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Blog Tales from the LOPE Ranch

Peter Campbell Clinic: Suzanne and Watson

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Suzanne and Watson (aka, Wooden Phone) Suzanne and Watson (aka, Wooden Phone)

By Guest Blogger Suzanne Minter

Suzanne adopted Wooden Phone — now renamed Watson — from LOPE. She attended Peter Campbell’s clinic on a full scholarship, thanks to some very generous LOPE donors. This is her blog post about her and Watson’s experience in the Horsemanship class.

As cliché as it may sound, I have to start this post out with a few enormous thank you’s. I am so grateful to Trina Campbell and the two donors for making the scholarships possible. I need to thank Lynn and LOPE for selecting me for the Horsemanship scholarship. I also want to thank Peter for being so devoted to the horses and students. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and I never would have been able to attend this year without the help of the scholarship.

Due to a highly sensitive and emotional nature, Watson still struggles with anxiety, lack of confidence, and emotional issues from his track days.

First, a little information on Wooden Phone (or “Watson”). Watson is a true racing warrior who didn’t retire from racing until the age of eight. He had plenty of time just letting down in the pastures at LOPE before I began retraining him. Due to a highly sensitive and emotional nature, Watson still struggles with anxiety, lack of confidence, and emotional issues from his track days. I’ve restarted him very slowly and carefully into a new career in Dressage.

Day 1

I’ll admit it. I woke up in a full-fledged panic attack. We’d driven up pretty late the night before, and my class was the first of the day. This left little time for Watson to settle in and get used to his surroundings, and very little time to let him see the arena before the class. I was nervous about riding with Peter, and nervous about how Watson would react to this environment (a new place with a new arena full of twelve other horses). I tried very hard to suppress my anxiety (I was well aware I couldn’t help Watson with his anxiety until I got control of my own), but I was still pretty nervous when we went into class.

We started out in a circle around Peter, listening to him talk. Watson could not stand still, and I’m pretty sure I was almost as fidgety as he was. After introducing ourselves and listening to Peter, we began ground work. Watson was very distracted and tense and often called out to his new neighbor in the barn, but he still tried to do as he was asked. To be honest, when Peter told us to go ahead and get on our horses, I wasn’t sure Watson and I were ready. I did get on and immediately felt how tense Watson was. I believe “loose cannon” came to mind.

We started out in a circle around Peter, listening to him talk. Watson could not stand still, and I’m pretty sure I was almost as fidgety as he was.

However, Peter had us do several walk exercises that really helped focus both Watson and myself. We were both still anxious, but stable. There were cows in a pen at one end of the arena, which translated as horse-eating monsters to Watson. We carefully avoided that end of the arena for most of the class. About two-thirds of the way through, the class took a break. I dismounted to give Watson some time to mull over all we had done. When I remounted, it felt like a completely different horse. He had totally relaxed, and became a more focused and willing partner for the rest of the class. We even walked past the cows once with minor spooking.

Day 2

I was still nervous going into the class, but much better than the day before. Watson and I went into the arena a little early to practice our ground work, and tried to work through the normal separation anxiety issues. Once Peter came into the arena, Watson and I both relaxed a little. We were able to stand in the circle with little movement. We began again with groundwork, then got on our horses. This time, Watson felt relaxed as soon as I was on.

What really struck me during this class was how focused Peter was on the horses’ emotional states.

We did exercises at the walk and trot. What really struck me during this class was how focused Peter was on the horses’ emotional states. He asked us to focus on their expressions (paying particular attention to their ears and tails), and to pet our horses for even the smallest tries. I really appreciated this approach, and it was very clear throughout the clinic that the horses appreciated it too. Peter also asked that we focus on precision in each exercise. We edged closer and closer to the cows this day, but Watson was still very tense while passing them.

Day 3

The third day was a big one for me. Watson and I went into the class confidently this day. We did minimal ground work before the class began, and mounted up to circle around Peter. Peter had us review the exercises we’d done, then moved on to new exercises at all three gaits. I had a few revelations in this class. As we moved around the arena in a group, maneuvering through the exercises Peter showed us, I realized how Watson had really improved. He was so light in the forehand, sensitive and listening to every cue, and very round and truly “through” in his topline. That’s when it struck me: this is true classical Dressage.

I realized how Watson had really improved. He was so light in the forehand, sensitive and listening to every cue, and very round and truly “through” in his topline. That’s when it struck me: this is true classical Dressage.

Of course, I’m sure most of the students in the class were having the same thoughts about how the class was improving their individual disciplines. Peter’s emphasis on the emotional well being of the horse, precision of the exercises, and the sensitivity of the horse to the rider’s cues can drastically improve the horse and rider in any discipline and in their relationship with one another.

The second revelation hit me like a ton of bricks. For the past two days, I’d been listening to Peter say we have to “ride the horse from where he’s at,” and I had been sure I understood what he meant. I really thought he meant we have to figure out where the horse is in his training and ride forward from there. On day three, Peter elaborated. He continued on to say that we can’t expect the horse to act one way or another based on how he was yesterday, a week ago, a month ago, a year ago. This really took me by surprise, but I instantly recognized it as a very nasty habit of mine. I often reflect on what Watson has been like in the past (causes of anxiety or spookiness, for instance), and I do let it affect how I ride and train him.

Peter’s emphasis on the emotional well being of the horse, precision of the exercises, and the sensitivity of the horse to the rider’s cues can drastically improve the horse and rider in any discipline and in their relationship with one another.

Sometimes I mean well (as in, I don’t want to push him too far because he has a hard time with this or that), and sometimes I think I unconsciously use it as a crutch. Either way, it’s not good for Watson. I’ve really taken that to heart, and I think it is one of the most important things I took away from the clinic. We can’t expect our horses to have a problem before we even get on, whether we mean well or not.

A highlight of day three for me was that Watson and I were used as an example of how to do a proper canter circle. This made me particularly proud since Watson had struggled with his anxiety fixating on the canter depart for a while. I’m sure it seemed like such a small moment, but I was so proud. In this class, we were able to calmly walk past the cows (as long as they didn’t move, of course).

Day 4

watsonclinicThe last day was such a mixture of happiness and sadness. I was so comfortable and happy going into class, but didn’t want this amazing experience to end. Watson was practically an old pro by this point, and my biggest problem was getting him to wake up! We breezed through the exercises at all three gaits, and Watson napped while we circled around Peter. The highlight of this day was that Peter allowed Watson and me to sit in on the cow working class! I felt this was especially important for Watson to help build his confidence. We began by sitting in a corner of the arena; watching the other horses move the cows around.

Every now and then, the cows passed close by (at which point Watson felt like a coiled spring). He relaxed some, but kept a close eye on the cows’ movement throughout the class. When the break came, I decided to ride Watson forward to see how close we could get to the cows. Honestly, I was expecting him to start whirling long before we got close. Much to my surprise, Watson was able to get right up next to the small herd of cattle and push them around for a few minutes!

I could not have asked for a more positive experience. I was inspired by listening to Peter and watching him work with some of the horses at the clinic. I learned many training exercises and tools to use on a regular basis. This clinic was the first instruction of any kind I’ve had on Watson, and it exceeded my expectations by far.

This was such a huge moment to me, because even though he was still tense and worried, he was listening to me and trusting me. I decided to get off after a few minutes of moving the cattle as a reward for Watson’s great work. I really appreciated Peter going above and beyond. He didn’t have to let us sit in on an extra class, but he thought it would be good for Watson. It’s this kind of dedication to the horse that sets Peter apart from other trainers and clinicians.

I could not have asked for a more positive experience. I was inspired by listening to Peter and watching him work with some of the horses at the clinic. I learned many training exercises and tools to use on a regular basis. This clinic was the first instruction of any kind I’ve had on Watson, and it exceeded my expectations by far.

I could elaborate even further on what I learned each day, not only by riding in my class but also by watching the cow working and colt starting classes; but in an effort to keep this at a reasonable length, I’ve really tried to focus on my personal experiences on Watson. I would highly recommend this clinic to any rider from any discipline, no matter the level. If you can’t ride in it, at least audit. It is truly something special to be a part of, and you will leave a better horseman if you are willing to learn.

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