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5 Things We Learned from Laura Graves

The clinic with Olympic dressage rider, Laura Graves, has come and gone, but we're still replaying those lessons in our heads here at Unexpected Farm. What struck me most about these 2 days of learning is that whether a horse is schooling Training level dressage, Beginner Novice Eventing, or is working consistently at the Grand Prix level, there is so much that is the same. And a lot of it, when you break it down, is simple. But simple does not always mean easy... good thing riding is a life-long endeavor! Here are 5 of my favorite take-aways from Laura: 1. 𝗕𝗲 𝗵𝗼𝗻𝗲𝘀𝘁 𝘄𝗶𝘁𝗵 𝘆𝗼𝘂𝗿𝘀𝗲𝗹𝗳 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝘆𝗼𝘂𝗿 𝗵𝗼𝗿𝘀𝗲. The truth is, you're not always going to ride with a trainer, or someone the likes of Laura, watching you. We've got to develop self-sufficiency as riders, because that creates confidence, and that's a place that our horses can learn from. Part of developing self-sufficiency is being brutally honest with yourself, even about the little things. Do I know that my horse only gave me 50% of what I just asked for, but I let it slide because I'm feeling a little lackadaisical today? Be honest with yourself. Do I know, deep down, that what I'm asking of my horse is unreasonable? Maybe I've signed up for a show that has a water complex but I've only schooled water once this year. Be honest with yourself. These truths usually take a moment of reflection but as they add up, they become something we all can appreciate in ourselves: discipline.

2. 𝗦𝘁𝗿𝗮𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁𝗻𝗲𝘀𝘀 𝗺𝗲𝗮𝗻𝘀 𝗯𝗲𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗲𝗾𝘂𝗮𝗹𝗹𝘆 𝘀𝘂𝗽𝗽𝗹𝗲 𝗼𝗻 𝗯𝗼𝘁𝗵 𝘀𝗶𝗱𝗲𝘀. Whether you're a jumping rider or a rider who prefers to never leave the ground, straightness is a KEY part of the training scale. The longer-term product of straightness can be even, clean flying changes, or clean jumping rounds because your horse is powering off of his hind end equally. Straightness requires constant check-ins on a moment-to-moment basis in order to achieve. Can you bend your horse a little left, then a little right? When tracking on a circle, can you achieve the outside bend just as easily as the inside bend? Horses, like people, tend to favor one side over the other (hello, right-handedness!), so think of straightness as developing your horse's ability to be ambidextrous.

3. 𝗖𝗼𝗹𝗹𝗲𝗰𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻 𝗳𝗲𝗲𝗹𝘀 𝗹𝗶𝗸𝗲 𝗵𝗼𝗹𝗱𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗲𝗻𝗲𝗿𝗴𝘆 𝘁𝗵𝗮𝘁'𝘀 𝗿𝗲𝗮𝗱𝘆 𝗳𝗼𝗿 𝗲𝘅𝘁𝗲𝗻𝘀𝗶𝗼𝗻. This stuck with me all weekend, because we can often get sucked into this idea that we have to "generate" energy for collection or extension. But, as Laura reiterates, collection is the top of the training pyramid because it relies on everything else below it to be solidly established, including impulsion. That means, the energy has to ALREADY be there. Go back to #1 and check in with yourself - are you being 100% clear with your horse about your expectation regarding his level of effort and energy? Collection feels like, if you took your foot off the break, you'd fly across the ring in a Valegro-worthy extended trot.

4. 𝗧𝗵𝗲 𝗴𝗮𝗶𝘁 𝘆𝗼𝘂'𝗿𝗲 𝗶𝗻 𝘀𝗵𝗼𝘂𝗹𝗱 𝗮𝗹𝘄𝗮𝘆𝘀 𝗯𝗲 𝗿𝗲𝗮𝗱𝘆 𝗳𝗼𝗿 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗻𝗲𝘅𝘁 𝗴𝗮𝗶𝘁.

If you're riding the walk, think to yourself: could I canter from this walk? Could I do a turn on the haunches? Could I pick up a trot and trot over the crossrail at the end of the ring? As we're riding, we should aim to always have our horses responsive, forward, and focused enough that they're able to take on the next task. That is part of our job as their riders.

5. 𝗔𝗹𝗹𝗼𝘄 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗳𝗼𝗿𝘄𝗮𝗿𝗱, 𝗱𝗼𝗻'𝘁 𝗺𝗮𝗸𝗲 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗳𝗼𝗿𝘄𝗮𝗿𝗱. And finally, the most frequent lesson that Laura reiterated to nearly every rider who stepped into the ring: stop chasing your horse to create the energy. If you put your leg on, he should do something. If you cluck, he should do something. And if not, a tap with the whip to reinforce the leg must be your next step. As I often tell my students, it's actually unfair to your horse to only expect a timely, honest response from your horse some of the time. When you were in school, you were taught that 2+2=4 and that is true 100% of the time. Would it be fair if your teacher sometimes told you that 2+2=3 was correct? Or sometimes, when she was tired or distracted, tat 2+2=6 was okay too? No, because then you'd lose understanding and not know what was expected of you. If we put our leg on, there has to be a response each and every time - otherwise, our horses are left in an ambiguous gray zone where they're not sure what's truly expected of them. Thank you to Laura for bring fresh eyes and perspective to Unexpected Farm, and to all of our wonderful sponsors who made this experience possible!


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