Dressage enthusiasts from 12 countries gathered at Dr. Cesar Parra's Performance Farm in Jupiter, Fla., for a unique forum that brought together some of the sport's top judges, trainers and riders. The two-day event in March 2005 provided a relaxed setting for discussion about the daily training requirements for the FEI-level horse, preparing the young horse for the FEI levels and the complexities of the musical freestyle.
Olympic gold medalist Hubertus Schmidt and Raymond Withages, a former Civil Bereiter at the Spanish Riding School, coached demonstration riders, including Parra on his 10-year-old Selle Francais stallion, Galant du Serein, during the forum. FEI "O" judges Linda Zang and Mariette Withages--who is also the FEI Dressage Committee Chair--explained and scored movements and welcomed questions from attendees.
Raymond Withages spoke passionately about what he considers to be the most important elements of successful dressage riding--from both an intellectual and practical viewpoint. He put the demonstration riders, including American riders Emmy Adwers on Lucky, a 7-year-old Hanoverian gelding, and Stacy Parvey on the 7-year-old Hanoverian stallion Wendolyn through a series of strict and challenging gymnastic lessons. The exercises, which focused on relaxing the horse, demanded precision and quickly produced visible improvements in the gaits.
According to Withages, the most successful dressage riders are those who obey the most basic elements of the sport. "You must simply read the rule book and respect the discipline of the tradition--this system has been proven throughout time," he said. Beyond that, his focus on the demonstration riders was tied to a handful of key concepts, and he instructed them to:
Ride from the inside leg to the outside hip: A rider cannot perform the FEI movements effectively if she cannot ride from her inside leg to the outside hip. The horse must also be obedient to the leg.
Give the horse more freedom: A rider must take with the collection, but without punishing with the reins. A rider should not hang on the reins and must never pull the neck to the inside. The horse's neck should never be bent more than the spine.
Remember good basics: Take time in the most basic training and strive for quieter aids. Always correct the rider to improve the quality of the horse. Also, learn to sit lightly so you can allow the horse's back to swing.
Pay attention to details: Accuracy is not something for the sake of a rule. Instead, focusing on accuracy helps you become a better rider. For instance, make every corner a training opportunity--think of each corner as part of a circle and reach the letter with your outside knee. Another example of this is the salute. It is not just a nice gesture, but a chance to show that your horse can stand still on a straight line, until you say to move. Another example is to respect the rectangle--use the wall to keep the horse on a straight line. The straighter he is, the better he can go forward.
Improve the gaits through gymnastics and relaxation: It's all interrelated. You use gymnastics, such as large bending circles to get the horse forward, straight, stretching down and relaxed. As his back starts to swing more, his gait improves naturally. Once he's relaxed, he moves better, stepping under with his hind legs, enabling his hindquarters to be more active. The back begins to swing more and his ground-covering gait improves, and there is less knee action.
Demonstrating these principles over the course of the afternoon with a handful of hard-working demonstration riders, Withages cautioned that "dressage is a discipline in which the horse and rider move and think together. If you cannot think, you cannot be a good rider."
Be aware of what you're going to do:
1. Prepare for what you're going to do (knees relaxed, eyes forward, hands steady, seat in the middle).
2. Seek perfection by knowing what is correct (this is where a good trainer helps).
3. Persevere, and remember that the biggest challenge is usually in your head.
Withages' words resonated with participants. Jennifer Nisbet, a Grand Prix rider who lives in Ft. Collins, Colo., flew to Florida for the forum, said she would head home with "a renewed sense of discipline."
"I particularly liked Raymond's insistence that the demonstration riders strictly adhere to the disciplines of classical riding," she said. "He wasn't going to let them off for a minute. Even though they are great riders on wonderful horses, he visibly improved their gaits by correcting details."