Saturday, November 2, 2013

Foundation and specialization, and how it might have something to do with the number Zero

A few times a year, I make an incursion into the world of traditional horseback riding to learn from other coaches who are much better at specialization than I am, another way to work on improving my own horsemanship.  After years of putting specialization (in my case jumping) aside to focus on my foundation skills through natural horsemanship and having achieved Parelli Level 4, I find myself much better equipped to focus on performance riding.  Dressage is one of the disciplines that now fascinates me, partly because of the level of horse-rider harmony necessary to achieve brilliance and to turn into into an expression of dance; partly because of the level of precision and lightness required to do it well; and also because it pushes me to acquire a much deeper understanding of proper horse and rider biomechanics.  As a bonus, I get to see some really fancy horses with great breeding, which is always a treat!

A couple of weeks ago, I audited a day of clinic with Hélène Arianoff, a long time student of Nuno Oliveira.  The latter is widely acclaimed as a master of modern day classical dressage and horsemanship.  Nuno Oliveira chose not to compete and practiced dressage as an art form.  He had the reputation of having a phenomenal seat (although you could pick his position apart depending of which school of thought you adhere to); mostly, he had a natural talent for bringing out an extraordinary level of brilliance in the horses he rode in a very short period of time.  Any long term student of his would sure possess a lot of knowledge to pass on to the rest of us!  Along with picking up many nuggets of savvy dust, as a teacher I am always interested in observing the kinds of things riders and horses are struggling with and how another clinician might go about helping them solve their issues.

For this clinician, as is often the case with other masters I have had the opportunity to study with, most of the lessons consisted in bringing the students back to basics, and improving those basics in order to advance. What we saw were a series of holes in the horses' and riders' foundation that were preventing them from getting the results they were looking for.  We all know how tempting it is to want to focus on refinement and specialization... to have a vision of a fancy task or maneuver and to want to have it working here and now... while forgetting there might be a few ingredients that are missing to make it easy for the horse to succeed!

I like to think of it as trying to do calculus when you are still struggling with basic arithmetic and algebra - it can get confusing pretty fast.  Think of what it might be like to try to do math with a missing number. For example, can you imagine counting without the number 0?  It is possible, but definitely not easy.  The number 0 did not always exist, it was actually first invented in India, and initially made scientifically available by the Arabs.  It was a breakthrough in the history of mathematics that made adding and subtracting much easier and led to many other scientific advancements.  Before the number 'zero', there was an undefined gap for the counting of nothing!

Back to horsemanship:  as humans, it is so easy to be direct lined, and by that, don't think I am judging anyone, as I catch myself doing it all the time!  As an observer at the Arianoff clinic, I could clearly see where someone might be struggling and be missing a essential piece of the puzzle, and how putting that piece back in the right order was the key to helping them improve.  This is something I do with my students all the time, and it may sound repetitive or frustrating at times, but it is an integral part of good horsemanship. You will hear Parelli refer to it as foundation before specialization (see footnote *).

For example, a rider who has not yet acquired an independent seat and the ability to isolate the aids will not be able to communicate clearly an advanced maneuver such as half-pass or even something simple like a canter depart.  We saw several examples of riders struggling to let go of the reins or to isolate each leg in order to help their horse find the answer.  As a result, the trainer had to spend quite a bit of time helping them learn to soften their hands, use their seat without clenching with the legs, use their legs without clenching on the reins, hold a dressage whip without interfering with the bit, etc.  All foundational skills of the rider that need to be in place in order to practice good dressage.

The teacher also had to contend with foundational issues in the horses - horses dull to the aids, leaning on the leg or not wanting to go forward or stop, horses who did not understand the cues and many, many horses who had trouble with contact.  She started each session showing the students exercices to improve hindquarter control - a foundation of every natural horsemanship program!  We found out most of these beautiful dressage horses could not easily move their hindquarters independently of the rest of their body, and the riders had to work very hard to get there!  I have to say I was impressed to see how most of the horses in the clinic were fairly calm...  However, few seemed connected... Most of the issues were related to a lack of responsiveness, resulting in the riders having to work very hard (to the point of sweating and getting out of breath) just to get the appropriate amount of response from their horse or to maintain the chosen gait. Before they could ever dream to get that flowing half-pass or sharp flying lead change, they needed to think about how they were using or not using their own bodies, and how prepared their horse was to actually attempt a higher level maneuver.  Hélène had them practice many basic exercices - move the hindquarters, move the shoulders, get in a rhythm at the walk, walk a good circle, leg yields, backing up, give and take the reins, transitions, trot and canter departs, gait control, etc.  I was struck at how similar it was to what you might see in a Parelli clinic, except the horses and riders happened to be dressed up in very fancy outfits and tack!
Blue Moon - Photo A. Macfhay

This brought me back to my first dressage clinic with my new horse Blue Moon this summer at Eddo Hoekstra's farm.   I spent over 2 years developing this horse before testing the quality of our foundation during the three days of the clinic.  There was very little sweating, even though it was quite hot outside.  She showed that she truly understands the basics:  go and whoa, move the various parts of your body in various ways, and respond appropriately to pressure (less than 4 ounces), maintain gait and direction.  With those elements in place, it is actually amazing how easy the more advanced exercises become, and I was the first one surprised when Eddo asked us to attempt some rather advanced dressage movements (collected gaits, counter canter, canter departs from the walk and halt, half-pass, half step!);  no one was expecting perfection, but we did get positive results.  Blue Moon may not have carried the perfect frame all the time, but Eddo never said ANYTHING about her head carriage; we lost forward impulsion at times in some of the exercises; most importantly, she was so calm, connected, and responsive throughout the lessons.  The focus was on refining basics building up to more advanced, and never, never drilling in any of the movements.  Get a try and move on to something else and if it is not working, try a different approach!  It was right in line with what I have learned in Parelli.  Blue Moon put her heart into it and always gave it her best shot.  We were both smiling at the end of the day!

Knowledge and skills come from a unending process of studying, applying, and experimenting.  You can read books and watch videos, and that will feed your mind with knowledge and information.  But then, you need to be able to take this information and translate it into practice, and develop skills, which takes time and dedication.  For most of us, this can be challenging to do without expert help.  As you advance, you may need to get back to more reading and observing to add to the knowledge, and once again, use it until it becomes a part of you.  This is a continuous process.  Many of the riders at the Arianoff clinic possessed a lot of theoretical knowledge; they just had not yet acquired the ability to translate it to their riding and were thus investing in their learning.  They will hopefully be able to carry on by themselves at home and as they make progress, will again look for more information and support to take them to the next level, a never-ending spiral of learning and self-improvement that as horsemen, we all have to learn to love and enjoy.

Below is a clip of Master Nuno Oliveira teaching a horse to move with straightness by doing exactly the opposite of going straight.  He is mobilizing the various parts of the horse and doing a lot of lateral work to dissolve any contractions, helping the horse find the right way of moving - causing his idea to become the horse's idea.


* Examples of what would be considered specialization in horses:  any equestrian discipline or competitive sport such as dressage, jumping, driving, eventing, cow working, cutting, western pleasure, working equitation, hunter, ski joring.  Trail riding and working horses (hauling wood, plowing, transportation, mounted police) are also specialized.
Parelli Natural Horsemanship is a foundational program for horses and riders.

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For more info on Geneviève Benoit, Licensed Parelli 3 Star Instructor, visit www.vifargent.com

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