Les­sons from Aachen

Top Young Rid­ers share what they learned dur­ing their visit to CHIO Aachen with The Dres­sage Foun­da­tion.

Dressage Today - - Content - By Cal­lie O’Con­nell, Amanda Perkowski, Han­nah Irons and Emma Smith

Top Young Rid­ers share what they learned dur­ing their visit to CHIO Aachen with The Dres­sage foun­da­tion.

It was mid-July when we met at the Ne­wark, New Jersey, air­port—four Young Rid­ers, ready for the trip of a life­time. A flight to Dus­sel­dorf, Ger­many, and then a train ride to Aachen brought us to what is known as the best dres­sage show in the world—CHIO Aachen. We were the 2018 par­tic­i­pants in The Dres­sage Foun­da­tion’s (TDF) Young Rider In­ter­na­tional Dream Pro­gram, which is spon­sored and ad­min­is­tered by TDF and was founded by Olympian Michael Poulin, who is on its board of di­rec­tors. The con­cept of the pro­gram is to al­low ded­i­cated U.S. Young Rid­ers the op­por­tu­nity to en­hance their un­der­stand­ing of dres­sage the­ory and cul­ture in Europe.

We ob­served, dis­cussed and ab­sorbed the Euro­pean train­ing sys­tem, which will be ben­e­fi­cial for the rest of our ca­reers. Our pri­mary chap­er­one, Barcelona (1992) Olympian Char­lotte Bredahl, is a cur­rent U.S. dres­sage youth coach, and our sec­ond chap­er­one, Meaghan Byrne, is a pro­fes­sional rider and a teach­ing fac­ulty mem­ber in the busi­ness depart­ment at Averett Univer­sity. Both had pre­vi­ous Euro­pean ex­pe­ri­ences and Char­lotte’s con­nec­tions proved price­less as we met many of the world’s best rid­ers and train­ers, who gen­er­ously do­nated their time to speak with us (see side­bar on p. 44).

Aachen was un­like any horse show we had ever ex­pe­ri­enced. The show started in 1924 and is rooted in the cul­ture and com­mu­nity of the city, of­ten at­tract­ing over 150,000 specta-

tors. In ad­di­tion to dres­sage, the show in­cludes world­class event­ing, show jump­ing, vault­ing and com­bined driv­ing.

We are ex­cited to share six key at­tributes that we learned go into de­vel­op­ing a top horse-and-rider com­bi­na­tion: aware­ness, at­ti­tude, ca­ma­raderie, hon­esty, ed­u­ca­tion and nur­ture.


This is the great­est in­gre­di­ent for change and self-im­prove­ment. When talk­ing to team rid­ers, we be­came acutely aware of the ex­ten­sive amount of time they spend tak­ing care of their horses ev­ery day. Most of the rid­ers do all the horse care them­selves. They know th­ese horses from nose to tail, which al­lows them to no­tice slight changes in their horses’ con­di­tion. Tak­ing care of th­ese world-class mounts is a full-time job and be­ing aware of the de­tails that keep them sound and happy is cru­cial for suc­cess. In ad­di­tion, the rid­ers pay no less at­ten­tion to their own phys­i­cal fit­ness and their men­tal well­be­ing so they can be the best rider pos­si­ble for their horse and the team. It was in­spir­ing to hear that team mem­bers and coaches went to the gym to­gether daily to im­prove their phys­i­cal fit­ness. Be­ing aware of and able to ad­dress weak­nesses in your horse or your­self is vi­tal for con­tin­u­ous im­prove­ment.

We also heard from U.S. team coach Deb­bie McDon­ald that mak­ing the Olympic team should never be your only goal. En­joy the process and take pride in your jour­ney to­ward suc­cess and ex­cel­lence, she said. Mak­ing a team is de­pen­dent on years of hard work, but luck and tim­ing are also con­sid­er­able fac­tors. The stars have to align at the right time, with the right horse and the right peo­ple be­hind you for it all to work out. Olympian Laura Graves talked about her jour­ney as a con­stant in­vest­ment in fur­ther­ing her ed­u­ca­tion and en­joy­ing the process. And as St­ef­fen Peters de­scribed, even for Olympians as well-sea­soned as he is, the learn­ing is end­less. Never stop step­ping out­side of your com­fort zone when pur­su­ing great­ness. Growth hap­pens when you are chal­lenged. Stay­ing hum­ble and keep­ing an open mind while be­ing aware of who you are and what you value will be your great­est as­set. No mat­ter how far you go, al­ways re­mem­ber the peo­ple who helped you along the way and give them the credit they de­serve.

While in Aachen, we had the op­por­tu­nity to meet a few in­ter­na­tional judges, in­clud­ing Henk van Ber­gen, who was a mem­ber of the FEI Judges Ad­vi­sory Panel. We have a new­found re­spect for the art of judg­ing dres­sage and the years of ed­u­ca­tion and con­tin­ued ded­i­ca­tion it de­mands. It may eas­ily go un­rec­og­nized that the judges of th­ese ma­jor com­pe­ti­tions are un­der pres­sure and scru­tiny from ev­ery an­gle. The main ob­jec­tive of judg­ing is to guide a rider in the right di­rec­tion in her train­ing. So th­ese judges are all work­ing to pro­vide rid­ers with the most cor­rect and help­ful ad­vice. We

learned to al­ways re­mem­ber that judges want to see rid­ers suc­ceed and they will give out high scores when de­served.


This is a de­ter­min­ing fac­tor in your present and fu­ture suc­cess. We had the priv­i­lege of wit­ness­ing great ex­am­ples of sports­man­ship at Aachen. When rid­ers had a bad test, they pat­ted the horse and left the ring smil­ing and wav­ing to the au­di­ence. Demon­strat­ing com­po­sure and good horse­man­ship, even in an emo­tional or dis­ap­point­ing sit­u­a­tion, will al­low your qual­ity of char­ac­ter to shine. Ev­ery­one in­volved with horses un­der­stands that this can be, at times, a frus­trat­ing and dif­fi­cult sport. We all go through tough times, bad rides or un­for­tu­nate cir­cum­stances. Pa­tience and per­sis­tence are your great­est al­lies. It is es­sen­tial to al­ways re­turn to ev­ery mo­ment and ev­ery ride with a clean men­tal slate. Do not al­low your­self to latch on to the neg­a­tiv­ity of yes­ter­day or the mis­take in the last move­ment, as this will only hin­der your next step. It’s best to keep mov­ing for­ward with the at­ti­tude that to­mor­row is an­other day.

Sev­eral pro­fes­sion­als stressed that a rider’s rep­u­ta­tion is be­ing made all the time. Dres­sage is a small and well-con­nected com­mu­nity. Po­ten­tial spon­sors pay at­ten­tion to how you be­have even when you don’t think they’re watch­ing and they take note of how you han­dle the most dif­fi­cult and stress­ful si­t­u­a­tions. Betsy Ju­liano, the owner of Olympian Adri­enne Lyle’s mount, Salvino, told us she es­pe­cially ad­mired Adri­enne be­cause of how grace­fully she had seen her han­dle a num­ber of chal­lenges. She said her class and re­silience were in­flu­en­tial fac­tors in her de­ci­sion to sup­port her in the fu­ture.

We asked mul­ti­ple com­peti­tors how they stay men­tally strong and fo­cused when un­der pres­sure. Laura stressed that it is in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant to sur­round your­self with the right peo­ple. A pos­i­tive, hon­est, un­der­stand­ing sup­port group will mo­ti­vate you to do your best while com­mis­er­at­ing with you and un­der­stand­ing the chal­lenges that come along the way.

As far as men­tal prepa­ra­tion, the rid­ers we spoke with had dif­fer­ent tools that worked best for them. Some used tech­niques such as vi­su­al­iza­tion, while oth­ers sought help from a sport psy­chol­o­gist. There is not one method that works for ev­ery­one. A few ad­di­tional sug­ges­tions from some of the Amer­i­can team rid­ers in­cluded find­ing an out­let to keep your mind fo­cused and busy, tak­ing quiet time for your­self and hav­ing some­one you trust to share your frus­tra­tions with.

St­ef­fen ex­plained that ner­vous­ness of­ten comes from feel­ing un­pre­pared. As a rider, you al­ways come to a horse show with a puz­zle. It be­comes a real prob­lem when there is a miss­ing piece. Al­ways be sure you are com­pet­ing at a level where you and you horse feel fully con­fi­dent. Never al­low the at­mos­phere of a horse show or your own men­tal anx­i­ety to al­ter the way you ride—learn to sep­a­rate your wor­ries from your horse’s needs. St­ef­fen de­scribed how he al­ways strives to keep the stan­dard of per­for­mance at the same level when work­ing at home as at the show so his horses feel pre­pared and are not sur­prised by a sud­den in­crease of pres­sure when on new ter­ri­tory.


Be sup­port­ive of oth­ers and build a sup­port group of peo­ple who un­der­stand. On our first day to­gether, we all bonded right away. It was such a priv­i­lege to meet other peo­ple with sim­i­lar goals and lifestyles. When we ar­rived in Dus­sel­dorf, we had an hour-long train ride to Aachen. We got the chance to hear about each other’s day-to-day life and re­al­ized just how much we had in common. All of us hold some form of full­time job at the barn, which we bal­ance with col­lege, and we are all pur­su­ing a ca­reer in the horse in­dus­try as train­ers. In our sport, it is some­times dif­fi­cult to find time for so­cial events and time with friends out­side of the end­less hours spent at the barn. It was great to meet oth­ers who go through sim­i­lar chal­lenges and have an un­der­stand­ing of the ded­i­ca­tion it takes.

Many of those we spoke to dur­ing the week clearly em­pha­sized the im­por­tance

of an un­der­stand­ing sup­port group. The in­di­vid­ual na­ture of dres­sage some­times makes one feel as if she is in it alone. There is end­less value in hav­ing some­one to turn to who un­der­stands your sport be­yond a sur­face level and can em­pathize with the chal­lenges. Talk­ing to some­one who has been in your shoes and has gone through sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences can be very up­lift­ing when you are strug­gling. It was clear when speak­ing with Laura and fel­low Olympian Kasey Perry-Glass that the two were great friends, whose bond had only been made stronger through- out their time as team­mates. Laura men­tioned that some­times con­fid­ing in some­one out­side the horse in­dus­try about the strug­gles you may be facing in your rid­ing does not al­ways have the same ef­fect as talk­ing with some­one who may have faced that same chal­lenge her­self. Other rid­ers can em­pathize be­cause they un­der­stand just how im­por­tant your horse and your rid­ing are to you.

Ev­i­dence of a strong and close-knit sup­port group was clearly seen in the U.S. con­tin­gency com­pet­ing in Aachen. The ca­ma­raderie among team mem­bers was pal­pa­ble. They were al­ways there to cheer each other on and did just about ev­ery­thing to­gether, from go­ing to the gym to do­ing each other’s hair. Through­out this show, all the rid­ers were still com­pet­ing for spots on the WEG team, but this didn’t stop any of them from sup­port­ing each other with­out reser­va­tion.

An ad­di­tional ben­e­fit of an un­der­stand­ing sup­port group is the op­por­tu­nity to talk things through and learn from those around you. Talk to oth­ers around you about your rid­ing and what you are see­ing. Be­ing able to dis­cuss the rides we saw through­out the week with each other left us all with a much bet­ter sense of what we were see­ing and how we could ap­ply it to our own rid­ing. Char­lotte took time while we were watch­ing tests to sit with each of us in­di­vid­u­ally and dis­cuss what we saw. It was so help­ful to be able to learn from her per­spec­tive as both an Olympian and FEI judge and com­pare it with our own. Learn­ing to ver­bal­ize your thoughts helps bring clar­ity and un­der­stand­ing to what you are tak­ing in.


This is vi­tal for qual­ity com­mu­ni­ca­tion and suc­cess. One of the most im­pact­ful traits that all the peo­ple we spoke to demon­strated was hon­esty. Ev­ery­one gave gen­uine per­sonal re­sponses to the ques­tions we asked, clearly show­ing us that even rid­ers who are in­cred­i­bly suc­cess­ful and com­pet­ing at a high level still have the same chal­lenges and feel­ings as we do. They all talked about how they deal with nerves at com­pe­ti­tions and how they deal with the stress of rep­re­sent­ing their coun­try and hav­ing their team­mates rely on them. Many rid­ers com­mented that ev­ery­one han­dles pres­sure dif­fer­ently, so you need to find the sys­tem that works best for you.

They all em­pha­sized the im­por­tance of com­mu­ni­ca­tion in ev­ery as­pect, from keep­ing spon­sors in­formed to talk­ing with your trainer, vet, far­rier and so on. Adri­enne de­scribed how com­mu­ni­cat­ing hon­estly shows peo­ple you

are in­vested in the well-be­ing of your horse and in­ter­ested in keep­ing peo­ple in­volved. If you don’t have com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween the many mem­bers of your team, you are miss­ing an op­por­tu­nity to brain­storm the best pos­si­ble plan for your horse.

An ex­cel­lent ex­am­ple of class and hon­esty was when one of the Ger­man team rid­ers, Dorothee Sch­nei­der, scratched her horse from the CDI 4* be­cause the horse had a swollen leg that morn­ing. The rider came out to the arena dur­ing her ride time and an­nounced to the crowd what had hap­pened and ex­plained the sit­u­a­tion. This can­did act avoided un­nec­es­sary spec­u­la­tion and gos­sip that may have oth­er­wise taken place had the rider not made that de­ci­sion. Be­ing hon­est in this sport will make for a more pos­i­tive and sup­port­ive dres­sage com­mu­nity.


Never stop learn­ing, com­mu­ni­cat­ing and mak­ing an ef­fort to un­der­stand. This trip raised our stan­dards for our own rid­ing and train­ing. We were amazed by the qual­ity of rid­ing that we saw. The fi­nal phase of the com­pe­ti­tion was the Grand Prix Freestyle, and the top eight horse­and-rider qual­i­fy­ing scores were above 80 per­cent. The in­cred­i­ble at­ten­tion to de­tail and pre­ci­sion that was ex­em­pli­fied in each ride is a tes­ta­ment to the in­creas­ing qual­ity of the sport. There is al­ways more to learn, and the level of ex­cel­lence we saw first­hand shows the level of great­ness that is achiev­able.

We learned what it takes to main­tain horses at this level. All of the rid­ers we spoke with in­cluded work out­side the arena in their horses’ fit­ness plans. This ranged from hack­ing to hill work to the aqua tread­mill. Keep­ing in­formed on the lat­est re­search on equine health and fit­ness is an­other im­por­tant as­pect to stay­ing on top of your horse’s long-term well-be­ing.

At the end of the day, this is a judged sport. The feel of your ride is im­por­tant but so is the look from the ground. Al­ways have a ground per­son you can trust or some­one you can go to for reg­u­lar les­sons be­cause what you feel is not al­ways what the judges see.

One of the most im­por­tant fac­tors in achiev­ing your goals is hard work. Ev­ery­one, no mat­ter their back­ground, must work hard to get where they are. Keep the mind­set that any­one can achieve ex­cel­lence and, while luck is in­volved, there are fac­tors within your con­trol. Make the most out of the horse you have re­gard­less of your sit­u­a­tion. If you put your heart into your horse, he will give his heart back. This will pre­pare your skill set and abil­ity for when that su­per­star horse comes along.


We learned how im­por­tant it is to nur­ture your­self, your horses, your ed­u­ca­tion and your sport. Dres­sage is a part of the cul­ture in Ger­many and as such, en­thu­si­asts have taken the time to ac­tively nur­ture their ed­u­ca­tion. The crowd was in tune with each test and if a rider made a mis­take, the crowd gasped. The au­di­ence shared in the rid­ers’ suc­cesses and re­warded them at the end with a stand­ing ova­tion if a per­for­mance was truly note­wor­thy. Th­ese small ex­am­ples high­lighted how ed­u­cated the crowd was at Aachen. We were talk­ing to a Ger­man cou­ple who was sit­ting in front of us on the fi­nal day of the show. After ask­ing how many times the woman had been to the show, she said she and her hus­band had come ev­ery year since they moved to Aachen in 1950! That is a won­der­ful ex­am­ple of ded­i­ca­tion to con­tin­u­ous learn­ing.

When we spoke with top judges and train­ers, many em­pha­sized the value of a for­mal ed­u­ca­tion. They all stressed the ne­ces­sity for con­tin­u­ous learn­ing in the horse in­dus­try, but they also stressed the im­por­tance of fin­ish­ing col­lege. FEI judge Anne Grib­bons told us that ed­uca- tion is some­thing that can never be taken away from you, so you should in­vest the time and en­ergy to com­plete it. Be­ing a well­rounded and well-ed­u­cated in­di­vid­ual adds value to you as a rider in the same way that in­creas­ing your un­der-sad­dle ed­u­ca­tion does. Even though the rid­ers in Aachen are at the top lev­els of the sports, they are still learn­ing. We came away with the re­al­iza­tion that a portion of our in­come should be rein­vested in our ed­u­ca­tion so that we are al­ways im­prov­ing. In­volve­ment in pro­grams such as the USDF “L” Pro­gram and the In­struc­tor Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion Pro­gram was en­cour­aged by the peo­ple we met.

Young horses—an area we all have in­ter­est in—were a common topic in our con­ver­sa­tions. We spoke with rid­ers and train­ers about the cri­te­ria they use to se­lect fu­ture Grand Prix prospects. They noted that the sales videos you see likely show the most ex­trav­a­gant move­ment the horse can do be­cause the main ob­jec­tive of such videos is of­ten to show­case the horse’s best gaits. Six-time Olympian Kyra Kyrk­lund says she looks for a good hind leg and strong sti­fles and that the horse is con­for­ma­tion­ally ca­pa­ble of a Grand Prix frame. St­ef­fen says he

places high pri­or­ity on a horse with a nat­u­ral abil­ity and in­cli­na­tion for self-car­riage, a quiet mouth and a good con­nec­tion—even as a young horse. We were re­minded that big­ger gaits are only ben­e­fi­cial when ac­com­pa­nied by an abil­ity to col­lect and bal­ance and that it is pos­si­ble to have gaits that are too big and can be­come a detri­ment to your horse as you move up the lev­els if he is not able to ad­e­quately con­trol them. It is bet­ter to have a horse with smaller gaits that you can develop than a horse whose gaits are so large that he has bal­ance is­sues. The rid­ers we spoke with stressed the im­por­tance of a good mind and tem­per­a­ment. They said that it is eas­ier to cre­ate more qual­ity with a horse who has a good work ethic than to cre­ate a work ethic in a ta­lented horse. A good per­son­al­ity can make up for many phys­i­cal chal­lenges.

The Trip of a Life­time

Ev­ery­one we spoke with was in­cred­i­bly busy with their in­volve­ment at Aachen—one of the largest CDIs in the world. Yet each of them took an ex­ten­sive amount of time out of their sched­ules to share their knowl­edge with us and an­swer our ques­tions. This showed us just how gen­er­ous and ea­ger to ed­u­cate most of those at the top of our sport are.

Our six days in Aachen raised our stan­dards for rid­ing and train­ing and ex­posed us to the best of the best in the sport. Read­ing and watch­ing videos of top rid­ers is one thing, but be­ing able to see them in per­son makes it feel so much more real and ap­pli­ca­ble. It was very spe­cial to be able to sup­port Team U.S.A. dur­ing the con­clu­sion of their suc­cess­ful Euro­pean Tour, and hear­ing our na­tional an­them on for­eign soil was a feel­ing we will never for­get. We will carry the knowl­edge we gained at Aachen through­out the rest of our ca­reers in the horse in­dus­try. A huge thank you to The Dres­sage Foun­da­tion and its sup­port­ers for giv­ing us this life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

The au­thors with Olivia LaGoyWeltz (far left), Char­lotte Bredahl (far right) and Spain's Juan Matute Jr.

Tick­ets to the best show in town: CHIO Aachen

The au­thors vis­it­ing the Aachen Cathe­dral built circa 796

Cook­ies at the lo­cal bak­ery made in honor of CHIO Aachen

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