Wellington, Fla.—Jan. 4
While participants at this year’s Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic are getting a well-rounded education in saddle fit, sports psychology, equine nutrition, media relations, shoeing, equine sports medicine and personal fitness, they’re also doing something much more basic—taking dressage lessons.
Today six riders lessoned with U.S. Equestrian Federation Developing Dressage Coach Debbie McDonald and an additional six rode with Olympian Jan Ebeling in an adjacent ring under the Van Kampen covered arena at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival grounds.
Though the lessons were all individual, one major theme emerged: Dressage is simple, but it’s definitely not easy.
Riders in this year’s clinic, the third annual, range in skill level from Grand Prix to FEI Ponies, but they all focused on transitions within and between gaits in order to better prepare their horses for the respective movements.
Rachel Chowanec rode PRE Idolo Americo with Ebeling, and one major goal of hers was to help the horse do straighter flying changes. Ebeling had her start with numerous trot/canter transitions, before taking a short walk break and then going into transitions, between working trot and extremely collected trot, within the gait. When Idolo Americo wasn’t responding quickly, Ebeling told Chowanec to actually halt instead of performing just a half-halt.
“Shorten the time you’re standing still to the point you’re not standing still anymore,” he said.
He also warned Chowanec, 19, not to stay in the super collected trot, at times nearly half-steps, for more than a second or two.
“That’s very good, but you’re staying in it too long,” Ebeling said. “You need to be quicker with releasing. Three steps and then right away forward again.”
The pair next worked transitions to medium trot and then back to the working trot again.
“Mean it!” said Ebeling. “You have to be committed. Don’t get sucked into doing down transitions by pulling. You should be putting your leg on.”
Though Ebeling and Chowanec didn’t find a way to make the horse’s changes significantly straighter today, Ebeling thought he’d spotted the issue.
“Use more right rein but then not so much leg to get the changes straighter,” he said. “Keep your calf on but be very careful with the right spur. It’s not a big deal if he makes a mistake. Don’t stress over it. I’m not worried you won’t get the changes. I think it’s pretty normal that you run into some kind of trouble with a horse. If you’re trying to teach a horse or you’re learning, you’re going to run into some troubles. The key is making sure you have a good ground person to help.”
When Kalie Beckers brought out her third level mount, Bienvenu ZSH, next, it became clear where Ebeling’s priorities were. Beckers started out working similar transitions between and within the gaits on her horse, even though his issues were quite different than those of the horse before.
“Transitions, transitions, transitions,” Ebeling said. “The old saying that you can’t do enough transitions is true.”
Beckers, 18, and her mount did transitions with the idea of softening the horse’s neck and jaw and quickening his reaction time. Ebeling also wanted the horse to keep a more upbeat tempo in his trot work.
“Think that all you have to do with your inside rein is position him,” said Ebeling. “Stay off the inside rein but have the outside rein there in the transitions. Then think of doing a downward transition but don’t do one, and the only thing that should happen is that he gets more compact.”
The horses in Ebelings sessions did work the more difficult movements as well, but only after making sure they were sharp but soft through the transition work.
"It really improves the rideability more than just going from movement to movement to movement," he said.
Though Emma Patterson didn’t perform quite as many transitions as students in Ebeling’s sessions, the focus of her work with FEI pony Wynshire’s Valiant was still on the fundamentals. McDonald had the 15-year-old rider focus on keeping track of the pony’s haunches. She also had Patterson make Wynshire Valiant’s trot more active, ensuring the pony was pulling her forward in a productive way and not in a naughty one, and adding some counter-positioning for the same purpose.
“When you don’t like the neck, take him lower. Don't let him use that thick neck against you. You have access to so many things to keep him from just ripping you out of the saddle. You can do lots of little changes of tempo within the gaits,” said McDonald. “But when he doesn’t pull on you a little and take you, you have to make him get up there.”
McDonald was extremely complimentary of the next horse and rider pair—Cassie Schmidt and Velasquer—in her ring. They focused on helping the horse be steadier in his contact with the double bridle and were successful in that by the end of the lesson.
“I like him a lot, and I’m excited for you,” said McDonald of Velasquer. “Even if it isn’t perfect, don’t get worried that you’re doing something wrong. Just keep playing. You have to learn to feel this. You have to wait for the steady connection to do the movement. It’s not stressful. It should just be playing.”
All 12 riders took one lesson each with Shelly Francis and Robert Dover on Thursday and Friday. They’ll swap to whichever trainer they didn’t lesson with today (Ebeling or McDonald) for tomorrow’s sessions, and then Sunday they’ll present tests at their current level of riding in the International ring. They've also been participating in 7 a.m. fitness sessions with Bob Gutowitz each day.
Allie Cyprus, who rode Madoc Gareth in a session with Jan Ebeling, had only managed five two-tempis before her lesson today. She was thrilled to get seven after her extensive transition work with Ebeling. “I wanted nine!” Ebeling joked.
After today’s lessons, riders and auditors enjoyed a media relations discussion with Ken Braddick of Dressage-news.com. Braddick even conducted a fake press conference, asking riders questions they might hear in a typical news interview. “What people are after is a story,” he said. “We don’t want to hear you say how much you love your horse. Find the most interesting thing about your horse, and then talk about that.
“From a media perspective, there’s nothing like the truth,” he added.
Braddick also warned the young riders that if they go on to be high performance athletes, people will be watching them wherever they go. “Everyone has phones and video cameras now,” he said. “There are two schools of thought. The first is, ‘Let’s make sure the press doesn’t see it.’ But the second is, ‘If you have something to hide, you have much bigger problems.’ You want to do that most you can to support your sport, and that means putting the best face possible on it without ever being misleading.”
This year’s riders are:
Jamie Pestana (Calif.)
Elle Turner (Ga.)
Leah Marks (Ga.)
Allie Cyprus (Texas)
Kalie Beckers (La.)
Rachel Chowanec (Conn.)
Emma Patterson (Texas)
Cassie Schmidt (Texas)
Ayden Uhlir (Wash.)
Bebe Davis (N.J.)
Genay Vaughn (Calif.)
Lindsey Holleger (Ga.)
Kate Conover (Texas)
Jessica Fan (Texas)
Allison Hopkins (Texas)
Devon Wycoff (Colo.)
Alexander Dawson (Wisc.)
Rebekah Mingari (Ky.)
Ayla Thurston (Conn.)
Mikayla Frederick (Iowa)