I drove up to spring Elvis out of quarantine myself, rode him once, and then left for a week with about a kabillion students to our regional championships. (We had rides from training level to Grand Prix, won a bunch of stuff, and experienced a 40-degree temperature change. Fun was had by all!) I then came home, rode everyone for a few days, and then tweaked a disk in my back. And then my coach, Michael Barisone, came for a clinic. I could barely post the trot, and I’d ridden Elvis three times on U.S. soil. Perfect!
All joking aside, clinics are not an opportunity to demonstrate perfect rides and perfect riding; they’re about learning and to learn at whatever place a particular horse and rider happen to be. The timing was actually rather great (well, the back thing has sucked; I’ve rested and iced and anti-inflammatoried and seen the awesome Dr. Holly Moriarty of Haymarket Chiropractic, and I’m feeling pretty good now), because I’m still learning what normal is for Elvis, and it was really illuminating to start the process of connecting his look to his feel.
Elvis’ previous training is quite excellent. From here, my first goal is to teach him how to quicken up his hind legs without increasing the volume of his front legs within the trot. He’s got a fantastic trot, lofty and expressive; I now need to make sure that I can heat him up behind without creating so much elevation in front that he looks mechanical. His two ends match well enough, but when I add gas, the front end takes more. I need to at least make them even, and ideally reverse it, knowing I can always add more “bigness” in front when he’s a solid, confirmed Grand Prix horse at 11 or 12 or 15.
Michael was invaluable here. I didn’t fully appreciate the magnitude of how much front end I was getting when I tried to hustle him behind. Michael made me watch a video of me trotting around, and I was vaguely horrified! He had me lower Elvis’ neck to more of a training or first level way of going and then turn up the heat. Elvis was able to understand much better, and I know that it’ll just take time before he has a mechanism that will allow me the same thing with his neck and withers in an FEI posture, but it was so much better in just two days.
Elvis has the opposite problem in canter—he’s extremely efficient and needs more expression in the gait, but when I ask, he gets a bit rigid in the poll. He feels a lot like Ella in this, and I’m grateful for having learned all I learned from Ella about why one addresses these things at 6 and 7 and 8 and not at 10 and 11 and 12. So I have to multitask when I ride Elvis in canter, thinking about jump and loft, while also taking him off my hand. This is another thing that will take tremendous time, which, fortunately, I have.
A horse like Elvis is both a thrill and a tremendous responsibility, because he’s the sort of horse that, were I someone else, I could rev up and flash around the small tour on massive, massive scores, and then either break him or max him out there. I have to keep from getting greedy and make sure he’s strong enough in his back and topline to support how fantastic his legs can be. I foresee a lot of boring work in a snaffle bridle in the months to come!
Puck could also be pushed for bigger and fancier, but even if I were the kind of person to train like that, he would have killed me at 6 and 6 1/2 for attempting to do so. What’s so thrilling now is to see all of the work on boring basics pay off, as he’s developed a remarkably willing nature and ability to accept pressure and instruction. I joke that we’re in this place right now where all I can do consistently is passage and clean changes. It’s not entirely true, because on most days I can also develop lateral work, and I’ve even started teasing the very most basic idea of a canter pirouette, but I’m on the hunt for the FEI collected trot and collected canter that has both power and cadence, and while I can execute about 50 different trots and about 25 different canters, none is really the one that I want.
Puck’s MO is to bear down with his big strong Jazz underneck (he’s by Johnson, a Jazz son) and fling his fancy front legs around like a bull in a china shop. Over time he’s learned to sit and to carry, though doing so at the same time remains elusive, and to make efforts at doing all of the above without slamming on the brakes and getting pissed. He was super on Day 1 of the clinic, and on Day 2 he must have eaten his Wheaties or watched video of Valegro or something, because he was the best in his body I’ve ever felt, virtually never bearing down in front, and sure enough I was able to touch the trot and canter that I’ll want to be his normal in about two years. Wahoo!
While I’d like to take most of the credit for this epiphany, having logged a lot of miles and gotten some excellent coaching, the last piece of the puzzle for him was a happy accident—he’s terribly thin skinned and got a pinch from his noseband the day before the clinic. To give it time to heal I put him in a drop noseband, and it was like the angels sang from on high! He’s a bit of a mouthy horse, and the drop gave him amazing stability. Go figure.
Elvis and Puck are fascinating horses to develop simultaneously, because they’re the same age but could not possibly be more different in their ways of going and in their life stages. Elvis is going to be one of those horses who just goes up the levels, whose progress is relatively linear, and who—as far as I can tell at this point—is not or at least is no longer (I didn’t know him at 5!), one to argue about who’s in charge. Puck has done virtually nothing but argue, and his body has been this weird assemblage of parts, and he’s learned the things in all the wrong order just by playing with them. (He can passage and do his changes; I currently can’t really trot.) He’ll be relatively OK at third level this year and then be what I imagine will be good enough but not mind-blowing at Prix St. Georges the following year, and then whenever he’s ready to do so, he’ll come out as a banging good Grand Prix horse, as if from nowhere.
There’s no one path, and whatever path I think I’m on with either horse is inevitably going to change or be derailed completely by some unforeseeable catastrophe. But they’re terribly different now, with the probability of ending up in the same place at the same time: as good, emotionally stable Grand Prix horses at 11 or 12. Pretty cool stuff!