Training with Laura Graves

Lillian Simons and Willoughby at Devon
Lillian Simons and Willoughby at Devon

Young Rider Lillian Simons, a student at Mount Holyoke College, is balancing school and riding as she trains with Laura Graves in Florida this winter.

So far, things have been absolutely amazing. Laura knew within just a few rides what Willoughby needed to work on. From there, she has given us advice and exercises to strengthen certain areas of work. Her training methods are effective but also easy to understand and execute; she is the kind of teacher who draws connections to what we are working on in order to make their explanations that much simpler.

Since Willoughby left for Florida, I have flown back and forth from Massachusetts every weekend to both show and train. To be perfectly honest, it is difficult and quite stressful at times but somehow everything is flowing and I am getting it done. I recently competed in the Adequan Global Dressage Festival 7 CDI4*, which was my very first CDI and my first time showing in the Young Riders. I was extremely proud of Willoughby and all of his efforts he put forth in both tests. We are set to show in the Palm Beach Dressage Derby and the CDI taking place the second week of March. It’s been a very busy couple of months, I can’t believe we are almost in March but I am enjoying every second of my training with Laura and am so excited to see the progress we have made so far.

Throughness has been a major goal of ours. Willoughby is very supple laterally but tends to get tight vertically. Both Laura and I have been working on unlocking his left side. We began introducing different ways of approaching his stiffness, one being riding leg yields and half passes in the walk while paying particular attention to his bend. Whenever he gets stiff, I would bend him to the inside and then immediately give with the rein so he had the opportunity to take the softness and use it to relax in his neck and jaw.

The important aspect of this is not to do it repeatedly and nag him about the contact. When I release I immediately give him time to think about what I’m asking and attempt to do it the correct way; I don’t want to turn it into a pulling match. It seems like this is somewhat straightforward, but instead of immediately leaning into the contact, he throws his body to the right. The trick has been to keep Willoughby balanced in both reins, essentially getting him to the point where he is rideable in not just one, but both reins. The inside left rein, in this case, is used to bend while the outside rein is used to control the shoulder. At times he becomes tense and this is where we targeted his training to help him adjust more easily.

In theory, I should be able to make adjustments in his bend and avoid any unnecessary stress or resistance, but I feel that he has made tremendous strides with this area of work. During each ride I feel him becoming more and more accepting of the training. We haven’t been working on this for very long, but I already feel a difference in the way he moves. When he is relaxed in this kind of work and is accepting of the bridle, I feel him elevate more in his shoulders and push more from behind.

A key aspect of this training is that we have been doing most of it in the snaffle bridle to assure that that we are getting true work from him. Often times the double bridle covers up connection and throughness issues, but because I am using the snaffle bridle, I know for sure when something is honest and I am well aware of when something needs work.

While training the canter pirouettes, Laura has taught me to ride on a 20m circle, haunches in, while making sure to keep his shoulders on the line we are riding and paying close attention to Willoughby’s breathing to look for signs of tension. The quality of suppleness and throughness that I spoke about earlier is even more important in collection work such as this.

Lillian Simons and Willoughby at Devon
Lillian Simons and Willoughby at Devon

Willoughby knows the pirouette as a movement but maintaining the level of relaxation, suppleness, throughness and adjustability are key components. Instead of riding into the pirouette and thinking of it as a movement, I ride the canter instead; when the adjustability is in place, I should be able to open or close the pirouette or ask for more or less energy. Laura has been drilling me on the importance of getting one good step of pirouette work and then leaving it alone instead of continuing to school it and ending up with, let us say, five steps of lower quality work.

When you drill a movement, the amount of bad quality work tends to outweigh the good. Essentially, it is about knowing when to stop and say enough; it is very easy to get greedy and start asking for more, but Laura has told me that’s what distinguishes a rider from a trainer. Riding like a trainer also includes allowing mistakes to happen. As dressage riders, most of us tend to be perfectionists. It’s important to be conscious of the fact that you are at home and this is training, and each and every step doesn’t need to be ridden as though you are in the show ring.

Let’s say your horse gave you a really nice line of tempi changes and the next day they happened to be a bit tense, or perhaps he was behind your leg. Instead of punishing him, work through it and understand that horses aren’t machines and they come out of the barn feeling completely different from one day to the next. This level of understanding can be particularly hard for combinations that have been together for a long time because, as a rider, you become very critical of everything your horse does. I now let him make mistakes and hope his training thus far helps him figure things out on his own.

Channeling Willoughby’s tension has been another key aspect of our training. Laura explained the difference between positive and negative tension. As we progress through the levels with our horses, the movements become increasingly more demanding. When one schools at the higher levels, it’s important to be able to “rev” the horse up but then be able to stretch them down and make them relaxed again.

The creation of positive tension directly relates to the importance of adjustability and avoiding anticipation that inevitably interferes with our work. When I manage to channel Willoughby’s positive energy, he gives me unbelievable movement and work because he is relaxed in his surroundings and we are in sync with each other.

Reassuring him when he is good through my voice or a pat has been really important with Willoughby. He tends to be a horse that gets emotionally involved in his work and when things aren’t exactly what I want, he gets either offended or very worried. I tend to get very focused when I ride and forget to praise him when he does something good (which sounds so mean as I write this!) but I have found that I am definitely more conscious of the importance of this and notice a difference in Willoughby.

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