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Clinic Recap: Daniel Stewart @ Belmore Equestrian (Day One)

Clinic Recap: Daniel Stewart @ Belmore Equestrian (Day One)

Let’s kick off this post by introducing our clinician:

Olympic Coach Daniel Stewart

“Daniel Stewart has been a successful international trainer and instructor for over 25 years. In addition to the US, he’s trained riders in Spain, Portugal, England, Canada, Mexico, Switzerland, Belgium, United Arab Emirates, Greece, England and the West Indies. For many years he coached riders on several US Equestrian Teams at World Championships, World Equestrian Games and Olympics.”

You would think an Olympic level coach would be intimidating, but that’s far from the truth for Coach Stewart. There are three things you notice about Coach right off the bat: he has a silly hat, he likes white pants, and he’s very, very funny.

Coach’s clinics are renowned for being “designed to help riders match their strong leg and seat with equally strong confidence, willpower, and focus”. It’s his goal to find every rider’s inner greatness by emphasizing the importance of matching physical strength with mental strength. Riding is a tough sport and Coach always promises that his exercises won’t be easy, but that he’s confident that his students can prove that they’re as tough as the lessons he plans on teaching them.

On top of teaching thousands of students a year in his annual summer clinic tour (that spans more then 50 cities in 60 daysβ€”I think he said we were number 27!), Coach also runs Pressure Proof Academy (“the world’s first online site for equestrian confidence, conditioning, and coaching”), has many published magazine experts, and is an expert in equestrian sport psychology for the USEA, USPC, and USHJA.

Coach is also the author of several acclaimed books on equestrian sport psychology and rider fitness, including:

Pressure Proof Your Riding

Ride Right with Daniel Stewart

Focus and Fitness in 52

We picked the horses up from Rainbow Meadow Farm and rolled into the clinic grounds around nine o’clock, an hour before the clinic was set to begin. We had to take a pretty tight turn to get our big gooseneck into the driveway, then we were guided around a shed and into the back pasture, where we were able to swing our rig around, set up camp, coo over the neighbor’s goats, and unload the horses for the day. Then we got a good look at

Belmore Equestrian is much smaller than the SEC. From what I can tell, it has one main barn that houses about four horses, and then a couple of smaller auxiliary barns with turnout paddocks. They have no indoor arena, just a 126′ by 200′ outdoor arena with perfectly jump worthy footing and a set of standards/rails that I suspect were recently crafted (judging by the temporary pencil pins they were using for their jump cups).

Honestly? I loved it. It’s the sort of place that feels a little backyard (in a warm, inviting way), and I liked how small and intimate the setting for the clinic felt (the auditor’s got to sit ringside under a tent instead of watching the clinician from the top of a grandstand, which I always appreciate).

Most of the horses at Belmore were big draft/TB crossesβ€”breeds that, while not as svelte as Teak an Kody, are respectably hardy and level-headedβ€”and a lot of the riders were middle/high school aged, which makes me think they must be building up a pretty respectable Belmore Equestrian IEA Team. There was a little bit of natural segregation between the riders from the Belmore team and the haul-ins, but everyone was friendly and polite and we appreciated their hospitality. πŸ™‚

Coach’s Introduction

After the first group of riders had gotten a chance to warm up, Coach Stewart called all of the clinic participants (including the auditors) into the arena for a powwow. Coach places a big emphasis on getting a rider’s inner greatness out by matching the great physical with the great mental, and this clinic would focus on the mental aspect of the rider. He talked about how the brain can hold the body back, and how it’s important to foster a sense of confidence, willpower, optimism, and focus.

“Goals can get us into trouble,” Coach warned. “This is our happy place. You can’t be upset in your happy place. You’re 34% better at what you do when you’re happy.”

The course set up in the arena looked straightforward, but the exercise he’d devised for the day was far from simple. Coach called the exercise the “Chain Link Fence”, and he quickly introduced two very important terms to us as a group:

CHANGE: when a rider uses one of the inside two fences (5 or 6) to change directions

LINK: a combination of jumps from an outside fence to an inside fence (or vice versa)

Riders would be designing their own courses on the fly, with coach providing stipulations (such as “two links and one change over four fences in twenty-five seconds”) after they’d already picked up the canter, leaving them very little time to plan. That meant that the two biggest skills that day one would test were mental shifting (the ability to move your focus back and forth between problems) and mistakability (the ability to avoid becoming frustrated and crankyβ€”“franky”β€”after making a mistake). Coach’s ultimate goal was to cause “stress-induced amnesia” (forcing the rider to rush and be forgetful under pressure)β€”this exercise was a type of simulation training to help the riders discover what pressure does to them as an individual.

And if the pressure of scrutiny of an Olympic coach wasn’t enough, riders received 1 fault for a chip/long spot, 5 for the incorrect number of links/changes, 3 for any downed rails, and 1 for every second over/under the optimum time. If you went over 8 faults in a round, you were immediately told to dismount your horse and perform 50 sit-ups before you could continue. End your clinic session with more than 30 faults and you had to finish up with another 100 sit-ups. 😯

“Riding is tough, so the exercises won’t be easy. Hard is our sport.” He looked each of the riders in the eyes and smiled. “Prove you’re as tough as the lesson I’m going to teach you. The pressure goes up, you calm down.”

Day One was all about PRESSURE PROOFING.

Group One (Intermediate)

The first group of the day was filled with riders that were confident coursing up to 2’3″β€”which included the Show Buddy and Teak! On top of that, tSB was also lucky enough to draw first position in the order of go, which means she warmed Teak back up, demonstrated a couple of important jump combinations that Coach wanted them to remember for later, and then got thrown right into the exercise with a course of:

“Two links, one change, over four in twenty.”

Teak was being his typical rocket pony self (I keep trying to convince tSB that he wants to be a jumper, not a hunter πŸ˜› ), so tSB pulled him up at the end of the course and put him into a rein back. The rein back is a staple correction at our barn for a horse that doesn’t listen to seat/voice aids telling them to slow down because it reinforces the ignored half halt, though Teak’s rein back can be a little more frantic than normal. Coach put a stop to the correction and considered the horse/rider combo.

“You don’t need to slow that horse down, you need to calm that horse down.”

Coach called tSB out for being tense and suggested that instead of trying so hard, she “try softer” instead.

“Survival is the brain’s number one job, but the brain isn’t always right. People under stress either fight, flight, or freezeβ€”and you’re a fighter,” he told the Show Buddy. “The brain doesn’t know enough to turn off that safety feature. You have to tell it to fight less. You have to watch out for that electric seat.”

The Show Buddy came back for her second and third round with a quieter mentality, and under the guidance of Coach she rode a much softer, more organized course. The Show Buddy’s real moment of honor, though, came during her fourth course, when she lost an iron mid-ride and chose to kick her foot out of her other iron and carry on without themβ€”an ability courtesy of a strong core/lower leg built up by many stirrupless sessions done during her time with Trainer M.

Coach applauded her gutsy move, but was also quick to find where her course had gone wrong. He pointed out that tSB had picked a bad distance to the jump that knocked her off balance, and how that bad distance had translated into a poor downward transition once her course was over. He reminded us all that, “Everything is connected.”

Group One also included a big draft horse cross, an Appaloosa mare that was very green over fences, and a wonderful gray gelding (Pilot!). Pilot’s rider had barely jumped before and he was such a gentleman with her, I really sort of fell in love with the pair of them, but all of the horse/rider combinations did a great job and made a lot of progress during their first session. πŸ˜€

Coach ended the first group with some choice words of wisdom:

“You can succeed without being perfect.”

Group Two (Beginner)

The second group of the day was dedicated to walk/trot beginners, and unfortunately it started off with a fall. πŸ™

The Appaloosa mare (she was very cute, see left!) from Group One got handed over to another rider in Group Two, but she was so amped up from the jumping that the preteen that was supposed to ride her took a tumble during warmup. Coach Stewart was kind and compassionate. He took a moment to console her, then sent for a different horse from the Belmore lesson stringβ€”a horse that would allow her to learn.

“It’s okay to be upset and cry after a fall, that just means you care about the sport. Never be afraid to be emotional.”

The rider in question ended up on another draft cross (seems to be a favored style in those parts!), whose name was Tater Tot. Tater Tot was a great choice of horse for herβ€”she was safe, but she was also just disobedient enough to provide a challenge. Tater Tot very much wanted to stay in line with her friends instead of trotting over ground poles. At one point the rider was on the verge of tears again (poor girl!), but Coach Stewart helped her harness her inner “GRRRR” and get the job done.

Several riders in the beginner group were tasked with finding their “GRRRR”. One of them, a young girl riding a teenage Thoroughbred gelding whose work ethic bordered on Ezhno’s, even found herself being chased by a clapping Coach!

“Aggression doesn’t belong in our sport, but sometimes you’ve got to be cruel to be kind,” he told her. “Sometimes you should get cranky. Sometimes you’ve got to find your GRRRRR.”

It was during Group Two that Coach Stewart introduced one of his favorite concepts:

The Goldilocks Zone

“There’s a mental mindset where you’re neither too lethargic nor too anxious; too confident nor too worried; too fearful nor not fearful enough. This place is called your Goldilocks Zone because the emotions you experience in this mindset are ‘just right’.”

Getting in and out of the Goldilocks Zone (not to mention being able to stay in that zone while under pressure) soon became one of the main focuses of the clinic, to the point that we were even assigned homework on the Goldilocks Zoneβ€”but more about that later. First we’ve got the highlight of the day to cover. πŸ˜‰

“It’s our job to make the horse his best. Whatever you want in your horse, you must first create in yourself.”

Group Three (Advanced)

The final group of the day was meant for anyone competing at 2’6″ and up, and Coach Stewart had preemptively warned us that Group Three would be something none of us would want to miss. The basics of the exercise would be the same, but on top of having to keep track of links/changes, number of fences, and the clock, the riders were also required to end their courses on specific fences and count down to their jumps.

In the words of Coach Stewart, he wanted the riders in Group Three to juggle a chainsaw, a cactus, a hotdog, and a kitty. πŸ˜›

But before they could even get into the exercise, the riders were already in trouble. Coach Stewart asked them if they wanted cross rails for warm up and they used the only three words that riders aren’t allowed to say in his clinics:

I don’t care.

Coach teased them for starting out their lesson with a lie, then shared another snippet of quote worthy wisdom:

“When you start to say ‘I don’t care’, the most confident thing you can do is think about your real feelings and tell the truth.”

Coach Stewart left a couple of fences down as a cross rail and put the others up to about two feet, though he didn’t give them much time to prepare. Instructor A only had three minutes to get the lay of the land before she, like the Show Buddy, was thrown to the wolves as the first rider in the order of go.

It’s hard not to take a liking to Kody and his fourteen foot stride (though I must say that those of us in the audience that know him got to have a chuckle when Coach thought Kody was a bit fast; he looked like he was going pretty slow on the Kody scale to us!). But Coach Stewart wasn’t blinded by the shine of Kody’s coat. He noticed right off the bat that Kody has a habit of rooting (grabbing onto the bit and stretching his neck down, thereby pulling on his rider), and he called Instructor A out for letting Kody linger in an unrhythmic “tranter”.

Instructor A came out for her next round with a much more decisive outlook. While her round was done at a faster pace (at one point she did a 35 second course in 18, LOL), this time she and Kody fell into a more cohesive rhythm. They cruised around their course with confidence, and coach praised them for the improvements and challenged them to go even further to find their Goldilocks Zone by “thinking calm”, “landing lazy”, and “starting slow and ending strong”.

“Adrenaline is the chemical that makes you rush. Pressure changes us. Pressure makes us forgetful.”

Coach also warned against “analysis paralysis” (overthinking something to the point where you can’t make a decision), especially for the adult riders. “The older we get, the more we overthink things,” he said. “We get in our own way!”

The other two riders in Group Three were both riding draft crosses. One of them was the daughter of the owner of the facility, and both of them were good riders on competent horses, which made them very fun to watch!

As the last clinic session came to a close, two out of three riders (including Instructor A) were sitting above 30 faults total, which meant they had 100 more sit-ups to look forward to.

To really put the pressure on, Coach Stewart gave the sit-up free rider (the barn owner’s daughter) the chance to save the other members ofΒ  her group from anymore sit-ups. All she had to do was ride a round with less than eleven faultsβ€”but she had to do it on a completely different horse! 😯

She put her game face on, dismounted, and collected the other rider’s draft cross, a horse that she had some experience with four years ago, but hadn’t ridden since. Coach gave her sixty seconds to warm up and she went out and rode a quick course while practicing counting down to the jumps on her unfamiliar steed. Forty-five seconds later, she declared herself ready to go.

The result? Well, I think I’ll just go ahead and end this post with this:

“We get better by observing. Learn from the mistakes of others; you don’t live long enough to make them all.”

Clinic Recap: Daniel Stewart @ Belmore Equestrian (Day Zero)

Clinic Recap: Daniel Stewart @ Belmore Equestrian (Day Zero)

Several months ago, before the Show Buddy moved barns, she and one of my lesson program’s instructors (hereby known as Instructor A) made plans to attend a clinic together. A few weeks ago Instructor A messaged me to let me know that she had a free auditor’s pass for said clinic… so I met up with her at the barn, took Ezhno for a light bareback ride while she was finishing her Saturday morning lessons, and then we started our journey down to the the little town of Rochester, WA, for a clinic with equestrian sport psychology expert (and Olympic Coach!) Daniel Stewart!

Here’s a quick look at our clinic participants…

Instructor A & Kody

Instructor A works full time during the week and teaches lessons for Ready to Ride on the weekends. She owns two horses, Zarina (a thirty-one year old Anglo-Arab mare that Instructor A’s owned for 15+ years) and Kody (a nine year old Anglo-Arab gelding that Instructor A bred from Zarina and a TB stallion).

Kody’s a bonafide freak over fences (ask me about the time I watched them take a 6 stride/3 stride line in five and two, LOL). He’s a big horse, probably 16.1 or 16.2 hands, and he’s got a good sense of his own size that makes for a kind of bullheaded attitude and a super stellar arena presence. He’s very much a big lughead, but he’s also wickedly talented and athletic.

He’s also literally the shiniest horse I’ve ever met and he loves to strike a pose for the camera. πŸ˜‰

Kody had some trouble with a suspensory in the past, but he came back from the injury after several months of stall rest. He’s naturally quick-footed horse (hello, fourteen foot stride) that has a tendency to divebomb his way through corners, so Instructor A has been focusing on improving his balance and adjustability.

The Show Buddy & Teak

The Show Buddy (former show buddy? we’re not really competing together anymore πŸ™ ) recently graduated from high school and is exploring the equine industry now. She owns one horse, an adorkable six year old Arabian gelding named Teak that she’s owned for a little over a year and half now.

Teak is a small horse/maybe-pony, about 14.3 hands tall, with a quirky personality. He’s a funny beast that likes to twist his head through the air for attention. At times he can be combative under saddle, but he makes up for it with a boatload of stamina and a naturally athletic build that lets him easily recover from botched distances or awkward jumps.

The Show Buddy originally met Teak through the Ready to Ride training program. After she purchased Teak, they learned both Performance and the Hunter/Jumper style under the tutelage of Trainer A and Trainer M. Now they’re finishing up their final 4-H season and are comfortable competing up to 2’3″, though Teak has had a problem with refusals in the past that makes schooling opportunities like this clinic very important to his continued education as a Hunter/Jumper prospect.

For our journey down to Rochester, we took Instructor A’s massive four horse Featherlite (BECAUSE IT’S FANCY AND WHY NOT? πŸ˜› ). We put in a full-length divider and filled the front portion with hay/feed (brilliant modification/design courtesy of Instructor A), then pilled all of the equipment/luggage into the tack room, which left the cab of the truck with plenty of room for passengers.

We loaded Kody first, then went to pick up tSB/Teak.

I was very excited to get a chance to check out tSB’s new digs! She moved to her new barn (SCS) in mid-April and I haven’t been out to take a look at it yet, so it was interesting to have a chance to walk around and check out the facilities while she loaded Teak up. It’s a unique barn, in that the entire thing is a ClearSpan structure with stalls in one half and open arena space in the other. As someone that wants an arena of my own at some point, I was intrigued by the concept, and while I didn’t love the idea of a barn/arena combo, I did really like the arena’s natural lighting and the open-air ambiance the structure provided.

Here’s a look at what the ClearSpan is like from the inside (plus brand new stalls!):

Onto Rainbow Meadow Farm!

A little over two hours later (and one unfortunate navigation mistake on my part that forced Instructor A to back the rig down the middle of the street to catch a missed turnβ€”I’M SO SORRY), we pulled into the field that houses the temporary stalls at Rainbow Meadow Farm. The stalls were made out of an iron frame and a thick tarp/canvas siding that looked suspiciously flimsy/flappy, and there weren’t any mats in the stalls, just grass at the bottom. It was definitely temporary.




The short video I took is so far away it doesn’t really do it justice, but that’s the start box for a cross country course (!!!). There were logs, tires, ditches, coops, tables… plus a few stadium jumps, all of which had interesting themes (carrots, rainbows, stuffed animals, etc.). I tried my best to convince Instructor A and the Show Buddy to go putz around on the course (the owner said we could check it out while we were there), but no dice, we were too busy. I’m kicking myself for not walking out to take some pictures, though, and you can guarantee I’m already planning a trip back out when I’ve got a capable horse (see left for a very capable, very hungry horse, LOL). πŸ™‚

Once the horses were settled in, we headed to our Airbnb…

Say hello to Marcon Farm, our home away from home during the clinic!

After twisting and turning our way through the back streets of Rochester, we stumbled upon this huge rustic farm house, where our host, Nora, was waving us down from her place on the porch. Nora is an older African American lady and she was very excited to see us! She was talkative and inviting, and after chatting on the porch for a few minutes we grabbed our bags from the truck and went inside to pick out bedrooms. The house was very large, and while there were parts of it that were slightly cluttered or in the midst of home renovations, the rooms themselves were clean and the beds had fresh sheets.

Nora was incredibly kind. She even made us soup one night, though we ended up taking it for breakfast the next morning since most of us were too tired to eat.

Most importantly? There was a really cute cow in the yard. πŸ˜€

By the time we were settled into Marcon, it was time for some dinner. We headed north (towards civilization, AKA Olympia) and pulled off at one of first exits that had signs for food. We ended up in Tumwater at a place called Nickelby’s, where we ate a late night meal while we listened to the drunken karaoke seeping through the door that lead into the lounge portion of the restaurant (LOL). The food was good and the service was hilarious (especially in our tired, delirious state). The Show Buddy and her clinic auditor did end up locked in the restaurant on accident… but otherwise I’d give Nickelby’s a thumbs up!

We swung by to check on the horses (Teak was busy pacing circles into the bedding of his stall, Kody was too involved with his hay nets to acknowledge us), then went back to Marcon and I crashed from exhaustion, though only after tossing and turning for a good twenty minutes… I was excited for what the morning would bring: Day One of the Daniel Stewart Clinic!

Clinic Recap: Charlotte Dujardin Masterclass

Clinic Recap: Charlotte Dujardin Masterclass

Confession time: up until early last year, I’d never seen a dressage routine. I knew about dressage the same way that most people know about windsurfing or bocce ballβ€”I’d read about the sport and I knew enough to spout off the tagline “it’s like ballet with horses”, but the movements/scoring system was a mystery to me.

Enter Charlotte Dujardin and her freestyle routine at the FEI World Cup.

Charlotte and Valegro were my introduction to dressage. When I began my return to horseback riding as an adult, I knew I wanted to explore English disciplines (hunters/jumpers, three day eventing, etc.), and Charlotte’s How to Train Your Dragon inspired routine was the first dressage video I watched. Talk about setting high standards, right? πŸ˜›

So when SH Productions posted on Facebook that Charlotte Dujardin was coming to Monroe for a clinic, I jumped on the chance to audit. Here’s a look at the schedule, horse/rider selections included:

The clinic was being held at the Evergreen Equestrian Park (the same place that the Show Buddy had her 4-H show back in July), so I was familiar with the venueβ€”which made it all the more shocking when I entered the building and found it transformed into a regulation size dressage arena with a set of shops at the end (including an Olson’s booth where I bought a Breyer Valegro and a Sellaria Equipe booth that featured some damn fine saddles that cost more than my horse).

I spent a few minutes browsing through merch (while simultaneously mourning the perennially drained state of my pocketbook), then I climbed up into the stands and claimed a spot in the upper levels (there literally wasn’t a bad seat in the house). Soon the stands started to fill up and I was surrounded by snippets of conversations about training routines, show coat colors, and boot brands. It was awesome to be surrounded by people who share my passion for horses!

The idea behind Charlotte’s current tour is to display the different levels of training a dressage horse goes through throughout its career. The clinic started with a four year old and then finished with a Grand Prix level horse, meaning the movements and the instruction provided by Charlotte grew more advanced as the night wore on and the audience was able to follow along as Charlotte told the story of how dressage horses at her stables are trained through the levels.

Four Year Old: Sodovergards Landedel

Sodovergards Landedel, courtesy of his sales page

To kick things off, a very young, very tense warmblood was led out into the arena. For the safety of the rider on board, the audience stayed hushed while Charlotte Dujardin introduced Sodovergards Landedel, a four year old Danish Warmblood gelding owned by local dressage trainer Aaron Janicki of Janicki Dressage (more on him later). SL was 17 hands of sexy (of all five horses featured during the clinic, I think he was the one I found to be most appealing to my eye), and while he was more than a little nervous to be schooling in front of an audience, he settled down pretty quickly once he was framed up and the real work started happening.

If I had three times as much courage and an extra 60k laying around, he might be a serious temptation. Alas, I’m low on both bravery and funds, so I’ll have to stick with my APHA. πŸ˜†

For a young dressage horse, Charlotte placed a lot of emphasis on training the basics. She stressed that the most important concept for a horse to learn as a four year old is stop and go (with primary emphasis being on GO).

“Horses have all their life to collect,” Charlotte said. “Just go forwards.”

Charlotte typically spends only twenty minutes a day on her four year old horses, with the first ten focused around submission and the last ten focused on encouraging the horse to stretch (particularly since dressage horses are primarily built uphill, which makes stretch work all the more important since its harder for an uphill horse to get the stretch). Stretching at the end, according to Charlotte, is also important because it makes the horse feel relaxed and ends things on a positive note that encourages the horse to enjoy the concept of working in the arena.

Between pushing SL’s rider to really stretch her hand towards the bit to encourage more forward motion and chiding her for letting sloppy downward transitions slide (a cardinal sin all five riders would receive admonishment for), Charlotte also provided some insights on SL’s conformation/movements and some of the things that she looks for in a dressage prospect. In particular she liked the circular motion of his front legs and the way his hind legs really reached underneath himself at the trot/canter, but was less impressed with with his overtrack/shoulder use at the walk (Her solution? More hacking out, especially uphill, plus ground pole exercises to stretch his stride out!).

In Charlotte’s view, though, the most important trait a dressage horse can have is trainability. She’d much rather own a horse with good gaits that really wants to work with her than a horse with fantastic gaits that has to be convinced to put the work in.

Charlotte also made a point of reminding both rider and audience that it’s important not to push a horse to continue to perform when their energy is clearly depleted. In her experience, horses do their best work at the beginning of the ride, when their energy is at its highest, so it’s unfair to ask them to continue when it’s grown physically challenging for them.

“It’s about the training. Dressage is gymnastics.”

Five Year Old: Harrold S

Harrold S (screencaps from YouTube vid)

While SL finished stretching, in came our five year old: Harrold S, a Dutch Warmblood brought in by Darnell Dressage. Despite SL being 17 hands, Harrold look massive compared to him. He had a thick, almost blocky build with a delicate looking head. At first I wasn’t sure he appealed to me aesthetically, but his personality caught my eye right off the bat. Harrold happily sauntered into the arena without batting an eye at the hundreds of eyes watching him from the stands, and he didn’t so much as flinch when we gave SL a final round of applause (a fact made even more impressive when his rider confirmed he hadn’t been ridden in competition before). He was large, nonplussed, and a little on the slow sideβ€”my kind of guy. SL was too much horse for me, but I think I would have taken Harrold home right on the spot. πŸ˜€

Charlotte used Harrold’s introduction to talk a little bit about bloodlines (Harrold is by Vivaldi, a KWPN stallion known for his trainability) and then to point out that long horses like HarroldΒ  are harder to push underneath themselves, so the goal is to “package him up” to make his body shorter (and, conversely, a short horse should be ridden in such a way as to be made longer). She also said that big horses tire faster, and to keep in mind that “it’s all about the future” and it’s important not to overwork the individual dressage movements.

“Sometimes you have to forget dressage. It’s not always about being the best,” Dujardin warned. “It’s not about how quickly you can train your horse to do all the tricks.”

It quickly became clear that while not behind the leg, Harrold was slightly sluggish and not necessarily the most responsive to his rider’s leg. After spending a moment to profess her preference for hot horses over a kick ride, Charlotte focused her time with Harrold and his rider on the idea of really riding Harrold forward to help make him sharper off of the rider’s leg and to help him create a sense of self-motivation. She had Harrold’s rider focus on adjustability by pushing for big, extended gaits, then collecting him back up, then pushing him out againβ€”but not without trouble. It took a long time for Harrold’s rider to really find the extension Charlotte was looking for (to the point where Charlotte even asked her if she’d ever taken a horse out for a gallop before, a question to which the rider laughed and then solemnly shook her head, which all but baffled Charlotte).

“Go on, be brave!” Charlotte said. “When I say go, he’s got to go.”

According to Charlotte, it’s a natural reaction on a young horse to hold them back, but in reality holding a young horse only teaches them to be backwards instead of forwards. It’s important not to chase and to soften the reins for an even contact, and to remember that lazy horses actually needΒ lessΒ leg and hotter horses needΒ more (a concept which can seem counter-intuitive). The goal is to develop a horse that enters a gait and then stays “self-propelled” without any additional pushing.

After Charlotte had helped the rider find all of Harrold’s gears (and taught her how to properly pat her horse, much to the crowd’s amusement) it was amazing how much the quality of Harrold’s gaits had improved. From there Charlotte let them move onto leg yields while she stood by and reminded them that bending on a leg yield was paramount to cheating. She also gave them strict instructions to work in the rising trotβ€”young horses are typically not strong enough through their back to handle long periods of sitting trot, and it can make their back stiff and be detrimental to their development.

Out of the five horses featured in the clinic, watching Harrold S taught me the most because the problems Charlotte was addressing felt a lot like some of the problems that I have with my own horse (love him dearly, but he’s a lazy son of a gun).

“You have to ride forward.”

Six Year Old: Romance D’annika

Not sure if I was allowed to take this…?
But damn Romance D’annika was shiny in the sun.

The moment Romance D’annika, a six year old Swedish Warmblood brought in by Zoo Station Dressage, entered the arena, it was very clear she was a mare (and not just because recently cut Harrold’s eyes bugged out πŸ˜› ). She had an almost delicate buildβ€”Charlotte called her “elegant, beautiful to look at”, then launched into the ever popular discussion about gender preferences in horses (her verdict being that she likes both geldings and mares, but that stallions are too much of a hassle because she “likes an easy life” LOL).

By six years old, Charlotte expects a horse to be able to perform small amounts of renvers/travers, shoulder in, and half-pass (AKA second and third level maneuvers). RD had experience with all of those (though her flying changes were not yet established). Her rider’s request? Exercises to help improve RD’s sense of submissionβ€”a feeling most mare owners no doubt sympathize with.

They started out working on RD’s shoulder in, with Charlotte really hammering home that the flexion should happen through the poll, not the neck, and that there should be a curve around the rider’s leg, but not a full bend.

I’m just going to leave this here (courtesy of Denise Cummins)

From there they moved onto the travers as a lead into the half-pass (the idea being that the half-pass is like a travers on a diagonal line). Charlotte had the rider turn her hip towards the inside, then start the travers by leg yielding down the wall before adding the bend (the correct way to teach a horse the travers, according to Charlotte). Even through the travers and the half-pass, Charlotte reminded the rider to “try not to get stuck on one rhythm”β€”Charlotte had her extend/collect throughout the movements, all while keeping the rib cage properly bent around the leg and the horse on the bit.

Then it was an onslaught of transitions. Charlotte had the rider take RD down the long side of the arena while alternating between the shoulder in and the travers over and over again with varying levels of success. It was a lot to think about all at once, and whenever there was a minor fumble Charlotte was quick to point it out.

“Slap the rider and pat the horse,” she said when the rider accidentally misdirected D’annika. “You’ve got to look where you’re riding. Let’s see if we can pat both of you.”

By the time Charlotte called off the chaos, I can only imagine that both rider and horse were mentally frazzled. Unfortunately, they followed in the footsteps of the last two riders and made the mistake of biffing their downward transition, which meant they had to repeat it several times before Charlotte was content. Even then, Charlotte took a moment to lecture on the importance of having consistent standards while training, especially for transitions. After all, even downward transitions should push forward instead of collapsing down and back.

“I’m a perfectionist. I want to make it as good as I can get it,” she said, unashamed.

She let DA and her rider have a small breather and then, despite the rider’s warning that RD’s lead changes were not established, Charlotte made the decision to spend some time schooling them. She took them down to the far end of the arena and had them pick up a tiny figure 8 (10m circles!) so that they had a small, bouncy canter, then focus on pushing straight for the change.

A couple of awkward half changes later (and a reminder that rhythm is important and it’s okay for young horses to make mistakes), DA had one clean change on each side and a loud round of applause from the audience. They got a small warning from Charlotte about the “lead changes EVERYWHERE” phase of a horse’s training, then they got to end with a long session of stretching while Charlotte shared personal stories about her time at her own stables (including the fact that she saves Valegro for the last ride of the day because he always puts a smile on her face πŸ™‚ ).

Prix St. Georges: Sashay

Sashay, courtesy of Kat Southam-Fay’s site

After an hour break for lunch, we came back to our seats to find a tiny powerhouse (powerhorse?) warming up in the arena. Sashay, a twelve year old Dutch Warmblood owned by Kat Southam Dressage, taped in at only 15.2 hands (which of course inspired Charlotte to share some of the story of Toretto AKA Pumpkin, Charlotte Dujardin’s own great-things-come-in-small-packages horse that she purchased during a clinic in California late last year). Sashay had a short, bouncy look to her movement and a very intense, focused personality.

Sashay’s rider chose to focus on improving their canter pirouettes for the majority of their ride time. After a quick demo of Sashay’s gaits, Charlotte quickly pegged her as a very tight, almost mechanical mare who was best served by improving her pirouettes by not practicing them. Instead she had them work on extending/collecting their canter on a circle, then sent them out to do a complex exercise involving the half-pass, shoulder in, and the travers in a way that built the foundations of their pirouettes without drilling them.

Charlotte coached her to collect/extend/collect/extend along the straight line and through the half-pass, then bring Sashay back for the shoulder in/travers (like a loose pirouette).

With that new exercises tucked away in their tool belt, Charlotte took a look at their four tempi changes (“I mean, they’re okay. You’ve got them.”) and then encouraged the rider to push for a rounder canter and more uphill movement to make Sashay’s flying changes really stand out. She stressed the value of exaggerating expression for a small horse, particularly one that has technically mastered the movements, but still lacks a certain flair that makes for truly captivating tests.

Taking risks is what wins medals. Push yourself beyond what you think you can do.

Grand Prix: Constant S

Constant S, courtesy of the Janicki Dressage site

While Sashay and her rider finished up the last of their exercises, Constant S leaped gamely into arena. For a moment the audience (and Charlotte) got distracted by CS’s display of feisty-ness, then his rider got him back under wraps. At only nine years old, Constant S (a Dutch Warmblood from Janicki Dressage, the same stable that brought the four year old) was training at Grand Prix level (but not yet competing), which meant many of his movements were still a work in progressβ€”it was really neat to see such a high level of finishing work happening in front of us!

After a funny moment where Sashay and her rider literally rode 8m circles around Constant S (much to the amusement of Charlotte), Charlotte introduced Constant S and his rider, both of whom had taken a lesson with her the day before. Charlotte gave the audience an overview what they had been working on (“I taught him how to count to six,” she said when talking about their work with zig zags and tempi changes), then sent them off to start working on their zig zags.

Right off the bat, CS’s rider got in trouble for cutting off one of his corners. Charlotte made him go around again and take the corner very deep, with a reminder that the corner sets up the timing for the whole movement, so it’s paramount to ride it correctly.

From there Charlotte coached him to be softer through his arms. Whenever CS got tight and started to pull, Charlotte had him push the horse forward and soften his hand. Pulling back on a horse that’s tense only causes the horse to pull more, which makes for a poor performanceβ€”especially at such a high level of competition as Grand Prixβ€”plus good lead changes come from forward motion (AKA more leg, something my own trainer is always pushing me for, especially since I prefer a lazier ride).

They got a few good zig zags and then moved onβ€”“Quality,” Charlotte said, “is more important than quantity.”

Tempi changes came next. As a tall male rider with long, long legs, he had a little trouble with his leg sliding too far back (a problem I’ll never have, LOL) and then over-cuing/touching his horse’s flank, but once he pulled his leg forward it came down to having the mental organization to stay focused and count the strides correctly (a tough job, especially since CS had a big, bouncy flying change). It was common for him to make his way down the long wall and then have to sheepishly apologize at the end for adding a couple of extras, which earned him teasing from Charlotte.

They spent a few minutes practicing some sequences of movements from the Grand Prix test (straightforward on their own, but downright hectic when you have to put them all together), then moved onto my favorite part of the Grand Prix demonstration: the passage to piaffe/piaffe to passage transition.

Before they got deep into the transitions, Charlotte had a good look at CS’s passage. Even the passage has to be ridden forward, so Charlotte had him spend some time extending and collecting up the passage (the same sort of adjustability exercise that she had every other rider do, albeit typically at the trot or the canter and not within a complex movement like the passage) before they got into the nitty gritty of the transition between passage and piaffe.

“Even the passage should have gears. Even the piaffe must have forward.”

It took me a moment to figure out what Charlotte was leading up to, but eventually the goal was to reel the passage in enough that CS could make a seamless transition down to the piaffe without losing his forward motion. From there stepping out of the piaffe and back into the passage was a matter of doing that same transition backwards. Charlotte explained that she likes all of her horses to have four different passage’s: their normal passage, an extended passage, the passage they use to get into the piaffe, and the passage they use to get out. Practicing those four different passages is what makes the transitions between passage and piaffe quicker and more refined.

“Don’t train the movements, train exercises,” she advised. “The horse should always be waiting for you.”

CS picked up the piaffe to passage transition fairly quickly, but he really struggled with the transition between the passage and the piaffe. Often he would sputter out right between the two, throwing in a walk or a canter step or otherwise fumbling with his legs in an effort to try to discover what his rider was asking for. The audience was on the edge of their seats every time the rider coaxed CS through it one more time, and when they finally got it there was a loud round of applause and murmurs of appreciationβ€”we all knew the struggle that comes with trying to teach a horse something new.

At the end of the night…

Charlotte used her last few minutes to talk about the importance of always striving for better, particularly in a sport like dressage where there’s always room for improvement. She encouraged the audience to self-evaluate frequently, and to really push to make both rider and horse better with every movement.

“I always ask myself, ‘Is that as good as I can get it?'”

$150, six hours, and 1,000,000 notes later, Charlotte ended the clinic around 9:30pm. I hung around for an extra half an hour for the chance to meet Charlotte, then I left with two huge pages of notes (that have translated into this monster 3,600 word post), a signed Valegro, and a renewed sense of enthusiasm for my horse’s training (as delayed as it may be by his recent injury). I can’t wait to get back on Ezhno so that I can enact some of the things I learned from the masterclass!

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