Lessons From the Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic

Lillian Simons
Lillian Simons

The 2016 Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic was an intensive week of learning and training. I first worked with Laura Graves on Tuesday, Jan. 5, and Wednesday, Jan. 6, and went on to ride with Robert Dover on Friday, Jan. 8, and Saturday, Jan. 9.

Right Answers and Relaxation in the Warm-Up
With Laura, we focused on the warm-up portion of my ride and narrowed our attention even further to the importance of leg support. Laura stressed that I work to push the energy with my legs to encourage more ground coverage and rideability in the topline. For instance, when going to the right, I should always think to support any kind of inside bend and/or right flexion with my right leg. These two areas coincided with building on the amount of volume I am able to create. Laura asked that I play with the bend when I apply my leg pressure.

This, however, uncovered another area that we addressed; since I was still in my warm-up phase, Laura said, “It’s warm-up; it doesn’t have to be perfect. Right answers come in many ways in the warm-up. The correction needs to come followed by a pat or a ‘good boy’ so he feels confident, not worried.”

Lillian Simons and Laura Graves
Lillian Simons and Laura Graves

This really helped put things into perspective, in more ways than one. Often we become so wrapped up in things being perfect the moment we get on, but Laura helped me understand that warm-up is the time to have that necessary conversation with your horse.

Warm-up is also a time to maintain the element of relaxation. Laura encouraged me to work towards a faster and more obedient response without gaining unnecessary tension. We continued to work on playing with the inside rein and inside leg and then immediately relaxing my aids so Willoughby could move forward, cover more ground and create a more elastic look.

Many of the same goals transferred into the canter warm-up. As we cantered to the left, Laura wanted me to feel as though I could leg-yield Willoughby off the rail and make him supple in the left rein. She commented, “Play and give until he’s putty… Play it until you can give it.” This made things even easier to understand. Now that I had a concrete example to work with, I understood the kind of feeling Laura was after.

Tempo and Energy in the Canter Pirouettes
After our warm-up, we focused on the canter pirouettes. My priority was keeping the tempo and rhythm consistent throughout the entire movement. Willoughby tends to get too confident in the pirouettes and attempts to take over. Laura explained how the bend should come from the ribs, and Willoughby’s tendency to brace was evident to her on the ground and to me under saddle.

As we worked to the left, Laura asked that I think of leg-yielding Willoughby’s body out so that we encourage him to bend under the saddle. If at any time during the schooling pirouette I feel Willoughby begin to take over the movement, then I should work to keep his shoulders straight on the line while immediately making the pirouette bigger and thinking of a leg yield to the outside. The canter itself shouldn’t change and neither should the connection; Laura asked that I focus on keeping Willoughby soft and jumping regardless of how big or small I make the canter. She said, “We never want them to think that anything requires less effort. In the pirouette, the canter should never lose energy or jump and become slower and smaller.”

Lillian Simons and Laura Graves
Lillian Simons and Laura Graves

Half-Halts and Adjustability
Both lessons I had with Robert Dover stressed the importance of the half-halt and how adjustable the horse should be at all times. The horse, Robert says, should be like an accordion. When looking at the space between K and V, the rider should be able to easily add or subtract the amount of strides we choose to include in that space. While doing this, Robert stressed the frame should not change.

Another analogy that really simplified things for me was when he described Russian dancers: their legs are dancing and performing in unbelievable ways while their upper body hardly moves. When we collect the canter, for instance, the legs should energize while the frame remains the same.

In explaining the half-halt even further, Robert said if we have tempo, rhythm, frame and length of stride within and between each half-halt, then we own everything. The one element that brings us from one movement to the next is the half-halt; it is the end all.

Something that Conrad Schumacher stressed when I rode with him earlier last year and what Robert went on to reiterate as well is how riders tend to get too wrapped up in schooling the movements and everything written in the tests – the “stuff,” as he puts it. We tend to overlook the correct training that create the movements that score 8s, 9s and 10s. When we school the movement and disregard the true training behind what we are trying to learn or improve, then it is at the expense of the half-halt.

Independent Riders
On the final day of the clinic, all the riders and auditors met with Robert, and he asked us what our present and future goals are. After listening to a few of us, he stressed the importance of being confident in whatever you choose to set your mind to because, chances are, you are ready for it or even beyond that level or expectation. He encouraged us to speak confidently and avoid words like “maybe,” “I hope” or “hopefully,” or “I think.” Robert really wanted us to be strong, independent riders who designed our goals with confidence. This truly resonated with me. I felt confident in moving forward and setting my sights on specific goals.

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