For the past 11 years, several fixtures of the first week of January in Wellington, Florida, have remained constant: palm fronds, iguanas and the Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic.
Twenty riders from across the country who hope to become the next generation of top American dressage athletes descended on the Adequan Global Dressage Festival show grounds to partake in the clinic, held Jan. 3-8.
Kicking off with a theory lecture and a demonstration ride by Dover himself, the clinic features unmounted educational sessions led by industry professionals on everything from equine nutrition to mental fitness. Participants ride in three lessons each with top riders, and the week culminates with a mock competition on Sunday, when all participants ride a test of their choosing in the venue’s big CDI arena.
This year, ridden sessions were led by a star-studded cast of current and former U.S. Dressage Team members, including Katherine Bateson-Chandler, Katie Duerrhammer, Shelly Francis, Olivia LaGoy-Weltz and Ali Brock. They shared their experience with those near and afar via the livestream. Here are some highlights of their instruction.
Katherine Bateson-Chandler: Own Your Horse’s Rhythm
When Berryfield Farm LLC’s 13-year-old Hanoverian gelding JazzBeat (Jazz—Sandrina, Sandro Hit) entered the arena on Thursday morning, he was hard to miss. At 18 hands, the massive bay would not be the perfect mount for every young rider just beginning their FEI career in the junior classes. Lucky for him, 16-year-old Leah Drew, Lincoln, Massachusetts, is up for a challenge.
In the warm-up, Bateson-Chandler had the pair focused on maintaining forward energy in all their transitions, both upward and downward. The gelding has big natural gaits and his size can make the collected work more difficult. Bateson-Chandler had the pair leg yield from the quarter line to the long side, to encourage “Jazz” to take more weight behind without losing activity in his hind legs.
“He’s got so much natural rhythm, which is beautiful. But you have to make sure, at the end of the day, that you really own it,” said Bateson-Chandler to Drew while on a walk break. “You have to make sure that you can always say, ‘Can I go quicker? Can I go slower? Can I go smaller? Can I go bigger?’ You have to be constantly doing these little transitions in your gaits until you feel like you really own it, otherwise he’s going to sort of take over a bit, and you’re going to be stuck with whatever he gives you, which is not the fantasy. At that point, you don’t really have that self-carriage … Don’t get lulled into just going along with one rhythm.”
Katie Duerrhammer: Prioritize Attentiveness In Tension
Relaxation was the theme of Marin Roth’s lesson with Duerrhammer on Friday aboard her own self-trained 8-year-old Zweibrücker gelding, Erin Meadows Jagermeister (Rastede—Jade, Juventus). “Jugger” tends to offer uncued flying changes when tense, so the pair worked on their counter-canter on a 20-meter circle in advance of their Junior team test on Sunday.
Duerrhammer encouraged Roth, Bloomington, Illinois, to become less rigid in her body when schooling the canter work.
“You both get to the counter-canter and go, ‘Ooh!” nobody move! Don’t make a move!’ But it’s going to happen,” Duerrhammer said. “He’s going to move, you’re going to move, so besides your [outside] leg—because your canter aid has to stay the same—everything else has to get a little more [relaxed].”
Duerrhammer said she prioritizes her horses’ attentiveness while tense rather than preventing a specific response to tension—in Jugger’s case, flying changes.
“He changes when he gets tense, but it’s because you can’t work through that point of tension,” Duerrhammer said. “It’s not about making him not be tense, it’s about helping him learn how to listen when he is tense.
“Success in schooling is not just keeping him from doing a change,” she added. “The successful part is when he lets you touch him everywhere, and he still doesn’t do the change.”
Shelly Francis: Find The ‘Fine Line’ In Test Preparation
The penultimate day of the Robert Dover clinic features shorter (30-minute rather than 45-minute) lessons. While two days of Olympic instruction is a demanding ask of any horse, on the last day all participants are expected to ride their respective tests in the CDI ring. Many riders rode through certain movements of their tests; Korey Denny was no exception.
Denny began her lesson by working on half-pass with Amy Denny’s 16-year-old Hanoverian San Dante (Sandro Hit—Weltmeyer’s Song, Weltmeyer). When the gelding wanted to lead with his haunches, Francis had the pair move between shoulder-in and half-pass on the diagonal. The exercise was intended to prevent Denny from pushing too hard with her outside leg and to give her the feeling that she could “control both sides of [San Dante],” Francis said.
Part of the difficulty of test preparation is being able to differentiate between what can be improved before going down the centerline, and what is a longer-term goal. Francis had Denny, Williston, Florida, work on San Dante’s frame throughout her lesson, identifying where she could make immediate changes to eke out a few more points throughout her Junior test Sunday.
“You’ve got to find that fine line between getting him a little bit rounder in his frame—a little more together without him being behind your leg—so you can ask him to be a little softer by moving the bit around,” Francis said. “But you have to make sure that when you go to use the bridle to make him come rounder and together, you’re not using it so strongly to stop him from coming forward. It’s better to take a few more strides to encourage him to be rounder than to say, ‘Hey, come round now’ and then he won’t go.”
Olivia LaGoy-Weltz: Focus On The Training Scale
Getting back to the basics proved integral to the success of Chicago-based Young Rider team Alicia Berger and her own 13-year-old Danish Warmblood gelding Trust Me (Tuschinski—Miss Carnegie, Carano). LaGoy-Weltz stressed the importance of keeping the training pyramid in mind when schooling the upper-level movements.
“Rhythm is where you start,” LaGoy-Weltz said. “You want the ‘go’ but still relaxation within the go. So he’s not ‘hair on fire’ go, but he’s marching-going, swinging-going.”
LaGoy-Weltz’s pedagogical, almost Socratic approach to training the riders stood out as unique among the clinicians this year.
“What do you feel there?” LaGoy-Weltz asked Berger as she worked on her right-lead counter-canter in her warmup. Her frequent questions to her riders sparked dialogue with her students and informed her instruction.
Ali Brock: Stay ‘Low Impact, High Yield’
Atlanta-based Virginia Woodcock had only ridden Alice Tarjan’s 6-year-old chestnut mare Gjenganger (Grand Galaxy Win—Donna Dee, Don Schufro) one time before walking into the livestreamed spotlight of the Robert Dover Horsemastership clinic.
“You and I are a little bit in the same boat then, where we’re like ‘Well, what are we going to do today?’ Which is good! We can have a lot of fun with that,” Brock said.
Although being unfamiliar with her mount could not have been easy for Woodcock, the mare made up for it in her quality and training. “You ever sat on a trot that’s felt like that?” asked Brock.
“Nope,” replied Woodcock with a smile.
Brock helped Woodcock maintain a tempo that was her idea rather than the mare’s.
“What I don’t want is her getting so slow and high that she’s holding Virginia hostage a little bit,” Brock said.
Brock also touched on her own warmup routine during the session, in response to an auditor’s question.
“With my own personal horses, I usually walk minimally 20 minutes,” she said. “Ten of that might be loose [reins] and then 10 of that is usually with a lot of testing. I just test, test, test, shoulder-in, haunches-in, leg yields, rein backs, I test everything. Walk pirouettes. And then I pick up trot. Because then, they’re ready. I’m not trying to do things on speed. I’m all about low impact, high yield.”
USEF members can watch the clinic on demand via USEF Network.