On the last day of the year, a diverse group of talented young dressage riders wrapped up a "life-changing experience" at the 2011 Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic presented by HorseShow.com, part of the Emerging Dressage Athlete Program held December 26-31 in Wellington, Fla.
In the final two days of an intense week of riding instruction and horsemanship education, participants had the opportunity to work with Olympian Courtney King-Dye and U.S. Technical Advisor Anne Gribbons, as well as practice an actual test for FEI O-level judge Gary Rockwell.
While the riders worked with a variety of the sport's best athletes and coaches, who all offered different approaches to dressage training, there were a multitude of remarkably consistent messages in the lessons, including elasticity and responsiveness of the horse; execution and effectiveness of the rider's aids; showmanship in the show ring; and the importance of training ability.
For example, during her lessons, Gribbons built upon the "rubber-band exercise" taught by Robert Dover earlier in the week, adding the component of riding shoulder-fore on a circle to encourage horses to step under even more with their inside hind legs.
"Utilize the shoulder-in on the circle and in transitions—if you take the horse straight, you're at a disadvantage," she explained. "Even transitions to halt can be practiced in shoulder-fore; it's harder for the horse but helps teach them to carry themselves through the transition."
Riders were also asked to test the elasticity and responsiveness of their horses with a multitude of transitions, collections and extensions. "Your whole education will be comprised of a million transitions," said Gribbons. "Create the cadence you want with your seatbones, and it should never change just because you go through a turn or collect or extend. You must keep collection in the extension—don't let them run out from underneath you—and then be able to collect your horse again without them getting frantic. You can use half-halts until your horse is like a butterball, but you have to be able to push them out again."
Throughout the day's sessions, Gribbons was a champion of not only effective equitation, but also smart riding. "You must use discretion with your aids—don't nag! There are only two outcomes to that: the horse gets irritated or tunes you out and goes dead to the aids," she said. "It's all about discipline, precision, quick corrections and very subtle aids. Timing is everything, but be discreet! Don't get fussy with your hands; let them find the connection themselves. Don't start rooting around up there if you have nothing to say; especially with a difficult horse, you'll just make things worse. And be smart—ask (or don't ask) for things like flying changes when they aren't expecting it; this reduces anticipation and makes sure they're paying attention to you. Finally, if you have to fix something, get it done. It's more important to make it correct than to muddle through it just to say you did it. But be sympathetic to your horse. He doesn't have to be perfect, he just has to TRY to do things right."
As the U.S. Technical Advisor, Gribbons not only leads America's dressage programs, but also holds an FEI judging license. "There isn't a horse in the world that's perfect in all the movements, so you have to think proactively to best prepare your horse for the more difficult parts of a test, and you've got to use some showmanship to help cover those parts up a little bit," she noted. "Pay attention to the little things that will pay off and use a little 'Hollywood.' As a future professional, you will get horses handed to you with issues, and you can't fix everything in a couple of days or weeks. In the short term, it's your job to make things LOOK better. Don't reveal that they're coming apart—just try to work WITH him, and make it look as pleasant as possible. Learn to accept that it doesn't have to feel great all the time, but learn to present the horse so that he looks the best he can.
"Riders need to train their own horses, and this is something I hope these children learn to do," Gribbons said at the day's conclusion. "It isn't a matter of hopping on a horse and looking pretty—the catch riding has to stop in this country. This is not a catch-riding sport. We will never ever get a gold medal on horses we simply buy from Europe—only with horses we've trained ourselves. Dressage means TRAINING, not just riding. These young riders need to learn how to train their mounts and put the time in to do that."
On Saturday morning, clinic participants rode a test of their choice for FEI judge Gary Rockwell, who will serve as a member of the ground jury for the 2012 London Olympic Games. At the conclusion of each test, riders heard comments about their performance from Rockwell; immediately thereafter, they were taken to the neighboring ring by Courtney King-Dye or Robert Dover to further review their score sheet and work on any areas needing improvement, a format which proved to be tremendously educational.
"We have an extraordinary situation with an FEI O judge, who's judging the upcoming Olympics and World Cup Final, here to give his insight to these young athletes," said Dover. "Then, fresh off riding their test and listening to the judge's remarks, they are to be able to go work with Olympic riders and trainers on things which can be improved. It's an opportunity few will ever get to experience."
Rockwell seemed impressed by the performances, with many scores well over 70 percent, even though many riders were competing on borrowed mounts with which they'd only had a few days to familiarize themselves. But even in practicing an actual test, the skill of learning to not just ride but also correctly train mounts, one of the most consistent themes of the clinic, was reiterated by Rockwell. "You need to ride a lot of horses and learn to really train them," he told one rider in his post-test remarks. "As a professional, you will inevitably get horses with problems that you'll need to be able to figure out."
After a final lunch gathering, participants bid a tearful farewell to the presenters, the picturesque show grounds, and an unforgettable week of experience. EDAP founder Lendon Gray was thrilled with the results of the clinic and even more excited about the future of the program.
"I am in awe of the way this worked and the many people who helped us. We had the most remarkable group of young people that the U.S. should be proud of in every way, and parents who have been so supportive and gave up their holidays for this," said Gray. "We plan to have more local EDAP clinics around the country and are hoping to have another horsemastership week; Robert and Courtney and I are getting together soon to figure that out. But for this to continue, it depends on two things: support from sponsors and interest from the kids. They have to apply and let us know they're out there, and it's important for them to know that we're not just looking for FEI-level young riders. For me personally, the ideal rider is 11-13 years old who can ride first level and is ready to move on. We've got to start riders on the right track at an early age and stage in their careers, and we want to provide that opportunity."