Takeaways from 2020 Adequan®/USDF FEI-Level Trainers Conference – Day 1

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Anne Gribbons and Ashley Holzer. (Meg McGuire photo)

By Megan Compton

My mind is still full of information that I’m processing.  The 2020 Adequan®/USDF FEI-Level Trainers Conference is something I’ve been looking forward to for months now, and it did not disappoint.  The conference is something I’ve always wanted to put on my calendar and the fact that this year’s topics also counted for my L Graduate continuing education just made it too much of a good thing to pass up.  I can tell you now in hindsight that the Adequan®/USDF FEI-Level Trainers Conference is an educational event that I will now be putting on my calendar every year.  It was just that good. 

Lilo Fore (Meg McGuire photo)

First of all, our moderator for the event was none other than Lilo Fore, retired FEI 5* judge, whose knowledge and passion for the sport, and development of horse and rider, was evident throughout the conference as she guided the discussions between presenters and Q & A sessions.  Our presenters, FEI 5* judges Anne Gribbons and Gary Rockwell, and Olympians Ashley Holzer and Lars Peterson, created absolute magic together between thoughtful discussion and dynamic instruction to the riders.  Some of my favorite moments were when one of them would trade out with another and say how they agreed, disagreed, or just thought of another way to teach the same concept.  The mutual respect and admiration between them was always evident and the way they continued to put the horse and rider first throughout both days was a lovely thing to be a part of.

With that introduction, I will do my best to decipher my notes to accurately interpret my biggest takeaways from each horse and rider combination throughout the two days. 

Day 1

Our 9-hour educational day began with Meagan Davis and Elian, a 10-year-old Dutch gelding.  Anne began their session by posing the thought of the difference in some horses who warm up better in trot versus in canter.  As Anne watched, she also made a point to address not allowing the horse to be too short in the topline at the start and to wait to start doing movements before you have the whole topline.  Once Meagan went to canter, Anne encouraged her to *go* in the canter first, just allowing the horse to roll out a bit like a young horse, and then after a time begin the lengthening and shortening transitions within the gait.  Anne told us, “At this stage, they’re allowed to be a bit on the forehand. It’s the warm up!”

Gary popped into Meagan and Elian’s session, making the clear point to take your time in the warm up.  The warm up is where you can develop the canter a bit more as it cannot be addressed in the collection.

Anne came back in to remind Meagan that it wasn’t her job to hold the horse.  She then gave the exercise of staying on the wall in shoulder fore and proceeding with walk, canter, walk transitions.  Anne encouraged Meagan to make sure that there were no trot steps, and to stay “in it,” making it clear that it was the patience in this moment that was required by the rider to help the horse to develop the strength to carry himself properly. 

Anne continued that, because Elian’s canter was a bit croup high, the shoulder fore/ shoulder in exercises were going to be the most useful exercises for him at this time.

Ashley then took a turn with the pair saying that she really likes to tackle the training issues.  Her first priority with them was to clarify with Meagan the timing of the walk to canter aid and truly knowing the timing of the foot fall in that transition in order to help with the changes later on.  As they worked through that, they then went on to work with the changes where Ashley encouraged Meagan to give the new inside rein in the change.  Because Elian had a tendency to go downward in the changes, Ashley told Meagan to stay back in the changes and to make an immediate transition to walk if Elian tried to bear down on her afterwards.  Ashley then added in to do the changes on the long side from counter canter, and then add in a walk pirouette to set back up and try again.  Ashley stated that you just, “can’t allow the running through.”

Lars then stepped in and told Meagan to make sure that the new inside leg was the holding leg for the new lead.  He gave Meagan the exercise of counter canter, counter bending, and then “pop” with the outside leg for the change, all the while making sure the canter wasn’t in too much collection.  Lars reiterated that you must keep the new inside leg on when the horse tends to want to “steal” the change from you.  He also kept reminding Meagan to not let the canter get too collected, but to think of a medium canter to keep the hind leg swinging through more.  In addressing the croup high tendency Elian had in the canter, Lars told Meagan to think of riding the croup down and the ears up and went to just focusing on the canter quality with transitions within the gait, from collected to medium canter, and back again.  He kept encouraging Meagan to make the hind legs quicker.  Lars also said something that I tell my riders at home all the time, “You must *own* the stride.”

As Meagan and Elian wrapped up their lesson, Gary emphasized the warm up once again, saying that the overall tightness in the frame will extend to the rest of the work if you don’t take care of it at the beginning.  He also cautioned Meagan not to overprepare the walk before the walk to canter transition, saying that at this stage it should be treated as a simple, straightforward transition, but it must be a clean depart in order to help with the changes later on.

Anne concluded their lesson reminding all of us that the quality of the canter directly influences the quality of the changes.

Emily Donaldson then entered the arena on Audi, a 14-year-old KWPN gelding.  Lars started off the work with them posing the question how much or how little do you start off the trot in the warm up.  He then reminded us all to take the time in the walk so you can ask for balance, not just going around with the head down.  Lars then asked Emily to make sure that she rode the hind legs, waiting in the front until the base of the neck got looser.  He asked her to make sure that she straightened Audi, not always bending, even on the harder side.  Lars also said, “It doesn’t have to be so pretty, make the warm up functional.”

The author’s ringside view.

Ashley then handled the topic of Audi’s bracing and questioning the aids by encouraging Emily to answer him with transitions.  Along the same line as Lars, Ashley challenged the pair’s straightness by going down centerline in the warm up telling everyone that the centerline is one of the best places to get an accurate read on how straight and adjustable your horse is, or isn’t. 

As they continued with transitions, Ashley told Emily to make sure that they were more through, thinking about being an elastic band in the transitions, not so much stop and go.  As they continued the thought of balancing the horse and improving the topline, Ashley asked Emily to square her shoulders into her seat to help her horse more.  Since Audi would hold in his back, Ashley also spoke to how the trot, canter, trot transitions would help to loosen the back.

Lars then continued with Emily, encouraging her to lighten her hand to allow the neck to stretch up.  He also agreed with Ashley in the trot-canter-trot transition, but added that they needed to remain forward into the trot.  He reminded her one way to make sure Audi maintained the forward trot, would be to push the inside leg to the outside rein in the trot transition.

Gary then capitalized on Ashley’s reminder to Emily on rider position, saying that it needs to be more soft and supple, with arms down, supple elbows, and opening through the shoulders and back.

Lars again jumped in, taking the pair into canter leg yielding, but started with transitions within the canter to gain more balance.  He wanted a very shallow leg yield back and forth from the long side with the counter bend, stating that this exercise improves suppleness and submission.  Lars further broke down that you should ride this with 80% seat, 15% leg, and 5% hand.

Ashley followed up on that, reminding us all that it is *leg* yielding and not *hand* yielding.  She also began to help Emily interject her leg yields with 8-10 meter spiraling circles, allowing the bend to decrease tension in the topline.  Ashley stated that some horses panic with larger gaits and you have to use the transitions to help them gain more comfort.

Gary reminded us that there’s a danger in leg yielding – if the horse gets tense, it will do more harm than good.  He said it’s a very good suppling exercise, but that you must maintain the balance.  Gary also reminded everyone that all exercises must have a purpose.  A rider must get out of the exercise once you’ve accomplished the needed feeling.

Anne and Gary then carried on a conversation about the pirouettes:

Anne: You must be in charge of the size of the circle and the amount of bend that you want.  Whenever the canter deteriorates, you must abandon it.

Gary: You have to look where you’re going.

Anne: The eyes have to go where you want.  FOCUS.

Gary: Look to the inside of the turn.  Thinking 11, 10, 9, etc., and see the bend.

Anne: You must ride forward at the end to be able to get out of it.

Gary: At the quarter turn of a half pirouette, you must see the way out, so you don’t over rotate.

Anne: In order to execute a good pirouette, your horse has to think with you.

Gary: You must always train your eyes to look up and over the poll to the destination.

Lars added to the conversation on pirouettes reminding everyone that sometimes its beneficial to train them deeper.

We then had a few moments of Q & A before the next rider where Lilo reiterated the importance of the idea of focus and the use of the rider’s eyes.  She said that you must not only know where you want to go, but where you want to arrive.  Lilo continued with going back to the importance of the correct shoulder fore/shoulder in for the gymnastic development of the horses. 

A question was posed about when to use the track, inside track, or quarter line for the development of straightness.  Ashley answered saying that she does a lot of work on the eighth-line, quarter-line, and centerline, stating that having the wall is always helpful, but true straightness is only seen off the track as you move up the levels. 

Anne and Gary were then asked to clarify the topic of starting small and finishing big in the pirouettes.  They answered by saying that horses often come in too big, too fast and then almost spin around to avoid the difficulty of the movement.  The rider must control the stride by shortening at the beginning and lengthening on the way out.  Ashley added to dissect the pirouette by thinking about the line you’re riding to gain more control of the forehand around the hind leg.

Hanna Benne then came in with Rigadoon RF, a 10-year-old Oldenburg gelding.  Ashley took point on this session and after watching for a few minutes of the warm up, commented that if the horse sucks back, don’t just run him in the warm up.  As the rider, you have to think more about the balance and allow a slower, more cautious tempo in the beginning.  Even if they’re behind your leg, allow the horse to find confidence.  Ashely also warned that you have to make informed decisions about where you’re going, and *look* for your line.  Ashely continued to encourage Hanna to think about the transitions, and to take her time.  Because Rigadoon came behind the contact a bit, she also cautioned not to take too steep of an angle on leg yields in the beginning.  Ashley said she would rather go to the rail and do transitions within the gait as slow adjustments with a horse like this.  She said to think about ABS brakes and the pulsing on and off in these transitions.  She also said to remain aware of the straightness within the exercises and that the alignment of the horse allows him to actually go to the reins.  Ashley picked at Hanna’s circles, reminding her not to ride ovals because the accuracy of the line matters to the balance you’re building within your horse. 

Gary chimed in agreement of making sure not to over pace a horse in the warm up and the use of transitions within the gait for a horse like Rigadoon.  He cautioned about steep leg yielding saying that the rider must ask what is happening to the balance and the quality of gait throughout it.

Anne reminded us that balance and tempo are 100% interrelated.  She also stated that, as a judge, she would be suspicious of a draping curb rein.  Anne then began the conversation with Hanna and Rigadoon about the pirouettes, saying that she should start in shoulder in, keep the circle the same size, and change to haunches in to gain more adjustability.

Ashley commented that Rigadoon was trying too hard, and had such a talent for sitting that he was over-doing it.  She said that with a horse like this, you have to teach them a way to come off of the hind leg.  If Rigadoon could use his neck to get the weight off of the hind end, then he would be more able to find comfort within the movement.  So, Ashley told Hanna to encourage the neck down and stretch out, even if sometimes he goes behind the vertical to come off of the hind leg, they needed to teach Rigadoon to use all different parts of his body to gain comfort.  She told Hanna to “pop” the neck out right in front of the withers in the movement.  Ashley then guided Hanna through the pirouette work saying to use the bend in the corner and staying to the outside of the line, sitting just a little bit and having her determine how much weight he took behind.  She said to make a quarter turn and give him a break to teach him balance and accuracy.  Overall, Ashley encouraged Hanna to stay connected in a balance.

Gary added to approach the pirouette with a softening of the bend and to wait for the vertical softening on the outside rein.

Lars cautioned that going to the outside rein doesn’t mean you don’t have the inside rein.  They must be through and even in the connection.

(Meg McGuire photo)

Lauren Sprieser was next on 14-year-old KWPN gelding, Guernsey Elvis.  Gary began the session with them talking about the horse’s conformation, saying that he was delicate in the throatlatch, so he was bending behind the poll, and Lauren needed to allow his face out more.  He reminded us that if the horse is at the vertical and the rider got their hands too high, there was a very real danger that the horse would come behind the vertical.  Gary also stated, “Don’t give the judge something to look at,” in reference to high hands, and to, “Let the hands disappear into the wither.”  He asked for a shallow leg yield from centerline off both reins and to think more about the horse being straight on the outside rein.

Anne took over saying that Elvis had nice gaits and appeared comfortable, but wanted Lauren to take him more out and through the topline for the warm up.

Gary continued by telling Lauren not to prepare for the canter transition, just simply ride the best walk into the canter.  He also reminded that changes of bend make a horse supple.  Gary then asked Lauren to ride a long half pass, 15 meter circle to a downward transition without shortening the stride.  He asked to allow the sideways of the half pass to develop the collection.  Gary also reminded Lauren to look up high in the tempi changes.

Lars took over the session by saying that as a rider, you need to think of the end goal for the horse and work backwards from there to develop them to the goal.  It doesn’t have to always be pretty, sometimes you have to ask more out of the horse.  Lars reminded, “It is the bending work that makes a horse straight.”  He also told Lauren that the next half halt comes after Elvis falls out of the movement, encouraging her to allow the mistakes to happen to encourage him to develop more strength.  He also stated that you need to take more time if they run through the half halt.

Ashley stepped in by saying that the horse needs to learn to struggle in a bigger gait.  If the horse gets too strong, do a smaller gait to gain balance, and then send them forward again.  Ashley was careful to remind us that, “Speed does not equal balance.”  She wanted Lauren to teach Elvis a “dribbling” trot, not half steps, to use when she needed it.  Ashley continued to say to let the horse fail and find that lack of power in order to learn from it.  She said there should be two phases to the work: the fancy, cardio phase, and the small, balancing, and bending phase.  Ashley stated that we must teach an overachiever to underachieve.

Anne commented that Lauren and Elvis provided one of the most interesting lessons because Elvis would overpower himself from behind, so Lauren had to take the power away for a while before she could go back to that work.  Anne told us that this is the most time-consuming type of work that a rider will do, but it’s necessary for this type of horse.

Gary reminded everyone to make sure there’s a clear progression from the warm up for the horse.

Ashley told us that her end goal for every horse is that it could make it to the Grand Prix, so her work is always done with that progression in mind.  She said that as a rider, you have to understand that the walk trot transition is the gateway to the piaffe.  Ashley then talked about the use of the rider’s stomach is more useful than a rider leaning back on the horse for these transitions.  She reminded Lauren to get Elvis rounder first into and out of the walk trot transitions.  She cautioned whatever escapes your seat will hit your hand, so think more seat rather than shoulders.  Ashley encouraged fine tuning these tedious transitions by showing Elvis different positions with power.  She also said that it’s not just straightness that we have to worry about; it’s the straightening, bending, and back to straightening again that is the most useful.

That wrapped up Day 1’s morning rides and we all went to a wonderful lunch where I was fortunate enough to decompress and talk over the topics with a good friend who was also in attendance.  We commented on how inspiring it was to see the camaraderie between the presenters, and how it’s these types of relationships that will continue to grow US Dressage into the powerful force it’s becoming.

Megan Fischer-Graham and her 11-year-old old Dutch gelding, De Rosseau, brought us back to work after lunch.  Anne began the session with Megan stating that the walk should be with a purpose and on both reins, being mindful that you don’t over-use the inside rein, and continue to strive for an even connection.  Again, the warning was given not to start the collected work too soon with a horse before giving the chance to give the rider the topline correctly.  Anne stressed using simple long leg yields and, “more shoulder in, as it’s by far our most important and useful exercise,” referring to the shoulder in as “the mother of all exercises.”  She also cautioned Megan not to allow Rosseau to just do tricks, as tricks show he’s behind the leg, and instead encouraged her to use more half halts to produce engagement.

Gary confirmed Anne’s earlier statements by saying that Megan needed to get the horse more equal in the reins.

Anne moved on to the changes and asked Megan not to look down or twist in her waist in the changes.  Instead she told Megan to sit straight and quietly for the tempis.  When there were problems with Rosseau taking over a bit in the count or in canter quality, Anne asked Megan to leg yield to the outside to get the balance and engagement, as well as breaking them down to no count, but rather thinking of being able to send her horse forward and then change.

Gary jumped in on this work saying, “I’ve seen good tests go down the sewer for lack of a good correction.”  One of the most important things a rider can do is to not throw the correction away after something goes wrong.  Make sure you get the recovery better.  If you just kick them back in, it doesn’t teach the horse anything.

Anne jumped back in telling Megan to be more deliberate with her aids.

Ashley had an exercise for Megan and Rosseau to tackle asking for normal canter, then between P and B ask for four strides (really GO), then normal canter, then B to R ask for 6-8 strides (really sitting).  In adjusting gait length, it’s imperative that you find the horse’s normal, and then really push the envelope both directions to figure out what you have.  She also commented on what Gary and Anne alluded to by saying that you have to react to what your horse gives you.  If it’s a mistake, fix it; don’t just muddle past it.

Gary wrapped up Megan and Rosseau’s session by emphasizing that when things go wrong, the rider must keep their position.  Corrections that are made have to make things correct.  You must view the movements as interrelated.  He reminded us that riders shouldn’t separate how the training incorporates into multiple movements.

Next up was Emma Asher and the 11-year-old old KWPN gelding, Elegance N.  Lars started off with this combination.  This horse made his Jazz breeding well known straight away with Lars saying that for horses who look a bit, it’s better to have them more into the contact than too light, and whatever they look at, think about using a shoulder in tendency to maintain some control.  He constantly reminded Emma to ride deeper and lower, so that Elegance N wanted to drop his neck so that she could be the one who decided to lift him and how high.  You don’t always have to train in the show frame.  A bit rounder and deeper can be helpful with these types of horses.  Lars cautioned not to collect too much for canter to trot, but to instead to step the haunches out to disconnect the hind legs. 

Emma Asher on Elegance N (Meg McGuire photo)

After they had begun the work, Anne made the comment to make sure this type of horse isn’t able to take you out of the tack.

Ashley tacked on to Anne’s comment, saying that with these horses you have to get your seat stronger so the comfort and security is more from the seat, so your hands can get lighter, even though Jazz horses are usually slow to soften because of their spooky nature.  Riders must have a stronger core and back.

Lars also remarked that the more on your seat, the quieter the mouth.

There was a question referred to Ashley regarding the seat.  She stated that, “The seat is the stability the horse receives from you.”  The rider’s seat has to be able to sit against and control how much movement goes to the hand.  She warned that rounded shoulders render the riders back useless.

The next two rides I had been waiting for all day long.  Two US Olympians.  You will have to forgive my lack of note taking as I was so focused on watching and allowing myself to be in the moment as much as possible with both of these riders.

First, Kasey Perry-Glass brought in Mistico TM, a 13-year-old old Hanoverian gelding.  Ashley took point on the session, speaking to the fact of how important it is to seek out constant improvement in this sport.  During Kasey’s exceptional demonstration of an ideal warm-up, Ashley emphasized the relaxation that was being created throughout this warm up.  As they moved on to the work, Ashley drew close attention to how Kasey would come to the lowest denominator of the exercise to tackle the movements that her horse was weaker in.  They moved into work with the pirouettes and Ashley said that the canter determines the size of the pirouette.  Ashley noted that it’s the shift of the shape of the hip that is most important in training the pirouettes.  As Ashley and Kasey continued working together, Ashley commented that if you make it easy for the horse, they figure out ways to offer you more, yet, if you make it harder for them, they will find a way to make it easier such as swapping out leads behind in the pirouettes.  She challenged Kasey to only go to where it feels secure at this stage of training for Mistico.

Kasey Perry Glass on Mistico (Meg McGuire photo)

Lars added that it’s so important that the topline remains the same throughout the half halt.  He then began working with the pair on piaffe and passage, giving Kasey the word picture of “framing in” the outside hind in the passage.  Lars clarified with all of us that whichever hind leg may be more uneven is the one you want to frame in.  He encouraged Kasey to shift gears throughout the work and stay smaller in these movements until Mistico was able to gain more confidence. 

Ashley added into the work with Lars that since Mistico had a tendency to piaffe a bit in the passage steps that Kasey should tap on top of his croup to help.

Second of our Olympians was Michelle Gibson and Barland IM, a 9-year-old Swedish Warmblood gelding.  As a side-note, when they entered the arena, I was immediately taken back in time to having Michelle’s poster on my wall with her and Peron as a teen.  It is so powerful to see her in person some years later!

Gary started off the pair, once again noting that there’s just no skipping a good, quality warm up.  It sets the tone for the whole body of the work.  “The warm up has to make sense and has to be progressive,” he stated.  He once again noted that all the top riders ride shoulder in because it’s very important to get it right.  The angle and the bend must be the same for every horse.

We wrapped up the day with the horses, and I think everyone left the arena excited for the Q & A session in a few hours with Lilo and the presenters.  Topics ranged from straightness versus alignment, lunge lessons, rider goals, “code of points,” to their thoughts on the new short Grand Prix test.  Overall, the theme of the discussion would always wrap around to a point that would entail being a guardian of the horse and the art of the sport of dressage. 

With that, Day 1 was a wrap…I don’t think I’m alone in saying that we all walked away equally educated and inspired.  

Read about Day 2 here.

Megan Compton is a USDF Bronze Medalist, trainer, coach, and USDF L Graduate with Distinction. She has a special interest in raising young horses and starting them in their competitive careers. Megan is now beginning to take horses she has raised from the time they were weaned into the FEI arena.  Learn more about her here: www.MeganComptonDressage.com

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