A couple weekends ago, Riki & Heather had the opportunity to ride in a clinic with Alex Grayton. Alex is a successful trainer hailing from Calgary AB, who has learned from some of the absolute legends of this sport, and has honed a thoughtful, structured training method based in fundamentals. We were both very excited to participate in the clinic! Read below to see what we thought of the clinic.
I (Heather) rode Carma in a 1.10m+ group, and to be quite honest I was super nervous right before the clinic started. While it’s nice to have a challenging clinic in order to get the most out of it, it is also never fun to be a person who embarrasses themselves in front of the clinician and the auditors. I’d never taken Carma to an off-property clinic before, so that prospect alone was going to be a bit daunting because it’s winter, the horses are fresh, and this is a new venue for us. Next enter the other members of this group – all of which were experienced riders riding experienced horses, most of whom compete or have competed at a higher level than Carma. I could feel my heartbeat in my throat. I’m going to be the hooligan in the group. To Carma’s great credit she acquitted herself remarkably well, and I think I managed to keep my panic attack in my head, instead of transferring it to my riding.
“I don’t want to say ‘I can’t do that’ about many things,” he said.
Over two days, Alex discussed the importance and inherent benefits of solid flatwork. “I don’t want to say ‘I can’t do that’ about many things,” he said. He asked the group about the six fundamentals – rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness, collection (the order is disputed – not the concepts). Through the clinic we worked on several exercises to work on each of these items. I’m sure that everyone had a different experience, but I know for me the biggest struggle I have with Carma is straightness. She loves to wiggle! This transcends and transforms into so many other problems, but the root of a lot of it is the straightness. Based on my focus on working on that issue, there are a couple of key takeaways and exercises I have taken to heart as homework:
- It is crucial that your horse is balanced on the left and right side. In this regard, when Alex had the group school in the canter we worked on schooling the lead we were on, rather than thinking the counter- or true-canter lead, relative to the direction of travel. This will be important if on course you miss a lead change, but need to prepare for the next jump. In my case, due in part to Carma’s greenness, in order to maintain the left lead while travelling to the right, I had to quite obviously shift her haunches to the outside to keep the balance around the turn, and keep the aids consistent for the left lead canter. To the left, I struggled to maintain the right lead canter around the turns at all. Alex noticed this and said while it is fine to use the haunches out as a tool in the training and development of the canter and the balance, it is not something I should have to rely on forever. The horse should be balanced enough to carry the left lead going right, and vice versa. Ways to practice and improve this would be to work on counter flexion in the canter.
- Another common exercise for both straightness and suppleness is a shoulder-in (a staple in Carma’s daily straightness regime!). Alex emphasized the correct positioning of the shoulder-in. Often times the shoulder-in is achieved with an excessive bend inwards in order to achieve the correct three-track position. While an inside flexion is part of the position for shoulder-in, Alex worked on us taking half the long side of the arena in the shoulder in position, and then retaining the three tracks, while changing the bend to the counter flexion to create a haunches-out. This reinforced the correct aids, and Alex’s point about having the horse’s education be grounded in the fundamentals, instead of faking it (my words, not his). I’ve practiced this a few times since the clinic, and I can definitely tell the difference when I “have it” and when I don’t.
- Last point I’ll make is also in regards to straightness. On day one we started with a line of cavaletti-type poles, where we had to manage our horse’s stride to create the correct entrance to succeed in each segment (this further translated to the most difficult line of day two, a forward four to a quiet three, which I understood, but never executed as well as I would have liked). I was trying to ensure that I kept Carma straight through the cavaletti, and Alex made an interesting comment. He asked for me to focus not only on finding the middle of the cavaletti, but to think of the straightness of the horse. In the moment of jumping, the middle often feels “straight,” but of course we know that isn’t necessarily the case. I found on my next attempt through the cavaletti, I made a more dedicated effort to maintain the straightness of the horse, rather than finding the centre of the cavaletti. That time I hit the middle but with a straighter horse, which displayed some weakness on her part – she swapped off in the middle. This exercise circles back to the first one I mentioned – the horse should be equally balanced on both leads in both directions. If that were the case, there would have been no cause for that swap.
Winter is time for this type of homework, and I thank Alex and the clinic organizers very much for their hard work! Learned a lot, was reminded of a lot, and would love to do another clinic in the future.