The following are posts from my Lise Roberts Dressage Facebook page. They started as "Lockdown Lessons" during the Covid-19 lockdown period, but I renamed them "Luron's Story" as they relate more to our journey together than anything else.
Luron's Story - Prelim to Grand Prix
I thought I would start with an extract from the diary in which I recorded Luron’s progress. A bit of background first, for those that don’t know: I bought Luron as a 3½ year old, “just backed” Danish Warmblood and, with help from several trainers along the way, I trained him up through the levels to competing at Grand Prix. At the time of this diary entry he was 3½ and I had owned him for 18 days.
Quote from 8/12/2004: “A very bad day today…. I made the cavesson and flash even tighter* and I noticed that Luron was better with his mouth on the lunge. He was quite full of himself but did calm down (I shortened the side reins by 2 holes) and then was quite obedient.
"I had a lovely ride on him, during which he was well behaved and I felt the steering wasn’t too bad. When I did one downwards transition I felt he was a little against my hand, but otherwise it was a really good ride.
"I was walking him on a long rein, when I think he spooked at the hut end of the school. I used the reins to stop him, but he just kept going and started cantering. I tried to turn him but he got faster, so I bailed out and hit the ground!
"I got back on (legged up), thinking I had just been overly blasé about the long reins, and rode him with a contact. We started trotting, then I think he took off in the same place (I’m not sure), and he would not stop or turn in a small circle! We ran around the arena, with me desperately trying to stop or turn him, then I eventually managed to stop him without falling off. An onlooker said he had his head in the air and was crossing his jaws, so we think it must have been pain in his mouth, which of course I had made worse by tightening the noseband!
"I won’t ride him again until his teeth have been checked, and then I think I need to long-rein him first because I’m not sure how much he understands the rein aids.”
*I had tightened the noseband as Luron had started to stick his tongue out when being lunged. In hindsight (oh, so helpful!), this was of course the worst thing to do since it just made him uncomfortable and claustrophobic
This incident had very long-lasting consequences for me. Up until this point in my life, I had never been seriously frightened by any of the experiences that I had with horses. As a child, falling off was just funny and I never got hurt, then as an instructor/trainer I had helped to break in several young horses, I had ridden and schooled many, many horses, plus I had previously owned a few horses, including another Danish Warmblood that I bought as a 4 year old. I thought I knew what training and owning a young horse was like and nothing had affected my confidence as I had always been able to gain back control of a running horse by turning it. But this experience with Luron surprised and upset me greatly.
I suddenly lost my confidence in my ability to control my horse and I didn’t feel safe on him. As I drove to the yard each day I would feel physically sick with nerves, and I would have given him away if I could. I didn’t think I could meet the challenge of training Luron and I felt inadequate and pathetic. After years of being “the expert” in what I did, I now felt useless and incapable – and how was I supposed to continue to teach others when I felt so rubbish myself?
It took me quite a while, and lots of help from others, to move past this psychological stumbling block, and I will go into some of that in my next posts.
After the traumatic out of control incident with Luron, I had his teeth checked – they were apparently very sharp, plus he spat out a baby molar at some point. I then concentrated on lunging him with side reins, plus tried riding him with my husband holding the lunge line. The following is an extract from my Luron diary from 19/12/2004:
“I lunged Luron with the lunge line attached to the bit and the noseband, and without a flash. He was fine to the left, but still crossing his jaw a little to the right – and LEANING on my hands incredibly to the right! Chris then legged me up and led me around the arena, followed by me walking around him, attached to the lunge line. I attempted to halt Luron using the reins, and he just DOES NOT UNDERSTAND! He was beginning to get better, but then something spooked him and he was running around Chris, and ended up with the bit coming all the way through his mouth! He eventually stopped, but the whole thing is making me feel very nervous (and totally inadequate!).”
From 21/12/2004: “I really want to send Luron away to someone else for them to get him to understand the rein aids, but I can’t afford it, so I will have to either sort him out myself or sell him.”
Whilst I had known that Luron was sold to me as “just backed”, I had been naive and hadn’t realised how much ground work a “just backed” horse would need. Also, as can be seen in the video of me trying him (link address below), he was so very calm when I first rode him, so I was taken aback by his increasingly nervous and stressy behaviour. So I went right back to the beginning with Luron, starting by leaning over him in the stable.
I could not have done any of it without the hours of help that Sharon Boyd gave me. I am forever grateful to her as eyes on the ground and hands at the end of the lunge line, together with her suggestions as to how to progress.
Initially the work included standing on a box and leaning over his back while he was held – it was amazing how twitchy he was about this, so really no surprise that he ran away with me on him. He also hated me leaning forward to pat his neck when I was on him.
We spent lots of time with me getting on him and back off, then back on again, until he was accepting this calmly. We then progressed to long-reining and eventually getting me back on board with the lunge line attached. He was very flighty and easily upset.
Although I had started my work with Luron by lunging him before riding him, I had not realised how fragile his foundations were and how little ground work had been done with him. The hours spent leaning over him, long reining and lunging made all the difference to his confidence in the end.
With Sharon’s help, I spent two months lunging and long-reining Luron with me riding sometimes attached to the lunge line and sometimes off it, but always after doing the groundwork first. Throughout this time, he showed various contact problems, including being very heavy in the hand, opening his mouth, crossing his jaws, sticking out his tongue. All work was done in an outdoor school, subject to lots of winter wind and rain (and snow!).
In addition to trying various noseband combinations, I also tried a variety of bits. Diary extract from 23/2/2005: “I long-reined Luron in the snow again today, and he was absolutely wonderful! He is so obedient and well behaved, it is such a pleasure to work with him on the ground. My goal right now is to feel the same way about riding him!
“I had the side reins attached again (which does help, I think), plus I changed his bit back to his original loose-ring French link snaffle with the bit guards. I felt that he went much better in this bit, with much less jaw crossing and tongue lolling. I didn’t ride him, so I’ll see what he feels like when I ride him next with this bit…”
And then from 25/2/2005: “I long-reined Luron before riding him and although I felt he went very well on the long-reins, he was VERY against my hand when I rode him – to the point that I felt just on the edge of controlling him. Sharon then put me on the lunge and Luron did take off at one point! Luckily, Sharon managed to hold onto him we were fine, but she and I agreed that we really do need to sort out his mouth problem before we can progress any further! He was against my hand in walk, trot and canter today, with his tongue lolling and his jaws crossed, so tomorrow I’ll try another bit; a Fulmer (with loose rings) with a single joint.”
The Fulmer was a disaster, with Luron running off whilst on the lunge and dragging me for about 6 feet! I then tried a single jointed Eggbut snaffle with a drop noseband and wrote this on 2/3/2005: “In some ways the Eggbut snaffle feels good because he is getting the idea of flexing at the poll and yielding to my hand, but in other ways it’s a bit worrying because he feels like he might run away at any moment and at times he is very against my hand.
“We had a couple of instances of him seeming to panic and want to run off, but I was on the lunge most of the time, so it wasn’t a problem for me. He was good on the left rein today but definitely had some tongue lolling on the right rein in canter.”
From 8/3/2005: “I rode “large” in the arena, walk and trot, and at one point he sort of ran off, but I turned him gently on a left circle and he came back to me – just like he should do!
And from 11/3/2005: “He spooked a couple of times today, but I was able to control him by turning him to the left. The second spook was a real panic (I had halted and I think I looked down because he had trodden on his front shoe with his hind foot), very much like his original one on 8th December, but I didn’t panic myself and stopped him fairly quickly, so I feel really good about that!”
Luron’s contact problems stemmed from a lack of education, together with a lack of engagement and balance. In addition to the tongue lolling and mouth opening, he also became easily rubbed at the corners of his mouth with some bits, and between the bit and the noseband with others. In all, I tried about 10 different bits until I found the best result from a loose-ring snaffle with a lozenge. So, sometimes trial and error is the order of the day!
To summarise, during the first year that I owned Luron he went from uneducated, tense, nervous and flighty (running away with me) through cocky and disrespectful (bucking me off), to calm and obedient. During this first year I had several lessons with Jenny Ward, with her main direction being that I needed to drive Luron more forward (“more leg, less voice” was her first comment!).
On 2nd February 2006 (Luron now aged 4 years 7 months) we did our first competition at Solihull Riding Club and won the test with 70% (which was a very good score 14 years ago!). Luckily for me it was only a Walk Trot test because Luron was quite over-excited in the warm up arena and I was very relieved not to have to canter him.
It’s amazing to look back on our journey; by this point I had progressed from not being able to get on him alone, to actually going out and successfully competing. I still had a long way to go and our next competition was a Prelim test on 12/3/2006, judged by a very kind and generous judge who awarded us 54.4%.
If you have watched my “Prelim to Grand Prix” video (on my Lise Roberts Dressage Facebook page), you will see why 54.4% was generous!!
At the end of my previous post (Lockdown Post #4), Luron had progressed from an incredibly nervous and flighty 3½ year old to doing his first competition at the age of 4½. I can’t remember exactly at what point it came to me, but I do remember one day thinking: “I don’t trust him but I expect him to trust me,” and I realised that I needed to make the first step and start to trust Luron. From that point, and together with all the weeks of ground work that we had done, our relationship just grew stronger.
In addition to our lessons with Jenny Ward, we also started to have some lessons with David Holmes and the combined advice was to keep him active and forward, keep him round and keep him engaged through the use of transitions.
Following our first disastrous Prelim in March 2006, we competed again at High Cross a couple of times and on 30th April 2006 we won one of our classes (Prelim 12) with 68%. This was in the same indoor arena that 6 weeks previously had been so scary for him. I was delighted and decided it was time for the next step in our progression; join British Dressage.
Our first Affiliated competitions went surprisingly well, starting with two wins at Prelim at Swallowfield. We scored enough to part qualify for the Regionals, then the following week we went out again, this time to High Cross, and again won both our classes with scores of 75.5% and 71.67%. We were on a roll, and we had qualified for the Summer Regionals.
Looking back, this has to be one of our most impressive leaps forward; in March 2006 we scored 54.4%, then in May 2006 we scored 75.5% at the same venue! This is not to boast, but rather to give hope to anyone who has had a disastrous competition. At the start of this story, I would never, ever have thought I would ride him in a competition, let alone go on to achieve what we did.
I would highly recommend that you get your tests videoed, particularly at the beginning of your journey, because a bad test is just good material for a Before and After video!
We competed at our first Summer Regionals at Addington Manor in August 2006 at Prelim level (Luron was now 5 years and one month old), and whilst I was delighted with his behaviour (only a small amount of spooking at the start of the test), I was disappointed with our results. All three of the judges agreed that Luron needed to engage his hind end more in order to be more balanced and less on his forehand.
A couple of weeks later I watched the finalists of the Pavo Young Dressage Horse competition at the Nationals and decided that I wanted Luron to move like they did, so when I next rode him I imagined we were one of those competitors, and I was really pleased with the way he went. Visualisation can be very helpful!
The next exciting step for us was in October 2006, when I volunteered to ride at the BHS Instructors Convention, led by Stephen Clarke. This was in Hampshire so required a 2½ hour journey and an overnight stay, and again I was really pleased with Luron in that he travelled perfectly and settled into his overnight stable happily.
In my diary I state that Luron “felt VERY volatile as I was riding towards the warmup arena”, and I do remember thinking at that point that it might have been a very bad idea to volunteer ourselves….. However, he eventually calmed down in the warmup arena and was very calm in the convention arena, only looking at the audience for a while and settling very quickly.
Stephen Clarke’s overall message to me was that Luron needed to be more in front of my leg and more submissive to the contact. I certainly couldn’t disagree with any of that, and I concentrated on doing lots of transitions and lots of give and retakes in our work in the days after.
Looking at my diary for that time, there are lots of entries which start with “I had a wonderful ride today,” as he became stronger and more consistent, but there are also some that start with “Today was one of the worst rides I’ve had,” as Luron was spooky, cocky and resistant.
It was all about getting the balance right in terms of being encouraging and relaxed with him but without him then getting cocky and disrespectful. I found that if I got annoyed and tense as a result of his spooking, this would make him even worse but if I could stay calm and relaxed, I could keep him soft and with me, rather than against me.