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Amy Skinner interviews Jec Ballou

Published: 6/21/2016
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Editor's Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She  runs Essence Horsemanship, rides and teaches English and Western. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others.

Read more about Amy here.

Read more Journals & Journeys here

By Amy Skinner

I recently rode in a three-day clinic with Jec Ballou. We worked in one-on-one settings and a group format.  I rode my nine-year old Morgan gelding, Geronimo, who is a bit headstrong and of complicated mind.  I also brought along my 12-year old paint mare, Dee, who tends to be braced, stiff, and a bit choppy in her gaits. 

I was thrilled with my horses’ progress after three days of balancing, developing symmetry and self carriage, as well as relaxation.  Jec had lots of great exercises involving poles and cones, as well as dressage movements which facilitate a beneficial and smooth ride. After the clinic’s end, I was lucky enough to snag her for thoughts on a few questions.

Amy Skinner:  Lots of people have different ideas and ways of teaching a half halt.  What are your thoughts on the subject?

Jec Ballou: That’s a heavy question. (Laughs) Well, the classical definition originally was riding halfway to the halt, so in my mind, I think about it that way still.  When I teach a horse to take more weight onto the hind end, I do actually reduce the speed, so you go from an active working trot and then slowing down a few steps and then rebounding forward.  But as you become more refined, it turns into just rebalancing.  A half halt is kind of a quick arresting of their forward falling.

AS:  Do you have a favorite breed or type of horse?

JB:  I like most horses, I get along with most breeds, but I’m very partial to the Iberian breeds.  My own horse is an Andalusian and it was a dream to own one finally.  I also am very fond of Arabians which is kind of odd for a dressage trainer, but I find them very trainable, athletic and delightful.  So I’d say those are at the top for me.

AS:  Do you conform to the dressage training pyramid, or do you have a different progression you follow to take a young horse from green to finished?

JB:  That’s a great question, because the Western Dressage Association of America has been trying to come up with our own training scale, and it’s been a really fun challenge. 
I don’t always follow that pyramid exactly, but I do think it’s a good general guideline, primarily because it emphasizes rhythm. To me, it’s the same thing that horsemanship trainers are getting down to, which is getting control of the horse’s stride; when and where that horse places its foot.  It’s kind of the same thing as developing rhythm. Until you have that happening, you don’t have a lot going for you. 

Unfortunately, a lot of dressage trainers skip over that, and want to get right to the fancy stuff.  To me, the pyramid’s existence is important for saying that you can’t skip over the foundational pieces.  That being said, sometimes there are horses that you introduce the contact with sooner rather than later. For some horses (usually with retrains), it’s necessary to introduce contact sooner because they need more help in their bodies.

AS:  That prompts my next question.  I’ve found with different breeds, the approach needs to be different.  I don’t necessarily find that the training scales are in order for every breed type, depending on how the horse is built.  So what are your thoughts on that?

JB:  I totally agree.  I wrote an article for Eclectic Horseman years ago and it was called “Rhythm versus Balance.”  I had spent so much time in Portugal and found that they follow a very different training scale because they are training such different horses.  If you go to your typical dressage trainer, all you do is forward and it’s very frantic.  But those breeds are kind of phlegmatic sometimes, so I think what they’re trying to get at is getting the horse on the aids. 
In Portugal, it’s the opposite. They do so much backing.  Way more than I ever did in traditional dressage, and a lot more lateral work.  I think that’s why it’s important for people to educate themselves on the different traditions.  I think there are many roads to Rome, but that we kind of need to be clear on what your path is. 
In today’s clinic cultures, people go to all these different kinds of clinics and they just get confused.  It’s not that any one trainer has the answer. It’s that you need to know where you’re headed and you what you need to take away. 

AS:  Dressage is often against backing up in my experience until the upper levels.  What is your opinion on backing up and why?

JB:  It’s crazy! I was from a very traditional dressage upbringing and then when I started going to Portugal, we went backwards so much.  I struggled with it. The common belief is that it puts the horse on the forehand.  But if it puts the horse on the forehand, why do we have it in our tests?  I don’t buy it.  What I love about Western Dressage is that right off the bat, there’s backing.  It’s so important for horses physiologically and it actually lowers their sacrum and gets them off their forehand.  I don’t know why that hasn’t changed in dressage today.

Coming next week: Part II - The dressage training scale, Ballou’s custom training exercises, and why core stability is key.

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6/23/2016 Betty
I have been enjoying Jec's "Equine Fitness." However, I understand that Western Dressage has recently adopted the Equitation Science (Dr. Andrew McLean} new scale: Basic Attempt - Obedience - Rhythm - Straightness - Contact - Proof rather than the pyramid in this article

"Some of my best leading men have been dogs and horses" - Elizabeth Taylor