January 5, 2009 -- Kicking off the first day of training at the George Morris Horsemastership Training Session in Wellington, Fla., Dressage Olympian Robert Dover stressed to eight young riders that great riders have a vision of how they want to be. "No artist can create what they desire without having a vision of it first."
"I want you to get on every day and come with a plan of how great you're going to be," he added. "By doing that, you create that which is in your mind. That becomes your reality." And if you don't do that, you've just created average, he added.
Great riders, he also said, have amazing powers of concentration on what they see is the grandest version of themselves and their horses. "You want to make up your own movie where you're the star. You're not just an extra in someone else's movie."
Throughout the day, which included a morning lecture and riding sessions, Robert gave the riders tools they could apply to their riding to achieve that vision. Their first priority was establishing the correct seat. "Your job as riders is to first learn how to be in a balanced seat. Be upright in the saddle in all three gaits. Throw your shoulders back and sit upright like a star."
To create such a seat, Robert told them to take a deep breath--the breath of empowerment. By breathing in deeply, they automatically sit taller, push their chests upward, bring their shoulders back and sink down into their seat bones.
To almost all of the riders, Robert said they needed to sit back on their seat bones more--not be in front of the vertical. "You've got to be comfortable back on your rear ends. I don't know why you think it's more comfortable on your crotches." Other caveats to sitting in a balanced seat were riding with their arms glued to their sides and turning their hands up as if they could hold a penny in their palms.
They used this "position of power" to work on two basic qualities with their horses--going forward and straightness. To ask their horses to go forward and create energy, Robert instructed riders to use three natural aids: their two legs and their seat. They need to swing with their seats and drive the cantle toward the pommel--as if they were trying to make a playground swing go higher.
As for straightness, Robert described it as the horse's ability to follow along the track. To be straight, a horse has to know how to be straight on a bent line. To ask their horses to bend, Robert told riders to use three aids: inside leg at the girth, outside leg behind the girth and close the inside hand into a fist.
They then learned how to regulate how much the horse would go forward and bend by using the rein of opposition, also called the outside rein. "If you can achieve the marriage of these three sets of aids (for going forward, bending and using the rein of opposition) within a breath, you'll be bringing your horse to a perfect state of balance and attention," Robert said. "That's everything."
The riders put all this theory into practice while riding the "rubber band exercise": riding a 20-meter circle at the walk, trot and canter, staying in balance and rhythm on a correct bent line, asking horses to lengthen and come back.
First up was making sure the horses responded to the riders' legs immediately. To Carolyn Curcio, Robert said, "If he doesn't go off your legs, kick him. He's not your mother. Then if he does respond, tell him he's a good boy. Sit up, relax and march forward into the bridle."
Robert asked Matthew Metell if, at the walk, he felt he could ask his horse to trot or canter and get either gait instantly. "You feel all opportunities inside the walk. That's how you know if your horse is walking forward from your aids," he said.
To check if your horse is straight, Robert told Victoria Birdsall that her horse's tracks should be overlapping on the circle, so that if he were on a plane looking down, he'd just see one circular track. "The horses should be bent so you can see the brow over the inside eye and feel the hindquarters following the front," he said.
To ask the horse to make an upward transition, Robert told the riders to "sit with your body like you're the greatest opera star," take a breath of empowerment (push their stomachs out in front, push their chests up, sit back on their tail bones) and drive with their seats and close their legs, close their inside fist. "When the horse reacts by going forward, it's important to tell him he's a good boy." Then, breathe out and, as the horse surges forward, close the outside fist to regulate how forward he goes and to help him maintain his balance.
To ride a downward transition, "breathe in, squeeze your upper leg, sit against your horse's motion, close your outside hand and sit, sit, sit," Robert said. "See if you can canter on the spot for three strides," then relax.
This adjustability is critical for jumper riders, Robert said, because if they jumped a water jump and then needed to fit in five short strides to a skinny fence, their horses would need to respond to their aids quickly. "Our job is to figure out how much balance and harmony we can create to make them perfectly adjustable. If you have perfect adjustability, you have everything," Robert said. "Great riders, they can add or subtract a stride because their horses are so adjustable."
He concluded by saying, "I hope I've brought you a step closer to being the next Beezie Madden, the next McLain Ward. You see what you need to do. Now it's up to you to say you're just going to do it."
Sandra Oliynyk is the editor of Practical Horseman magazine.
The training session is hosted by Bates Saddles and Equestrian Sport Productions and supported by the U.S. Equestrian Federation. In addition to Bates, supporting organizations include Purina Mills, the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation, the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association, the Syracuse Invitational Sporthorse Tournament, Nutramax (Cosequin ASU), the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Practical Horseman.