Constant Communication and Accountability With Debbie McDonald: Day One of the Rutledge Farm Sessions

Debbie McDonald with Rutledge Farm’s Aleco Bravo-Greenberg

Middleburg, VA – Sept 14, 2019 – Olympic medalist and technical advisor for the U.S. Dressage Team, Debbie McDonald, headed to historic Middleburg, Virginia, to host a two-day clinic as a part of the 2019 Rutledge Farm Sessions clinic series. Welcoming eight dressage riders of all levels, McDonald focused on correcting contact, improving self-carriage and holding riders accountable throughout the first day’s training sessions.

Training Level: Nikki Smith & Salerno

The impressive environment of Saturday’s clinic was a lot to take in for event rider Nikki Smith’s Salerno, an 18h 5-year-old Hanoverian gelding by Sir Donnerhall. The young horse came in overwhelmed and McDonald immediately got to work on getting the rider to not internalize the horse’s anxiety and keep up constant communication. She had the pair ride shallow changes of direction, serpentines, and transitions all while riding at a pace where he was able to remain soft.

“It’s all about being a step ahead of him. You need constant communication going on,” McDonald said. “Teach him to take more rein without throwing it away. You must be able to feel his mouth and they must understand that they have the ability to stretch into the contact. When you relax your hands, do you feel him slightly stretch toward the bit? That’s what you want. You need to keep regulating through your contact, but don’t wrestle with him. You have to support with your legs. He must learn to accept your aids. Do not overreact to him with your aids. You are responsible for giving his confidence.”

Nikki Smith and Salerno

McDonald emphasized the importance of patience in your training, especially with young horses. “Patience is everything — you can not hurry a horse. They all learn at a different pace. It’s important you know what your horse can handle and process. You can not be greedy and want more, more, more. You have to be sensitive to the thought of a horse understanding it and don’t get caught up in giving them too much information at a time. Any sign of a hint that he understands an exercise, move on — never go long enough to lose it.”

Nikki Smith and Salerno

At the end of the lesson, an auditor asked what is the best way to calm down as the rider on an anxious horse, and McDonald responded with a laugh, “A shot of vodka helps! Just kidding! But it’s helpful to have a coach to confirm you will be fine and to take a breath. It takes a lot of time in the saddle [to not become nervous sitting on top of an anxious horse.] Take a deep breath and think ‘How is your horse feeling in this situation?’ Talk to him. I think communication is everything for a horse, and with a reward system.”

Second Level: Melissa Palmer & Reagan 10

The second pair of the day, Melissa Palmer and Reagan 10, a 7-year-old Oldenburg mare by Belissimo M, were working on strengthening their Second Level work. The young mare was stronger on her left lead and had learned to get away with issues on the right lead, including doing hind changes without prompting.

“She’s built where she can get a little over bent without flexing in the right place,” noted McDonald. “When you want to collect her a little bit close your knee a little and stretch up. If you hold it too long you might lose it.”

Melissa Palmer and Reagan 10

“That change behind happened because it’s all on the outside rein. Be steady through your body. You don’t need to be throwing her away. You’re letting the canter get away from you and then you need to do too much – control it. She’s kind of trained you. You do weird things with your body just to try and keep her on the lead. You need to think straight ahead. Keep your leg, keep cantering, you need to ride through that moment. Don’t let her teach you to overreact.”

To assist Palmer, McDonald had her renver a few strides down the long sides, then straighten for a few strides, working on accountability of her straightness and bend. McDonald emphasized, “You have to work on the connection before you can work on the movement. The minute you lose the connection you need to ride forward a bit.”

McDonald also focused on drawing awareness to the way she was riding when the mare responded to Palmer with strong opinions and avoidance tactics. “Be hard on the mare and the moment the horse was going in the right direction everything gets quiet,” she said. “You can’t hold a grudge when you ride. Everybody who has a horse and starts them themselves will have moments like that. It’s ok.”

Melissa Palmer and Reagan 10

“Everyone has a stronger and weaker side,” continued McDonald. “Weaker they tend to hold on with that side. When the mare shut down it was to get away from the contact. I’m a stickler to sit in the middle. Riders have to be fit. They must think about their bodies. It’s up to us to know where our balance is and to ride with independent aids. We can’t get on and try to hang on. You can’t shut down the horse with your contact. Riders have to be aware of it. The trainer has to emphasize that moment. Timing is important. You can’t wait to respond.”

Third Level: Nadège Soubassis & Valerossi and Brandi Benedict & Song Of Fire

Two participants of the clinic were schooling Third Level — Nadège Soubassis on Valerossi, a 7-year-old Westphalian gelding, and Brandi Benedict on Song Of Fire, a 9-year-old Oldenburg gelding by Sir Donnerhall.

Nadege Soubassis and Valerossi

From the beginning of the ride, Valerossi began a bit behind the vertical and showed downhill tendencies that continued to push him onto the forehand. McDonald focused on creating better self carriage to improve the uphill quality and finding the correct balance. This was done in part by making changes to Soubassis’ position and the proper execution of the half-halt. Valerossi was heavy in the bridle which pulled her forward, giving her no base of strength. She attempted to pull back with her body, but fixing her position helped immensely.

“You need to make it black and white,” said McDonald. “The front end must come up. Don’t play tug of war. He’s teaching you that you need to hold him up all the time, but he needs to do it himself. Don’t let him con you. Rebalancing needs to be a seamless transition. Recognize that he is getting downhill and rely more on the snaffle, not curb. Ask, then leave him alone.

Nadege Soubassis and Valerossi

“A lot of the problems with the connection can be fixed with your position. Hold your elbow steadier. Keep your heels down with weight in your legs and your butt down,” McDonald continued. “Hold your inside bend enough that you can feel it on his hind leg. Don’t keep leaning back more, that’s not going to bring him back. He breaks because gets too much on the forehand, so when he sits you need to reward him. Bring him back and then allow him the opportunity to carry himself. You have to find that balance. You have to bring him back with an upper body with some stability, and you could use more core work.”

In addition to being aware of her aids, McDonald recommended adding more shoulder-in exercises to their training program as it strengthens the horse and helps keep them more packaged with a quicker, engaged stride, instead of a big and long gait.

Moving into the next lesson, McDonald complimented Benedict’s control of her riding position and her well-started gelding Song Of Fire, but quickly turned the focus on tweaking his balance and improving his self carriage in order to help Benedict’s aids be more subtle.

Brandi Benedict and Song Of Fire

“As the rider, you must teach him that half-halts mean quicker, not slower. You have to own it — every single stride you must own,” McDonald said. “He’s too much in your hand and you have to put him on his hind leg. He has to learn that he can stay there. Half-halt and relax, but don’t pull and drop.

“You can’t think that asking [to rebalance] once will work,” she continued. “You must be consistent and ask repeatedly. It’s never a one time fix — it’s constant communication. It will become seamless aids when you’ve taught them through repetition.

They initially began working on shallow leg yielding back and forth off the rail, as well as asking for haunches-in down the longside to encourage the gelding to stay active behind and bend correctly through his ribcage.

“If you ask for a leg yield and you lose bend, you won’t have control in the flying changes,” she explained. “You can play around with counter flexion to get more control of his outside shoulder as well.”

The pair also wanted to work on schooling pirouettes and McDonald taught them an exercise where they would ride a square, riding two strides of a schooling pirouette before getting out and riding forward.

Brandi Benedict and Song Of Fire

“For the canter pirouettes, start on the easier side first,” she said. “Your inside leg tells him to go forward and out. You have to keep him bending around without coming off the straight line with no haunches leading — think shoulder-fore before rotating. Do not turn him into a pirouette unless you are 100% sure of his self-carriage. He has to balance himself. There’s nothing worse than going into a pirouette and saying ‘Please God make this work!’ You need to be in total control and be prepared. Micromanage that moment — that set up is the difference between a 6 and an 8.”

Developing Prix St. Georges: Adriane Alvord & Selfmade

In the first lesson following the lunch break, Adriane Alvord took to the ring on the 7-year-old Hanoverian gelding, Selfmade. With the goal of competing in the Developing Prix St. Georges division next year, McDonald immediately got to work improving the rider’s awareness of her own body as well as the straightness of the horse.

Adriane Alvord and Selfmade

“You are using your inside rein as a crutch — it’s holding you both back and you cannot rely on your inside rein,” McDonald said. “You have to ride the whole horse, not just the head. It’s important you are aware of where his shoulders and haunches are at all times.”

McDonald immediately addressed the horse anticipating the trot when Alvord would pick up the reins from a free or extended walk. The pair worked on transitioning from an extended walk to a collected walk without the horse rudely rooting the reins or increasing the tempo.

The anticipation and straightness issues continued when they worked on flying changes, so McDonald had the pair do a variety of lateral work exercise in the canter. For example, the rider was asked to execute a counter canter down the long side, maintaining the lead through a shallow corner, riding down quarterline and leg yielding back to the rail, all the while in counter canter. Their second exercise was half-passing off the rail to centerline and when they reached X, they returned to the rail by leg yielding back.

“When the horse is in the half-pass position, and you straighten them, they may try to steal the change. They must learn that you can change the bend and they should stay on that lead [in counter canter] before you ask for the change. The change of bend is not an aid for a flying change!” McDonald emphasized. “Take the time to work on that and don’t accept any stolen change.

Adriane Alvord and Selfmade

“You need to give him a heads up when you are about to ask for a change — the set up is very important,” McDonald continued. “The changes are easy — it’s the other aspects like the timing and how you balance him before and after the change that leads to the quality.”

“Overall, think ‘collect with energy’ not slow. You need to rev up the engine and get him straight with an emphasis on balance and self carriage — that’s what it is really about,” she said to wrap up the lesson. “Don’t be in a hurry, you must commit. If you stay on course you will have a lovely horse for the future, but you cannot expect him to be perfect if you are not perfect.”

Prix St. Georges: Thorsten Kramer & Quistador S and Kerri-lyn Corry & Weltwist

Moving up into Prix St. Georges, McDonald worked with Thorsten Kramer on Quistador S, an 11-year-old Oldenburg gelding by Quarterback, followed by Kerri-lyn Corry on Weltwist, an 11-year-old Hanoverian gelding by Weltmeyer.

McDonald was complimentary of Quistador S’s talent and work ethic, and by changing the rider’s thought process a bit regarding throughness, the quality of the walk, trot and canter improved throughout the lesson.

Thorsten Kramer and Quistador S

“His ability to collect and quality expression is there — as we worked he got bigger and more scopey in his gaits,” she said. “Focus on the quality. He originally wants to be short and tight, but the horse needs to be encouraged to take longer steps, both in the trot and canter, and improve his scope. Let him open up and you can feel him change in his body. For example, in the trot, bring him back with just a thought of renver, don’t tug on the reins and sit still so you make him carry it forward. He has to learn to accept a closed hand.”

“The horse needs to accept what you are asking,” she continued. “When you want to go forward, nice squeeze with your leg, not spur. He has to learn to respond with a relaxed forward step, not with an exuberant response. The minute you feel that little bit of lift in his gait, you ask for a bit more forward [after half-halting].

One exercise in particular that the pair excelled with was training pirouettes coming from a straight line on centerline, instead of relying on a half-pass to set up the bend.

Thorsten Kramer and Quistador S

“Get a good quality canter leading into your moment of collection,” she said. “Ride the pirouette like a forward thought, not an on-the-spot thought. It’s not about the size — it’s learning to sit and controlling the forward to take it bigger. Push him into your hands and just use your inner leg [while in the pirouette].”

The second Prix St. Georges combination, Kerri-lyn Corry and Weltwist, had three good gaits, but the horse began the ride hollow in the back and against the rider’s hand. They worked on trotting in haunches-in to increase expression, as well as a similar pirouette exercise as Kramer, working on setting up the collection prior to the pirouette.

Kerri-lyn Corry and Weltwist with Debbie McDonald and Aleco Bravo-Greenberg

“If he gets running you naturally want to start pulling and that’s not always the right answer,” McDonald said. “Focus on the connection, you need to keep it supple and not locked. Give with your hands — bring him back and then let go. Trust that you can let go because otherwise he will never really come through. Sometimes you won’t feel the result until you release. You can’t know their response until you let them answer your question. It may be the wrong answer, but that’s ok. Ask again until they get it right. You have to get to the point where you can get a reaction so then you can reward him.”

Kerri-lyn Corry and Weltwist

A topic that came up multiple times throughout the day was regarding leg contact on the horse’s side that McDonald wanted to clarify, “We cannot let the horse teach us not to be comfortable setting our leg on their side, no matter if they are hot. t’s easy when they get strong to not want to put your leg on. When they get running around and you don’t want to touch them, they are teaching you. You must use your legs and you can’t avoid your leg contact.”

Grand Prix: Lucy Tidd & Ellert HB

The final rider of the day, Lucy Tidd, an adult amateur, rode Ellert HB, a 10-year-old KWPN gelding by Johnson. The pair recently competed in the Developing Grand Prix division at the Markel/USEF Young & Developing National Dressage Championship at Lamplight Equestrian Center. While the gelding confidently knew each movement, the rider and McDonald wanted to work on quality control of exactly when and how the movements would be executed.

Lucy Tidd and Ellert HB

“There is a lot of talent here but as the rider, you have to go back a little and be a little more firm [in the training],” McDonald said. “You need to have the ability to regulate the movements and their brilliance. We have to keep finessing it and keep trying to perfect the moments. You have to set a standard and stick with it. In every gait, he has to be so fine tuned and he needs to be more respectful of your half-halt. Manage what you have underneath you. He has to be in more of a self carriage so you can show off. He must be able to dial it up and then let it down — that’s what makes a Grand Prix horse.”

When Tidd failed to execute a smooth downward transition into a walk before giving her horse a break, McDonald immediately exclaimed laughing, “I hated that! You know better. Have a high standard throughout your ride.”

When working on their trot half-pass, McDonald wanted the trot much bigger, emphasizing that the quality of the trot cannot be lost in the half-pass.

“You need to be very, very picky with how you start your half-pass,” she said. “The only way you can truly show off is when the half-halt goes through and you must have that in the corner. You cannot start a half-pass without a half-halt, or it will be a runaway.”

To improve the quality of the piaffe and passage work, McDonald explained that the hind leg carries the weight but it has to stay quick, and she had the duo passage in a slight shoulder-in to encourage hind-end engagement before finessing the transition in and out of piaffe.

“You create more expression with your leg. Use it, but don’t keep it on, you then relax it,” McDonald said. “Think higher, not longer — up, not out. Go forward for two strides, then go back in. It has to be more about his hind leg and not just what you are feeling in your hand. You have to teach him to bounce in that moment. You have to be able to relax and not keep that tension through your arm all the time. Forward two steps and then back in.”

Lucy Tidd and Ellert HB

“Make sure you are not pulling during the moment you add your leg,” she said. “Once you get his hind leg engaged, that’s how he is going to stay light in your hand. The crop is also a good tool to help him with the tempo and rhythm [in the piaffe and passage].

The Rutledge Farm Sessions brings exclusive educational opportunities to riders and professionals in Middleburg, Virginia. Drawing from a pool of Olympic and International Champion clinicians, Rutledge Farm offers monthly clinics for riders at all levels and of all disciplines, including dressage, show jumping, eventing, and equitation.

The 2019 Rutledge Farm Sessions clinic series will continue with Olympic gold-medalist Will Simpson, followed by Olympic bronze-medalist Ali Brock, two-time Olympic gold-medalist Phillip Dutton, and equitation trainer Stacia Madden.

To find out more information about clinics offered during this year’s Rutledge Farm Sessions, visit

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