Upping the game : first session with top reining coach

Dandy, a.k.a. MyveryownJac, is growing, and progressing nicely. Recently we have put the emphasis on getting yield off my legs, along with some proper bend in the ribcage. We had to challenge the “scary spots” in the arena, as well, that were getting in the way of our training. We worked on that under my friendly coach, Daniel Dauphin’s supervision. I encourage you to check Dauphin Horsemanship and even get in touch with Daniel for all your horse related questions, he’ll probably be glad to help, even from a distance. We’ve worked up a “session report and feedback” scheme via messaging that works great for both of us. But long distance obviously brings some limitations, so when I got the opportunity to work under one of my favorite horsemen’s, Olivier Van Den Berg, supervision, I jumped in eyes closed. On July 9th, a sunny and hot Saturday afternoon, Dandy got his first, hands-on, formal training session.

OlivierVDBJul16-30Olivier pointing out my mistakes and how to correct them, after just a few minutes

Olivier is a seasoned reiner. He got a bronze medal at the last World Equestrian Games with the national Dutch team, and a boatload of champion titles on several of his horses, at all kind of levels. He’s learned from, and worked with, the greatest reiners in the world. Icing on the cake, he’s a super nice guy.

OlivierVDBJul16-06I had started out the session with a little groundwork review, known as the “pre-flight checklist”. Forward, direction changes, hindquarters and shoulder yield, back-up…


OlivierVDBJul16-07And a little desensitizing. All seemed pretty good

OlivierVDBJul16-08Time to saddle my once very hard to saddle colt. See how soft his face is now, he’s cool with it

OlivierVDBJul16-02Then I hopped on before Olivier and the other students showed up, for some quiet warm-up time. I anticipated Dandy would get a little worked up working around other horses. He still has some of that studdy attitude that must be worked with

OlivierVDBJul16-10PMSoon Olivier showed up and observed us working for only a brief moment

That’s really all he needs to make a pretty fine and spot-on analysis of what’s going on, what must be corrected, and how. In this case, even though I was convinced my reins were lose, turns out I was still holding Dandy’s face too much, in an effort to “control” him around the other horses (that had joined us by then, and he was definitely distracted by them, even if he was performing rather well around them). He was a little worked up and running pretty fast, and I unconsciously was bending and collecting him, while was he needed was for HIS idea to change. Olivier told me to turn him lose on a straight line, and when he sped up, to “steer” him at an angle, with BOTH reins, and a strong emphasis on the outside rein, in other words, to neckrein him in somewhat sharp turns to cut his speeding off, and “bring his mind” to me. “He has to come to you’, he would repeat, over and again, during the session. The same principle applied in various areas. Turns out I was pulling on too much in the back-up, as well. Olivier reached for my hands, held them, and show me how little it took in rein tension for Dandy to “think back” and start shifting his weight back. As soon as his first foot lifted to back-up, Olivier released my hands. On the third occasion, he told me to add some leg, and the horse started backing-up with fluid speed, a thing of beauty !

OlivierVDBJul16-11“It’s more a different way of thinking”, he said, not unlike the “physical vs. mental” quote of Buck Brannaman, himself

OlivierVDBJul16-15I love that Olivier usually rides the horse when coaching the rider, as well. I love how he can be both strong and firm, or subtle and delicate, depending on what the horse needs at that specific moment. Look at the two-finger hold on the rein, feather light..

OlivierVDBJul16-14Being supple and able to bend and counter bend, is key to approach reining work. And while I had succeeded (with much sweat and chaos) to achieve a good inside bend and the start of a leg yield, the neck rein was still a long way from installed, and counterbending hadn’t been approached yet


OlivierVDBJul16-27Because Olivier is bigger, stronger, has endless skill and impeccable timing, he was the perfect person to start working on that, and I’m grateful he did

OlivierVDBJul16-28Counterbending is… counterintuitive to the horse, his face needs to be turned in one direction, while his shoulders travels in the opposite one. He needs to follow the rider’s feel, while yielding to his leg. It’s physically demanding, and mentally confusing, at first

OlivierVDBJul16-25Effort + confusion is the perfect cocktail to result in a horse thinking he needs to defend himself. First he naturally resists it, pushes into pressure, then will try protesting. Dandy first offered a kick to the spur’s side (namely, his right flank), then graduated to a buck when the kick didn’t rid him of spur pressure. Olivier was gracious and understanding about it. He beautifully “stayed on the edge of trouble”, as Ray Hunt once said. He showed the horse how kicking and bucking didn’t remove the ask and the pressure, but he also settled for the smallest try and rewarded the tiniest move in the right direction, to keep the horse willing and encourage him to search for the right answer. He later said “We’re smarter than them, but we need to use that to help them, set them up for success, not failure. It’s not very hard to outsmart a horse, but we need to benevolent about it”.

OlivierVDBJul16-11I’ve written again and again how wary I am about MOST reining trainers. In my own experience (and I’ve witnessed a LOT of them at work), a frightening majority are brutes with a lack of technique, empathy challenged, and filling their lack of insight and understanding with force and coercition. Some of them are butchers. But a GOOD, smart, compassionate and skilled reining trainer is a thing of beauty. Yes, there are challenges for the horse to master in this discipline, and yes, horses don’t rein naturally and don’t rein for pleasure, at least not when first learning it. But encouraged and empowered by a good trainer, a talented reining prospect can learn with minimal force and even learn to enjoy their job. Olivier is this kind of trainer, and it’s a humbling experience to work under his instruction. He will challenge the rider as well, make you go way out your comfort zone, and you’ll end up cooked, sweaty, weak, stunned and your mind boggled, but deeply happy, pleasantly surprised by what you achieved, proud, amazed and confused, all at once.

OlivierVDBJul16-19You can see a VIDEO towards the end of the session, THERE. It shows the result pretty well. Keep in mind the colt turned 2 in May, and is about 4 months under saddle, trained by a total amateurr (ME)


OlivierVDBJul16-24All 3 riders present for the lesson were thrilled with the time spent


OlivierVDBJul16-20PMAnd so my little guy went home to his pasture after a good bath, had a roll in the mud, and 2 days off. Stay tuned for what happened next…




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