US dressage Olympic silver medalist Sabine Schut-Kery shares her training insights
Story and photographs by Jennifer O. Bryant
In the late 1990s, I squeezed into a packed room under the iconic blue-painted Devon Horse Show grounds grandstand, where the late dressage trainer/rider Jane Savoie was captivating an audience with her wisdom during the Dressage at Devon (DAD) show. But the renowned early-fall competition in Devon, Pennsylvania (see “For Dressage Enthusiasts, Devon Is Magic”) hasn’t had an annual tradition of offering spectators educational opportunities along with the sport-horse eye candy.
Newly installed DAD president Anne Moss and her team wanted to change that, believing that they had an opportunity to grow the show (and its bottom line) by adding a symposium-style event to the existing lineup of sport-horse-breeding and performance competition, equine-themed entertainment, and shopping and dining opportunities. On Thursday, September 29, their vision paid off, with more than 300 spectators purchasing tickets to the inaugural Dressage at Devon Master Class presented by ShowPlus Powered by Captive One in the famed Dixon Oval.
The event’s stellar lineup rivaled that of any national dressage symposium. The headliner was California-based rider/trainer Sabine Schut-Kery, who aboard Sanceo led Team USA to a silver medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Schut-Kery’s trip to Devon was a homecoming of sorts: DAD attendees still talk about her costumed exhibition performances with the black stallions of the Texas-based Proud Meadows Friesians in the late 1990s.
The German-born Schut-Kery is an outstanding instructor/trainer, and the DAD audience had the opportunity to watch her work with six top horse-and-rider combinations, ranging from a four-year-old to Grand Prix. Read on for the top educational takeaways.
All about the stretch. The leggy four-year-old Westfalen mare Farouche (by Foundation) showed remarkable maturity in the famously “electric” Devon atmosphere on a clear, crisp late afternoon. (Expertly ridden by Silva Martin, Cochranville, Pennsylvania, Farouche won the USEF Four-Year-Old test at DAD with an impressive 80% score.)
Especially with a young horse, Schut-Kery emphasized the importance of correct stretching over the topline.
“Sit straight and in balance,” she advised Martin—“straight” meaning erect, with no forward lean—“so the horse doesn’t lose its balance.”
Stretching is beneficial, but only when done correctly, Schut-Kery emphasized.
“The stretch must be forward-downward, not downward-forward,” she said.
Refining the rider’s influence. The eight-year-old KWPN gelding Johnny Be Goode (by Dream Boy) is crazy talented and a bit of an overtrier. Schut-Kery saw it right away in the warmup:
“He’s a little tense, tight, and short,” she commented to rider Olivia LaGoy-Weltz, of Haymarket, Virginia. “When he’s short and not letting you in with your bending leg, keep your inside leg at the girth and go off the rail with a long leg-yield so you’re not up against the rail.
“He’s tighter to the right than to the left,” Schut-Kery observed. “Work [such] that both sides are equal.”
Schut-Kery’s keen eye helped LaGoy-Weltz zero in on details of the more advanced work, as well. The clinician asked for better “clarity in the positioning of the neck in the half-pass,” meaning that Johnny Be Goode’s neck needed a touch more bend to confirm the arc of the half-pass bend.
In the canter-pirouette work, Schut-Kery advised the rider to make the turns bigger, with “more snaffle and less curb; more open, less collected.
“Push forward into collection,” she said. The goal: “When he sits down, he stays in front of the rider’s aids.”
Simplifying the exercises for the horse. The 12-year-old Lusitano stallion Fantastico (by Perito) is another who’s prone to anticipation, the result being some tension, unasked-for flying changes, and the like.
To counteract that tendency, Schut-Kery advised rider Felicitas von Neumann-Cosel, of Frederick, Maryland, not to practice too many sequence changes or to ride flying changes in the same place in the arena. “Put changes in randomly” to help avoid anticipatory tension and to help Fantastico learn to wait for the aid, she said.
Same for the pirouette work: “Think working canter” to help keep the forward energy and looseness, Schut-Kery said. “Go on different lines from the tests.”
Like many Iberian horses, Fantastico has, well, fantastic ability for collected work, but these breeds “can get ‘up and down’ and have no suspension,” Schut-Kery noted. To help maintain the “forward thinking” feeling and the suppleness, she had von Neumann-Cosel try a favorite exercise: trot-piaffe, piaffe-trot.
“This exercise really helps later with piaffe-passage [transitions],” Schut-Kery said. She reminded the audience that piaffe is “a trot in place, not a trick. I want the horse to think that simple, and not to be startled by the transitions.”
In the exercise, “the hind legs keep trotting into the transitions. Ride a slower and slower trot [into the piaffe]. If he walks, trot out.” She noted that Fantastico “wants to come behind the leg into the piaffe” and that the exercise would help the stallion learn to stay honestly on the aids and in front of the rider’s leg.
More fine points: “The rider’s inner leg is so important, not just for bend but to push up the horse’s shoulders,” Schut-Kery said. “Try this experiment: Go straight, and try to position the horse’s head and neck to the inside. Most horses will ‘fall’ toward the track. It makes you realize how much inner leg you really need.”
The Olympian also asked riders to be persistent about asking their horses to maintain impulsion even while the rider is touching the rein. Of Fantastico, she noted, “You work the rein a little bit, and he wants to come behind the leg. He has to keep pushing through the reins.”
Brilliance without tension. The seven-year-old Oldenburg mare Summersby II (by Sezuan) came into the Dixon Oval “amped up,” as owner/rider Alice Tarjan, of Oldwick, New Jersey, described it. Schut-Kery helped the audience to discern the telltale signs of tension.
Starting off, the mare showed a slight up-and-down neck movement in the trot, which Schut-Kery said “is a sign of tension and tightness. Bring the base of the neck down to help her relax.”
Another sign of tension, the clinician said, is what she called “stabby” hind legs that move in a stiffer, up-and-down fashion rather than bending and reaching further underneath the horse’s body. After Summersby began to feel more at ease in the Dixon Oval, her hind legs showed increased articulation and therefore produced greater thrust and forward energy flowing freely over her topline, creating a beautiful and harmonious picture.
Riders typically warm up in the same sequence of gaits, beginning in walk and then going to trot before cantering. But the whole-body oscillation of the canter can be helpful in loosening the horse, and so Schut-Kery recommended moving to a canter set early in the warmup to help Summersby further relax through her body.
Building relaxation in the hot horse. “She’s on fire!” Schut-Kery exclaimed of the 12-year-old Friesian Sport Horse mare Adeline (by Maxwell von Donius). “That is difficult to work with.”
Training acceptance of the aids, Schut-Kery explained, involves a bit of a paradox: The “hot” horse must learn to accept the rider’s leg, while the duller or more lazy horse needs to learn to “self-propel” without constant leg pressure.
“In the walk, stay with your calf in contact with her sides,” Schut-Kery told rider Jim Koford, of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “She has to get comfortable with the leg.”
When Schut-Kery rides a very hot or tense horse, she said, she removes her spurs or uses very small ones “so the first thing that touches the horse’s body is the calf.”
Straight lines tend to be counterproductive in working the tense, hot horse. With Adeline, Schut-Kery had Koford ride “lots of turns and bending lines” in the trot.
Tension often disrupts the walk rhythm. “Do a leg-yield when she starts walking funny,” the clinician advised. The suppling movement breaks the logjam and helps to restore the purity of the gait.
With her powerful front end, Adeline “pulls herself too much along on her shoulders,” Schut-Kery observed, “instead of propelling herself forward from the hind legs.” The mare’s tension exacerbated the issue: “She runs [quickens the tempo] and tips onto the forehand.” She instructed Koford to “sit straight [not inclined forward] so you keep the weight over the hind legs. When you give [with the hand] is when you have to sit especially. She has to stay on your seat.”
Refining bend and balance. The master class concluded with Ontario, Canada-based rider Jaimey Irwin on the 10-year-old Oldenburg mare Simsalabim (by Sir Donnerhall 2)—“also a very hot horse,” Schut-Kery commented.
To improve Simsalabim’s suppleness and relaxation, Schut-Kery had Irwin go on a 20-meter circle in collected trot, alternating between shoulder-in and haunches-in positioning.
“My inner leg always stays the same” during the exercise, she said: “bending in shoulder-in, bending in haunches-in.”
Throughout the master class, Schut-Kery emphasizes that correct use and acceptance of the rider’s inside leg is key to success in many aspects of dressage. In trot half-pass, for example, “ride up to the end letter with your inner leg,” she said.
Remember the stretching work Schut-Kery did with Silva Martin on Farouche at the beginning of the master class? Correct stretching never loses its importance, no matter how advanced the horse. When Irwin gave Simsalabim a walk break, Schut-Kery wanted to see better stretch: “The back opens up when the nose comes a little forward [of the vertical],” she said.
Another fundamental element that sometimes gets overlooked on upper-level horses is trot-canter-trot transitions. “I really love this because it lets me see how much my horse is in front of my leg,” the clinician said.
Positioning the horse for optimal suppleness improves collection and the quality of the movements, Schut-Kery said. When Simsalabim began to lose her balance in the piaffe, the clinician advised Irwin to “go to shoulder-in or a pirouette to shift the weight back and rebalance.” In passage, she said, “ride shoulder-fore a little bit so the hind legs come more under.”
An articulate, classically trained clinician and a lineup of experienced riders on distinctly different types of horses at various ages and stages of training made for an master class that was rich in educational opportunities despite its condensed format—each horse and rider were in the ring for only 20 minutes or so. Spectators I talked to agreed that the event was well worth it and expressed hopes that similar educational opportunities will become a regular fixture on the Dressage at Devon roster.
Jennifer O. Bryant is the editor of USDF Connection.