Saturday, May. 25, 2024

Bellying Up To The Ballet Barre At The USDF Trainer’s Conference



If you closed your eyes during the lessons at the Adequan/USDF FEI-Level Trainer’s Conference, held Jan. 20-21 in Loxahatchee, Florida, you might have imagined ballet dancers in pointe shoes and tights performing pliés at the barre while being coached through warm-ups and suppling exercises. Like a ballet class, the athletes were led through increasingly difficult movements, but, of course, the transitions from one movement to the next were key.

In reality, eight dressage riders and their horses were dancing duets while being coached by four world-class instructors at High Meadow Farm. Granted, half the dancers were a little heavy-footed when they cantered down the long side, but their partners were skilled at coaxing them into a pleasing pas de deux.

As FEI five-star judge Gary Rockwell told the riders, the lessons were “a little bit of ballet and a little bit of weight lifting.”

Warm-Up Is Key

Any dancer will tell you that you can’t perform the advanced movements if you haven’t warmed up properly. The instructors, which included FEI five-star judge Anne Gribbons and Olympians Ashley Holzer and Lars Petersen, as well as Rockwell, all emphasized that the first goal of your ride is to ensure the horse is elastic and supple.

“Make sure he warms up over his back where he’s carrying you,”  Gribbons told Meagan Davis as she rode Leopold Of Shakespeare. Gribbons warned that if the horse doesn’t loosen up during the warm-up, he will be stiff throughout the entire ride.

Gribbons had Davis ride down the long side in shoulder-fore, a basic exercise essential for suppleness. Coupled with shoulder-in, they are some of the most useful exercises in the dressage toolbox. When Davis did a shoulder-in at the trot, Rockwell chimed in to caution her not to pull on her inside rein and chided her for not using the corners enough to prepare. “Two corners come before the shoulder-in,” he said.


Meagan Davis used shoulder-fore and shoulder-in to increase Leopold Of Shakespeare’s suppleness. Meg McGuire Photography Photos

Holzer gave Davis a tip to help prevent her horse from falling forward in the downward transition from trot to walk, suggesting a little tap with the whip into the downward transition.

COTH blogger Lauren Sprieser rode two horses during the conference: Guernsey Elvis and Helio. When Helio came out showing a bit of tension, Rockwell had her use a four-loop serpentine at an extended walk to get him bending around her inside leg. She then did long leg yield zig-zags followed by easy trot work and trot/walk/trot transitions. From there, she moved on to a 20-meter circle in the center of the arena with forward-thinking walk/trot/walk transitions.


When Helio came behind the bit in the transitions, Rockwell had Sprieser leg him up into the bit, and Holzer told her that when the horse got tense, she should soften her elbows and push him forward to the contact.

Gribbons called Kasey Perry-Glass and Mistico TM’s warm-up “expert” and praised her ability to stretch the horse’s neck so that she could put it wherever she wanted. “Long and low doesn’t mean no contact,” Gribbons said.

When Michelle Gibson and Barland I.M. came into the arena, Holzer pointed out how she used the warm-up as a guide for the rest of her ride.

“She comes in with a plan with relevant warm-up and then modifies it to train that specific horse,” Holzer said. “It’s gathering the information and recalculating the plan. A great warm-up is an art, a talent and a great learning experience.”

She advised the participants to use the opportunity to check the suppleness and balance of the horse and take the information received in the warm-up for the remainder of the ride. “You must have the ability to understand the feedback,” Holzer said.


“A great warm-up is an art, a talent and a great learning experience,” clinician Ashley Holzer said during Michelle Gibson’s ride on Barland I.M. (pictured here).

Yielding Is Bending

Long, easy leg yields helped cure a multitude of problems. “The leg yield is to get the horse balanced,” Rockwell said, although he cautioned that the horse can fall out from the bending aids.

Olympian Lars Petersen echoed the sentiment: “Just because you have something going on with the outside rein doesn’t mean you don’t have the inside rein.”

Holzer had Hanna Benne and Rigadoon RF do long, straight lines with leg yields to get the horse feeling the rider’s seat and leg.


“Do leg yielding, not hand yielding,” she cautioned more than once. When Rigadoon mistook warming-up for running forward, Holzer reminded Benne to make it more about balance rather than speed.

Petersen used the leg yield with Megan Fischer-Graham and Elian to test if the horse was through the contact and in front of her leg. He told her to supple the horse toward the bit and not away from it, and to not be afraid to ride him up to her hands.

Emily Donaldson struggled at times to maintain an even contact in the reins with Audi. To fix it, Gribbons suggested she go down centerline to a long leg yield to put Audi into the outside rein. Then, Donaldson did a shoulder-in on the long side at the wall, and then back to centerline and leg yielding.

Spirals also played a key role in warm-ups. Holzer had Donaldson spiral in and then back out again to get Audi listening to the outside leg. Petersen directed them to make 5-, 8- or 10-meter circles, and then leg yield to spiral out and then spiral back in again to have the gelding understand that the new outside rein is important.


Lars Petersen directed Emily Donaldson to do lots of long leg yields with Audi to get him even in both reins.

When It’s Hot, Hot, Hot

When ultra-sensitive horse Elian entered the arena, Holzer warned Fischer-Graham that the more you educate your horse to the aids, the more sensitive they become. She advised her to give herself a relaxation check to make sure she’s not causing problems.

Holzer also suggested an exercise using transitions to increase rideability, encouraging her to think of it like an accordion:

  • After the corner, go down the long side in a medium canter from F to P.
  • At P, go forward in the canter and try to go from P to B in five strides.
  • At B, half-halt and begin collecting to R.
  • From R to M, try to collect enough to do it in nine strides.
  • Go forward into the walk transition

When Emma Asher and Elegance N, a “looky” chestnut by Jazz, needed a bit of focus, Holzer suggested she be strong with her core and that timing of the canter transition was key with the horse. Petersen suggested she “pick him up” with her seat before the canter so the horse would be ready for the upward transitions.

In conclusion, Holzer reminded everyone that sometimes training is pushing yourself to try new things and achieve new heights with your horse. “It’s not wrong to go to a place of almost struggling,” she said.




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