Thursday, March 21, 2013

Meditation on Horseback

A Clinic with Bernard Sachsé,
By Francesca Prescott

Eighteen months ago I took a lesson with Bernard Sachsé, an ex-equestrian stunt-man who suffered a terrible accident on a film set, lost the use of his legs, yet through sheer determination went on to become French dressage champion several years running, and competed in two Para-Olympic Games (he placed 4th in Atlanta, where he also greatly contributed to the French team’s bronze medal). I wrote a detailed piece about his background and my amazing lesson with him on this blog, and have often thought about that lesson, wishing he would come back to this area of Switzerland (he lives in France, near Paris) and give another clinic. So when I heard he would be teaching at a yard close to Geneva on March 16th and 17th, I immediately signed up, also making arrangements for Qrac to stay overnight to avoid a long journey two days running.

I must admit that I wondered what I’d make of Bernard’s clinic this time around. I’d been so enthusiastic eighteen months ago that I worried I might be disappointed, and that his lessons might not live up to my fabulous memories.

Silly me.

I signed up for three lessons, one on Saturday evening, one on Sunday morning, and one on Sunday evening. Yes, Sunday was going to be pretty intense! Qrac and I travelled safely the eighty-odd kilometres separating us from the venue, although it took us over an hour more than it should have due to a bad accident on the motorway that backed up traffic for tens of kilometres. Qrac unloaded good as gold when we arrived, seeming totally unphased by his unfamiliar surroundings. He settled straight into his temporary stable, cool as the March weather we’re currently experiencing (will someone please tell the sun it’s about time it came out?). I trekked up and down to my trailer half a dozen times, lugging equipment (horses really are worse than babies when you take them anywhere, and that’s saying a lot!), watched part of the lesson Bernard was giving, and then went to get Qracy ready. I was a little nervous as there were a lot of people watching. But once Qrac was tacked up he looked pretty gorgeous, especially as I’d accidentally-on-purpose made us totally colour coordinated! If all else went crap-shaped, at least we’d look blingy-pretty!

I need to lean more forwards!!!

Luckily, we didn’t have to resort to just looking blingy-pretty. Initially a little fired up with nerves, especially when the horse in the lesson before us left the arena, Qrac soon settled down. Bernard and I were connected by walkie-talkies, and through his quiet, incredibly detailed guidance, I forgot about everything but the connection between me and my horse. I was proud when Bernard said he was impressed by the change in Qrac’s physique, by how much he’d filled out, and once we started working, that he was also impressed by our progress. That first lesson gave me the opportunity to show where we were up to in our training, what we could do, and what areas we found difficult. I was particularly pleased by our extended trot; Qrac is not blessed with that natural, extravagant extension, and until very recently simply could NOT extend in trot.  But thanks to another amazing trainer I’ve recently started working with, Qrac has discovered that he can actually do it, and seems to increasingly enjoy powering down the diagonal! Initially only capable of holding it for a few strides, he’s now able to do 60 metres without losing his balance, although it sometimes takes him a couple of strides to figure out what to do with his extremely long legs for the first few metres!

Anyway, on Saturday, even Bernard seemed pleased with our extensions. We also did some pretty good half-passes; Qrac seems to have a natural ability for those, although we do sometimes lose impulsion, especially in half-pass right, as he’s not quite as flexible to the right. Amazingly, we even worked on some “baby” passage! Woohoo! The canter work was good, with some brilliant, meticulous advice on how to help us improve the right lead. I’ve never been more aware of making a conscious effort to independently monitor my buttocks!

Happy me! Qrac looks happy too!
Since Bernard no longer has the use of his legs, he’s had to fine-tune the rest of his body to cue his horses to work towards the higher levels of dressage, and become painstakingly aware of every little thing he does. What struck me particularly during the three lessons I took with him this time was his ability to get me to make minuscule adjustments with my body, as well as with my breath, that had major effects on how my horse moved beneath me. Bernard is also blessed with an incredible talent to convey instructions in ways that allowed me to grasp them on a deeper level. I find it fascinating that you can be told, basically, the same thing by various trainers, yet all of a sudden one particular image, or a particular choice of words, suddenly switches on the floodlights and unblocks things in your riding that you’ve been striving towards for ages. “Aha”, I thought, as Bernard told me to see myself from above, “I need to lengthen my left side as much as my right side, yet lean ever so slightly to the inside while keeping my outside buttock in the saddle. I need to picture my shoulder blades connected to my hips in order to keep them connected to my legs, which also helps my elbows stay closer to my sides, which anchors everything into place! And, wow, suddenly Qrac’s back has come up even further, and his stride is gaining in amplitude, and everything feels so flowing and effortless and beautiful! Please, can we just stay here, like this, forever?”

My lesson Sunday morning was just as great, as we worked increasingly in depth, taking Qrac’s already beautiful walk to a whole other level. His balance improved, his footfalls becoming heavier beneath him as he pressed harder into the ground in order to come up more underneath me. This may sound like watching paint dry to some people, but I find work like this fascinating. From the walk, we transitioned into a lovely soft, active trot, then floated back into a beautiful active walk without any collapsing on the forehand whatsoever.  Was this really Qrac and me? Somebody, pinch me!

Concentration! Look up!!!

Sunday afternoon saw us doing some of the best walk-pirouettes we’d ever done, simply because Bernard told me to slightly arch my back. That’s all it took! And suddenly, the walk-pirouette improved tremendously. We worked on rein back in the same way; arching my back and sticking my boobs out freed Qrac’s back and backwards he went, maybe not perfectly, but without me needing to pester him with the reins.  But my big eureka moment on Sunday evening came with the walk canter transitions, when from a walk-pirouette, Bernard suddenly told me to go straight into canter using the same aides. Our first attempt backfired on me, as Qrac immediately sailed into a lovely canter, but since I hadn’t expected him to do so, because I hadn’t had faith in us, I wasn’t ready and the transition fell apart in mid-air. Which just goes to show!! Anyway, I took my time to put us back together again, to restack all our muscles one on top of another, asked again, and woohoo, we performed a near-perfect walk-canter transition, followed by a lovely, rounded, uphill canter. We then did our first ever flying-changes down the diagonal! Don’t believe me? That last session is all on film, thanks to my lovely daughter, Olivia!

I love having that video of my lesson, as it’s enabled me to relive the experience over and over, to really integrate Bernard Sachsé’s advice. From studying it umpteen times, I’ve been able to go deeper into my understanding of what he was telling me, which will hopefully lead to me further fine-tuning my body language in order to communicate more effortlessly with Qrac.

I came away from Bernard Sachsé’s clinic with a deep sense of peace and gratitude. For me, this is how riding should be, like a moving meditation, a perfect symbiosis between me and my horse. This is what I love to do.

How about you?

Photos by Nevil de Tscharner



Francesca Prescott said...

For those who might be interested in finding out more about Bernard Sachsé, I first wrote about him in this blog :

Promise said...

Your lessons sound amazing - and the pictures are beautiful! Qrac really has come a long way since you got him.

I'm so glad you were able to get some of it on video, too. It's so nice to be able to go back and watch and experience/learn what you were doing all over again.

Francesca Prescott said...

Thank you, Promise. I'm planning a trip to his place in Paris for a week this summer! Hope it all works out :)

Funder said...

That sounds like a wonderful clinic! So glad he lived up to your expectations. Qrac is a gorgeous fellow and you look amazing on him!

Val said...

This was a very interesting lesson to read about. You and Qrac look incredible. I love how a really great instructor can tell when your horse is ready to give you something new and can coach you both to it.

Laura Crum said...

That sounds wonderful--and you and Qrac look wonderful together. So much fun to hear about. Isn't it great when you really get helpful instruction?

Susan said...

Paint dry? No way. I could read your descriptions forever. Makes me wish there was a good dressage teacher around where I live. I've never ridden much dressage, but if I lived in an area where there was, I definitely would.

And your outfit looks great! So does Qrac.

Anonymous said...

You both look beautiful. Wish I could see you in motion. It sounds like you had one of those days when everything comes together.

Francesca Prescott said...

Funder: he certainly lived up to my expectations, and the great thing was that we were more advanced, so were able to integrate more of what he said. The amazing thing about riding is that the more you know, the more you learn, don't you think?

Francesca Prescott said...

Val: I'm glad you enjoyed reading about it, I wondered if it might be a bit too detailed in the descriptions of how he teaches, but that's what makes him so special. All (well, most, anyway!) bring something, and it's just wonderful when you can fit little nuggets together and create something beautiful.

Francesca Prescott said...

Laura, thank you, felt pretty wonderful and still felt wonderful this morning when I rode alone, outside for the first time this year (yay!! finally! the outdoor arena wasn't under snow or frozen solid!). I managed to find that soft connected feeling again simply by focusing on my muscular memory of the weekend.

Francesca Prescott said...

Susan: blue and white always looks nice, don't you think?! So relieved it wasn't like drying paint to read!!!! I hope you find a good dressage teacher, it's just so fascinating. Thanks for commenting :)

Francesca Prescott said...

Redhorse: I have a couple of little excerpts from the long video of my Sunday lesson I might try and post sometime...Not sure how to do that!!!

Some teachers are better at getting things to come together than others, don't you think?

Alison said...

My only comment is WOW. I am so impressed with you and Qrac. Can't wait to hear more and see more. Whoever took the photos did a great job.

Francesca Prescott said...

Thank you Alison. The photos were taken by the son of the lady who organised the clinic. He had a very busy weekend!!!