Sometimes I feel like my dressage education is an add-a-bead necklace. I take lessons, I ride and audit clinics, and I observe riders, and each educational opportunity gives me a new pearl to add to my chain. In the weeks since the Judge’s Forum and FEI Trainer’s conference in West Palm Beach and Loxahachee FL, I’ve found my teaching and riding sprinkled with the pearls I gleaned from my trip.
The first pearl was for me. The major reason I make the trek down each year is to re-set my standard. Winter in PA creates a challenge—how do I keep my standard high throughout the long months of riding alone? During the summer, I can sit ringside at shows, observing the JJ Tates of the world, and let my cognitive learning skills do their magic. I watch skilled rider’s body alignment, quietly effective aids, and the volume of their corrections. This information worms itself into my brain, and my mounts respond. But the magic doesn’t last forever, so by mid January, 12 weeks after our last show, my training was feeling a bit stale.
After two days of watching 7 CDI Level riders, including such names as Canada’s WEG rider Karen Pavicic on her up-and-coming mare Beaujolais, and Beatrice Marienau aboard her Nation’s Cup mount Stefano 8, develop their horses, my internal dressage eye is reset, my brain is working out new training ideas, and my arena time now feels much more inspired.
Venus was the recipient of the next pearl. She often comes into the arena a touch on the unresponsive side. For her, the pearl came from Alexandra du Celliee Muller’s lesson on her mount, Rumba. I watched as Alexandra tried to subtly, tactfully bring Rumba more in front of her aids, and how that made her seat more and more crooked, just like happens to me on Venus. Then, as the clinicians Lilo Fore and Hans Christan Matthiesen encouraged her to get a better reaction, Alexandra gave him a strong (but not ugly) correction, to which Rumba splattered forward, dropped his poll, and lost the collection. Ah, Venus and I know this pattern well.
Lilo gave cooking advice that clearly resonated with Alexandra. She described cooking soup, and how when the soup needs salt, you don’t come in with the entire bag, because if you get the soup too salty, it’s tough to fix it. Instead you add salt, you taste it, and then you add more if needed.
Was the result magical? I’d be lying if I said Lilo’s words made a 100% turnaround, but it did make a difference, in not only Rumbas balance, but Alexandra’s straightness. Lilo made clear to all of us, riders, judges, and auditors, that this is not a quick-fix problem. And, of course, as horses are apt to do, Rumba set out to prove Lilo wrong – he came in on day two more uphill and more prompt in his responses.
Slingshot also received a pearl, this time from Dana Fiore’s lesson on So Special. So Special wanted to come short and deep in the neck, putting too much weight on his shoulders, which affected his suspension. Dana applied the clinician’s corrections to “show him the way up” through variations in shoulder in– the two that made the biggest difference were trot-walk in shoulder in, and varying the angle of shoulder in while maintaining the same bend. Throughout the ride, So Special’s trot gained more and more airtime.
My students and I all received a pearl from Karen Pavicic’s lesson on Beaujolais and Debbie Hill’s lesson on Cartier, a 9-year-old Dutch Harness Horse (who, incidentally, at one point in his career came through New Holland horse auction). Both horses were big, powerful moving horses, with a ton of bounce in their gait, and a tendency to carry their heads high. The corrections – focusing on hands going with seat bones in the canter, connecting calves to the bouncy horse, and making collection changes in small increments to help the horse understand to use their hips instead of their neck, keep getting repeated in my home sandbox, both to myself and my students.
Like an add-a-bead necklace, each pearl I gain creates a more complete string of knowledge on how to better develop horses and riders in this beautiful sport.