work with a new trainer due to Pony Club scheduling, but I would just opt out of the lesson that week. Wasn't worth ruining the great work my regular trainer and I had done with my horse. But I still love going to clinics and trying a new trainer here and there, but I always go back to working with my normal trainer.

RiderWriter said...

OOOh, if there's one thing I hate it's paying someone who is supposed to be an expert in their field, and then thinking to myself, "What the ---- is he/she doing? That's not right! And now I'm stuck listening/doing this/being worked on or I'll look like an idiot!" In other words, your gut is screaming "NO!!!" while you have a sickly smile plastered on your face, lest you offend the "expert." Argh.

I must admit, this has happened to me most often in the beauty salon. Just what are you supposed to do when you see someone butchering your head? Get up halfway through? Guess so, but I have just suffered in silence... and paid the fools on top of it and then slunk away, never to return.

I am very glad that no permanent damage from this non-productive lesson took place to Qrac. I guess this French trainer's approach may work for him and some other folks, but you obviously knew it was the wrong one for you guys. I would have stayed in the ring, too, though, as I also would have been thinking, "Surely he knows what he's doing!" :-)


Alison said...

It's hard for me to comment since I haven't had a lesson in um, I can't remember, and have never worked as hard at riding as you, Cesca! But as a teacher, I do know that all educators have different teaching styes and students respond differently.

RiderWriter--I had to laugh at your hair salon analogy. I've found a good/cheap stylist but have to suffer through her 'bible' lessons . . .

Dreaming said...

I am also not a 'pro' when it comes to taking lessons. But, I do feel that in all disciplines, whether it is beginning reading (and yes, I meant reading) or advanced riding, the instructor can be truly gifted and make a huge difference, or the instructor can merely be mediocre. Just because someone is a great reader or rider doesn't mean that they can impart the skills to someone else.
If you take a lesson from him again, would it be out of line to ask for suggestions for accomplishing what he is asking?

Val said...

Great discussion.

I do not know if you were leaving out a lot of detail, but if all the instructor did was direct you to do x, then y, then z, that is not teaching. Even if your horse felt nicer at the end, you had no idea how he got there so you had not really learned anything that you could reproduce later. Maybe some trainers like it this way, because it makes their students dependent upon them.

I have ridden with a small handful of well respected professionals and thankfully always had a very good learning experience. The people who were raving may not have been looking for the same type of experience that you wanted from the lesson. I would say stick with the trainer that resonates with your philosophy and your horse.

Francesca Prescott said...

Horsegenes, I don't know if this person has tunnel vision, I suspect there might have been some ego in there as he knew I train with Marie-Valentine, so there's a bit of "French school against the German school" going on...

Francesca Prescott said...

Cassie, you're right, I think most times we take something positive away from clinics with different trainers. I've been a bit starved of working with different trainers, so my ears prick up when I hear someone is coming. I think I'll wait for Bernard Sachsé (the trainer in the wheelchair) to come back before I do any more clinics. Unless of course Carl Hester shows up!

Francesca Prescott said...

Riderwriter, you made me giggle with the hair salon analogy; so true!! Thank goodness I have found a good hairdresser!!

We probably shouldn't take as much ... as we do from people, but I'm usually too nice and polite and humble to voice my "What the heck is this person telling me"!!!

Francesca Prescott said...

Alison, you're right, all educators have different ways of teaching. To give him credit, he did tell me to pick up a stick (I hardly ever carry one) and tap Qrac hip bone to get him to move off my inside leg if he wasn't attentive enough to my leg. He also told me to wear small spurs (I sometimes wear spurs, but at the moment i prefer to ride without them). So there was a little practical advice going on (and there was probably more than just the tap the hipbone with the stick, I just can't remember anything that really struck me as right and useful), but compared to my regular trainer it was kind of the Gobi desert...

Francesca Prescott said...

Dreaming: I think it's an unwritten rule that you do not challenge what the "master" is saying. At the end of the lesson, when I went over to thank him, I mentioned how Qrac had been rushing, chasing his own feet, and what should I do to correct this. He just said lots of circles. But I kind of knew that!!!

Francesca Prescott said...

Val: you're right, I don't really know why Qrac was moving better at the end, other than the fact that by turning a trillion small circles he had to engage his quarters more and take more more contact on the outside rein while remaining flexed around my inside leg. I just feel there are less stressful ways for my horse to get there!

jenj said...

Oh yes, I've had this experience many times - probably more than I should have had. I also once took a lesson with an Olympic medalist, and while he was a brilliant rider, he couldn't teach his way out of a paper bag.

I've learned that, before taking lessons with someone new, I like to watch that person teach. Do I like their style? Are they saying things I could easily apply to my own horse? Are they using terms that I understand? Are they teaching to the level of the horse/rider pair rather than pushing for some agenda that they seem to have? Do they teach in a positive manner but give plenty of constructive criticism (as opposed to just yelling or just saying that everything is "good")? If not, then forget it. My time, my money, and my horse are more valuable than that. The results of a bad ride can last for weeks. It's just not worth it.

I'm so sorry you had that experience. Hopefully, upon reflection, you're able to find some useful information that might help you and Qrac moving forward. And you'll know - just a little better - what you do not want in a trainer/clinician!

Stilllearning said...

I've learned the same lesson as Jenj, best for me to watch some lessons before riding with someone new. Good riders are not always good teachers, and even good teachers can have a teaching style that doesn't work for you. It's seldom one-size-fits-all.

I'm not surprised that your horse moved better after the lesson--there are "many roads to Rome" but it sounds like the stress it caused cancelled out any progress.

I'm jealous of your regular trainer--she sounds like she'd be wonderful for me to work with, too. (But I'd watch a few lessons first, lol.)

Shanster said...

I think that sometimes we (people in general) get a little intimidated or dazzled by a big name or someone with many accomplishments under their belt. They are still people with opinions and strengths and weaknesses that differ and vary. I don't mean to say I would know more than this man, however, I mean to say that his style didn't seem to work for you or your horse and that doesn't have to mean he didn't know what he was doing or that you weren't good enough. It just means that you are two individuals and the level of communication and ideas didn't match up well.

I vote for not torturing yourself or your lovely Qrac with this particular trainer again. Trust in your horse - what he was telling you...along with the trainer you trust and work regularly with. :) Cheers!