Some of America's best and brightest young dressage riders gathered this week in Wellington, Fla., for the inaugural Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic presented by HorseShow.com on Dec. 26-31. A new component of the Emerging Dressage Athlete Program, this event brings together the next generation of talented dressage riders for six days of intense riding with some of the sport's best athletes and coaches, including Robert Dover, Lendon Gray, Courtney King-Dye, Anne Gribbons, Kathy Connelly and Katherine Bateson-Chandler.
Horse care education has been equally emphasized during the week's activities with leading industry experts in the fields of veterinary and farrier care, sports psychology, physical fitness, nutrition and horsemanship skills providing additional instruction.
Six-time Olympian Robert Dover's passion for the program has been evident as he’s provided individual instruction to all participants throughout the week, who range in age from 13 to 20 and experience from just first level to FEI competition. Riders and auditors have enjoyed his charismatic style.
"America's long-term success hinges upon our young riders having a world-class education, not only in dressage but in overall horsemanship," Dover explained. "I really believe this program is a 'game changer.' I wish I had all these kids all the time! Every single kid has been amazing in every way."
The majority of participants are riding borrowed horses, generously donated by local owners to support the program's goals of developing athletes for future U.S. Teams. Displaying a wide range of breeds, training and ability, the variety of the mounts has provided a valuable learning experience for many of the riders. By pushing them out of the comfort zones they’ve enjoyed with their own horses, riders have been challenged with disobedient partners, physical limitations or extravagant movement with which they are quite unfamiliar.
Dover stressed these experiences will go a long way to furthering each rider's skillset, not only in becoming effective trainers, but also to improve their confidence in themselves and their showmanship during tests.
"It's so important at this stage in a rider's career to ride horses of all complexities and abilities," he said. "Even if you're having a tough ride, you don't have to broadcast that fact. Ride tactfully and don't judge yourself! You learn by dealing with it. Relax, breathe and be confident! Say to yourself, 'I am so-and-so, and even though this is someone else's horse, and we're not perfect today, I am a great rider and trainer, and this ride is going to be magnificent!' It's not about being perfect; it's about showing perfect corrections."
Regardless of ability level of horse or rider, Dover had each combination work on his favorite "rubber band exercise." On a 20-meter circle, Dover asked riders to pick two points on the circle as transition points within each gait. At one point, the horse would be asked to collect, then, at another point, extend. The exercise is repeated back and forth at the walk, trot and canter, and initially seemed relatively easy. But appearances can be deceiving.
"This rubber-band exercise is more challenging than it looks and actually can be one of the most difficult things for a rider to master," said Dover. "That's because it is a true barometer of whether or not a horse is truly on the aids. You have to own all four key elements: rhythm, tempo, length of stride and frame.
"This can be used at any phase of training as soon as the horse has an idea of lengthening, so I'll start with my 3- and 4-year-olds all the way up to Grand Prix," he continued. "We just ask for a higher degree of collection at each level. While it may not be this exact version of the exercise on the circle, every great rider will use this technique at some point during their rides, even if it's on a straight line or for only a few steps at a time."
Starting at the walk, Dover asked participants to encourage their mounts to stretch down, and then on the opposite side of the circle, to "collect like an accordion." Positive visualization proved key: At the trot Dover instructed each rider to envision a passage for the collected phase of the trot circle, while channeling a pirouette-ready rhythm in the canter, then extend for the second half of the circle while "being unafraid—think Totilas! Be certain of what it is that you're asking for, clear with your aids, and envision the expected result in your mind. See the movie of your most grand vision of yourself—if you envision less than that, that's all you'll get," he explained. "Don't just see the actual word 'extend' but see the VISION in your mind. Be daring! Don't be afraid of the edge. That's where greatness lives."
An integral part of the exercise for the riders was learning to correctly utilize half-halts, a cornerstone of dressage training, and paramount throughout each workout was the maintenance of energy, rhythm and connection, regardless of situation or what the next movement may be. This fine line between a balanced half-halt and too much correction was difficult for some to master. "Don't slow down or change the rhythm, and don't stop the energy with your half-halts," said Dover. "Just breathe in, close your legs, close your fist. All within the same rhythm. Feel as if you can do anything from this point. Find the harmony!
"We are creating energy in the horse, collecting it in the half-halt, then directing that energy in whatever direction and exercise we choose," he continued. "In the collection, you should feel that there is a desire for the energy created to bubble over into something else if you allowed it to, but you don't. Only add to the collection—never subtract, and don't make the mistake of losing collection in the extension. There is virtually no distance between the grandest extension and the greatest collection—the only distance is the half-halt between the two thoughts."
The intensive session proved to be a worthy challenge for riders and horses, resulting in a problem many competitors experience when faced with tense situations: disobediences (for example, kicking out at the rider's leg) and resistances (such as coming above the bit in transitions).
Dover emphasized that riders must always retain their composure. "Let them make the mistake; don't do all the work for them. It's really no problem if your horse makes a mistake or spooks; don't even think about it—move on," he said. "For disobediences, be persistent and just keep doing the exercise. If he wants to fight, say, 'I'm not going to fight with you.' He may be bigger and stronger, so you must outsmart him and make doing the right thing seem like his idea. Make it easier for him to answer your question correctly. Ultimately he's got to cry uncle and be obedient.
"To be fair to the horse, be sure that you are definite in your requests and using very clear aids; then, if the horse is resistant, always push them forward through it. When things aren't right, don't subtract from the front end—fix from behind. Push to it. Don't feel like you need to fix the mouth by see-sawing your hands or getting rough. You have to learn to use the lightest possible aids and teach the horse that they then stay where they are, whatever they're doing, until you ask for a change."
In combining correct riding skills and a positive mental approach, Dover showed the riders how to be the masters of not only their mounts, but also of their own destiny. "There will be no more days where you let them decide what the workout will be," Dover emphasized. "If your horse isn't feeling 100 percent today or perhaps feels a little stiff, you can reduce the difficulty of the exercises that day, but you still have to keep in your mind that no matter what you do, it will be gorgeous. And as you progress, keep pushing the boundaries of gorgeous! Remember, you're always just a half-halt away from perfect."