by Mitzi Summers
In February of this year I was again fortunate enough to be summoned to South Africa to teach and train at many of the local riding establishments. The journey there is always a bit difficult — the plane ride plus waiting at the airports for connections takes up well over 26 hours. But there is a feeling of camaraderie in the plane (or acceptance of mutual suffering), and passengers are usually more than eager to help each other if necessary.
I concentrated most of my teaching around Bloemfontein, known as the ‘garden city”, and Johannesburg. There is a greater concentration of horses around Johannesburg. It is larger and some of the inhabitants are in a bit better position to own large stables and have their horses as a serious part of their lives.
Generally speaking, most of my clients in Bloemfontein were dressage or jumper clients. Small shows are held quite frequently. South Africa has no hunter division as we do here, and the equitation and correct consistency of their horses over fences suffer for this. One of my hosts, Nick van Heerden, is an F.E.I. course builder. He travels throughout the country building courses for jumping events. He also agreed that the country needs to begin a hunter division.
Many of my lessons with jumpers involved the riders being able to develop a rhythm with their horses and to be able to half halt them correctly. Many started out with an unbalanced hand gallop and ended up gathering momentum and galloping quite fast and out of control by the end of the courses. Consequently the horses could not develop a bascule, jumped flat, and were knocking down fences. Many of the horse-rider teams were understandably quite nervous about the whole affair as it became a bit dangerous.
Most of my jumping lessons began on the flat, teaching the riders half halts in jumping position, removing some of the prohibitive artificial aids they had resorted to, (severe bits, tight running martingales, etc.), and teaching them correct use of their legs, seat, and FINALLY hands. It was rewarding to see these methods work; the horse longitudinally lengthening and shortening. The biggest reward was the added reinforcement to me and my students that these positive training methods work. Most of these riders wanted results in the show ring, and when they started placing higher in the pinnings, they became even more receptive of these techniques.
The other thing I noticed was a lack of planning in their training. A “training scale” needed to be developed with them. It did not always follow the USDF or German training scale — it was individual for each horse. But for the riders to realize that their horses needed a definite and well-thought out plan to follow consistently was important. It had been difficult for many of them in their training, as they were just dealing with each problem as it came up, without a clear understanding of the “whys” of doing something, and how to more correctly explain to their horse what was needed.
One man I was working with was going to the South African National Pentathlon Games. His riding was dangerous. He would just gallop his horse, no control, using only his reins for support. His horse was always on the verge of running away with him. I needed to use quite a bit of Centered Riding techniques with him to get him balanced and able to use his legs and seat to help his horse… not just his hands. It was quite a challenge, but he was at the end able to rider fairly correctly and certainly could control his horse much better. He was very receptive. It was very intensive work and concentration on my part, but very rewarding when I can see people improving rapidly because of positive reinforcement techniques.
There were many stables scattered about in the Bloemfontein area. Just as in Johannesburg, I could travel in about a 25-mile radius from my home base and have many students. I was fortunate to have as my host Lynn Muller, who started reining and western dressage in South Africa. Even though it is such a tremendous country, horse farms tend to be somewhat grouped together.
When I traveled to Johannesburg, I had to travel about an hour northwest from the city to start to get into “Horse Country”. Equestrian gated estates are quite numerous here.
My first venue was to teach three people at the South African Headquarters for the Spanish Riding School South Africa Division. Here Lipizzans are trained under the auspices of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, with guest instructors from Austria frequently staying and coaching. It was quite a thrill to be teaching with colorful bunting all about, mirrors and engravings on the walls, the pillars in the center of the ring, grandstand seating, and beautiful footing.
Western dressage in gaining in popularity in South Africa, and, as I had attended one of the WDAA’s Trainers Symposiums and judged, shown and ridden Western Dressage, that faction of riding around Johannesburg had been anxious to have me come. Several of them rode at this facility as well as several dressage riders. All had solid foundation in Dressage, but some had been subjected to some “push, pull” techniques and some incorrect Natural Horsemanship techniques. When these were sorted out the riders were quite excited about how their horses moved.
Of course rider position always comes first. All of the riders were quite physically fit and rode almost daily, but were just missing some of the ‘finesse’ necessary in training a horse to be light and relaxed and ‘happy’ without tension.
One vast riding school I visited had so many people wanting to take a lesson that I had to take group of five at a time throughout three long days. Many of the horse were traveling with inverted backs and heads up because of fairly severe bits, running martingales, and uneducated rider’s hands.
I put many of them into Dr. Cook Bitless bridles so that the horse became unafraid to stretch forward into contact, and so that the riders had time to work on their independent seat and feeling of correct, following contact. It was thrilling to see each horse get better. The instructor was also quite positive. I am always quite pleased when an instructor has the correct outlook on teaching so that they will take lessons, even in front of their students.
The trip was successful. All horses and riders got better. They want me back in September for a longer time if I can fit the trip into my schedule, and Western Dressage I hope is now headed the correct way, with the horse moving well and the rider not allowed to yank or pull on their horse’s mouth.
I did get to see some fascinating wildlife, and I would recommend a trip there with careful planning. Much of South Africa is still wild, with thousands of acres of uninhabited land, which is thrilling to see.
Teaching and Training in South Africa, 2014
by Mitzi Summers