Taking it to the Next Level: The Horses Must Carry Themselves

Kyra Kyrklund watching Heather Bender on Zairo.

West Palm Beach, FL­ – January 26, 2014 – It was all business on Day Two of the Wellington Classic Dressage Master Symposium with Kyra Kyrklund at the Jim Brandon Center in West Palm Beach, FL. Kyrklund kicked up the intensity in her sessions, calling on specific exercises to provoke a change in the horses’ behavior or movement, creating a state of better balance and collection.

The changes were often unsettling to horse or rider, but Kyrklund made the sessions fun, productive, rewarding and eye opening. She often asked riders to go outside their comfort zones and work through issues rather than helping the horses out of it so as not to compromise their position or effectiveness.

Regardless of the individualized exercise, the goal was always the same: the horse must carry himself. She said it is the horse’s ­ not the rider’s ­ responsibility to change, rather than the rider changing their position or aids to succumb to what is most comfortable for the horse.

Kyra Kyrklund.

“If you always do what you always did, then you’ll always get what you always got,” she said.

Michele Hall, who rode Whimsical, said she had some difficult years with the mare and was ready to sell her but with the help of her trainer, Heather Bender, she is enjoying the ride and learning how to challenge Whimsical to bring her up to Grand Prix.

“It’s exciting because a year ago I would have given her away, I was so frustrated,” Hall explained. “But, with perseverance, finally we got a turnaround being in a program and a system and good training.”

Kyra Kyrklund on Whimsical.

Kyrklund rode Whimsical for the majority of their sessions today. “She isn’t lazy,” she said of the mare as she rode. “It’s only that she doesn’t want to change.”

Hall couldn’t have been happier with her first­time clinic experience with Kyrklund.

“She took it completely down to the basic, which is what it’s all about,” Hall said. “Everything that you work on is a different piece of the puzzle. I’m over the moon.”

Michele Hall and Whimsical.

Kyrklund’s mantra throughout the day was making the horses take responsibility for themselves. It was not unusual that horses throughout Kyrklund’s sessions shared their opinion by throwing in a tantrum or two. Kyrklund equated these moments to that of a child throwing their toys out of a toy box. Rather than seeing these as a dead end, Kyrklund saw them as a sign of progress. She worked through, or encouraged riders to work through, the moments while staying completely steady and riding them out.

“Don’t try to lift him,” Kyrklund said to Hall’s trainer, Heather Bender while she rode Blackstone Interagro. “He has to lift himself.”

Heather Bender and Blackstone Interagro.

Blackstone, Bender’s selectively­sensitive Lusitano, was not an exception to throwing his toys out of the toy box.

“He wants you to sit on the right because he doesn’t want to carry you on the left,” Kyrklund explained to Bender. “Sit in the middle, don’t go into his problems.”

Bender also rode another Lusitano in the clinic, a stallion named Zairo. The stallion wrestles with some tension issues and the two sometimes find themselves ‘stuck.’ Bender confessed she finds herself rushing the horse forward in these instances.

“You have to go to the place where he gets tense and then stay there until he relaxes,” said Kyrklund during their session.

Heather Bender and Zairo.

“When you’re riding with someone like Kyra, she goes right into your jugular vein for your faults ­ but in a wonderful way, a kind way ­ she helped define something for me where we talked about the horse getting in a hole,” Bender said. “When I get in a hole ­ the back dropping and getting tight ­ I tend to let go of the horse and chase him out of it because it feels terrible to be in that hole.”

Kyrklund’s language resonated with Bender. Instead of chasing him out of these tense moments, Kyrklund had Bender sink into “the hole” to let Zairo dig himself out.

“Kyra defined it as ‘the hole,’ which is language I can understand, then she said you have to just stay there and keep giving the correct aids even though it feels terrible,” she said. “Once I recognized that that’s one of the reasons I tend to chase him, as painful as it is, I just stay there. That was a really good way of saying it. I can take that home with me. She defined it, so now I can fix it.”

Heather Bender, positive in the saddle.

“Kyra has pointed out to many of us that we’ve got to ride the horses to the steady hand and work through the issues that we’re having with their bodies,” Bender continued. “I love that she stays in the problem and solves it within the problem and doesn’t run away from it. She’s not afraid if the horse is in the wrong place. She’ll work on the horse giving you a better reaction from the leg even if it may fall apart. It’s going to get worse before it gets better, which is what training’s all about. Sometimes you’ve got to go down that road.”

Another of Bender’s students, Priscilla Baldwin, rode Amara, a 14­-year-­old International Sport Registry (ISR) mare, in the clinic.

“Yesterday, she [Kyrklund] really worked on just getting my knees and pelvis in front of my center of balance and getting my center of balance right over Amara’s,” Baldwin said. “So we went through the very basics. Today she took it to the next level. She said to me with a wink, ‘Priscilla, you can do this. Just don’t be so nice. Sit down and say, ‘No, you are going to do it.’”

Kyrklund’s key message, teaching the horses to carry themselves and their riders, were relevant to Baldwin and Amara.

“She has to shift,” Kyrklund said of the mare. “It’s her responsibility to change.”

Priscilla Baldwin and Amara.

Amy Swerdlin heard the same message as she rode her mare, Scholastica, a 7­year­-old Oldenburg.

“Don’t lean forward, just sit heavy,” Kyrklund said. “It’s her problem. Let her make a mistake.”

The theme of letting the horses figure themselves out underneath the riders was frequent and variable. Carmen Franco, riding a young Lusitano gelding Donatello, was advised to use the saddle straps to stabilize her hands and let the gelding find his own way to connection.

“She wanted me to hold the saddle strap on the inside rein to get him more aware of the outside rein,” Franco said. “He’s not the easiest horse to get round. She wanted me to not play too much with the hands and get him to find the connection through his body, not because I was searching for it with my reins.”

Carmen Franco and Donatello.

“The great thing with Kyra is that she explains things very well,” Franco continued. “The logic of her explanation makes things happen. She is fun also so you don’t get tense in the lessons. You make it a game with a horse and with the trainer so you don’t feel pressed to do the things. You’ll have mistakes as we always do with horses ­ horses are live beings so it’s not a mathematical formula – finding the tools that she gives you are just amazing.”

As parting motivational advice at the conclusion of the day, Kyrklund called on the concept of 10,000 Hours to Greatness from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers:The Story of Success. Essentially the idea is that something can only ever truly be mastered after 10,000 hours are devoted to it. Thus, she encouraged everyone to ride any and every horse they can, pointing out the difference in time the road to greatness takes riding one horse a day versus five.

Kyrklund said that if the riders took away an understanding of the idea of collection, she was happy. She also explained that she didn’t get to where she is today by doing everything perfectly the first time and encouraged riders to plunge into their work and embrace mistakes.

“Dare to try and dare to do it wrong,” she said.

Ilse Schwarz pats Don Joseph at the end of their session, last of the day.

For more from Kyra Kyrklund, read the wrap ­up of day one of the Wellington Classic Dressage Master Symposium: Kyra Kyrklund’s Witty Advice

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