Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Birchall clinic recap: validation (and half steps!!!)

Yesterday you saw the outtakes and random candids from our lesson with dressage rider Stephen Birchall. Today is a rundown of what we covered and what I am taking away from the clinic.

Ohh how I wish for more video - I'm totally regretting not bringing my helmet camera to set up on a ledge, as that proved perfect for Sunday's fix-a-test (post tomorrow). Oh well. Next time I'll be better prepared!

regal mare <3
In any case, it was the most intense 30min in the saddle in recent memory. In a good way. Stephen quickly got an accurate read on Isabel and took us down a challenging but appropriate path. Essentially, he validated the work we've been doing with trainer C - particularly liking how our contact has developed from riding back to front.

He liked that I didn't get noisy or fussy when Isabel bounced around a little bit (matching trainer C - who says "it doesn't matter, keep riding her where you want her to be"), and that our typical frame has Isabel's nose poked slightly ahead of the vertical. C says this is harder for Isabel than ducking behind the bit (obvi I concur), and Stephen added that it's critical to "ride the horse's conformation" (something he repeated to multiple riders).

isabel's confo can sometimes make for a unique ride  <3
Stephen was also pleased with my efforts to improve my seat and leg position. Little did he know: he was my inspiration. Recall when I audited back in November, it struck me how he began each ride with his leg explicitly OFF the horse. He said "Leg is Sacred" and that his leg says absolutely nothing to the horse unless he MEANS it.

I've been chewing on that idea ever since, and lately have been practicing the leg lifts in the saddle that Catherine Haddad discusses in this video (someone in blogland originally posted that but now I can't remember who!).

Specifically, I start each ride lifting my entire leg, hip to heel, from the saddle. Focusing on feeling my seat connect with Isabel's back - while still pushing my big toe into the stirrup iron.

Stephen liked this a lot, and took it further by adding that the heels must always be down. He said he constantly rides off his core, seat and stirrup irons - and *not* by pinching with thigh, knee or calf. The leg should be able to come off. This feeling really helps me - esp now that I'm learning to keep my seat in the saddle (rather than popping out) while pushing into the stirrup.

lighting made for neat silhouette effects
Ok. Omg. So much blabbing and we haven't even gotten to the good stuff. Kinda sorry.. kinda. Anyway, after introducing myself and the mare ("we're both new to first level dressage, but Isabel takes to the work very well and has been an excellent horse to learn with"), we opted to let Stephen choose our direction for the day rather than schooling any specific tests or movements.

So what did he choose? Half steps (omg). Starting, of course, with sitting trot (without me even needing to tell him we are a train wreck in that department haha).

Obvi, tho, first we started with some basic trotting in both directions, complete with changes of direction to assess our contact etc. Directions of note included:
  • Shorten reins one at a time (a la Austen's recent post on the topic)
  • Don't let inside hand get too low - stay aware, esp with holding the whip
  • Soften elbows, esp outside - must allow that softness in the outside rein to get flexion to inside
  • Shoulder fore on a circle
  • Counter flexion (think travers, or was it renvers?)
  • Then back and forth between inside bend, going straight (on a circle), and counter flexion

#werkin
Then we started sitting trot, just a couple strides at a time. 
  • OMG I was a hot mess - having stopped practicing as much, since we wouldn't be sitting in the upcoming show.. womp
  • Don't let the connection go just bc I'm sitting the trot
  • Sit a few strides, post a few strides, sit, post, rinse, repeat
  • Don't look down!! 

mare fit right in with all the fancy dressage horses
As might be expected, the sitting grew a little easier with repetition (and with C's many directives zooming rapid fire through my mind). But before I had a chance to think about it, Stephen shifted directly into working towards half steps (omg). All while ridden sitting: 
  • He wanted NO LEG, half halts with core and reins, and simultaneous tap with whip 
  • I was to take my time, no rushing. Think "halt" but.. ya know.. don't halt
  • Carry whip in outside hand (haunches fishtailed in too much with whip in inside hand)
  • Must be careful not to clench inside hand when moving outside hand to tap with whip
  • Tap with whip tells her to quicken her hind end and push up into bridle - NOT go faster
  • Must be patient and kind with aids to help Isabel understand what I'm asking
  • Encourage her to stay ACTIVE while bringing the movement more onto the spot with the reins
  • Rein aids need to mean a quickening of the step
  • Then allow forward again. Then back to half steps. Then forward. Rinse repeat.
  • This is the beginning of piaffe - becoming more and more 'on the spot'

not half steps... still cute tho!
Omg. Guys. This was incredible. It was HARD, yes, and Isabel grew a little frustrated at one point - but let it go and kept working, kept trying. She was SO ROUND. I finally know what you all are talking about when you say the horse "gives you a place to sit." Stephen said 'when you have the hind legs, you have a place to sit.'

Anyways, next:
  • Depart into canter from that small trot. No running tho! 
  • Transitions were difficult and sticky (definitely harder for mareface!) - so I needed to truly commit to the canter.
  • If Izzy tried running, we were to bring back to collection then bump with outside leg (as a correction, not as a signal to depart again). 
  • Half halt immediately upon cantering.
  • Canter needs more inside bend (shocker - esp since we did all this work to the left, our notoriously harder direction)

Then back to trot:
  • Working trot on a circle, then into medium trot, then back to working trot
  • Back and forth, back and forth (a theme, and our homework)
  • The resulting working trot was THE working trot we want

isabel is so game
Our homework is to play with the forwards and back like this, play with the trot. Push for more. Stephen asks, what's the risk? What's the harm? What the hell, just go for it!

Personally, I'm a little less sure haha. Honestly, the biggest reason I'm bummed about the lack of video is bc the way Stephen directed us through the movements - his voice, his timing, his choice of words - was SUPER effective for me and helped me ride Isabel to the best of my abilities. Without which we wouldn't have gotten as good results. 

So I'm not entirely sure I trust myself to try on my own (unless I can somehow procure a recording of Stephen's voice? LOL) bc I can definitely see how battle might ensue if I somehow end up riding the mare unfairly. We'll see. I'll probably try a more watered-down version.

But generally - the canter and half steps work was incredible. I really felt like I "had a place to sit" in both gaits. 

stephen demonstrating a stretch through the back and legs
It was interesting tho - later in the day Stephen, after discussing how to best manage a different horse, referred back to Isabel, saying: "She's stoic, she's not going to pitch a fit or explode if she's uncomfortable. You'll only ever know it after the fact by discovering she is back sore." 

UM YES, DING DING DING. That is exactly Isabel, and our exact struggle over the years with her. She doesn't tell me much under the saddle, but carries it all through her back. Stephen's advice was to "manage her care accordingly." We're trying dude, I promise. 

Tho I'm also very pleased to report that while Isabel was fatigued for our fix-a-test the next day and not super eager to take weight onto her hind end, she was *not* ouchy to the touch. The muscles and strength, folks, they're developing!

Phew. Lots of little nitty gritty details, and maybe hard to envision without supportive video/media evidence. You'll just have to take my word for it tho: Isabel was super game and worked her butt off (quite literally). I think the reason this mare has so much dressage potential (aside from just being a cute mover) is her ability to handle pressure. Ask her to do a thing, and damn if she doesn't try.

All in all, it was a really positive experience. Stephen's teaching style worked for me, and his philosophies meshed with my regular training program. Riding with him was worth the expense of a 30min lesson (and 3hr round trip), and I will absolutely try to do so again when he's in town.

50 comments:

  1. Grr! Having to run tack up Pig and missing the really nice stuff!! Also, no doubts who he was comparing stoic Isabel too... Bahaha!! That ability to take pressure is just astounding, though. I love that about her!

    Love all the things you got out of this lesson. That whole counter bend - straightness - true bend - straightness sort of exercise is awesome for unlocking that back and getting a "place to sit". We use it a lot, and o definitely think you can do that and then the collection work on your own. Though if you're more comfortable watering it down, do that. (Counter bend/haunches out is renver)

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    1. i know, right? if we had known how the split lesson would be structured it would have been easier... but alas. next time tho i'm just gonna bring my helmet cam since that works so well as a passive videographer.

      seriously tho - the bending in and out thing is DEFINITELY something i feel good about trying on my own, and will definitely start playing more with it. the collection... we shall see. it'll be a balance of meeting isabel half way, which is hard to do sometimes without a coach lol. exciting tho!!

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  2. So much information for 30 min! I adore Iz's dressage. You guys are going to kill it this year! Awesome clinic review.

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    1. thanks - it was crazy for 30min. and actually, he worked us good and thorough, to the point that i'm not even certain that an hour would be necessary for where we are. maybe tho. we shall see how things look next time i'm able to get out for his clinics!

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  3. Sounds like a seriously productive 30 mins! Izy looks she totally belongs in that big fancy arena ;)

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    1. ha right? i think she likes the trappings of grandeur! (tho obvi she's equally cool with my janky ass mis-matched nylon hackamore so... she's flexible lol)

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  4. THIS IS AMAZINGGGGGG!! The few photos you got are incredible! I have to come to the next Stephen clinic! I'm so excited for everything you learned and all of the lightbulb moments that came out of this lesson! :D

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    1. yesssss you do have to come! we'll make a weekend out of it!

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  5. Such a productive 30 min! Now I'm off to find someone to video my lesson next week...

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    1. yesss - or if you still have your old helmet camera, i'd recommend bringing that and planning on setting it up on the ledge. i did that the next day for our fix-a-test, and while the video quality isn't amazing, it captured everything and allowed me to rewatch the lesson

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  6. Sounds like an incredible clinic! Your photos are great! Loving all the nitty gritty details, then I can steal them to use with my horses ;)

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    1. thanks - glad you like the details too. i try to write them all down asap so i don't forget... but then i'm never sure i'm translating them very well haha

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  7. The "leg is sacred" is my favorite and something I take to heart as well. Good trainer, good lesson, good students!

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    1. It's definitely a good thing to have in mind!

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  8. What a great 30 minutes! --and stoic Izzy, the dressage princess <3

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    1. ha yea sometimes i wish she were a little less stoic, but awareness is everything i guess

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  9. This sounds like such a worthwhile clinic! You're really working on some serious stuff together!

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    1. i'm always a little surprised by what trainers decide to focus on - it's exciting tho!

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  10. What a cool clinic! :-) I'd almost watch video of it if you had it. ;-)

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    1. ha right? i guess i'll just have to go back for another ride ;)

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  11. Incredible! I want to print this out and take it to my ride tonight - just so I can walk through all the things and concepts!
    For real, though... Don't be surprised if I comment in the future that I have read your post to my phone to create a recording to listen to as I ride!!
    I'm loving all of it!!

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    1. oh man i hope it proves helpful to you!!! i will definitely be referring back to this post too haha!!

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  12. Wow, that sounds like an AMAZING clinic- so so cool! Half steps ermahgad!

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  13. Yeah! What an awesome clinic. Stephen sounds super helpful <3

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    1. he's really great, i really couldn't be happier with the quality of the lesson

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  14. Wow, so much stuff! It sounds like it was really productive, too! (envy, over here) As for playing with the new toys, I'm with instructor Stephen: "what's the risk? What's the harm? What the hell, just go for it!"

    For example, let's look at shoulder-inning, which is a dressage thing you've been doing recently. Mostly when this is introduced, horse and rider are coming off a small circle in the corner of the school and heading up the long side, trying to maintain a "one stride off the rail" bend that they got from the prep circle. In this exercise, the wall of the school is training wheels for novices at shoulder-inning. The wall helps keep the horse's hq straight and makes it easier for the rider to get forward motion while keeping the horse bent. I have no problem with training wheels to start, but once a pair can shoulder-in reliably with the wall, it's time to take the training wheels off.

    Take the somewhat reliable shoulder-in outside and play with it. Do it on the trail. See how granular the control is -- how long does it really take to get organized for shoulder-inning? Do you always need a prep circle? Can you walk in shoulder-in and then pick up a trot without losing the shoulder-in? Downward transitions OK too? How much shoulder-inning do you *really* have? Can you adjust the bend from "very slight shoulder-fore" to "ermagahd overbently" and all the variations in between? What happens if you have shoulder-in and straighten it out a little and go smoothly into leg-yield? How does that work? Can you leg-yield and smoothly transition into shoulder-in? (If unsure about your ability to get a shoulder-in "in the wild" or tell if you have done so, take along a buddy to observe you.)

    Twinking around with shoulder-in like this will not damage the somewhat reliable "with a wall" shoulder-inning that you started with. It will improve ALL the shoulder-inning because now it's an EVERYWHERE thing instead of a "10M circle in the corner, and then SI up the long side" thing. A pair who school SI away from the wall will be faster at getting into shape and better at maintaining the shape and better at transitioning from that shape to other shapes. Not only that, the rider who shoulder-ins away from the wall can troubleshoot the shape and buff it back to perfection if it isn't quite up to snuff because they aren't depending on the training wheels to save them. Instead, they've developed an actual feel for the shape and the motion and the controls for shoulder-inning.

    You seem like a thoughtful and sensitive rider -- I think you can be trusted to play with new toys, even complicated new toys, carefully and in a productive manner. (Also, Isabel will tell you if there's a real problem.) Seriously, go for it. :)

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  15. Sounds like a great clinic- I ought to keep an eye out to see if he ever heads out to the wild west!

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    1. ooh definitely! he's based in florida, and apparently has a client at this farm, which is why he's up so often. idk about his general travel sched tho?

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  16. Awesome!!!! This sounds exactly like something one of my favorite trainers said to me about just getting out there and trying things - what's the worst that can happen? One of the best and most encouraging pieces of advice I've gotten!

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    1. i definitely LOVE the encouragement, and it's been a big effort to shift my mentality in that direction, rather than being too scared to try new things

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  17. I wish you had video too, this sounds incredible and I want to dissect every moment of your ride argggh!

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    1. omg meeeeeeeeeee toooooooooooooo !!

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  18. Always so nice to hear from someone else that you are on the right path. And of course Izzy fits right in with the fancy dressage ponies. That's the cool thing about dressage! Anyone, human and pony alike, can do it!

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    1. validation and reaffirmation are ALWAYS welcome haha ;)

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  19. What a stellar ride. It sounds like you had the perfect lesson and you really pulled through as well! All of that sounds very difficult, and heck, I am quite proud of you and Izz!

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    1. thanks!! it's really easy to keep trying to ride my best with a horse like izzy, since she seemingly always has more to give <3

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  20. Love the detailed recap - so many take aways for me, thank you! So glad you had such an amazing lesson!

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  21. Wow those pics look awesome! Totally want to see these half steps and how you got them accomplished. All that in 30 mins?!?! Wow

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  22. Sounds amazing! Yay half steps! Izzy is turning out to be such a dressage queen.

    I definitely appreciate a horse that can be pushed, it makes such a difference in rideability! I love a horse that can take a bit of pressure.

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  23. This sounds like such an amazing clinic...especially after reading about Austen's experiences with Birchall!

    Now, please tell me: how does one find out when and where his next clinic is? His website hasn't been updated since 2012 and Wyndham Oaks did not have this clinic listed at all! :(

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  24. Wow! What a great experience. The photos are so lovely (and you two look amazing!!!) :)

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  25. What a great sounding clinician. Damn. I'm so amazed at how much you take away from these things and can REMEMBER. Do you rush back to a notebook when your session is over and jot things down? Or do you belong in Mensa with your sharp memory of all things? While my horse lessons are (very) few and (very) far between, I have had the same high caliber lessons in my other sports. From experience, its hard to remember all of the points the instructor makes throughout to accurately write them ALL down for later. Maybe one day when I grow up I can be as skilled at take-aways as you. ;-p

    Isabel seriously looks amazing. Super freaking amazing. You've done (and continue to do) an incredible job.

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  26. Sounds awesome and like you guys got a lot from it. I'm so glad it went so well, any idea as to when he may be back in your neck of the woods again?

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  27. I love this post! My only wish is that I could of sat in on that clinic, it sounds awesome! And the pic of you two looking out of the arena is beautiful.

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  28. oh well done, she looks FANTASTIC!! and i dont think you should worry about it so much, not being able to do things yourself. give yourself some credit; you know more than you think you do!

    go forth and trot on!

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  29. Sounds like it was so much more productive than some hour long rides I have, lol! She looks SO supple. WEll done.

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