Train­ing Tips From the U.S. Team Coach

Three rid­ers share the lessons they learned on through­ness, con­nec­tion and more from this six-time Olympian.

Practical Horseman - - Contents - By Abby Carter Photos by Va­lerie Dur­bon

Six-time Olympian and Chef d’ Equipe Robert Dover of­fers train­ing wis­dom and ex­er­cises to help rid­ers of all lev­els ac­com­plish com­mon goals.

When rid­ers at­tend a clinic with six-time Olympian Robert Dover, they usu­ally come with goals to reach and is­sues to ad­dress. This was the case when Gre­ber Dres­sage hosted the cur­rent U.S. dres­sage chef d’équipe/tech­ni­cal ad­vi­sor for a two-day clinic in White­hall, Vir­ginia, in May. Three clinic rid­ers of dif­fer­ing lev­els shared their goals and ex­pe­ri­ences. While Robert quickly spot­ted the strengths and weak­nesses of each horse­and-rider pair, he re­minded the clinic rid­ers that they all have com­mon goals. Each, he said, should own:

1. The rhythm of the foot­falls in all three gaits—how fast or slow each foot­fall is

2. The tempo—the speed with which you are cov­er­ing each me­ter of ground in all three gaits 3. The frame of the horse—how high or low or how short or long 4. The length of stride Robert used a com­bi­na­tion of con­cepts, vi­su­al­iza­tion and ex­er­cises to get rid­ers closer to achiev­ing the op­ti­mum of all these fun­da­men­tals.

Ni­cole’s Lessons: Through­ness, Con­nec­tion and Straight­ness

Rider: Ni­cole Del Giorno Horse: Hide, a 5-year-old KWPN

Back­ground: Re­spectable year in the U.S. Eques­trian Fed­er­a­tion Four-Year-Old Dres­sage Test level; prior to clinic, they schooled Sec­ond Level Goal: Com­pete in the FEI (In­ter­na­tional Eques­trian Fed­er­a­tion) 5-year-old test be­fore the end of the year. Is­sues to ad­dress: Achieve greater through­ness De­velop straight­ness to help pro­duce col­lec­tion

Sharpen her skills at col­lect­ing, sim­ple changes and medium trot

As Ni­cole and Hide started their ride, Robert in­tro­duced the “rub­ber-band” ex­er­cise. In the work, Ni­cole moved Hide from col­lected trot to medium trot and back to col­lected both on a cir­cle and around the whole arena. (With less-ex­pe­ri­enced horses, the rub­ber-band ex­er­cise might be from work­ing trot to length­ened stride.) Robert said to see “the grand­est ver­sion you could pos­si­bly en­vi­sion in your mind’s eye of you and your horse danc­ing around the arena,” adding that “you should have the beau­ti­ful vi­sion of [Olympic gold-medal­ist] Vale­gro’s pas­sage or ex­tended trot. Try to match that vi­sion. You can’t cre­ate what you don’t imag­ine.” He also told Ni­cole that if Hide was slow with his re­sponses, she should “getty-up and go”—ac­ti­vate her leg and seat un­til the thought of just these aids makes the horse think go. The re­sults were very prompt tran­si­tions. As they im­proved, Ni­cole found much bet­ter con­sis­tency in her through­ness and con­nec­tion with Hide. Later she said, “I needed a ba­sic de­gree of ‘go’ to ac­com­plish through­ness. So he took us back to ba­sics—‘Leg on’ [plus seat] means ‘GO … NOW.’ It has changed Hide’s at­ti­tude 100 per­cent. He thinks it’s a game now.” As they did more work and Hide im­proved his ac­cep­tance of the con­tact, the straight­ness is­sues started to re­solve them­selves.

When Ni­cole’s sec­ond-day ride got un­der way, it was clear that this new abil­ity to stay con­nected was well on its way to be­ing firmly es­tab­lished, so to help fur­ther with the can­ter straight­ness, Robert had Ni­cole ride an ex­er­cise that used ev­ery bit of the arena. She was to can­ter the long side and short end, go across the di­ag­o­nal, then at X (the cen­ter of the arena) ride a 10-me­ter cir­cle, re­turn­ing to the same di­ag­o­nal line and then ride a sim­ple tran­si­tion to walk with an im­me­di­ate tran­si­tion back to can­ter on the new lead. The pat­tern re­quires bal­ance, straight­ness and con­sis­tency in the can­ter. The horse must stay bal­anced on the di­ag­o­nal line with no wall to help, main­tain the same pace to X, ride the 10-me­ter cir­cle with no loss of im­pul­sion and then change the bend and main­tain sup­ple­ness so the sim­ple change is clear and cor­rect. Ni­cole said of this ex­er­cise, “It seems like a sim­ple pat­tern, but there is no cheat­ing. It keeps me and Hide hon­est in what we are try­ing to achieve.”

As Ni­cole and Hide fin­ished their week­end, Robert said she should not hesi-

tate to take Hide to the USEF Five-YearOld Dres­sage Test class the next week­end: “Be fierce and fear­less—go for it.” Ni­cole says she did as he sug­gested and that Hide’s over­all scores were 7.7 and 7.6, win­ning both days.

Sarah’s Lessons: Clar­ity of Con­nec­tion

Rider: Sarah Kern Horse: Lyam, an 8-year-old KWPN Back­ground: Train­ing Fourth Level Goal: En­ter the De­vel­op­ing Horse pro­gram at Prix St. Ge­orges. Is­sues to ad­dress:

De­velop tools for Lyam’s spook­i­ness, which causes ten­sion, re­sult­ing in dropped shoul­ders and poll, lead­ing to a loss of ca­dence

Over­come Lyam’s slight ten­dency to lat­eral walk

Find a new goal or focus dur­ing the clinic. “I hope he gives me a new task to work to­ward or iden­ti­fies a weak­ness I am not aware of,” Sarah said.

Ac­cord­ing to Sarah, Lyam’s big­gest chal­lenge is his ex­citabil­ity, which can cause him to lose his rhythm, es­pe­cially in the walk where he tends to go lat­eral as he gets tense. When ad­dress­ing this, Robert ex­plained the me­chan­ics be­hind the walk, say­ing the walk steps are al­ways cor­rect in the four-beat rhythm, or “pure,” in two sit­u­a­tions (un­less the horse was bred to pace):

from halt to walk, the step or two in the tran­si­tion to walk after the halt

from walk to trot, the step just be­fore the tran­si­tion to trot.

With this in mind, he had Sarah prac­tice rid­ing the walk as if at any next step she would go to pas­sage. The idea of pas­sage would keep the horse think­ing about go­ing on to trot but never quite mak­ing the tran­si­tion, thus the walk steps are each like the walk step just be­fore the trot— pure. Be­cause Lyam had to con­stantly be think­ing about this po­ten­tial tran­si­tion to pas­sage, he was no longer able to get lat­eral. To fur­ther the im­prove­ment of the walk, Robert added a half pirou­ette in walk. Sarah said af­ter­ward that this had the ef­fect of sharp­en­ing Lyam to her leg, which helped him think more for­ward to­ward the pas­sage.

Lyam’s tense­ness also some­times cre­ated a quick and short trot stride, un­like the mo­ments when he was

re­laxed and showed bet­ter length and ca­dence. Robert com­mented—not just to Sarah but to the other rid­ers as well—that, in gen­eral, rid­ers need to get rid of the “shades of trot”—he wanted to see a trot that main­tained the same rhythm whether the tempo, length of stride or de­gree of col­lec­tion changed. Us­ing the “rub­ber band” again, as he had with Ni­cole, Robert had Sarah con­cen­trate on get­ting a re­li­able “GO” and main­tain­ing a very cor­rect and con­sis­tent con­tact so she was clear ex­actly what was ex­pected of Lyam.

As Sarah be­came clearer in her in­struc­tions to Lyam, his ten­sion de­creased and he be­came con­sis­tent in his rhythm—he seemed to re­lax into the work and no longer showed “shades of trot.”

“I started to no­tice and feel ev­ery time I threw my hands for­ward and dropped the con­nec­tion in­stead of sup­port­ing [Lyam],” Sarah said after her first ride. As this be­came sec­ond na­ture, Lyam’s trot be­came the trot that Robert was look­ing for, which was easy to ad­just whether it was col­lected or medium or in shoul­der-in or half pass.

Sarah con­tin­ued to im­prove the clar­ity of her con­nec­tion and aids in the col­lected can­ter work. To test Lyam’s sup­ple­ness in the can­ter while im­prov­ing the can­ter’s jump, Robert in­tro­duced an ex­er­cise: a 20-me­ter cir­cle that spi­raled in to a volte (a 6-, 8- or 10-me­ter cir­cle), then spi­raled out to a three-loop ser­pen­tine of the full arena, main­tain­ing the same lead. This re­quired Sarah to con­cen­trate on keep­ing Lyam for­ward in the volte’s col­lected/pir- ou­ette can­ter and main­tain­ing that feel­ing spi­ral­ing out be­cause the counter can­ter in the sec­ond loop re­quired nearly as much bal­ance and jump as the volte. “I re­al­ized I cur­rently give and take too much in the can­ter pirou­ette work and Lyam slows down and pulls through the turn.” With the spi­ral, “It gave both me and Lyam an idea about how it should feel” to do a pirou­ette: that he only needs to be guided around when ev­ery­thing is cor­rect.

“One last thing [Robert] brought up that I re­ally liked was to re­mem­ber to praise your horse,” Sarah added about her clinic ex­pe­ri­ence. “Lyam needs con­fi­dence and I can help with that by let­ting him know when he does a good job.”

Lynn’s Lessons: Half-pass and Can­ter Pirou­ette

Rider: Lynn Jandrowski Horse: Val­sar, an 8-year-old An­dalu­sian, bred and owned by Melody Light Back­ground: Com­pet­ing at In­ter­me­di­aire I Goal: Reach Prix St. Ge­orges this year Is­sues to ad­dress:

Find more scope and reach in the half-pass

Cor­rect a drop­ping shoul­der in the can­ter pirou­ette

Ad­dress her horse’s de­sire to an­tic­i­pate what comes next in­stead of wait­ing

As with Ni­cole and Sarah, Lynn’s les­son with Val­sar be­gan with work in the “rub­ber band.” Robert had them work on a 20-me­ter cir­cle, hav­ing Lynn feel as if the tran­si­tions from ex­tended gaits to col­lected gaits were easy and seam­less. At one point, he en­cour­aged her to ride more for­ward into a loft­ing col­lected gait, es­sen-

tially to “fold up the ex­ten­sion.” This idea trans­formed the trot by keep­ing it su­per ac­tive as Val­sar dropped his croup and changed his car­riage. Once Val­sar was mov­ing at his best, they be­gan to work on the lat­eral move­ments, al­ways with the medium gait in mind.

One of Lynn’s goals was to im­prove the reach in the half-pass. To do this, Robert had her ride medium trot, point the horse’s chest at the let­ter she was trav­el­ing to, ride the haunches-in and not hurry. By com­mit­ting Val­sar to the line of travel, it freed up his haunches to draw him over into the cross­ing for the half-pass: His reach got longer and cross­ing be­came greater with­out los­ing the for­ward­ness of the gait.

Im­prove­ment of the pirou­ette re­quired a multi-step ap­proach, start­ing with the “rub­ber band” in can­ter on a cir­cle, then on a spi­ral. As Lynn rode in on the spi­ral, she had to main­tain the en­ergy she had de­vel­oped on the larger cir­cle. Next Robert had them come out of the cor­ner and take the can­ter into the half-pass on the di­ag­o­nal line to so­lid­ify the en­gage­ment and as they came to the cen­ter­line, move into a work­ing can­ter pirou­ette on the di­ag­o­nal. In this pirou­ette, Lynn’s task was to ride out of it the mo­ment Val­sar tried to take over. This quick cor­rec­tion, com­bined with the con­firmed en­gage­ment, helped him re­al­ize he had to wait and could no longer fall through his shoul­der. Lynn added that “it also helped to take my hands slightly to­ward the out­side of the pirou­ette in or­der to con­trol his shoul­der” as Robert in­structed.

After the clinic fin­ished, Lynn said, “Robert told me to vi­su­al­ize in my mind’s eye the best gait that I can in each gait and ride that. This has re­ally helped me have higher ex­pec­ta­tions for Val­sar and the other horses I have in train­ing.” Just a week after the clinic, Lynn had a very suc­cess­ful com­pe­ti­tion, win­ning both USEF De­vel­op­ing Prix St. Ge­orges classes at the Lex­ing­ton Spring Dres­sage show in Vir­ginia.

With­out a doubt, Robert gave 110 per­cent to each horse-and-rider com­bi­na­tion, mak­ing it a riv­et­ing week­end for not just those rid­ing but also the au­di­tors. His ex­pec­ta­tions for the horses and rid­ers were very high and through his in­fec­tious en­cour­age­ment, at­ten­tion to the small­est de­tail and ad­her­ence to clas­si­cally cor­rect train­ing, ev­ery­one was able to reach these lofty goals.

“Robert told me to vi­su­al­ize in my mind’s eye the best gait that I can in each gait and ride that,” said Lynn Jandrowski of rid­ing in a clinic with Robert Dover. “This has re­ally helped me have higher ex­pec­ta­tions for Val­sar and the other horses I have in train­ing.”

Clinic rid­ers Sarah Kern (left) and Ni­cole Del Giorno with Robert Dover

One of Ni­cole’s goals with Hide was to sharpen her skills at col­lect­ing. Robert en­cour­aged her and other rid­ers to ride their horses more for­ward into a loft­ing col­lected medium trot, es­sen­tially “fold­ing up” the ex­ten­sion into medium.

Sarah learns about the me­chan­ics of the walk from Robert, which helps her to cor­rect Lyam’s slight ten­dency to slip into a lat­eral walk.

ABOVE/TOP: As with all of the clinic rid­ers, Robert en­cour­aged Lynn to own Val­sar’s rhythm, tempo, frame and length of stride.” He also wanted the horses to re­spond promptly in the tran­si­tions.

LEFT: Swiss Rid­ing Mas­ter Bruno Gre­ber not only hosted Robert for the two-day clinic in White­hall, Vir­ginia, but he rode in the clinic as well.

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