Dressage may seem like the most restrained of the eventing phases, but when riding in front of USEF Eventing Emerging Athlete Coach Leslie Law, it sure isn’t going to be boring or for the faint of heart.
“Forward! Collect! Now canter! Change rein! Leg yield! Half-pass back to the rail! Forward for three strides! Collect again! Renvers! Less bend! Transition to trot!” exclaimed Law. No mindless circles or time to relax and slack off. Riders in the U.S. Equestrian Emerging Athlete Eventing 25 Program Training Program, being held Jan. 8-11 in Ocala, Florida, realized right away they needed to be on their toes when schooling dressage.
And while Law wanted to see mounts forward, supple and sharp to prepare for their time before the judge, he also wanted them to be brave—as brave as they are when tackling the cross-country course.
“When we’re jumping, we talk about the horses being confident and brave, and I think you make them that way through good riding: having the right canter, having the right balance and timing, etc.,” Law explained. “It’s the same for dressage. The more accurate you are with your riding, the more confidence you give your horse. I think sometimes we come into the dressage ring, and we don’t embrace that.
“For instance, if they enter the arena and they’re spooky, turn it into an exercise and give them something productive to do rather than just telling them off,” Law continued. “Reward them when they do the right thing so that they get confidence from that, rather than seeing the sandbox and thinking, ‘Oh no.’ When they’re confident and brave, ultimately they can show themselves off.”
A perfect example of Law’s approach was Emerging Athlete Program veteran Caroline Martin of Miami Beach, Florida, with her promising new mount Jump Jet, a 9-year-old bay Irish Sport Horse gelding, who was a bit “looky” when first coming into the clinic arena. Law asked Martin to immediately get to work refocusing Jump Jet’s attention on the task at hand instead of making googly eyes at the surroundings—a situation similar to a scary show environment.
“Go forward—think like you’re going forward to a jump—now back a little bit and into a leg-yield. Pat him and then forward again,” said Law. “Do it again. Now he’s breathing and ready to go. When they’re spooky, they hold their breath. That’s where you have to give them a pat and encourage them to breathe. At this point you can see that he’s doing it more himself, and you don’t have to hold it all together any more. It’s important to practice this now because you’re going to have to be able to do that in the two minutes you have when going around the ring at a big event.”
Law admitted he is a big fan of counter-canter work—on circles, on straight lines, on diagonals—all over the ring. So with Martin’s and her mount’s confidence now established, Law asked them for a challenging exercise: from a counter-canter on the long side, to leg-yield off the rail to the quarter line, then half-pass back to the rail. Perhaps symbolic of their fledgling partnership, the new dance partners at first seemed to be stepping on each other’s toes in an effort to figure it out. But once they learned the right moves, the challenging exercise looked almost effortless.
“I think it’s very good for the horse’s balance. I like to get them on the circle and changing the bend, and then ride the transition to trot from there,” Law said of the counter-canter work. “It helps ensure that the first step into the trot is really pushing from the hind leg. For instance, with Caroline [Martin]’s horse, if you go to trot from true canter, he often collects too much and is almost into the walk before trot. But by approaching it from the counter-canter he learns to do the transition in a truer way, really stepping into it, and it becomes a new habit for him.”
Back for her second year in the Emerging Athlete Eventing 25 Program, Cornelia Dorr of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, rode her long-time partner Sir Patico MH, a 12-year-old Thoroughbred-warmblood cross gelding. For the past seven years this pair has risen through the levels together, earning two team gold and two individual bronze medals at the 2016 and 2017 Adequan FEI North American Young Riders Championships before finishing 2017 with a successful run at the Fair Hill CCI** (Maryland). Now they’re looking to move up to advanced, so Law wanted Dorr to ask her colorful mount for more power and presence in the ring.
With repeated transitions forward and back within the trot and the canter, Law asked the pair to create a bank of energy to draw upon while also focusing on the connection with the outside rein. “He’s a little bit out against you rather than getting the jump from behind, so just keep doing these transitions within the gait over and over until he starts to come up in the canter,” Law said. “Eventually when you have the power and the connection, you can bring him a little higher in front.”
Law then asked Dorr and Sir Patico to take the outside rein concept to another level. “Use your outside rein and outside leg, taking his nose to the outside. Now, switch your leg aids and straighten him along the rail with your inside leg, but keep that contact on the outside rein,” he instructed as the pair repeated the exercise down each long side. “That’s better—this way he doesn’t get away with too much bend and looks straighter and rounder—now he’s connected and looks like he’s really going for you!”
Law also cautioned Dorr to be cognizant of any loss of energy at a point where riders often find it easy to let their mount be a little lazy: in downward transitions. “You need to be able to bring him back without pulling and also without the horse dropping his shoulders or neck. Don’t let him just slow down—he has to keep pushing from behind even when you ask him to collect or do a downward transition,” Law said as he watched the pair work. “Now he’s so much more on the aids—he’s to the hand, but not heavy, and when you say, ‘Go forward’ and ‘Come back’, it happens!”
Law then asked Dorr for another interesting exercise: on a long diagonal such as K-X-M, extend the trot out of the corner from K to X, then leg-yield to M. “Keep him from getting lazy there! We want to have big steps in that leg-yield,” Law said to Dorr
He then explained further for the audience: “Cornelia’s horse needs to be thinking forward all the time, so the extension keeps him thinking that way right into the lateral work. If we went straight into the lateral work, he just starts drying up on her, and she has to work harder and harder. There are lots of variations one could do with that exercise, so riders should be creative and make it interesting for the horse. And of course every horse is slightly different, so different exercises work for different horses.”
With three more days of intense work ahead at the USEF Emerging Athlete Eventing 25 Program Training Session, Dorr and Martin were ready for the challenge and said they feel privileged to participate. “I feel like it’s such a great network of people your age who are all going through the same life changes and development that you are, and on top that you get all the coaching and experience—I’m so grateful to be a part of it,” said Dorr.
Martin, who won her first three-star last spring and is gearing towards a two-star debut with her new mount during this Florida season, enthusiastically agreed. “I was a member of the very first under-18 group, so I have been a part of these programs for years,” she said. “It’s been a life-changing experience for me as a young professional—it’s helped me grow both as a rider and as a person.
“The great thing is that the lessons don’t stop once the clinic is over here. Leslie [Law]’s at the shows, and I can call him up and ask questions any time,” Martin continued. “He’s so much more than a trainer or coach—he’s a mentor, and you need that because it’s really tough in this sport, so it means the world to have someone like him in your corner.”