At the urging of FFI president Sara Busbice, I signed up to ride in the Linda Heiny clinic that was scheduled for Friday, Nov 21, 2008. I didn’t know much about Linda except that she had given some clinics to other FFI foster horse riders and was well liked and respected by them. The clinic was held at Hilltop Farm Equestrian Center, a lovely facility on the SW side of Indianapolis. I was riding 3 horses and showed up at Hilltop around 9:30AM to have time to get all the horses settled in. I wasn’t sure if there would be auditors or how strict the scheduling would be.
My first ride was scheduled for 11:00AM. This gave me plenty of time to turn out each of the three horses individually in the arena. I wasn’t worried about Jewel as she is a pro about this stuff. But JC and Stormy had never been to a dressage clinic and I wanted to make sure that both had a chance to check out the scenery before I asked them to work. All three horses were just fine. The arean was big and well lit and none of the horses had any issue with it.
Linda arrived around 10:45 as I was tacking up JC. He was being a perfect gentleman and standing quietly in the cross ties. We had the chance to chit chat and learn about each other. It turns out that she is quite an accomplished rider and trainer. And she rode under Walter Zettl, a dressage hero of mine, for a number a years. That was really thrilling to hear! I was very happy to learn that we were on similar (if not the same) pages in regards to riding horses and training dressage horses. It was also a bit of a relief to find another local trainer that trains in a similar fashion to Amanda Pisano, my regular trainer. It was also interesting to hear about her dedication to Thoroughbreds and her life-long love of the breed.
As we were standing there talking, she asked about the horse in the cross ties (JC). I told her that this was the horse that had come off the track just 4 days previous. She couldn’t believe how quiet and well behaved he was. She said she knew that a fresh track horse was coming to the clinic and so she was prepared to have a ground work lesson. However, upon seeing him and his wonderful attitude in person, she had no problem with me riding him. And thus our lesson began.
We started on the ground and she asked me to show her what I had been working on with him. I showed her how I had been working to both desensitize him to the whip and teach him to yield to its pressure. She showed me a couple handy tools to help with this process. After that, I mounted up and she worked with his under saddle. We worked at the walk and the trot in both directions and focused on teaching him that “there is a better way” as Linda kept saying. The better way involved yielding the jaw to the hand and haunches to the leg in order to create submission and lifting of the back. This was right on track with what I had learned from Amanda. The key that Linda pointed out for this exercise was that the horse MUST step under himself when yeilding the haunches, or he hasn’t really yielded them. If the horse stops moving the inside leg either pushed out to the side or behind, the haunches are not yielded and the horse is resisting the rider.
Overall, he lacked balance and had a few drunken sailor moments where he wasn’t quite sure what direction to go, but for the most part, JC was incredibly willing to learn. And more importantly, once he figured something out and we praised him for it, he didn’t forget it. Linda was thrilled at how willing and intelligent he was. She just kept saying “we have to make sure this horse find a really nice home.” I concur!! There is a post on here entitled “A Week In The Life of Thoroughbred” which has a video of JC’s first week in his post-racing life. In it are some video clips from the clinic.
When we finished working with JC, it was time for Jewel to get ready. We took a little bit longer break and allowed her to get out into the arena and stretch her legs. I bought Jewel off the track in 2003 and have done all of her retraining. She has been through a lot in the last year and a half. We were working consistently at 2nd level dressage and schooling 3rd in the spring of 2007 when she suffered a torsion colic which required surgery. She was just beginning to work in collection again this past spring when an altercation with another horse left a deep puncture wound just above her right hock. These two incidences have affected her physically leaving Jewel underweight with a weak topline and a bit of a sagging belly. She’s 1.5 years past colic surgery and finally back to a healthy weight. We are starting the road back to collection and this is where Linda found us.
Linda started by putting us through our paces to see where Jewel was at as far as skill level. What Linda noticed is something that we’ve been dealing with since coming back to work from the surgery and injury. That is, Jewel doesn’t want to lower her croup. She frees her shoulder by lifting them, but is disconnected behind the saddle and doesn’t drop her croup. True collection occurs when the horse drops their croup to raise their front end. Jewel had figured out a way around this and I was letting her get away with it. So the majority of our time was spent at a walk and trot working on really engaging Jewel’s hind end. We rode squares in a collected walk. We also worked on slowing down the trot and lightening her contact with the inside rein through lateral flexion. Finally, we worked on extending and collecting her strides completly off my seat. I am excited about the tools that Linda gave me and I’m committed to building my mare’s hind end strength over the winter. My goal is to have a good medium trot by spring 2009. Linda commented on what a willing partner Jewel was and that while the issues that we worked on weren’t HUGE, they were a big deal if we ever wanted to successfully do tempi changes and correct extended and collected gaits.
The third horse I rode was Stormy. Stormy’s life since the track has been a little different that the above two horses. Of the three, he is the least built for sport horse disciplines. His neck is short and very upright, but its set on low, so its hard for him to work over his back. For about the first 9 months off the track, he dealt with an old hip injury. The vet guesses that its some sort of bursitis, but unless we do a thorough set of tests with x-rays and other diagnostic tools, we’ll never know. And really, it doesn’t matter what happened. What does matter is that time and turnout have made it better. Unfortunately, he is a also a pretty severe cribber, which hasn’t helped his neck any. His cribbing is controlled by wearing a collar and he must wear it all the time because he prefers to crib rather than eat. Therefore, he is also a bit on the thin side.
Stormy is currently a walk/trot horse. He is just getting to the point where he can canter more than a full circle on the lunge line. We may begin cantering under saddle later this winter as his butt and back muscle up. We’ll have to see how he developes. And so this is where Linda found Stormy and I as well.
Our lesson was primarily done at the walk and trot. We worked at helping Stormy to relax over the topline. Because of this conformation and his lack of carrying muscle, it is really hard work for him right now to lift his front end off the ground while his head is down. Plus, because of his cribbing addiction, the muscles on the underside of his neck are very large and tight. These are the muscles that he uses on a regular basis, so they are the strongest. Linda gave me a number of tips and tools to use with Stormy to help him get his head down.
The biggest tool she gave me was the understanding that with a horse like Stormy, who is very independent and willful, is that I needed to make sure that I was creating a puzzle for him to figure out in which the correct answer was the thing that I wanted him to do. In other words, Stormy is very smart, but a little stubborn. So in order for him to get to do what I want him to do, I have to create a situation where Stormy thinks its HIS idea to do the thing that I want him to do. It requires a lot more thinking on my part than working with horses like JC and Jewel who are more willing. However, once I started approaching Stormy’s training from this new viewpoint, it has actually become easier to train him. It has become a game instead of work — for both of us!
After finishing with Stormy, I was exhausted, but very proud of my three mounts. While each is very different from the other, they are all three benefited from the knowledge I gained by working with Linda. The keys for me to remember with each horse are:
– Slow down (I have a tendency to push the speed of each gait beyond what is a comfortable working gait for the horse).
– If they’re stuck in the bridle, more lateral flexion from inside leg to outside rein.
– Always ask a question for the horse to answer.
And so on that note, I’ll end this entry. I look forward to riding with Linda again in the future.