Wednesday 29 June 2016

Elaine Clinic

Back when I was helping out at a local hunter-jumper show, I heard that a dressage trainer named Elaine was coming to the area to give a dressage clinic. I had never heard of her, but with a selection of exactly zero other dressage trainers in the area, I figured it was worth a try. I immediately contacted the organizers. The clinic was unfortunately already full, but I was put on the waiting list. A couple weeks later I got a call and was told there was an opening for a semi-private on Sunday afternoon. I had other out of town commitments that weekend, but figured that I could come back early Sunday in time to haul out for my ride and I accepted and paid.

(As I later learned, Elaine is a dressage coach and M level judge based out of Manitoba. She has ridden and coached to FEI levels and rode in the Pan Am games)

No related media, so here's Kachina in her
new fly mask to break up the wall of text

Fast forward to the weekend of the clinic. I woke up at 5:30am on Sunday after less than 6 hours of sleep just so I could get back in time for the clinic. However, despite my best efforts, everything throughout the day took just a little longer than it was supposed to, and I ended up being behind schedule. I pulled into the acreage where the clinic was being held at exactly 3pm, for my ride time at 3pm. I quickly parked the trailer, unloaded, did the fastest groom and tack-up job I could, and made it into the arena at 3:10. I felt terrible for being late, especially when it was for my first time riding with a new clinician. I apologized profusely and the organizers and Elaine were nice about it, though they explained that it was a tight schedule so my ride time would still end at 3:45 as per the original schedule (completely fair!). I mounted up and started my ride.

The first thing I noticed about Elaine was her powerful skills of observation and multi-tasking. There were three of us riding at the same time and she seamlessly transitioned between helping us all, and noticed an impressive amount from the corner of her eye. Despite my late start, and the fact that I was only doing the one session (it was a three-day clinic), after less than a circle around the arena, Elaine had figured out enough about my riding level and my horse to see that we would fit with doing the same things as the hunter-jumper rider who was riding at the same time (the third rider was a western rider who was working on different exercises).

Elaine's teaching style seems to be to call riders into the center of the ring, talk about and work on one concept, and then send us out on the rail to work on it while she observed and made corrections. Then, bring us back into the centre to explain the concept further or introduce a new exercise.

It's a Rambo Fly Mask Plus. I mostly got it to shield Kachina's white face from
the sun (she was getting some sunburn on her lips and around the eyes)

The first thing we talked about was rider position. She said that at early stages of riding, we are all taught to follow the horse's motion with our bodies. This is good up to a point, but once you reach a certain level, you should instead try for a much stiller position. She explained that there are two reasons for being stiller: 1) is to give a quiet place to encourage the horse to lift their back up into your seat, and 2) is to reduce the position "noise" so that the horse can more easily recognize subtle aids that you give. She wanted us to walk around keeping our bodies as still as possible and not following the motion. She said that it would feel like we were being unnaturally stiff and it did. I feel like this is something that is going to take more than one lesson to figure out but it was a concept that I hadn't heard before and I'm intrigued by it. Have you ever been told something similar?

The other positional thing we worked on in conjunction with the stillness, was a specific way of leaning back. You've probably realized by now that tipping forward is my worst habit and one I've been working on stopping for years. Elaine reached up and touched us both on the mid back, just below the shoulder blades, and told us to push back against her hand. Then, we were to keep that feeling as we rode, like we were pushing backwards onto a chair back in that part of our back, just enough so that we could feel our mid and upper abs engage. I LOVE THIS! I could immediately feel exactly what she meant and could feel that it put me where I needed to be. Previously, I've tried telling myself to lean my shoulders back, but then I would find myself arching my back too much. So then I'd tell myself to lean back and curve my lower back out, but that would use my lower abs and make me hold my shoulders stiffly. By instead just getting that feeling of pushing against a chair back in my mid-back, it gets me to lean back without all the other problems. I will definitely be using this!

Elaine also got me to shorten my stirrups by one hole.

It's the perfect length to cover her nose, here's
hoping she doesn't immediately destroy or lose it

After we had worked on rider position, we worked on getting our horses to have lateral bend and longitudinal suppleness. This is pretty standard in the world of dressage so wasn't earth shattering, but it was still a great exercise. Continuing the trend from my lesson with T, I realized that I need to not be afraid of using a bit of inside rein to get the inside bend (my last horse Ellie would buck whenever I used too much inside rein so she got me in the habit of using my outside aids much more, but I've taken that too far now). A new concept Elaine gave me to work with was to watch the poll. When I'm asking Kachina to supple and drop her head, she will first move in the poll and as soon as I see any movement there, I need to immediately release. Elaine explained that the aid is to direct, but that the horse will respond within the release. If I release when I see a little movement in the poll, she will take that release and drop her head into it. I could really see that this was working awesomely with Kachina and she was dropping her neck down and out. This is exactly what I need to work on with Kachina because she tends to get tight and short in her neck. I need to watch the poll, and give frequent big releases to get that suppleness and stretch.

Throughout the whole lesson, we worked with the kindergarten-grade 1-grade 2 concept. Halt is kindergarten. A horse must first learn an exercise at halt, only when they can successfully do it there, can we move onto Grade 1 (walk). Then we progress to Grade 2 (trot). If at any time we lose the exercise, we need to bring them back down to the previous grade. I.e. if they start getting hollow at the trot, bring them back down to walk to try again. If they are still not getting it, go back down to halt. I was able to get some really really nice work from Kachina at halt, walk and trot, but we never moved up to Grade 3 (canter). (Also, it was a tiny arena and there were 3 of us riding, so that was probably a factor too).

Overall it was a great clinic. The organizers already have plans to have Elaine back in early September and late October. Everyone in the first clinic gets first dibs on spots for the future clinics so I'm going to try for all 3 days next time.

I'm also so so proud of Kachina! With me being late, it was a hurried stressful start. But Kachina marched right into an arena she had never been to before, with all strange horses, and wind and rain pummeling the roof and she still got right to work for me. Our partnership is really starting to come together and that makes me so happy.


  1. It's great when you find a clinician you enjoy! Elaine sounds like she has a sensible approach.

    1. Even better when said clinician actually comes to within 50km of me! I am so happy that this might get to be a regular thing :)

  2. I'm glad you had a good clinic! Dee has the Rambo fly mask as well. I've only had it come off once and it's into it's second year of use and is still holding up fabulously (she lives in it consistently for the entire bug season, she's got bad plaque in her ears)

    1. Great to know about the fly mask. Kachina has managed to ditch other fly masks in the past, but they didn't have a nose cover so they weren't helping as much anyways. I really hope she keeps this one on as her pink skin is already starting to have that chapped appearance from the sun. I just put the mask on her the other day so going out tonight to see how it fared.

  3. I have not heard the stillness thing before. I'm curious to hear more details on it. It sounds like a good clinic!

    1. Ya, the stillness part was interesting. The clinician said that she could see Kachina lifting her back when I sat like that, but my own body felt so stiff and unnatural that I couldn't really feel Kachina so I can't confirm. I'm not totally sold but I will play around with it and see what I find.