I'm a lucky, lucky girl. Today I had the chance to watch and learn from one of the best. Rien van der Schaft, the national team trainer for the Dutch dressage team, gives clinics at Hill Haven Farm in Hillsburgh, Ontario several times a year and Hill Haven owner Alison Banbury was kind enough to invite me to audit.
I wasn't sure what to expect, to be honest, but am delighted to say Rien didn't offer anything new, or groundbreaking or earth-shattering. Does that sound weird? It shouldn't. Rien emphasized simple, clear communication with the horse and correct basics. Over and over he reinforced the need to maintain a "positive topline" with the horse lifting the back, relaxed in the neck and reaching forward to the bit.
The riders I saw were all very accomplished: well known local trainers Alison Banbury, Daisy Kosa, and Isobel Dopta, along with dressage judge Leslie Kennedy. With the exception of Leslie, all were riding lovely, talented, fairly young horses that they are bringing up through the levels (Leslie's horse is well established in the upper levels). The youngsters each had their own strengths and quirks but also shared a lot of similarities as they worked on finding balance and self carriage in the exercises presented by Rien.
Some tended to get high headed and tight in the neck and back, while others resorted to curling behind the bit and getting heavy on the forehand - both common issues in young horses. In each case case Rien used simple exercises such as nose to wall leg yield in the trot to create a horse that was relaxed, rhythmic, balanced and responsive to the rider's leg.
In the canter he had the riders use a slight leg-yield like movement - just a stride or two to shift the horse's weight - to prepare for the flying change. This simple exercise resulted in much smoother, correct changes, especially in the horses who tended to rush through the movement and change late behind.
The biggest treat of the day was watching Rien ride Sakima, the stunning young gelding owned by Cindy Ishoy and campaigned with great success this summer by Cindy's daughter Kahla. If I sound a little starstruck, it's because I am! No matter how many clinics I watch Cindy teach, or shows I go to where she's busy helping her students warm up, I can't quite get over my astonishment at being in the same room as my childhood dressage idol.
I don't have an educated enough eye to report in detail on Rien's ride, unfortunately, but I can tell you the main things that stuck out to me. He made the horse work - really work - always encouraging him to be more "through" from behind and not accepting anything less. As a rider he was soft, subtle and still 90% of the time, and firm when he needed to be. But immediately after giving a firm aid, he went right back to being quiet and soft, and rewarded the horse for responding correctly to the lighter aid.
Though quiet, his hands were never fixed in place or still. His fingers opened and closed frequently, always maintaining a light communication with the horse, and his wrists often had a slight rolling or wave action to them. Nothing every looked stiff or tight or harsh.
The biggest takeway for me was just how often Rien asked Sakima to do something different. Our coaches tell us this all the time - that we should be doing frequent transitions between and within gaits, circles, change of direction etc. Until this clinic, however, I don't think I understood just how frequent "frequent" really means. I don't think Sakima went more than 4 or 5 strides without a change of some kind, whether it was a few steps of lateral movement, more collection within the gait, a transition to a different gait, etc.
While not all of us are working on movements like passage and flying changes, as Rien and the clinic participants were, we can all put into practice the lessons learned. Nothing replaces lightness, relaxation, balance and self-carriage, and correct, classical basics. We can all work harder and stop accepting less than a good effort from our horses. And we can all do the hundreds of tiny transitions every ride to create a stronger, more elastic, more responsive horse.
If you are interested in learning more about Rien van der Schaft and his methods, he recently launched an online training program that anyone can benefit from. Check out some free sample training videos and learn more at DressagePro.com.
About the author
I'm a middle-aged, overweight, rusty re-rider who refuses to let any of that get in the way of my passion for dressage.