West Palm Beach, Fla.—Feb. 15
The latest winter storm may have prevented many people from attending the second annual Global Dressage Forum North America, but that didn’t damper the spirits of the dressage riders and fans who were able to make it to the first of two days jam packed with theory, demonstrations and discussions at the Jim Brandon Equestrian Center in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Like last year, this year’s forum was stacked with top names in the sport, including panelists such as former U.S. Dressage team chef d’equipe Anne Gribbons, current U.S. Dressage Federation president George Williams, top riders Leslie Reid and Charlotte Bredahl, as well as masters like Arthur Kottas and Volker Brammann.
Saturday’s program began with event organizer Andreas Stano’s opening remarks. “We are here because we understand the great significance and importance to continue learning from the experiences and knowledges of others so that we can make better decisions on behalf of our horses and have a better understanding of ourselves and to always look to positive training and happy horses,” he said.
Next, Williams gave a speech on the state of U.S. dressage, noting the inaugural U.S. Dressage Finals (Ky.) last fall and the large number of CDIs in Florida as highlights.
Recently appointed Canadian technical advisor Desi Dillingham gave a presentation on the state of Canadian dressage that pointed out the disadvantages the country is up against—loss of funding, climate, fundraising and growing the sport, but also noted the quality of horses and riders and the efforts of the dressage community to persevere.
After a short presentation from Judith Noone on the Dressage Foundation and its efforts, Swedish Olympian Jan Brink began the first session of the day.
Brink, who told the audience he was a serious ice hockey player before he chose to pursue dressage at age 13, made a special emphasis on teaching young adult riders. He said he wished he saw more riders make the effort to watch others and know every detail about their horses, from their breeding to their quirks.
“It’s not train and go home,” he said. “We sit there and look at what other people are doing. Young people are very enthusiastic when they’re 19 and 20. They want to compete and be great.”
Since retiring from top-level competition in 2009, Brink has focused more on training up and coming riders at his home base, something he admitted he didn’t have enough time to focus on as a competitive rider. “To me, a trainer’s role is to take care of coaching and mentoring as well,” he said.
During his session, Brink got on a Duet, 6-year-old mare, and described his philosophy of teaching young riders.
“Groundwork is important for young people,” he said. “They want to compete. If you compete, you really have to learn to compete. Of course they have to learn the technique first and the movements, but also how to ride the tests.
“If I don’t ride a test, I ride a lot of lines, but correct lines,” he continued. “Not 5 meters before the letter. I’m talking about discipline in the training, about a system. These things are not very sexy for a 19-year-old, but for a horse, it’s really important that they recognize what the rider wants to do. The horse is living in the here and now. They cannot see the future. They cannot think like that. They react to what’s happening right here, right now. I see riders not rewarding the horse. It’s important to reward the horse immediately.”
That advice proved helpful on the young mare too as Brink worked through her tension using changes in gait and transitions, all while referring back to the classic training scale of rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness and collection.
“Groundwork is the way of changing the training,” he said. “Not riding in a competition frame all the time. The whole idea is to have the horse more supple in his back, good core muscles and stronger in the back. If you get a good reaction, pat the horse and circle. It’s better to pat the horse one time too much. Quick feedback, quick rewards.”
Seven-time Canadian Olympian Christilot Boylen, who’s spent more than 20 years in Europe and recently returned to North America, led a lively discussion on her past and her training philosophies.
Like Brink, she focused on the basics, and stressed the minute details that can sometimes get lost in the big picture. “Dressage is an exact sport,” she said. “If you don’t want to be exact, you’re in the wrong game. If riders are allowed to wander in training, they’ll wander in the ring.”
Christilot zoned in on straightness when riding Florencia, a 7-year-old Hanoverian mare who was a bit spooky at times.
She stressed having a kinesthetic sense, or an awareness of what your body is doing, so you can influence your horse to the best of your abilities.
“You must speak to your horse with your body and your weight ahead of the movement,” she said. “If you surprise horses, particularly in transitions, they land on their front end because it comes too suddenly.”
She put the mare through her paces and asked her to lengthen and shorten her stride in trot and canter, making sure to reward her in the process.
Christoph Hess finished out the day’s sessions with four different riders on horses at varying stages of their training. Eckart Meyners had been scheduled to discuss his methods with Hess but an illness forced him to stay home.
Angela Hecker-Jackson rode the greenest of the group, Rocky, a 7-year-old who had been off a year with an injury, so Hess considered him at a 6-year-old’s level.
Hess focused on a good seat for the rider and a happy horse. His first priority for a good seat was that, “the rider has a lovely balance in the saddle. This is the very first. The next thing is how they swing into the movements, that the rider has a feeling for balance and suppleness. When you have this, the other things are easy to correct.
“People are not able to sit into the horse’s movement and swing,” he continued. “This is what you have to learn. Most difficult is medium or extended in sitting trot.”
He had all of his riders, whether they were schooling second level or Grand Prix movements, alternate between sitting trot and rising trot and to finish their sessions by allowing the horse to have an easy canter in a light seat and a stretchy trot.
“At the end of the day, you’ll have a healthy horse and a happy horse,” he said. “These are the highest goals for me when schooling horses.”
-Sue Leffler gave a presentation on Centered Riding, a theory pioneered by the late Sally Swift.
Leffler laid out the four basics of Centered Riding—soft eyes, breathing, balance or building blocks and centering.
“If you look at the front tire of your bicycle, you are going to fall off, guaranteed,” she said. “When you ride your bicycle, you look out and that’s how we need to be in our riding. Breathing is not just whether or not you’re breathing. It’s how we breathe that makes a difference. How we sit on our horse changes how we use ourselves. Our balance is always changing and always being challenged on a horse.”
Leffler said that centering is the most difficult of the basics to grasp, but she explained that it uses a rider’s center of balance, movement and control to give strength and power.
-Jochen Schleese of Schleese Saddles and author of the new book, Suffering In Silence, discussed saddle fit for horse and rider.
He noted that the 1980s saw a surge in female riders, whose pelvises are shaped differently than a man’s, therefore giving them a different position in the saddle. “For four and a half thousand years, men made saddles for men,” he said.
He used chalk to show the places on the horse’s back where the rider’s weight sits and had a human pelvis to show how it sits on a horse’s back.
“You have a choice,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to the horse what saddle you use.”
Schleese also noted that one out of ten horses grows with even bones and muscles and 70 percent are bigger on the left shoulder. A horse’s skeleton is developed at age two and when they reach about 6 ½, the last growth capsules at the withers close, making a routine saddle fit check important.