The Dressage Foundation was kind enough to honor me with a Major Lindgren Instructor Education grant to allow me to ride with Olympic bronze medalist and living legend Mike Poulin. I have a fair bit of experience bringing lunatics up the levels, but I don’t have a lot of mileage doing it with more reasonable horses, and as I currently have two polite animals in my life—Elvis and Swagger—as well as a bunch of students on young horses that aren’t wild things, I was excited to expand my toolbox with Mike this winter, adding new tips and tricks I can use to help my students develop their FEI horses more wisely.
Annoyingly, the schedule this winter has had other plans. Mike’s travel schedule seemed to only accommodate weeks that Elvis was at a CDI—not the time to be talking about piaffe strategy, which is my primary focus on him for the year once we’re done showing. The handful of other times we’ve been able to make it work, it’s rained. But I’ve finally gotten in a few lessons, on all of my horses, and I’ve learned a ton.
Elvis came to me having done some young horse classes, and so he had a great command of a big, floaty, powerful trot that was slow behind and bearing down in front—not the kind of trot that has good piaffe in it. And to top it off, he was legitimately frightened of the whip at times, very insecure about groundwork, and even a little funny when I would change it overhand from the saddle. So it took a long time, probably a year, just to get him to settle into what the whip meant. Mike’s great advice to me was about the psychology of the horse: Fear is a useless training mechanism.
He had me work Elvis on the ground very briefly multiple times a day, just for a few minutes. I kept the emotion and expectations low, and I would just play with the whip giving me an emotion-free answer. As soon as I got one, he went back to the barn, and then I’d repeat again an hour or so later, four or five times a day. By the end, sometimes the “work” sessions were 30 seconds: Come out, stand quietly, ask with the stick for a quiet reaction, get one, big pat, back to the barn. It was amazing how quickly Elvis started to treat the work in hand like a boring part of his day instead of like a Big To-Do.
It was striking, how my mellow fellow Elvis could get so tense and fired up, and it was so valuable to have a tool to address it. The same is true of my and Beverley Thomas’ Swagger, who is 6 this year. Swagger has always been a little bit of a cool ride, not the most inspired creature on the planet, and he’s also very gummy and elastic and not always the most straightforward to keep through. Those are two tricky things to address simultaneously. But as we’ve rounded in on being 6, he’s added a new feature to his style: spooky. I find spooky to be horribly annoying, probably my least favorite of the potential vices out there. And for all that I’ve had hot, spooky horses (there have been many in my history!), I’ve not had a cold, spooky one.
Cold is a different burden to develop, because I don’t want to take lightly how crucial it is that the FEI horse be very in front of the leg, and the time to cultivate that notion in the cooler-minded horse is early in his life. But if I tried to hot him up, I’d lose both throughness and focus from him. Mike said that, for a period of time, I’d need to let the power and the energy go, and just piddle along, particularly in the beginning. He also gave me permission to use the inside rein to create submission and attention, holding him through the spooky moments and relinquishing my outside rein a bit. (I know! Gasp!) Mike reassured me that this was likely a developmental stage, but also that even if it persisted, I was developing the strategy that will give Swagger confidence that will last the rest of his life and be the tool that I use to keep him focused on me as we go forth into the big career this gifted kiddo will inevitably have.
And what was so wonderful was that, in just one ride, he settled into the work and allowed me to address the forward and the sensitivity to the leg much more than I’d been able to when I was trying to go at everything all at once. Mike assured me that this was not a one-ride fix, but I feel so much more secure now in the path ahead of me with this special horse, and I’ve added a new trick to my repertoire, one that I will certainly be able to give to my students.
Not too many of my students have had weirdos to the extent of Puck, but I think—knock wood, fingers crossed—that he might have rounded the corner on weirdo and become kind of a normal dude. And he’s certainly not the only horse in my program who’s got a lot of power and enthusiasm and not a lot of balance, so the tools Mike gave me for him are certainly going to apply elsewhere. Puck has now handled outings at third level, without emotion, and I’m looking towards the next hurdle to clear: power and expression within the base trot, while maintaining one rhythm. When I turn up the gas with Puck, he becomes Scott Joplin-esque and ceases to maintain any sort of straightness, particularly tracking to the right.
Mike had me focus very hard on my own posture and position, staying still rather than moving with him. My greatest weakness as a rider is a strength, in certain moments: I tend to be loose, which is great on loony babies and not so great on more finished products. The more still I became in my body, the more Puck was able to find his own balance. And I need to mind that I don’t end up leaning back against Puck; it doesn’t help me, for sure, but it also makes him look strong in the bridle when he’s actually not. We also worked on short bursts of more cadenced trot, rather than just blasting on and on, and started to incorporate trot-canter transitions into the more expressive trot, something I’d stayed away from because he tended to throw himself into the canter. More half-halts, before and after, kept the launching at bay. And Mike reminded me to use my inside leg to make the downward transitions, rather than the reins or my body, so his hind legs kept coming forward.
I’ve got a few more dollars left from the Lindgren Grant to put towards more lessons, but as I come to the second half of our Florida season, I’m feeling good about the path before my talented young horses and feeling incredibly grateful for the support of an organization committed to our sport and to quality instruction, both for professionals like me and amateurs like my students.
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s Guernsey Elvis, Beverley Thomas and her 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 and Instagram.