10 Lessons We Learned From Robert Dover That Will Change the Way You View Your Riding

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’m just going to put this out in the open, I am no dressage rider. In fact, I’ve never watched a dressage lesson or clinic in my life. But after sitting on my couch for the past three hours attentively listening to Robert Dover’s every word, I feel empowered enough to pull on my breeches, whip out my jumping saddle (Santa didn’t bring a dressage saddle this year) and become the next Laura Graves or Charlotte Dujardin.

This year's edition of US Equestrian’s Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic Week runs January 3-6 in Wellington, Fla. and features promising up-and-coming U25 riders looking to make their mark on the international dressage scene. From unmounted lectures to riding with the legendary Robert Dover himself, the qualified participants are given the tools needed to produce successful results for years to come. Following three days of intensive instruction, the clinic concludes with a ridden test in front a of a panel of judges.

"If you say nothing to a horse, you mean nothing to a horse. We have to be in a conversation and teaching them."

Now, I must say: everything that Robert said during the first day of lessons I immediately wrote down thinking they were the most revolutionary ideas and expressions I have ever heard in my life. But that's several hours worth of words, so I’ll share my favorites and the tips that will directly enhance your riding, I promise. Whether you’re a jumper, eventer, or dressage rider, follow the wise words of Robert; he’s a four-time Olympic medalist for a reason.

    1. You’re never too important for menial tasks. Just because you’ve “made” it doesn’t mean you should think any task is below your pay grade. We’re involved with animals, right? They’re messy and unfortunately can’t pick up after themselves. Before the clinic began, there was a stray pile of manure in the middle of the ring that bothered Robert. Instead of asking someone to clear it away for him, he marched over to a nearby wheelbarrow and picked it up himself. A small task, yes, but it makes a statement.

      2. Follow the four commandments. Robert preached the four commandments of dressage to every student he had. Can you name them? I couldn’t until today. They are: 1) rhythm 2) tempo 3) frame 4) length of the stride. Sounds simple, right? You must own and embody every commandment.

          3. Everything is connected. Just like us humans living on Earth revolving around a big ball of energy (the sun) and creating connections, dressage is one big circuit of energy interconnected with each movement we ask for. Robert explained, “Everything comes back to this first thought of creating energy, trapping energy, recirculating energy, and directing energy into the beautiful things that we have in our mind that we create which becomes dressage.”

              4. Confidence is key. One of the biggest characteristics of Charlotte Dujardin, Isabell Werth, and Laura Graves is their confidence when riding. Like a gymnast walking onto the mat to dominate their floor routine, Robert preaches to embody your inner Simone Biles and exude confidence. “When you don't have a confident position, it’s saying to people you don’t believe in yourself,” Robert said. So sit up, shoulders back, chin high, and ride your best test.

              "You can do this. I promise you, it’s not the end of the world. We’re not curing cancer, or ending world hunger. We’re just riding around on horses here."

                  5. Positivity trumps negativity. Horses are interesting creatures. They are extremely obedient (most of the time) and will jump out of their skin if we asked them to. But appreciation is key when it comes to learning a new movement or doing a good job, according to Robert. “If you say nothing to a horse, you mean nothing to a horse. We have to be in a conversation and teaching them. If you think about it, there’s not a lot of wonderful things we can give them to do all this weird stuff for us.”

                    6. Reward, reward, reward. Speaking of learning new movements or listening well, horses love a good reward, or what’s the point of even doing it? Do you really think an adorable puppy will sit and stay without a treat from his owner? No. Just like a puppy, horses deserve a sugar cube or big pat for doing a job well done, especially when they're learning. Robert explained, “The absence of a correction is not a reward to a horse. The only thing that is a reward is ‘good girl’ or a pat on the neck or giving them a sugar. You can’t train a seal without fish.”

                    Robert retired from his long-held role as U.S. Dressage Technical Advisor following the 2018 World Equestrian Games. But he will always be the team's biggest fan.

                        7. Ride your circles. A simple suggestion, but one of Robert’s favorite exercises is what he coined, “the rubber band exercise”. Although you may already incorporate it into your training routine, the exercise is based off a 20-meter circle and can be morphed into a variety of different gaits and transitions. Some of Robert’s favorite interpretations are the transitions to extended canter to collected canter, and collected trot to extended trot to passage. Simple? Yes. Effective? Definitely.

                            8. Stay focused. When you enter the ring, it’s time to work. Be attentive to how your horse is feeling and ride what you have in the moment. Mallih Ataee was riding a big, borrowed chestnut horse during her lesson and he started out somewhat tense and spooky. Although they figured each other out by the end of the session, Mallih kept her focus on the task at hand. Robert preached to her that “we’re going to be working so much that a bomb can go off in the ring next to us and we’re going to keep working all involved body, mind, and soul.”

                            Debbie McDonald took over Robert's former role as U.S. Dressage Technical Advisor and has her eyes on the Olympic podium, developing a collaborative country, and building an effective pipeline. 

                                9. Be as elegant as royalty. Embracing your inner princess (or prince) is vital in becoming a dressage superstar. And that means no brash or aggressive movements when your horse isn’t listening. Instead of getting after him and digging your spur in his side, regroup and keep calm by gently giving and taking away your aids until your horse understands. “You’re not going to get a quicker reaction by digging in your spur,” Robert said. “If you’re standing on one foot and someone comes behind you and scares you, you’re not going to put your foot higher in the air. You’re going to put it on the ground.” Point proven.

                                  10. Put your big girl (or boy) pants on and be brave. I must applaud these young riders; riding for Robert is intimidating yet they all kept their cool. Instead of letting their nerves show, they acted like seasoned professionals. Despite some mishaps and miscommunications, Robert encouraged his students to ride forward and show their bravery in the saddle. “Show me how brave you are, girl!” he said. “You can do this. I promise you, it’s not the end of the world. We’re not curing cancer, or ending world hunger. We’re just riding around on horses here.”

                                  Lessons resume Friday morning at 8 a.m. EST. Tune in live on USEF Network.

                                  All photos by Taylor Pence/US Equestrian.

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                                  Written by Lizzy Youngling

                                  Lizzy Youngling has been a die-hard equestrian groupie since the age of three. Although not in the saddle as much as she’d like, Lizzy is a fan of all things horses. When she’s not writing for Noelle Floyd, she can be found at the boathouse training with the United States Rowing National Team in Princeton, NJ with the hopes of competing at the 2020 Olympic Games.