We asked #TeamBombers dressage rider Bert Sheffield to share a favourite flatwork exercise, and also asked her six burning equestrian questions, from riding goals to words of wisdom.
Here’s a riding exercise that Bert recommends: the nuchal ligament flip
This is a super, simple exercise that can be done with a horse at any stage of training. It will give you heaps of useful feedback about your horse, as well as being a great way to improve your horse’s suppleness and contact.
So you need to be warmed up, then start by making a settled halt; square would be good, but it’s not vital. You gently take up the reins to the amount of weight that you feel would be ideal. I don’t expect that the horse will be perfectly on the bit; don’t fiddle with the reins to create a shape. Now lift your hand on the horse’s stiff side, maintaining the weight of the contact. but not increasing it; the rein will go to about 45 degrees.
At that point, the bit will start to act more on the lips, and less on the bars and tongue. Many horses will flex a tiny bit at the poll from this feeling, but others may need a little help; you can vibrate the rein very gently, so the horse starts to chew and release the tension on that side of his jaw.
The nuchal ligament, running along the top of the horse’s neck, will flip to the inside of the flexion. If you are really sensitive in your seat, you will feel the back come up under the saddle, just behind the withers on the side on the flexion. You only want the top joints of the neck to flex, and this flexion is only a teeny, tiny bit.
Now you have got it to one side, you can drop your raised hand, and do the same on the other side. The nuchal ligament will flip across with a supple twang when you get it right, and the horse is truly relaxed in the muscles of the poll area. This exercise will give you an idea of which side of the jaw the horse is holding tension; it teaches the horse to soften to the bit without the rider pulling back or ‘see-sawing’ on the mouth, and it improves the lightness of the hand-mouth connection.
The next stage will be to add a few turns on the forehand steps after the flexion has been achieved, to further lift the back.
WATCH BERT’S NUCHAL FLIP VIDEO DEMONSTRATION HERE – https://vimeo.com/533543273
Six burning questions for dressage rider Bert Sheffield
1.Which is your most memorable horse?
I would select two! My first international horse Wonderboy (Whoop), for sure. (Pictured left). And of course, my wonderful Fairuza (Wonky – pictured above and far below), who led me to Bomber bits! Whoop came into my life when he was 4, as a barely-started, cheap KWPN jumping horse that I had every intention of getting going, and then selling to help fund me buying a ‘proper’ dressage horse. He was incredibly challenging as a young horse; if he was in the field, he was jumping out; if he was in the stable, he was creating mayhem; if you were riding him, you’d better have your wits about you. So all in all, the perfect starting material for a Para-dressage equine superstar!
Thank goodness he mellowed, and I learned how to manage him; he taught me so much. He gave me my first national championship title; we won internationally together, he took me onto the Canadian National team Programme, and he allowed me to train him through all the dressage work to Grand Prix.
His soundness was always his limiting factor, but since I retired him from the competition, he has gone on to be an adored schoolmaster for three families. He is the perfect example of how it is the difficult ones that have the most to teach you.
Fairuza or Wonky, pictured below, is my current international level horse, a 12-year-old Gelderlander x Warmblood mare. She has a story all of her own; I bought her from her breeder as an unhandled/ semi-feral 6-year-old; she had been living out in a huge herd.
Again, she was to be a project horse, but she claimed a piece of my heart and stayed. She has become the horse I always wanted. For all her hot, fiery, and power in the arena, I can hack her on the trails around the local woods with friends on the buckle. Wonky is that elusive mix of heart-horse and performer.
2.What’s your best piece of advice and why?
Be in the moment. If you think in the past, you will be depressed; if you think in the future, you will be anxious. Stay grounded in the here and now.
3. What’s your ultimate goal?
At the moment, the ultimate goal is team selection for the Tokyo Paralympics next year with Wonky! It would be my 4th Major Games representing Canada.
4.What would you tell your younger/teenage self?
I would definitely tell my teenage self that there will be a silver lining to this ‘thing’ that is happening to you. I developed the symptoms of rheumatoid disease when I was 15, but the doctors didn’t manage to get a handle on what was going on until I was 20, so I spent my teenage years in great pain physically, and consequently mentally, falling apart, with no diagnosis or prognosis for the future. I would definitely reassure my teenage self that this condition will actually be a blessing in the long run, and lead to you opportunities beyond your wildest dreams.
5.Which horse would you like to have ridden, or to ride?
Reiner Klimke’s Ahlerich has always been my heartthrob horse; so much charisma! That horse showed how correct training doesn’t have to make the horse slavish; he bubbled with personality and joy. He’s probably the reason I seem to gravitate towards bay horses with white faces.
6. What will you be doing in 20 years’ time?
I have no idea! Hopefully, I will still be enjoying my horses and still coaching.
Bert Sheffield is a Canadian dressage rider and qualified riding coach. She competes as a Para-Equestrian Paralympic Team member and runs a remote coaching and mentoring programme at www.bertsheffieldparaequestrianrider.com. Bert has represented Canada at three Major Games including the Rio Paralympics. Interested owners and supporters can contact Bert via her Facebook page.
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With thanks to Beth Barkway photography and also Helen Griffin for her photo of Wonderboy.