So everyone wants to know how my big adventure with Leah Wilkins at Aislinn Dressage went. In short it was fun, amazing, humbling, exciting, and eye-opening.
First of all, everyone at Leah's beautiful farm was so welcoming and generous with their time and I appreciate that so much! Leah even arranged for a wonderful photographer to take pictures, leaving Debbie free to take notes and videos for me.
I don't want to scoop my own Horse Sport article so can't give everything away, but will give you the Coles Notes version of my morning. Leah selected two completely different horses for me to ride: Quaderna (Quad), a 21-year-old Lusitano stallion trained to Third Level, and Amusant (Austin) a 22-year-old Hanoverian who was Leah's first Grand Prix mount and former Young Riders partner. He also happens to be a big chestnut grandson of Weltmeyer, just like my GusGus, so of course I fell immediately in love with him.
I'll be honest - I have never ridden a PRE or Lusitano or any of the Iberian breeds, and have never been a huge fan. Until last week I would have just said they weren't my type. The big chestnut Hanoverian with the huge lofty stride? That's my type and probably the type of schoolmaster most amateurs picture themselves on. Which brings me to my first lesson learned: be careful what you wish for.
His relatively small stature and short, comfortable gaits are exactly what make Quad such a joy to ride. He is light in the bridle, super responsive to the seat and so easy to sit I felt I could relax and do next to nothing while riding him. Everything feels accessible and maneuverable unlike Gus, who feels a bit like driving a school bus sometimes due to his size. This type of horse is a real confidence-booster to a nervous amateur like me, not only because he doesn't so much as bat an eyelash at the avalanches of ice from the arena roof, but because he makes everything feel easy and fun.
Biggest things I learned from Quad? You really can half halt and / or make downward transitions without using your hands! With him I could ride as quietly and softly as I want to ride on Gus.
Best moment? Experiencing his party trick of piaffe and passage. What a treat! Simply the coolest feeling ever. I think I giggled and grinned like and idiot the whole time.
Moving on to Austin was a whole different experience. Equally fun and amazing but a lot harder and definitely humbling. I really, truly thought I understood what it means to ride with your core, and that I knew how athletic dressage riders are. I. Had. No. Idea.
This is a horse with so much suspension, so much loft, you could go out for coffee on the first stride and be back in time for the second. I have never experienced anything like this trot in my life. I got launched towards the rafters on the first step and, after what felt like an eternity, landed back in the saddle only to be launched back into the stratosphere. I did finally manage to keep my balance enough to complete a 20m circle, but only just. Again I was giggling the whole time, partly because of how ridiculous I felt simply trying to post the trot and partly because the feeling of power and thrust beneath me was so cool.
And did I mention my abs? Oh God my poor abs. It took every ounce of balance and strength I had to maintain what I thought was upright posture - upon looking at the pictures it's clear I didn't come close to succeeding. The fact that Leah makes it look so effortless in sitting trot gives me a whole new level of respect for riders of these huge movers.
When Leah first suggested I try a canter I demurred - if I couldn't trot around a simple circle I suspected the canter would be a disaster. I was wrong. It was HEAVENLY. I could have sat there and enjoyed the feeling of balance and power all day. When I half halted I felt for the first time in my life what it really means to compress a horse like an accordion and not lose all that power and energy.
So...what's the verdict? Can an amateur rider learn something valuable in just one lesson from a schoolmaster? Absolutely yes and everyone should do it. But check your expectations about the type of schoolmaster you need. If, like me, you need to work on fundamentals like position, balance and independent seat and hands, the perfect schoolmaster may not be the huge Warmblood you picture in your dreams, and it certainly doesn't need to do the Grand Prix. Work with your trainer to find a suitable lesson horse that allows you to work on you.
In Horse Sport I will go into more detail about key learnings and tips for my fellow ammies, including where / how to find these rare lesson unicorns, approximate costs and a few important things to know before your first lesson. Stay tuned - I'll let you know when the article is going to be published.
In the meantime, please enjoy a few photos from my incredible adventure. Big thanks to Doug Palmer for taking such great pictures.
Watching Charlotte Dujardin teach a number of Canada's top riders in a clinic at the Caledon Equestrian Park last fall was a real treat. Getting paid to write about it was even better! Horse Sport has made my article available online to those without a digital subscription so I thought it would be nice to share it here as well. (But you should all still subscribe to the magazine - it's a great resource!)
As a clinician Dujardin is engaging and funny, but demanding and tough. There were a number of recurring themes in her instructions that applied to each horse and rider team – and to most of us in the audience as well.
Dujardin has spoken many times about her preference for hotter, more sensitive horses. “I hate to have to kick a horse to make it go. I’m lazy and I just don’t want to work harder than the horse,” she said with a laugh. She emphasized getting the horse truly in front of the leg and responsive to the lightest of aids. She instructed several riders to “go for a yee-haw” and gallop around the ring to really get their horses moving forward. She reminded many of them to let go and not try to hold their horses in place, which only serves to block the energy and restrict the quality of the movement.
2 Bigger is better
“More, more, more! Bigger, bigger, bigger!” Those words were repeated often as Dujardin pushed riders to expect more from their horses and themselves. Extended gaits must continue right to the end of the line and she encouraged riders to rebalance and ask for even longer strides in the second half of the movement. In the half-pass, she would not allow riders to sacrifice energy and gait quality for sideways movement. She preferred a slightly larger but still correct pirouette that maintained energy to a smaller one in which horses lost impulsion and began nodding their heads. Flying changes became bigger and more expressive under Dujardin’s watchful eye as she demanded riders ask for more jump, pace, and energy with each change.
3 Take risks
With the pressure to demand more from their horses than they were used to, many riders made mistakes. Dujardin stressed the importance of errors in the training process – without mistakes and appropriate corrections, the horse can never learn. She urged riders to risk making mistakes in pursuit of a better performance. “So many riders are satisfied, happy even, with a 6.5 or 7,” she said. “Why? I don’t understand it. That should never be enough. Ten is always the goal. If you are aiming for a 6 or 7 you will never achieve 8, 9, or 10. Go for more. Take the risk. Aim for the 10 every time. If you make a mistake fix it, forget about it, and try again. But at least you tried. If you don’t try, you won’t get there.”
4 Demand perfection
On the other hand, Dujardin emphasized the importance of perfection, showing little tolerance for sloppy riding and reminding participants that they are training their horses – for better or for worse – with every transition. In her view, there is no excuse ever for a sloppy transition. Several riders were criticized for “collapsing in a heap” in transitions to walk, particularly after a strenuous exercise. While walk breaks are important, Dujardin reminded the audience they are still part of the schooling session. Transitions down to walk should be forward, light, and energetic, and the horse must still march forward during the break, stretching willingly into the contact. No poking or dawdling allowed!
5 Kick the rider, pat the horse
“Kick the rider, pat the horse!” one of Dujardin’s most popular catch phrases, was often her response to a flubbed movement or moment of miscommunication. She repeatedly emphasized the need for clear and lavish praise. Horses need to be rewarded for giving the right answer, and are never to blame for mistakes. Her advice is to pat often, praise loudly, and give frequent breaks.
First published in Horse Sport in April 2017
Something very exciting is happening tomorrow and I'm freaking out - more than a little bit. For as long as I've known what dressage is, I've dreamed of riding an upper-level dressage horse. Aside from a few weeks of lessons on a retired GP mare in Switzerland, where the language barrier and a complete lack of riding skill on my part made the experience less than stellar, most of my riding has been on horses at Second Level and below. I've never felt true collection or experienced a piaffe; I've never even ridden in a double bridle.
All that is about to change tomorrow! I'm working on a magazine article about the value of learning dressage on an advanced level schoolmaster. Leah Wilkins of Aislinn Dressage has generously offered to teach me on a couple of the lovely schoolmasters in her barn. I'm unbelievably excited and completely terrified about it.
If I haven't been completely clear in the past, let me be now; I am NOT a good rider. I am unbalanced and lopsided with busy, fidgety hands that tend to get grabby and hard. If I struggle on my sweet, sainted First Level horse how can I hope to communicate clearly with an FEI horse accustomed to precise aids and good riding?
Leah assures me all her horses are used to being used in lessons by amateurs and will be able to cope with me just fine. I'm putting my trust in her skills as a teacher and am just hoping to enjoy the experience and learn as much as I can. Even if I do end up completely humiliating myself, at least I'll have a funny story to write about, right?
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.