The two-time German Olympian shares her training philosophy at the 2019 NEDA Fall Symposium
By Ellen Dempsey
Photographs by Carole MacDonald
For years, the New England Dressage Association (NEDA) has hosted an annual fall symposium with some of the best names in the sport. This year was no different. On a crisp autumn weekend in October—to the delight of more than 350 auditors—two-time German Olympian Dorothee Schneider arrived at the Mount Holyoke College Equestrian Center in South Hadley, Massachusetts, for her first US teaching engagement. Throughout the two-day symposium, she coached 10 horse-and-rider combinations and shared her training philosophy—one that has helped her become the success she is today.
About Dorothee Schneider
While Germany’s Dorothee Schneider may not yet be a household name in the US, she’s sure to become one. Her father—the well-known Trakehner breeder, stallion owner, and dressage judge Hans-Eberhard Schneider—was her mentor, as were other dressage greats, including Olympic gold medalist and past US dressage-team coach Klaus Balkenhol, international trainer Jean Bemelmans, and Olympian and current German national dressage-team trainer Monica Theodorescu.
Schneider’s original career plan was to become a veterinarian and ride part-time, but that path changed when she decided to focus on riding professionally. To set herself up as a successful business owner, she studied finance and apprenticed as a bank clerk before establishing her own farm, Stud St. Stephan, just southwest of Frankfurt. Schneider rides 10 to 12 horses a day and oversees 10 employees at her 50-stall facility while also maintaining a busy show schedule as an international dressage competitor.
Dubbed “the champion-maker,” Schneider has trained more than 15 horses to Grand Prix. She won a team silver medal at the 2012 London Olympic Games and placed seventh individually aboard Diva Royal. In Rio 2016, she rode Showtime FRH to team gold and an individual sixth-place finish. With Sammy Davis Jr., she won team gold at the 2018 European Dressage Championships and at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games in Tryon. In 2019, Schneider on Showtime finished a close second to Isabell Werth at the Aachen CDI 5* with a personal-best score of 89.66%. After winning team gold and the individual Grand Prix Special silver medal on Showtime at the 2019 European Championships, she became only the sixth rider in history to post a score of 90% or higher (90.561) in the Grand Prix Freestyle.
The German FN (German Equestrian Federation) awarded Schneider the title of Reitmeisterin (Riding Master) in recognition of her equestrian accomplishments. She is only the 35th rider ever to receive this prestigious honor.
The leading principle in Schneider’s training is the continual need to ask yourself if you’re on the right path. “You always have to question yourself, as in all professions, and discover new solutions,” she said. “The reward is a satisfied horse, one who tries hard for you.”
Each day started with the young horses and progressed through the levels. Following are some takeaways from the weekend.
1. There is no cookie-cutter training plan.
Schneider believes that each horse needs to be developed in a way that is specific to his needs. “Every horse is an individual,” she said, “and as riders we must look to the mental and body structure of the horse and manage the individual in the sport.”
The horses in Schneider’s stable are turned out every day so they can move at liberty. When she rides, she wants to feel whether the horse is motivated to work. “I want to give a horse positive feedback so he can think about what we can do together, and he’s proud and motivated to do the next step. The big concept is that the horse is happy to do this with us together.”
2. Give the young horse confidence.
Schneider’s specialty is bringing along young horses. As she told the demonstration riders of young horses, the young-horse trainer’s job is to develop them physically and mentally so as to enable them to handle all of the things they’re asked to do in their dressage careers.
The four-year-old German Warmblood gelding Gustaav was slightly nervous at the beginning of his session. “Allow him to see the audience,” Schneider told owner/rider Carly Neilson. “When he’s looking around, give him a pat and give him confidence, and always reward your horse with a pat when he does it in the right way so he knows he was correct.”
3. The rider establishes the rhythm and tempo.
When a horse was tense, too high in the neck, or behind the tempo, Schneider wanted the riders to stretch the horse forward and downward with light contact. She employed one of her favorite phrases, “take a seat,” to encourage riders to stretch their torsos upward, open their knees, and sit into the horse, in order to establish the desired rhythm and tempo with their hips and seat.
“You make the rhythm; don’t wait for it,” Schneider said. “Each horse has his own rhythm, and the rider needs to find this.”
(Editor’s note: Schneider, like many Europeans, uses the English word rhythm to express the concepts of both rhythm, which refers to the regularity of footfalls within a gait; and tempo, which refers to the rate of repetition of the footfalls. All dressage horses should have a rhythmic four-beat walk, two-beat trot, and three-beat canter with a moment of suspension; but the optimum tempos of those gaits may vary according to the individual horse.)
4. Let the horse tell you when to start sitting the trot.
Asked when she begins to sit the trot on a young horse, Schneider replied that she lets the horse tell her when he’s ready. She starts by feeling the horse’s rhythm and finding his optimum tempo in rising trot, since the young horse’s muscles are not yet strong.
“Start walk-trot-canter in rising trot. In canter transitions, when you feel the horse in good rhythm and good swinging from rising to sitting, you know the horse can take [the rider’s] weight. Go back and forth between rising and sitting, and listen to your horse; he will let you know when he’s had enough of your weight.”
5. Start with straightness.
“Our target every day is to have the horse coming from the hind end over the back into the hand in light contact,” said Schneider, “and to take this rhythm with you later in the collected work.”
She helped demo rider Vincent Flores on the nine-year-old Danish Warmblood mare Southern Belle to develop better and more even push from both hind legs. Step 1: Ride the mare more forward and straight.
“You need to stabilize her,” Schneider told Flores. “A steady balance between both reins all the time is when the horse can come from the hind end over her back to the mouth. But you can only have this when the horse is straight. Manage the horse’s body first, and then you have the quality to have good bend and rhythm.”
6. Use bending lines to access the hind legs.
Schneider advised riding transitions on bending lines or circles rather than on straight lines because doing so allows the rider to close the horse’s hips and get better access to the hind legs. Alice Tarjan’s seven-year-old KWPN stallion, Harvest, started out a bit tense and behind the bit. Schneider had Tarjan ride bending lines on both reins, saying, “Always ride transitions canter-trot on a bent line. On a straight line, it’s hard to have the hind leg under the body.”
7. Always stretch with contact.
Schneider made a point to tell riders to maintain rein contact when they stretch the horse forward-downward. There is no stretch without contact.
“Show him the way,” Schneider told Eliza Rutherford on the 10-year-old Hanoverian gelding Watch Me Too. “Take your hand a little to the side and then directly forward to show him to the stretching.”
8. Vibrate your wrists.
A small vibration of the wrists, Schneider said, encourages a smoother, lighter contact.
“Some horses get too much pressure going against the bit,” she explained, “so if you move your wrist and play a little with the contact, the slight vibration in the wrist will allow the horse to get lighter.”
9. For pirouette prep, control every aspect of the canter.
Katie Robicheaux on the eight-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding Grandioso demonstrated the gymnastic work needed prior to introducing canter pirouettes.
The rider “needs to control the bending, the rhythm, the shoulders, and the bend around the inside leg, and then she has the makings of a pirouette.” Schneider said. She had Robicheaux ride travers canter, asking her to “sit with bending flexion to the inside, with the outside hind leg under the horse’s body; front leg turning, active three-beat rhythm; then ride him out. You turn the shoulder in front of the inside hind leg; then the horse can manage the rhythm and manage the weight. Too much sideways, he can’t manage the weight on the hind leg. If you find the rhythm and power, then the horse can take the weight and you can turn him in the pirouette the way you want.”
10. Make sure the horse is ready to learn.
Schneider took time with Olivia LaGoy-Weltz on the Grand Prix-level 15-year-old Danish Warmblood Rassing’s Lonoir to make sure that “Lono” was listening to his rider and that she had his concentration.
“We all know the feeling when the horse isn’t listening, so we need to give him the time,” Schneider said.
Once Lono was focused, clinician and rider began working on upper-level movements. Schneider pointed out that without pressure from the rider, the horse is able to swing over his back, to maintain the rhythm and tempo, and to carry the weight in the hind legs. “This allows you to then ride the more difficult things—piaffe and passage,” she said. “This horse is working from the hind leg to the bit—it’s a fine picture, thank you.”
Meet the Demonstration Riders and Horses
The judging panel of Lois Yukins and Sarah Geikie chose the following horse-and-rider pairs to serve as demonstration pairs at the 2019 New England Dressage Association Fall Symposium:
Four and Five-Year-Olds
Carly Neilson, Nottingham, New Hampshire, on Gustaav, a four-year-old German Warmblood gelding
Meghan Hamilton, Dartmouth, Massachusetts, on Dornröschen, a five-year-old Hanoverian mare
Bridgid Browne, Annandale, New Jersey, on Karina Sandra TF, a four-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare
McKayla Hohmann, Georgetown, Massachusetts, on Wakensho II, a five-year-old Oldenburg mare
Alice Tarjan, Oldwick, New Jersey, on Hester, a seven-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare
Vincent Flores, Haverhill, Massachusetts, on Southern Belle SWF, a nine-year-old Danish Warmblood mare
Katie Robicheaux, Plainville, Massachusetts, on Grandioso, an eight-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding
Prix St. Georges
Eliza Rutherford, Charlotte, Vermont, on Watch Me Too, a 10-year-old Hanoverian gelding
Susanne Hamilton, Montville, Maine, on Lesath, a 10-year-old Hanoverian gelding
Olivia LaGoy-Weltz, Haymarket, Virginia, on Rassing’s Lonoir, a 15-year-old Danish Warmblood gelding