Wellington, Fla. – Jan. 2, 2018 – Excited to kick-off the 2018 show season in Wellington, Florida, talented young riders chosen from across the country gathered at the Global Dressage Facility for the first day of the Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic. The event, running from Jan. 2 to Jan. 5, gives young horsemen and horsewomen a unique learning opportunity with many of the nation’s best riders, trainers and equine professionals.
The riders’ days during the clinic week start bright and early at 7 a.m. with a fitness training session led by Mike Bathelemy. After their morning training on the opening day, they were greeted by Olympian and US Dressage Chef d’Equipe Robert Dover, who gave his annual dressage speech. Lessons led by Dover, fellow Olympian Debbie McDonald and USDF President George Williams ran from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Following their lessons, the riders enjoyed lectures from Janet Foy on the judges’ perspective, Laura King on visualizing tests, Charlie Tota on tack fitting and Kasey Perry-Glass on her Olympic experience.
On the first day of lessons, instructors focused on getting a feel for the partnership the horse-and-rider combinations possessed to help them make small changes that made a big difference in their rides. Through all of the lessons and various exercises, the instructors stressed the importance of forward thinking and energy in every movement.
In 19-year-old Isabel Gregory’s lesson aboard a borrowed horse with George Williams, she was asked to focus on getting him to stretch forward while keeping the tempo, letting his head out to keep it at the vertical. Williams explained that keeping the horse on the forward aids would improve the quality of all movements.
“The canter should be at least as forward as the trot,” Williams said. “You want to keep that feeling of the hind legs swinging up and under, unhindered.”
When he began to get a bit “sticky” and tight in his back, Williams encouraged Gregory to go to the rising trot when needed to help him move forward more freely. He also explained that she should feel her horse pushing equally into both reins in transitions, remaining steady throughout.
Debbie McDonald emphasized the importance of clarity of the aids to 16-year-old Tillie Jones on her 11-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding Apachi in order to make their movements as clear-cut as possible and maintain a steady connection. When Apachi began to fidget in the contact during the walk, McDonald advised Jones to keep her hands steady and not begin to fidget herself.
“If the walk isn’t the most clear, the best visual thing you can do for that is keep him steady in the contact,” McDonald explained. “Your job is to fix it by going forward into the contact.”
In Kaitlin Blythe’s lesson aboard Raigin, a 6-year-old Oldenburg mare, McDonald reminded her to keep the mare working between her legs and hands equally, moving forward without running and becoming strung out. Because she was green, McDonald explained that the mare would likely make some honest mistakes along the way but it was part of the learning process.
“Tell her that the outside rein is the rein that keeps her round,” McDonald said. “Use your turns to bring her back a little bit and keep rewarding her good behavior.”
Christian Simonson rode Jan Ebeling’s former Grand Prix mount FRH Rassolini, his 15-year-old Hanoverian stallion, under McDonald’s instruction. The pair, who began working together just six months ago, worked on keeping forward momentum in each exercise during the lesson. McDonald reminded Ebeling not to work harder than needed and to let his horse carry him.
“Get a reaction — that’s the biggest thing,” McDonald explained. “Then he’ll know the difference between right and wrong. Don’t drive him more than you need to. You have to find that bigger trot by riding forward to it.”
“He has to stay fired up,” she continued. “The one thing you have to learn to tap into is that energy.”
McDonald helped 19-year-old Callie Jones and her 9-year-old Hanoverian gelding Don Philippo improve the suppleness of his neck and maintain straightness in going forward.
“It’s important to feel that he really wants to go to that contact,” McDonald explained. “If he starts to go crooked when you ask for canter, kick him forward. Don’t hold him back.”
To encourage Don Philippo to be more maneuverable and controlled through his body throughout various movements, McDonald had them perform haunches-in down the center line in the canter, switch to half-pass, then return to haunches-in, all without letting the haunches reach the rail before the rest of the horse. McDonald reminded Jones to keep the forward momentum even in the lateral movements. After practicing the exercise several times, Don Philippo’s self-carriage as well as the straightness through his neck was noticeably improved.
“He has to be taking you [where you are going], and you have to know you have control over the scenario,” McDonald said. “Then you know you have it.”