Back to the Basics: Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic

© Sarah Harper : Juliet Hess and DianoJuliet Hess and Diano

Wellington, Fla. – January 1, 2017 – Eager junior and young riders from around the United States gathered Florida last week to participate in the sixth annual Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic in Wellington, Florida. Each morning the students worked hard in fitness sessions with personal trainer and fitness professional Mike Barthelemy before they made their way to the Van Kampen arena to soak up more knowledge from the Robert Dover, Debbie McDonald, Alison Brock, George Williams and Michael Barisone. The five-day clinic, sponsored by Dressage4Kids’ Emerging Dressage Athlete Program, consisted of four days of riding, with one day in the middle of the week being reserved for rest and lectures.

Applicable advice for all levels was not in short supply during riders’ lessons. Common themes throughout the week included exercises to improve their horse’s attentiveness to the aids, straightness, forwardness and ability to collect. All three instructors also stressed the importance of becoming horse trainers and not just riders in order to mold the students’ mounts into accessible dressage partners.

Back to Basics

Each trainer stressed the importance of the basics of dressage to the youth riders including roundness, forwardness, suppleness and engagement. Barisone noted that learning the fundamentals of the sport of dressage is the basis of horsemanship and horsemastership.

© Sarah Harper : Kayla Kadlubek and WilliamKayla Kadlubek and William

“You ride into that horse what you want,” Barisone said. “You teach him to be available to you, that you can control his roundness, his suppleness, his focus, his energy, his forwardness. You do those things and the sky is the limit.”

Developing “sharpness” off the aids

In each of her lessons, McDonald taught the riders the importance of their horses’ sensitivity to the aids to increase their maneuverability. She reminded riders to keep a steadier, more consistent contact so their mounts may feel even the smallest of movements from the hand, as well as small shifts in seat and leg position. She urged her students to “whisper” to their horses with the aids and to only apply a stronger aid if they did not answer with the proper reaction. When the horse responded, the pressure was taken away.

“Don’t make your first reaction a really harsh reaction,” McDonald explained. “The only way they learn how to go off easy aids is if we don’t resort to just strength.”

© Sarah Harper : Amelia Devine and Perazzi DS Amelia Devine and Perazzi DS

In order to further develop the horses’ sensitivity, she had the young riders work on transitions and being able to open and close the stride. The riders collected their gaits, moved forward into medium gaits, then back to collection. She highly recommended frequent use of shoulder-fore and shoulder-in as suppling exercises and something to use in preparation for more complex movements.

Especially useful for horses that like to “hang” on the rider and be heavy in the mouth, McDonald taught that utilizing proper half-halts and lifting the hand to invite the horse to go forward teaches the horse to use more of his or her own body to go more uphill instead of pulling down. “It has to be corrected in a forward way,” she said.

Forward Thinking

Instructors also stressed how paramount forwarding thinking is for each basic gait, movement, and complex exercise. McDonald discussed how each rider should be teaching their horse to step up from their hind legs and into the contact in everything they do. Dover emphasized how momentous collection was as a basis of all movements. He explained that you can be collected while maintaining forward motion. 

© Sarah Harper :  Hannah Irons and My Lucky CharmHannah Irons and My Lucky Charm with Alison Brock

“You should feel the opportunity of all things from a collected walk. You should be able to think it and feel like anything you ask will happen,” Dover stated.

He went on to explain that the judges want to see the excitement and energy being channeled through the horse and rider from where they sit. As an exercise, he had the riders move from passage, into extended trot, and back to passage. They repeated a similar exercise in the canter, going from collected, to extended and back to collected. This helped the horse and rider pairs gain more energy and adjustability in the gaits. 

Everything begins with straightness

Both McDonald and Barisone had plenty to impart to their student riders about the necessity of straightness. When one horse was leaning more on her right side, she told the student to keep more left aids on to straighten the horse back out and carry her body more. She urged the rider to work on actively correcting any issues that keep the horse from being straight, as well as paying attention to their own bodies influence on the horse’s straightness.

“The crookedness will always come back in something —you’ll always find that there’s going to be a connection in all of it,” McDonald said. “Looking ahead is the only way you can ride straight.” 

© Sarah Harper : Callie Jones and Don Philippo Callie Jones and Don Philippo 

Each time one of Barisone’s students approached a movement with their horse crooked, he made them circle around and return straight. He further explained that riding is management by nature and each new movement must be prepared for from a straight horse.

Natural arm position can positively affect the seat

In nearly every lesson, the instructors reminded the riders to “carry” their hands and hold their arms in a natural, bent positon. The young riders were taught just how important that hand positon is to communication with their horses. McDonald reminded them that keeping their hands up and forward will invite their horses to move forward even more and step into the contact.

“When you drop your hand, you also drop your shoulders, so your seat is no longer communicating with her,” Debbie stated when reminding a rider not to let her hands fall. She also frequently reminded the riders to stretch their bodies up and sit tall, keeping their core muscles strong.

© Sarah Harper : Kerrigan Gluch and Brio HGFKerrigan Gluch and Brio HGF 

Barisone encouraged his riders to continue to address their problem areas and work on the things that they struggle with the most. He mentioned the advice of Phillip Dutton, Olympian and successful three-day eventing competitor at the conclusion of one lesson. “Dutton says, ‘Every horse has a weak point, the one who gets the furthest is the one who works on what his weak point is the hardest’.” he said.

© Sarah Harper : Marline Syribeys and Hollywood Marline Syribeys and Hollywood 

Did you miss  Julia Lee Barton’s column about her experience riding in the Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic? Check out her wrap-ups here: 
Day 1:
Day 2:
Day 3:

© Sarah Harper: Julia BartonJulia Lee Barton and Bonnaroo 

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