A rider overcomes nerves to achieve personal and dressage-training breakthroughs at the 2020 USDF Sport Horse Prospect Development Forum
By Laura Ashley Killian
Photographs by Natalie DiBerardinis
The little voices inside my head aren’t always the nicest. Sometimes I wish I could just evict them. For six years I’ve been attending USDF symposiums, watching the demonstration riders and thinking, “Man, I wish I was out there.” But then the voices chime in: “Yeah, but you’re not ready yet. Your horse isn’t good enough yet. What if you can’t do the exercises they request?”
Finally, I managed to muffle those voices and build up enough courage to apply to ride in the 2020 USDF Sport Horse Prospect Development Forum with Rebecca Baez’s four-year-old PRE stallion, Marino LO (Dominante XXIX x Educardo X). I’m lucky to have a young prospect that I am very proud of, and I figured the bar wouldn’t be set too high since the horses in this forum are just babies. Plus, I tell Marino he’s perfect every day, and there has to be some truth behind that! Lo and behold, a few days later I learned that we were accepted! Well, I guess I’m committed now.
The day before the February 17-18 event, we trailered in to the facility, Fair Sky Farm in Loxahatchee, Florida, to allow Marino to become familiar with the surroundings and for the presenters, Scott Hassler and Willy Arts, to get to know him a little bit. Perfectionist that I am, I take first impressions extremely seriously—but unfortunately Marino was more interested in his first impressions with the other horses. Scott asked me if this was typical of his behavior and noted how calm he was in the video I submitted from his first horse show. I promised that my mount would be less of an orangutan the following day. Scott and Willy told me there was no pressure to perform, but I was determined to leave a good impression with these two gentlemen that I respected. They were kind enough to tell me to take all the time I needed for Marino to have a positive experience, relax, and end the day on a successful note.
When Scott and Willy shifted their attention to the next horse, I think Marino and I both took a breath and finally began to connect. We ended up having a productive session, and as we left the arena Scott commented that my relaxed demeanor with the stallion would make a wonderful example for the auditors. I chuckled in disbelief because I’d been feeling embarrassed that we hadn’t presented a polished performance that was ready for the show ring. Scott said that because I was unfazed by Marino’s antics, the horse was able to calm more quickly and that I rode through any outbursts tactfully. I’d been thinking that the clinicians were probably dreading to have to deal with me the rest of the weekend—yet in reality they were actually pleased with my horsemanship.
I found out that Willy would be my teacher for my forum sessions. I was excited for this opportunity, especially after Willy told me that he had ridden Marino’s sire, Dominante XXIX, as a young horse. Fortunately Marino came into the arena much more settled on day one of the two-day forum.
The session felt like a disaster. I was so determined to be the perfect student that I was mechanical in everything that I did rather than being the “thinking rider” that I encourage my students to be. I felt as if I was stuck on a merry-go-round and couldn’t get off. There was valuable information to be learned, but I just couldn’t tap into it. Was I doing what Willy wanted? Was he happy? I couldn’t tell. If he repeated a comment, I wondered whether he was trying to drive home a point. Had I regressed and needed to start over from step one?
I felt deflated as I walked out of the ring, assuming that I hadn’t been able to demonstrate what the audience needed to see. I went home and sulked, drank a glass of wine, and then called a few friends who had been at the clinic. I was astounded to learn that they thought I’d had a great ride. How was it that what I felt and what they saw were polar opposites? Fortunately, a good friend helped me to more clearly see the full picture that I had missed in the moment.
The primary issue at this point in Marino’s education is that he is not 100% reliable in the connection, especially through the outside rein, and most obviously when tracking right. Willy instructed me to take my focus away from bending because without outside rein you are only creating flexion. I needed my horse to step forward from my outside leg into my outside hand before I could even think about the concept of bend. Willy had me work on a 20-meter circle, pushing Marino from outside leg to outside hand, allowing a slight degree of counterflexion and even leaving the circle line at times if necessary to drive the point home that he must move forward from my outside leg until he seeks the connection. Once he starts to reach into the hand more reliably, then I can apply my inside leg and use normal bending aids to allow him to fold around the inside leg while still staying consistent to the outside rein. On day one of the forum, I was convinced that I was supposed to stay in counterflexion for the entire ride. That, of course, was not Willy’s objective. I now have greater empathy for my students who want so badly to do it right that they follow my directions as literally as possible, just as I had done with Willy.
The little voices in my head started up again that night: “Willy’s probably thinking to himself, ‘Tomorrow I have to teach that inept girl again on that nice horse that she’s messing up.’” “Just stop!” I told myself. “You can do this. You will make Marino’s breeder proud, and you will make your trainer happy, and you will present your stallion to the best of his current abilities.”
The next day, I went into the ring with a plan. After watching the video of my first session, I realized how positive and encouraging Willy had actually been. How could I have missed that? Somehow my brain had shut out all the positivity. He said “good” when I achieved what he wanted—sometimes as often as every circle—but my brain heard only directives. Today, I was going to focus on the “good’s.”
This time I knew what Willy and I were after, and we made progress rapidly. I used my outside leg to get Marino up into my outside rein. It didn’t take long for things to start clicking. Then I allowed my body to open toward the inside as I “cuddled” my horse with my inside calf and repositioned my seat bones to encourage him to begin to bend through my positioning aids. I even remembered to breathe and smile occasionally. I felt myself nodding along each time Willy gave a directive, instead of staring in shock like a deer in headlights.
Once Marino’s inside bend was reliable, Willy began to challenge him a bit. With a young horse, the idea of a challenge may be very slight, but it will make a big difference. We started with an extremely shallow serpentine loop from roughly the quarter line to the center line, going in at an angle and curving slightly back out at an angle. At first I rode the loops too large instead of making everything gentle and slight changes, working from left bend to right bend. But after I conceptualized the exercise, I was able to execute it. And Willy’s exercises allowed the horse to get better and better through each repetition.
Because we were able to more quickly get to the point and demonstrate results, we were also able to work on the walk, which is something I had requested assistance with. Marino has a good walk, with a large overstep and suppleness through his topline, but in moments of tension it may diminish in quality. Willy had me slow the tempo slightly by stretching up, and I also used my thighs to make a half-halt so that the walk would wait rather than becoming hurried. The result was that Marino showed a clearer “V” in the walk (the moment when the front and hind legs meet momentarily to form a “V” shape, thus showing the purity of the walk rhythm) and a longer stride.
We took this idea of waiting into the trot work. Unlike some of the young warmbloods I have trained, the Iberian breeds may appear hurried or “running” when asked to stay more forward. Willy wanted me to keep my legs fully closed and consistently around my sensitive horse to support him and lift him into a more cadenced trot. As I regulated the tempo of my posting, I felt Marino’s shoulders lift and move more freely. His topline developed more swing, which quieted any exaggerated “winging” with his front legs. I could feel the clarity in the tempo become like that of a metronome.
Now that Marino’s trot was reliably good, it was time to begin challenging it a bit. Willy asked me to push the trot on until the stride began to lengthen, telling me to maintain the leg aid until I got the desired reaction.
By the end of the forum, I had a young horse that got on the trailer, went into an unfamiliar setting with a large audience and loudspeakers, walked around quietly on a long rein, then worked in the trot into my outside connection while showing proper bend, maneuvered easily from left to right bend, maintained quality in all three gaits, improved the ridability of the walk, showed a more regular tempo in the trot, and produced more cadence in his gaits, with the ability to lengthen without quickening. Phew!
I left the arena with a smile and felt proud to have done justice to my breeder’s beautiful stallion. I’ve been practicing Willy’s homework diligently since then, and noted the quality of the horse that I was riding and the potential our future showed together.
I had overcome those little negative voices—at least for the day—had a positive experience with my wonderful horse, learned a ton, and started to work through all of the performance anxieties that must go along with riding at the high-performance level. I will continue to push myself out of my comfort zone. I will force myself to apply for every opportunity, even if I don’t think that I’m ready. Even if I don’t think I’m good enough. Even if I don’t think I have a chance. Because sometimes others have more faith in you than you have in yourself, and you should take their encouraging words to heart.
The words of outsiders can be cruel and intimidating at times, but true horse people understand how difficult the journey can be bringing up these young horses, nurturing their futures, and bringing them to their fullest potential to the best of your ability. True horse people will applaud the bravery that it takes to get out there and show what you’ve been working for, no matter the outcome. They are thankful for any moment they get to spend in the saddle with these wonderful creatures, and they strive to give their horses a positive experience so that they can grow together. That is exactly what this weekend was for Marino and me: a chance to grow in our training and our relationship, and to prepare for the bright future that lies ahead.
Thank you to USDF and staff for organizing this event, to Fair Sky Farm for welcoming us to your beautiful facility, and to Scott Hassler and Willy Arts for your encouragement and for sharing your wisdom so that we can be better and do better for our young horses. Thanks most of all to Becky Baez for entrusting me with this incredible horse to love and train as if he were my own. I could not be luckier or more blessed.
Laura Ashley Killian is a USDF-certified instructor through Fourth Level; a USDF bronze, silver, and gold medalist; and a USDF L graduate. She trains and teaches at Laura Ashley Dressage in Wellington, Florida.
The Demonstration Riders and Horses
The USDF thanks Fair Sky Farm, Loxahatchee, Florida, for hosting the 2020 USDF Sport Horse Development Forum. Thanks also to USDF Sport Horse Committee co-chair Natalie DiBerardinis for taking the photographs that appear in this article. And we’re grateful to the demonstration riders, horses, and owners that helped make the event a success:
Nicole Ardito-Ng, Haymarket, Virginia, on Ilaya (Dream Boy x Jazz), owned by Deborah Lowham
Lehua Custer, North Hollywood, California, on her own Fortunato H2O (Floriscount x Rascalino)
Ann Dever, Hilliard, Ohio, on Finnomenon KFX (Finest x Scolari), owned by Diane Oye
Mary Fischer, Maple Plain, Minnesota, on her own Dance Baby (Damsey x Sir Donnerhall)
Alexandra Gainer, North Canton, Ohio, on Limoncello Equitop (Negro x Scandic), owned by Cathy Widders and Impulsion LLC
Laura Ashley Killian, Royal Palm Beach, Florida, on Marino LO (Dominante XXIX x Educardo X), owned by Rebecca Baez
Ida Mattisson, Houston, Texas, on J’oie de Vie (Dundee x Jazz), owned by Brandye Randermann
Shayna Simon, San Diego, California, on her own Kensington (Franklin x Indoctro).