This blog has been written by Alex O'Sullivan
It is her reflections on working at Blinkbonnie and learning about the Ecole de Legerete (School of Lightness) training methodology.
Lateral work is a logical progression once you have “Initial Legerete” - Legerete at Blinkbonnie Day 9
Blinkbonnie Equestrian Centre·Friday, April 19, 2019
I’ve never really understood how to ride lateral movements. I remember when I was younger, struggling to push my horse across the arena in a leg-yield as my instructor screamed at me to ‘use my inside leg and open my inside hand!’ It was always a struggle. Shoulder-in was a struggle, travers was a struggle. The horse always seemed to want to go against the direction I wanted them to go, no matter how strongly I used my inside leg.
Suzie is a big, heavy horse who is not overly ‘schooled-up’ in dressage. Today I managed to get her to do shoulder-in to the outside and the inside, travers, and I got a brief and wonderful feeling that half-pass was a real possibility. What’s more, it wasn’t a struggle at all. I only had to learn where to place my weight and legs, and then convince myself to just sit with the movement, no ‘corrections’ needed.
How did I achieve today what I’d failed to ever fully achieve in years and years of lessons? The key was the shoulder control, which I’d been working on the previous week. In a Flechi Droite, I can separate the horse’s neck from their direction of travel, this is an exercise in shoulder control as we want the shoulders to remain straight while the neck is bent. Then, to get a shoulder-in, all I need to do is rotate my hips slightly, letting my outside leg slide back a little and the inside leg be at the girth. That’s it! No desperate pushing and pushing. The horse naturally follows the weight as it shifts.
It took me a few attempts to quiet my legs and rotate my hips without gripping. Then I had to work on not over-correcting when I felt like Suzie wanted to move off the arena wall. When I concentrated, and did only what I needed to do, I could get shoulder-in.
Then, as I rode down the long-side in a Flechi Droit, Christine told me to move Suzie’s shoulders to the fence and ‘point my bum to the inside of the arena.’Travers. Easy! The horse mirrored what I was doing. The connection was not broken by conflicting aids.The struggle was gone.
Shoulder control and demi-arret with Suzie - Legerete at Blinkbonnie Day 8
Blinkbonnie Equestrian Centre·Saturday, April 13, 2019
I’m working on my timing today, to help me control Suzie’s shoulders. Suzie tends to fall in through the right shoulder, and I work on the ground asking her to move her shoulder out. I ask her when she can do something about it, as she lifts the leg from the ground. Ask, allow, ask, allow. When I get the timing right it’s easy.
In Legerete, the raised hand acts on the corners of the horse’s mouth when asking for an action, for example a lateral flexion. When the horse responds as required, the hand should be lowered again to a neutral position, the rein shortened to keep a light contact. Ask, allow. It’s about timing. This is what I struggled with last week on Eachan. I was so pleased to get the response I wanted, I kept forgetting to return to the neutral position and allow.
In my previous training, timing was also important, but I would ask for a response, and then giving a quick release of no contact as a reward. In Legerete it’s different, now I don’t give a full release, but instead go to the light contact, so the horse stays ‘on the bit,’ but lightly. This is the feel that the horse should seek all the time, the light contact.
When I get on Suzie, I take it slowly, and practice at a walk. She’s already open to it, since we did the groundwork, so her when I ask her to move her right shoulder out, she knows what to do. She’s built like a truck, and likes to carry her head low, but when I use my hands correctly, she lightens. Ask, allow. Demi Arret to ask her to lift her head, return my hands to neutral position. I keep doing it over and over, hoping to build good habits for myself, just as we do for the horse.
Neck Exextension - Legerete at Blinkbonnie Day 7
Blinkbonnie Equestrian Centre·Saturday, April 6, 2019
I’ve been thinking about contact more and more, and with Eachan, I’m given the opportunity to practice the ‘action–reaction’ rein aid. This is an upward pressure on the mouth to ask for a neck extension (CM Note: in other words to tighten the rein by taking it down and forward). Eachan has been doing neck extensions for me when I simply let the reins slide through my fingers, but ‘action-reaction’ is something I need to learn, so I try it with him.
It’s a bit tricky. I have to hold my hands higher than I’m used to and keep them there until I get the reaction I want. Eachan doesn’t work it out straight away, and we have to go back to teaching it from the ground several times before he does. His tendency is to evade the bit by tucking his nose behind, instead of bringing it forward. When he finally does stretch down and forward it’s such a relief, but I’m scared to move in case I ruin it.
There are times that I feel as if Legerete is an extremely delicate operation. It’s amazing satisfying when it works, but the line between working and not working feels fragile, easily broken. I’m still so new to it that I haven’t built muscle memory into my aids yet, so they feel unusual to me. But I love the idea of training the horse to seek the light contact, wherever you choose to take it. What this means is that I can ask for a high head carriage, a lateral flexion or a neck extension and the horse will always seek the position I ask for, knowing that a light contact awaits him there. The horse sits ‘on the bit’ when I can feel his mouth lightly in my fingers.
But I’m still a little slow at returning to the lightest feel as soon as the horse finds the position I want. I try a few lateral flexion’s (fleche droit) at trot down the long side and keep forgetting to return my hand to a neutral position when Eachan responds. It’s about timing. I worry that my timing is not there yet. It seems more important to get the timing right with Legerete, because the aids are so precise, there is less margin for error. Yet it is the fact that it is so precise that makes it logical for the horse, and most importantly, respectful.
Riding the “breaker” Joules using EdL principals - Legerete at Blinkbonne Day 6
Blinkbonnie Equestrian Centre·Tuesday, April 2, 2019
It’s my second time riding Joules, and I’m on my own in the arena today, with no assistant to help with the ‘walk on’ aid. I give her a gentle squeeze, not expecting much, but she walks on willingly, then stops as if to ask, ‘Did you really want walk on?’ ‘Yes,’ I remind her with a gentle bump of my legs, ‘I want walk on.’ She walks a little drunkenly towards the side of the arena, and it’s difficult for me to drape my leg and not over-correct by squeezing and squeezing.
She’s better once she’s following the rail, and I think about keeping a light contact with her mouth. She is so good at the rein aids in groundwork, that I’m hyper aware of my hands as I’m riding – I don’t want to stuff up all that good work. I’ve been thinking about contact and collection a lot this past week, as my eye has become more tuned to the position of the horse’s head as it relates to their bio-mechanics, to what is natural for the horse.
It’s like what I was thinking about with Eachan last week, when considering his longitudinal balance in the canter – the neck is a balancing pole, if he is heavy on the forehand, he needs to lift his head up to counter this, so it’s lucky he is well-trained in the demi arret rein aid which asks him to do this. Joules doesn’t have this problem, yet it is still essential that I seek a light contact from the very beginning, so that I don’t have to work harder down the track to undo a hard mouth, or worse, resort to tight nosebands, harsh bits or side-reins and other gadgets pulling her into a false collection with no self-carriage. The last thing I want to do is pull her around with heavy hands from the get-go.
When I used to ride breakers, I’d pull them this way and that to get them to turn, I’d slap them up to get them to go forward. I was younger and braver then, but also less aware. What I’m doing now is a much more careful and considered approach. It’s setting a standard for the future.
Note from Christine : Joules is a 4yo filly by our stallion Linbil White Russian from our TB mare Stellar. As with all of my other foals by Linbil White Russian she has been a quick learner with a pretty cool and calm approach to being handled, she has been in training since she was 2.5 yo, starting with learning about groundwork with the cavesson and in-hand bridle work, getting used to the girth and saddle as well as the feel of someone on her back. Now as a 4yo she is ready to progress to some more ridden work but we will be mindful of her maturing mind and body for the next year.
At Blinkbonnie we have a well established young horse program helping clients to design a program for their young horses and providing lessons and training guidance progressing from first principals through to first rides and more advanced work.
Impulsion, Yes! Balance ? - Legerete at Blinkbonnie Day 5
Blinkbonnie Equestrian Centre·Friday, March 22, 2019
I had my first ride on Joules today. It was helpful to have a feel of a horse right at the start of their riding. The progression from groundwork to riding work is very logical, the rein aids are the same, and Christine and I worked at linking the ‘go’ aid from the ground (a tap from the whip) with my leg aid for ‘walk on.’ After only a few tries Joules is soon moving into walk from my leg without any need for the whip.
Christine tells me to reduce my leg aid back to a gentle squeeze and see what happens, and the first time I try this I’m too impatient, resorting to a tap with the whip when Joules hesitantly thinks about walking on. I should have waited and let her make the connection. I try again and this is exactly what happens, Joules gives me a walk from a gentle squeeze after a moment’s thought.The moments thought will soon be reduced, but for now, we are more than happy with a correct response.
When I jump on Eachan, I decide to test his responses for comparisons sake. I ask him to stop and then give him the lightest touch with my legs. He walks on briskly and immediately and he is just as responsive in trot. Ah, so we do have impulsion! What I perceived to be a lack of impulsion last week may have been due to my hesitancy with the unfamiliar aids. This week, I’m much more confident pressing Eachan’s buttons, and I find him fun and responsive. I easily mix up the work, asking for different movements in walk and trot and in both directions. All his buttons work so well!
The only hiccup is when I ask for canter, and he wants to suck back underneath me. My old style would tell me to sit deep and drive him forward with my seat and legs, but instead I try a few demi arret aids, asking Eachan to lift his head and rebalance. It works. His tendency to fall on his forehand (which feels like sucking back) now seems to be our biggest problem, so rather than pushing for impulsion, I need to be seeking better longitudinal balance by asking him to lift his head. When he is balanced, and I am confident, the impulsion is already there.
Impulsion ? - Legerete at Blinkbonnie Day 4
Blinkbonnie Equestrian Centre·Saturday, March 16, 2019
Joules gives me a friendly nicker when I catch her, and I convince myself that she’s super keen to do another session with me. I give her a piece of carrot to cement our friendship, but this backfires a bit during the head positioning exercises as she’s sniffing for more carrots and tilting her head. It’s important during the lateral flexion that the horse keeps their nose straight, so I re-position her and try again. I’m watching carefully for any slight tilt, obvious errors are often easier to fix, it’s the subtleties that are tricky.
This is true also for the riding. Sitting atop Eachan, I wonder what our Flechi Droit looks like from the ground.It’s new for me, so I have no basis for comparison. Is he titling his head slightly as he turns it? It doesn’t feel like he is. I assume we are doing it correctly until we wobble off the wall of the arena. I must have shifted my weight. I find it helpful to repeat the phrase to myself – ‘weight goes in the direction of travel’ – and next time we have more success. This phrase also helps me to move Eachan off and back onto the wall while maintaining the flexion. I feel as if I’m very gently pointing my hip towards where I want to go, like flicking on the indicator in the car.
The thing I struggle with mostly with Eachan is knowing how to handle a lack of impulsion. I want to push him forward every stride, I want to squeeze my legs around him. I realise this is partly a nervous reaction. I feel more in control when I’m pushing the horse around. There’s an element of ‘letting go’ involved in stripping the aids back to the essentials – sometimes doing less feels disconcerting.
I am much more confident with big Suzie than I was last time I tried to position her head with the cavesson. She needs more convincing than Joules, but that doesn’t mean she won’t do it. She prefers to move than stand still, so we have a walk first before I do the standing exercises, going off the idea that relaxation is paramount. It works well. For the horse and for me.
Joules and Eachan - Legerete at Blinkbonnie Day 3
Blinkbonnie Equestrian Centre·Saturday, March 9, 2019
I’m left to my own devices this week, with Christine away at a clinic riding Linbil White Russian with visiting EdL licensed instructor Edit Kappel, so it’s a great opportunity to test just how much information from the last two weeks has sunk in. I jump on Eachan and take up the reins, expecting to forget everything the moment we start walking. But I walk a few warm up circles and then on the long-side I ask for Flechi Droit, a lateral flexion. Eachan responds immediately while I remind myself to keep my body still and forward, so we won’t slide off the arena wall. We keep traveling straight and I’m ridiculously pleased.
I go through some other movements, including moving Eachan off and back onto the long-side while maintaining a lateral flexion, then doing volte’s in a neck extension. Eachan is beautiful at ‘taking the rein’ in the neck extension, though sometimes I have to remind him not to go too low with a demi arret - the rein aid to ask him to lighten the contact (lift his head). I’m talking to myself in French, using the names of each movement to keep focused, and I’m glad no one is listening. I give Eachan frequent little rests because I’m so impressed with him. I’m surprised every time something works, because I seem to be doing so little. I’m still getting used to the ‘hanging leg,’ that does nothing, and only turning my body as far as the horse’s ears in the volte. It’s all physically easy, but mentally taxing, like learning a new language.
Later, I work Joules on the lunge. First, I practice positioning her head using the cavesson, and I find her very responsive. Remembering M.Karl’s advice about the discipline of walking on the lunge, I spend the better half of our session doing just that, keeping Joules relaxed as a priority – this is also self-serving, as I know I will be the one riding her very soon and I’d prefer her to be on the quieter side. I have her changing direction and moving each shoulder away from me at a walk before we start the trot work.
I can feel the possibility of positioning her head from the end of the lunge line, and I can control her shoulders easily by pointing the whip. I’m starting to see the logic in the progression of the training. It all slots together, each piece complementing the next, so that nothing comes as a big surprise to the horse. The surprises are all mine.
Ecole de Legerete Day 2 - 1st ride with Eachan, doing less.
Blinkbonnie Equestrian Centre·Friday, March 1, 2019
This week we started at the start, by watching some videos of Philippe Karl and High Noon at the beginning of their training together. I can see that High Noon wanted to rush early on, and M.Karl spends a lot of time walking him on the lunge. He explains that the walk is both a warm up for the muscles and an exercise in discipline. I have noticed in my own training that when I take the time to properly walk the horse first, I usually have a better session.
There is a lot of discussion about the different positioning of the horse’s head. At first, I was a little taken aback by the ‘high’ head position, because I was always taught that high means hollow through the back. But after watching High Noon working with a light self-carriage, I comment, ‘It’s no different to what you see horses doing in the paddock.’ This tells me that it’s something the horse is designed to do. It’s important to also note that each head position is only held for a few moments at a time, and strength is built up gradually. Another thing to note is that Philippe Karl never uses side-reins or other gadgets, because he believes that the position of the horse’s head only has validity when the horse is free to refuse it. I think this is a beautiful ethos.
In the arena, I watch Christine positioning Hamish’s head as she stands on the ground. I pay close attention to his body. I can see now that it’s about finding those points of balance and never pushing past them. Watching how responsive Hamish is under saddle confirms the point of the ground exercises. When it’s my turn to ride Eachan, I find that I can achieve a separation of the neck and the body through inside flexion very easily (Flechi Droit), and I can direct Eachan by simply shifting my hands. Christine tells me off for trying to use my inside leg, which is the result of years of having instructors scream at me to use my inside leg, to push the horse around the arena with my legs. This is not what this is about. It’s about isolation of each aid. Hands control the shoulders, legs control the quarters. In a way it’s easier than the method I was taught.The most difficult thing for me, is learning to do less.
Intro to the Ecole de Legerete - working at Blinkbonnie Day 1
Blinkbonnie Equestrian Centre·Friday, February 22, 2019
Today I had my introduction to Legerete. I watched a video of Philippe Karl and High Noon, which was an insight into the end result of the training. Though there is obviously no ‘end’ to horse training, and one of the first things Philippe talks about is ‘checking in’ with the basics before moving on to more advanced moves.
The two things I notice about High Noon are his impulsion and his lightness. He moves with expression and elasticity. But admiring the experts is only the start, and we get down to the nitty gritty of discussing the Training Scale next.
The Training Scale makes logical sense on paper, although some of it does counter what I’ve been previously taught. In practice, with Suzie in the arena, I find the standing in front of her and using the cavesson to get her to put her head up and down a little odd.
Once we start moving though, I’m having fun. I always enjoy ground work, it’s satisfying to move with the horse and have the horse respond to your body position beside them, though this new technique makes me feel like a complete beginner when I yell out across the arena, “How do I stop her again?”
It’s always challenging to try out a different training technique, it needs unlearning along with learning. I don’t think it’s something that can be taken on lightly, and at this stage I still have more questions than answers. But isn’t that what horse training is all about?