Italian international Grand Prix rider Silvia Rizzo has never shied away from opening new doors and embracing educational opportunies to take her riding to the next level. After an almost 2.5-year break from international competition, Rizzo and Ducati have returned to arena and showcased a new level of partnership achieved by training with Tristan Tucker, the natural horsemanship way.
As a result Rizzo clinched her first of two FEI required Minimum Eligibility Scores for the 2022 World Championships Dressage in Herning.
Finding the Balance
For the past 15 years German based Rizzo has trained with Rudolf Zeilinger and Dutch Olympians Hans Peter Minderhoud and Adelinde Cornelissen. They gave her the tools for meticulous test riding, movement after movement, and no longer feeling overwhelmed by the fast pace in a Grand Prix test.
While Silvia kept on chiseling at the technical part of competition riding, her life partner Michele Betti, a former Italian eventing and para dressage team trainer, recommended opening the door to the world of natural horsemanship.
"Michele always keeps pushing every rider, including myself, to find the right balance between competitive results, athletic development, and a high standard of animal welfare. He has been following the work of Tristan Tucker on the internet for years and we got particularly interested to see how Tristan could help us with our youngsters Donnerbaldo and Orfeo Sollenburg," Rizzo explained.
The Natural Horsemanship Way
More and more international dressage riders are incorporating groundwork and in-hand training - the natural horsemanship way - into their dressage programme for more efficient and safe horse-human interaction and to mentally prepare horses for the highly electric atmosphere of the competition world.
The Dutch based Australian Tristan Tucker developed the TRT method, his version of a systematic approach of training horses on the ground and under saddle according to the principles of learning theory.
"We started working with Tristan for our young horses, so we would understand each other in a better way, in hand and under saddle," Silvia explained. "I saw great improvements in both right away, because it enhaneed their coordination, musculature, and the ability to use their body. For me personally it was eye opening that the horses gave me a more positive, co-operative feeling even when I request the more difficult exercises."
Tucker explained, "Silvia has an incredible drive to become better, and to understand her horse more, that is why I choose to work together with her and Duc. In the beginning Silvia, like a lot of riders especially in top sport, was very focused on the technical aspects of riding, what to do, when to do it, to get the horse to do what is needed, to get the points we want (..) instead of learning who is my horse, what does he need and how can I teach it to him."
This new approach into horse training was a steep learning curve for Silvia who soon realized that it would also benefit her number one in the barn, Grand Prix horse Ducati (by Don Crusador x Rotspon).
"I had to work very hard on myself, because I wanted to understand this new approach and also make it applicable to my Grand Prix horse," she said. "I decided to bring along Ducati, who is an extremely intelligent horse. He picked up the ground work super fast and not only did it improve his elasticity, but most important to me is that I have never felt a stronger connection and union between me and my horse."
The most important take-away for Silvia was that Ducati now performs the most difficult movements "with less effort and more pleasure."
Tristan added, "ground work is a big part of the process in the beginning that is always difficult for a rider, to take them off the horse and put them in front of it. A lot of riders don’t like to be taken out of their comfort zone that much. Silvia felt all those things I’m sure, but it didn’t deter her one bit. She did the work! She can now work all her horses on the ground also the young horses, she can piaffe them in hand and has the skills and communication with her Grand Prix horse."
Reaping the Fruits
During the corona years, Silvia stayed at home out of health concerns for her and her family and the time away from the show ring gave her plenty of opportunity to recalibrate her thinking process and way of riding with the extra lessons learnt from Tucker.
"Often people think this method is only for young horses or those with character problems, but for more trained horses this method is very effective as they adapt quickly to it. In my experience it empowers them to be more open to the rider and have a better, mutual understanding. I felt a big difference in the piaffe and passage. It got the confidence not to override my horse and Ducati was empowered as he knew he could do it right on his own."
Rizzo and Ducati returned to the show ring after a 2.5 year break at the 2022 CDI Opglabbeek at the beginning of April. A month later at the CDI Troisdorf in Germany, they posted 66.022% in the Grand Prix and 66.021% in the Grand Prix Special, reaping the fruits of their labour.
Widen the Horizon
Tucker's help has not only benefit the horses' self-confidence under saddle but also given Silvia a major mental boost.
"I had to get back into the game after such a long time away from competition. I felt a greater enthusiasm and determination than ever before as this has widened my horizon," Rizzo admitted. "I always like to improve myself, but this process feels like re-wiring my brain and it needed time. Tristan has taught me to "feel" my horses more, in all situations, from when I walk them in hand to conditioning them in the warm-up arena."
Tucker explained that, "the high expectations the sport puts on you, by focusing all time on what it isn’t, meaning "it isn’t expressive enough, it isn’t uphill enough, it isn’t good enough," which all filters down through the rider and onto the horse, can be the undoing of a lot of horse and rider combinations, bringing on undesired behaviours, inconsistencies in performance and injuries. Many riders could be relieved of all that by making the shift from focusing on what only needs to happen in the ring to how can I be the best mentor for my horse first, and for that you can then enjoy dressage for the exact reason you got into it."
Rizzo expressed that adding natural horsemanship to her more competition oriented training feels like a breath of fresh air.
"For me this is undoubtedly an incentive to keep working on myself and to become better," she concluded. "Tristan is a very intuitive trainer. The execution of the movement is not his goal, but the road to it. He makes me feel and figure out the path for myself and I am feeling a better, emotional connection with my horses. When I ride it is as if I am in a bubble, focused only on feeling my horses. I have never been more happy and in control of my riding then now."
Tristan concluded, "the rewarding part about working with a rider like Silvia is you get to see that they learn to ride with their horse instead of on their horse. The shift of focus Silvia has made to becoming the best person she can be for Duc has meant she can enjoy the journey."