At a Colorado symposium, Olympian Robert Dover explained why rewards are as important as exacting standards in improving dressage performance
Story and Photographs by Natalie DeFee Mendik
A sunny spring weekend greeted riders and auditors at Kathy Coulson’s Hobby Horse Farm in Loveland, Colorado, the site of Northern Colorado Dressage Association’s Robert Dover Symposium. NCDA, a chapter of the Rocky Mountain Dressage Society, lined up horse-and-rider pairs representing green youngsters through FEI for the April 30-May 1 event.
As the six-time Olympian and former US Equestrian national dressage technical advisor worked with each pair and talked with auditors, key takeaways abounded.
Envision Your Best Performance
Dover encouraged riders to connect with their own mind’s eye to create the “grandest version” of what they seek to perform. This theme flowed throughout the symposium, with Dover advising riders to visualize their half-halts changing the horse’s center of gravity, or small corrections setting the stage for balanced transitions.
Hold Yourself Accountable
“Our number-one responsibility is our position, and achieving a balanced and independent seat in harmony with our horse,” Dover said. “There’s not one rider that I’m not critical of, including myself. Be aware, and make self-corrections.”
Keep the training moving forward by making goal-setting part of the process, Dover advised the riders. Set weekly, monthly, and “big picture” goals.
He discussed with each rider the details of how their plan should look. Be specific, as in “Work this month on maintaining the collection and energy you create in the corner onto the diagonal to prepare for the pirouette.” A longer-term goal might be: “Fourth Level will be a stretch at the start of the show season—a show should be something you step down to—but it will become solid as you work on these things.”
The Up-and-Coming Young Horse
Dover advised the rider of the four-year-old demonstration horse to “ride from the leg and seat into the hand with the poll the highest point, so you gradually challenge the horse to push up and stay connected. Think having wind in the sails as you ride up to the bridle. It’s strength training.”
For that horse’s green canter, Dover said, “She thinks she needs velocity. See the canter in your mind’s eye, take a breath, close your hand, marry your sets of aids together, and repeat and repeat. A thousand half-halts build the canter into the ability to contract and to lengthen. When she isn’t on board, slip her into it; then she’s doing it right, and praise her. That’s what she remembers. That’s what the art really is.”
The Spooky Horse
When Dover rides a spooky horse, he said, he brings his own focus away from everything external so he’s concentrating only on the horse. He may also use his voice to help turn the horse’s focus away from external stimuli so that it pays attention to the rider, not its surroundings.
Of a tricky horse in the symposium, Dover noted, “She’s evading because she’s finding the work difficult.” He cautioned the rider to not lose her own correct position, thereby becoming part of the evasion. Once the horse began making an effort, Dover instructed the rider to pat with the inside hand, before half-halt to walk. “Make a fuss over your horse,” he said, adding that the rider “just did an awesome job of riding.”
The Strong Horse
“Don’t get sucked into her rolling along like an avalanche,” Dover advised the rider of a strong mare. “Use your seat and leg for a keen horse that tends to get strong. Think: ‘I sit here in grace, strong in stillness.’ Keep your elbows by your frame, and ride the horse up to it. When you close your hand in a fist, be close to the wither so your hands stay quiet.”
Don’t Cut Corners
No corner should be wasted. “Every corner is an opportunity to ride a half-halt and create suppleness,” Dover reminded riders, adding that more-advanced horses should be ridden through corners with “beautiful, elastic steps.”
Everything Is Tied Together
As Dover worked on quality with each pair, he discussed how each element in dressage affects the others.
“The quality of the canter is dependent on the quality of transition into it,” he said. And riders need to understand that the gaits are interconnected: “Walk with the collected canter in the walk.”
Dover frequently touched on the interplay between collection and extension. “Collection should always be alive in extension, and vice versa,” he explained. “The true distance between the greatest extension and the grandest collection in each gait should be the thought—meaning the half-halt that brings you from one end of the spectrum to the other.”
And, of course, everything in dressage depends on the quality of the basics. A weakness in simple movements leads to greater weaknesses in more difficult movements. As Dover noted of one demonstration pair, “We knew the canter pirouette would be challenging because the walk-to-canter depart isn’t quite there.”
The rider’s aids, Dover said, should work like a light switch: Once you flip the switch, you don’t stand there holding the switch to ensure that the lights stay on. Likewise, don’t ride with your legs continually pressed against your horse’s sides or with the reins in tension.
“From one half-halt to the next, there should be harmony and joy,” he said. “Don’t override and under-create. Don’t ride every stride. You want the lightest aid for the greatest result.”
He reminded one rider: “Don’t keep your spur on. Use it only when you need it.” He had another rider use her whip by her foot to wake the horse up to her leg. “Horses should stay tuned-in and reactive, and then be praised right away.”
The goal, Dover explained, is to make the horse sufficiently responsive to the rider’s leg and seat that the whip is not needed. “With my own horses, I don’t carry a whip unless I need to make a point. If the reaction I’m looking for from my seat and leg is not there and I need to pick up a whip, it’s very quick and to the point. I get the reaction, put the whip down, and then I ask the horse from my seat and leg through my rein to create that beautiful reaction. The purpose of the whip is to help the rider make a correction, and the final training of that is whether that has translated.”
Dover continually reminded riders to praise their horses, whether it takes the form of a pat on the neck, a “good boy,” or a lump of sugar.
“Treats should be part of daily work,” he said. “Horses live in the moment and get so little, really, for all the amazing things they do for us that if we don’t have something tangible for them to feel rewarded, it’s a much more complicated thing to train a horse.”
He stressed that praise—also known as positive reinforcement—is a reward, while the cessation of an aid (negative reinforcement), while critical in teaching the horse the desired response, is not the same as praise. “The absence of a correction is not a reward to a horse.”
Competition Warmup Strategy
With show season in Colorado about to begin at the time of the symposium, many riders were eager to touch on related topics, especially how to formulate a warmup strategy for optimum performance in the ring.
Dover advised making a mental list of each movement to “tick off” in the warmup ring—including, critically, practicing it in the same arena orientation as it occurs in the test. How you warm up, he said, should be relative to the test you are about to perform.
During each little break in the warmup, Dover recommended a sugar treat: “You want to build up confidence before going in the ring.” Consider finishing the warmup by riding a center line to halt in the gait of the test, so the warmup concludes with the first movement of the test, he said.
Many riders rely on their coaches to help them warm up. The ideal coach, Dover believes, is “a trainer that trusts you to know more about your horse than they do” and who understands “how much and how little to help you conduct the perfect warmup.”
The Key to Confidence in the Show Ring
“It’s great when you have done things so much that they become easy and look easy,” Dover said. “Then all you have to do is keep dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s.”
Success, he said, is the product of diligent, correct training.
“Have a program and a system that produces confidence. The key to confidence being high between horse and rider is doing your homework every day. Go school, do dress rehearsals, go to small shows, and build up until it is so easy. Make sure you are under great supervision. Praying to the god of pirouettes comes from lack of practice. Confidence is everything. Judges know when things are going to go great.”
Top Success Requires a Top Partner
Most dressage riders are eager to learn about what it takes to be successful in international competition. Nowadays, Dover said, the international standard is so high that an incredible horse is a must.
“The top horses now are so mechanically gifted,” he remarked. “It’s all built in.”
That built-in ability is the result of years of selective sport-horse breeding. Events that showcase talented youngsters, such as the FEI World Breeding Championships for Young Dressage Horses, feature horses with the same amount of scope and elasticity as their Olympic-level counterparts, just at earlier stages of their training and development, Dover said.
“We are all on a journey,” said Dover. “The vast majority of riders and trainers get up every day doing the very best they can with what they know—out of the love of horses, the love of the art of riding, and the love of each other.”
Throughout the symposium, the overarching hallmark of Dover’s approach was the warmth and kindness he showed toward horses, riders, and auditors alike.
Special thanks to these Rocky Mountain Dressage Society members: Sue Woods, symposium organizer; and demonstration riders Hannah Cole, Danielle D’Agostino, Martha Brown, Kristi Cooper-Camp, Jill Cantor Lee, Lesley Eden, Kathy Coulson, Mary Kraft, Taryn Anderson, and Sue Martin.