On Nov. 19 and 20, the Wisconsin Dressage and Combined Training Association held the Steffen Peters and Janet Foy Symposium “Through the Levels.” The symposium took place at the beautiful Sunflower Farms in Bristol, Wisc., and was attended by more than 350 auditors.
Numerous volunteers worked for months to ensure the experience was a success, and it was an incredible weekend—wonderful education, tasty food, gorgeous facilities and great shopping.
Janet and Steffen worked with horses and riders from training level through Grand Prix over the two days. During each session, Janet gave insights into the judge’s perspective, the requirements at each level, and how to succeed in your training and showing, while Steffen gave invaluable training tips and worked with each rider individually, even getting on several horses to work through specific issues.
I was fortunate enough to be chosen as a reserve rider at first level with Alouette IK, an American Sportpony owned by Happy Haflingers. While I was not needed as a rider during the symposium, the weekend had a huge impact on my own riding; I noticed a vast improvement immediately after the clinic.
I’ve actually ridden with Steffen several times before and am now a regular clinic student of Janet’s, so you might expect that the symposium would be a lot of review for me. However, the format of the clinic allowed me to witness the absolute importance of Janet and Steffen’s messages at every training stage. Watching many of the same problems crop up in both young horses and seasoned competitors gave me a chance to understand precisely what issues were occurring and how they can be solved.
Throughout the clinic, Steffen and Janet stressed several principles, and at each level, riders worked through problems in different ways based on the required movements at that level. Taking these training ideas into my own riding made an overwhelming improvement.
Steffen constantly asked riders to analyze the connection to the bridle. Was the horse rideable enough? Was the horse carrying himself? If the horse is heavy, half-halt and rebalance. If the horse goes through the half-halt, do a down transition—but do it in three to five seconds, not after the horse “bulldozed” around the arena a few times.
Steffen made it clear that the horse has to reach for the bit, especially in the lower levels when they were learning to accept contact. However, there’s “more to it than reaching for the bit and cruising around against the bridle,” he said. The horse must be adjustable and light in the hand, even at training level. The horses learn to use the strength of the topline against riders, and then the connection is no longer correct.
The release is the most important part of any aid given, but it has to be used correctly—when the horse releases. “You need to create the reason to let go,” Steffen said, saying that you have to ask for more give from the horse before you can give yourself.
- Lengthen and shorten on a 20-meter circle, asking for each transition to happen in three to five strides without the horse getting heavy or behind the leg.
- At the halt, ask for right and left flexion in the poll, ensuring the horse releases from the rein pressure.
“Steffen has three favorite training words,” Janet said at the beginning of the clinic. “Suppleness, suppleness, and more suppleness.” This was demonstrated during the entire weekend. Steffen had riders constantly check the lateral and longitudinal suppleness of all horses.
“If we don’t ask for a shorter frame and more suppleness, the horse won’t offer it,” he said. Why would the horse work harder than he has to? We have to be the ones to initiate that conversation and ask for more.
Ask questions and test—don’t just hope that things will get better,” he demanded. Things will not get better on their own; it’s up to us as riders to ensure progress. He wanted the horses to be loose and maneuverable, able to adjust their shoulders, midsection and haunches according to the rider’s wishes.
- 10-meter figure eights at the trot, counterflexing on each circle.
- Complete three to four walk pirouettes in a row, asking for consistent steps throughout without the pirouette getting too small.
“We get so easily tricked into repeating the movements,” Steffen said, stressing that each movement needs to be done well, not simply done.
For many riders, this meant that the horse had to be in front of the leg without support every stride. The aids should remind the horse what to do, not support him. He was clear there should be no spurring every step, no hanging on the bridle and no stiffness. The horse should always be ready for the next movement.
Can you do a transition? Can you ask for bend and flexion? Can you lengthen and shorten? If the answer isn’t yes, the horse is taking over and needs to be more responsive and submissive. “The more impulsion you have, the more submission you need,” Steffen said.
The horse’s lightness should particularly be evident in the downward transitions. “Downward transitions should be like a snowflake hitting the ground, not like an avalanche,” Janet said, eliciting chuckles from the audience. Before a transition is completed, the horse should be balanced and ready, with the rider testing the collection.
- Medium trot to halt transitions.
- Collected canter down centerline, asking for pirouette canter at X without losing suppleness, straightness, or impulsion.
The Training Program
“Don’t take chances,” Steffen said before the rider worked on a new movement. If the horse isn’t ready for what you’re asking, don’t ask—you’re setting him up to fail. Don’t merely hope that it will go well—prepare and have a plan so that the horse can succeed.
Janet chimed in with many stories about her time in the judge’s booth. “I start out every day in a good mood!” she cried, going on to say that it’s frustrating to see so many riders go into the arena without a clear plan of action and failing to properly prepare the horse for each movement.
Both clinicians stressed being fair, consistent and positive with each and every horse. “Tell them that you mean business and then leave them alone,” Steffen said.
Every aid should have a clear meaning to the horse, the rider should ask for each movement correctly, and correct reactions should be rewarded by quieting the aids. “A bad reaction is 10 times better than no reaction,” Steffen said. “Who cares if it’s only for two strides as long as it’s honest?”
Most importantly, we as riders must always be challenging the horses and raising our expectations each and every day if we want to progress. That includes our own positions; Steffen recommended picking two spots in the arena and checking your position every time you rode by each spot. We can improve the training step by step, asking for a little more each time until the horse learns to offer the movements. “If not now,” Steffen asked, “then when?”
Haley Madden is a graduate student in life sciences communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, currently researching increasing helmet use in riders. She is lucky enough to ride at Happy Haflingers, a breeder of sporthorse Haflingers and American Sportponies.