Wellington, Fla.—Jan. 2
Some lucky dressage enthusiasts got their new year off to a great start riding and auditing the Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic! The annual four-day clinic features lessons with top riders like Dover, Debbie McDonald, George Williams, Jan Ebeling, Adrienne Lyle and Olivia LaGoy-Weltz, as well as unmounted sessions on subjects like saddle fit, fitness and media training.
Eighteen young riders were selected to take part in lessons at the clinic, and here are some takeaways from their first day of instruction.
1. George Williams started out the day asking his student to trot a spiral into a circle. The exercise was meant to help the rider practice getting her horse forward and collected using the proper aids.
“The three driving aids you have are the inside leg at the girth, the outside leg behind the girth and your seat,” Williams said. “Ask him for a bigger trot for three strides, and when I say bigger, think about that as freshening up the trot for a few strides.”
2. Debbie McDonald made sure her students insisted on good reactions to the aids even in very simple movements, because if they can’t get the correct reactions in those moments now their problems are only going to get bigger as the tests increase in difficulty. “If the aid is slow, that’s going to be your flying change that you miss,” McDonald said. “If it isn’t prompt now you need to school it a few times.”
3. “Fix it by going forward,” McDonald stressed to another student. McDonald noted that when things go wrong, riders often try to take hold of the horse and slow him down. “Your job is to fix it by going forward into the contact, and you have to know you can touch either rein and not lose the quality of the canter.”
4. Dover wants horses ready to change gears at a moment’s notice. He had one of his students walk and play a sort of “Dover Says” game. “Do you feel like the next step you could trot? Could you halt right now?” Dover asked. “You should feel like at each step of his next stride could be whatever you asked for.”
To practice getting this feeling, Dover had his student trot on a circle and try and walk exactly three steps before transitioning back to the trot.
5. Dover also broke down the finer points of a correct half-halt. “In the half-halt we take in our breath, we sit against the movement of the horse, and you close your fist,” Dover said.
6. McDonald corrected a student on the volume of her aids to get proper lateral work from her horse. “Don’t yell. You’re yelling. When he didn’t do it the first time, your reaction was to yell at him,” McDonald said. “The only reason he didn’t do it the first time was because it wasn’t clear to him; the minute you made it clear he did it.”
7. Dover helped one rider school her piaffe and passage work—the collected work made her horse a little nervous, and Dover helped her work through it. “I don’t want him to be afraid, I want him to be comfortable, but he also can’t just not do the movement,” Dover said.
Dover instructed the rider on how to ask for more action and engagement from the horse in the collected work without making the horse feel like he was in trouble by staying very in tune with the volume of her aids and her horse’s reaction to them. “He can scare himself and it all depends on what you do in the moment.”
8. Don’t throw away your corners in Robert Dover’s arena—he will send you right back into them!
A student was preparing to head down the diagonal for tempi changes and Dover sent her spinning right back to the start for not using her corners properly. “A really trained rider would have said, ‘Here are my moments to set up for these tempis.’ I would have got him cantering on the spot in these corners before I came down the diagonal,” Dover said. Dover had the rider practice getting her horse to canter on the spot for a stride before going forward and into the tempis.
9. Williams helped one student work on her transitions and emphasized that the goal of the exercise is not to simply get from the trot to the canter.
“It’s not a matter of getting the transitions done any which way you can, it’s getting them done correctly,” Williams said. With that in mind, Williams had the rider circle at the trot and focus on getting her horse’s hind end quicker before asking for one or two really good transitions instead of drilling her with five or six mediocre ones.
10. Finally, Robert Dover reminded one of his students that no one’s path to the top of the sport is quick and easy. “Every day you have to find greater harmony and a greater degree of confidence with both of you, it’s a balancing act,” Dover said.
“Every day it has to improve, but we don’t have a timetable we keep to, it just has to keep improving,” added Dover.