I’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.
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.
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."
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.”
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.”
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.