Lellie Ward is amazing. Point blank. Period. If you ever have the chance to clinic with her, 100% jump on that opportunity. She is funny, straight to the point, and about permanent fixes, not the quick fixes a lot of clinicians liked to give. She was equally hard on both the rider and horse, but every single pair walked away with the horse and rider going much better and wildly happy.
Hauling, loading, and packing: The pony was an absolute saint. I am lucky to have had some awesome teammates who hauled the pony for free (although I did Venmo them money, because that is the polite thing to do and ensures that people are usually pretty happy to haul you the next time around). Packing is wildly easy for me when it comes to horses, but wildly difficult when I have to pack for anything non-horse related. Luckily, this clinic was 20 minutes from my barn, so even if I had forgotten something, I could quickly run and grab it without being SOL.
The pony settled into his stall and was (dare I say it?!?!) one of the best behaved horses there. He loaded and unloaded like a champ, was not calling for anybody, and besides spooking at the sound of me biting into a carrot, was rock solid the entire weekend. It made me extremely proud that he is figuring out how to settle in and not act like a nutcase. The previous clinic we went to was about $125/hour lesson, and Wally spent the first ten minutes of our very expensive lesson dragging the clinician around while she held onto his bridle. It was the world’s most expensive pony ride ever.
I was mildly nervous, because if you have been following along, you know that Wally was lame since November, with no seeming cause. He got 2+ months off, got chiropractic work, acupressure, and a saddle change and is back in action–albeit slowly. And by slowly I mean taking it back to 20 minute rides of just walking for two weeks before adding in 3-4 minutes of trot work. So this means the pony is good and chunky, and thanks to the weather, I had not had a lesson on him since he went lame. Basically, we were desperately unprepared.
I started off explaining how long Wally had been off and some of the issues we had been having. Right away, Lellie guessed exactly how Wally would respond to certain things and what his go-to habits are, like charging off and dropping down on the bit. She was absolutely spot on and I immediately felt more comfortable.
I was told to carry my hands higher and demand more of a higher level frame, say a second or third level frame versus a training level or first level frame. The main goal was to think of lifting the horse with every up bit and keeping him up with every step instead of allowing him to plunge down into the bridle or go behind the bit. One of my main issues is that I have a slight tendency to tip forward when on Wally, which is a big no-no when you are a tall person on a small pony. He takes advantage of it every time and dives onto the forehand.
Lellie had me sitting up straighter and lifting with my seat while also carrying my hands higher to show Wally where he should be carrying himself. Anytime he tried to charge forward, I’d ask him to halt (without looking down–another bad habit!), then reinback. Halting and doing a reinback is a great way to stop a horse from plunging through the bridle and blowing off your aids. I really needed to sit back, use my butt cheeks to tell him to half-halt, and loosen my thighs and let them swing so he would have a freer shoulder. Despite sounding counter intuitive, loosening the pressure of my thighs helped Wally step up and take softer steps, bending more at the joint rather than running forward through my aids.
We did a lot of work on bend and counter-bend, shifting the bend of the spine to create flexibility. Wally is really good at blocking me with his shoulder or straightening his spine to avoid bending to the left. By tapping or holding a whip on the body part he was blocking me with (usually his shoulder or left haunch), Wally learned to loosen the body part and swing through the back instead of stiffening and charging.
Once I got him softening at the walk, we did it at the trot. He got quite a bit more “chargy” here, so there was a huge emphasis on getting him to unblock the body and maintain the softer balanced steps like we had in the walk. By the end, we were both covered in sweat.
I could tell Wally was tired from the day before, and a little grumpy in his stall. I was worried it would translate over into our ride, but Wally was a little pro once we entered the arena. He was already more receptive to staying soft in the walk and trot, but had a little more resistance to the rein back. I felt this was mildly fair, since he was probably a little muscle-sore in his back from the day prior.
We split the arena up and only used the bottom 1/4, turning the traditional short sides into the long sides and vice versa, so I was in essence working in a very small space. As I went around, I was instructed to bend and counter bend his spine, flexing him both ways and managing every step. When Lellie said to halt, you had to halt immediately within the next step, no stumbling or dumping down into the halt.
One of the neat exercises was to go across the mini diagonal, starting at a trot, walk at the first quarter line, trot at x, changing the bend, walk at the 3rd quarter line, and finally trotting when I reached the long side. Each transition had to be up, up, up! and without any charging steps. Definitely still a work in progress, but very useful for learning how to manage each step, even as the bend and balance changes.
We got to canter a little bit, and Wally offered one of the softest and best canters he could to date. I felt like I was really sitting in the saddle with my back moving with his. It was one of those moments that you cling to when everything else goes badly.
- Honestly a wildly positive, fun, and informative clinic. It helped wash the bad taste of the last one I had away and gave me a good base to build from.
- Wally is ready to start going to more shows and ramp up his training.
- I can take a lot more contact up with the reins and really control the tempo, size of step, and flexibility in his body.
General Takeaways from the Clinic:
- Everybody should be sitting up and riding like they are going around in a higher level frame.
- Demand more of your horse and ask for each step to be lighter and more uphill.
- Flexibility of the spine is extremely important and should be focused on every day.
- Sessions should challenge you and the horse, but you should both walk away feeling like you accomplished something and that your horse can reach the next level.