Last summer, my friends Karen Bershad and her daughter Anya were inspired when they attended a performance of the magnificent white Lipizzaner stallions at the Spanish Riding School (SRS) in Vienna, Austria.
One Bereiter (rider/trainer) in particular impressed them with his mastery of long-rein technique, instructing his horse to piaffe, passage, half pass and perform haute-?cole movements using only his voice, whip and rein contact from the ground. Anya found the horseman's name, Andreas Hausberger, and found that he travels to clinics during the brief periods when the SRS is closed. He has trained the South African national team for the past nine years and also teaches in Australia and the United States.
After returning home and watching Andreas at a clinic in Carmel, Calif., the Bershads decided they wanted him to come to their Pi?on Farm in Santa Fe, N.M. They booked him for January 2004.
I am an event rider and live a few doors down from Pi?on Farm. I share Anya and Karen's interest in dressage but own a horse that is better at jumping big oxers than trotting 20-meter circles. I vividly remembered the performance of the brilliant white stallions and their uniformed riders when the SRS came to Boston many years ago. I could not envision my hot-blooded Thoroughbred under the tutelage of a master of the school, accustomed to an entirely different sort of horse.
At the last minute someone dropped out of the clinic, and Karen asked if I would like to join. With some trepidation I agreed. In my experience, participating in a clinic is better than watching one. I could only hope that Andreas would not be disappointed with a dressage novice.
SRS Training in Santa Fe
Santa Fe can be cold in January, especially early in the morning. We were smothered beneath layers of clothing. Clouds of breath punctuated the horses' movements. Andreas laughed at the tiny icicles sprinkling down from the ceiling during the first rides and said he thought it was actually pretty balmy, considering Vienna was -18 degrees Celsius the morning he left.
The clinic format consisted of 30-minute sessions. From the moment Andreas' eyes fell on you he had you working. Jackets and quarter sheets were soon jettisoned. Many of the riders were longed on their horses to correct their positions. Andreas said, "I will tell the horse what to do. You just sit."
The riders found it hard to give up the reins and trust the instructor to regulate the horse's pace, but doing so made them focus on their own balance. It is no easy thing to sit the trot, keeping your legs softly around the horse with heels down, eyes up, and your hands steady in front of you. It requires a supple back and a feeling of the horse. To further demonstrate this, Andreas stood at the horse's head while the rider tapped toes together over the horse's neck and swung them backwards to meet behind the saddle. Arms were rotated, along with wrists, then toes and ankles--all to demonstrate that these parts can move independently without losing balance.
Anya's Lipizzaner gelding, Halo, was longed each day before being ridden. Andreas waited patiently for the 4-year old to look to him for instruction. Whenever Halo broke into a canter, Andreas gave a tug and brought him back to the trot. He spoke quietly to Halo and waited for him to get comfortable with the arena, auditors and longe whip. This young horse had previously thought that the longe line was a good time for bucking, kicking and plunging around. By the end of his first 20 minutes in Andreas' hands he was marching around like a horse of the SRS. When Anya got on Halo, he had a more balanced trot and correct canter transitions.
In my first ride with Andreas I was told to get my shoulders back--no, much further back: head up, hands still and above the withers, shorten the reins, shoulders back, steady contact, stomach out, sit on the seat bones, shoulders back, eyes up. I had to remember to breathe.
Previous attempts at haunches in on the circle had felt like a fight against centrifugal force. With Andreas, we worked first to develop a collected canter. Then we spiraled in from a 20-meter circle to a 6-meter circle, keeping the same tempo. When that was good, I asked Teddy to move his hindquarters to the inside of the circle with my outside leg behind the girth. I softened the outside rein a little and sat with my hips matching Teddy's. By the end of the lesson we were doing some really good 6-meter circles in collected canter with haunches in. A friend told me afterward that Teddy looked like a "real dressage horse."
Steady, Quiet Work
Judy Grant, a long-time student and teacher of dressage, had a powerful emotional response to the clinic. Three patient years of gaining the confidence of her sensitive, spooky horse, Hans, were rewarded. Andreas' complete focus, his respect for the rider and his understanding of the horse made every second valuable. He started Judy off at the walk, doing tiny circles around him. "Come closer, Judy, I can't see you" he teased her from 10 feet away.
By the end of the lesson Judy achieved a new level of communication with Hans because of the step-by-step progress of the exercises. Andreas insisted on precision and correctness, then rewarded with praise and sugar. Judy exclaimed, "We used an entire box of cubes!"
Sometimes there were funny misunderstandings due to accent or unfamiliar terminology. Valerie Melio was perplexed when told to "race" her 5-year old Lusitano stallion after some really nice trot half-passes. Andreas actually said to "praise" him. I tried very hard to sit like a feather when Andreas told me to lighten my seat in a canter stretch circle; he meant for me to stand in the stirrups.
Andreas paid particular attention to refining position and aids. He believes that a rider must be supple and correct before the horse can be. It is up to the rider to focus on proper balance, contact and rhythm and to praise the horse often. Being longed by a qualified instructor can help establish these basics.
From the clinic I learned what a wonderful canter my horse has when I am balanced and connected with him in an elastic way. I learned how things fall apart if I sit unevenly, pull too much on one rein, don't support with my legs or generally lose the connection with my horse. I discovered that any horse can improve its way of going when the rider is correctly seated, clear with the aids and tuned in to the horse. I learned that event riders like me really need these skills.
We hope that Andreas will return to Santa Fe. Maybe next time he'll show us his bicorn hat, and we'll talk him into riding for us. More than 20 years of daily riding, teaching and training horses have given him a remarkable eye and talent that we deeply appreciate.