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

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!


  1. Thanks Jennifer for sharing with those of us unable to attend!

  2. LOVE this essay- highly enjoyed readin AND relating to it!! Thanks from TN!

  3. Steffen is a 'cloud' on a horse.Thank you, Steffen for more great insights and thank you Scott! I am so grateful for their
    continuing education through the USDF. Thank you Kathie Robertson and the USDF and everyone that help make this a spectacular event, as was last years..