Variety was the spice that fed the first Masterclass at the Adequan West Coast Dressage Festival show circuit when horseman Monty Roberts and Olympic eventer Boyd Martin joined up to demonstrate the theme of confidence and incremental training.
The iconic horseman and the Olympian—one an 82-year-old California native and one a 38-year-old Australia native—demonstrated their commonality at the first of four AWCDF CDI and National Shows, this one held at Galway Downs Equestrian Center in Temecula, California.
On the competition side, Steffen Peters rode a new horse, Suppenkasper, to the top of the Grand Prix Special while his assistant, Dawn White-O’Connor, topped the Grand Prix and CDI-W Grand Prix freestyle aboard Peters’ former ride Legolas, who is due to retire later this year.
With the dressage arena put away for the night and replaced by a round pen, Roberts set upon teaching Martin to “join up” with Black Design, a 7-year-old Quarter Horse bred and owned by Roberts’ wife of 61 years Pat Roberts. In the center of the round pen, the 6’2” Martin, never before having worked in this manner, followed Roberts’ instructions on how to work with the loose horse. All through body language, he was able to change the horse’s direction, regulate the rate of his gait and eventually his pulse rate, leading to the four signs that the horse will soon “join up”: locking his inside ear on Martin, licking and chewing, lowering his head, and scribing a smaller circle within the round pen.
At that point, Roberts instructed Martin to bring his breathing down and relax. The horse lowered his neck and turned into Martin who gave him a rub on the forehead and walked away with the horse at his side for a relaxed stroll without restraint around the round pen.
While Roberts praised Martin for how well he did, Martin replied, “It’s a lot harder than it looks!”
Roberts’ next challenge was a 17.1-hand, 17-year-old FEI-level Dutch Warmblood Volando, who was described as often sighting ghosts on the ground and leaping in the air. He also had an aversion to plastic.
First Roberts convinced Volando to “join up”, using the same techniques he taught Martin. “A horse always wants to be in a safe place. If I can show him that it’s safe with me, he’s likely to want to stay with me. My goal is for him to allow me to pass the plastic attached to a stick all over him.”
Having just completed a tour that literally circled the globe, Roberts said—as Volando snorted, kicked out and spun in response to wrapped plastic on a long stick—“All our hedges, around the world, are decorated with plastic bags. It’s very dangerous with a horse that reacts like this.”
Within a relatively short time, Volando accepted having the plastic rubbed all over his body. “It’s not a miracle,” said Roberts. “It’s entering the mind of the horse to accept something that he thinks will hurt, but turns out it’s not painful. As soon as he relaxes it goes away.”
Soon Roberts unhooked the lead rope and rubbed the plastic all over his body while standing behind the horse, out of the horse’s sight line. Volando, though still a bit sweaty, stood still.
Roberts’ ultimate goal for Volando was for the horse to walk on plastic. For this he created an environment in the round pen that he calls “lake and stream,” a set-up that would teach the horse that he could step on plastic without pain.
“The good trainer gets a horse to do what he wants. The great trainer gets the horse to do things because he wants to. My father believed in violence, in beating his son. I wish he was here to see how violence is not the answer. No one was born with the right to say, ‘You must or I’ll hurt you’ to another creature, animal or human. Volando will follow me because I provide a safe place. My father would have used a longe whip behind him to get him to walk on plastic. “
The lake was simulated by a huge blue tarp. The stream was a folded tarp coming out of the lake and crossing the “moat” of dirt surrounding the “lake.” The dirt provided the horse with a way out, a place to stand to avoid the plastic. But to avoid the stream part, Volando ran onto the lake or plastic tarp, where he discovered that the plastic is a better place to go than the bad behavior.
Roberts’ helpers made the lake smaller and the stream wider. Roberts snapped on a longe line and walked him over the plastic, but Roberts “wants him to want to do it.” He took off the line, and Volando followed Roberts at will. But when the steam plastic was removed, Volando leaped sideways into Roberts.
“Bit by bit he has learned a better way to handle plastic than he has known all his life,” Roberts said. “If he was mine, I would have a tarp outside his paddock so he walks on it every day. But he’s going to be a different horse after this.”
In the audience, Volando’s farrier, Ernst Woodward, was skeptical about the demonstration succeeding as the horse displayed such anxiety over small things. He was pleased that the horse accomplished the task and in such short time.
Next, Roberts rode his own Nice Chrome, a 13-year-old Quarter Horse, to further demonstrate his non-violent methods. “When this horse was winning championships as a 3- and 4-year-old, he was the most difficult horse to mount. He would step away and go in circles as you tried to get on.”
Standing on the mounting block about a yard away from Chrome, holding up his index finger as a sign for the horse to stand, Roberts clucked, and the horse walked to him and turned sideways as if presenting Roberts the stirrup.
After showing Chrome’s other talents—including sliding stops and spins—and discussing how they related to dressage, Roberts asked a woman from the audience to come up and touch his “big honking spurs.” They were rubber.
“They are for communication, not for pain,” Roberts said. “They bring my leg closer to him. If I had to pull up my leg to get to his side without the spur, by the time I did that, the cow would be in the next county.”
He ended his presentation answering a question on many minds: Why would an 82-year-old continue to teach around the world? “My life ambition is to leave the world a better place than I found it,” Roberts said.
Many of Roberts’ expressed philosophies about horse and training were reiterated and demonstrated by Martin, who rode two horses trained by Erin Kellerhouse. Referring to them in his customarily humorous fashion, contestant No. 1 was Java Jazz, an 8-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred owned and ridden by Shirley McCune. Contestant No. 2 was Korban, a 12-year-old Thoroughbred owned by Gail Brackett.
Eventing is becoming safer, Martin described, as it becomes more a test of a horse’s training and confidence. “With eventing, horses have to think about what obstacle we want to go to next while they’re in the air,” Martin said. “We are trying to get them to do what we’re thinking. On cross-country we try to get around the course without yanking or chasing the horse, focusing on how light and efficiently we can ride and get around without wearing out the horse.”
Martin’s philosophy was demonstrated by the exercises he set up and rode in his hour-long segment. For one, he constantly praised the horse he rode. Further, if a jump did not work, he figured out another way to reach a positive result. If it meant making it easier, he would. And then he might up the ante after the horse was more confident.
“Training a horse is about confidence and understanding,” Martin said. “You’ve got to give them time to understand what you’re asking, and as a rider you need to feel when he’s a little uncertain and unsure, and then back off a bit, even if you feel the task is within his capability.
“In any horse sport, the fastest way is to go slow,” Martin said. “To get an event horse to the Olympics takes about five or six years. The limited amount I know about dressage I think it takes longer to get a 3-year-old to Grand Prix, maybe seven or eight years.”
Throughout the evening, Martin’s patience, calm, eloquence and, especially, his humor shined. When starting a new line of jumps he left the audience laughing by proclaiming “wish me luck,” or “this could be ugly.”
Because it’s difficult to take horses to train at cross-country venues, Martin attempted to simulate the jumps found on cross-country, as when he called for human barricades. He explained that course designers give riders a small area of the jump to go over. To recreate a jump in the field, he called for “two fit, quick moving, younger athletes to pretend they’re hedges or trees. Step in. Don’t be scared,” he told the volunteers. “Come on. These people paid a lot to be here. Step closer. We are going to make a small window for this horse to jump which makes it much more difficult. These girls have signed a waiver, so it should be OK.”
Actually, Korban didn’t like that jump, and Martin had one of girls step back up. “I surprised him a little, so I’m coming on the other lead this time,” he said. “Put up a pole off the corner, so if he runs out he’ll still have to jump something. Common fella, you can do it. Atta boy. That was the easy way. Let’s try the other way. Don’t let me down fella. Easy, what a boy!
“With cross-country we have things like narrows and corners that the course designer builds,” Martin added. “These are skinny obstacles. Here we will build them with our trusty blue barrels and gates to build proper corners.”
To create confidence, Martin began Java with exercises in adjustability and accuracy. “It’s great for any rider to be able to dictate how long or short the stride is. In this exercise we teach the horse to do different length strides between the same jumps.” First, he did the two jumps in five strides and then in a “dressage canter” to seven strides, and then galloped in for three strides.
Accuracy was tested with three verticals, one stride between each. His plan was to jump the first on the right-hand side, the second on the left-hand side and the third on the right. “Not sure it will work, but let’s give it a go.” When it did work, he said, “This is a good horse.”
As with this second exercise, Martin set up corners to test accuracy. “You try to get your horse comfortable jumping the edge of the fence. As you go up the levels, the corners get wider, and the window to jump the corners get less and less.”
“We’ve gained confidence by jumping corners quite small,” he added.
“So, we’re going to whack it up a few holes and make a wider corner. Here we don’t have a flag on the end of jumps as we do on cross-country. The horses often read the flags and know they have to go between. These are incredible animals.”
By first galloping a triple bar to “get his blood up,” the pair easily jumped the corner well.
The blood is important in Martin’s estimation. “Almost all the top event horses have a component of Thoroughbred in them that we need for speed, stamina and endurance,” he said. “It’s getting competitive on the world stage so that there is an advantage to have warmblood in the mix to get advantage in dressage and show jumping. The warmbloods seem to have a little better mind for dressage movement, and they are a little scopier and careful.”
In the end, he would ride all the jumps together in order to simulate a cross-country course. For more reality, he called for two “fearless contestants” to pretend they are the white and red flags as he asked the horse to jump the blue barrel standing up. He came into it in a short canter. And the horse did it.
He concluded the evening, seemingly for Roberts as well, by saying, “Hope you learned something or had a bit of a laugh, or both.”