2023 U.S. Lusitano Conference - Kyra Kyrklund: "Repetitions to Make and Break a Habit"

Thu, 03/02/2023 - 12:46
Training Your Horse
Kyra Kyrklund, keynote speaker at the naugural Lusitano Conference in Loxahatchee, Florida :: Photo © Carmen Franco

This article by Carmen Franco is a continuation of 2023 U.S. Lusitano Conference - Pedro Torres: "Teach Your Horse the Code"

2023 U.S. Lusitano Conference - Kyra Kyrklund: 

When I heard the US Lusitano Association was planning to host Kyra Kyrklund in their inaugural Lusitano Conference at May Faire Oaks farm, my work home, I set my mind to prepare Emir (also known as "BP" as in Black Pearl) to ride with her. I have had the honour and privilege to ride in two symposiums with her before, coincidentally with Lusitanos too, and I learned so much, so it needed to happen again!

It’s been several years since Kyra and her husband Richard (equally genius) have been to Florida and our excitement to welcome them back was high. My submission to be preselected as rider was accepted (thank you, team!) and we had to show the horses on Tuesday to pick the final selection and see what they could work on in front of the public. All of us were asked if we didn’t want to show some movements, which I thought was very respectful of our processes and horses. As Kyra later said, “riding is difficult” and even more in front of public that sometimes is so easy to jump into criticism. And don’t even let me get started with the online gurus… thankfully, the clinic had a policy of no videos/pictures and most attendees complied.

Riding BP in the Masterclass meant that I couldn’t pay much attention to the combinations before and after my turn. But I will do a brief description of them as I found out (through Kyra and some of my friends attending) what they worked on.

Steady Connection

Kyra explainging the neck strap to Hope Beerling.
She is on Oregon de Castanheiro
(by Diamante N x Paragrafo TOP)
This one I missed, both during the presentation and during the Masterclass. But I wanted to give a little review as it was interesting to see the pictures that my assistant, Emily Bercaw, took while I was warming up my horse, compared to what Kyra told me about it later in the week.

They worked mainly on establishing a steadier connection and used a rope around the neck to help the rider and the horse to find better balance. “You have to take connection to get contact, even if it gets heavy or deep for a while”. The rope “stimulates” the use of the chest/lower neck muscles to not drop, therefore helps with putting the horse more together and helps with the idea of going more uphill. At the same time, it helps the rider to find a better place for the hands and the body, creating a better influence on the horse. “The topline should be longer, the underline should be shorter”.

Repetitions to Make and Break a Habit

I had told Kyra that one of the movements I have struggled to correct on BP were the flying changes. I have 4s, 3s, 2s and some ones but they really sway right and left from the line I do them.

Carmen Franco on Emir II (by Lirio x Bau)
First, she explained that correcting this issue depended on having the horse in front of the leg, being able to engage and collect. These conditions are in direct relationship with its capacity to lift the front end. So, she asked me to canter and then work on counter canter close to the rail. She immediately corrected the use of my aids: said I had the horse too flexed to the inside, I needed to keep him more aligned. She also asked me to just use the outside leg to give impulsion and leave the inside passive (outside and inside as for the canter, not the arena). Several times reminded me not to let him get longer and, the more I established the collection, the straighter he got and the easier it felt to ask for a flying change. She remarked that the canter needed to be expressive to get the flying change to be the same, not to expect an expressive one out of a flat canter. When I did a few on the track, she asked me to take a diagonal and then the center line at counter canter, straight to the mirror. “Think you have the rail on your side”.

To my own joy, I saw him go straighter to it and I was able to perform a few with the new outside aids, that were quite straight. Of course, this lasted until I lost concentration… to what Kyra reminded us how difficult it is to change patterns and how much it takes to memorize movement in our brain and body. ¨It takes 100,000 repetitions to make it a habit and an additional 5,000 to break a habit."

A Long Leg that Only Tickles the Horse

Oz was the youngest of the horses presented. Kyra helped Maggie find a steadier position in the saddle with a loose, long leg that only tickles the horse, doesn’t squeeze it. With a relaxed leg, the hip finds a better place in the saddle and that gives more stability to the upper body. The arms hang down, the elbows bend and the wrists are soft. The young horse follows the rider’s reins for steering first, that’s why it is so important to be steady.

Maggie McDonald on OZ CLB (by Isqueiro IGS
x Xirineus Paixiao)
Kyra made Maggie grab a strap attached to the front pommel of the saddle and steer with only one hand. Told her not to concentrate so much in the relationship between inside leg and outside rein. “Horse needs to be equal on all aids”.

Another point they went through was how Maggie could manage her body during the posting trot. She was asked to hold two strides up and go softly down one. Also post quicker or slower to influence the speed of the horse. Oz showed some beautiful strides!

Kyra advised to use the whip behind the leg of the rider, not on the hindleg of the horse. That way, he learns to pay attention to the leg aid. “Don’t push every stride, sit still, use leg once”. If you need the help of the whip, keep it on the outside in the canter. The outside leg just needs to be 5 centimeters behind, not too far back. When the rider is more balanced in the saddle, it can help the horse turn with the weight. Horse needs to be ridden like going through a tunnel, with the stability of the rider’s aids.

Contol the Position of the Neck

Kyra holding a spring
When Jennifer came in, Kyra brought a spring to show us what flexibility means. She made all of us stand up, hollow our backs, and lift one leg with the knee bent. It was very difficult to keep the balance on the leg on the ground. Then she asked us to do the same but with the back round and relaxed, almost no one had problems standing on one leg!

They worked on leg-yielding asking the horse to cross clearly over, but not get faster. To help the rider control the horse from running away and work on improving bend on the hindlegs, Kyra suggested to go back to turn on the forehand, movement a bit forgotten in the repertoire of many riders. During the turn, the rider can play with flexion and counter flexion.

They worked leg-yielding at the trot and canter too, where Kyra asked Jennifer to make bigger and smaller, quicker, and slower strides sideways. Also changing the flexion into bend to convert the leg-yield into a half-pass. “For a half-pass to be good, horse needs to accept the outside leg of the rider”.

They worked also on canter collection on a small circle where Kyra asked Jennifer to pat the horse with the outside hand. “The rider needs to be able to put the neck of the horse up or down when they want to”. If riding with the double bridle, the rider needs to understand that the bradoon will work on keeping the horse’s head/neck up and the curb down. The rider must know how to work in between both.

Establishing Better Collection

Nancy Smith on Eragon VO (by Portugal x Babel)
With Nancy and Eragon we had many tips for establishing better collection. Kyra reminded us to use the leg like a whip: it touches the horse, doesn’t squeeze or grip. While confirming the collection, the rider should be able to change the frame through using aids at different volumes, of course, starting with low, if nothing happens, increase the volume, get a reaction, go to low again.

It was good to see the effect of keeping the walk and the canter short, then introducing a pirouette at the walk, to convert it into a canter pirouette. Kyra said: “pat him with your outside hand”, asking Nancy to stay more on her inside rein and use the outside only if the horse wanted to run away. If the canter felt a bit up and down (or rocking), she suggested to lower the neck without letting the shoulders go down.  “You should never work harder in pirouettes than you would to ask for a canter transition”. If you are riding a complicated movement like pirouettes, don't spend time doing bad ones, break them down to the individual components and improve them. The better the engagement, the better the coming up in front will be. Pirouette and piaffe have the same outline, if the horse does one good, most probably the other one will be good too.

At the end of this session, Kyra stressed to check for improvement in every single movement we have in a test, if we do all of them 0.5 better in score, we will get a much better percentage at the end.

Quiet Hands and Legs

Strap attached to the girth strap and stirrup strap
Next on was a gorgeous mare with the nickname of “Gigi”. When Kyle came in, Kyra tied the stirrup to the saddle to help Kyle not to move her leg too far back. “You need to feel you can carry your leg too, not just step down into the stirrup”. She also put a strap on the front of the saddle to help her find steadiness in the hand when Gigi wanted to pull. “The rider’s elbow should be like pushing against someone's hand (or wall) behind them to resist when horse gets strong. Even if you have short arms, you must bend your elbows, so you can stay soft with your hands.”

Since Gigi has a very powerful hindleg, Kyra asked Kyle to control her body in the rising trot by posting slower than the mare’s rhythm. Also, to go up, stay in light sit for a few strides until finding a cadence. Then they worked on sitting one stride and go up two, when sitting again, doing it softly so the back of the horse can stay up. The strap in the saddle helped Kyle maintain her hands lower. “The higher the hand, the lower the horse will go”.

When Gigi kept trying to do big strides with the hindlegs, Kyra asked Kyle to push her to the side but focusing on maintaining the body straight in alignment. They went into working turn on the forehand as the front end can’t run away in this movement. While on it, rider must touch the inside hindleg (when going up) with a whip to help it bend more. From there, the piaffe can be developed.

Flexion and Straightness

Candace Platz on Enrique (by Raxito x
With Candy and handsome Enrique, they worked on flying changes, similar as what I had to do, but they went on to do series too. When they got to one tempi, Kyra asked Candy not to do too many in a row, maintain the seat in the saddle, ride forward with the outside leg and be quick with the aids.

Then they worked on preparation for the zig-zag. At the walk, Candy had to take the centerline and move the hindlegs to the right or to the left while maintaining Enrique’s shoulders and head straight. After achieving more suppleness both ways, they started the following exercises: canter right, push with the left leg the hindlegs to the right, make the horse straight, then flying change, then push the hindlegs to the left and so on. They also did a sharp half-pass to the centerline and then renvers, followed by making the horse straight, then ask for a flying change and start the next half-pass. “Be sure you can flex, counter-flex and make your horse straight”. After a little break, they did 3 strides sideways, 3 strides straight, and Kyra suggested that, even in a long half-pass, you can count every x number of strides to change the flexion. “Give your aids in rhythm, let the horse know”.

Body Control

Tyra Vernon on Hadrian Interagro (by Baldor x Cantor)
With this wonderful combination, Kyra worked the execution of the zig-zag: “In the change, he looks into the new direction”.

We were able to learn also some very helpful tips to improve the piaffe and passage, like using turn on the forehand at the piaffe with a small flexion to the outside and produce very small steps to improve engagement. For the passage Tyra was asked to do rising trot, go slower, push the hindlegs out, then make the horse straight, find short steps. “If you lose the hindleg, push them out”.

Kyra used this explanation: if you want to bounce a beach ball, you variate how quick your hand meets the ball, but your hand needs to be flexible for the ball to bounce. Same happens with the back of the horse: the rider needs to know how to maintain control of his own energy to move up and down. “Your weight is the one thing that's influencing the horse all the time”.

While stressing that the rider needs to be patient training horses, she also said “Don't go on and on practicing a movement, at some point in a dressage test it has to happen the first time you ask”.


McGiver on Geada d'Atela (by Rico x Eleito).
Turn on the forehand helping hindleg to bend and
engage without running away.
I wished I could put in writing every single word and phrase Kyra said, but I’m happy I can share here some of my notes. Her approach is always interesting as she has a wonderful way to break down the movements, for both horses and riders, to improve their performances. All that added to very entertaining stories and funny jokes. Absolutely inspiring in so many ways!

A huge thank you goes out to the US Lusitano Association for organizing this fantastic event, to May Faire Oaks farm for hosting, to the riders/horses and their teams, to the sponsors and volunteers. The bar was set really high!

Text and Photos © Carmen Franco

Related Link
2023 U.S. Lusitano Conference - Pedro Torres: "Teach Your Horse the Code"