Live from Omaha!

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.


  1. This was a beautifully written piece. Thanks, Jennifer!

  2. Great article. I could visualize being there. Thanks

  3. Eloquent summary. I was there, also, and you relayed the message of Steffen Peters and Scott Hassler very well. It was inspiring, informative and time well spent. I came from NW Ohio to participate, and enjoyed every moment. As you pointed out, there is great benefit to watching superlative riders and horses. These opportunities are rare for me, and it was wonderful to absorb so much knowledge!