Gladstone, N.J. - Six-time Olympian Robert Dover generously donated his time and expertise for a special training session to work with eight U.S. High Performance Para riders to evaluate their training and sharpen their competitive edge. USEF hosted the two-day clinic and catered lunch for all participants and auditors at the historic USET Headquarters. Team Coach Missy Ransehousen, USEF Director Pam Lane and USPEA.org President Hope Hand all participated. Dover admitted this was new territory for him and joked that his usual opening lecture on legs, seat and hands did not exactly apply to half the riders who use wheelchairs, crutches, prosthetics or have hand issues. However, Dover has observed the European Para Dressage tradition closely over the years.
Watching German rider Bettina Eisel, born without arms, riding on the bit at Prix St. George level, he knows that very high standards are attainable. He welcomed the challenge to problem solve and think outside the box.
“It’s interesting because the aids are applied in different ways based on each rider,” he said. Dover also highlighted that classical dressage is derived from war time where soldiers rode with their reins attached to stirrups to free their hands for swords, shields and battle but required horses to be on the bit for ultimate control. He also noted that he long-lines all his Grand Prix horses as an example of versatile training methods. He said this was one Aha! moment. “Between voice commands, the use of the long- reins which work as both the legs and the reins simultaneously, and the use of the whip, the horse can be schooled to do virtually everything beautifully and on the aids,” he said.
Half-Halt Holy Grail
Over two crisp, sunny autumn days in the Dick and Jane Brown arena, Dover challenged riders to push past their comfort levels, engage their horse’s energy and demanded accuracy. Dover quickly caught on that para dressage is not about the disability but about the horse executing the movements, judged in the identical way.
For many riders, he focused on how whips can be used in place of the leg, especially for movements like haunches-in that most para tests require. Dover suggested riders look at skiers equipment and investigate every legal tool to either help stabilize their position or create clarity for the horse. He was not a fan of the flimsy whip or constant tapping. “It’s training! Not hoping!” A quick tap and correct practice is the answer.
For Donna Ponessa who has Multiple Sclerosis, weakness in her hands and uses whips to act as her leg cues, it is challenging to hold the whips separate from her hands to cue movement, without inadvertently causing the haunches to swing out all while keeping her horse on the bit without head-wagging or changing frame. As a Grade 1a rider, her test is all at a walk, meaning it must be smooth with flawless accuracy.
Many riders with unsteady hands, Dover pointed out, create rhythmic evasion in the horse. He invoked Totilas’ carriage as an ideal of the unchanging flow of frame and connection. “God doesn’t come down and put your horse on the bit,” he half-joked. “Emphasize one elegant frame, not quick, constant fixes. The still and steady connection leads to dance partners.” Shoulder-in became a mantra for connection and suppleness.
Dover tip: The walk is a march, almost to a trot, which actually slows the horse down. “It’s weird but it works.
Half-halt is the centerpiece Dover defines as calling the horse to a perfect point of balance and attention. Erin Alberda, a Grade III rider, needed finesse riding a well-trained but sensitive mare. “Half-halt is the doorway to change of balance and movement, gait and pace. The rider dictates balance and shape. When you lower the croup, hind legs bend or engage, which lightens the front.” Aids must be textbook and become automatic. “Soft hands, not soft elbows. Elbow at the side uses your seat and body force and makes a much stronger rider.”
Erin rides with a neuromuscular disorder that causes Ataxia (poor coordination), muscle weakness and loss of sensation in her legs but her poise from years in the saddle and execution of the exercises received high praise from Dover.
Dover tip: Halt at C means the riders shoulders hit the mark at C, like a gymnast sticking the halt.
Guiding Grade II rider Elizabeth Pigott to a more consistent, elastic feel through the bridle on another sensitive horse, a 17-year-old liver chestnut Hanoverian gelding owned by Missy Ransehousen. Pigott was born with contracted hands, clubbed feet and dislocated hips, a condition called Arthrogryposis. Her muscle tissue also did not develop properly. She’s had multiple corrective surgeries including total hip replacements in 2007. “My joints are very tight so sometimes it’s difficult for me to follow the horse’s movement (when I started riding at the age of seven it took about 1.5 years before I could sit astride a horse for more than 10 minutes).” Muscle weakness in her legs makes it hard to direct the horse. She uses two whips to reinforce her legs, rubber bands her feet to the stirrups, Velcro on her lower keg and is allowed (in Grade II) to use vocal commands. Dover told her to imagine gripping two five-year-old children on each hand crossing the street in mid-town Manhattan. “Don’t lose the children!” became the refrain for her lesson.
Dover reminded one rider the extended trot is not an airplane taxiing to a takeoff. “Never lose collection in extension or extension in collection. Get comfortable on connection, positive tension is useful. Truly connected leads to harmonious riding, to expression, to confidence.”
Dover tip: Across the diagonal aim the ears at the corner, you will land at letter.
Making a Movie
Dover stressed the importance of breath and visualizing in any riders repertoire. In all sports, a new action begins with taking in a deep breath like a diver on edge of a platform. “The horse is like clay or a canvas, visualize the shape or movement you want. Breath powers action forward. Breathe in to sit against the motion of the horse. Breathing in and out gets oxygen to the muscles.” This is especially important for those Para riders without feeling in certain parts who rely on stamina.
On the theme of visualization, “It’s your movie, in your mind - if it’s not your movie, it’s someone else’s - it might be your horse’s, your fear or past.” While he stressed a rider exuding confidence, as a judge he doesn’t want to see grim, fierce game faces but relaxed focus and joyful expression in the rider’s face and body language of the horse. Nine time National Para Champion, Becca Hart, mounted on a talented hot horse had to discern how much and how little to ask. “Correct don’t offend the horse or make a correction worse than the offense.” Born with Familial Spastic Paraplegia a genetic disease that causes muscle wasting and lack of control from the waist down, she too, relies on the whip like as a leg. Invested, the second day, watching Hart collect her extended sitting trot, “Do it again, I’ll miss my flight until you deliver. He also reminded riders to praise your horse often, even under your breath in a test.
Dover tip: On an antsy horse - halt, nod quick, exit quick!
Two Former Eventers
Charlotte Bathalon, a NAYRC Gold Medal winner and Margaret McIntosh, who competed at Rolex twice both resumed riding after severe spinal injuries, one from an ATV accident, one from a fall. Both rode former event horses. Their years and depth of experience shone through even now riding with impaired limbs. Both retain their competitive hunger. Margaret brought her regular gelding, a former mount of Buck Davidson’s named Hobbs and Charlotte rode her former winning partner Ben.
“Feel the hocks in your hands, in a nice way,” Dover advised Charlotte for her haunches-in drill. “You’re a daring person,” he noted and went to work to pump up the horse’s energy, presence, impulsion. “Roundness comes from energy coursing through their body, creating flow. Eyes up but BELIEVE, the third eye is belief, SEE not what if... but what you want. See your grandest vision.” The pair built up too much flow to halt down the centerline the first pass but both horse and rider and auditors were enjoying their creation.
For Margaret, his advice went to the practical application of the whip as a leg and then the mental, interior tools of the mind. “I’m here to remind you of what you already know. Keep the rhythm in the mind, he’s a dance partner. Perfect balance is a seat without use of the legs or legs away.”
Inner vision and mental confidence that is palpable resonated for the Para riders as the riders who showed up at this clinic and compete already know how to summon inner strength and belief in accomplishing goals. Dover added the master’s wisdom and a green light to push past fear, make mistakes and cultivate concentration, which comes from “perfect practice under great supervision.”
Trick Rider Skills
Laughs ensued when Dover asked Freddie Win how long he had been riding his mount. Win looked at his watch and replied about 20 minutes. Win, forced to catch ride, shared McIntosh’s horse as recent storm road damage prevented his leased horse from arriving. Although, born with his right lower leg attached to his hip, Freddie rode as a trick rider and member of the Burmese Equestrian Team and impressed Dover by his quick study of his borrowed mount but cautioned him that strength or force is a fault.
He emphasized flow for Freddie and the repeated theme that extension and collection are equal sides of a coin. “Extension is magnified collection, its same feeling. There is no difference between the greatest extension and the grandest collection except the thought, the half-halt is the thought.”
With the right horse Dover thought Win could be a top contender with his skill set. Musing about the Spanish breeds for Win, he clearly recognized the need to find quality Para mounts for eager, skilled riders.
Dover tip: On centerline a slight bend on the horses harder side keeps connection and straightness, no points off for slight flexion (think centerline canter depart).
Dover recommended practicing tests until routine for the rider. “A horse on the aids should not anticipate.” Of course. He shared his own preparation of scheduling test rides once a week for judges to gauge his progress. All eight riders rose to the occasion under Dover’s critique, made improvements and pinpointed areas to raise their scores. The instruction and rapport benefited the many auditors and trainers. “All of you here can and should aim for scoring in the 80s, even 90s.” Dover believes in ultimate harmony and a winning formula.
You can visit Robert Dover at DoversWorld.com, and be sure to tune into his weekly radio show on Tuesday evenings.
Erin Alberda (Woodinville, WA), Grade III
Charlotte Bathalon (South Burlington, VT), Grade II
Rebecca Hart (Unionville, PA), Grade II
Mary Jordan (Wells, ME), Grade IV
Margaret McIntosh (Reading, PA), Grade II
Elizabeth Pigott (Downington, PA), Grade II
Donna Ponessa (New Windsor, NY), Grade 1a
Freddie Win (Woodbridge, NJ), Grade IV
Follow Dressagedaily's Coverage of Para Dressage News as they continue their Paralympic Quest for the USA