Lendon Gray and D4K—aka Dressage for KIDS
Story and Photographs by Beth Baumert
Reprinted from the November/December 2021 issue of USDF Connection magazine
By now, almost everyone in the US dressage community knows about Lendon Gray’s Dressage4Kids (D4K) organization. Many also know about D4K’s WIT program—the immersive Winter Intensive Training experience for youth riders that takes place annually in Wellington, Florida. Some know about SIT—the Summer Intensive Training that takes place in August in Gray, Maine. And a few know about SPIT—a five-day Spring Intensive Training that takes place wherever Gray happens to be at that time.
Then there’s WEP, D4K’s Weekend Equestrian Program, which attracts hundreds of young (and not-so-young) riders for an intensive academic-style January weekend in an especially frigid part of Connecticut, featuring dozens of speakers—some of them quite famous—who plow, undeterred, through snow banks to get there.
The entire operation defies logic when you think about it—but the thing is, no one really thinks about it. They “just do it” (which, by the way, has been a favorite phrase of Gray’s for long before it became a Nike slogan).
What started the D4K ball rolling is Lendon’s Youth Dressage Festival, which in non-pandemic times takes place annually in Saugerties, New York; Fruitport, Michigan; and Conyers, Georgia. Whereas children in other sports regularly gather for team activities, kids in dressage are often socially isolated. This festival is an opportunity for kids to enjoy the company of other kids who are passionate about dressage. The YDF competition consists of a dressage test, an equitation test, and a written test. During the written exam, as hundreds of kids sit at dozens of tables hunched over their tests, Gray might grab the microphone and say, “Years ago, Laura Graves was sitting in one of these seats taking this test. I’m wondering which one of you might be the next Laura Graves.” It’s a seriously empowering, fun weekend during which the least successful competitor might win a prize for the best-groomed tail. The most successful child might go on to earn a chance in much, much bigger arenas.
But wait, there’s more! Gray created Training4Teachers because she believes that dressage instructors usually know what to teach, but they rarely receive education in how to teach. The program features a series of educators as speakers. For the inaugural session, Gray hoped that a dozen dressage instructors might sign up; she figured they could gather in her living room. In fact, nearly 100 instructors participated.
Finally, the D4K TEAM (Training, Education, and Mentoring) program is a nationwide series of clinics given by Gray and a few other top trainers. The TEAM program takes place over about 26 weekends in locations around the country. For dressage riders aged 25 and under, it serves as a stepping stone from the “grass roots” level of riding to the long ladder that leads to bigger goals: representing one’s country internationally, becoming a successful professional, or simply becoming the best dressage rider one can be. The two-day regional clinics and the five-day national clinics include lessons, lectures, and demonstrations. Participants receive instruction in stable management, riding theory, fitness, and sport psychology—and they had better show up! They are expected to watch all lessons and to become thoroughly involved—to just do it.
Thousands upon thousands of young dressage enthusiasts have been influenced by D4K. At the 2021 edition of the FEI North American Youth Championships (NAYC), more than three-quarters of the US dressage competitors had participated in D4K programs.
Ironically, most of these kids don’t know that Gray is an Olympian. She represented the United States at the dressage World Championships in 1978. In 1980, she rode Beppo at the alternate Olympic dressage event at Goodwood in England. In 1988, she competed Later On at the Seoul Olympic Games. Then in 1991, she competed at the FEI World Cup Finals in Paris. The kids of D4K don’t know all that. They know only that Gray is their champion. She’s a tough taskmaster, but she’s on their side.
In August 2021, I caught up with Gray in her home state of Maine, where she was spending the month with a group of young riders who had convened for D4K’s Summer Intensive Training (SIT) Program. The kids had come from as far away as Alaska and Ireland.
The SIT schedule was creative but structured. Monday is a day for confirming last week’s concepts. Tuesday is for introducing new ideas. Wednesday is for confirming those new ideas. Thursday is a hack day. Friday might bring cavalletti work or a schooling show with either Gray or a guest as judge. Saturday could be lessons in the field or a field trip to watch a clinic with such notables as Kathy Connelly or Laura Graves. Sunday is a day off.
Gray likes to give semi-private lessons. “I don’t want the kids to be too dependent on me,” she explains. “I want them to have time to figure things out for themselves.”
On the day I’m visiting, the first semi-private lesson of the day is with Jillian and Taylor. Taylor is riding a rangy gray eight-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred. Ten days ago, according to Gray, the horse was “a dart looking for a dartboard.” Suppleness isn’t a desirable quality for horses that were trained to get to the finish line as soon as possible, but this horse obviously trusts Taylor, who has him looking relaxed through the topline and soft in the hand as she guides him on straight lines and 20-meter circles. Steering isn’t super-easy because darts only go in one direction, so Gray helps Taylor with her rein aids. She says:
- If you make an adjustment, do it with both hands. Don’t use left and right reins separately.
- Keep your hands in front of the saddle.
- Use your inside leg on the circle.
- The rein motion goes forward and back, not up and down.
- Keep an elastic contact. No flopping reins!
- The reins create a hallway or a chute.
- Look down at your hands for a moment to be sure they’re working together.
One benefit of having following hands, Gray points out, is that the horse can actually feel the rein aid when the rider stops following to half-halt—meaning that the rider doesn’t have to pull. The fingers must be soft so that the rider can close them for a brief half-halt. Tight fists, Gray says, are usually accompanied by rigid arms.
Riding too many circles can actually make a horse crooked, says Gray, who recommends that Taylor make serpentines and figure-eights to help her awareness of straightness. The horse’s tempo quickens on straight lines, and Gray says, “See how much you can slow him down simply by posting slower. Try to keep your seat in the saddle for a split second longer.” She’s pleased with the result and asks Taylor to halt: “While you’re in a halt, feel if he’s square.” She asks Taylor about the front legs first and then the hind legs, noting that “it takes a long time to be able to feel that, but it helps if you start being aware of it now.”
Jillian is riding a Second Level horse. Gray asks: “What are we likely to do in shoulder-in that is a mistake?” Overbend the horse’s neck, replies Jillian, and Gray agrees. Again, she gives help with the aids:
- Think about moving the horse’s shoulders, not her head.
- Elastic reins mean “following like the skin of a balloon.” The skin of a balloon contains a little or a lot of energy, but it always feels spongy.
- Use positive aids.
I interrupt to ask Gray what she means by a positive aid.
“A positive leg aid makes a difference,” she explains. “Something happens as a result of the aid. When I say, ‘Don’t use a negative aid,’ I mean don’t push without making a difference. We tend to hang on to a negative aid and nag. For example, instead of the leg meaning ‘Go,’ the negative leg aid ends up saying, ‘Don’t slow down.’”
The third rider, Killian, is riding a borrowed horse. The mare coughs and Killian’s arms get yanked. Gray asks whether Killian has been wetting the horse’s hay, and she says she has. Gray responds: “If she coughs, she shouldn’t get hit in the mouth, though. That tells me your arms aren’t elastic.” She qualifies:
- “Elastic” doesn’t mean that you can’t be strong. Think big, thick elastic band instead of thin, wimpy elastic.
- Your horse is not going to be more supple than you are.
- Your arms point the way.
Later, the mare coughs again, and Killian’s arms accommodate. “Good. That tells me a lot about your arms,” Gray says.
Alex is riding a very typey seven-year-old bay gelding in a lovely frame, but she comments that the horse feels behind the leg. Gray recommends moving the horse around in the warmup, doing transitions and leg-yield to keep him interested and listening.
Later, while Gray is helping another rider, she turns to Alex and says, “Alex, do you have a plan? You know how I feel about plans. Don’t go around and around, wasting your horse’s energy.”
When Alex’s mount is warmed up, they do a simple gymnastic exercise: counter-canter on a 20-meter circle between E and B, coupled with a 10-meter circle in true canter each time the horse reaches the center line. Once they establish the accuracy of those figures, the horse becomes very straight and through his back.
Riley is riding a long-backed, long-necked horse whose conformation makes it easy for the rider to overbend his neck. To give Riley a visual of the correct alignment, Gray says, “If I were a bird in the rafters, I’d want to see his neck on the same arc as his line of travel.”
Allie is riding a pretty bay mare who is eager by nature, and Gray encourages the rider to develop “whoa-ability”:
- Don’t hold against her.
- Give to contact rather than giving to a loose rein.
- Be sure you have a choice—that you could go slower if you want to.
Next, Kaytlin tells Gray that her horse doesn’t feel quite right. The horse is being treated by a veterinarian and is supposed to be ridden lightly. Gray suggests that she walk for another five or 10 minutes, then try trotting again. The horse still looks very slightly off, so Gray says that Kaytlin should do a lesson in walk. She asks one of the older students to teach the lesson. “I like to get the kids teaching,” she says.
Liv is riding a lovely big dark-bay mare who is strong in the hand. Gray gives her several pieces of advice regarding the contact:
- Use your voice. Anything you can do to avoid pulling on a horse’s mouth, do it. Do whatever you can do to make it easier for her.
- Don’t pull, but don’t drop her, either.
- Do it with bend. Ride a correct circle.
- Use your weight, your voice, and then your hand, in that order.
- Do transitions. Charlotte Dujardin says you should do hundreds of transitions during your ride. Carl Hester recommends thousands.
- Don’t turn the bit into a girth, with “dead pressure.”
- You want a horse that has go, but she has to accept your control.
Phoebe is riding a Thoroughbred who normally works on the Second Level movements, but he is feeling claustrophobic and out of sorts today, so Gray advises the rider to go back and find the nice Training or First Level horse that is in there. She recommends that Phoebe stay close to him, supple and elastic. They take many breaks, and gradually the anxious horse becomes more supple and compliant.
Caroline has just come back from the NAYC, but she’s not riding her competition horse. Her mount for today is working at Prix St. Georges level. Meanwhile, Gianna rides a 22-year-old bay Grand Prix mare that looks lovely and fluid. The horse does not look 22, and Gianna rides her with great respect—thoughtfully and in balance. Both riders develop suppleness with shoulder-in, half-pass, and transitions.
After the lessons, the riders convene in the barn for a fitness session. They will all be there. They will all “just do it,” they will all benefit, and they all end up loving it.
Every rider I’ve seen today was impeccably turned out, and the horses and tack were spotless. One rider had the front wraps a tiny bit too low, and Gray gently pointed it out. The riders’ positions were beautiful, but one was slightly crooked through the torso, so a US team physiotherapist was expected to come help. What amazing resources!
Gray herself would say that these D4K programs go on pretty much without her, but what she means is that their mechanics have developed lives of their own. The mechanics go on, but the Lendon Gray part of each program is what makes the magic.
Beth Baumert is a USDF-certified instructor through Fourth Level and a USDF L program graduate with distinction. She is the author of When Two Spines Align: Dressage Dynamics and of How Two Minds Meet: The Mental Dynamics of Dressage. She currently serves as president and CEO of The Dressage Foundation. For many years she owned and operated Cloverlea Dressage in Connecticut and served as the technical editor of Dressage Today magazine.