Wellington, Fla.—Jan. 5
Robert Dover did something new Thursday at the beginning of his 11th annual namesake clinic for young dressage riders: He rode.
Every year, Dover launches the Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic Week with a lecture on basic principles of dressage, going over key aids and meticulously deconstructing the half-halt. The lecture serves to orient the 20 young riders chosen for the clinic with the fundamentals that will be at the forefront through four days of lessons with top riders and trainers. But for the first time since the clinic’s inception in 2012, Dover coupled his theory lecture with a demonstration ride Thursday morning at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival showgrounds.
His chosen horse for the demonstration was Kristin Snyder Ducote’s 10-year-old “Perlito,” a horse he said reminded him of Kennedy, one of his own favorite competition mounts, in size and movement.
In his lectures, Dover talks about the half-halt as the doorway to every transition, with the application of driving, bending and opposition aids—seat and inside leg to a closed outside rein, for example—applied subtly and effectively within the space of one breath in, one breath out, to maintain energy cycling through the horse’s body.
“With these three sets of aids I have the ability to dictate the rhythm, the tempo, the length of the stride and the cadence in the length of time of a breath,” he said.
Aboard Perlito, he showed the riders exactly how that works.
He started with a “rubber band exercise,” a gymnasticizing exercise Dover said he uses early in rides, after stretching, to help horse and rider tune into the aids and the half-halt. In the exercise, which he said he often uses with students in the trot, but demonstrated on a 20-meter canter circle, he asked Perlito to go back and forth between various degrees of lengthening and collection.
“We want the horse to be able to shorten, lengthen, go forward, come under, remain rhythmic and light,” he said. “We start with canter that’s comfortable at first, then test things.
“I’m going to ask him to lengthen some, and now I’m going to take in a breath and collect, collect more,” Dover narrated from the saddle—adding a quiet, reassuring “good boy, good boy” to Perlito for his first efforts at collection—”then lengthen.”
After demonstrating multiple “rubber band” changes within the gait, Dover stopped to discuss the exercise with the students. Amid all those changes within the gait, he asked them, what didn’t change? The answer was the rhythm, the energy, maintained from half-halt to half-halt .
“When I extend, collection is still alive in every step of the biggest extension, and when I collect, the forwardness of him [is still there],” Dover said. “In the grandest collection, the piaffe, the extended trot is still alive, and in the greatest extension, the piaffe is there. That’s when things are beautiful.”
In a highly trained horse, Dover said during his lecture and repeated again from the saddle Thursday, the aids become so subtle that from the breathe-in of the half-halt, the rider can make the smallest movement—a look in the correct direction, visualizing the transition they want, for example—and the horse follows.
To demonstrate, he took Perlito through a series of transitions that morphed from workmanlike to playful. The horse showed tempi changes, half-pass, pirouettes, extensions, piaffe and passage. And when the occasional mistake happened, a sympathetic “it’s OK” over Dover’s microphone, coupled with a quiet regrouping, punctuated the rhythm of hoofbeats.
“I had about three different mistakes in there,” Dover acknowledged after they came back to halt, but he noted that wasn’t the point of the demonstration. “I think even at my age, it’s not about how expensive he was, or how world-class he was when [his owner] got him. It’s about the training, the reliability, the harmony. With each minute, I was trying to show you what happens when things start clicking in for a rider, and they start knowing what they are seeing and feeling from up here relates to what you are seeing down there: ‘Oh, look at him dance over there.’
“It’s fun to be able to show them on this little horse how fun it can look and how fancy it can be, while I’m just sort of sitting there navigating from half-halt to half-halt,” he said later. “That’s fun for me.”
In daily training, riders build their horses’ strength, elasticity, mental understanding of the work and emotional ability to respond to aids without force or coercion, he said.
“Any time we go to a place of anger or a place of what I call ‘rider in distress’ and ride with negative emotions—any time you get there, art ceases to exist,” he said. “Joyfulness should always be there. And grit and determination should be there, but that means, ‘Oh, I didn’t like that, we’ll do it again… We’ll just do it again and again’ until repetitions begin to create what we desire.
“And when they do,” he added, “our job is to let them know immediately how proud we are of them for figuring it out.”
The goal, he said, is the partnerships like that between Lottie Fry and Glamourdale, where the training, the half-halts and the communication within them are so well-developed that a ground-devouring extended canter can transition seamlessly to a double pirouette.
“What is the beautiful thing about all of this,” he said, “is that as we have more and more control over all these things, what happens is that from half-halt to half-halt, we’re able to negotiate with the horse that next balance, that next gait, is that one thought, that one half-halt away.”
Concluding his demonstration ride, and before seeing the young participants off to their sessions with clinicians including U.S. Dressage Youth Coach George Williams and Olympians Adrienne Lyle, Sabine Schut-Kery and Ali Brock, Dover exhorted them to read, and to be inquisitive about their chosen sport.
His own early mentor, Swedish equestrian Col. Bengt Ljungquist, who discovered him at a Pony Club rally in Florida and trained him from the age of 15, advised him to read the classics: “The Complete Training Of Horse And Rider,” by Alois Podhajsky; “The Dressage Horse,” by Harry Boldt; and what Dover called his two “bibles:” Ljungquist’s own book, “Practical Dressage Manual” and the “U.S. Pony Club Manual Of Horsemanship.” (“It should be read by every kid because it encompasses all of horsemanship,” Dover said of the latter.)
“I was a really good student,” he said. “If my trainer said, ‘I want you to stand on your head and cut down the centerline,’ you’d see me trying to figure out how to get there. But also it wasn’t enough for me to hear, ‘Robert this is what you do…’ I needed to understand why it is the way it is, and he gave me this list of books.”
Lessons with Ljungquist were methodical, almost military, and followed the same format every single day. “We started a certain way,” Dover said. “We went through this gymnastic rubber band exercise. We went into the movements that were the meat of the training that day, and then we cooled down. That was a daily thing, and it was a given.”
Dover recalled a humorous anecdote about being humbled on his first day riding with Ljungquist at the trainer’s base in Potomac, Maryland.
At age 16, Dover arrived in Maryland “thinking I’m all that, and I’m excited to show off everything,” he recalled. Ninety minutes into his first lesson, he had not moved on from a walk—and he had learned there was more than one.
“He said; ‘Robert, What kind of walk is that?’ ” Dover recalled “And I said, ‘A good walk,’ and he said, ‘No. There’s a collected walk, a medium walk and an extended walk.’ That was the beginning, and then he proceeded to walk next to me for 1.5 hours.”
“This is the beginning of your understanding of the art of dressage, and it’s going to lead you to great things in the sport,” Dover recalled Ljungquist telling him after that first ride.
And, to his own young riders, Dover offered a modern spin on that piece of advice, encouraging them to seek out the best training help possible: Referencing author Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-hour rule”—that it takes that much time to achieve true expertise at any given skill, Dover said, “He left out one thing: It’s 10,000 hours under great supervision.”
The Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic Week continues daily through Sunday at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Florida. USEF members can watch a livestream of the clinic on USEF Network.