2024 USDF Trainers Conference - Part 2: "Systematic Work, Relying on the Basics"

Sun, 01/21/2024 - 18:10
Training Your Horse
Sven Rothenberger training Endel Ots on the Belgian warmblood bred Lion King at the 2024 USDF Trainers Conference :: Photos © Carmen Franco

- Text and Photos © Carmen Franco for Eurodressage

This is the continuation of my report about the USDF FEI level Trainers Conference, a fantastic program of the United States Dressage Federation, hosted every year at the beautiful High Meadows Farm owned by Walter and Mary Anne McPhail.

This year the clinicians were Olympians Sven Rothenberger and Sabine Schut-Kery, with retired FEI Judge Lilo Fore as moderator. You can find part 1 of the report here

Systematic Work

Next up after a lunch break to work with Sven Rothenberger was Kristin Stein on the 8-year old Dutch warmblood Karamba (by Apache x Florencio x Jazz). This is a very sensitive, hot horse that got tense with the environment. His reaction is mainly to go behind the bit. Sven said the correction will come from building a strong back and core. Kristin rode very tactfully with soft aids, switching between rising and sitting trot. The approach to transitions was to apply the leg - long and without the use of the spur - and “take the bit in front, from the seat” to avoid his neck and chest getting too tight. When extending the trot, she was encouraged to start in rising trot and then sit, to teach him to stretch more into connection. 

Kristin Stein on Karamba
Karamba got overwhelmed a few times and his reaction was to stop dead on the spot. Kristin allowed him to take a few seconds to see and feel the environment and gently pushed forward after. Sven suggested instead to turn him around as a better and faster solution. At the canter they worked on 20-meter circles opening and shortening the strides, then going on half diagonals looking for a flying change, making him jump more into connection. Sven said that every rider has a system to teach flying changes, but he suggests to start working on them when the horse has walk – canter – walk transitions and the rider understands the leg position. He also advised having someone on the ground looking, as it is not always easy to know if a horse is changing correctly. 

Sadly, Kristin couldn’t bring back Karamba for the second day and Jessica Jo Tate jumped into that spot with the 10-year old Hanoverian Denali (by Don Noblesse x Scolari). During the warm-up, Sven noticed how it was easier to bend on one side than the other and he made them work on 20-meter circles with the haunches to the inside, as Denali wanted to throw them out. “It’s easier to bend than stretch a muscle, do it gradually. If you made me do the splits today, I would be so scared, but if every day we worked on it for the next ten years, I could do it.

JJ Tate on Denali
To help with the bending, he asked JJ to take with the inside rein but also give a little with the outside, like when riding a bicycle, but to be sure not to throw the rein away. They worked on variations from extended walk to free walk, then collected, then canter which he wanted expressive from the beginning. They followed with some tempo changes and went back to work on bending by doing haunches in on the long side. He reminded JJ to sit in the direction of the movement, to maintain the shoulders aligned to the ones of the horse and to keep the hands supple and active towards the mouth. “Systematic work will change things.” They finished the session with transitions at the trot helping the engagement and the self-carriage. It was all about “finding the alignment and the timing of the aids to get the balance where he wants to go forward with his own motivation.

Be Assertive

Sabine Schut-Kery was very pleased when she saw Tanya Rennie on the 13-year-old KWPN gelding Faldo (by Tango) with a snaffle. She said she loves the direct connection with just one bit in the mouth.

Tanya Rennie on Faldo
They started by playing with the energy at the trot and Sabine said: “in the collection you have to feel the extension and vice-versa”. Through riding transitions, Tanya’s position was corrected, reminding her to keep the heels down and the wrist being able to turn inward, not flat as if holding a bicycle. In each transition there must be high expectations of how good they can be. After noticing Faldo wanted to fall hard in front when spiraling into a circle, Sabine asked Tanya to support with her aids a lot quicker, ahead of him. Then she asked her to make the circle bigger by only using the inside leg to improve the suppleness of the ribcage. Because the neck and the hind end of the horse are easy to move, but the poll and the ribcage are difficult, she suggested to think how the evolution on the size of the circles is organized in the tests according to the degree of collection wanted in each level. The more collection, the more flexibility and suppleness a horse must have in the ribcage and poll areas. Since they were talking collection, Sabine asked Tanya to work on half steps starting with a trot that has the feel of piaffe in it, thinking of riding the hindleg to the mouth, using the body language to help with the energy and touch with the whip like an orchestra conductor: guiding the rhythm. When Faldo reacted to the whip with croup high, Sabine said that was the time for the leg to support the whip, not all the way around. 

At some point, Tanya was asked to take the reins in one hand and swing down into the horse, this would help checking how much is the horse depending on the aids.  To prepare for pirouettes, Sabine requested to collect the canter first on the rail, then over the center line. When collected they did 8m volte maintaining every stride the same, then 90 degree turns. “Remember to give to keep everything elastic, but don’t give forever, just one stride. Just try it, all that can happen is that it goes wrong. Then you can learn and correct.” 

Rothenberger, Fore, Schut-Kery
On the second day, Sabine insisted on making Tanya more assertive in her use of the aids and not repeating movements without really asking for the best he could give. “When you have a good canter for a pirouette, use it! Don’t let it go to waste!” They worked on producing more jump in the canter from the leg and the seat, trying not to use the spur as that makes the horse short strided. After practicing transitions between walk and canter and within the canter (6 strides forward – 6 strides collected counting out loud) they had a break where Sabine took the opportunity to ask her to do steep leg yieldings to help articulate the hindleg action. They finished looking for expression at the trot into passage, without the rider losing the position: “don’t lean back, swing with your horse while bringing his hindleg under. Be playful with your leg to help engage the horse.”

Relaxation is the Key

Every horse reacted differently to the environment, and you could see what a shy horse Endel Ots was on when they walked into the arena. His own and Caroline Hoerdum's 8-year old Belgian warmblood gelding Lion King (by Grand Galaxy Win x Quaterback - horse was originally named Qadansky van het Bloemenhof) was very anxious about performing around this type of public to what Sven suggested to stay on the basics, just asking normal gaits without any artificial steps when starting to develop the engagement. He insisted on waiting putting pressure on, as the horse was still tense. They spent some time working low, deep and round to what Sven reminded Endel to stay upright and not go with the same LDR position as the horse. Then went into basic transitions between gaits focusing on making them clean. When King wanted to spook, Endel was quick to correct to what Sven said: “be gentle about it, you can’t avoid every mistake, the horse needs to trust you in the correction.” They were very careful to school too many movements because it took time for King to relax. “If you don’t have relaxation, the horse will learn everything in tension.”

Sven coaching Endel Ots on Lion King
It was fantastic to see how much more comfortable King was on the second day. He is a horse with natural cadence in the trot and Sven kept inviting Endel to express more relaxation with his body language, to invite the horse to be the same. “Be happy and proud of good moments.” During the warm-up, Sven asked to pat King in the neck several times. Even with the tension in the canter, the horse needs to go uphill, finishing the stride, not getting short and choppy. At the trot they did leg yieldings and transitions to the walk on a 20-meter circle. At the canter they worked on the expression and balance towards the flying changes and half pirouettes that were beautifully executed. 

During one of the breaks the question on when to start with piaffe was made. Sven said he starts when the horses are no younger than 5 years old, touching from the ground, not really looking for piaffe but just for reaction. Sabine said she doesn’t get excited about teaching piaffe, she prefers to teach a better trot and good transitions. If the horse does good transitions, it will be easier to get to the piaffe. And advises to be careful if the horse has talent for it: “don’t drill! Be sure you do it correctly from the beginning, so you don’t start with bad habits.”

Paint the Picture

Last but not least was Jessica Jo Tate on Ilene Boorman's 12-year old Oldenburg Romeo (by Rousseau x Opus)  under Sven’s guidance.

Jessica Jo Tate on Romeo
There was a lot of emphasis on the canter quality and how to improve it. They rode shoulder-fore to volte making sure JJ would connect the outside rein without making him look to the outside and bringing the weight into the hindlegs. To keep the jump in the half passes, Sven advised to turn it into shoulder in and increase the activity on the outside hindleg to produce more expression. They went into riding flying changes to what JJ was told: “when canter gets compromised, stop asking for changes, work on the basics!” Since they are schooling Grand Prix movements, JJ showed the one tempi that she’s been getting. Sven suggested only doing a couple several times on a long side. If they can be repeated within a few strides, it will be easier to put a line together. 

For schooling half steps JJ was told to tap with the whip rhythmically to make Romeo active. “It’s better to do five steps with good piaffe and repeat, than keep going on not so good steps. You have to imagine how it will look, paint the picture in your head.” Romeo had some beautiful moments and Jessica was told to match him by maintaining her position.

During the second day, Romeo looked more relaxed. They insisted on improving the canter quality by spiraling in a 20-meter circle and also putting the hindlegs inside and outside in a smaller circle.  At some point, Sven joked: “riding is very easy… it really is when you have a good horse and good training.” After a break, they went on into half-passes at the canter and Sven remarked: “I was waiting to criticize you but wow!” It was so well executed! Nevertheless, Sven suggested that also there, she could play with the tempo. And made it even more challenging by asking her to do the half-pass at the walk and turn it into canter. 

Sven coaching Tate on Romeo
To finish the session, they introduced half steps preparing from an active walk staying away from the fence. There were several nice moments with the advice to not turn to look at the mirror as the balance of the rider would change, affecting the horse’s performance. 

Without a doubt, the big summary of these great couple of days, is that only through good basics, detailed position of the rider with well-timed aids, we can make a positive influence and have success in teaching and performing movements with the horses we are lucky to ride.  Thanks again to riders, horses, and their teams behind; and to the organizers, sponsors, and host for another excellent training opportunity!

- Text and Photos © Carmen Franco for Eurodressage

Part I: 2024 USDF Trainers Conference: "Forward is a Lifestyle"

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