Monday and Tuesday I took Midge and Ella up to Hilltop Farm in Maryland to ride with Morten Thomsen, a Danish trainer who made USEF's short list for the team coach position. I'd never ridden with him before, or seen him teach, so I asked Pam Goodrich what she thought.
"Go," she said.
But Midge is kinda weird and not everyone likes him, I said.
"Go," she said.
But it's crazy expensive, and I'm a poor starving artist, I said.
"Go," she said. And so we went!
Of course, on the way a tire basicallly exploded off the back of my new (to me) trailer, so I had the fun fun fun of changing a tire on the side of Interstate 66 at 6:45 a.m. on a Monday morning. Yippee. Thank God for my dad, who calmed me down (I may have been a little hysterical. Who, me?) and talked me through the process.
But we made it all in one piece, and I even got to watch a little of the ride before me as I tooled Ella around at the walk before her lesson. Now, when I work with someone for the first time, I have this terrible habit: I watch the lesson before me and listen to what the trainer says, and then I do that, whether its useful to my horse or not. I think it's a misguided attempt to be more efficient, to adopt that trainer's system. Instead, it just makes me look like an idiot.
The horse before us was working on going with a lower neck, so when I picked up Ella's trot, I put her neck down. This is a really stupid idea. When Ella is tight (which she always is in a new place), riding her neck down makes her run on the forehand with a tight, flat topline. I know this. I've known this for years. And yet here I am, riding with this fabulous clinician in Hilltop's beautiful indoor, on my stellar soon-to-be-Grand-Prix horse, zooming around on the forehand like Quarter Horse Congress on meth.
Thankfully, Morten Thomsen is very patient. Once he has me put my horse's neck where it belongs, Ella is great, and we work some beautiful trotwork, play with the rhythm at the canter, and he gives me some great help from the ground in piaffe.
When I get on Midgey, you'd think that I would have learned and would have ridden him the way I know how to ride him—neck down, soft and squishy. But I did not learn. Instead, I took a page out of Ella's book and I rode his neck up, which makes Midge look like a runaway Hackney Pony at the State Fair. Needless to say, this doesn't really work out either. And Morten very politely has me take Midge's ears out of the stratosphere and ride him properly, and Midge says "Thank God!" and trots around like a good pony and makes nice big changes with only mild hyperventillation and makes some very nice baby piaffe.
I am a moron.
Fortunately, I had salmon for dinner Monday night, which is full of Omega-whatevers that make you smarter, and I showed up on Tuesday a little better prepared to ride like a professional instead of a nincompoop. And my horses didn't hate me for it, because they worked like little troupers.
We did more lateral work with Midge, focusing on keeping him upright and freeing the inside shoulder in the half-passes (he prefers to lean into them), and did more playing with the piaffe. Morten had me think about riding out of piaffe into as suspended and floaty a trot as possible, really focusing on the transition out, as a means of getting access to passage, something I'd not yet had any success with. It'll be trickier to accomplish it on my own—Morten is QUITE skilled with the work in hand and was a great help from the ground—but I see where it's going and will certainly keep playing with it.
Ella was a little tired in the back, but put in some great efforts in the trot lateral work and piaffe, but the focus for her was the canter. She has a very adjustable canter, but it lacks in scope, and sometimes in collection she gets quicker instead of bigger. This is a particular nuisance in canter pirouettes, where she bobs around like a reining horse instead of floating around.
He gave me a wonderful exercise, using the walk pirouette into one step of canter pirouette (focusing on floaty floaty floaty), then back to either walk pirouette or, if she was falling over, a few steps of big turn on the forehand. Only letting her take one canter step kept her from rushing over and gave her confidence. It was a lovely approach, and she really liked it, so that will be a big part of her future.
I was really pleased with the clinic (minus the first day's brainfart), and I'm definitely adding Morten Thomsen to my list of favorite clinicians. He has a lovely quiet way with the horses, but he has unbelievable energy at the same time—he followed every rider around the arena on foot, all day long, without one weary step.
He's particularly talented in the work in hand, not just for piaffe and passage, but for basic work from the ground. He showed us some neat stuff with one of Hilltop's youngsters, moving him laterally from very polite cues and setting him up well for the lateral work. His command of English was excellent, and he was easy to understand.
He balanced really well the training stuff and the showring stuff—you could tell he really understood how to get horses from green to Grand Prix wisely, but he also made us understand how to achieve what we want in the ring. Mostly, he was all about forward, lightness and harmony in a really positive and correct way. And we certainly can't get enough of that!