On the first day of US Equestrian’s Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic Week in Wellington, Fla., Robert Dover introduced his young pupils to several key methodologies of riding and training dressage. Things like the four commandments (rhythm, tempo, frame, length of the stride), the benefits of carrying sugar cubes in your pockets, and how dressage at its core is a continuous circuit of energy collection and distribution.
Giving each rider a boost of self-esteem and helping them communicate more readily with their horse in the first lesson, Robert upped the ante and put their new-found knowledge to the test in the next. Subsequent lessons required both subtlety and bravery from the riders as well as obedience and expression from the horses. It’s the fine balance every rider is looking to achieve. In the end, each participant went away with a better understanding of what it truly means to train a horse.
1. Quit while you’re ahead. Kerrigan Gluch and her gorgeous grey made great strides from the first lesson to the next. “You’re much more self-aware of what’s happening underneath you,” Robert said during the second lesson. Working for a half-hour in smoothing out pirouettes and establishing a beautiful collected trot, horse and rider worked hard to be brilliant from the beginning. So Robert ended the lesson early, proving that at every level, your best bet is ending on a high note.
“I could say we go another 15 minutes but it doesn’t serve you. You want to have him go home as fresh as he went out. He’s thinking he’s the best horse in the world and he could do more.” Later, to another rider, Robert said, “15 minutes of good work is better than an hour-and-a-half of aimless wandering.”
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2. Dressage is not just a bag of tricks. Some horses just know their job – which is nice – but when a horse is especially obedient, it’s easy to become complacent and stop working towards better quality work. Don’t just think about making a movement happen; focus on the basics of having the horse on the aids and moving correctly and with energy. Then the movements will happen without either the horse or rider having to work so hard.
“None of it should feel like a numbered trick grabbed out of the air,” Robert said. “The tricks are the easiest part. The connection, the throughness, the honesty, the beautiful connection between your brain and [the horse’s is the hard part].”
3. Every touch means something. There’s not much more frustrating than a horse that has become dead to the leg aid. There you are kicking and smacking, exhausted, and nothing is happening. Horses mustn’t be allowed to get to this point of laziness. Keep them sharp to the aids.
“Mama says go! It’s not to be mean. It’s to keep on refining your tools until both of you believe in her abilities to be really hot, electric, and supple, and engageable. You’ve got to truly believe in it,” Robert said. “The more leg you keep on horses all the time, the less electric they are when you touch them. The less leg you have on the more it means when you touch them.”
Furthermore, while the horse should be responsive, the aids shouldn't have to be persistent to be maintained. Robert equated it to having a party and turning the lights on. The host doesn’t want to hold the light switch on the whole time in fear of them going out, they want to flip the switch and go enjoy the party.
4. Don’t be a passenger. Mallih Ataee is riding a borrowed horse at this clinic – a big, solid, somewhat sensitive chestnut. The first day they worked through his tendency to be tense and spooky. At the beginning of the next lesson, Mallih was tentative and slow to make corrections, trying to persuade the horse to settle, but he was breaking in the gaits and diving his poll low. All of a sudden, you could practically see the change in Mallih’s energy. “Enough of this shenanigans” it seemed to say. She began lifting the horse’s poll without being told, correcting him swiftly when he broke, sending him forward, and insisting on his attention and respect. Mallih took the lead and the horse responded. They looked incredible.
“Somebody just arrived to the party!” Robert said, elated. “Tomorrow we begin where we ended – fierce!”
5. Chase the edge. It takes some level of bravery to be a horse rider at any level and in any discipline. Yet in order to progress, you have to be brave enough to make mistakes and learn from them as well as push the envelope and see if you can reach new heights.
“Trying to stay safe, you don’t learn what you can achieve,” Robert said. “You have to be fearless of the place that makes you think ‘this is the edge.’ That edge is no longer the edge. Every day is a new chapter.”
6. "You should be able to sit up there and eat a candy bar." No one can blame a rider for wanting to put her best foot forward in front of the likes of Robert Dover, but some riders got sucked into pushing their horses along each step of the way, doing more of their fair share of work while their horses plodded along. Similar to point #3, Robert was quick to correct riders like the young and talented Anna Weniger when this started to happen. You should never work harder than your horse, he explained.
"You should be able to say 'giddy up' and he’s just (continuing to canter with the same energy). You should be able to sit up there and call home – if you were allowed to use a phone, which you aren’t! You should be able to sit up there and eat a candy bar. You shouldn’t have to be thinking, ‘Gosh I hope he keeps going if I keep riding this hard!’”
7. Know exactly what you want from each ride. Every ride should have a plan, a goal, and a purpose. If you find yourself trotting or cantering about, wondering what to do next, take a moment to stop and remember what you're trying to achieve. Each lap around the arena should have a purpose.
"Sometimes people think, 'Okay well, the horse is cantering around and now I’ll do some four tempis on a diagonal.' What they’re not considering is in every single ride, over every single day, in every single week, month, and year, our goal is to be constantly creating more beautiful gaits, a more beautiful horse in physique, greater harmony, and the final true understanding between the rider and the horse."
8. Play a movie in your mind. When 18-year-old Alessandra Ferrucci began her ride on 19-year-old Pan Am gold medalist Sagacious HF, Robert explained the importance of visualization when the pair attempted their first extended trot of the session.
"When I say 'extension', what are you seeing? You should be seeing a movie of you and Sagacious trotting around in your mind. And in your mind, you know what this horse can do. He can have his front legs up to his eyeballs. He can have his hind legs up to his belly. You've watched him showing at his best, if you see that as the only possible option... to the degree that you don't get your movie, you better wake something up!"
Want more RD wisdom? Check out 10 Lessons We Learned from Robert Dover that Will Change the Way You View Your Riding and watch the clinic in full at USEF Network.
All photos by Taylor Pence/US Equestrian.