Extraordinary Passion Was the Theme at the Emerging Dressage Athlete Program

The Emerging Dressage Athlete Program (EDAP) is an amazing new program developed by Lendon Gray and Robert Dover to improve the quality of our Young Riders to impact the future success of US Dressage. Modeled after the US Hunter Jumper Association’s Emerging Athlete Program, EDAP fills an incredible void in the US Dressage community. Robert Dover has been calling this program a “game changer” and after spending some time with this program, he is right! I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in the weeklong Robert Dover Horse-Mastership Clinic in Wellington. I have been involved in Dressage4Kids, Lendon’s program for riders under the age of 21 and with a mission to create riders that are true horsemen.

Since I met her three years ago at her annual Weekend Education Program, I have considered myself a “disciple” of Lendon’s. Humble and about as unpretentious as you can get, when you talk to Lendon about her work with young riders and ponies, she is confused as to why one would find her endeavors extraordinary. “There was a gap to fill so I filled it,” she said during her Hall of Fame induction speech at last month’s USDF Annual Convention. But her unselfish actions and immeasurable impact on the world of young riders and ponies are far beyond what even she could have imagined. As I watched her busily move from ring to ring, parent to parent, young rider to auditor, she was a constant blur of movement and action. I know the extent to which she works to organize these events because I get emails at all hours of the night! Her effort is tireless and remarkably complaint-free, something that seems to trickle down to the group of young athletes that surround her. We are lucky to have such an incredible talent, resource, teacher, and friend in our Dressage world.

I joined the clinic in the middle of the week and was not sure exactly what I would find. I knew a few of the riders and auditors and had seen several of them ride with Lendon or Robert already. I had been watching the reports on Dressage Daily so the excitement had been building for me. Arriving at WEF, where they so generously donated rings and stabling to make this clinic more available for more riders, I could feel the energy pulsing. Kathy Connelly was teaching in one ring and Robert Dover was teaching in the other. Talk about opposing experiences! Kathy is quiet and reserved in manner while Robert is about as animated and vocal as you can get. Kathy always uses a headset to speak to her riders and as an auditor; you practically have to be in her lap to hear her pearls of wisdom. She had a small halo of auditors scribbling notes furiously as she took the young riders through their movements and elements. Her soft, gentle and incredibly generous way resulted in mile-wide smiles for each rider…and you might even argue for each horse. Watching Kathy teach is like watching a master sculptor craft and create a masterpiece; each sentence is carefully delivered so as to get the greatest impact while simultaneously building confidence in the rider and horse. Patience was abundant, as always in Kathy’s lessons, giving way to visible change for each combination.

And then there was Robert, who was holding court on the other side of the ring. His passion is palpable and will knock you over if you are not careful. Headset aside (otherwise he might deafen his students), he jumped in and out of the ring to “passage” around, showing his pupils the energy required to get it all out of each horse. Watching Robert teach is truly a physical, mental, educational, and emotional experience. He has a way of seeing what is ultimately possible in each horse and rider and he stops at nothing to get that view across. His use of humor and what I like to call “ruthless compassion” was inspirational to everyone in attendance. The riders glowed at the end of their lessons, and not just from sweat because he worked them so hard, but because of their ability to overcome challenge and find success.

The next day of rides found Courtney King-Dye in Kathy’s seat in ring 1 and Anne Gribbons took over the other ring. Again, the incredible contrast was available for auditors and riders alike. I never saw Courtney teach before her accident, but I suspect her fiery passion was the same. Her feel for the horse and movements most definitely has not suffered, making her instruction brilliant, and delivered with such precision and intensity that each rider had to constantly work to “please” her, ultimately leading to positive change for the horse. She leaves no stone unturned, requiring more from the young riders than I think they even expected. Not unlike the day before, and from what I understood every day, the improvement was stunning.

Watching Anne teach is always a treat. Possibly the best “set of eyes” we have in the US, her technical knowledge and instruction is remarkable. Given her unbelievable schedule, her participation in this clinic was truly exceptional. She must have been up long before anyone else, driving down from near Orlando, teaching her heart out all day, only to jump back in the car and drive back, outlasting the sunrise and sunset on her own farm. And talk about passion (seems to be a theme here). She was intoxicating in her teaching and education of these outstanding kids who couldn’t seem to work harder, take notes faster, or pay attention more. She even ran close to an hour late by the end of the day because she would not stop until each rider was able to effect the change they all—Anne, rider, and horse—were seeking.

The opportunity of this week was just incredible. To ride with Olympians, WEG Team Members, and trainers like this is an anomaly. One thing that was clearly evident throughout the entire week was the depth of gratitude of the participants. I have never heard so many young people say “thank you” in one place—and without prompting. The energy of the group was already that of a family by midweek. Dressage is ultimately an individual sport, and honestly, these riders will be competing directly against each other the next time they find one another in the ring. None of that mattered here. The camaraderie and support was overwhelming and inspiring. And the hugging, so much hugging! They hugged when they got to the barn, hugged after great rides, hugged after feeding hay, well, maybe that was an exaggeration, but the “love” in the room was wonderful to witness.

Watching each combination of horse and rider was terrific. From my point of view (Sport Psychology), I always look for what could be going on mentally during the rides. Having missed the beginning of the week, I suspect what I would have seen at the outset was much more hesitation and reserve. However, this was not the prevalent feeling by mid-week. The way these young riders stepped up to the task was really incredible. We all have our “issues” when we step in the stirrups, yet, each young rider was willing to risk failing or looking bad in order to learn what was available. Confidence is the backdrop to it all, no matter what the age or competitive level. At this age, 14 – 20 years old, these young athletes are in the middle of trying to figure out who they are, what they like or don’t like, and how to find a sense of self despite a constant barrage of input. As an adults, we think we’ve got it all figured out—or at least try to appear that way! Imagine riding in front of some of the greatest Dressage riders and trainers in the US, some on borrowed horses, and with peers and parents looking on. I was truly impressed by the desire of this group and how hard they worked on multiple levels.

As a Sport Psychologist, my work involves many things, mostly helping athletes develop tools and techniques to deal with pressure and performance. Pressure can come in many forms, especially for a young athlete. Competition is just the tip of the iceberg when you are talking about a young athlete. How about training…the pressure to learn and improve everyday can wear on anyone, especially a teenager with peers looking on to see who has met the bar each day. Then there is school and academics, which have become so intensely competitive; it can become an overwhelming focal point for all four years of high school. Just getting accepted to a good college takes incredible effort and multi-tasking these days. Peer pressure is something all of our young athletes deal with and sometimes on a higher level than their non-athlete classmates. The pressure to “be the best” is there for each and every athlete, however not everyone can win. Learning to navigate this road is important, yet the focus on the learning part tends to take a back seat to the winning part. To try to help these budding athletes with their focus, I taught them how to do Visualization/Mental Imagery. Mental Imagery can be used for many things, especially increasing mental toughness, and in sport being mentally tough can require practice. By practicing mentally, you have the opportunity to rehearse with precision and perfection. Even though the exhaustion was evident from a week of early morning workouts with (Bob ?), every participant was attentive and worked hard to grasp the new technique. Even Lendon did the exercises with us! Like any physical skill (shooting a free-throw, running a mile, or doing a half-pass), mental skills require practice as well. I suspect all of these young athletes will continue to work hard to hone ALL of their skills to make themselves better, stronger, smarter, and more successful, well-rounded equestrians.
Equestrian sport is not like other “mainstream” sports in the US in terms of support for young athletes. There are incredibly rich programs available for kids, guiding them from very young to college or Olympic levels. Football has Pop Warner, baseball has T-ball and then Little League, and Youth Soccer has the ODP or Olympic Development Program, helping young athletes with clinics and competitive events in a high-level setting. I sincerely hope that Robert Dover’s prediction of this EDAP being a “game changer” is right, and after watching the extraordinary events, people, horses, riders, auditors, organizers, parents, and supporters, I don’t know how it could do anything but succeed!