Developing your system

Earlier today I pointed out a story in the New York Times about solving problems using local knowledge and resources.

The gist of it is solutions from the outside are often poorly implemented or accepted by the recipients–even if those people really do want improvement.  Anything that is not part of one’s routine can be a stretch to accept.

Horses are no different.  Something that is accepted as obvious in one part of the world, can be taken as complete heresy in another.  And many areas, with many different “systems” produce fine horses and fine riders.  But sometimes, regrettably,  some areas repeatedly produce really terrible ones!  Trainers and riders use the resources available, often repeating patterns by rote, “because it is done like this.”


These patterns may or may not work–but they are often repeated nonetheless.

If, as pointed out before, one of the characteristics of successful people everywhere is ruthless self-evaluation, then that process should be first on the list.

Here are several–totally imaginary–barn models and how they seem to work–or not!

Professional A has a very successful training program, a happy family and a group of satisfied clients, some of which show quite successfully on a local level.  Professional A never gets on a horse. Broken arm in trailer accident in her twenties does not allow her to ride.  Her clients must do it all.  The ones that show all have very good horses.  Most of which have been purchased at considerable cost from active barns in the south.  The median cost is four times what people locally “like” to spend–these are “made” amateur horses from Europe that did not work out in the more competitive regions.  Professional A’s program is working–no cure necessary as long as enough clients have the ante-in necessary.

Amateur B has a full-time job and a long commute.  He keeps his horses at home in a herd group at low-cost per horse, but a lot of ultimate cost.  Amateur B has a history of producing frightening and spoiled horses that are no fun to be around–and lots of them!  Amateur B has many, many horses in the field and none of them get much professional work–it is too expensive.  And when one does go in for work is it likely to be  a wreck because so very many unattended to problems surface when an alternative program is enacted.  What’s the cure?

Professional C has a long career and a great “out-of-town” image.  Many high quality horses peer out of Professional C’s stalls.  Clients from out-of-town appear at regular intervals to train, increasing her status.  But none of these expensive horses seem to progress up the levels, and none of the clients actually do very well at the shows.  However, Professional C is actually getting some nice scores on the one, expensive, horse she likes to ride.  How is that working for the clients?

Amateur D also has a full-time job, and someday he dreams of being a top-level judge.  He puts lots of effort into networking, attending seminars, judging local shows.  But there is never enough time to really ride or train with the regularity to get “to the next level”  (Upper level judges now have to have a string of very, very good scores–four at 65% at the lower FEI is nothing to sneeze at.  You really have to have a good horse, and be able to pilot it, to rake those numbers  in.)  So even though he is successful, he wants the next level and it is nowhere in sight.  What is the answer?

Professional E likes to show.  She will enter four horses in two classes each on every day available.  She gets really good scores on horses she has trained herself, well into the FEI.  But her clients never progress and they are frustrated at the expense of showing not so successfully.  How could this be different?

Professional F likes to train.  A lot of young horses have come and gone through the barn over the years.  Some are nice, some not so nice.  Professional F will work with anything, citing sympathy with her clients “not being able to afford it.”  The selection process sometimes looks like dumpster diving, but the training is good–a lot of her off-breed horses have beaten the local warmbloods.  What should she be doing differently?

Professional G finally convinced her clients to purchase some nice young warmblood stock.  Now it is time to put them to work.  None of the clients have any experience with young horses, but they are used to it being cheap.  (A young horse is much less expensive to keep than an adult in work)  The clients are not in the habit of budgeting for full-time training.  They are going to do the work themselves.  Is this likely to work?

Amateur H makes a lot of trips to the vet.  She has a nice trailer and a large, expensive, pickup.  All of Amateur H’s  horses are lame, some very sick.  (If a horse in a town without possums is going to contract EPM, it is hers.)  She spends thousands at the state vet hospital every month and the horses then sit in the field recuperating.  When she buys a horse she does not ask for help and its front legs are so crooked that arthritis is already setting in.  She says she can deal with it.  She likes the horse and if it does not work out she has space.  Is there a smarter method to success?

All of the examples above have strengths in their training programs.  But most of them have a fatal flaw. Even the cheapest of them are still spending a lot of money–or their client’s money.  The only one that is really working for the clients appears to be the first example.  Professional A sets clear entry parameter--you are going to need to spend a good bit on a horse if you want to show.  Then time put in on the student, NOT the student’s horse.  (Sad fact, most trainers are not very good riders–and it doesn’t do you THAT much good to put any, but a very, very good rider on your horse for upper level work.  In fact, it may cause harm)  And sometimes the “not so good” trainer is not even working the horse (time spent holding a longe line and a cell phone does not count).  But you KNOW if you have had a riding lesson!

So, if you want to show with high scores, you are going to need a very good horse that is trained, and then take the time to get the training yourself.  Dressage horses do not ride themselves.

If you want to make and break your own, do not choose a warmblood as your trial project.  Pick something small and mellow.

If you want your horse to be good at trail riding, take him or her to someone who knows how to get a horse to cross streams and logs.

If you want your horse to know Prix St Georges, take him or her to a known Grand Prix trainer–better yet, buy one that already knows it!

If you want your horse worked, go to someone who likes to work horses–the person who can make any mutt into a decent citizen.  (Hint–then don’t bring the mutt, get something good!)

The client is ultimately in charge of the program–because they choose it.  Doing horses is a lot like arranging a good diet: the skillful lesson that was easy and makes you feel satisfied right after, might in fact be the TV dinner of the horse world.

Real progress, like real food, takes time and effort and money and thought.

The take home message is have a look at the parameters of how you, and each person you might use, works their program.  Look hard, then be honest with yourself about what you actually know how to do. And more importantly what success you have had in the past.  If you are not happy with it–change something!

Any other approach is a lot like going into a big box store and just buying a big box.  It might be helpful to have had a glance inside before you take it home. . . .

When Deviants Do Good NYT

A very interesting article.  Take away message: find someone locally who appears to be doing it right and ask them how they are managing that success.

When Deviants Do Good


Fixes looks at solutions to social problems and why they work.

Jerry and Monique Sternin and their son were among the very first Americans to move to Hanoi when they arrived in Vietnam in 1990. They had come from the Philippines, where Jerry had been director of Save the Children’s program there.

At the time, Vietnam was losing its imports of subsidized rice from ideological backers and shifting from collectivized to private agriculture. The dislocation was deadly — “a near-famine situation,” Monique Sternin said in an interview from Addis Ababa this weekend. About two-thirds of children were malnourished. International feeding programs had helped, but when the programs ended, villages fell back into hunger. The government had asked Save the Children to try to find a lasting solution. Some officials didn’t like having Westerners brought in. You have six months to show results, the government warned. If you don’t, you’re out.

The Sternins had seen in their previous work how big programs run by outsiders created dependency. “The essence of development is to help people build capacity to do things themselves,” said Monique (Jerry died in 2008). “We were struggling to find something.”

They had just read a book, however, by Marian Zeitlin, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University, called “Positive Deviance in Nutrition.” The word deviant usually has negative connotations, but Zeitlin wrote about children who thrived even as those around them were poorly nourished. Zeitlin suggested that nutrition could be improved if a village looked at what these children’s families were doing right.

The Sternins were not experts in fighting malnutrition. But they thought they knew where to find some.They went into villages and asked for volunteers to weigh all children under 3, and to characterize each family’s level of income. The volunteers concluded the obvious: the poorer the family, the more likely the children would be malnourished. Then the Sternins asked if any of the families characterized as “very, very poor” had well-nourished children.

The volunteers checked the list and excitedly reported that there were some.

“So it’s possible for a very, very poor child in the village to be well nourished?” asked the Sternins.

“Let’s go see what their families are doing differently,” the volunteers said.

The volunteers fanned out to interview these “positive deviant” families — in each village there were a few, perhaps 5 or 6. They found several practices in common. Children in the village were fed twice a day, mostly rice. Local custom held that an adult diet was harmful for young children. But the positive deviant parents were collecting tiny crabs or shrimps from rice paddies and giving them to the children along with the greens from sweet potatoes. While village wisdom held that you don’t feed a child who has diarrhea, the positive deviant families did. They also fed their children often throughout the day, and washed their children’s hands before they ate.

The Sternins knew that helping villagers to learn about these deviant behaviors would not be enough. “Knowledge doesn’t change behavior,” said Monique. “Practice changes behavior.” They convened meetings of villagers to discuss how best to spread the behaviors. The villagers decided that parents of malnourished children would gather with their children daily at a neighbor’s house for two weeks. Each family had to collect a handful of shrimps, crabs or greens and bring it to the gathering. With a trained health volunteer, the families cooked meals using the nutritious foods and tried out the new practices. If they didn’t become habit and the children were still malnourished, the families could do another two-week cycle the next month. “Trying something new always makes you a little scared. People got confidence through their peers,” said Monique.

Five and a half months after the Sternins had arrived in Vietnam, authorities weighed the children in the district who had participated in the program. More than 40 percent were now well nourished, and another 20 percent had moved from severe to moderate malnutrition. The Sternins got their visa extended. Vietnam eventually replicated the program in 250 communities.

Poor-country development usually works like this: Outsiders come into a community where there is a problem. They bring in “best practice” ideas that have worked elsewhere, and design ways to teach the community to change its culture and adopt these new ideas.

And then they leave.

If they come back later, however, they might find that not much has changed: a few people adopted the new idea, but not many. And since that was not the way the community did things, even those adventurous few might abandon their new practices.

Here’s how the positive deviance approach is different:

* Outsiders don’t bring in ideas to change a community’s culture. Instead, they ask the community to look for its own members who are having success. Those local ideas, by definition, are affordable and locally acceptable — at least to some people in the community. Since they spring from a community’s DNA, the community is less likely to feel threatened by these ideas and more likely to adopt them.

* The focus is not a community’s problems, but its strengths.

* Outsiders don’t design a communication or training strategy to teach the idea. Outsiders can bring people in the community into one room, but local people design a way to spread the new behaviors.

* Local leaders are not the ones who come up with solutions. That is the job of everyone on the front line dealing with the problem. The leaders’ job is to facilitate the process of finding and spreading these solutions.

* Outsiders don’t monitor success. They show people in the community how to do that. “If they see that things are getting better, that’s further incentive to continue the new behavior,” said Monique.

Positive deviance has now been used in dozens of countries to attack a wide variety of problems. The nutrition program has been replicated all over the world — in each place using different, local solutions. Positive deviance has helped to reduce rates of female genital mutilation in Egypt, improved prisons in Denmark, helped the mentally ill in Pittsburgh strengthen social connections and cut infections at Veterans Affairs hospitals across the United States. Tufts University is host to the Positive Deviance Initiative, which has a staff of four and several consultants who teach the process around the world (Monique is a senior consultant), and the Sternins wrote a book, “The Power of Positive Deviance.”

In 1997, the Pittsburgh Regional Healthcare Initiative was formed to try to improve hospital care. One of its goals was to reduce the infection rate of MRSA, a deadly resistant form of staph, in local hospitals. The city’s V.A. Pittsburgh Healthcare System agreed to run a pilot program beginning in 2001, adopting the Toyota Production System. (Paul O’Neill, the former treasury secretary, was one founder of the Initiative; he had used Toyota’s manufacturing and logistics strategies when he ran Alcoa.) “This went a long way in solving some of the technical problems — providing soap, gowns and gloves where they were needed in quantities they were needed,“ said Jon Lloyd, a prominent Pittsburgh surgeon. “But the so-called behavioral problems were untouched. Once resources were withdrawn from the Toyota model it fell apart. The frontline staff didn’t own it. Physicians, especially, were not washing their hands — nurses were at 70 percent for hand hygiene, but physicians were at 15 percent.”

Lloyd read an article in Fast Company about positive deviance, and invited Jerry Sternin to come speak. He agreed, with the condition that Lloyd produce everyone in the hospital who touched patients in any way. In July 2005, Jerry asked those 150 people who they felt was responsible for preventing infection; they pointed to nurses and the hospital’s infection control officers.

“Six months later Jerry asked the same question, and every hand went up,” said Lloyd, who became the hospital’s positive deviance adviser and coach, and now does the same with other Pittsburgh organizations. “The housekeepers at the VA turned out to be world authorities on infection prevention — people who are never asked for their opinions.”

More From Fixes

Read previous contributions to this series.

Ideas came from all over. Edward Yates, on the housekeeping staff, was a wellspring of anti-infection ideas; his unit chose him to brief the staff (including high-ranking doctors) on the unit’s progress. One hospital pastor told his colleagues that he kept his Bible from spreading germs by gowning it with paper hats. He changed the hat with each new patient.

Lloyd said that the other pastors began to do the same. “No one had to tell the others to do this,” he said. “There was just a quiet understanding of a solution that came from somebody who shared their professional DNA.”

Six months later, the infection rate had fallen by more than half, and the gains did not go away. (Since this was not a randomized control trial, there’s no way to know how much of the gains came from the use of positive deviance.) The V.A. then adopted these changes in virtually all its hospitals, recommending that hospitals use the positive deviance approach and offering training in it. From October 2007 to June 2010, MRSA infections in intensive care units at the 153 V.A. hospitals in the program dropped by 65 percent; in nonintensive care units they dropped by 45 percent. (Again, we don’t know if the intervention can take credit, although it is significant that there had been no change in MRSA infection rates during the two years before the intervention.)

Pittsburgh’s experience, ultimately successful, also shows why positive deviance can fail. “It’s particularly difficult for donors who want to have a clear sense of what outcomes will be,” said Roger Swartz, the executive director of the Positive Deviance Initiative. Donors have solutions they like, and they will finance programs that use those solutions. But with positive deviance, you don’t know what the solution will be; it has to emerge as part of the process.

The approach can also be threatening to people at the top. They are used to being the experts, but with positive deviance, it’s the people in the field who are the experts. In hierarchical institutions like hospitals, housekeeping staff members do not usually brief physicians. But where managers can accept revolutionary new ways of doing business, positive deviance can succeed. “I don’t know how this is going to work,” the Pittsburgh V.A. chief Rajiv Jain told his workers when they began the program. “But I have total confidence that you as the front line staff will know.”

Training: What it all costs.

Short answer:  Expensive, but not THAT expensive.
(Note: People seem hesitant to give this information publicly, so it is hard to compare.  I think the costs may be a bit higher for similar work on the East and West coasts than here in Spokane.  Australia?  If you have insider information to spill–please share below!  I don’t know what it costs now, but when I was going to Germany, training was roughly $1200-1500 US a month–far less than it was in the US, though the exchange was very good at the time.  To get my “finishing” education to a good international quality Grand Prix–and know how to recreate it, remember I started with all green horses–I had one or two horses in training year-round for about seven years.  Let’s see, without airfare or lodging, or buying the horses, that’s  about $151,000.  I already had my Bachelor’s degree (English, Colorado College) so I guess this was the Doctorate?)
Dale‘s training rates below for this year, effective March 1, 2013

A side note–I found an interesting article/website this morning about horse values.
I don’t know these people–not one bit!–but their logic seems very sound.  Worth a read.

If you don’t have time for it, the basic premise is that a top-value dressage horse is on target for certain tasks by certain ages.  Anything that deviates from this takes the value of the horse down–and that makes sense as the really sound and easy ones tick off their developmental tasks pretty easily and reliably.  Anything that complicates this (inept/inexact training or foundation, a weak gait, difficult character, soundness issues) tends to take time out of the equation.  That does not mean that the training or soundness-challenged horse cannot improve as it ages (hocks for instance) but that its value/price will be lower than the “easy” one who shows you who he or she is by six or seven.

That aside, here are current training rates–which I am happy to report are the same as they were in 1995!
(Talk about wage stagnation!)

Dale Forbes: Training rates 2013
(I define home barn as the one where I am boarding my riding or training horses.)
Lessons home barn: $50
Lessons at other local barns: $75
Clinic (excluding travel costs): $100 per lesson
Horse use–depends on the horse, typically $25.

Full time training (up to 20 sessions a month) $750  ($37.50/session. Can be lessons or training.)

Most of the barns that I work out of charge $450 for full care including hay, grain, bedding and facilities. Which makes the investment $1200 a month.

The barn that we use to do the early work
charges $250 for pasture board and $500 for full-time work, so $450 less per month.  Most young horses need 60 days preliminary work and then at least another 60 days to be reliably connected, walk, trot and cantering, both leads and happy in the work.

Two months of full-time training a year for most going horses will ensure they progress through the levels.  One lesson a week after that will keep things pointed in the right direction.  That makes a yearly training budget of about $350 a month–though of course that choice is up to the owner!

(Also keep in mind it takes a great deal longer to train the rider than the horse, but that most riders will really be happiest if the horse is mannerly and knows what to do–even when the rider makes mistakes.  Time spent training the horse is usually a wise choice.)

Dale Forbes
509 879-4619  (US PACIFIC TIME ZONE!)

The problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished. ~George Bernard Shaw

10 weeks from the first show of the season. Add to List.

For those of us in the North the end of February marks a rehearsal date.  Whatever tests you have planned for the Spring season need to be ridden through.

You say you are not ready?

You probably are, though logically it may not be the best ride you put in over the season.

If you have been doing your homework over the winter you will have been schooling new material and consolidating the old.  The winter (or whatever season you consider to be the “off” non-show season) is the time the homework gets done, new movements are roughed in.  This is how it should be.

If you have taken the winter off, as many in our neck of the woods do, you probably won’t be planning for the first shows of the season.  Your  April will have been our December.  But no matter what working months you choose, there is the “work and rough in” period, and then the “get ready to show it” period.

The two things are different.

Here is how your first imaginary test might ride, ten weeks before show date:

1. Canter down center line to halt at X.  Notice that a correct canter to halt has not occurred.  Steps of trot were present–Add 1 to list.

2. At C, Turn right, cross diagonal medium trot.  Note transitions in and out of medium are weak, though medium itself is strong.  Do you want fives or sevens out of the same medium?  Add 2 to list.

3. At A, canter, F half pass left to X, Flying change, half pass to right M flying change.  The whole thing started late and crept down the arena, making a rushed feel. Last change was late behind.  Add 3 to List

And so the test goes on.  It is clear you know HOW to do everything–the schooling over the winter has made this possible–but it is far from the polished performance you would like.  In fact, each of the twelve movements of your imaginary test has created at least one Add to List.

These added tasks will get better with dedicated practice.  And you now have ten weeks to do this practice.  If you wait until the week before your show to find out that practice is necessary, you will not have time.

Why the resistance?  How come you don’t want to ride the test?  Why all the sour faces and procrastination when I asked for it?

You say it will not be perfect?  No problem.  That is 100% okay.  It is still late February.

You have ten weeks to methodically go through all the elements until they are virtually perfect.

Then there is some hope that they will come out in a similar manner in the arena.  Congratulations!

Ten days prior?  Not so much so.  You’d have to rely on luck–something that is far overrated in the show ring.

So, ride the test, take notes. Have it taped.

You, your horse, your trainer (and your judge!) will all be very glad you did.  The competition?  Not so much so!

Spotting the correct walk

I am going to write more on the walk presently, and give some figures in walk,  but I was asked a question today about walk and I though I’d answer it here.

Walk is often neglected as a gait in the selection of a horse, which is understandable.  (It’s a little dull really.  The under-dog gait of the dressage horse.)

But if you want to compete, as a good part of your scores in the end will depend on your walk, and the walk is one of the very hardest to influence, it makes sense to put weight on it when you are looking at a horse.

The walk should of course be four beat, no period of suspension, and presently we will latch onto some tapes for you to illustrate this.

One of the easiest ways to visualize walk is looking at the inside hind coming up to “overtake” the just left front foot.  The hind steps, near, into, in front of, or behind the track, of the front.  ALL of these are okay as it depends on which walk you are doing how the feet will land.  (Collected is different than free walk, for instance.)

But, below in the third line, what you will see in a good walk is a   –V–  shape as the hind foot very nearly collides with the front, the two legs near you very briefly looking like that –V–.


(Thanks to Realistic Animation 4)

More on this later, but when a horse develops a “lateral walk”  that is  –I I– shape of landing legs  instead of –V– shape  (again in the third line down), it is very often the case that the front leg has left the ground too early. Correction may involve not asking for a longer and longer gait, but instead keeping the front foot down for a fraction of a second longer will be helpful.  Ask the horse “not to hurry” in front, rather than asking “to hurry more” behind.

Ch CH-CHanges.

Dale Forbes

I have a student who is currently working on flying changes.  (One of several actually).  This a dressage “journey to Mecca” that a lot of people dream about but never actually get to.

How come?

Well, “changes” (not “flies,” thank you!) take some set up, and they come in a certain order of the training and they tend to bring out issues in the training that people find daunting.  Issues that, if you see them in the changes, were there all along, but hidden.

Here is a nice first pattern that makes the first changes easier,  how I normally proceed, the problems involved and some solutions.  Here is the basic figure, performed by L Judge Honors Graduate with Distinction: Sally Sovey on her Ricarda, from Regazzoni.  This lovely mare has a tendency to get hot in the changes and needs to wait, not take over and do it solo.  Many horses have this issue–they find changes exciting!.  (You see this tendency on the trial positioning as they enter the line. Clever Sally to have “lost” almost all her bend before entering this line)  I will explain the important details of what they are doing below.  But here is what the practice looks like

Note: Because flying changes are a sequence of both preparation and balance, it is by far the best if someone who knows how to do them introduces the green horse to the first few changes.  (This is MUCH easier on everybody.)  If there is a good professional around, a month of training on a horse that is in the general neighborhood of being able to do changes will get you years ahead.  After the horse has learned the basic idea, the rider must then learn the setup.  This is much easiest if, as with Ricarda, the horse has a framework in place–if not perfectly finished.  Doing changes on a green horse is MUCH different than asking a school master.  Take this into account.

That said, when to start?  The classic answer from Rudolf is roughly this:  when the horse is okay with doing correct canter-walk, walk-canter transitions, and has been introduced to counter canter–though they may not yet be perfect at it.

Why not perfect?  Because if you want your horse to be happy experimenting with a change for you it is best if they are not drilled for years to never, NEVER, NEVER do a change.  You actually school changes sort of at the same period as counter canter.

One of the mind-bending elements of changes is straightness–in changes straightness at first it is really reverse crookedness!  (Later they feel much more straight, but at the start not so much so.)

For the horse to easily jump from one lead to the other there must be a place for them to do so.  There’s a concept called “relative straightness” that comes to play here.  Relative straightness has to do with the fact the horse’s hips are generally wider than their shoulders, so you are in effect riding a blunt arrowhead around the arena.  When you want X lead you in effect place the tip of the arrow just a tiny bit to the outside, giving a “hole” for the horse to put the lead in.  And then you generally canter around straight–or you think so anyway.  From the rider’s point of view the canter is asked for and maintained with inner seat bone forward, outer slightly back, but weight centered over the horse.

In a flying change, before the change you also position the tip of the arrow-head slightly away from of your desired new lead–that is, right over the top of the lead leg you are actually on.  This gives a space for the horse to jump straight into the new lead.  Hint–your leg positioning and seat are already occupied by maintaining the lead you are on.  Those will not be useful to you in the new positioning.  It is done with the hands.  See Counter Canter post if you have not already.

So in effect the horse must allow you to move their shoulders both ways without falling off the lead they are in.  (Easier said than done.)

Probably THE most important part of schooling a change is to approach it like a jump–and that is with a straight line in front of it and a straight line after it.  Slight change of direction in very natural in the first few green changes your horse does. (They tend to lose their balance toward the change and veer off that way.)  This is one of the any reasons it is important to position your horse slightly before the change, but not DURING the change–let your hand be the instrumental in the preparation, but not the aid itself.  (This is very easy to get wrong.)  In fact you should feel the horse jump more into your outer rein–and be straightened and supported by that during the change–than you should any pull to the inside during the change.  That makes your horse lose balance even more.  If you need for some reason to “rob” your horse of a change by using the inside rein–he just doesn’t get it!–then make sure that is not your goal and habit.

So, again here is the horse doing the most basic change pattern.  That is down the center line from the middle of the arena.  She has been taught to flex slightly to either direction in a normal, rhythmical canter, without doing the change–and then more times than not, turned to the true lead direction.  In this case you can see the rider practice positioning her–and her attempting to put the change in early, but then not.  The rider rides forward softly, maintaining rhythm, again positions, the horse waits and then the leg aid comes.   Ricarda then jumps nicely into the new lead, travels straight for a moment and then on with the work.

The advantage  of this figure is if the horse gets nervous or hot you can just say “What change?” and canter to your lead side.  In fact the wise rider practices this many times well before they will be doing a change.

In the next post on changes I will give you lesson number two, Placing a Change.

Happy riding!

Counter Canter (free video clinic!).

Dale Forbes

If you have a counter canter question please feel free to send a short 10-15 second clip of you and your horse doing some part of the canter work.  We’ll tell you what we think. And if it is a great example, maybe ask your permission to post the ride.  You can find contact information under both Melynnda and my information on the home page–our team of experts.

Counter canter. That is cantering with the outside leg leading instead of the inside.  It’s use is to fine-tune the rider’s understanding of balance in the canter and encourage the use of the legs and hands independently of one another, getting ready to eventually school flying changes.

(You will notice I have not said anything about the horse.  They actually find it quite easy.)

Probably because people deem it as a “failure” if the horse should swap the lead, they sometimes approach counter canter with great caution.  (Actually, breaking to the trot instead of maintaining the effort needed to canter is a bigger problem than swapping the lead.)  Since the purpose of correct counter canter is to get ready to school the changes, if the rider contorts the horse to such a degree that it would be impossible for them to change the lead, then it is likely that no lead change will happen.  But also no benefit will be derived from such a practice.  Therefore dedication to it is misplaced.  It is okay if mistakes happen.  The horse should be in a balance where they COULD do a change, but have been taught that is not what is expected–yet.

Here is a post that talks about the actual flying changes–preview of things to come:

Rider positioning: As in a correct canter depart: inside seat bone forward, leg at the girth, outside seat bone back, outside knee bent to bring the calf back.  This must be maintained 100% through the exercise–and that takes a bit of practice.

Hint: if the horse is in a tight spot and needs help, it helps to center the rider’s body slightly to the lead side–a fraction of an inch.  This will need to be abandoned as one gets ready for a flying change sequence.  A slight increase in true flexion (toward the lead side) will also help if questions are being asked.

One of the goals of counter canter is to accustom the rider that they must keep their legs in a position, yet be able to maneuver the horse with their hands–both positioning and steering if necessary in different directions and to accommodate the balance.

Another goal is to have the horse understand that the rider’s weight and leg aids guide the eventual change of lead–NOT the hand.  So the horse must get used to being slightly flexed away from the direction of the lead, yet not jumping off into that lead. The very easiest place to practice this is a counter flexion in the corner on a true lead.  (You will see here a pattern of stacking the deck in the horse’s favor.  If you practice lots of little counter flexions all through your canter work he or she will find it no surprise that you may on occasion ask for this in unusual places.)  It makes sense to do these beginning exercises in the very easiest place for the horse

The figures: As with most things, it makes sense to not over face yourself or the horse.  When you school counter canter always have a plan A and plan B.  (Examples:  I would like to make the shallow loop down the long side go to the quarter line, but the horse is having difficulty, I’ll use the second track for now.  Or, I would like to cross the short diagonal and make a half twenty meter circle in counter canter, but the horse is starting to lean or take over as I begin the diagonal: near X I turn back in the direction of my lead and go around to start again.)

Now what we need are some videos.  Your place or ours?  If you have questions, please ask.

To Clinic or Not to Clinic?

If you have had an interesting clinic experience (good or bad) please share it with us below.  What did you learn?  Was it new to you?  Did you have fun? How did it go after?

(Please keep in mind the Pollyanna Principle that we abide by here at Dressage Snob. ] You can compliment anyone you want, and name them if you like.  Anything less than that should have no credits.)

Dale Forbes

So, on to clinics!

If you’ve been following along for a bit now, you may get the impression that I am anti-clinic.

This is not at all the case!

In fact, most of the cash I have generated over the years to pursue my riding and training goals has come from either horse training, or clinics!   There is a lot of money in clinics.

(That’s not what you were wanting to know?)


Do I think riding in clinics is a good idea?  Sometimes. I’ll tell you some of that below, but right up front here is the problem.  Wili Schultheis said it well:  The three day clinic is the best.  Day 1: Get to know the rider, Day 2: work on something with the horse, Day 3: wrap it up and go home.  Five days is no good.  In five days they realize that nothing that matters is going to come out of the horse in such a short time, and that the hard work has begun.  Three days is better.

Lots of performers know this–always leave the audience wanting more.

Here is a great rider and trainer.


Photo: Rudolf Zeilinger on a clinic riding Nancy Chesney’s Trakehner stallion Ibson in the early years. New Mexico c. 1989.  He was 26, maybe 27, at the time, on a ten day clinic split between Fort Collins and Las Vegas New Mexico.  (A place you HAVE to go to.)  They are only a 6 hour drive apart. That’s nothing to us here in the West.  Took me 22 to get to Fort Collins. . .  Anyway that was near the start of the madness.

You wonder I wanted to go to Germany?  Just look at that half pass!

Back to clinics–Put bluntly, three days or less of training is a fling.  And training a horse with a coach/trainer is a whole lot more like a marriage than a fling.  There are times when you could cheerfully strangle your partner–but you don’t.  And you do show up the next day.  The guy in the airport is  a whole different matter.

(BTW, For a good movie and a very scary airport scene see “360”

Starring Anthony Hopkins among others.

Re mitigating the fling.  Continued contact turns it into something else.

Here is something I do to mitigate the huge problem I see at clinics–lack of backup and follow through.  For a month after the clinic, any rider can send me weekly short clips of homework given at the clinic for evaluation and feedback–no charge.  That gives a chance to correct any mistakes in communication, see how the training is progressing.  The technology is there–I did it this morning re flying changes for one of my clients in Oregon.  She is doing very well.  Not all the riders will organize to send even a fifteen second clip–which is not hard to do or watch–but the ones that are serious probably will.  Or the ones that are confused.  Both are really important.

After a month? If they want to send clips after that I’m open to it, but I do charge.  (It is perfectly stunning what you can tell in a quick clip.  Wish trainers would do it more.)

But anyway, I do ride in clinics on occasion.  And for different reasons.  (Given they are about five times the cost of regular training, I really have to want to do it.)  Some reasons?

To See and Be Seen: Example Klaus Balkenhol on invitation from the ESET at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center

And I actually learned a great deal in this one.  He rode my horse, Galoni, from Rudolf, and did so beautifully–the ability to ride that wonderful horse was fairly rare in this country, a fact that made me very leery of the clinic scene here.  Herr Balkenhol scolded me about a detail of not having the horse stand still to be mounted and gave me good advice on contact and roundness in the passage.  He also sat and had coffee with his wife and I and told of the gossip in Germany, which I missed.  100% Great Guy, fantastic rider, teacher, clinician, and–from my limited contact–human being.

For a great eye, I’d ride with Debbie MacDonald any chance I got.  Great help, with background from many top International riders and a very nice person as well.  We have had good discussions about how piaffe is set up in different schools and she taught me an invaluable lesson in turning. (Duh!)

When he was alive I would suffer the slings and arrows of Detriech Von Hopffgarten any time I could get in the ring with him. He was often not pleasant to ride with, but had one of the best set of eyes around–and also rode my horse very well: no grandstanding, good feel, the horse was sane and soft and light on his return to me.  Which was not often the case.  You needed a pretty sophisticated seat.

Re clinicians riding your horse and it working out well.  Unfortunately this is not the case with everybody.  Rudolf in my hearing kindly told one competitor that his method was not going to be effective with that particular horse.  It happens.  He was polite enough to sense it and back off–it was already a Grand Prix horse, and that was the right thing to do.  I have had some utter wrecks with top names that have left me with my eyebrows up and a real mess to clean up after.  So that’s the first rule–and why clinics are also so difficult to train in: “Don’t open up anything you can’t fix in the time available.”

So I approach clinics with caution, and I still actually don’t get to ride with the people I’d like to as often as I would like to.

Typically clinics are “owned” by the organizer.  The organizer may be a professional, and of course the slots go to the students of that barn.  Sometimes they are offered to other professionals.  But not so much so.

In fact the reason I ended up in Germany was the organizers who had a death grip on the Kim Von Hopffgarten clinic series here in Spokane when I moved here, would not let me ride.  No space.  Kim was great—-but I guess that was in the end a good thing, not getting the spot.  I got Rudolf instead.

Here are the good things about clinics:  a fresh eye, a new take, a new way of saying the same thing–or maybe something different.  We hope not!

Here are the bad things: no background, can be an awful experiment in rapport, if they open a real can of worms for you, you can guarantee you’ll be fixing it on your own.

A lot of harm can be done bashing around in someone else’s training program–if you don’t REALLY, REALLY know what you are doing.  (And if you do really, really know what you are doing, you likely know when to back down and when to press the point.)

The bad part is the poor student may not realize that they have just been bashed around.  If they’ve been being a good student they will never think that.  But it happens more than you might think.  And that’s why I give away the keys to important horses with great caution and after a good deal of toe-dipping.

I take being a good student very seriously.

(I’m also really careful when I get on someone’s horse–it’s mostly to feel what the situation is so I can help better–not a retraining, and yes, I know how to give a horse a nice ride.)

Here is what a perfect clinic situation looks like:

1. Notice is given to all the professionals in the area asking if they would like to ride.  This establishes an inclusive environment.  After that, places are offered to non-professionals in the barn that organizes.

2. The option is offered the riders to have their ride subsidized by auditing–give them a break on their ride cost if they attract a lot of attention/auditors.  (Logic is, the time is theirs and if they want spectators that is fine.  They should benefit from them.  If they want or need to train in private that should be an option.  See Post Training Behind Closed Doors

3. Video of rides is offered at a charge.

And that’s my utopian, and probably nostalgic, feel from the RMDS instructor’s series, which I remember as a real coming together of the both the club and professionals involved.

Got a story?–Give me yours below.

Training Behind Closed Doors

Dale Forbes

Re Training Behind Closed Doors:

This thought is related to the post on clinics.

Herr Schultheis had the reputation for having closed doors on his training.

Later in life, the slender and elegant Herr R. Klimke is said to have conjectured,

“If I had such a figure I would close the doors as well!”

Though very funny, this was not Schultheis’ reason.

His reason was closer to practicality.  Many excellent riders and horses have problems.  Many professionals have students and reputations.  Many horses have owners with a lot of money invested.  Sometimes riders trying something new are shy, and it helps to be alone.  (Yes, I know they should get over that.  It’s on the list!)

And in all cases the problems exhibited might be momentary–a blip on the training radar.

But problems presented out of context will live in every auditor’s memory to eternity–and possibly on U-Tube for far longer than that!

So, even if you can get beyond the fact that you never ride or school quite as effectively with an audience (grandstanding is not training), and especially if time is limited, frank questions and answers need to be put forth. And should be.

Nobody is “hiding” anything by asking for privacy.  Privacy should be a right.   Are you hiding things when you engage: a counselor?  a doctor?  a lawyer?   Probably not.

And do you have your yearly physical in the bus station, or the lunch room of your work place?

How come?

Privacy breeds openness, trust and confidence between the coach and the rider.  Nothing more, nothing less.

In places where there is a real economy in horses this is taken for granted.

(And not taking it into account makes developing a real, serious, horse economy far-fetched.)

There is also a story that the tall and trim Klimke said his doors were always open.  That’s true too.  I went several times with Christine Doan, and he was very, very charming.  Great fun to watch him ride.  Very elegant and beautiful.  A large race track outside his home. But in the indoor I always missed a bit of what he was doing–even when I watched carefully.

Christine helped me out here, explaining, “He’s a magician.”

Adding, “and you are not always here.”

Nothing devious–but why SHOULD he show his methods to all?  That’s not a magician’s job.

Frau and Herr Theodorescu had a sheep herder’s wagon sidled up to a small sliding window pointed down the center of the indoor. (You could see the middle of the school–not the edges.) Guests were invited to sit there.

In my hearing,  some English visitors asked,  peering through the window, “Could we have a ride?”

The answer from Mrs Senior was priceless: “No.  We do it differently here–you would be stiff and frightened!”

Yes, barns do it differently, and that’s the range–but if you don’t have much time, it is good to get on with the exam!

Sit down, shut up, and fake it till you make it! -(Melynnda’s thoughts on being a good student)

After being asked to comment on what I think makes a good student I came up with four strategies that have kept me objective, teachable and perseverant as a student.

1st rule I live by as a student: Avoid Trainer “hopping” – Pick a good instructor. 

I picked an instructor I could respect, one I had rapport with, one who’s teaching style I understood and could learn under.  Then, when the training sessions get tough, I have the confidence she will get guide us through it successfully. Having confidence makes one a better student.

When you find your instructor, stick with them!  It saves money and time.

All this “trainer hopping” that goes around these days is wasteful.  I’ve often heard the comment “I can learn something from everyone!”.  Possibly true, but first you will likely confuse yourself. Few amateurs know enough to discern the “whys” and “wherefores” of one teaching style from another.

My instructor knows my skill level, my history and each of my horses.  Therefore, her teaching will be the most efficient.  To go to an expensive clinic in hopes of great revelation and leaps and bounds of improvement is unrealistic, and therefore, in my opinion a waste of money. The instructor there doesn’t have any frame of reference in regards to you and your horse, therefore how can they truly be effective?

2nd Rule I live by as a student: Respect Authority

Respect, respect, respect authority  (Taught to me at a young age by my pastor)!  So when you choose your instructor the next step is to begin the process of being a good student. Humbly put your self under their authority, do what they say!

“Sit down, shut up and fake it till you make it” quoted by Rick Hughes.

The less I talk, the more I learn from my instructor when she is allowed to speak.  I make an effort not to interrupt my instructor during lessons.  When she is guiding me through exercises and I don’t agree, I do it anyway.  Many times I’ve been under instruction and thought to myself “there is no way this is going to be beneficial”. But keeping those humility lessons I learned in church alive, I continue doing as told and voila! suddenly a huge transformation happens.  AWSOME!

With each of these moments, I have proven over and over to myself that authority is there to teach us, not squish us.

3rd Rule I live by as a student: You have time.

This I learned from one of my favorite Spanish Riding School teachers, Alois Podjhajsky.

There are many grueling moments in dressage training that lead most students wondering if they will ever “get there”.  How many times have we ended a ride by ourselves thinking we just slipped behind, not ahead?

I found great peace in reading Podjhajsky’s words “you have time”. If you don’t know it today, chances are you will figure it out by tomorrow, and if not tomorrow, the next.  Suddenly, I began to give myself a break, but more importantly, give my horse a break. So my advice would be to relax, and if nothing else, dwell on how it will feel when you finally do get it…tomorrow, or maybe thereafter.

4th Rule I live by as a student: Pick horses your instructor approves.

If I have picked an instructor I respect, why wouldn’t I take their advice in picking a horse?  How can I expect to get their support if I buy a horse without their input, bring home something that they don’t believe is a good match, possibly unsafe for my level of ride, and not a mount that can enhance my level in the sport?  Eventually, if students continue disregarding their instructors in this area, their instructors will likely loose interest.  And why wouldn’t they?  Their student has just put them in a position were they are least likely to succeed. A no win situation for both parties.

My ‘picking’ skills increased ten fold when I brought in my instructor’s expertise. I saved money, avoided time wasted and money poorly spent on horses that were unsuited to me or simply had poor track records and bloodlines that I would have never detected otherwise.  Instead, I ended up saving time and money with really great horses that I have enjoyed thoroughly!