Illuminating. Eye-opening. Inspirational. Ask any of the participants of The Dressage Foundation’s advanced young rider European training/education program about their experience, and those are the words you’ll hear.
The brainchild of 1992 Olympian Michael Poulin, the program has given, since its inception in 2000, 16 young riders exposure to some of Europe’s top trainers and riders in an effort to provide the tools they need to become world-class riders and trainers.
Open to advanced young riders (those riding at fourth level and above, ages 16 to 21) and 22-year-old riders who graduated from the AYR ranks in the previous year, the program provides an all-expenses-paid, 10-day trip to Europe to interact with some of the world’s greatest dressage minds.
“Having traveled the road these kids are going to travel, I know it’s very important to get young people developed in the concept of the philosophy of becoming a national champion or an Olympian. They need to learn to think in the correct way,” said Poulin.
“Kids who’ve done [the program] have a better idea of the teaching they’re getting–is it good, bad or indifferent?–and where they need to go. They get the chance to see other people with the same dream they have,” he continued. “They can see [the others] are no different, no better. The American kids can do it; they can succeed. It’s just a matter of getting them educated, of filling in between the ears.”
This year’s trip spanned July 15-26, taking its participants–Kelly Irving of Gig Harbor, Wash.; Josslyn Chandler of San Juan Capistrano, Calif.; Lindsay Whipple of Barre, Vt.; and Martin Kuhn of New Berlin, Ill.–on an intense journey through several facets of the European dressage world.
Their travels took them to Germany’s renowned CDIO Aachen, Olympian Ingrid Klimke’s farm in Munster, U.S. team coach and two-time Olympic gold medalist Klaus Balkenhol’s stable, the Hanoverian Verband auction in Verden, the European Young Riders and Junior Dressage Championships in Denmark, the Hanoverian State Stud in Celle, Germany, the German Equine Olympic Training Center in Warendorf, and, finally, a rainy stop at a show in Rastede, Germany.
“It was like pouring gasoline on the fire,” said Kuhn, a 2002 NAYRC team gold medalist apprenticing with Gerhard Politz at the Flintridge Riding Club (Calif.). “I definitely have a greater and more focused desire to continue to aspire to be at that level.
“I think it put some things into perspective as far as what is required to compete at that level,” continued Kuhn, 22. “The resources required are certainly a daunting prospect when you stop and think about it and worry about how incredibly expensive this sport is.
“You have to have the support financially and otherwise to make it through, but you don’t really see that while you’re watching it. It all seems so perfect and so easy that you want to be a part of it. We all had our eyes opened as to what it would take.”
Ability To Inspire
“It’s about the power of the dream,” said Poulin. “You can harvest this dream, bring it out and help grow it, and you do that by exposing them and giving them assistance.”
The participants benefited from some fine crop tending at the hands of their European hosts. After spending the day with Klimke, who amazed the participants with her generosity and graciousness, the young riders were taken to Klimke’s mother’s house, that of her late father, six-time Olympic gold medalist, Dr. Reiner Klimke. There they had the opportunity to “soak in the atmosphere of the Klimke legend,” said Kuhn.
“We got to hold his gold medal in our hands, which was probably the most exciting moment of the trip,” said Irving, 21. “I didn’t know the man–I’ve read his books and watched the videos–but I walked away feeling that I had known him and felt so sad that he had died at such a young age . I had goose bumps when I left that place.”
“It was phenomenal to walk in this house that’s really almost a shrine to dressage,” said Chandler, 19. “It was about him, but it was more about his horses and what he and his horses were able to do together. It was a very inspiring experience.”
Poulin believes that one reason it’s important for U.S. riders to see European riders in action is to demystify them. “They get rid of the anxiety they may have and say, ‘Oh, look at these people. They make mistakes; they’re not perfect,’ ” he explained.
The participants, while duly awestruck by the riders and horses they saw, felt similar sentiments at various points throughout the trip. At Balkenhol’s farm, they had the chance to meet several members of the U.S. Olympic team, who were there training, and watched as Balkenhol put them through their paces.
“Klaus’ style of teaching is fairly hands-off for the most part. It seemed like he lets you try to find the solution on your own,” observed Kuhn. “It was really interesting seeing how they dealt with problems that might not manifest themselves in a show situation.
“Seeing them deal with those kinds of problems on the fly was both educational and encouraging–to see that they’re mortal. They have the same problems the rest of us do; they’re just able to pull it out a bit faster.”
Irving said she didn’t think the quality of riding at the European Young Riders Championship “was that much better than the U.S., but we don’t have the quality of horses the Europeans have. Every one of the horses there was probably the quality of our top five horses” at the North American Young Riders Championships.
“The difference between the U.S. riders and European riders was that they ride extremely accurate tests. They rode so pre-cisely,” she said.
Irving said she’s seen the effects of watching such focused riding already in her own riding and teaching. “I’m more demanding. A corner cut or not preparing for an extension is not OK. You never saw a corner cut in Europe,” she said. “I saw the structure of the European system. They’re rocks in the saddle and rocks under pressure, and it’s because they train so systematically and they’re so structured in the way they deal with things.”
Understanding The Principles
Poulin believes the greatest benefit of this program is the exposure they get to the principles of classical training and riding. He said that his exposure at a young age was influential for him.
“I was such a fortunate young man, and if we can do the same for these kids, in 10 years, some are going to remember this exposure. They may be married, they may have children, they may be millionaires and give to the fund and stimulate the whole process, and we may find that one golden star,” he said. “If we can do this for them, they’ll be a tremendous asset to us as they get older.”
Throughout the trip, education was stressed. The young riders watched classes at Aachen alongside three international judges, including Natalie Lamping, who discussed each ride and the scores for individual movements. “We gave scores, and they told us why ours were wrong or why they were right, but more often why they were wrong!” said Kuhn.
The visit with Balkenhol ranked at the top of the participants’ lists. “I wish I could have spent so much more time there!” enthused Chandler. “We got to sit with Klaus while he was training everybody. He’d tell Debbie [McDonald with Brentina] to do something, then explain to us why he asked her to do it.”
“He said things people say in 1,000 words in two words,” explained Irving. “He would sit back and watch, then say, ‘Do this, do this, do this,’ and it would be 10 times better.
“He was pretty amazing with the way he handled the horses. He was tough on them, but extremely understanding and patient,” she continued. “He got on Leslie Morse’s Tip Top, and it was a night-and-day difference.”
To exploit the educational opportunities as much as possible, chaperones Cindy Sydnor and Beth Baumert took advantage of downtime to reinforce what the young riders were seeing and learning.
“I realize now there was a lot I didn’t know, and there’s a lot I just skim over, that I may know but, as an instructor, I don’t convey,” said Irving, a full-time instructor at her parents’ Kellenbrook Farms. “I would just say, ‘This is what we’re going to do today.’ Not why we were doing it.
“As far as being a rider and competitor, in order to be at the top, it’s important to see what everybody else in the world is doing. I realize I’m good for Washington, but, good Lord, look at these horses and riders! There are hundreds and hundreds of them there. It really humbles you,” she said.
“You see there’s so much more to learn and to see. I got home saying, ‘When am I going back?’ And this time I’m bringing boots and breeches so I can ride!”
Tapping Into The Rich History Of Dressage
Michael Poulin believes The Dressage Foundation’s program can help U.S. young riders reach their potential. He believes that “children develop a sense of proportion, a sense of being themselves, proud of who they are and what they’re doing, and it stimulates them to be a better person, to live better, to have better virtues, better values.
“By doing this you’re going to make good people, good parents, good fathers,” added Poulin, a father of four. “And the horse is going to be a lot happier to be ridden in the correct way with human virtues, rather than competition in mind.”
Poulin believes that the United States lacks enough qualified trainers teaching the basics correctly, which builds a shaky foundation upon which the rest of the sport rests.
“If you look at the  Olympics, we had one person who trained their horse from beginning to end–Sue Blinks. All the rest were bought. When you look at this Olympics, you have all except Debbie [McDonald] on bought horses. That tells me that we have some big problems; we don’t have anybody training horses because they don’t know how!” he said.
“We need people who can train horses and train people,” Poulin continued. “In Europe, you have trainers everywhere; you go 10 miles, you have 12 trainers. They have a foundation; we have no basics.”
Poulin hopes The Dressage Foundation’s program will begin to address this problem by helping to establish future generations of trainers and riders who will model their foundation after one that has been time-tested in Europe.
“The thing that Europe has over us in this dressage thing is history,” said Martin Kuhn, one of the young riders on the tour. “They’ve been doing it so much longer, and everyone, it seems, is so much more educated. This is an opportunity to tap into that rich history of dressage and expose yourself to it and learn from it and try to steal some of that dressage karma, or whatever it is, and use it to your own advantage.”