Tuesday 8 August 2017

Questioning - Clinic Recap Part II

Day one of the clinic was really awesome, but day two was not. Day two felt like the worst riding lesson I've had in probably 10 years. I will admit that I left the clinic feeling pretty frustrated. That's the main reason why these clinic recaps are late, I needed some time and perspective.

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!)


  1. It might have just been one of the lessons, but I feel like I'm entitled to ask any questions I want at a clinic/lesson. I want to learn and I ask questions so that I can learn.

    1. That is totally my opinion as well, but this lesson had me wondering if I was feeling too entitled to my questions

  2. so i kinda struggle in my personal response here, bc i can only speak from the place of my own experience: which is living in an area absolutely CRAWLING with excellent instruction. where i live, i'd say you'd be remiss in NOT questioning your trainer.

    my basic criteria for selecting trainers is pretty basic. do i enjoy the lessons and trust the trainer? do i feel like my horse demonstrably goes better during the lessons? (this one can be flexible esp if it's a long term program bc sometimes there are just plain gonna be bad rides or problems that will take some real work to get through). do i understand what the trainer wants to see, and does it jive with my general views and philosophy on riding and horsemanship? and, perhaps most importantly - can i recreate the work at least in part while working on my own? doesn't have to be to the same level, but i need to know that both i and the horse can internalize the lessons in such a way that we can keep moving forward.

    based on what you've written above, it doesn't really sound like Elaine is a good fit for your style of riding, learning, and introducing new concepts to Kachina, esp with how those new concepts mesh with your current style and understanding.

    the elephant in the room here, of course, is that your area is kinda the opposite of mine in terms of options. that trainers in your chosen discipline aren't exactly a dime a dozen. which.... complicates things. and maybe calls for a more open mind as a rider looking for instruction.

    but still..... idk. you've had three lessons with this person. and the third left you feeling decidedly not great, and had her getting defensive with you instead of looking for different ways of explaining a concept or helping you to understand. that would probably seal the deal for me. i can understand signing up for another lesson tho with your stated mindset of "this was an outlier." but i would encourage you to come up with a concrete list of objectives / outcomes for the ride - criteria that should be met in order to consider riding with her again in the future. fingers crossed that the next one goes better tho and proves the value of her program!

    1. Thanks for the response. You've clearly put some thought into this and I appreciate that. I agree with most of your points:

      "do i enjoy the lessons and trust the trainer?"
      I have had a total of 6 lessons (3 clinics) with her so far, and I enjoyed 4/6 (one was meh). I think trust for a trainer is built up over time so I don't have that trust yet, but maybe I will eventually

      "do i feel like my horse demonstrably goes better during the lessons?"
      Some of the previous lessons were more focused on me than Kachina (which is good, I am all about position help), but in general I have seen a positive difference with Kachina in lessons, just not this last one

      "do i understand what the trainer wants to see, and does it jive with my general views and philosophy on riding and horsemanship?"
      This is a biggie, and before this last lesson I would have answered a very emphatic yes on this one. In my exposure to Elaine (which includes my own lessons plus watching lots of others) I have seen a strong focus on basics, a belief that you must first correct the rider before you can work on the horse, and breaking down lessons into simple steps to help the horse and rider understand the correct answer (and releasing when achieved). Also, importantly to me I have noted that for the most part horses end lessons more relaxed than they started. All of this jives very well with my approach to riding.

      "can i recreate the work at least in part while working on my own?"
      Elaine fixed my leg position in one really intense lesson way back in September 2016, and for the most part it has stayed fixed ever since! That's the best/most reproduce-ability I've ever achieved from a riding lesson

      That's what makes this challenging for me, 6 is a small sample size but this one bad lesson seemed like a distinct outlier from the other 5. That's why I am reluctant to ditch her completely in case it was just a rare bad day. Even clinicians are human and sometimes get out of the wrong side of the bed in the morning. If any of the problems reappear though than I think I will be out pretty quick.

    2. that makes a lot of sense to me. and more than your specific words or explanations tho, it sounds like you've got a pretty clear sense of what you are and are not getting, and that you feel reasonably confident that there's real value to be found in riding with this trainer. that's plenty convincing to me - esp coupled with your willingness to advocate for your horse if things don't end up going well. hopefully the next outing finds you and Elaine back on the same page! who knows, maybe she is thinking similarly about this recent lesson too and will come to the next more thoroughly prepared to answer all your questions?

  3. With the exception of one trainer all the trainers I have ridden with have been ok with questions. The one that wasn't I didn't ride with for very long. I feel like if a student says "I don't understand" it is the trainers job to get them to understand. I also find it very weird that she would approach your horse and use an aid you were unaware of. I do feel like there was a strong disconnect between you guys.

    On another note, do you have recent video? I have always found video to be very enlightening for me. There have been several periods where I think we look like one thing and I am very wrong (not saying this is what is happening for you). It might help you to understand what she sees from the ground. Also maybe trying to audit some of the earlier rides, sometimes with repetition and watching things click in my head.

    1. "I feel like if a student says "I don't understand" it is the trainers job to get them to understand."
      ^ my thoughts exactly! She has answered questions in previous lessons so maybe this was just a one off bad day where I rubbed her the wrong way

      I do have some recent (crappy) video (plus photos from the show), those are a big reason why I've since realized that Kachina's neck doesn't stretch down and out as much as I think when I'm on top of her. I still think Elaine could have just told me it wasn't enough though.

  4. When I start with a new clinician I always give them a little spiel: I tell them that I will always try really hard. I also say that I will ask questions. Not to challenge them but so that I really understand. I finish by telling them to not worry if I'm frowning- that is just my thinking face.

    All that said I am not super impressed with the trainer as you describe the lesson. I do not believe that horses find changing bend painful- otherwise in the field they wouldn't do it. And I would be annoyed by the use of the spur behind your leg.

    But you don't have options and sometimes bad lessons are just a one-off. So go and try again but think about the value what you are getting.

    1. I think the spiel idea is a really good one, I need to start doing something like that.

      Thanks for your thoughts. I think I will give her one more chance but if anything suggests that last lesson wasn't just an anomaly I won't be back.

  5. I think you are much more forgiving than me. I hate not being able to understand things. If I ask for an explanation and am basically told "You do this because I have more experience than you." I would ignore everything else that is told to me during that lesson. I love knowing WHY something happens.

    The head up because of ouch sounds like hokey to me. My horse is an arab/saddlebred. His head is literally in the clouds all the time. You can't tell me he walks around his stall with his head up because we are forcing him to change his bend without being on him.

    I also can't get over my fury that someone thought it was okay to just come up and spur your horse without telling you. Yes I've had trainers help me when my horse is obviously just ignoring me. But to completely undermine your aids like that? After asking if you had used them? Completely unacceptable in my opinion. She is lucky Kachina didn't freak out and smack her good. Also, using spurs to ask for a bend seems like an over cue. When I used spurs, they were my 2nd choice cue. I used them as my "You didn't listen to me asking nicely, now I'm not asking." tool. I wouldn't want to overuse them and have her ignore them if you ever did need to start using them.

    Hopefully your next clinic isn't as bad but I doubt I would have signed up for another clinic in your case. But I'm also much quicker to make up my mind if I don't like something than the average I think.