Many students come to SOM because of work with past trainers that has created permanent damage to their horses (kissing spines seems to be quite common, along with an assortment of back problems that have led to a variety of lameness and behavioral issues). I found SOM because I was looking for solutions to what seemed to be Nimo's deteriorating performance under saddle despite working regularly with a trainer that I liked very much, but who used more conventional dressage techniques. I became increasingly uncomfortable with the focus on forward motion at the expense of balance and Nimo's canter (which has always been difficult) simply got faster and faster, and I could not find a way to use my body to control it. I kept seeing SOM posts popping up in my Facebook feed because a former farrier of mine (whose work I consider to be among the best in the country) kept liking these posts. I got curious and checked out the website, and I found the material to be very thought-provoking. It took months, though, before I become convinced that it was worth exploring in depth.
I started by taking the online class (which I still haven't finished for a variety of reasons, none of which have to do with the value of the material), and I realized that I needed in-person help. After I tried to get in to a clinic in the area and couldn't because clinics are filled months in advance, I started looking for an instructor. There are no certified SOM instructors right now (although I think the long-term plan is to develop a certification process), but there are instructors who are considered advanced students of SOM, and I found one near me. I've been working with this instructor for about 10 months, and while there have been some ups and downs, I had a bit of a breakthrough at my lesson in May, and both Nimo and I are making some progress in terms of his balance and my coordination and position.
My instructor was able to organize an SOM clinic with Cornille nearby for July 1-2, and because I'm a student of hers, I was able to get a spot quickly before it filled. Honestly, though, I was on the fence about riding in the clinic because my instructor and I have been able to find a way to work well together, and I wasn't sure about how well I would do with someone who would surely have a different teaching style. Plus, the cost of the clinic was pricey ($260/45 minute lesson). But I decided that the worst thing that could happen was that I wouldn't learn anything and the best thing is that I could learn a lot from a man who is considered a masterful rider and trainer.
I audited the clinic for a full day on July 1, watching several riders closely as well as talking with other SOM students to compare notes. I mostly went because I wanted to make sure I knew how to get to the facility before I had to haul a trailer in and because I wanted to see how Cornille taught and structured the lessons, so I could prepare myself to get the most out of the time. It was a worthwhile experience for those reasons, but also because of a section of one of the lessons that my instructor did with Cornille. She was working on what I would consider an extreme refinement of her position to help her horse improve his balance and coordination during the canter half-pass and Cornille said, "Your job is to prepare the horse for the movement. Don't ask for the movement until he is ready."
|Cornille explains the intricacies of rider position|
I went home that night with a lot to think about. The next day, I arrived for my ride at around noon. While I let Nimo eat a little and settle, I watched one of the participants doing in-hand work and learning how to teach the horse to trot in a balanced way. I'm not sure I'm ready to do that with Nimo yet, but it was very interesting to watch.
Luckily, my ride was scheduled for just after the lunch break, so I could bring Nimo in to the indoor arena and give him a few minutes to walk around. He can be a bit distracted when he works in a new arena, so I was concerned that we would spend the majority of our lesson dealing with minor spooks and Nimo not paying attention. (If I had a dime for every lecture I've gotten from instructors on how to work Nimo through his distractions and spooks, I'd have a super nice barn right now...) I was trying to mitigate the situation by giving him time to see everything so I could figure out which parts of the arena to stay away from to maintain his focus on me. The arena was set up so that about 25 feet along the long side was fenced off with one of those tiny little dressage arena "fences." That area was where the auditors and tables were set up and it was definitely on Nimo's list of "places we should never go."
But overall, Nimo seemed pretty quiet, so I figured we'd have plenty of space to use for our lesson. I got on and promptly realized my stirrups were way to long. I'd had to replace the stirrup leathers after my last ride because one snapped (long story that will definitely be a blog post sometime soon), and I incorrectly assumed the replacement leathers were the same size as the old ones. My instructor helped me get them to the right length quickly, and we walked around for another few minutes before my lesson started.
Thankfully, Cornille is a very accessible person. He's French, of course, and his accent is so melodic that it kind of makes me want to drift into a hypnotic state when I watch him, but he tends to make jokes every once in a while to keep things light and he never raises his voice. Even though he gestures a lot to explain his points, I think of him as a quiet person (which is probably a big reason for his success with horses!).
I did have to go through a bit of a discussion about my saddle, which I was expecting. (I had chosen to ride in a Baucher bit, though, because after Nimo's abscess blew out in February, he stopped reacting negatively to bits, so I'm guessing that the biting and ear-pinning behavior I'd seen earlier was related to the discomfort from the abscess. The Baucher bit is one of the bits Cornille prefers, so I didn't expect it to cause any concerns and using it meant one less thing to have a discussion about and more time for riding.) I'm riding in a treeless saddle right now, which I really love enough that I might only give it up if I'm dead, but I know Cornille does not think they are a good idea. He explained why in detail, and I will freely admit that his logic is sound. Probably the main reason he doesn't like treeless saddles is because he doesn't feel that they provide enough structure to support the rider and the horse. The way he explained it to me is that the tree helps absorb and distribute a lot of the "little" forces that occur when you have a dynamic situation of a moving horse back and a moving rider, therefore minimizing distracting forces that don't have a lot of value in terms of communicating with your horse. A treeless saddle tends to allow those forces to be communicated to both horse and rider, and it can create a confusing dialogue because of all the little stuff going on. I think that is a valid argument and one that I can agree with. But my treeless saddle is so comfortable and I feel so secure in it, that I don't know if I can go back to riding in a tree again. Plus, after I started riding in the treeless saddle, Nimo would act very funny when I put either his Specialized endurance saddle or his Bates dressage saddle on. He would act like he couldn't move and his back would hump underneath me. Whereas when I put the treeless on, he acted like his normal self. So I concluded that Nimo preferred the treeless.
I think Cornille would argue that I just didn't have the right treed saddle, and he could be right, but I've gone through so many saddles for Nimo that I'm not particularly interested in going through a saddle hunt again. Cornille recommends the Macel Samba model, which is a dressage saddle. I can't remember all the reasons, but I think it is because the Samba has a relatively flat seat (unlike the deeper seats of most popular dressage saddles), it doesn't have thigh blocks (which can interfere with rider position), and it has shorter points so it is less likely to interfere with shoulder movement and fit more horses without adjustment. It is also crazy expensive and hard to get and I am 99% certain it will not fit Nimo. I'll explain why below.
The other issue that Cornille has with my saddle, which is the only one I have with it and every other saddle I've ever ridden with on Nimo, is that it sits too far back. This is a battle I've been fighting for over a decade. Because of Nimo's back and shoulder conformation, I cannot get any saddle ever made to be in the right position and be in balance. To see a full explanation of why, you can watch this video by saddle fitter/maker George Gullickson from Equine Inspired:
(I would love to have a custom saddle made by Gullickson, but the price is a sticking point for me...) I don't think the Samba would be able to overcome the inherent issue with saddle fitting caused by Friesian carriage-type conformation and I suspect I would see bridging as well. I had thought that I might have an easier time of getting a treeless saddle in the right place, but it sits in exactly the same place as all my other saddles, which is just behind the shoulder. It probably looks OK to the average observer, but it places me more over the center of Nimo's back rather than just behind the withers. That is an important problem because the best place for a rider is right behind the withers. There is less movement in the horse's back at that point, and it means that the rider has the best chance of sitting quietly and communicating with the horse without interference or sending intermittent signals because of bouncing around.
When I did a quick warm-up for Cornille to show him Nimo's walk, trot, and canter, what he saw was that Nimo could only intermittently "hear" me. And it was like a light bulb went on for me. That's exactly what I was feeling! Nimo feels inconsistent. Sometimes we're connected and sometimes we aren't, even on a stride-by-stride basis. As Cornille explained it, it was like a loudspeaker fading in and out, so the listener hears every third word or a phrase every once in a while. (It was a good example, because that had happened with the microphone at the clinic, so I knew exactly what he meant and how aggravating it could be.) Essentially, Nimo was trying desperately to understand what I was saying but because I was sitting a bit too far back and there was a lot of bounce going on (particularly in his trot), he couldn't always tell what I was trying to say. One of the key components of SOM is that the rider engages her back through the use of different muscles to communicate different requests to the horse. If the horse cannot consistently feel a connection with the rider's back because the rider is placed too far back or moving around too much, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, for the horse to understand what the rider is asking. I will point out that I've had the exact same experience in multiple treed saddles, so I'm not quite ready to give up on my treeless saddle yet, but it has made me bound and determined to figure out how I can better place the saddle I'm using now.
One of the things I'd asked Cornille if we could work on was improving the balance of Nimo's trot. My instructor and I have been focused mostly on walk and canter, and over the past couple of weeks, I've gotten it in my head that the trot has to improve because I am tired of sitting on a jackhammer. I doubt many people understand exactly what it feels like to ride a Friesian bred for pulling a carriage, but let me assure you that there is no horse out there that is more uncomfortable. A Friesian trotting may be a beautiful sight, but it is loathsome to sit. Which is why I almost always ride in a half-seat during endurance rides. Even posting is brutal for miles on end.
My instructor had shown me a video of some of her lesson on a client's horse the night before the clinic started. This horse was about 25 years old and as of a year ago, she was considered chronically lame and unable to be ridden. She lacked any muscle tone and had been retired. I'm not sure how my instructor was hired to work with her, but she started in-hand work using SOM about a year ago. The horse gradually improved and became sound. So sound, in fact, that my instructor was able to start riding her a few months ago. And the night before the clinic, she was walking, trotting, and cantering, and even attempted a canter half-pass that was good enough for me to tell what it was. I don't think there is any better example of how SOM can truly help horses. But, that isn't my point. My point is that this horse was trotting in what I can only describe as dreamland for me. It was a lovely, slow, comfortable trot. I wouldn't call it a collected trot; rather, I think it is referred to as a square trot because the horse is balanced and moving in a way that there is less forward movement because the front and hind legs are staying under the horse. The best analogy outside of SOM might be a western jog trot (not the kind you see in the western pleasure arena, the kind that western horses just do naturally). There is less suspension than you would normally see in a trot and the movement is quiet, not animated with a lot of joint articulation. It is considered the baseline trot in SOM. And I wanted to get that trot on Nimo.
I was sure it would be a months-long process to even get close to the square trot because I honestly didn't think it would be possible for a Friesian to do as well as other breeds. But, even a little improvement would be nice. I'd had some promising results on my own by trying a short trot followed by a half-pirouette then by a short trot, then a half-pirouette over and over. I'd also tried asking Nimo for shoulder-in at the walk and then asking for trot while still in shoulder-in, but he kept falling on his forehand and it wasn't working.
As it turns out, my instincts were good, but I just didn't have the knowledge for the execution. Cornille started us off with working on obtaining bend through a 10-15 meter circle and asking Nimo to move so that his inside hind leg tracked in the same line as the outside front leg (kind of like a shoulder-fore on a circle, but SOM doesn't categorize it that way - I'm not really sure why but it probably has to do with the intent of the exercise, which is to generate abduction of the inside hind). Nimo was extremely resistant to giving me any bend at first and kept leaning in and making the circle smaller. I kept trying to push him out when Cornille explained that my first priority was getting bend, so if Nimo wanted to go on a smaller circle, I should let him and focus only on getting bend. So that's what we did. At one point we were doing what might be considered a large turn on the forehand and Cornille mentioned that it isn't something you would want to do a lot of because it's hard on the horse, but it was the only way to help Nimo see that leaning in was going to be more work than bending. (I should also point out that bend in SOM is not the same as bend in "conventional" dressage - it is much less and there is a great focus on making sure that the neck does not bend more than the back, which doesn't actually bend a whole lot.)
And we did, in fact, achieve bend in both directions using this method. Once we had the bend on the circle, we went out to the rail and worked on shoulder-fore/shoulder-in at the walk. We used shoulder-in to the right and shoulder-fore to the left because Nimo tends to want to bend more to the right than the left. So he was able to handle the bending of shoulder-in to the right, but to the left, his haunches kept escaping. Cornille has no preference for either movement, and instead recommends using them as they are needed. If it is too much work to keep the bend in shoulder-in, he says move to shoulder-fore. Alternatively, if shoulder-fore isn't giving the balance you're looking for, move to shoulder-in.
Once, Nimo was reliable with shoulder-fore and shoulder-in, we moved to the trot. And guess what? Cornille asked me to put Nimo in shoulder-fore to the left and ask for the trot in shoulder-fore and continue to maintain shoulder-fore in the trot. (Remember I said my instincts were good, but I lacked the knowledge I needed? It turns out I was asking for too much bend when I had tried the exercise on my own.)
And then guess what? Nimo produced that beautiful, square trot that I had been so envious of. It wasn't a process, it just was. Why? Because I had prepared Nimo for the movement. Once he was bending properly at the walk, he was set up for success at the trot. I didn't have to spend months trying to get him to slow down or balance or coordinate. And even more importantly, neither Nimo nor I have to endure the discomfort of a jackhammer trot anymore.
The other exciting thing that had happened is that we were able to use the whole arena. Nimo willingly walked and trotted on the rail next to that tiny dressage fence with all the auditors mere feet away and he did the same thing next to the wall of mirrors and the wall of windows. Normally, all of those things would have scared him or at least distracted him, but he was so focused on our work that he never blinked an eye.
I'm pretty sure that I was yelling exuberantly as we came down the long side in that fantastic trot (ON THE RAIL!!!). I was so excited and happy, and Nimo probably was too, because he was able to hold his balance for much longer than I would have expected. As Cornille pointed out, "If you aren't comfortable, then he isn't comfortable either." And that was something I really never thought about too much. But if I'm bouncing around and feeling like I'm sitting on a jackhammer, Nimo probably isn't enjoying the situation either.
I so, so wish I had video of my experience, but the Soloshot3 that I pre-ordered over a year ago is still not ready for shipment, and I don't really have a good camera that will work in the low light of an indoor arena. I promise to try to get some video of this trot as soon as I can, though. Because it is the happiest I've ever been on a horse. To know that Nimo doesn't have to move in that awful trot anymore is worth every penny I spent on the clinic and more. For those of you who have quarter horses or some other, naturally good, quiet mover, I'm not sure you'll understand, but trust me when I say that this experience is life-changing.
I'm so very glad that I went to the clinic. It was valuable in so many ways. I was able to watch my instructor ride, so I have a better sense of how she relates to her horse. And she was able to watch me ride, so she can help keep me on track with our trot work in future lessons. I was also able to make connections with a couple of other SOM students in the area so that we can keep in touch about our learning. Plus, I have this great foundation for working with Nimo now. Cornille helped me improve my understanding of shoulder-in and shoulder-fore as exercises to help the horse, not just as tools to get a score from a dressage judge. He spent a lot of time with me on fine-tuning the degree of bend that helps Nimo best (rather than on trying to achieve a specific angle or number of tracks), and I have a new motivation to keep working with SOM and trying to improve the fit of my saddle.