“It’s good, but you can make it better” was a phrase heard repeatedly from Steffen Peters. The beautiful Raven Hill Farms in Florida, New York hosted him at a clinic on October 8 and 9.
The five-time Olympian saw a group of talented horses and riders, but his keen eye for details and refusal to compromise helped them get even more quality. There were some common themes among the rides with tips and perspectives that can be utilized regardless of the horse and rider’s level.
Peters stressed to think like a horse instead of like a human. Often, things will be logical to a horse that the rider might not consider. For example, after doing exciting work like flying changes, it may take some time to settle the horse into a quality walk.
In addition, Peters reminded the riders that “Collection is secondary. Energy and suppleness are number one.” He also wanted everyone to understand that the horse “letting go” is not necessarily just physical or biomechanical. Many horses also must let go mentally, and that can take some time.
He also said not to struggle through a movement. If you are having trouble with something, make it simpler. Have a plan A, B and C for the horse, and always reward when the horse does something right.
Peters said that many people ask him for exercises they can do to build a horse’s strength. He feels that increased strength is a positive side effect of correct work with mindful training. It happens throughout the ride and not just with any particular exercise.
Test the Sensitivity
Peters was adamant that the rider does not carry the horse around. His premise was that you set up the movement, test the sensitivity of the horse and then see if the horse can carry on with the movement on his own. He stressed that movements must become reliable at home so you can count on them in the show ring.
While it is tempting for the rider to keep pushing the horse when he’s behind the leg, it is not beneficial. Stay picky about the reaction to the leg, rein, etc. Allowing the horse to make a mistake, and then catching it, provides an excellent training opportunity. But he stresses that you must be picky and fix the mistake otherwise the horse won’t learn.
From an equipment standpoint, the spur should only be used when needed. Otherwise, the heels should be kept away from the sides of the horse. Likewise, the whip should be used to engage the hindlegs in collection; not just to send the horse forward.
Focus on the Walk
Peters said that he might ride his horse for an hour, but only about 20 minutes of that is collected work. He also suggests doing the harder collected work earlier in the ride before the horse gets tired. Then he said he spends about 50% of his time in walk. The quality of the walk and seamlessly going from extended walk to collected walk is extremely important. Typically, horses slow down in the walk so plan for that. In the extended walk, he said not to settle for a six. Instead, work on getting the most out of the horse and ask for an eight.
With a hot horse, you may need to be more tactful in the walk. A horse that gets quick in the walk needs to focus on a slower rhythm, but not a slower pace. If a half-halt doesn’t work, then ride a full halt. The horse should stand square and on the bit in the halt. If you give the rein in halt, the horse shouldn’t move. A sensitive horse often needs to stay in halt longer so that he mentally relaxes. Peters emphasized not to lower your standards in the training and take as much time as needed for the horse to let go of tension.
Continuing with the walk, Peters also stressed the importance of the walk/canter transition. If the horse struggles with the walk/canter transition, he will struggle with the flying change. Therefore, he wanted high quality walk/canter transitions before focusing on the flying change.
When asking for canter from the walk, if the horse instead takes trot steps, Peters suggested going forward first (in trot or canter) and then repeat the transition. Don’t just bring the horse back to walk and try again.
He also felt that the quality of the gaits will improve with transitions within the gaits. It doesn’t have to be a huge difference. A slight lengthening and then coming back, done correctly and in balance, will be beneficial. He equated a down transition to a plane landing. The landing gear has to be under the body and come down first. If the gear on the nose comes first, “it doesn’t go so well.”
After the last ride on Saturday, Peters took a few moments to talk to attendees about the mental aspect of the sport. He spoke about how he had struggled with his own mental health because he was so focused on competition. He recommended a book called “The Untethered Soul.” It’s obvious watching and listening to him that he is in a good place mentally. When he teaches, he is very demanding, but in a calm, positive and focused way. When something goes wrong it’s “no problem.” It’s okay to take a moment to breath, think and try again. Admittedly, it can be easier said than done, but definitely a perspective worth pursuing.
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