It's been a long road into one of the USEF High Performance Training Sessions for me. I got on the Developing Rider list, one of the lists that has access to the sessions, at the end of 2008, right as Klaus Balkenhol was stepping down, and we found ourselves without a Team Coach. The Team hired Anne only to change the criteria for access to the Training Sessions, and I was out of luck again.
But I'm on the "Invite List" now, so I got the call about Kyra Kyrklund's training session at the Hassler's farm in northern Maryland, and I got to bring not just one horse, but two. Wahoo!
First, Kyra is awesome. Our German and Dutch friends are wonderful riders and horsemen, but are a very serious, stoic people. Kyra is all business, but there is a lightheartedness to her, a twinkle in her eye that makes her a lot of fun, in and out of the arena.
Our lessons focused on the basics, which was not unexpected. The higher up you go in the sport, the more you realize no one ever has piaffe problems, or pirouette problems, or half-pass problems; they have walk, trot and canter problems. We spent the entire first day on both Ella and Midge working on my position, and my horses' response to that position—leg away so I don't hold Ella back, seat really down in the saddle so I don't get rocketed off Midge's tight back when he's being particularly squirrelly.
Kyra also had an interesting approach to dealing with horses who are strong on one rein—think about using the snaffle on the strong side, but the curb on the opposing side. A neat approach, one I'd never heard before.
Day 2 was about the work, and particularly the work both my horses struggle with most. For Ella, that's the passage, and making it compressable. I've been after this for weeks, looking for a more active hind end, taking steps more up and less out.
In a spectacular duh moment, Kyra observed that hey, dummy, instead of chasing the passage around trying to make it small, make the TROT small, and make the PIAFFE small. Hel-lo. So we made a bunch of transitions from normal trot to little trot, focusing on the rhythm, keeping it quick instead of her preferred fake-and-floaty-trot. From there, I could make quick transitions into passage, but trotting out before she fell off her hind legs. And all without holding with MY legs. Voila! More rideable passage.
Midge's lesson was particularly awesome because after warming him up, Kyra got on him. There's a very short list of people who've ever sat on Midge, and certainly none are in Kyra Kyrklund's league, so I was fairly terrified that she'd get on and go "Ack, this is the worst trained horse I've ever sat on!" Fortunately she did not, and I think she might have even liked him! Amazing!
Midge is Ella's opposite in many ways—little, quick and zippy is easy for him, so I spend a lot of time thinking floaty, floaty, floaty. So when Kyra got on and lit his tail on fire, making lots of little transitions between walk and piaffe, I was a bit worried. Would he get too hot and become unrideable? She then used that quickness of hind leg into the canter, making piaffe-canter transitions (oooh oooh oooh look at what my little cart horse can do!), which made a HUGE difference in his canter, which tends to be a little hollow and braced and croup high.
When she put me in the saddle, he was quick behind, but TOTALLY cool mentally—really an incredible testament a) to her unbelievable riding, and b) to Midge's (slowly but surely) rising maturity. She had me make the same piaffe-canter transitions, which helped me keep the canter on the hind legs instead of bursting forth onto his chest with his neck up. She acknowledged he didn't have the best canter by nature, but she was confident that I could fix it, and she also told me about a Gelder horse she rode at Grand Prix with great success and really liked. Yippee!!
Day 3 was mostly a repeat of Day 2 in what we worked on, though Kyra added a few pieces to the puzzle. For Ella, the biggest two ah-hahs were putting Ella in a little renvers, with her bent away from her lazy hind leg, which made it quicker, and having her make turn-on-the-forehand in piaffe. I'd been making turn-on-the-haunches, wanting to keep her uphill and keep her shoulders moving, but it was just sticking her hind legs in the ground. The turn-on-forehand put her in a place where her hind legs had to keep moving, whether it was up and down for piaffe, or sideways for the turn. Really helpful for the developing Grand Prix horse with a tendency to stall out or fall off the hind leg. VERY cool.
Kyra had me take the piaffe-canter transitions into the pirouettes, starting with a walk pirouette, making one or two little half-steps, then into the canter pirouette. Reminded me of a Morten Thomsen exercise he gave me for Ella last year, but with a twist. Very helpful again, and put Midge on his hind leg without jamming up his neck, something that the pirouettes have a tendency to do for him while he's still learning the coordination and balance.
I wish we'd had another day to get Kyra's approach to more things, but I know my horses also would probably have turned into big puddles after a four-day clinic.
I've got lots of good stuff to play with, and I'm feeling very confident in my horses, their abilities and their training. A really good confidence-building weekend!