After my lesson on Day One, I stuck around to watch a few other lessons and I found out that the "natural curve" lesson was not specific to me, it was more a general theme for the clinic. (Quick recap, by "natural curve" lesson I mean Elaine's concept that when warming up we should let the horse keep their own natural bend in their spine and work on lowering their head and neck by massaging their ribcage with our heel/spur on the side that is on the inside of the bend of the horse. This should be the sole focus until the horse is consistently going around with their poll level with their withers and only then can we start to ask for bend.) In one lesson with a horse who does not like to bring his head down at all, the pair was struggling with figuring out how to do the exercise. Whenever the rider would accidentally change the bend, Elaine started to exclaim how that was hurting the horse's back and "..see how he puts his head up, that's because he's saying 'ow'...". I thought this was taking things too far, like yes you maybe lost the longitudinal softness for a second because of a change in bend, and yes, that's not following the exercise, but just because the horse's head goes up (on a horse who's head is always up) doesn't mean it's a pain response in my opinion. Mild discomfort maybe, pain no.
|No clinic media so here are some unrelated photos to break up wall of text|
I went to a rodeo last month where they had a really cool procession of heavy horses pulling restored antique carts
I went home that night and I was mulling over the clinic. I was thrilled with how well my ride went and I was excited to have a new tool for encouraging Kachina to relax and stretch down to contact. However, I was a bit dubious too because of the so called accupressure point and Elaine talking about how a horse couldn't change the bend without pain unless their head was consistently level first. I think Emma was right with her comment on my last post though, sometimes clinicians do make up a "story" to go with their lesson, so I chalked it up to Elaine exaggerating her concept to try and make it stick. Also I realized that in general the whole lesson could be boiled down to "longitudinal suppleness before lateral suppleness". In the last couple years I have more focused on using lateral suppleness to get longitudinal suppleness (my go to warm up is all about lateral bend and asking for Kachina to move her haunches, ribcage, shoulders and neck to either side), however I know there is a place for both approaches and we have been stuck a bit lately so maybe it's time to switch it up. I decided that I would give this concept a good try and see where it led.
|Clydesdales with chuckwagon|
Day two I mounted up and immediately started by explaining my previous warmup routine and asking Elaine how I should modify it to work with her approach. As part of giving the new approach a good try, I didn't want to go against it in my warmup. She told me to just essentially do what we had done in the lesson the day before, walking on the rail or in large figures and using my inside leg to ask Kachina to drop her head and soften over her back. I asked if I could add anything else to it to keep Kachina's mind more focused because that's the benefit of my current warmup, it's more about getting her mind ready than her body. Elaine said I could add some leg yields if I wanted to, as long as I wasn't changing the bend.
|A train of three grain carts pulled by a three horse hitch|
I imagine this would be tough work if all were really loaded up!
The lesson continued working on the same concept as the day before. Kachina wasn't trying to speed up or move over when I used my inside leg anymore which was nice, but I found she wasn't as responsive to my leg in general and it took more massaging with my heel to get her to drop her head. I thought this seemed like a reasonable learning progression on day two of a new exercise. I kept my leg on until she softened, but she was still softening so I wasn't getting after her about it. Before long Kachina was walking around with her neck at what looked pretty level to me and so I was aiding less frequently. Elaine at some point during this decided that Kachina wasn't listening to my heel at all and asked if I wore spurs. I told her that I had never used spurs with Kachina as she was a sensitive horse and I didn't need them with her. I kept walking around, asking for Kachina to soften from time to time when her head came up, but generally thinking that we were doing the exercise well. Then, Elaine comes and walks at my side and is getting me to ask for more. I feel Kachina tense and grow upwards and realize that Elaine has a set of spurs in her hand and she is applying them to Kachina's ribcage behind my leg! To my knowledge Kachina has never been ridden with a spur, she was responding to my leg how I expected (if I was asking wrong that's on me, not my horse), she is a tense horse with a probable history of abuse, and I can feel her wanting to go up in response to the spur (she didn't actually put a foot wrong, but I could feel something building). Especially as the spur was in Elaine's hand where I had no control over it or even view of it, I was scared that there might be an upwards explosion that I didn't want to ride. I told Elaine that I wasn't comfortable with her doing that. Those were my words: "I'm sorry but I'm not comfortable with you doing that", Elaine responded "okay" and stepped away when asked. I was actually shocked that a trainer had done something like that. Elaine hadn't asked or even told me what she was going to do, she just walked up and started spurring my horse from the ground, after I said I didn't use spurs. I get that using spurs is reasonable on lots of horses, but I feel it's still a dangerous assumption to make and this is only my third clinic with Elaine so it's not like she knows Kachina all that well. Internally I was angry, and a bit frightened about how Kachina might have responded, but the dominant feeling was just shock and surprise so I said nothing more about the incident and kept going. Through me asking a few questions and thinking about it I finally figured out that what looked like a level neck to me from the saddle was actually not quite level, so I needed to ask Kachina to soften more. I feel like this could have been explained more easily though.
|This cart was used to deliver ice from the river to home iceboxes|
Kachina isn't a very one-sided horse so her natural bend switched a few times of her own volition, and a lot of the time her body was mostly straight and I could only feel slightly which way she was bent. I thought these were good things as I want to promote symmetry. At some point though Elaine starts telling me to hold with my inside rein so Kachina can't bend the other way. She also started using the line that Kachina was saying "ow" because "it hurt her back when she changed bend". This confused me because I absolutely was not asking Kachina to change bend, she was changing bend herself and from the day before I thought that I was supposed to go with whichever bend Kachina wanted to take. Also, in my mind Kachina had been going around for about 20 min with a pretty consistent head set by this point so I thought that meant we'd be able to start asking for bend pretty soon anyways. I started asking Elaine questions because I didn't understand this new development. She said that for Kachina in particular because she's too bendy of a horse I needed to keep the bend the same for a longer time. This was an answer, but I wanted to know why that was the answer, because that's the kind of rider I am. I never got a satisfactory answer but while we were going around Elaine then started saying that not only could I not allow Kachina to change the bend, I couldn't allow her to straighten either, and had me hold her into a substantial bend. I was trying to do as instructed, but it just felt wrong to me, I felt like I was forcing the bend which was not helping relaxation, and my own body felt all twisted as well. Also I am accustomed to there being an "ask" followed by a "release" in an exercise, but this had no release from the bend. In fairness, I didn't do a good job of explaining what exactly I was feeling, I just asked Elaine why I had to keep such bend because it felt wrong to me. I wanted to understand the reasoning for asking for overbend, and I was asking questions to try and figure out what to look for when working on this at home on my own. However, in hindsight, I can see how Elaine might have thought I was questioning her as a trainer.
|The "Ranch Girls" doing patterns with flags|
She started responding to my questions with more sweeping declarations like "I've dealt with lots and lots of horses like this", "I've trained horses and riders to Grand Prix so don't worry that I don't know what I'm talking about", etc. I really have pretty low tolerance for that kind of thing, because a) you aren't answering my questions, and b) even if you do have the best most universal training method, you only see me and my horse twice a year so that doesn't help anything unless you can explain your method to me adequately. I could see that she was getting frustrated with me, so I right out said "I'm sorry, I'm not trying to question you as a trainer, I just want to understand", she responded to that by spouting out some more stuff about her skill and experience so at that point I just fixed my face into a mask, went quiet, and tried to do what she was telling me, while internally just wanting the lesson to be over. It also didn't help that Elaine repeatedly talked about how Kachina was "resisting" me, or "trying to get her way" etc. while I felt like Kachina was really putting in a good effort for me, it was just that neither of us had a clue what it was we were trying to do.
The rest of the lesson was spent in this exaggerated bend, and it continued to feel wrong to me. We did some trot work and Kachina kept on speeding up, going lateral, and breaking into canter, which Elaine responded to by asking for more bend. It never really got better, and Elaine ended the lesson by saying she wished the clinic had a third day so we could "get" it.
After Elaine started with the next rider and I was released to cool down, I actually spent a little time walking and trotting Kachina without bend just because I felt like we needed a decent note to end the ride on. I got off and I was really pretty upset. I couldn't even bring myself to say thanks to Elaine for the lesson (which I always do for any riding lesson) because I wasn't thankful at that moment and I didn't trust myself to maintain composure if I opened my mouth.
|All the bucking horses etc in the back chutes|
Over the few weeks since the clinic I've realized that Kachina and I need to be better at bending and stretching down. Kachina keeps her neck fairly upright when riding so when I think she's lowering her head and relaxing her neck, it's not actually as far down as I think, just down relative to normal. Same with bend, I can feel slight bend and so I think that bend is obvious from the ground as well when it may not be. I need to readjust my view and feelings as to what is "enough". However, even if that was part of this issue in the lesson, I still have some issues with how Elaine responded.
Please let me know your thoughts: Where is the appropriate line for questioning a clinician, or trainer in general? Please give it to me straight: was I out of line in my questions and comments, was Elaine out of line, or was it nobody's fault and just one of those bad lessons? How would you have reacted if you were in my situation?
(Spoiler alert, I am signed up with another clinic with Elaine under the premise that this ride was an anomaly/a bad day/an unfortunate misunderstanding. I have had good experiences with her in the past and she is one of only a few clinicians who come to my area so I want to give it another chance, she better not spur my horse again though!)