Notes from Anky van Grunsven and Tineke Bartels Symposium

Disclaimer: This is based on my personal experience and how I felt at the symposium.  It is completely my own opinions, and written for my own fun and memory, but I hope you enjoy it.  All comments are related to my own horse and his trainer Nicole unless otherwise noted.  I don't intend to comment on other riders and horses.

Basics Aids

Anky openly declares that she is a lazy rider.  Well, she is definitely followed by a bunch of wanna-be’s!  That should be the best goal; don’t we always say a well-trained horse should be effortless to ride?  Both Anky and Tineke requested riders to keep it simple; one aid at a time.  I heard them yelling at riders not to use hands and legs together (actually this is very much classical dressage teaching.)  Touch with the legs is go, and touch with the reins is come back.  A touch is quick and released immediately.  If the lighter touch yields no reaction, then use a stronger one, but it needs to be immediately released too, and always seeking fast reactions.  Also Tineke instructed: release the reins a bit before you touch it, so you can keep the aid really light.

Believe or not, I find Anky’s training principle is actually the same as clicker training, which makes sense, and is definitely successful in animal training.  Of course the horse has to be exercised to be fit and flexible enough to do all the movements. However, in terms of teaching the aids for the movements, it’s all “clicker” principle.  Basically you reward the horse only for exactly what you want no matter how small the initial result is; you can build on it more and more once it is clear to the horse about what you like.

Each horse first learns these two aids: go and come-back, to become really sharp on them (by receiving rewards for the right response of course), then using the aids to create various movements and pick out the ones that you want to reward.  What a simple idea!

BTW, all whips were confiscated at the beginning of Anky’s and Tineke’s lessons. Anky says you have what God gives you (hands and legs), so you shouldn’t need the whip.  When I rode Montserrat, my stallion in Germany, my German trainer Joerg was the same way: “You have legs.  Why do you need a whip?” “Well, my legs don’t listen to my mind very well.” :-b

Also you don’t reward or even drag on, but should immediately stop if the horse offered only something that can’t be corrected or built upon with the two simple aids.  Clicker training uses food incentive, and our good dressage horses want to please us for our love, praises and pats.   The key of the clicker training is how immediate you reward when the horse performed what you want, even by accident (actually it should be by accident initially.)  The clicker can deliver a reward (actually a pre-cursor to a reward) very quickly and precisely at the moment the horse or whatever animal does what you want, so it is a useful tool.  I don’t think I’ll carry a clicker any time soon, but it illustrates the principle.  Anky always demands that the rider rewards the horse within a fraction of a second by a pat when the horse does it right. She would urge, “Pat him! Pat him! Pat him!” and check, “Did you pat him?”

Of course, even if we understand the principle of the reward timing, not everyone knows what or when the horse does it right hence deserves a pat.  Anky helped the riders by telling them when the horse was doing the right thing for that immediate pat.  She also kept asking the riders whether they could feel, and differentiate what she liked and what she didn’t like.  She wanted the riders to learn and develop the feel, so they could deliver the rewards at the right moments on their own.  There is nothing that can beat an expert’s pair of eyes, though.  Even Lisa Wilcox says that she takes 3 lessons a day with her coach Ernst Hoyos.  Wow, not too many people have that kind of luxury.

With the above two factors – reward timing, knowing what to reward, it’s still not enough because I don’t know how to create the conditions or moments that can be rewarded. Sigh!  Dressage is hard!  Didn’t I just feel it was simple only few paragraphs ago?  This is where Tineke and Anky would tell the riders to use touches of aids, more collection, length of reins, relax legs, leg positions, hand positions, horse’s position, slower tempo or speed, more forwardness, etc. to create the right moments for the riders to reward the horses so they can learn through habituation.  For the riders, it’s to learn how to intelligently apply aids to create these desired conditions, and learn the feel.

While you thought that was enough, remember you have to sit on top of the moving horse, and keep your seat independent and effective, properly holding the reins so you can be elastic and feel the horse in the lightest possible contact to allow the horse to have self carriage.  OoooK! Now I remember why I like dressage -- It’s such a challenge physically, mentally and emotionally.


Tineke’s preview

Tineke gave a preview lesson to Nicole and Rubino on Friday before the Symposium to get a feel of Rubino’s behavior and what Nicole and he would be capable of doing in the lessons.   I wasn’t there, but saw the video and listened to the eyewitness’ account.  Tineke appeared to be quite impressed by the pair as they performed whatever she requested nicely and easily.  She consistently asked Nicole to keep Rubino straight before starting any movements, and straightness appeared to be her top requirement as same comment was heard with other riders.  After the preview lesson, she asked Nicole, “Does he do anything bad?”  We guess she wanted to know before they go in front of the crowd.  An easy and definitive answer from Nicole: “No!”

At dinner, Tineke and Anky came by to chat with Willy; they discussed about Rubino in Dutch.  Our friend Gera translated for us, and said that they complimented how good a horse Rubino was.  Willy has called him a “complete FEI horse” because all his basic gaits are good and pure, and he excels at collected movements like canter pirouette and has already shown his ability in piaff and passage at his young age.  We were totally excited to hear these words from these top horse people in the world.


Tineke’s Lesson

Half  Pass

Knowing how important it is to keep Rubino straight for Tineke, Nicole was prepared for it.  We still heard Tineke mentioned the word “straight”, but Nicole certainly made it a top priority in the lesson.  Rubino looked super relaxed, elastic and very uphill.  All the changes were straight and expressive, and Tineke seemed to be quite pleased.  She lectured to the audience about the importance of having a good seat.  She asked Nicole to stop and pose in front of the audience to demonstrate what a good seat should be.  Tineke asked how long she had been riding, and Nicole replied "A couple of years."  Tineke said, "Well, you must have worked hard in these couple of years.  Your seat is very good!"   All who knows Nicole just laughed out loud.  Later, Nicole explained that she thought Tineke meant how long at this level.  Tineke described how the rider should sit in the saddle, but I'm sure most serious dressage riders have heard the similar speech about feeling like a string pulled though the head to the ceiling, and the way you sit, if the horse disappears under you, you will just land on your feet and standing on the ground, etc.

Tineke had Nicole practice lateral work.  She was really strict about doing every step correctly; she alerted Nicole a couple of times that she was losing the bend and the 3-track of the shoulder in at the last few strides toward the end of the long side. I think she wanted the bend to be carried into and through the corner without straightening out first.  They schooled half passes at canter and trot with shoulder in first.  She stressed having the shoulder leading, and also keeping a nice curvy bend.  She wanted to have a lot more lateral bending than we were used to.  In order to do that, the horse’s neck needs to be relaxed and can’t be too short to create a smooth curve with his body.

Working Pirouette

The next exercise was working pirouette.  It is interesting that she actually didn’t school the horse to do tiny on-the-spot pirouette, but varied the sizes, mostly fairly large.  She demanded the horse to wait for the rider, so he could maintain more upright instead of leaning in (body slanting/leaning in if you look straight to the forehead of the horse).  When Rubino decided that he would just do the pirouette on his own, she asked Nicole to ride him forward and out of the working pirouette.  Basically, to get him go off on a tangent from the circle.  She also asked Nicole to sit to the outside a bit, so Rubino would wait because he would need to balance with the rider instead of just leaning in for a quick spin.  When he stayed more upright and balanced, the hind legs naturally came under (instead of stepping to the inside to prevent a fall due to the lean), and the picture was just lovely.  They ended the lesson with everyone clapping for the beautiful result.


Anky’s lesson

Tempi Changes

Anky didn’t want nice flying changes.  She wanted them brilliant!  Nicole learned from Tineke to keep every change very straight, but after a series of incredibly straight changes, Anky surprisingly said she didn’t like them at all.  It turned out she wanted some excitement in the change.  Instead of straight, smooth and basically a blah, she wanted the horse to be very expressive.  Tineke only asked single changes in her lesson, and Rubino was actually quite expressive, but he looked a bit tired in Anky’s lesson and the changes looked "very quiet".

The way Anky asked Nicole to not to worry about counting the tempis, but to make the horse “forward, but slow down.”  Huh?  Very confusing.  I replayed the video, and you can hear her say “Forward. Slow down.” for every other step of the canter.  I think she wanted the horse to think forward, but use collection to bring the tempo slower, and direct the energy more up than quick.  Rubino looked a bit tired, so he didn’t rock back as much as how he cantered yesterday. Without the weight coming back more to the back, it would not be easy to slow down yet have power from behind, you simply don’t get the effect of loading the spring to shoot forward.

After a couple of attempts, Anky decided to use medium canter in between changes, and that stirred up some emotion, and the changes became more expressive though the straightness was all out the door.  Anky said that she didn’t mind that for now.  I noticed that the changes that she said was good and what she liked, had a slight hesitation when both front legs were at the highest point they would reach. kind of holding or suspending in the air before coming down, showing a lyrical rhythm and making a really nice picture.  Finally, she commented the changes were getting better, and she seemed to be pleased with the improvements.


Observation from the piaff lesson seems to match what I read before (yeh, yeh, I know dressage on paper is not the same as on the horseback, but I always go with logical rationale even though not all horses or riders are rational :-) -- Doing piaff from walk gives the acceleration effect of pushing the wither up while hind legs step under (like accelerating a motorcycle.) Slowing down the trot to piaff is harder as decelerating usually causes the frontend to dip down naturally (like braking your motorcycle), which already needs extra effort to get it trained out by doing a lot of upward transition immediately after downward (or almost downward) transition to teach the horse to brake with his hind legs squatting down and ready to jump forward and go again.

Anky demanded that the piaff steps to be up and down under the horse, with no forward swing of the hind legs which makes the horse to move forward inevitably.  She wanted Nicole to reward the two steps of up and down immediately to make sure Rubino could understand that was what she wanted instead of going for more, but wrong steps.  She also asked Nicole to prepare the collected walk really well with very slow, small and deliberate steps, and Rubino needed to be very sharp with the leg aids for the upward.  Once the walk was collected, and the upward transition would be controlled by the collection, Rubi would offer 2-3 steps with no or very minimum forward steps, and Anky asked Nicole to reward immediately.  At times, Rubino would swing his left hind leg more forward, and Anky immediately asked Nicole to stop as that would be too much forward movement to be called Piaff.  Rubino picked this up really quickly.  After the walk steps got organized and collected, and as soon as a touch from the legs, he would start piaff'ing, which didn't look hard for him at all.  We are pretty confident that he will learn his 15 steps pretty quickly if we could "click-reward" at the right time!


Passage seemed to require the extended trot to be quite mature in order for the rider to redirect the power and impulsion upward by touching the bit to collect.  Anky repeated many times that passage was not a slow trot.  Nicole and Rubi performed quite a few sets of trot extension to passage.  A few times Anky said Nicole slowed down too much when asking the passage, and sent them immediately forward.  You could see pretty clearly when the horse was slowed down (motor cycle braking) instead of getting the energy collected to go up, he wouldn’t passage, but just trot slowly. Then, Nicole had to push him to passage, which of course was caught by Anky, and she would remind Nicole not to push.  “The horse is too big for a rider to push,” she reminded everyone.  Right!  We are lazy riders!  The horse needs to listen to the leg touching, and that should be the only cue.  It was at the end of the lesson, so Rubi was quite out of gas, but there were 3, 4 sets of passage that Anky called out as good.   Again, she emphasized that just let him do 4-5 steps at a time to make sure it’s passage instead of letting him do slow trot for any length of time.  If no good passage steps come out from collection from the strong trot, immediately she asked for forward trot again.  Anky insisted on ending on a good set of passage steps, and then long reins stretching round and forward.  Nicole and Rubino got a lot of applauses in the lesson whenever Anky seemed to be pleased with the results that they demonstrated.  It is so great to have a crowd that appreciated the efforts.

Deep and round stretching

As for Anky’s stretching technique, I don’t mind so much as long as the stretch is at the poll, and the position can be brought back up easily.  However, I don’t like it if it creates a “broken” C3 vertebrae look.  The C3 bend or so called swan neck is actually an evasion and very hard to correct.  All the horses at the clinic seemed to be able to stretch and go behind the vertical very easily, but they also can be brought back to the competition frame without any problem.  I had a car accident two years ago, and had a disk bulge in the neck, so I can attest having someone help me stretch my neck really makes it feel much better even though my head would be in totally weird positions when the neck is being stretched.

Also I find horse stretching with head low and neck very round, the wither seems to bounce up like a bow being pushed from both ends (hind legs pushing and the bridle elastically gathering the energy), and that is definitely something you want to have to create the uphill movement.  The skill is to bring the head back to competition frame and still keep that wither lift.

However, I wonder how one gets a horse that goes in front of vertical (not even on the bit) to go down and round in the first place!?  I was so excited shooting video and watching, I forgot to ask my share of stupid questions.  I know we always cheat by flexing the horse left and right, but Nicole got yelled at when she did only a little bit of that in Anky's lesson.   Anky really called it out that she didn’t like it.  "It's really bad to do this left and right flexing.  You must do it from both reins," she said.  but I don’t know why.  Is it because that she didn’t like the horse being pulled left and right, or she didn’t like the horse being flexed laterally, even only one direction, to get the head to go down.  I heard that swing the horse's head left and right quickly can give the horse a headache (dizziness.  I know I would get one. :-), and also too much left and right makes the horse unstable at the base of the neck when moving, so the power from behind cannot go through to the bit.  Anyway, still the same question: what is the technique to get the horse so round and behind the vertical?  It's not strength for sure as Anky is a lazy rider :-), but how?

** Added on 3/3 - Aha!  I found a picture of Anky flexing her FEI horse deep and to a side in Dressage Today October 2003 issue page 57, so I guess it is fine for her to flex the horse to the side, but I guess she just didn't like to see pulling from side to side.  In the picture, she was doing this "extreme bending", which is really quite extreme, the horse's nose could almost touch the right shoulder.  Also from my recollection of various statements Anky and Tineke made in the clinic, it seems that allowing the reins to be longer, but when you move your hands higher to apply the aids the horse would go behind the vertical.  However, at times they actually ordered the rider to keep the hands lower, perhaps once the horse is deep and round, you don't keep holding the horse's head like that.  BTW, this issue of Dressage Today has many very interesting articles regarding training and Pan Am Games.  Anyway, this is my finding of the day.

Fun stuff

California, Cold?  Nah!

Even though this is California, it is still the winter.  It was quite cold sitting there watching the lessons.  I am sure all the riders were nice and toasty on their horses, but the rest of us were freezing, including Anky.  (OK, you don't freeze at 50 degrees, but it felt like it for Californians.) She said many times that she was cold, and she could stay home to be cold, not in California.  Anyway, we brought out horse cooler, even blankets to cover ourselves while watching the lessons the first day.

The second day, I had an appointment in the morning, so I didn’t arrive at the symposium until 1 PM, and to my surprise, everyone was sitting outside, and the lessons were 15 minutes behind schedule.  It turned out everyone decided the new footing in the indoor ring was too deep, and also it was too cold in there, so the symposium was moved outside spontaneously.  It was a collaborative effort from the auditors.  People grabbed the dressage ring poles and stands and off they went.

It was sunny with blue sky and people casually sitting around on the outdoor benches, picnic tables, or some folding chairs very close around the dressage court that they built.  It was a really fun and intimate atmosphere.  People could walk around behind the people who were sitting down, and still watch the lessons.  It was indeed much better than the indoor.  This is how to enjoy a California winter!

Can you trot any worse than this?

As an non-native English speaker, I know how I can mangle the language.  In Stephanie's lesson with Anky.  Anky said to her, "Trot worse."  Puzzled looks on people's faces.  Anky asked a few more times, "Can you trot any worse than this?"   I am sure people were thinking, "Gee, did she do such a bad job, so Anky had to flame her?"  I first through Anky wanted to demonstrate how to improve a trot from not so good trot, but soon realized Anky wanted Stephanie not to exhibit the extravagant medium trot from Jasper, but just do a normal working trot for some exercises.   Stephanie later said that she was thinking hard on what a bad trot should be and how to get Jasper to do it. :-)

Willy!  Willy!  Willy!

The loudspeakers in the indoor ring apparently were not set up properly; the riders couldn't hear any instruction from some angles.  When Willy Arts rode his magnificent Prince in Tineke's lesson, Tineke tried several times to get him to do something, but he couldn't hear it.  Tineke ended up have to call him several times: "Willy!"  Pause.  No reaction.  "Willy!"  Pause. No reaction. "Willy!"   It happened a few times, and the audience was giggling.  Hey! That sounds like when I ride this horse that belongs to a friend.  He is a Hanoverian gelding by Wolkenstein II.  He is a pretty horse and a good mover, but he probably has EADD (Equine Attention Deficit Disorder :-).  Fortunately he knows his name, Willy, so whenever he is not responding to aids any more, or ears pricked for something else, I can just call his name, and he will turn one ear to me, and pay attention again.  Riding him is like every 5-10 minutes, you'll hear me call "Willy!... Willy!... Willy!"


Nicole and Rubino with Anky at the end of lesson

Tired Rubino doing a cute Rocher (George Williams’ amazing GP mare) impression: