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Mounted Medieval Weaponry: Using Dressage For Its Original Purpose

A rider takes on a row of heads at a mounted weaponry clinic. Photo by Biz Stamm.

After seeing all of the incredible mounted combat in Wonder Woman, I was reminded of an excellent clinic I attended this past fall. Hands on Horse Training in Aumsville, Oregon, run by mounted weaponry extraordinaire Troy Griffith, frequently offers clinics combining classical riding theory with weapon-wielding!

Keep in mind that classical horsemanship was developed for use on the battlefield, something we so quickly forget while partaking in dressage.

Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE competitive sandbox prancing, but when I noticed there was a mounted medieval clinic being offered so close to home, I thought it would be a great opportunity to get back to the roots of my sport while exposing the baby horse to some new and interesting things.

The day of the clinic was a rainy blustery one in Oregon, and it turns out that the other clinic attendees decided that riding outdoors in that kind of weather was not something they wanted to do, meaning private weaponry lesson for me! This actually turned out to be quite fortuitous because I wound up needing all the help I could get.

First things first: in order to wield a weapon, one must be able to ride one-handed. At the time of the clinic, my little horse, Helix, was still quite green. I had spent a little time in the week prior to the clinic making sure that Helix would turn off my seat and leg, which he did pretty well. He did pretty well the day of the clinic as well … until the practice lance was added to the equation.

It turns out that carrying a giant lance in one hand (and the one I was using was quite small compared to the one Troy was using to demonstrate!) will change your balance a little. Throw in my lackluster motor skills and we had a full blown mess on our hands. I really struggled to properly weight my seat bones, and the fact that Helix didn’t deposit me on the ground with how much I was bumping him with the lance speaks to his incredibly generous soul.

“What the heck are you doing up there?!” Helix wonders. Photo by Ana Barros.

About an hour into the clinic, we were starting to get the hang of the whole steering with lance in-hand thing (kind of) so Troy had us approach a target at a breakneck walk. (What were you expecting? Gallop? I could barely steer!)

When approaching a target, you must go from resting position with the lance perpendicular to the ground to ready position with the lance parallel to the ground, pointing at your target. As you move past the target, the lance goes back into resting position. This involves twisting your wrist in a fashion that appears quite simple, but that I found shockingly difficult.

After we finished with our lance training, we moved on to swordsmanship. I have an extensive LARPing (live action role playing) history from my super cool existence as a high schooler, so I was pretty sure I was going to be awesome at this part of the clinic.

For swordsmanship, we were to weave in and out of a set posts, similar to pole bending, while knocking a head off each post as we moved past it. Again, steering proved to be a bit of an issue at first, but we actually did OK after a couple attempts.

The exercise was made even more fun when Troy told me to imagine the heads on the posts as the heads of my enemies. At first I had trouble coming up with people I would consider enemies, but after a little bit of thought, I decided Handsome Jack, Lord Voldemort and that guy who tailgated my horse trailer would do just fine.

Jupiter bravely carries me towards the target. Photo by Ana Barros.

For the afternoon session Troy generously offered me the use of his horse, Jupiter. Baby Helix was clearly tired, and Troy thought it would be fun to try out some of the weaponry exercises on a horse that was trained for the job. Boy was he right!Jupiter expertly guided me through the same exercises which had seemed so difficult on Helix. It wasn’t just that he was trained for this particular job that made the ride so enjoyable — it was that he was generally a well-trained, seasoned horse.

While I definitely struggled a bit during the clinic, it was a good, productive, and FUN struggle. Helix and I still have several weapons to try out, so we will be planning a trip back to Troy’s sometime in the near future. Until then, I will just have to pretend I’m wielding a sword as I ride my voltes and leg yields.

Specializing in starting young horses under saddle at Stamm Sport Horse LLC, Biz Stamm brings the analytical approach she has acquired while working in laboratory to her training. While she is currently pursuing competitive goals, her main goal is to enjoy her horses, and for her horses to enjoy her.

Best of HN: 4 Ways Jumping Has Made My Horse (& Me!) Better at Dressage

My little Kiger mustang, DB’s Alpha Helix, is my up and coming dressage star. While he is just about to compete in his first recognized show at training level I often find myself daydreaming of passaging across the arena at Devon with Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros’ “Cool N Out” playing in the background.

Helix showing his dressage chops at an Oregon League show. Photo by Sarah Kress

I was convinced from the moment I laid eyes on him that he was going to be my FEI horse and I know if I can give him the training he needs and deserves, he can get me there. So if my goals with him are 100% dressage related why the heck would I spend one or two days per week working on courses and gymnastic lines?

It all began after our last show. While Helix was great during our tests, he was difficult to manage in the warmup. I board at a small, quiet barn, and frequently have the arena to myself when I ride, so it came as a bit of a surprise when Helix felt the need to pass any horse that might happen to be in front of him. This typically involved breaking into the million-mile-a-hour sewing machine trot which is absolutely no fun to ride, and pretty counter-productive while trying encourage relaxation and stretch over the back.

When a friend asked me if I’d like to go along with her to group jump lesson at Willamette Sport Horses , I thought it would be the perfect opportunity for Helix to practice riding in an arena with other horses without chasing them down. I also knew that head trainer, Brook Phillips, would create a fun, inviting atmosphere where I wouldn’t feel judged and could just go have a good time with my horse.

Helix had done some trot/canter poles, and some x-rails here and there, but I had never really jumped him before. Immediately I was shocked by how game he was, and how well he was actually able to jump. The boy has some ability!

A couple weeks after incorporating jumping into our training program, I was equally shocked by how much our dressage improved as a direct result of the jump cross training. We dressage riders always like to preach to riders of other disciplines that incorporating dressage into their training will improve their performance, and it’s totally true! It turns out it is also true that cross training your dressage horse with a little jumping will have a pretty amazing impact on the performance of both horse and rider.

Here are the four main areas I saw improvement as a direct result of our work over fences on top of the fact he can now remain civilized in a busy arena.

Improved quality of canter: The lower levels of dressage require very little canter, and as a result I think we often school the canter less than we actually should while riding at those levels. It is amazing what merely cantering more will do for the quality of the canter, and when you are cantering courses, you definitely canter more than you would in a training/first level test.

On top of that, jumping demands the development of an adjustable canter with a bit more urgency than words on a page telling you to “lengthen the stride” and “return to working canter.” There’s a freaking obstacle in front of you, and you need to get to the proper point for optimal lift off or else you’ll find yourself grabbing mane and hanging on for dear life! Jumping also requires the horse to sit on its haunches to push off before a fence. What a great way to start building hind end strength required for collected gaits.

Helix jumping ~2’9′ quite well even though mom set him up for a long spot.

Core strength: We all know that the sitting trot requires TONS of core strength to achieve that quiet, effortless look, and we all know that every time we watch Laura Graves ride, we will be reminded just how inadequate our own core strength is. I feel like sitting trot gets all the hype for the “strong core” requirements, and riding in two-point is never given the core-busting street cred it deserves. While standing in the stirrups, your core MUST be engaged in order to stabilize your precariously perched body. Go trot around in your two-point for five minutes. I dare you. Your horse’s back will thank you when it comes time to sit.

Confidence/bravery: I think there is something very powerful about a task that can be tangibly accomplished in terms of developing a confident horse. Your horse has no idea what a good transition, a correctly positioned shoulder-in, and a perfectly elastic stretch circle are supposed to look like, but there is something that seems so comprehensible to a horse about having an obstacle in front of him/her and successfully making it to the other side. It seems to translate to “I did the thing!” which quickly evolves into “I can do things!” and a horse with that confident, can-do mentality can take on the world!

In order to ensure the creation of a confident partner, it is immensely important that you provide obstacles with which your horse can easily achieve success, and only increase the difficulty when you are completely sure he/she is ready.

A confident Helix is a happy Helix! Photo by Biz Stamm.

Fun!: Jumping is really fun, and a I think when a horse/rider are joyful in their work, the outcome will always be better.

So go ahead, DQ’s! Give it a shot. Set up some x-rails and let the fun begin!

Go riding!

Biz Stamm is a horse trainer/mad scientist who enjoys spending her free time running like a gentle breeze in the Oregon foothills. Specializing in starting young horses under saddle at Stamm Sport Horse LLC, she brings the analytical approach she has acquired while working in laboratory to her training. She currently owns two horses: the Kalvin Cycle (Kalvin), an 11-year-old half-Arabian gelding, and DB’s Alpha Helix (Helix), a 6-year-old Kiger mustang gelding. While she is currently pursuing competitive goals, her main goal is to enjoy her horses, and for her horses to enjoy her.

Photo by Ana Barros

Dressage Leg vs. Jumping Leg, & How to Use No-Stirrup November to Benefit Both

This article originally appeared on our sister site, Horse Nation.

Your horse called. He said he has a monkey on his back. No, he wasn’t referring to his increasingly problematic peppermint addiction — he was referring to you and your seemingly aimless approach to No-Stirrup November. So as we continue our journey through this month of stirrupless bliss, how do we ensure that what we are doing will actually benefit our riding? The first step is recognizing that what makes a good leg for one discipline just might be the antithesis of what you need for another.

Dressage Leg

Function: While riding dressage, your leg has two major functions: aiding the horse and deepening your center of gravity so it is as close to the horse’s back as possible. It needs to do this while creating as little tension as possible to allow your seat to move with the horse.

Form: Your weight is passively sinking into your heel, but you are not forcing it as that creates tension and tension is the enemy of a soft seat. Your calf, thigh and hips are relaxed allowing for your horse to register the slightest contraction of your calf as an aid, and your seat to move with your horse.

Photo by Morgan Gardner.

No-stirrup exercises:

General guidelines for riding without stirrups: Think about keeping your leg long and relaxed with a slightly flexed ankle. Contract calf and thigh muscles only when aiding the horse, remembering to release the aid immediately after you get a response from your horse. DO NOT CLING TO THE HORSE WITH YOUR LEGS!

  • Leg pedal: For this exercise, let your legs hang long, and point your toes in so your heels are slightly turned away from your horse. Then by alternately bending each knee, pedal your legs back and forth. This exercise is great for stretching out the hip flexors and keeping the low back soft.

via GIPHY

  • Toe point/ankle flex: Keep those ankles flexible! A consistently flexible ankle is way more important than a deep heel when it comes to dressage.

via GIPHY

 Grounded exercises:

  • Forward bend: It is imperative to keep the back of the leg long and the lower back soft. A simple forward bend is an easy way to help make that happen.
forward bend

Photo by Biz Stamm.

  • Standing hip stretch: Tight hips are frequently the cause of a discontinuous seat and a leg position that comes too far forward. The standing hip stretch is a quick and easy exercise you can do before hopping on your horse. Cross one ankle so that it lies across the opposite knee and push your hips back until you feel a comfortable level of stretch. Repeat on the other side.
standing hip stretch

Photo by Biz Stamm.

 

Jumping Leg

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Morgan Gardner on Marika exhibiting an exemplary lower leg. Photo by Charlotte Gardner.

Function: This is what is commonly referred to as your “base of support.” It is literally what keeps you in place on your horse as he soars gracefully over a jump. In order for your leg to be a solid base of support, it must remain stationary as your hip angle is closed by the upward thrust of your your horse’s jump.

Form: The main differences between a dressage leg and a jumping leg are when you are jumping you are actively pushing weight down into your heel and the contact of your calf with your horse’s side is increased. Ideally, your calf stays in contact with the horse’s side just at the girth unless you need to do something like aid a canter transition, or help your horse hold a bend around a tight turn. This form is partially shaped by the typically shorter stirrup-length used when jumping, but since this is No Stirrup November, you’re on your own, kids!

No-stirrup exercises:

General guidelines for riding without stirrups: Ride as if your stirrups were still there. Recreate the same knee and hip angle you would have if you were riding with stirrups, and keep that ankle flexed!

  • Posting trot: A common mistake I see when people are posting the trot with stirrups is that they catapult themselves out of the saddle every stride. Posting without stirrups really forces you to allow the bounce of the horse’s stride lift you out of the saddle. The key to keeping the posting motion smooth and protecting your horse’s back is to stabilize yourself with your core at the top of the post, and making sure you have adequate calf contact to slowly lower yourself back into the saddle.
  • Posting canter: While the posting trot is ubiquitous, the posting canter seems mostly to be utilized by the hunter crowd these days. Done without stirrups, it is a great way to improve the independence of your seat.

Grounded exercises:

  • Squats: Squats are a great way to improve hamstring and glute strength. We riders tend to have obscenely strong legs as it is, so you might find it necessary to add some weight to make this exercise effective. I find a paunchy kitten works quite well for this purpose.
squat

Photo by Biz Stamm.

  • Lunges: Again, thigh strength is imperative to be a good jumper. The lunge gives you an entire leg workout in one exercise.
lunge

Photo by Biz Stamm.

  • Downward Dog: With all this strengthening, it’s important to remember that you’ll still need your depth of heel when you take your stirrups back. The downward dog is great for keeping the back of the leg soft, allowing you to keep your “heels down!” just like your instructor is always yelling at you to do.
Downward Dog

Cat optional. Photo by Biz Stamm.

I hope this little bit of guidance can help make your No-Stirrup November a bit more productive, because as the saying goes, “perfect practice makes perfect,” not “desperately clinging to your horse’s back makes perfect.”

Go riding!

Biz Stamm is a part-time seed scientist and full-time trainer/riding instructor at Stamm Sport Horse LLC specializing in starting young horses for sport horse disciplines. She brings the analytical mind she developed while working in a lab to her riding and teaching, emphasizing a thorough understanding of how the horse’s body works. She currently owns two horses: the Kalvin Cycle (Kalvin), a 10-year-old half-Arabian gelding, and DB’s Alpha Helix (Helix), a 5-year-old Kiger mustang gelding. While she is currently pursuing competitive goals, her main goal is to enjoy her horses, and for her horses to enjoy her.

Back to Basics: The Elusive 20-Meter Circle

Ah, yes. The 20-meter circle, something that seems like it should be so simple, but still winds up looking like amoeba with flailing pseudopodia. Is it because we all failed geometry in high school, or is it harder than it looks? I’m gonna go with the latter, if only to feel better about myself.

illustration by Joseph Leidy, 1879

Illustration by Joseph Leidy, 1879

So what is the purpose of riding a 20-m circle? First off, it is a simple test of geometric accuracy. Schooling figures helps to strengthen and supple the horse, but only if the figures are ridden accurately. Inaccurately-ridden figures can lead to incorrect alignment and asymmetrical muscle development, so being accurate matters even while schooling.

The most common geometrically-based mistake I see is caused by the unmistakable gravitational pull of the rail. Being away from the rail is scary, so people have a tendency to stick to it, and instead of riding circles they wind up riding squares with rounded corners. If you find yourself on the rail for more than one stride, you are not riding a circle. I repeat! You are not riding a circle!

This is not a circle:

Not a circle. Illustration by Biz Stamm.

Illustration by Biz Stamm.

This IS a circle:

Illustration by Biz Stamm.

Illustration by Biz Stamm.

Aside from testing our geometry skills, the 20-m circle requires us to create bend throughout our horse’s body with our inside seat bone and inside leg, while controlling the degree of bend with the outside rein. You know how people are always yelling “inside leg to outside rein!” That. You need to be able to do that.

Why, you ask? (P.S. you should always ask “why?”) First off, lateral flexion (bending side to side) supples the horse over the back allowing for increased flexibility. Secondly, a horse exhibiting a correct bend will be stepping diagonally under the belly by engaging the abdominal muscles, encouraging him to lift his back and become round. Check in with my previous article to learn about the importance of a round back.

Lastly, when the horse bends, you’ll notice his neck presses into the outside rein as shown in the figure below, creating increased pressure in your outside hand. You have two choices. You can either open your ring finger or release your outside hand forward to allow for bend, which you will want to do to a certain extent on a 20-m circle, or you can keep your outside hand static and use that pressure on the outside rein as a restraining aid. So seeing that the pressure in the outside rein comes from the bend in the horse’s body, and the bend in the horse’s body is coming from your inside leg, you are essentially creating pressure in the outside rein, which can be used to slow or rebalance the horse, with your inside leg. OMG! There’s that inside leg to outside rein thing again!

Illustration by Biz Stamm.

Illustration by Biz Stamm.

Ok, so I know I started off this series telling you not to drill test movements, but the 20-meter circle is one worth drilling. You will be aligning, suppling and strengthening the horse by doing so. As I stated before, riding accurate figures is a key part of schooling, so I’m going to give you a few tips to ride an accurate 20-m circle.

Start off by asking your horse for the appropriate amount of bend for a 20-m circle. This will require some trial and error and/or someone helping you from the ground. Then just move forward while holding that bend and you should create a perfect circle. I like to imagine it like an ice skater carving a circle in the ice. Find your bend and carve that circle!

Go riding!

This post originally appeared on EN’s sister site, Horse Nation.

Biz is the author of Horse Nation’s “Back to Basics” series, which follow the journey of a “somewhat ordinary” horse and rider pair as they strive for greatness. Catch up on her past columns by clicking here.

Biz Stamm is a part-time seed scientist and full-time trainer/riding instructor specializing in starting young horses for sport horse disciplines. She brings the analytical mind she developed while working in a lab to her riding and teaching, emphasizing a thorough understanding of how the horse’s body works. She currently owns two horses: the Kalvin Cycle (Kalvin), a 9-year-old half-Arabian gelding, and DB’s Alpha Helix (Helix), a 4-year-old Kiger mustang gelding. While she is currently pursuing competitive goals, her main goal is to enjoy her horses, and for her horses to enjoy her.

biz profile

Clinic Report: George Morris … with Memes

"Just like people expect a bit of a show when they attend a George Morris clinic, they also expect George Morris clinic recaps to be presented in meme form." Biz Stamm reports on her recent experience.

This post originally appeared on EN’s sister site, Horse Nation.

This past weekend I had the absolute privilege of attending a George Morris clinic in Wilsonville, Oregon. I am primarily a dressage rider, but have begun to dabble in the jumpers with my horse, Kalvin, who was dissatisfied with a dressage-centric lifestyle.

I was hoping to gain some useful insight on riding him, which I did, but if I’m being honest with myself, I really just wanted to watch George yell at people. That is what he is famous for, and that is what we expect.

George did not disappoint. He began the clinic by giving a stern talking to a group of spectators who were fawning over a dog when he was trying to begin. “This is a riding clinic!” he said. “Not a dog petting clinic!”

Throughout the day George was tough on riders, spectators, and the jump crew just as expected, but in addition to a bit of a show and some good jumping advice, I got something quite unexpected out of the clinic, a full-on dressage lesson.

It turns out that George is a student of the classical German school. He stressed the importance of keeping the horse in front of the leg and had riders schooling shoulder-in, renvers, and travers during the flat portions of the lessons.

He was also quite generous with praise when it was due, and given the quality of horses and riders at the clinic, praise was frequent. The highlight of the clinic was the last group of riders which included Olympian and World Cup Champion, Rich Fellers, along with his wife, Shelly, who is quite the rider in her own right. Watching George teach such a talented group was a real pleasure and truly inspirational.

Of course, just like people expect a bit of a show when they attend a George Morris clinic, they also expect George Morris clinic recaps to be presented in meme form. I’m not one to disappoint, so here are my favorite gems:

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Go George. Go riding.