2023 Adequan®/USDF FEI-Level Trainers Conference Takeaways – Part 1

Henk Van Bergen at Trainers Conference. Photo courtesy of Dressage Today

By Megan Compton

The 2023 Adequan®/USDF Trainers Conference was recently held in Florida, drawing over 300 attendees.  Here, USDF Silver and Bronze Medalist and USDF L Graduate with Distinction Megan Compton shares her top takeaways from this one-of-a-kind educational event.

After three long years, one of our sport’s biggest educational events, the USDF Trainers Conference was resurrected, with many thanks to title sponsor Adequan®, Dressage4Kids, and several USDF volunteers.  Also, a special thanks to Mary Anne McPhail for the use of her gorgeous High Meadow Farm to host the event.  Over 300 of us were able to participate in an educational experience unlike any other.  Our prestigious panel of presenters included: David Hunt, Henk Van Bergen, Linda Zang, and Lilo Fore.  David Hunt and Henk Van Bergen took the lead on coaching the horse and rider combinations, with Linda Zang and Lilo Fore heading up the question-and-answer sessions held in between rides to address any specific questions brought on throughout watching the sessions.  The two days were jam packed with inspirational conversations and clear, concise training that truly focused on producing a willing, athletic horse capable of accomplishing the movements being asked of them, and riders who were thoughtful and tactful in their approach towards their horses.

David Hunt, President of the British International Dressage Trainers Foundation, President of the International Dressage Trainers Club, FEI JSP Chairman, and part of the FEI Test Working Party brought a very direct approach to the sessions with his riders.  With a very clear focus on accurate riding on the line of travel and what specific shape the horse needed to be in while traveling on that line, David’s passion for the correctness of the training poured into every moment of his sessions.  He said, “First, you must teach the horse where you want him and second how you want him to get there.”

David first and foremost reminded all of us that transitions are indeed the name of the game in dressage.  Whether it was walk-trot-walk, trot-canter-trot, transitions within the gaits, or any other combination, his thought process was to allow the transitions to create the shape in the horse’s body.  David made a point to clarify that if the rider felt like they were getting into an argument with the horse they should stop, make their way down to something less difficult, and approach the transition work again.  He instilled clarity and consistency in each of the riders, saying that, “everything you do with a horse must bring you something,” which became very evident, especially in this transition work.

Even though transitions were consistently a theme in each of David’s sessions with his riders, the intensity and rapidity of the transitions varied with each horse’s personality and natural tendencies towards the work.  If the horse was a bit slower of a type with maybe a longer conformation as well, he wanted the riders to present the transition aids in a quicker way to entice a quicker response that would happen “immediately not eventually”.  With the horses that had a sharper temperament, perhaps weren’t handling the atmosphere as well as some of the others, and were a bit more compact in their build, he wanted the transitions to merge seamlessly into each other in order to give this horse the stability needed to allow the rider to have more control over the steps.

Following the transition theme, David consistently brought up work with the half steps, piaffe, and passage into and out of normal trot, in order to help produce more collection and engagement within each horse.  Whether it was a tense, short-backed horse or one who was slower, with longer conformation, this work helped to close the horse’s body and allow the rider to access more control, without having to over utilize the rein aid.

Another major theme to all of David’s work with his horse and rider combinations was the need for each horse to move completely normally, without any extra flash, especially at the start.  Not to be confused by simply staying out of the horse’s way, David very much wanted the riders to take the initiative and ask the horse to show their natural rhythm and maintain that before adding anything more to it.  Especially once the combinations started going through specific exercises and movements, David would remind everyone throughout the work, “The basic gait is what should guide you into and out of each movement,” and “All exercises must not take away from the horse or you’re going about it in the wrong way.”  

Leg yielding was a favorite exercise of David’s for all the combinations he worked with.  Just like with the transitions, even though the exercise was the same, the approach was different according to what each horse needed.  If he had a slower natured horse, he asked the rider to make the sideways steps quicker and steeper coming out of the corner and leg yielding off the rail to either E or B, in order to encourage the horse to develop that sharper reaction to the aids.  If he was working with a naturally more tense horse, he encouraged longer, slower leg yields in an effort to encourage the horse to truly accept the rider’s leg aids.

Contact and connection were a very specific conversation that David would address with all of his riders as well.  He encouraged all of us to throw out the phrase “on the bit” and replace it with “accepting the bit.”  David wanted the frame to stay the same regardless of transitions or exercises.  He wanted his riders to make the decision of what connection they were offering their horses.  David also brought straightness into the contact conversation saying that if the horse wiggles around – David didn’t want the riders to use their legs because that would tend to make it worse.  Wiggling, therefore, is not solved by the legs, but by clearly defining straightness into the hand.  “The back legs follow the front legs, and the front legs follow the mouth; the horse must be in alignment.”  He reminded all the riders that “contact shouldn’t slow the horse down, it should activate the horse and give him a purpose.”

The horses with more tension offered a different aspect to the contact conversation, as David encouraged those riders to develop the horse’s stability and consistency, in order that the neck would take care of itself.  David further clarified, “Don’t just hold the horse, get him to be there for himself.”  He reminded the riders dealing with tension that they couldn’t take the horse back, but needed to allow the horse to come back to them.  The contact was meant to develop security, stability, and consistency within the horse, not to hold them back.  David clearly wanted the neck on this type of horse to come more out of the wither, but he made sure we all understood that the neck would never improve until the rider could truly ride the horse forward into a clear connection from the hind legs to the bit. 

The pirouette work was another staple exercise David had most of his riders work through.  The basic exercise he started with was preparing the pirouette canter and then doing a canter pirouette on the rail, which turned into more of a 3-5m volte.  David’s big concept he wanted to pass on to his riders was that the pirouette work shouldn’t decrease the horse’s canter or the canter quality itself.  The pirouette is what should be used to increase the canter and canter quality.  Within this pirouette work, a theme began to surface through the riders of a lack of control over the second half of the pirouettes.  Once the riders understood to allow the pirouette turn to collect the canter, the first half started to develop naturally, but then David kept reminding them to “ride the second half of the pirouette.  You must finish it; it’s not complicated.”  In his directness, David was able to help the riders produce a feeling of allowing the pirouette to start itself and then help the horse finish with the same canter it started with, resulting in an uninhibited top line and frame with improved carrying and sitting power. 

Another important exercise that David incorporated was the six loop serpentine, with either a flying change or simple change over centerline.  He would remind each rider “the horse must not escape the hind legs after the change or before the transition.  The canter must remain the same.”  David explained this exercise helps to create a stable and regulated horse, saying that both of those traits are necessary for a reliable Grand Prix horse.

Probably the biggest piece that David brought to his riders was the necessity of changing the mindset of how they were riding.  He said, “The best way to ruin a horse is to try not to ruin the horse.  You must be involved with connection, energy, and engagement.  You must change your mindset!  Take ownership of what you’ve got.  The horse can’t get there without your support.”  David reminded us that we can’t just sit there as a “little miss perfect, you have to have a working relationship with the horse.”  Good riding all boils down to taking initiative and constant analysis of each feeling and working to create an improvement.  David encouraged the riders, “you have to learn to be constructively critical of yourself.”  Whether he was coaching a rider on the sensitive horse or the quieter horse, David truly wanted to make sure that his riders had a clear understanding of the type of horse they were training, how to shape the exercises according to their horse’s needs, and how to be continuously involved in helping the horse without inhibiting the benefits of the work.

Henk Ven Bergen has been on the FEI Judges Supervisory Panel (JSP) since 2011, on the board of the International Dressage Riders Club (IDTC) for 25 years, and still gives extensive clinics in the US and Europe.  Henk brought a definite reality to the training opportunities presented by riders and auditors at this year’s conference saying, “We’re not here to impress each other but to learn and, most important, to tell the truth.”  Disciplined work of the correct basics shone throughout the sessions with the horse and rider combinations Henk worked with, as he continued to encourage his riders to focus not only on the “what” of the exercise, but the “how” and “why” the work was specifically beneficial for the pair.

A large theme of Henk’s sessions with his riders was balance.  Balance within the rider, within the horse, and within the training approach.  “They’re always in a balance, but we need it in our balance.  You only have influence over balance when you can change the rhythm and position.”  He encouraged his riders saying, “There is no ONE way.  Make it simple.  Give the horse the feeling that it can be done.”  As riders and trainers we must always be careful to respect each way of riding and keep ourselves in check.  Henk emphasized that keeping clear, correct priorities in the training is what was most important and would help influence the horse the most.

Along with this understanding of balance, Henk helped us focus in on what it was that we do when riding by ourselves.  How do we figure out the next steps with our horses?  He said that if our purpose is to improve the horse, we must do the opposite from what the horse wants to do by himself.  If he wants to go fast, we must help the horse go slowly.  If he wants to go slowly, we must help the horse to quicken his steps.  All of the exercises are in direct relationship to what nature has given the horse.  “And what is dressage?”  Henk questioned all of us.  “Dressage is the systematic development of the natural abilities of the horse.”  Every rider and trainer must develop a good feel and knowledge of what to do to accomplish the development of the dressage training.  But in this development, he also warned that “better is the enemy of good” making sure that all of us keep our human tendency of becoming greedy with our horses in check.

Transitions also ruled the sessions during Henk’s time with his riders.  “Repetition is part of our job,” he reminded.  The best way to help the horse gain complete understanding is by repeating it.  Henk then cautioned that it wasn’t simply doing as many transitions as you can that helps to create a horse capable of the Grand Prix, but the quality of the work that you accomplish with the horse that makes the difference.  “It is not if we will do transitions, it is how we will do them.  Transitions are the best exercises to influence the horse, but they must be a good exercise.  If we do bad or wrong exercises, we take steps backwards in the training.  You only get there by doing good things, not many things.”  Henk further cautioned that the horse doesn’t stay on the same level if you do it wrong.  They either improve or get worse, so we must be disciplined to stay the course with correct basics and be humble enough to put ourselves in a space where we can seek out more education for ourselves in an effort to help our horses in a better way. 

“The first concern isn’t the transition, it’s to make the horse ready for the transition,” Henk would remind his riders.  According to him, preparation means that you bring the horse to the exercise in a way that he can do it.  The first step into or out of any gait must be connected to the last and land in softness.  The horse could neither stop into a downward transition nor run into the upward transition, and the tiniest tendency towards either direction was never lost on Henk.  The discipline and attention to detail during this work was of utmost importance to him.  “The basic work is in all exercises” and “all of this is what makes the story of dressage.”  Henk further encouraged his riders if they found this work tedious or boring to realize that “you can’t walk away from the difficult parts to find improvements.  You must go through the learning process.”  Sometimes, if something is too nice, it doesn’t bring any real training value.  “Progress happens on the edge.  It has to be a bit difficult for the horse. Very good is very close to going wrong,” Henk warned as he encouraged his riders to always be fair and clear. 

All of the transition work, Henk boiled down to creating the art of riding versus the fitness of riding.  Henk related to everyone that dressage is an art form where we continue to do our best to achieve “that feeling” again and again with our horses.  Regardless of what movements, exercises, or level we’re working on, we’re working towards a feeling of weightlessness, and a disciplined ease throughout the work and connection.  Henk wanted his riders to “ride aware.”  Each rider must understand what a “little different” means to their own horses.  The rider must be able to bring the horse into a balance so that they’re ready to do the work. 

As Henk would transition from the warming up and utilizing transitions into the work, he cautioned that exercises often go wrong for three reasons:

  1. The horse doesn’t have a clear understanding of the aids.
  2. The horse is understanding of the aids but is not physically able to accomplish the exercise.
  3. The horse has an understanding and the capabilities but has no desire to do it. 

Henk warned that these roadblocks in the training may appear to be the same, but we need three different approaches to each horse to improve the exercise.  We must make things simple, be careful not to practice the difficulties every time, and sometimes accept less quality so that the rider can develop the horse’s confidence to accomplish the exercise.  “Our principle correction is to make it smaller and simpler,” Henk encouraged.

Lateral work and half passes were another focus during Henk’s sessions.  He emphasized to his riders that there must always be a start, the meat of the exercise, and then a finish.  There can be no falling into something or fading out of it.  “The finish is where most of the progress can be made,” Henk would encourage as his exercises would develop a specific balance within the horse, and he wanted the riders to maintain it into the next exercise.  Because the finish was so important to him, he would encourage his riders to straighten and finish something on purpose before anything went wrong, and then they could ask their horse to maintain it for longer as the horse’s strength and understanding developed. 

Henk encouraged riders to do much more on the long sides.  “Don’t just go on and on.  Keep the rhythm, but continue to change.”  He gave a wonderful exercise describing the repeated use of the long side:

Tracking right, shoulder in at P for a few steps.  Half pass or diagonal line in to centerline.  At centerline, straighten, then 10 meter half circle to the left back to the track.  Once on the track, back to shoulder in, and repeat the same exercise back and forth on the same long side.  

Throughout all of Henk’s stories and quick remarks, his theme of the necessity of the rider realizing what they were doing, how they were doing it, and why they were doing it was continuous.  He continued to encourage all of us that this training of dressage was a way to improve the horse.  Henk recognized that all of us want our horses to enjoy the work, but “the first question isn’t if they like it, but if it has a positive influence”, whether that was physically seen in the movement, through the horse’s emotion, or the horse’s reaction to an aid given.  He referenced Steffen Peters saying he’d heard him say, “My horses are my best friends, but for one hour in the day they are my business partners.”  Henk made the point that at the forefront of this working relationship with a horse, everything a rider does should be for the horse you’re riding.  The ethical balance in his training was a prominent part of each of his sessions.

Return to YourDressage on February 4 for Part 2, where powerhouses Lilo Fore and Linda Zang offer a judges perspective and field questions of our presenters.


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