Wellington, FL – January 5, 2016 – The top junior and young riders from across the country were up bright and early Tuesday morning for an intense fitness workout before kicking off the fifth annual Robert Dover Horsemastership Week at the Global Dressage facility in Wellington, Florida. Dover, who is a six-time Olympian and the current U.S. dressage chef d’equipe, began Day 1 with a lecture on the basic principles of the art of dressage.
“Dressage is about creating a perfect balance and harmony all the time,” Dover explained. He then elaborated on the use of aids to produce communication for the horse and improve the quality.
After Dover’s lecture, lessons began in three arenas, with George Williams and Laura Graves joining Dover. Williams is the current USEF Youth Coach along with Charlotte BredahlBaker and also serves as president of the USDF. Graves, who recently earned the title of 2015 The Dutta Corp./USEF Grand Prix Dressage National Champion, was also a team gold and individual silver medalist at the 2015 Pan American Games.
Julia Barton, 14, from Lawrence, Kansas, audited the weeklong clinic last year and rode Dolce Vita, a 7-year-old mare owned by Carol Cohen and borrowed for the clinic.
“I really liked Laura’s positive encouragement. She is all about if the horse gives any kind of effort you pet it and make sure they know that they are trying to do the right thing,” Barton said. “You really get a full experience at this clinic because you don’t just learn about the riding, but you also learn about stable management, tack and horse care.”
Graves, who is seeking to earn a spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic dressage team, returned to the Robert Dover Horsemastership clinic for the second year in a row to share some of her expertise with the upandcoming riders. In her lessons today, she focused on the basics to improve the horses’ throughness and straightness.
“We don’t want to think about bending until you stabilize the hind end. When you use your legs, think about what you want and where you want to go,” Graves said. “When he is honestly over the middle then we can play with bend. You want to stabilize the bit and not pull by encouraging them to come up through the withers.”
Improving reaction to the aids
At the beginning of each ride, Graves asked the riders what they have been working on and what they wanted to improve, and though they often gave specifics such as flying changes or walkcanter transitions, Graves honed in on the root of their problems.
“If you squeeze with your calves and the gas doesn’t work, something needs to change,” Graves said. “When you whisper, you want it to mean something because having the ability to use different parts of your leg will help with different corrections.”
To improve the horse’s reaction to the rider’s general leg aid, Graves had the riders ask for a trot out of a walk with a gentle squeeze of their calves. If the horse did not give a proper response, she had the rider give them a firm boot. She emphasized that when the horse reacts and goes forward, the rider needs to pet and praise the horse to solidify the horse’s understanding. Graves had the riders repeat this basic exercise until the horse honestly moved forward with a quiet aid.
“Spurs are not a general aid to use if the horse is dull to your leg,” Graves explained. “We want to make our horses sensitive to our calves. Anytime you want to dig with your spur, first test with your calf.”
The importance of suppling
In each lesson, Graves brought up the importance of maintaining proper suppleness and stretch, especially in the warmup of a stiffer horse. One exercise she taught was to pick up a canter and leg yield from one corner of the arena to the centerline. At the end of the ring, continue through the corner in counter canter, cross the diagonal to go back to the correct canter lead, and then repeat.
She also explained how softness comes from the rider’s elbow, not an open fist, and while shoulder in is a power building exercise, haunches in is a suppling exercise she uses often. “When you give after a half halt, think about pushing that energy up to his ears, and the horse should stay soft,” Graves said.
A few of the horses were tense with the breezy weather, which gave Graves a chance to give insight on how to school a spooky horse. Graves encouraged each rider to make mistakes saying, “We don’t cover up the mistakes, we train through them.”
With a spooky, forward horse Graves talked about widening the riders’ hands as a tool to stabilize the bit and funnel the energy from their hind legs to the bit because “it gives the horse a bigger opportunity to succeed with a bigger target.”
“When you are on an uptight, spooky horse, using hands are counterproductive in relaxation,” Graves said. “The last thing we want to do is tell a horse he can’t move forward.”
A common theme of the day was relaxation in order to build confidence and for riders to work through mistakes.
“When you are schooling it is important not to lie for your horse,” Graves said about the idea of creating partnerships.
Claire McNulty, 15, from Holland, Michigan, trained with Graves at last year’s clinic and returned with her 12-year-old KWPN gelding, Checkmate.
“Today was super,” McNulty said. “She had me work on the basics and getting everything round and through over his back. I really liked our work on the canter pirouettes today because we sometimes have problems with those. My favorite exercise she had me do was doing haunchesin on a 20 meter circle and bringing it closer and closer.”
At the end of the day Graves was excited with all the young riders and their horses. She looked back at her own experience riding in programs with Lendon Gray and was impressed by how much the program has grown.
“It’s really incredible the things Lendon and Robert can put together down here and the sheer number of kids they bring from across the nation, along with the people that they have to speak,” Graves said.
“It is an education for people who don’t know where else to get it,” she added. “It’s not like you can say ‘I am going to college for this.’ Just because you maybe have a great trainer doesn’t open you up to have access to the USEF team veterinarian. [This clinic offers] really interesting things that you can’t get by jumping online or picking up your phone. To bring it all together is so special.”