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. Make sure you check out Part 1 of her recap.
Lilo Fore and Linda Zang, two powerhouses of the sport of dressage offered a judges perspective and fielded the questions that would come through as the Dressage4Kids volunteers handed out and took up question cards throughout the audience after each ride.
Linda made some comments about the latest 2023 test revisions, stating that she believed these are the best rewrites that have been done. “The US is improving overall and the tests are a part of that,” commenting on the quality of riding and training that is beginning to be seen throughout US dressage. She emphasized that the purpose of the levels should be used as a significant knowledge base for each rider at each level. Since we don’t have a national JSP, Linda made the suggestion that we do more panel judging in the US to bring the scoring system more accountability and uniformity.
Linda also made several comments on how the rider’s seat and equitation directly influenced the horses they were riding. If the legs slide too far back, you lose the effectiveness and risk pushing the haunches out, disrupting the whole balance of the exercise. If you’re sitting too heavily on the inside back quarter of your saddle, you’re not enabling your horse to have the uphill push and balance into the outside shoulder necessary for the straightening required for collecting into more concentrated work. The rider must be able to allow the horse through rather than fall into their own bad habits.
A question was brought up because of some mouth issues seen on a couple of the horses presented. Linda encouraged all of us to make sure that whenever there is a problem with the mouth of any kind, always start by looking at the teeth to make sure everything is healthy in the horse’s mouth, as a baseline. Then, look at how the bit/bits hang in the mouth. Noting that tension is usually the culprit in mouth issues, Linda encouraged us all that if we had a mouth issue that persisted to make sure that the rider stays softer on the outside rein specifically, and that the horse is not held in a frame, but worked correctly into the frame from the good, basic work.
Lilo emphasized that when correcting the contact, you cannot simply use your legs to push them forward. Sometimes that can cause the horse to run themselves into the contact and then down onto the forehand. She reiterated that this is why the transition work is so important, and not just any transition work, but the work that maintains the roundness, shape, and balance of the horse into, out of, and within the gaits.
A few questions about a rider’s core and how strong it needs to be came up. Lilo explained that often we see a larger, longer horse and a smaller rider, and it becomes very important that the rider knows not only how to balance herself, but that she is able to offer stability and consistency to her horse, without getting too tense in the saddle.
Lilo was then asked about collection and she stressed the point again that collection should not mean less, but should build more within the horse. To the follow up question as to whether the quicker transitions used to help bring collection to one of the horses with a slower temperament would cause the cooperation to suffer in the horse, Lilo responded, “Sometimes, but we must train him to acceptance. You want there to be a partnership, but they have to show up for work.”
A question on rhythm and tempo was brought up by Lilo, and she said that the rider must regulate the footfall to increase the quality through the tempo. The rider then, must have an understanding and be clever about this work. We must always work towards relaxation with the rhythm first so that we can then get a response, and the aid can gain the respect from the horse because of the consistency in communication.
When Linda and Lilo were questioned on how to introduce the double bridle to the rider, they both emphasized to ride it the same as a snaffle. You must have respect for it. “It is an honor to ride in the double,” Lilo warned.
They were both questioned on how to deal with a lateral walk, and were both of the mindset that you can educate the walk. Linda spoke about a horse with a very lateral walk who was helped by learning the Spanish walk because that different manner of walk broke the horse’s habit of going lateral. Lilo helped us all understand that the walk quality is directly related to tension and therefore, you must not be afraid to train the walk in a non-restrictive way.
A question was raised regarding what instructors need to emphasize more. Both Lilo and Linda brought up body awareness of the riders in their answers. Lilo focused on development of the independent aids and how a lack of it will show up as the horse’s throughness disappears. The gripping knees, restrictive arms, and bouncing hands all influence the horse in a negative way. Linda emphasized staying in balance with the horse and staying upright, noting that the rider must have their own self carriage as well. She also brought into the conversation how ill-fitting saddles can be a cause of rider issues.
When and how to introduce the rein back was brought up. Lilo and Linda both agreed, this movement should never be used as a punishment for the horse because a horse by nature doesn’t want to go backwards, but this can be a very beneficial movement for the horse. Linda said that the rider should position the legs back a bit and have their weight positioned forward to allow the rein back to go backwards. This movement can be very helpful within the piaffe and passage work, and they both reminisced on the old movement of the schockle where they had to rein back, walk forward, rein back, and walk forward again within an older Grand Prix test.
We were also treated to a Q&A put on by Lendon Gray and Dressage4Kids where we were able to learn more about the history of each of our presenters and how they have grown in the sport that they have lived and loved throughout their careers. The knowing nods shared among the panel as they talked about their endless hours of sweeping and mucking and their obsession with furthering their own education was something quite inspirational. “I was sickly ambitious. I didn’t necessarily want to be the best, but I wanted to be surrounded by better people because that’s where the learning happens,” Henk emphasized.
And that is exactly what the Adequan®/USDF FEI-Level Trainers Conference has always been to me. It’s not the moment for any one person to shine, but the ultimate opportunity for all of us to sit humbly in an arena full of our peers, taking the initiative and time to ask the hard questions, and putting things into perspective. We were all inspired to continue to keep carrying the torch of what true dressage training is back to our own barns, full of training horses and students. I know I wasn’t the only one who walked out of the High Meadow Farm arena with a renewed determination to continue the correct, basic work that would bring about more understanding riders and a more natural, capable horse.