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Live from Omaha!
On the scene at the 2017 FEI World Cup Dressage Final

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Song Remains the Same

Steffen Peters coaches Angela Jackson on Allure S, an 8-year-old KWPN mare by Rousseau and owned by KC Dunn. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

I've never been to a spa, but I imagine the experience must be similar to that of attending the Succeed/USDF FEI-Level Trainers' Conference with Olympian Steffen Peters and USEF national dressage young-horse coach Scott Hassler.

You strip off all that artifice -- shoes, makeup, baubles, clothes -- and steam, soak, and massage away your troubles and tight spots. What's left is your best self -- body and mind, calm yet invigorated.

Steffen Peters' riding is a spa treatment for a dressage horse. It's simplicity at its finest. No gimmicky equipment. No accessories. No funky "system." Just the legs, hands, weight, and impeccable timing of a rather slight man who can get more out of a horse than any other rider I've seen.

Peters works his riderly magic and horses transform. Bodies become more supple. Gaits amplify. Tension dissipates. Movements appear effortless. And where the horses' bodies go, their minds follow. They finish their work happier than when they started -- and that's the most beautiful thing of all.

During the conference, Peters and Hassler repeated their theme of simplicity that's been the common thread today, and yesterday, and last year. The horse must respond to light leg aids. Don't aid with the spur; remind with the spur. If he doesn't respond to a light leg aid, tap with the whip instead of spurring or kicking; rinse and repeat until the horse learns to respect the light leg aid. Sit quietly without pumping the seat. Core strong. Shoulders back and down. Don't make big movements with the legs, like the exaggerated drawing-back that we see so often in flying changes or piaffe. If the horse's response is anything less than "Right away, sir!", don't forge ahead with the planned movement (which is already doomed to mediocrity); repeat the transition. Make every step count.

It would be boring if it weren't so damned effective. And difficult.
JJ Tate piaffes aboard Faberge, a 10-year-old Westfalen gelding owned by Elizabeth Guerisco-Wolf. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

I leave this Trainers' Conference, as I left last year's conference, feeling a mix of inspired and daunted. Inspired to strive to leave my own baggage behind and to concentrate on Peters' few simple principles. Daunted because the demonstrations I've just seen are reminders of just how lacking a lot of horses' dressage training really is. Which means that there are a lot of retrains out there in Dressage Land, and as Peters and Hassler told me today, retraining can be a tough business.

Speaking at the 2014 USDF/USEF Young Rider Graduate Program, which immediately preceded the Trainers' Conference, Olympian Lendon Gray said: "I cannot emphasize strongly enough the value of sitting in the corner, watching." Well, that's exactly what I did for the past two days: I sat in the corner and studied and studied Peters' riding. Watching great riding and training does rub off. Most of us are not fortunate enough to share ring time with elite-level riders every day. We become accustomed to a certain "look" and level of accomplishment. Even if that level is pretty good, every once in a while you need to spend some time around truly excellent and get your bar kicked up a notch or 10.

"Be your horse's coach" is a phrase Scott Hassler is fond of repeating. Show him the way. Do what's best for him, not your ego or the owner's ego. Train with boundaries but always with encouragement and patience. Understand that the horse is a sentient being that can feel confusion and aches and pain, just like you. Listen for him to tell you when to push forward and when to back off. Understand that progress is not linear.

Over the past two days, Hassler and Peters showed us the way. They didn't change their message, but they didn't have to. It's simple. It's humane. It's elegant and beautiful. It works. And I'm going to go home and emulate, and emulate, and try to hear their message again and again.

Note: Watch for a full report on the Trainers' Conference in the April issue of USDF Connection.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Trainers' Conference 2014: A Message That Bears Repeating

A packed house watches Steffen Peters instruct Ilse Schwarz on Don Joseph at the 2014 Succeed/USDF FEI-Level Trainers' Conference. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

In this fast-paced world, in which many people seem to have the attention span of a gnat, folks get bored easily and are always looking for the next hot trend.

Dressage, although it's by nature a little slower-moving, can fall victim to the same problem: "flavor of the month" trainers, trends in equipment, even "in" bloodlines. So it might seem counterproductive that, for the 2014 Succeed/USDF FEI-Level Trainers' Conference, the exact same clinician lineup and presentation format was planned. Been there, done that, right?

If the clinicians in question are Steffen Peters and Scott Hassler, however, the conventional wisdom goes out the window. Their 2013 conference was such a smash hit that the USDF decided not to mess with a good thing. The winning formula has proven to be golden, with attendance for 2014 up considerably over last year's.

About 300 trainers and riders flocked to Mary Anne McPhail's High Meadow Farm in Loxahatchee, Florida, for day 1 of this year's conference. They were rewarded with perfect weather -- sunny and 75 degrees -- and demonstrations of perfectly wonderful riding and training by Peters, with commentary from Hassler.

As I watched the day's demonstration horses, most of which Peters got on for part of the rides, I sighed to myself. I was here last year. I took copious notes and photos. I wrote a freakin' magnum opus on the conference for USDF Connection. And yet here I was, going, "Oh yeah, I meant to do all of this stuff, and yet somehow I let some of it get away from me."

I know, for example, that the horse must respond to a light leg aid. Peters can get a horse to passage and piaffe merely by, as he describes it, reaching down into his heels and gently applying his entire leg. No spurs, no whip, no kicking, no drawing back the leg or lifting the heel. Yet most horses do not respond thusly. So back to the dressage-training drawing board we go. We riders know these things intellectually, but somehow we let our horses sucker us into accepting less. So, just like our beloved horses, we need the lesson repeated again and again, until it starts to sink in.

Here's another lesson I have evidently forgotten in the past year. Peters told several of the demonstration riders to sit quietly. "It's tempting to push with the seat," he told one who was working on piaffe, "but it doesn't work. The seat stays centered, but the gas pedal is the leg."

Sitting quietly and not having to bump-kick-bang-spur, of course, is a big part of the reason Peters is such a beautiful, elegant rider. Another part is his impeccable feel and timing of the aids. The latter isn't so easily taught, but it's probably safe to say that if you get your horse to be responsive to light leg aids, you'll be able to make smaller movements and therefore will be "with" your horse's gaits more successfully. Smaller, quicker reaction times eventually make for sharper and more precise timing. Right? Yeah, I'm working on it.

Hmm, what other lessons did I hear repeated today that I know (I know!) and yet have gotten lax about? How about this one: If the rider has to work hard for every little thing, her job is going to become nearly impossible as the horse moves up the levels and the tests become fast-paced and complex. Peters' goal is to train the horse to do the basic stuff pretty much on his own so that he can spend his time in the show ring riding beautiful movements.

Of Angela Jackson's mount, Allure S, Peters commented during his ride on the mare: "She should offer the corners a tiny bit more. I have to manage the corners too much." What he meant was that he doesn't want to have to work at riding nice, deep corners during a test. Good corners should be practiced at home so much that they are automatic for both rider and horse.

(I know, I know....)

Scott Hassler shared one of his own favorite sayings -- one, of course, that I've heard before but that hasn't been sufficiently drilled into me.

Whether it's a gait or a movement, Hassler said, "You want to own it." By which he means that you don't just ride what the horse gives you; you influence the horse so as to create the gait or movement that you want to ride. You don't accept less.

This is a hard one for me because some horses are quite happy to give a subpar effort and can get rather, um, opinionated when a rider calls them on it. The trick is to remain calm and cool until the horse realizes the pressure isn't going away. Hopefully the drama is minimal, thanks to tactful riding. In my experience, these discussions don't happen -- or if they do, they're minor -- with the demo horses at the Trainers' Conference, for these horses are already pretty well trained. They're more apt to occur back home, with a spoiled individual. Which is why, of course, it's so much easier to train correctly in the first place than to try to change an entrenched, unwanted pattern of behavior.

My horse gets away with things she probably shouldn't. That's because her rider similarly lets things slide that she shouldn't. I need my lessons repeated just like my horse, and so I'm grateful I have the chance to absorb Peters' and Hassler's message once again. I, for one, can't hear their philosophies often enough.

See you tomorrow!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Graduates Have Graduated

YR Graduate Program participants with their certificates of completion. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

None of us started riding because we love paperwork. Or difficult clients (the two-legged kind, at least).

The fact is, however, operating a business -- any business -- requires a skill set that we didn't acquire in our riding lessons.

As the second and final day of the USDF/USEF Young Rider Graduate Program got under way, it became apparent that the young people in attendance are in need of some "real world" business and interpersonal skills. And that's exactly what this program was created to help provide.

Equine lawyer Yvonne Ocrant returned to continue her overview of equine law and the particular pitfalls that await the ignorant equine professional. Today's topic: contracts.

"A lot of deals are still done on a handshake, but people will sue. You need contracts," Ocrant said.

Ocrant revealed that many equine-related contracts, including a lot of bills of sale, are not legally enforceable. The reason: Many states' laws contain statutes pertaining to the sale of horses. An example Ocrant used is Florida, whose statute is explicit and therefore a recommended model. Florida's statute requires the inclusion of some specific language in equine bills of sale; without it, she said, the contract may not be enforceable.

Likewise, detailed liability releases -- ideally enriched with examples of potentially dangerous equine behaviors so as to help educate not only the signer but also any opposing counsel, judges, or juries that may someday scrutinize the document -- can be your best friend in the event of a lawsuit. 

"Not only will your liability release help protect you, but it could also be a deterrent against someone suing you," Ocrant said.

Roz Kinstler, a veteran FEI-level trainer and competitor and chair of the USDF Youth Programs Committee (and a driving force behind the YR Grad Program--she's a volunteer, folks!), spoke on the subject of customer service. She got lots of questions, many pertaining to client relations of the I-want-to-say-no-but-I-don't-know-how variety.

USDF youth programs coordinator Roz Kinstler, the driving force behind the YR Graduate Program. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Kinstler's advice to most: Be politely assertive. Establish boundaries (work hours, barn rules, and the like) and stick to them. If someone gets angry, wait until tempers have cooled and speak to the person in private. Realize that you can't please all the people all of the time. Don't engage in "triangling" -- talking about a third person behind her back, or allowing someone to talk to you about someone else. It takes courage, but if you have a beef with someone, speak to him directly.

Train, Train, Train

Lendon Gray discussed the embarrassment of riches that is dressage training opportunities in the US. For starters, thanks to the Internet, there's no such thing as geographic limitations any more. As Gray pointed out, there are online training videos and websites galore. 

Here's a great idea from Gray: Videotape yourself riding a movement; then find video of someone you admire performing that same movement. Compare and contrast.

"Do you look like that rider you admire? If not, why not?" Gray said.

Attend as many educational programs as you can. The USDF "L" and Instructor/Trainer Programs, the Young Horse Trainers Symposium at Hassler Dressage, the Succeed/USDF FEI-Level Trainers' Conference (which starts tomorrow), even content-rich equine expos such as Equine Affaire -- all have much to offer. 

Don't overlook the value of watching and learning. Watch good trainers and riders. Sit with judges. It can be especially helpful to watch an experienced instructor teaching riders and horses of the type that are likely to make up your own clientele, Gray said.

A working-student position is a time-honored way of gaining experience. "It’s slightly slave labor, but you have to be getting something in exchange," said Gray, who advised contacting pros you want to work for -- and also contacting current or former working students, getting a work agreement in writing, and perhaps arranging a week-long trial run to make sure you're cut out for the work and that you and the trainer are a good fit.

Of course, there's always Mecca...that is to say, Europe, which is where American dressage students have been making training pilgrimages for decades. US high-performance rider Catherine Haddad Staller, who spent 20 years in Germany before moving back to the States a couple of years ago, divulged some contacts and offered some advice to consider before you call up the likes of Isabell Werth and offer your services.

Before she said a word about dressage training, however, Staller ordered the YR Grad participants to straighten their tables and chairs, clear the tables of electronic devices, and sit up straight. As the startled audience scurried to comply, she explained her motive: to show that, in Europe, you'll be told (not asked) to do things, and you won't be given a reason, nor should you ask for one. Order and obedience are expected, and praise is rarely given.

Similarly, don't expect hand-holding during riding lessons in Europe, Staller said. "Learning is your responsibility. The trainers will show you things or let you feel things. It’s your job to figure it out." Watch, watch, watch -- what Staller called "stealing with your eyes" -- and then try to apply what you've seen.

Staller is a fan of certification for riding instructors, although she says the German Bereiter system may well be too demanding and lengthy (3 years) for an American. Far more accessible in terms of both time and language is British Horse Society certification, said Staller, who herself is a BHSI (instructor), the British Bereiter equivalent.

Giving and Getting

Judges and instructors Janet Foy, Lilo Fore, and Annie Morris spoke on different topics, but their talks shared a common theme.

Foy explained the USDF "L" Program and why it's a must-do, even if you aren't planning to earn your USEF judge's license. 

"The A, B, and C sessions [which are open to auditors] are 100 percent necessary for anybody who wants to train a horse," said Foy, who is an FEI 4* judge and a member of the "L" program faculty.

Likewise, FEI 5* judge and USDF certification examiner Lilo Fore stressed the importance of earning instructor certification -- truly learning to teach dressage -- as a means of continuing professional development. 

"If you want to fulfill your dream of becoming the best rider you can be, it won’t happen by the seat of your pants. It happens through education," said Fore.

Fore's colleague Annie Morris, a member of the certification faculty, said that "the most important thing about doing this program was that it was so intellectually challenging. It really deepens your understanding of why you do what you do."

Another benefit, Morris said, is that by advancing in the program and becoming a faculty member, "Now I get to teach workshops. It helps my ability to give back to the sport."

Giving back -- by serving on committees, getting involved with USDF educational programs at a higher level, and otherwise donating one's time and expertise to advance the sport -- has many rewards, the experts said. Among them: a rich network of colleagues and friends who can be called on for help and advice. 

"We gain from our education, and at some point we have to give back. But then you receive 100 percent," Fore said.

Over the past two days, sixteen of the best and brightest in American dressage gave back to the sport by talking to the 2014 USDF/USEF Young Rider Graduate Program participants. We thank them for their generous contributions, and we hope the young adults in the program gained valuable insights that they in turn will give back to the sport someday.


Dinner with Champions

The 2014 USDF/USEF Young Rider Graduate Program participants and special dinner guests. From left: Robert Dover, Stephan Hienzsch, USDF Youth Programs Committee chair Roz Kinstler. Middle row, second from right: Debbie McDonald. At right: George Williams, Scott Hassler. Photo by Victoria Trout/USDF.

Last night, as part of the USDF/USEF Young Rider Graduate Program, the attendees enjoyed a special evening: dining with three of the US national dressage coaches, the USDF president, and the USDF executive director.

In a relaxed atmosphere, the 38 participants got to know chef d'equipe and Olympian Robert Dover, Developing coach and Olympian Debbie McDonald, and young-horse coach Scott Hassler as they swapped stories and shared anecdotes about their dressage careers. Also on hand were international competitor George Williams, USDF's president; and USDF executive director Stephan Hienzsch.

Here are a few of the evening's memorable quotes from our very special guests:

On what makes for a successful equestrian career

In my career, and in Deb’s, and in Scott’s, we were never not students -- from the time we began, and it’s still happening now. I’m still a student when I’m riding. I still have other people who are giving me input while I’m riding.  -Robert Dover

Depth -- lots of horses coming up through your pipeline. You can be very lucky and have one special horse, but if you can’t somewhat keep a pipeline coming, then as soon as that horse is done you’re pretty much like the rest of the country.  -Debbie McDonald

Keep yourself attractive to the outside world, because that brings you the flow of horses. Be a good person; be a good character; be a team player; respect your horses; have a positive environment around you all the time. Be attractive, and that’s not just how you ride; be attractive in all ways. -Scott Hassler

In life and in sport, those who are going to be great will become great. If you’re going to be great, you’re going to figure it out and you’ll be great and that’s the way it is. -Robert Dover

On teamwork

My team is my vet, my shoer, my groom, my everybody that is part of what I do. I think when you build up a lot of confidence and respect, you work alongside them instead of talking down to them or expecting them to pick up a pitchfork, and you join in. That’s building team spirit, and I think it goes all the way on up to the Olympic Games.  -Debbie McDonald

Even in the hardest times, just be true to yourself and kind to everyone around you, and it will all work out in the end, however it’s supposed to be. -Debbie McDonald

We are so grateful to these wonderful role models for giving of their time and expertise to help the next generation of dressage professionals. Thank you!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

It's a Long Way to the Top if You Want to Do Dressage

Day one of the 2014 USDF/USEF Young Rider Graduate Program was all about work.

Not training. Not riding. Not flying changes or showing or any of the wonderful horsey stuff that makes so many young people want to pursue dressage as a career.

Today's speakers focused on the unglamorous hard work and attention to detail that go into building a successful business as a dressage trainer, instructor, or rider.

International competitor Jessica Jo "JJ" Tate started things off by recounting her own career trajectory, from horse-crazy high-school student to successful professional with several high-level horses that are garnering national attention.

This will come as no surprise, but "hard work" is tops on Tate's list of steps to success. An unwavering work ethic and the courage to set goals and seek opportunities for advancement -- these were also key for Tate, who left her home state of Wisconsin to move to Hungary (a country she'd never visited, populated by people whose language she didn't speak) to study under Olympian Gyula Dallos, all at the recommendation of Tate's mentor, Charles de Kunffy. Later, the same courage led Tate to leave her thriving dressage business in Wisconsin to move to the East Coast to work for another important influence, Oded Shimoni.

All the while, Tate said, professionalism is paramount.

"Learn to bite your tongue," Tate said. "Never have a meltdown at a horse show. Learn to compartmentalize. If you go to the doctor, your doctor doesn't come in the exam room and share his personal problems. He conducts himself in a professional manner. I might be upset and stressed because my top horse just sustained an injury, but I have a lesson in an hour and a student who expects me to bring it 100 percent and focus on her and her horse."

Professionalism includes paying close attention to your image and your actions, stressed Debbie Witty, president of Performance Saddlery, makers of Trilogy saddles. Witty discussed her rationale for sponsoring dressage riders and trainers, explaining what impresses her and how she makes the decision to sponsor -- or not sponsor -- a rider.

For Witty, it boils down to a positive image and "pleasant, polite" promotion of oneself and her products. She likes to support riders whose conduct reflects well on themselves and on her company, and who she believes have the potential to act as ambassadors for both her products and our sport. Mindful of image, she pays attention to a rider's presence on social media, and she also "loves it when riders mention us on their Facebook pages."

Sponsorship by Performance Saddlery starts with complimentary saddle-flocking and goes all the way up to saddles and saddle pads. But regardless of the level, the rider can bill herself a PS-sponsored rider and may be eligible for promotional consideration on the company's website and Facebook page, among others.

Piggybacking on Witty's session theme was equine-marketing pro Johnny Robb, who spoke on sponsorships, as well. Robb echoed Witty's emphasis on being positive and persistent ("without being a pest," she qualified). She emphasized the importance of enthusiasm -- for our sport, for the products and the company you're wooing -- and creativity in one's approach.

Think like a marketer, Robb advised. "What do you have to offer a sponsor? Position yourself as a marketing solution. How can you make their life and their job easier?"

One of the day's most engaging sessions was about a topic that might strike some as dull: equine law. But equine lawyer Yvonne Ocrant's introduction to equine liability issues, and the land mines involved in dealing with lawsuits, had the Young Rider Grad Program participants peppering the Chicago-based lawyer with questions.

Equine-liability statutes vary from state to state, Ocrant stressed -- and a few states have no such statutes at all. Read your state's statute carefully to learn, among other things, its definition of "equine activity" and "participant."

A careful paper trail, ample warning signage (in state-approved legalese), solid contracts and liability releases, and lots and lots of communication with clients can help protect you in the case of a lawsuit, Ocrant said. Oh, and lots of the right type of insurance --which she'll delve into tomorrow.

Media relations was the subject of Lindsay McCall's talk. McCall, who specializes in equine-industry PR, photography, and journalism, covered such topics as the importance of preparing an "elevator speech" (a five-minute introduction that includes your background, horse info, achievements, and goals) and strategies for handling interview requests (be friendly and accommodating; frame all responses in a positive light; never speak ill of one's horse, teammates, or other factors; thank supporters and sponsors).

Realize that some interviewers are horse-savvy while others don't know one end from the other. For the latter, use simple terms as free of equestrian and dressage jargon as possible. And always spell your name and that of your horse!

Photography is a big part of journalism, of course. McCall pointed out the rampant copyright violations that occur, especially pertaining to Facebook and other online postings of professional photographs. Obtain permission from the photographer before you post that great show photo (you may have to pay a fee for digital usage rights), and always credit the photographer.

Beth Baumert, president of The Dressage Foundation, gave an overview of that charitable organization's many funds and grants. She encouraged the YRGP participants to give to causes they believe in and stressed that no amount is too small or insignificant. Most of all, she urged the young adults in the room to plan for their own secure financial futures by establishing a retirement savings account (she likes Roth IRAs because they're seeded with after-tax money, meaning that the withdrawals will be tax-free) as early as possible, to take maximum advantage of the power of compounded interest.

United States Equestrian Federation managing director of dressage Jenny van Wieren-Page rounded out the day with a look at the USEF's "pipeline" for dressage, beginning with juniors and ponies and finishing at the high-performance level. She encouraged the YRGP participants to contact the USEF with questions about programs and eligibility, and also to feel free to contact the national dressage coaches with questions.

We covered a lot of ground in one day! Now the grad YRs are looking forward to a special evening: dinner with national coaches Robert Dover, Debbie McDonald, and Scott Hassler.

See you tomorrow for day 2 of the YR Graduate Program!

Friday, January 17, 2014

A Feast of Dressage: Four Days in Florida

This year, we have the good fortune to enjoy back-to-back USDF educational events in "Wellie World," aka the Wellington, Florida, area.

This weekend is the every-other-year Young Rider Graduate Program, co-hosted by the USDF and the United States Equestrian Federation. It's followed immediately by the annual two-day Succeed/USDF FEI-Level Trainers' Conference.

I'll be blogging during the course of both events, bringing you photos and highlights from both programs. To get things started, here's a little bit of background information about the programs' focus and this year's headliners.

Some years ago, the USDF in conjunction with the USEF realized a need for an educational bridge between the FEI Young Rider ranks and the world of dressage professionals and open competition. Kids were finding themselves equipped with riding skills but woefully ignorant of knowledge of business, insurance, legal issues, client and sponsor dealings, and the like.

Selected Young Rider Graduate Program applicants receive two days chock-full of lectures from leading experts on the above topics as well as from the people they probably admire the most: well-known dressage pros. This weekend's lineup includes such marquee names as Catherine Haddad Staller, Lilo Fore, Janet Foy, and Lendon Gray. As an added bonus, the young pros or aspiring pros get to have dinner with some equally lofty luminaries, including Olympian and current national dressage chef d'equipe Robert Dover.

Then on Monday, we're off to the beautiful High Meadow Farm in Loxahatchee for the Succeed/USDF FEI-Level Trainers' Conference. Last year's event, with Olympian Steffen Peters and US national dressage young-horse coach Scott Hassler, was such a smash hit that the dynamic duo of S&S is back this year.

The Trainers' Conference, as its name suggests, is a type of symposium conducted for trainers of horses working at the FEI levels. The clinicians encourage dialog and questions from the participants as well as from the demonstration riders. Together the demo riders and horses at these conferences constitute some of US dressage's best and brightest, and it's a real treat to see how even these excellent pairs improve under expert coaching.

I hope I've whetted your appetite for what are sure to be four memorable days of fabulous learning. Stay tuned for day 1 highlights from the USDF/USEF Young Rider Graduate Program.