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January 20, 2014

Building A Dressage Horse From Bottom To Top

Heidi Degele and Don Fredo HD worked on the pirouette canter for a portion of their session at the Succeed/USDF FEI-Level Trainers' Conference.

Loxahatchee, Fla., Jan. 20

“Steffen is such a genius at so many things,” said U.S. Equestrian Federation Young Horse Coach Scott Hassler at the beginning of today’s sessions at the Succeed/USDF FEI-Level Trainers' Conference. And as the auditors watched Steffen Peters, the top Grand Prix rider in the country, work with seven different horses—ranging from about first level to nearly-finished Grand Prix—that certainly proved true. Peters helped the riders and their horses, sometimes from the ground and sometimes from the saddle, perfect a range of movements from walk-canter transitions to half-passes to canter pirouettes.

With each of the horses, Peters was preparing for the particular movement but also for the long-term development of the horse. He focused on basic concepts like contact, engagement, flexion, self-carriage and energy, proving that training dressage horses is first and foremost methodical. No tricks, no shortcuts, just daily expectations that are both incredibly high but also somehow reasonable and within the bounds of what a horse can offer.  

Peters demonstrated that a large part of the training is making the rider’s aids continually smaller, and he made his point by helping horses piaffe with just the slightest movement of his legs. The day’s general schedule—working up from the greener to more experienced horses with a few exceptions—also demonstrated how well the methods work when applied throughout the training. All the horses are already being trained by highly qualified individuals, so there were no major upsets, but Peters helped the riders streamline and fine-tune their work further. And he did it all with the same quiet confidence that inspired confidence in the horses as well.   

“We’re their coaches, and we coach them with composure,” said Hassler, who's hosting the two-day clinic with Peters at High Meadow Farm in Loxahatchee, at the end of the day’s sessions. “I think this was a beautiful day of showcasing that. We are their coaches, and we need to think creatively about how to be the best coach we can be for them.”

Make Them Straight Even If It Makes Mistakes

And it was clearly Peters’ goal to be the best coach for the riders, too, as he let them dictate what they needed—which hand carried the whip, if they went to canter work or trot work first after warming up, if the horse responded well to a new rider.

The first horse of the day, the 5-year-old Dutch Warmblood Deklan, ridden by Mette Larsen, was the greenest. After watching Larsen ride the gelding for a few minutes, Peters jumped on the horse.

“At the end of the day, this simple word of self-carriage means so much to me, and we want to see if we can make it mean something to him,” he said. “In the trot, the contact is a little too heavy. Early on I do tempo changes, because I don’t want him to get too stuck on that inside flexion. If you want to narrow it down, it’s about getting him so supple and so through that the connection gets softer and more manageable and more adjustable.”

Through the 45-minute session, Peters worked to help the 18-hand Deklan find a better balance within his large gaits, using walk-canter transitions and work with flexion to help the contact.

“I wait it out a little bit,” said Peters. “My bending aid is longer. I don’t bend him a lot, but sometimes I do it for three or four strides, sometimes a quarter of a circle. We’re so concerned about engaging a horse’s hind leg, and we need to also think about engaging his mind.

“No doubt we need to say, ‘What about the hind legs?’ But with this much power and energy, we want to make sure he doesn’t confuse it with getting stronger and more braced and then not listening to half-halts and bending aids,” Peters added. “I don’t think he needs to know how big he is. Sometimes he thinks he knows how strong, tall and powerful he is. But with this work, I’m convinced you’ll have a hell of a horse here soon.”

The next horse of the day, the 6-year-old Oldenburg Don Fredo HD ridden by Heidi Degele and owned by Greystone Equestrian, is farther along in his training, but with his added knowledge came a little bit of additional confusion at times.

“He loves to think about the half-pass in the corner, so you have to teach him he goes nice and straight ahead on the rail before it,” said Peters, San Diego. “It’s so important that horses feel the difference between changing [leads] and straightening. Every horse I’ve had has mixed that up at some point, so I need to have a clear difference between the straightening aid and the flying change aid. All these things are quite normal at his age, but it’s certainly something you can work on and improve.”

Peters also stressed the concept of having the horse respond to the lightest leg aid—just closing the calf—instead of the spur to create the kind of responsiveness needed for the higher levels.

“If we can teach our horses to respond to that, it becomes the expectation,” he said

And the next horse, Ilse Schwarz’s 7-year-old Oldenburg Don Joseph, owned by Gaye Scarpa, showed what that expectation looks like a little bit down the road as he easily responded to a light calf movement.

“I have such a problem with the leg aid that’s constantly bugging the horse,” said Steffen. “We see that Ilse’s legs are clearly reminding the horse, but it’s so nice and quiet. To me, this is the only way to find out: Is my horse offering the movement, or am I just riding him and pushing him every single stride? Is he getting the idea? What I really want to point out is this idea of pushing a horse forward. Ilse did use her spur once, but it wasn’t a kick. We closed the leg, and within two strides, we were driving the horse forward. If you kick the horse when he’s lazy, it just makes the canter quicker.”

Schwarz’s horse also threw in a few flying changes as they worked on straightness down the centerline.

“It’s no problem that he’s doing that,” said Peters. “That’s why we’re doing this. I really think this tells us a lot. Each and every day I love to incorporate the centerlines. But I think we’d make a mistake if we get on his case and say, ‘Don’t change.’ If we don’t deal with this in patience, we get in trouble with the changes.”

When Peters went to the trot half-pass work with Schwarz and Don Joseph, you could see why all his horses develop such excellent half-passes. He insisted on cadence in the trot first, and he also did that when he hopped on Noel Williams’ mount Sir Velo, a 7-year-old Westphalian gelding owned by Melissa Mulchahey, insisting that the movement remain slow and rhythmic enough to get that quality of gait he wanted.

“A well done half-pass is a beautiful thing,” said Peters. 

Nice Horse, Big Responsibility

The first horse after lunch, Allure S ridden by Angela Jackson, charmed Peters with her work ethic and brilliance, and she charmed the crowd with her floppy ears.

“I love her!” Peters exclaimed at the end of the session. Jackson and Peters traded off on the 8-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare owned by KC Dunn, working to help her better understand the concept of half-steps. Peters also tried to quicken her reaction to the leg aids.

“It’s just the honesty, so to speak, in the collection that I’d love to improve a bit,” he said. “If she offers this collection, the straightness, the suppleness, then we’re in good shape. I close the leg gently; that has to be enough to maintain it. Then I’m happy.”

As the mare switched her haunches left and right, trying to figure out the piaffe, Peters stayed one step ahead of her.

“What I’m interested in is that she trots underneath you,” said Peters. “She has so much talent for this, you just have to make sure she knows she’s trotting underneath you. I want to keep her straight, and I want to keep those hind legs bouncing. Don’t ride the piaffe, but just think about keeping her in a two-beat gait underneath you and swinging.

“This is a wonderful horse, and it comes with a huge responsibility,” Peters added. “You have to perfect this horse because she’s one you can perfect.”

J.J. Tate and her 10-year-old Faberge, a Westphalian gelding owned by Elizabeth Guerlsco-Wolf, spent some time on the flying changes, trying to perfect the one-tempis.

“When you prepare the ones, let’s get a really good feeling in the twos first,” said Peters. “Let’s make sure the twos are so simple and confirmed, and then the one-tempis make a whole lot more sense.”

When Faberge did four ones in a row, Peters remarked that he’s well on his way to being confirmed in the movement.

“If horses can do four one-tempis, I believe that’s 75 percent of getting to 15,” he said. “Mathematically not, but logically yes.”

The final horse of the day, Rassing’s Lonoir ridden by Olivia LaGoy-Weltz, was a horse Peters had never seen before. LaGoy-Weltz explained that she took the gelding back to basics when she started riding him, and she presented him in the snaffle today though the pair worked half-steps and passage and pirouettes.

“This horse’s foundation was missing in a way that sometimes having more in his mouth didn’t help him,” said LaGoy-Weltz. “He was very sensitive and a little claustrophobic. It’s been beneficial to have him where I needed him before I changed the bridle. We go back and forth now.”

Peters worked with LaGoy-Weltz on the tempi changes, getting towards the ones, and also on the halts.

“Let him sit there a minute and think about it,” said Peters. “What I did with Legolas for a while, since he didn’t want to stand still, was clicker training. Let them figure out when they stand square and still, click, and then they get a treat. Horses can pick that up within a few months.”

He also left LaGoy-Weltz with a positive message about her horse.

“I had no idea he was out here,” said Peters of the 9-year-old gelding. “He’s a horse who belongs at the national championships. From now on, we need you! Stick to your beliefs with him, but we desperately need you.”

Quotes Of The Day:

“I never really work a horse for longer than four or five minutes. I want to take a quick break, and then we go again. Any of you who’ve worked out know how much a break of 30 seconds can help. It gets some oxygen back into the muscles.” –Steffen Peters

“Early on I like to give my horses, young or older, I like to give them a job in the warm-up. I’m not a big fan of just letting them blow off some steam. I like to give them a job by saying, ‘Here’s an aid, so you have to respond to that.' It can be a bending aid, a half-halt, but just make 100 percent sure they understand each and every aid.” –Steffen Peters

“I find this so important, to have a horse so correct in the bridle and happy in the mouth. It sounds a bit silly, but I honestly would take that over a horse with a gigantic, fired-up hind leg but a difficult mouth. That honestly doesn’t work for me. When you look at a horse in general, and we have a happy mouth, we have a happy horse.” –Steffen Peters

“I want to make sure I’m teaching and riding proactively and not reactively. I want to stay ahead of things instead of feeling something and reacting later.” –Scott Hassler

“There’s no reason for the horse to break to walk when my legs are there, even lightly.” –Steffen Peters

“I see way too often horses that are counter-cantering too long before you teach a flying change. Once they learn counter-canter, and you’re secure, figure out how much longer you need until a flying change comes in. Don’t get caught riding counter-canter forever.” –Scott Hassler  

“If we educate horses like this, the aids become quite invisible. We shouldn’t see loud aids. We should try to hide it a little bit.” –Steffen Peters

“Someone wanted to know: ‘Why aren’t more horses in snaffles today?’ I’m a big fan of the double bridle. I think of it just like a spur. If I don’t need it, I don’t use it, but I like to have it in case my horse is a bit evasive and not there as much as I’d like him. Should we be able to get it done without a double or without a spur? Yes, but we can’t get every horse as easily through in the snaffle bridle. If somebody can develop a top Grand Prix horse just in the snaffle, I take my hat off to that person. But with most horses, I couldn’t get that done.” –Steffen Peters 

“Should he be a bit more in place in piaffe? Yes, of course, but even there we want to be realistic. Is it beneficial for him to do it in place right now? How many horses, international Grand Prix horses, do it entirely in place? Let’s make it our goal, but let’s be realistic about how many horses do that.” –Steffen Peters

 
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