I’ve ridden extensively with three of Michael Poulin’s most accomplished students—I rode with Lendon Gray all through college; I was a working student for and have an ongoing friendship with Carol Lavell, and now for almost a decade I’ve trained with Michael Barisone—but somehow I’d never ridden with Michael Poulin himself. So when the team at Barisone Dressage invited me to ride with him in a clinic, I popped Elvis on the trailer and schlepped on up, though with some trepidation.
This is a HUGELY accomplished person, and while he’s also in my educational family tree, it’s also been a long time since I’ve ridden with someone besides my regular coach. What if he’s a mean, old dinosaur? What if he’s tough on my wonderful horse, who’s going brilliantly? What if he wants to change my plan and takes the train off the tracks?
I needn’t have worried. My lessons were vastly respectful of my way with my horse, and he didn’t try and reinvent the wheel for me. He adored Elvis (let’s be real, who doesn’t?) and was tremendously kind to him and considerate of his needs and his welfare. And he was just the right amount of tough on me, with a light heart and a twinkle in his eye.
Mr. Poulin seems to me to be, above all else, a lover of horses. I had dinner with him and a few others a million years ago, and he told me—who for all intents and purposes was a stranger to him—about how he regretted times in his younger days when he’d been too hard on horses, when he’d let his ego get the best of his better judgment and it became unfair to the horse. That’s an impressive admission to bring up in casual conversation, and it really stayed with me.
And in the clinic, that love shone through. The horses were given regular breaks and rewards for good work. He praised the horses effusively and spoke about them with reverence. Mr. Poulin also showed us a tool he used in training—a fishing rod amended to make sure the eye hooks were smoothed away, because the rod was lighter and frailer than a whip, and as such couldn’t be used with aggression or force.
Creativity was the theme for me. Elvis is marvelous and game to do pretty much anything I ask. In the beginning, telling Mr. Poulin all about him, he said to me, “He sounds incredible! Where’s the hole?” And I didn’t really have an answer. The “hole” in Elvis is that he’s 8, and there’s nothing I can do to expedite the process of getting to be 10. But there are, of course, things that I can do better at this level of work, as well as the ongoing development of his strength and skill. And so we went to work.
Elvis sometimes loses the scope of the trot when we go sideways. Self-carriage with expression is a work in progress with him, and while I’m pretty handy on straight lines when I add lateral work into the mix, it’s easy for Elvis’ knees to go up but his withers also go down. I was being a good rider, making more half-halts, being inventive with my contact trying to let his front end rise, driving and holding with my seat, but Mr. Poulin suggested I stop all my hard work and, instead, make a walk transition within the half pass, letting Elvis do all the sitting and waiting.
Instant improvement. Duh!
The walk also was a good place to address the bend in the lateral work, rather than taking it all on while also managing the full power of Elvis’ trot. Work smarter, and kinder. Not harder. Simple.
Elvis has a good walk, but the Developing Prix St. Georges test doesn’t feature any walk pirouettes, and so I’ve been a little lackadaisical in my schooling of a truly collected walk. Mr. P saw through that in a second and got after me for some walk pirouettes, especially to the left (because a certain someone REALLY loves pulling on the left rein, which really doesn’t help). He had me move slowly and deliberately, really focusing on the collection. The really slow pace of the walk pirouette in this way allowed me the time to really think about how Elvis placed each foot and really challenged his body to sit and to STAY instead of just rocketing off his lovely little hind legs. And the walk pirouette was a super gateway towards playing with half steps, something I’ve only just begun to tease into Elvis’ life. I was thrilled with how helpful a trick for my toolbox that was, as I’d been addressing them from a turn on the forehand to try and keep Elvis’ hind legs moving. The walk pirouette kept them moving but also kept him sitting, something with which the turn on the forehand was not helpful.
I would have been happy with just those two little exercises to add to my repertoire, but Mr. P had one more to give me. Elvis still wants to showcase his fancy Young Horse Class Trot—the one with big front limbs and an underwhelming hind leg—in the extended trot. I don’t like practicing extended trot because it’s a good way to make your horse hurt, but I also can’t leave this exercise unaddressed. Mr. Poulin suggested I do them in a bit of a shoulder-in, which was a huge challenge at first, but Elvis eventually figured it out; he couldn’t rush off his hind legs because he’d fall down, and I got to get a word in edgewise about the hind legs tracking up. It was hugely effective, and Mr. P even had a great way to help me see the difference: He raked a spot of footing on the track and had me make two extended trots, one “Elvis’ way” and one in shoulder-in, such that I could see the footprints of his hind feet and how much farther under they came with the bit of a shoulder-in tendency. Fantastic!
Before I started working with Michael Barisone, I took clinics a lot, and I often found it frustrating. Getting lots of insights from lots of different trainers is a good way to make for an expansive toolbox, but a terrible way to keep a common thread in the training, and a terrible way to develop a cohesive path as a trainer myself. That’s pretty much verbatim what Michael told me nearly a decade ago when we started working together, and it’s one of the greatest gifts anyone’s ever given me because I feel so much clearer now than I did then about what I do and how I do it. But it was a great privilege to introduce one new voice for two days, particularly a voice so similar to the one I hear in my regular training. And it should go without saying that any opportunity to ride with a “Grand Olympian”—an Olympian himself, whose students and whose students’ students have gone on to win medals—is one I’d be foolish not to take!
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver & bronze Medalist making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s Guernsey Elvis, her and Beverley Thomas’s Ellington, and her own Gretzky RV and Ojalá with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Read more about her at SprieserSporthorse.com, or follow Lauren Sprieser on Facebook.