As someone who both rides in and teaches clinics, I know there are two kinds: the kind where it’s riding lessons, sessions between a coach and a student to benefit the rider; and the kind where it’s theater, a riding lesson for the rider as well as a demonstration for a crowd.
And I’ve got no problem with either. But I’ve participated in a few symposia over the years, and sometimes it’s helpful, and sometimes it’s a session where you ride around doing your job, and the crowd goes ooh, and the clinician talks, and that’s it. So if I’m going to do a public clinic, it’s going to be on a horse who would, if all else failed, make me look smart.
Elvis makes me look smart. And when it was announced that Isabell Werth, the best rider in the world, the most accomplished rider in the history of the world, the QUEEN of dressage, was coming to the Adequan Global Dressage Festival (Florida), I thought to myself, “Golly, wouldn’t it be neat to debut this horse to the public in front of Isabell Freaking Werth?” And with hubris in my heart, I applied, got selected, threw my back out, panicked for a few days about what to wear (10 days of not being able to move enough to reach for my painkillers perhaps was not the best thing for my waistline), got back to work, and off we went.
When Elvis came to me in October, I set a course for making him mine. The training he came with was so good, and he felt so familiar right from the beginning, but it’s still just a process with any new horse to get the foundation laid to the partnership. I’ve been doing the basic, boring work that is both crucial to my ownership of Elvis’ basic controls and crucial to the development of any FEI horse: transitions. Bending. Adjustability of neck and back. Quickness of hind leg. Control of that big crazy talented trot he’s got. Every now and then, when things were feeling really top shelf, I’d go crazy and dare a line of four-tempis or a pirouette, but I’ve mostly been on a 20-meter circle or a three-loop serpentine since October, making the hind legs faster and the poll rounder and the connection lighter, and then just figuring out what made the rest of him tick.
The rider list was announced and, in learning I’d be second of six, and the greenest of the FEI horses, I figured that Isabell Werth, the world’s greatest AND a Classical-Riding-System German, would be using me as the “bridge” horse, the one that took the masterclass from the 5-year-old (who was lovely) to the horses who’d actually shown FEI by talking about all of the things I was doing—gait development, ownership of the bits and bobs.
So when I rode in, and she watched me trot around on a 20-meter circle and then basically said, “OK, the foundation is good; let’s do some movements and turn this boy up,” I just about fell off. Really? I get to turn him loose? Isabell Werth, the GOAT, says I’ve done my homework and now I can let him fly?
The lesson itself was, of course, fantastic. Her English is excellent, and her diction is fantastic, but even still, it’s not her first language. Yet I can tell that her mind works like my friend Carol Lavell’s—she sees everything, both big picture and fine details, all at once. I got away with nothing. More inside flexion, but don’t hold it. More inside leg, but don’t let him fall out. Sit down and drive the hind leg on, but not by running. Create energy, but then sit still.
And she was relentless. Pirouette. Pirouette again. Now on a different line. It never felt like drilling, but it was INTENSE, and Elvis, my wonderful creature, just smiled and said, “YEAH BABY AGAIN AGAIN LET’S DO THIS!” We did more canter pirouettes in a half hour lesson than I’ve done since October, and Elvis just said, “Bring it on.” He is a treasure.
But the best part was not in any particular thing Isabell Werth told me, but that she let me move on from the work I’ve been doing at home. Whenever someone tells me in a lesson to do my work in the opposite way of how I’ve been doing my work, I never feel it’s because I’ve been doing it wrong. It makes me feel like I’ve been doing it right, like I’ve swung the pendulum of the horse’s development one way sufficiently, and now it’s time to swing it back the other way. As in all things, the middle path is the right way, but it’s important to have a big spread of abilities, both small and big, both high and low, both bent and straight.
In turning Elvis and me loose with the FEI movements, in telling me to, in her words, “celebrate the trot” with power and expression, she told me that my time since October has been beautifully spent. Not once did she tell me to make his hind leg quicker, something I’ve been all over. Not once did she tell me to make the neck rounder. Only a handful of times did she tell me to bring the base of the neck down or to make him straighter to the outside rein. These have been my focuses since Elvis came into my life, and Isabell Werth just told me—and a few thousand others, ohmygod—that I was doing it, mostly, right.
This is not to say that I was flawless. Ha! More inside leg. More bend. More flexion of the jowl, but not by blocking with the inside rein. Don’t prepare the changes so much. Don’t over collect the walk. Sit still. Drive the canter bigger, so he doesn’t get too quick behind. But these felt like nuance things, not holes in my program that needed filling. These are easy fixes.
At the end of each ride, Ms. Werth said to us, as we left the arena and the crowd clapped, that “this is your applause.” It was a lovely thing to say, but it wasn’t the only gift that Isabell Werth gave to me. After two years of so much self doubt, stuck in Young Horse Purgatory, with horse illness and injury, with nothing in the show ring, it’s been hard to stay positive. There have been days it was hard for me to believe in myself, that I’m a good rider who has been well educated and knows the path. Elvis has been an amazing gift in and of himself, but to be able to enter an environment like that and have this legend in sport tell me that I’m doing OK? That I’m walking that path well enough? Wow. Just wow. I’m writing this a day after the clinic, and I’m still having a bit of a hard time sounding articulate about the experience and not like an emotional boob.
My one regret is that we didn’t have time to chat with her. She is, without a doubt, wildly talented, and that’s something you’ve either got or you don’t. She’s also clearly incredibly well educated, and we can all take more lessons and learn more and plug away at that piece of our own programs. But I want to know about the rest of her day, and what I could do to make my program more like hers: How many horses are on her property at any given time? How old are her prospects when they’re acquired? How does she find them—does Rudolf at the Hanoverian Verband shoot her a text when he sees a promising 2-year-old at an inspection? Or does she seek them out herself? Or both?
I have so many questions, and my limited impression of Ms. Werth is that she would have answered them. She was warm, charming and light-of-heart, which was a joy. (I say this with all the love in the world for the German people, to whom I am related: They’re not known for being a funny, jovial bunch.) And her program is so wildly successful, with so very, very many top horses that, remarkably, are not all of one type; she’s had them all, big ones, little ones, hot ones, cool ones, uphill ones, flat ones, short ones, long ones. I want to learn from her success, and so someday, I hope I’ll get to ask her.
Until then, I am going to hop on my beautiful, glorious boy today and not reinvent my training plan, but feel just a little braver about hitting the gas, about asking for more, about celebrating Elvis. Because Isabell Werth believed in him, and in me. I should too.