Wellington, FL – January 5, 2015 – Young riders were working hard on the third day of the Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic to fine tune their skills. For those who rode with Debbie McDonald, it was back to basics as the USEF Developing Dressage Coach put the strongest emphasis on reactivity, straightness and forwardness. These themes were echoed by Adrienne Lyle, McDonald’s longtime student, who also taught a series of riders.
Training with McDonald was a first for 14-year-old FEI Junior competitor Claire McNulty, and she did not leave her lesson feeling disappointed. McNulty came to the clinic with hopes of strengthening her partnership and her correctness of aids with her 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding, Check Mate, whom she’s been riding for less than a year.
“I sometimes try to crank him with the inside rein, and Debbie really helped me straighten him out, which really helped me get him more correct over his topline,” McNulty said.
McDonald put a lot of stress on the importance of outside aids as a way of balancing and straightening.
“When your horse is in good balance, you don’t have to be holding or cranking,” McDonald said.
Together, McNulty and McDonald were able to work out the kinks in Check Mate through channeling forward energy and making straightness a top priority.
“Even piaffe has to be forward, even though it’s on the spot,” McDonald said. “They still have to be thinking, ‘when can I go out,’ but you want to instill that into them.”
“I really wanted to get the basics of the throughness down,” McNulty said. “She wanted everything to be back to front forward and that’s how she went about fixing everything. I felt like when she put emphasis on using my outside rein and pushing him forward, everything seemed to come together.”
Eighteen-year-old Young Rider competitor Rosie Simoes had a different obstacle to face with her borrowed 8-year-old Friesian stallion Thys of Seagail, who was generously provided by owner Phil Bailey.
“He’s so powerful, and he is a new breed for me,” Simoes said. “The dynamic of his gaits are a lot different. Being able to focus that energy and get an effective half halt without getting in his way was huge for us.”
With only five rides on the stallion, Simoes plans to take what she has learned from the clinic and apply the lessons to her two competition horses at home. During the summer months, Simoes trains with her mother Julie Julian and rides Flying Dutchman Farm in Barrington Hills, Illinois and plans to continue her training in Florida this winter.
Though McDonald’s approach differed from horse to horse, one point McDonald made was consistent with all of the riders. She put a lot of weight on the importance of quiet aids.
“You’re going to sell your story to the judges if everything looks effortless,” she said.
To achieve these quiet and invisible aids, McDonald stressed getting the reaction out of your horse that you are looking for. If you tap your horse with your leg and you don’t get the immediate increase in energy you are looking for, she encouraged a strong kick or smack of the whip from the rider to achieve the desired reaction. But she emphasized the rider’s responsibility to allow the horse room to react.
“The worst thing you can do is go ahead and say, ‘I’m going to do it’ and then grab the horse in the mouth on the other side,” McDonald said. “So you say ‘go,’ ‘never mind,’ and then they don’t want to go at all.”
With a clear command and praise after the favorable response, McDonald ensured that the horse would start to respond to a quieter aid to avoid a more harsh aid.
“You are changing the answer to the question you are asking,” McDonald said. “It may seem harsh, but it is less harsh than the constant nagging.”
Overall, McDonald was thrilled with the performance of the riders she saw at today’s clinic and impressed with the improvement of the riders she taught last year.
“I think this year I saw that the quality has really been up,” McDonald said. “I was very impressed. Last year there were some who struggled, and this year I didn’t feel that anybody didn’t have a good grip of what I was asking them.”
Debbie McDonald on thinking like a trainer: “What I tried to emphasize as I was helping today was that the riders need to know these horses and know, in this weather and this humidity, what is enough. We don’t look at our clock when we train. We train for good quality work and if it’s 45 minutes, it’s 45 minutes. If it’s done in 25 or 30, it’s done in 25 or 30. You have to really think about that as trainers going forward. I kept trying to say to them, ‘Okay, you’re a trainer. What would you do now? What do you feel would be beneficial to the horse and to you?’”
On the importance of thinking forward: “If you want to reach the highest goal – and I think every one of these young riders wants to be a Grand Prix rider one day – it just gets harder and harder, and these horses start with so much collected work that they stop thinking forward. So you really never want them to ever lose sight that it’s fun to gallop forward. If these kids learn that everything needs to be more forward and ground covering and uphill, it is going to be that much easier as they make their horses into Grand Prix horses eventually.”
On the riders at this year’s Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic: “I am really impressed by the way they came and watched each other’s rides. That in itself shows that there’s interest in wanting to be better. Watching other people struggling with what you are struggling with helps you.
“You just have to know you’re not alone. Nobody is ever alone in this sport. Honestly, I think we have some amazing riders coming up, and I just think Lendon [Gray] and Robert [Dover] are amazing to give these kids these opportunities.”