Nuggets of Wisdom from the 2023 USDF FEI Level Trainers' Conference

Tue, 01/24/2023 - 22:05
Training Your Horse
Chris Hickey on Valentin being coached by David Hunt at the 2023 USDF FEI Level Trainers' Conference :: Photo © Carmen Franco

by Carmen Franco for Eurodressage

I think I shared the same sense of excitement with more than 300 attendees for the return of the USDF FEI Level Trainers Conference on 16 - 17 January 2023 after a couple years of hiatus because of Covid.

The Venue

Mary Anne McPhail’s High Meadow farm in Loxahatchee, FL, is the perfect venue for this event: ample parking, beautiful grounds with room for several hundreds of spectators, one outside arena for the horses to warm-up, the covered ring for the action, so there are a few of the advantages of the place. It makes me a little nostalgic as I used to train there for many years, and now, two of her horses are with me at another farm around the corner.

The Speakers

Kathie Robertson, Lilo Fore, Henk van Bergen, Linda Zang,
David Hunt, Stephan Hienzsch, Mary Anne McPhail
The speakers chosen for this year’s Conference were all members of the FEI Judges Supervisory Panel (JSP): Linda Zang, Lilo Fore, Henk van Bergen and David Hunt. It is important to know what the function of the JSP is to understand why they are here.  Without a doubt, we were treated to two wonderful educational days filled with detailed information, each one with its own style.

The Riders

It's never easy to apply to ride in these seminars: you are putting yourself and your horse in public to scrutiny; you will show your weaknesses and your strengths too. We were able to learn from watching these brave riders perform with their horses: a lot of gratitude towards them for being so good!

They were:

  • Lehua Custer from Wellington: USDF Bronze, Silver and Gold medalist; graduate of the L program and a USDF Certified Instructor. She rode FJ Ramzes, 12-year-old KWPN gelding by Juventus owned by Wendy Sasser.
  • Kimberly Herslow from New Jersey: USDF Bronze, Silver and Gold medalist. Has represented the United States in two Nations Cup teams and member of the 2015 Pan American Games Gold medal team. She rode Feymar OLD, 7-year-old Oldenburg mare by Furstenberg.
  • Chris Hickey from Wellington: USDF Bronze, Silver and Gold medalist; Certified Instructor; member of the 2007 Pan American team winning team and individual Gold medals. He rode Valentine, 11-year-old Swedish warmblood gelding owned by Cecelia Stewart.
  • Jan Lamontagne on Kentucky
    Jan Lamontagne from Loxahatchee Groves: USDF Bronze and Silver medalist, has participated in the Markel USEF Young Horse Emerging program. She rode Kentucky, 7-year-old Dutch warmblood gelding by Lord Leatherdale.
  • Anna Merritt from Ocala: USDF Bronze, Silver and Gold medalist. Rode Fox Creek’s Censational, 9-year-old German Riding Pony stallion by Caramel, owned by Orona.
  • Endel Ots from Wellington: USDF Bronze, Silver and Gold medalist, Diamond Achievement recipient. Rode King's Pleasure, 8-year-old KWPN approved stallion by Dark Place, owned by Heidi Humphries.
  • Krisitin Stein from Wellington: USDF Bronze and Silver medalist. She rode Elbrasco L, 14-year-old KWPN gelding by Ampere, owned by Sally Alksnis.
  • Cindi Wiley from Palm Beach Gardens: USDF Bronze, Silver and Gold medalist, USEF “S” Judge and USDF Certified Instructor. She rode her own Amado XXXV, 14-year-old PRE stallion.

After a brief introduction from USDF's Kathie Robertson and Stephan Hienzsch retired international judge Lilo introduced the panelists. There was also a brief explanation of the thought process behind the new USDF tests that change every 4 years.

Round Table

Lendon Gray's round table with Hunt, van Bergen, Fore
and Zang.
On Monday night Dressage4Kids) hosted a round table with the panelists. Lendon Gray introduced her many programs to develop youth in this country. It was a fun and relaxed event where they were asked a few personal and theory questions like when they started teaching, how you introduce a double bridle to the rider, what trainers don't pay attention to with the riders, and which exercise people aren't doing enough. The event was sponsored by Tuny Page from Still Point farm.

Nuggets of Wisdom

Here are some of my take aways. I wished I had a bit more practice taking notes and pictures at the same time, but I think I managed to get some good moments on both parts.

Here is a “summary” of concepts and ideas shared.

  • It’s better to say: “horse accepting the bit” than “horse on the bit”.
  • Horse and rider must work together, it’s a mind game. Don’t force the movement, do it together.
  • If you have acceptance of the aids’ problems, you must address them now or you will have more trouble getting to upper levels. Through transitions and exercises you can get the horse together and through: keep the same quiet rhythm, make your horse responsive, transitions must happen when you want them and how you want them, contain the energy for the movements, don't allow him to use it against you.
  • It doesn’t matter what training system you use, what’s important is to use simple training in balance. For the horse to be in balance, the rider must control its own balance. Modern day horses, bred with huge gaits, balance can be difficult to achieve.
  • What is dressage? Is the systematic development of natural abilities of the horse.
  • It´s not how many transitions or movements we do, it is how good we do them. You can’t disguise problems with the basics by doing tricks, knowledgeable people realize what’s going on.
  • Recognize when the horse needs to improve its suppleness instead of strength.
  • Riding forward you introduce collection.
  • Don't wait until it is perfect. Perfect is the enemy of good. Move on when you have achieved good.
  • Sometimes is ok to ride the neck in a deep position: good riders can put the neck wherever they want, the problem is when the neck is deep, and the horse is on the forehand. Change the horses’ position on purpose, because you have a reason to do it.
  • Kristin Stein on Elbrasco L
    When addressing half steps be sure you can control a short walk, and transitions to an easy trot. Also transitions trot - halt and be sure horse reacts quick to engage and accept the aids into connection. Sometimes horses accept better connection being behind the vertical, then work on opening the frame with an uphill balance.
  • Pirouette work can not disturb the canter; let the collected canter become a pirouette. Do 5-meter volte without changing rhythm, then ride haunches-in in the five-meter volte.
  • Work the piaffe and the passage individually until they can be put together.
  • Riding horses is addictive like cocaine twice as expensive and we, the trainers, are the dealers.
  • About connection problems: bitless riding doesn't give you the beautiful feel of what it is a horse correctly accepting the bit. “If you are not married you can't divorce, so compromise”.
  • For sure we don't want to do wrong on purpose, but mistakes happen in the process. When you know better, do better! Respect what other people do with horses, challenge yourselves to do better.
  • Shoulder-in is a bodybuilding exercise to engage the hind leg under the body, it develops strength. Pay attention to finish the shoulder-in at the end of the long side.
  • Preparation of exercises will result in better performance.
  • In pirouettes at walk and canter, the turn is not the important part; it is the walk and the canter.
  • Repeat exercises but don't cross the line into creating injury, soreness, or mind problems. You must repeat to make the horse stronger and better, just be careful to not cross the line.
  • When doing changes, it's not important how many or between how many strides you do them, is how good the canter is and how good the flying change is.
  • Don't allow the horse to take initiative, rider is the leader.
  • Three reasons why exercises go wrong:
    • The horse doesn't know.
    • The horse understands but doesn't have the physical ability.
    • The horse understands but ignores the rider.
  • They almost look the same, but solutions must be different because of each reason. Lack of knowledge by the rider will create more problems. Make solutions simple.
  • When you have irregularity in the passage, the good hindleg has to stay longer on the ground so you can balance the movement.
  • When the horse is tense don't do big movements, better control where to go first than how he goes. A lower frame is OK, keep him small and do transitions. Be light on the aids if horse is responsive. Neck will come out when hindlegs come under.
  • Trot needs to look natural and easy, not artificial.
  • If the horse is climbing tone the movement down or even, go down to the walk.
  • Do leg-yieldings to change direction, and do them at the walk, trot and canter. Variate the degree of steepness.
  • Anna Merritt and Fox Creek's Censational
    When canter feels right give with the reins.
  • Feel, don't look so much in the mirror.
  • Play with the stride easy forward and back, be very precise with instructions with tons of changes of direction and gait to make the horse more attentive.
  • “I see the neck and the connection problem, but the neck is not the problem, is the way he engages and uses his body.”
  • To correct mouth issues in some horses, check anatomy and then choose the bits; in other horses, tension in the issue.
  • Do the opposite of what the horse wants to do.
  • What are aids? Are, in a logical relationship with the attitude of the horse, signs from the human to educate the horse.
  • The corner is your friend or your enemy.
  • Be sure you start your exercises, you develop them, and you finish them.
  • “With him you have to be careful that he's not too relaxed lacking positive tension”.
  • In our daily training we don't think of the judges’ marks, only when going to competition.
  • Play with the neck, play with the frame.
  • Better is the enemy of good, careful with being a perfectionist. When a rider lacks confidence repeats the movements too many times; that, burns the horse.
  • Change between shoulder-in and renvers to control the shoulders.
  • To find more airtime in the canter, play with the rhythm, don't stop and go, just find fluidity.
  • Look for the same trot when you do lateral work or straight lines.
  • Developing passage from collected trot is a forward exercise not backwards.
  • Ride a 6 loop Serpentine with flying change on centerline to help regulate the balance. Keep same canter before and after the flying change and through the bend.
  • Horse and Rider must trust in each other, aids have to be stable.
  • Cindi Wylee on Amado
    Pirouette is just a small circle, keep the canter, you should be able to come out of it at any time, don't slow down and don't shut down. If the horse doesn't accept preparation keep going. Ride a pirouette on the long side, stay on track and do a small circle.
  • A good horseman is the one that takes the time to get things ready, but doesn't take forever to get things ready.
  • When riding zig-zags don't count at the beginning, just listen to the horse first.
  • If the walk is difficult to ride relaxation is the most important part.
  • If you're a judge you can clearly tell the difference between the horse not being ready for the exercise or the exercise being wrongly executed.
  • When riding one tempi changes, don't do too many. Stop to make the canter better.
  • Perfect doesn't exist but you have to be pleased and stop there when you get all you can in the moment you are.
  • We were reminded again and again of the energy needed if we want to go to Grand Prix: the walk must have a purpose, the horse must accept aids, go where you want to go how you want to go, keep your horse in shape, be precise in the use of the arena, keep the balance, be sharp, transitions have to be quick.
  • Leg-yielding is an exercise that has the good purpose of moving the horse away from the leg, be sure he doesn't run away.
  • You are trying to do everything right, your horse is lovely; but be sure he is not taking advantage of you being nice to him
  • This is the boring part of the lessons because they are going to be much of the same.
  • You must pay attention to throughness all the time and don't have dead hands. Transitions and exercises must make horses better if ridden correctly.
  • Collect without shutting down.
  • Most difficult part of riding is getting to the movements and exercises of the test in the correct shape, balance, and thoroughness.
  • Warm up in working trot without pushing, do transitions without hurrying, regulate the size of the steps at the walk and introduce half steps to get the hindleg under, use it as a tool to engage, not only to teach piaffe.
  • Endel Ots on King's Pleasure
    Have a plan but be sure to listen to the horse in the warmup, so you are sure what direction you want to go. Ride the frame as you want it down or up and be sure you can change it. Ride the lateral movements according to the level of training, adjustability is the most important thing. You never develop muscle but staying in the same position.
  • Consider the conformation of the horse as it will make things easier or more difficult. Still, the principles of training must be met on all of them.
  • Corrections are necessary, punishment is not.
  • When riding tempi changes do two diagonals of fours, two of threes, two of twos and two of ones, it doesn't matter what the direction you are coming from. It's not OK to only train according to what the test says.
  • Some horses you need to get over the edge so that they perform better, some horses you have to quiet down. It is difficult to talk about it because of the welfare of the horse but it's better one clear sign than many soft ones that don't create any reaction. Try to produce a breakthrough reaction.
  • In the extended walk the nose cannot be lower than the point of the shoulder
  • You can't change a horse if you don't do transitions, that is adjustability. Most important thing: the horse needs to want to do it too.
  • Judges don't look for fancy, they look for correct and expressive.

We had two fantastic days watching dressage being made simple and beautiful and we left inspired to try to reproduce these concepts. Heartfelt thank you to USDF; Mary Anne; volunteers; panelists; riders and horses with their teams, for this.

Text and Photos © Carmen Franco

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