A Bit of Ballet and Weightlifting – Takeaways from the 2020 Adequan®/USDF FEI-Level Trainers Conference – Day 2

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Gary Rockwell instructs Megan Davis on Leopold of Shakespeare (Meg McGuire photo)

By Megan Compton

Day 2 of the 2020 Adequan®/USDF FEI-Level Trainers Conference dawned, and we all headed back to High Meadow Farm in White Fences for another day filled with insights from our presenters Gary Rockwell, Anne Gribbons, Ashley Holzer, and Lars Petersen along with our moderator Lilo Fore. 

Meagan Davis started the day off again with Elian.  Gary took point on today’s session continuing to emphasize that there’s a warm up and then the work.  He considers collection as weight lifting, and as such, it can do damage by doing too much of it too soon within the work.  He started the pair off with a 15-meter circle to a long leg-yield to a small letter, continuing to encourage Meagan to work towards a longer neck in a forward rising trot.  Gary wanted the long outline to produce more freedom in the neck.  He reminded all of us that it’s ideal to end the movements one step before the letter.  Gary continued to ask Meagan to make the horse even on both reins.  They then went into the canter and he reminded Meagan that if Elian rushed forward in the trot to canter to re-do the transition; to make smaller, more frequent transitions, and continue to look up higher to influence his balance.  Gary went back to a 15-meter circle at the canter, change rein across the diagonal, simple change through the trot, and make a small aid to canter again.  He stated, “This is where you make it right to help the changes.”

Beginning into the collected work, Gary utilized the shoulder in once again, but also told Meagan to make it more immediately from the corner and to not overuse the inside rein.  The tilting that would creep in at times, especially in this movement, was from uneven rein contact that the shoulder in exposes.

Gary gave us all an insight into the FEI Rule Book regarding the rein-back, stating that in the rule book it defines the rein back as a square halt, four steps back in diagonal pairs, and then another square halt at the end of it.  No one has ever done the halt at the end and to his knowledge, adding that no one ever teaches it either.  This is a topic that he and Anne spoke about over the past couple of days, and they both agreed they would bring it back up at the next FEI meeting.

Continuing the session, Gary said again to make sure that you don’t overprepare the walk, but that you simply canter out.  He also reminded us all about the importance of using 15-meter circles in canter balance development at this stage.  He wanted Meagan to be able to add something to the canter without actually going more forward at times – just adding the thought that she could always take him more out and forward at any moment.  They moved into working towards the changes together and Gary made sure that Meagan and Elian were always ready to do the movement right out of the corner, and not wasting the preparation that utilizing the corner provides.  He reminded everyone that the horse must be confident and secure in the transitions because those simplify the changes.  As he wrapped up with his time with Meagan, Gary reminded her that she has to let Elian find his own feet because she can’t “just carry him around for ten years.”  He also emphasized that, as a rider, sometimes you have to do nothing, otherwise he won’t hear you when you give an aid.

Ashley stepped into the session confessing that she is a “transition hound,” and wanted to make sure that Elian was using his haunches more rather than using the bit to balance himself.  As Meagan would do a downward transition, Ashley encouraged her to use more leg, seat, and perhaps a tap of the whip to encourage more use of the hind legs.  As they worked, Ashley made sure to point out that as a rider, we need to “focus on what the horse needs to do to fix a behavior, *not* just what’s going wrong.”  This will allow you to focus on the crucial topic of relaxation with your horse, which is where the work must start and finish even if tension is necessary in the work at times.

Ashley also bridged the topic that we must realize that dressage is physical.  It’s a bit of ballet and weightlifting.  A rider must really ride at times.  It doesn’t mean that we have to be unfair with our aids, but if you’ve got a big horse, such as Elian, who has a lot of weight in the forehand, you have to be able to really ride against the movement at times in order to adequately change the balance.  Ashley brought this session to a close reminding us that when you’re having to really ride, it’s easy to second guess yourself and just hope you’re doing the best in the moment, but if you always go back to the classical basics and the understanding of how and why you’re doing each movement, you can be sure that your attitude towards the training is for the benefit of the horse.

Emily Donaldson riding Audi with Anne Gribbons commenting. (Meg McQuire photo)

Emily Donaldson and Audi then started their session off with Anne, who really encouraged her to change her rider position right at the start.  She told Emily to open her shoulders and lift her head so that she could become a balancing rod on top of her horse.  Anne also said, “Pretend I’m taking an ice pick between your shoulders.  What would you do?”  Immediately, Emily pulled both shoulder blades back, and it created a much straighter picture.  Anne also stated that the rider must be in charge of the tempo; the horse cannot be allowed to change it.  Audi then had a moment of tension where he reared up.  Anne told Emily that they had to be more clever with Audi and sit down into his back, putting his neck lower, and put him to work.  She had Emily keep Audi on bending lines, reminding us that the more sensitive types are easier to control on a bent line.  They went into the work then, and Anne told Emily to think of underachieving exercises and to not repeat things too often so that Audi wouldn’t get so suspicious.

Anne drew attention to the importance of correct half-halts.  “You will never do too many half-halts,” she commented.  She then cautioned, however, that if the half-halt is too long, the horse can get claustrophobic and then the rider will get into trouble.  “Timing is everything, you can’t let your hand be the only thing left in the half-halt.”

Lars then stepped in to work with helping Emily get Audi more even in the connection as he had developed some tilting during the work.  He had the pair doing shoulder in and changing the positioning to renvers, then to haunches in.  Lars continued to say through the whole conference, “It is the bending work that makes a horse straight.  If you ride straight to make a horse straight, then you will only make them stiff.”  Lars noted that every horse has a weak side, and it’s the rider’s job to get the horse even on their seat bones. 

Gary popped in with a few comments that if a rider carries their hands high, it will create an indirect rein which isn’t helpful in this type of work.  A higher outside hand will cause tilting at times when it’s not necessarily about the horse’s weaknesses. 

Lars then concluded, referring back to the moment Audi reared earlier in the work, that you have to put this horse way deeper where the rider could hold him if the horse comes against you.  “When you train a horse, it’s about reading them mentally and reading the body.  You have to go about the work according to them.”

Hanna Benne with Rigadoon RF was next in the arena, and Lars continued to flow right into this session.  Rigadoon was showing some lack of clarity in his walk at the beginning of the work, so Lars asked Hanna to do easy, long leg-yielding in the walk because the leg-yield can help fix a dangerous walk.  Lars jumped into the conversation of contact once again with this pair, sharing that if the horse is light in the contact you have to ride to the bit.  It can’t just be about riding the neck long; he has to go to the bit.  He reminded Hanna that having the horse in front of you has nothing to do with speed.  “Faster will never improve the connection.  Be normal.”  Lars was adamant that a rider must have established a positive, even connection before the work in transitions can begin to be helpful.  As the warm up continued, Lars told us, just because the horse has his head down on a loose rein doesn’t mean that he’s stretching.  “It’s the contact that makes the stretch,” he stated.  In the remainder of his time with Hanna, Lars continued to encourage her to make her horse go to the bit, almost to make him pull because he had such a tendency to be too light.  Lars continued to emphasize that if transitions and movements are done incorrectly, it will make things worse, really drawing attention to the inconsistencies in the horse’s contact. 

Ashley took a turn with their pair again as they got into work with piaffe and passage steps and told Hanna, once again, to make sure she didn’t ask him to sit any more than he already was because he’s such an overachiever and sits so much that he can’t find his way out.  Ashley really emphasized that it’s important to do one or two steps of this work and then out.  Riders must not get greedy or overdo it in this work since it’s easy to over tax the horses, and then it’s very hard to re-teach it properly.  It’s vital to build this work slowly.  Ashley then clarified with all of us that the definition of a half-halt is “halt of a transition.  It’s the part of the transition that brings weight back to the hind leg, then the softening to reward that response.”  Even if the horse falls out of self-carriage, a rider just simply needs to half-halt, re-set, and try the work again.  But Ashley then cautioned, “You have to know when to give your horse a break.  Remember how physical the sport is.”

Gary wrapped up the session by reminding Hanna that she should feel that the collection and extension in each gait live within themselves and are available to her at all times.

The arena at High Meadow Farm (Meg McQuire photo)

Lauren Sprieser then rode in on a different horse than she had on day one, a 9-year-old Lusitano working on Third Level.  Gary began the session with the pair commenting that the horse was weak in his neck and had a tendency to curl behind the vertical, so he had Lauren take him on a four loop serpentine, building into slow leg-yields off the rail, to the quarter line, and back to the rail again.  As they continued, Gary reminded Lauren to bend before the turn so that she wasn’t stuck having to increase the bend within the turn and create a lack of balance into a movement.  They continued working through the warm up, and Lauren had a couple unfortunate moments where her horse got his tongue over the bits.  Gary, Ashley, and Anne then had a conversation about this issue:

Ashley: The horse draws the tongue up in a moment of tension.  You could put latex on the bit for a horse show if you must, but it’s absolutely a throughness issue that should be addressed at home.  You could possibly experiment with the set of bits that you ride in with the double.

Anne: If it happens in the test, you have to make the choice to try and muddle through or just excuse yourself.  You can always try adjusting the bridle or go to the snaffle if it’s the double that’s causing the issue.

Gary: He comes behind the bits in the transitions anyway.  You have to get the connection even where he’s coming out more.  Overall, you have to break the habit so that he doesn’t spend so much time down and behind the bit.

Gary continued the lesson having Lauren ask for more forward steps, but not allow the horse to necessarily go anywhere.  He said that the horse has to go forward correctly in order to collect correctly, you can’t keep riding backwards.  “It takes more leg to go back than to go forward,” he reminded as he handed off the session.

Ashley stepped in going back to the contact issues, reminding us that the tongue is a direct result of relaxation or lack of relaxation.  She then spoke to Lauren about keeping her lower leg still and quiet, noting that it is harder to accomplish this on a horse that’s a bit smaller for the rider, but it’s absolutely necessary to clarify the leg aid.  Going back to focusing on developing the connection within the work, Ashley told us all that there needs to be a balance between the lateral and longitudinal suppleness within the horse.  “Bend in the hocks – that’s where you see the engagement.” 

Ashley reminded us to think of the horse’s spine as a hose, and it’s our responsibility to make sure there are no kinks.  With that thought in mind, Ashley asked Lauren to shorten her reins, push her hands forward and down towards the wither, and push her hips up to the hand.  Lauren’s horse had some tension creep in through this work, but also had moments where the connection and frame were absolutely uphill and beautiful.  Ashley reminded us that in training, there’s going to be tension.  “You have to go there to see where your limitations are,” she encouraged Lauren.  As they wrapped up Lauren’s session with some beautiful work with the changes, Ashley cautioned to pay attention to the signs your horse gives you during the training to decide how much of an exercise is sufficient to make a positive change, but also you must know how much they can do correctly before they’re too tired and know when to stop.

Anne, Gary, and Lars then had a few questions they answered for a short Q & A before the next horse came in.  Lars was asked about horses being behind the vertical in the work, and he said that he always prioritizes the connection first.  At the end of the day, he believes that it’s improvement in the connection that will allow the horse to follow the hand out to the vertical more confidently.  Lars, Anne, and Gary tackled a question about teaching tempi changes.  Gary reminded us that it’s all about the simplicity of the canter, walk transitions, and maintaining straightness throughout.  Lars cautioned that the individual changes must be good first, and then you just see how often you can “get ready” for the next change.  Anne confirmed that you don’t want to start the tempis too early.  Just make sure that your random changes are straightforward and uncomplicated.  Gary commented that the rider also needs to make sure that the focus of their eyes is upward, not downward on the shoulders as this is where croup high changes originate from.

One of the trainers in the crowd asked for the mic and then asked the question about how to stay inspired and to keep going in the sport.  This question was handled by Lilo Fore straight away, saying that you just have to, “Keep a love for the sport, for the horse.”  It was a beautiful moment where Lilo shared stories from her years of experience coaching, training, and riding.  It brought tears to my eyes just seeing the fire in Lilo’s eyes as she told us that there is nothing more inspiring to her than the moment when a horse or student has that moment in the work where they just “get it.”  To further answer the question, she went on to say that you must put yourself out there to make connections with people who also have a great love for the horse and the sport.  You hear it all the time, but there’s so much truth to it; it really does take a village in this industry.

Anne Gribbons instructs Megan Fischer-Graham on De Rosseu (Meg McQuire photo)

Megan Fischer-Graham was next with her gelding De Rosseau, and Lars started the pair off in their work asking Megan to really make him go into the hand, but not faster.  He wanted her to feel as though Rosseau was sucking her forward but cautioned that it had nothing to do with speed.  As she began to leg-yield, Lars wanted her to ride more forward and less sideways, but to also own the trot that she was riding so that it wouldn’t change as she went straight or did a leg-yield.  Lars wanted all of the work at the beginning to be easy and normal because his first priority is always establishing a relaxed connection. 

After the warm up, Lars then guided the pair into work towards developing the pirouette.  He wanted Megan to focus on riding the inside hind leg more, making sure she utilized the outside rein, but really rode the inside hind through the turns.  Lars wanted the canter a bit quicker and forward, the transitions honest, and the connection forward thinking and round.  As they began to close the turns toward a working pirouette, Lars told Megan to actually open her inside leg so that Rosseau would draw towards the opening on the inside for a better-quality turn.  He then gave Megan the exercise to work with in the pirouette development to counter canter a 15 meter circle at E and B, and then on each open side a volte/pirouette in true canter developing a smaller, quicker canter each open side.

Anne jumped in, cautioning Megan that, “One of you has to be in charge, and it better be you.”  She had her canter, 10 meter circle in the corner, half-pass to centerline, shoulder in past X, then half a pirouette to put the pair on the quarter-line.  As they worked the exercise, Anne wanted Megan to feel more connected to the bridle and to make sure that the last step of the pirouette has to be ready to leave the movement.

Gary then added that this is a horse that anticipates and is extremely aware of Megan’s upper body.  He really encouraged Megan to school the walk, picking up the reins, and letting them back down over and over again, so that Rosseau didn’t always think that the shortening of the reins meant anything other than walking on a good consistent contact.  Anne agreed, saying that quiet and correct work is what’s needed when the horse starts to anticipate.  Ashley added to the conversation, saying that the more you educate your horse, the more you can inadvertently aid your horse into a movement.  As riders, we have to take clear responsibility of the horse anticipating and learn to relax our backs.

Unfortunately, the next rider’s horse had to take the day off, so we went back into another Q & A session with Ashley and Lars.  Ashley tackled a question about shoulder fore vs. alignment, saying that at any moment your horse should be able to do a shoulder in, and cautioned that shoulder fore isn’t a substitute for straightness.  Lars then clarified what he meant when he referred to a horse as “spitting out” the contact during the work.  He said that it happens when the mouth opens and the horse goes behind the vertical and leg.  The rider is then left without any connection between the seat and hand, and he reminded us that if you don’t have that conversation you truly can’t do anything.  Both Ashley and Lars went into a discussion about the pirouette.  Ashley made sure that everyone understood the importance of knowing the timing of the footfalls to know if it’s correct or not as some horses will turn the canter pirouette into a four-beat gait instead of three.  As long as it’s positive disassociation, hind foot first, front second, then the four-beat canter is allowed in the pirouette.  Lars added that the rider position becomes extremely important in the pirouette – that you sit in a way that you allow the hind leg to take the weight.  He also said that the pirouette should be ridden more as a shoulder in rather than a haunches in because as soon as you turn back to your line to exit the movement, if you’re in haunches in, you won’t be able to leave in straightness.

Once again, we were down to our two Olympians for the last two rides of the day, and my notes became scarce as I told myself to be really present with the rides and to soak it all in as much as possible before taking all this education home to my horses and riders. 

First up was Michelle Gibson and Barland IM.  Ashley started the pair off saying that some horses hold tension in their backs by nature, and it’s our job to experiment and find an exercise that will help them.  She continued saying that riders need to make sure that they have “relevant warm ups.”  Having a plan and being ready to modify as needed is extremely important.  As Michelle continued to show us an exemplary warm up, Ashley reminded us as riders that the warm up is where you need to challenge yourself to feel the suppleness and evenness of the connection of both sides, or lack thereof by doing the same exercises on both sides.  “You then take the information you receive in the warm up and then allow it to inform your training,” Ashley stated.

Michelle and Barland then moved into the work portion of their session with Michelle asking the presenters’ thoughts on how big of a trot she actually needed in the competition arena.  Ashley reminded Michelle to allow Barland to feel the struggle of the work saying, “If we don’t allow them to struggle, we won’t know how far we can go.”  The stronger/bigger the trot, the stronger/bigger the crash because there’s a line that you can cross where the horse just can’t maintain that much power in balance, so you have to gauge how much of a risk you’re willing to take in the trot on any given day.  Ashley just encouraged Michelle to continue looking for good reactions to her aids throughout the process of experimenting with Barland’s gait.

Lars stepped in and started the work in the piaffe and passage with the pair.  He told us that it’s not necessarily about the hocks in the sitting movements, it’s about what he calls the “rotator,” or the stifle and sacrum area with creating a quality sit.  The hocks can be completely out behind and still be active, which isn’t the correct picture[CB1] .  Lars concentrated on the transition from piaffe to passage with Michelle asking her to piaffe forward until she could find the passage so she could get rid of the big step out of the piaffe where the balance and power is lost.

Our last ride of the day was Kasey Perry-Glass and Mistico TM.  Our presenters basically sat back and encouraged us all to be present and watch what they called the “perfect warm up.”  The entire warm up was orchestrated through Kasey’s methodical, deliberate, and accurate riding.  You could tell that the classical principles of the sport have been clearly upheld through Kasey’s training, and the whole picture created through the warm up allowed Mistico to become relaxed and prepared for the work, as well as finding the power and balance needed to maintain expression.

Anne stepped in to guide Kasey through schooling the zigzag which was Mistico’s first time attempting it.  Anne again stated that it’s a testimony to Kasey’s training at home that the gelding was able to attempt the zigzag in this environment and kept a very positive mental outlook on the work.  She encouraged Kasey throughout that the zigzag is simply a quality, balanced, collected canter, the half pass, and a quality change.  Anne pointed out that it really is the ending of the zigzag that is the hardest, noting that you must start and finish the movement symmetrical, and if you start large, it will finish large and can get very tight feeling at the end. 

Anne then asked Kasey if she would like to work on the one tempis, but they started off the work in the changes very thoughtfully.  Kasey took Mistico on the quarter line and started off with the fours and worked her way down but wasn’t afraid to take a long side to address the quality of the canter through use of transitions within the gait.  Kasey got down to the twos which clocked off to perfection with ease and relaxation.  She went down to the ones and got a bit stuck in a couple of them, so she quietly sent Mistico forward to develop a better canter and then just started asking for one out, one in.  Once Mistico gained confidence there, they went on to do a line of a few ones strung together with ease.  Anne congratulated Kasey on the quality of them and reiterated to us that with the ones you only want to do what the horse can handle, so you can keep their confidence in the work.

Thank you to everyone who made this conference possible. From left to right: Stephan Hienzsch, Kathie Robertson, Mary Anne McPhail, Ashley Holzer, Anne Gribbons, Gary Rockwell, Lars Petersen, Brian O’Connor, and Lilo Fore (Meg McQuire photo)

With Kasey exiting the arena, the 2020 Adequan®/USDF FEI-Level Trainers Conference concluded.  With much thanks given to the farm owners, our presenters, announcer, and moderator, I was left with an incredible sense of camaraderie with all the trainers there, and an immeasurable amount of appreciation for USDF for creating such a program to help encourage and inspire trainers to stay the course.  As this industry has grown, it can feel a bit overwhelming, and you can get a bit lost amongst the bigger names, but this conference gave me such a sense that our governing body of USDF is truly in each trainer’s corner.  It is an amazing feeling to be a part of something that’s so much bigger than our individual barns and training programs.  I would encourage everyone who is able to put the Trainers Conference on your calendar.  This was definitely the inspiration I needed to get myself ready for the 2020 season.       

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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