The Project, Finesse, Rider Experience – Michael Wanzenried 5* Clinic

Day 2 of clinic 2. As you can probably tell from the length of the last post, that was the day were all the pieces fell into place. With all that knowledge about leadership, today and the next day were very well set up for success! Mikey taught me lateral flexion in a higher frame in finesse today and why that is important for every rider and horse to learn. He also taught us one step of the project each day in theory, let us practice it in the sessions and the next day he would teach us the next step. Allow me to take the chance here to write about the project as a whole in this post. Off we go…

The Project

Let me start off by saying that by no way will this post come close to explaining the project as in depth as Mikey’s DVD – obviously. My goal here is just to pass on my interpretation of what he was teaching us in the clinic. Sometimes you watch a DVD and it all makes sense. Then you go out and try it and questions start popping up. Those are the questions I want to address here.

Before you can even do anything with your horse, two things need to be in place. You need to have a plan – a physical one – and your horse needs to be connected to you.

I described a few ways to achieving this in my last post in detail. You can read up on it here: Leadership, Horse Psychology, Rider Experience – Michael Wanzenried 5* Clinic.

Now, your project is part of your plan, so decide on a specific project in advance. Then you would go into the arena, play with an exercise to get connected and be ready that as soon as your horse gets connected and asks you questions to move on to your plan. Do not go into your session, get your horse connected and then stand around deciding what project you would like to play with today! That will cause you to loose the connection you just spent time building up.

I want to give you the two examples we did in the clinic to illustrate the steps of the project – Follow the Rail and a Change of Direction. Just so you get an idea of the three steps of the project. Once you understand them, you can apply them to any project you choose.

The 3 Steps of the Project

  1. Stop at the object.
  2. Don’t stop at the object. Pass in front of it and behind it.
  3. Do the exercise. Put an exercise to the project.
Follow the Rail

Your horse is connected to you, asking questions and the project you have decided to play with for the next sessions is Follow the Rail. Depending on how long it took your horse to connect, you may want to quit the session here, without showing your cards on this first day.

When you are ready to move on ask your horse to go to a corner and rest there when he is thirsty enough for it. I personally the easiest way to do this is as Mikey shows in the DVD. Have a circle that you’re walking on as your neutral waiting position. That way, going to a corner is a very smooth move. Your goal is that your horse looks competent doing this. That he looks like he knows he’s going to the corner, heads straight for it, organises his body to stop straight in the corner, and commits to the corner by not moving out of it or looking everywhere but the corner. This is step 1: stop at the object (in this case the rail/corner).

Keep playing until you feel the horse connect to the object (in this case the corner), no matter ow long it takes – Minutes, Days, Weeks or Months. The Project is a study. There are no rules about what to correct or not to correct and when to move on. You have to learn to feel it. You cannot go wrong. Try it and evaluate after. You shouldn’t have to use your stick. If you do have to, the horse wasn’t thirsty enough to ask the question.

It should be physically visible what you are doing. If someone from outside the arena and can’t tell – then your horse doesn’t stand a chance!

Once you can do this with all corners with your horse really and truly understanding the corners (no matter how long this takes), it’s time to go to step 2. Do not try to perfect step 1, when the horse doesn’t even know what the game is yet.

Step 2 is to pass the object. So that means you are on the circle until your horse asks a question, when he does you go the same route as before, but this time you don’t stop in the corner. Instead you go to the corner after that. Once this is well established you can start playing with leaving two corners out and going to the third, etc. You should be getting a question in every corner as you go past. If your horse assumes that you past the corner, it’s time to stop in the corner again. If your horse goes to stop in the corner, it’s time to pass the corner. The goal here is to get your horse to ask you in every corner: “Are we going to stop or keep going?”

Step 3 is to do the exercise – hence the Follow the Rail. Now that you are getting a question in the corners, you can go a full rail. Mikey also touches on the fake corners, which are the middles of the long sides – the opposite of a corner so to say. Use these as well to stop there.

Be sure to be connected to your horse as much as possible. Don’t just tell him to go on the rail and have him run around. You want this to be a conversation, so make it interesting enough so that you have something to converse about.

Now you can do a Follow the Rail at the walk. Can you do this on the other rein? Can you do this at a trot? At a canter?

Can you see how fascinating and interesting a simple Follow the Rail can be?

Figure 8 → Change of Direction

Have two objects set up wide enough apart geometrically arranged in the arena. It is important to not just throw your toys into the arena anywhere. Your horse notices if one cone is close to the fence than the other and it becomes a squeeze. Be mindful when setting up your tasks.

First things first, you are on your circle walking and waiting for your horse to connect. When he does and is finally thirsty enough to ask you a question, you ask him to go to the cone and stop there. Again, do this until your horse understands and competently looks for the cone/object.

Step 2 is then to go past the object. That means you go from your neutral waiting circle and simply move the circle so that your horse travels behind one of the cones, then return to the original circle. What does this do to your connection? After you can maintain a decent connection doing that, do the same with the other cone. Do not underestimate what this means to the horse. Right now, by doing this, you are drawing the lines for your horse to follow that will later be the change of direction (see X between the barrels).


Because you want to be drawing the change of direction, it would not make sense to expand your circle to go behind both objects. Do this in a polite manner and in doses. You may finish the session after just passing behind a cone/barrel/object once and returning to your neutral waiting circle. Just be sure that your neutral waiting circles are more in laps than the circles going behind the object.

Step 3 is then to do the change of direction. Come off your neutral waiting circle, go behind one cone, change direction and stop at the second cone. Remember from the last post on leadership:

“A figure 8 doesn’t exist. It’s a change of direction. And no one changes direction twice … unless they are lost!” – Michael Wanzenried

Mikey added that he would usually not change direction twice (…because you only do that when you’re lost and you definitely don’t want to tell your horse you are lost), unless it is a show and at least 6000 people are watching you 😉. Or if it’s a Parelli Audition, a rider added 😛.

Notice in the picture above on the left, I drew a third project – a jump. Step 1 would be to go stop at the jump. Step 2 would be to go past the jump in straight lines left and right from the jump and step 3 would be to jump it.

The three steps stay the same, it’s just the lines that you move on that change. You can apply this to pretty much any task you can think of! So no more excuses about not knowing what to do with your horse. 😀

The System for Finesse

In my Finesse session, Mikey had me expand my experience going through the system from extend the neck to my first go at the demi-arrêt (to lift the neck back up and cause the horse to carry itself). Here is an extended photo of me and Dazzle at the trot and below that a higher frame after the demi-arrêt at the halt.




Isn’t he a pretty pony?! ^_^

When I met Dazzle he was quite hollow in his back, didn’t really have  a top line, nor many abdominal muscles. All I did was ride him Finesse for 4 weeks before Mikey came with what Sarah taught me. By the time the clinic was on, he had a really long top line and was starting to be too extended. What I love most about all this though, is the change in his attitude. He has become a much happier horse, has more energy, greets me when I come into the barn and/or his stable, where he used to try and nip my hand before, he now slobbers over it with affection and he enjoys his work! He is quite the proud little pony!

Concerning the demi-arrêt, Mikey taught me some important things today, that we didn’t necessarily touch on in the theory sessions. When first learning or teaching the demi-arrêt, halt and do it. By going to a halt, you are shifting the horses weight back a little which in turn allows him to figure out to carry himself easier. Once you can do this at the halt, then you can start doing this within the gaits. Do the demi-arrêt when you need to. So when do you need to? At this stage for me, I needed it because Dazzle was often too extended and leaning on the bit sometimes. Whenever he would lean on it or simply feel heavy, I would shorten my reins by about 20cm, do the demi-arrêt and come to a halt. After lowering my hands (you can loose contact here because you want them to come off the pressure) and politely picking up a contact again, we walked off again. I didn’t have to do this for long. On the third day of playing with this, I only needed to ask him to lift himself a little three times in the entire session at the walk and trot and no longer needed to halt to do this.

Lateral Flexion on a Straight Line

The next concept we got to play with was the bend, i.e. the lateral flexion on a straight line. We practiced this at the halt only and I am only now getting to the point where I can start playing with this at the walk. What you do is at a halt you lift the horse’s head if it isn’t already up using the demi-arrêt, take your right rein shorter for a bend to the right and ask for flexion by turning your fingernails up, keeping the head up. Your outside rein keeps the head up if I am not mistaken and the inside rein asks for the flexion. Your goal here is for the horse to carry himself and keep the flexion himself. Because of that, you immediately release your inside rein, in this case the right rein, when he bends. If he leaves the position after you release, ask for the bend again.

When you’re doing this the first time, your horse may move his feet. If that is the case, just stay with him and hold politely, giving him time to figure out the puzzle. The first few bends are rather quick (ask for bend, release, immediately ask again, release, immediately ask again) because again, the horse needs to figure out the puzzle first that he is supposed to stay there and carry himself. Take your time on this and don’t do it for too long. Give it a few tries and then go for a walk or trot and play with the other concepts that come before hand. Pepper it in every now and then, here and there. That way you have time to practice the physical coordination in your body and the horse has time to think about it and solve the puzzle.

Why is this exercise important?

When you flex to the right, the weight of the forehand falls onto the left shoulder and vice versa. Essentially, what this exercise teaches you is to move the shoulders. You will need this for ANY lateral movements – so it is not to be underestimated.

Once again, practice it at a halt first. When that is ok (it does not need to be perfect), you can ask for it at a walk in your laterals such as shoulder in.

Dazzle was complaining quite a bit about this flexion I was asking him to do, saying “Jo, this is hard work!” 😛 He can get a bit obsessed with one thing if you stay at it for too long, so it really helps us if we do a bit of flexion here, then go for a trot, practice the flexion there, and go for another trot. His trot was amazing after the flexion! How interesting! 😉

An important thing I learned today, and anybody with a bit of Finesse experience will probably agree, that riding proper lines is very difficult! Finesse takes so much concentrating, because you are literally riding every single stride. Every single stride you think of so many things. What frame is my horse in? Where do I need to sit? Where am I going? Is he balanced? Is the gait rhythmic? Are my hands in the correct position? etc. All of that every stride! It really takes a lot out of you at first. Even just riding a single line is not as easy as it may sound. I have a whole new awareness and respect for simply riding lines in an arena even just at the walk!

Needless to say, it was a fantastic day! It was grand – as they would say in Ireland. 🙂 This was the day where Dazzle and I made the most progress by far. Lots of learning going on. Thank you Mikey, Sarah, Chris and Bride (Dazzle’s owner) for making all of this possible! What an experience!

Other posts from the Michael Wanzenried 5* Clinic February 2016 | Ireland

  1. CONNECTION, MYTHS, BALANCE – Michael Wanzenried 5* Clinic
  2. RIDING WITH CONTACT AND REIN AIDS – Michael Wanzenried 5* Clinic
  5. THE PROJECT, FINESSE, RIDER EXPERIENCE – Michael Wanzenried 5* Clinic
    (you are here)
  6. LEADERSHIP AND RIDER EXPERIENCE – Michael Wanzenried 5* Clinic (coming soon…)
  7. LOOKING BACK – Michael Wanzenried 5* Clinic (coming soon…)

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