Robert Dover and Laura Graves Share Olympic Training Wisdom

Heather Mendiburu and What Happen with Robert Dover

Heather Mendiburu and What Happen with Robert Dover (Photo: Annan Hepner)

Gladstone, N.J. – Before the Intermediate I class got underway on the third day of The Dutta Corp. U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions, selected riders and spectators were given an educational “Olympian Experience” presented by Dressage Today with Robert Dover and Laura Graves.

Both top riders offered training advice to help them better understand their horses and fine-tune their skills in the ring.

Rhythmic Adjustability
Dover welcomed into the arena Heather Mendiburu and What Happen, a 15-year-old mare. Before beginning the lesson, Dover emphasized the importance of breathing through every movement. He acknowledged that the Intermediate I mare already possessed a good understanding of forward movement, so the focus of the day would be on rhythm, tempo and adjustability in all three gaits.

Dover described the four things that need to be given proper attention from half-halt to half-halt to create consistent energy:
-Rhythm: how steady and even the horse’s footfalls are in each gait
-Tempo: how fast or slow the horse’s footfalls are in each gait
-The horse’s frame: how high, low, long or short the frame is
-The length of the horse’s stride

Heather Mendiburu and What Happen with Robert Dover

Heather Mendiburu and What Happen with Robert Dover (Photo: Annan Hepner)

To help develop even greater adjustability, Dover had Mendiburu perform a “rubber band” exercise on a 20-meter circle. Every time the pair passed C, Dover instructed her to collect to a rhythmic, energetic passage. When they passed centerline on the opposite side of the circle, he instructed her to push forward into a medium trot, while maintaining the same rhythm.

Dover explained that the horse’s level of adjustability should be such that the rider can feel that both the passage and the extended trot are possible at any moment. The rider should visualize the most collected, lively gait to help the horse reach it.

Working on the shoulder-in and haunches-in on a diagonal, Dover reminded Mendiburu to keep her horse dancing forward and pushing from her hind legs, especially when she asked for a half-halt.

Heather Mendiburu and What Happen with Robert Dover (Photo: Annan Hepner)

Heather Mendiburu and What Happen with Robert Dover (Photo: Annan Hepner)

“You’re always a half halt away from perfect,” Dover said. “The grandest collection and the greatest extension — the distance between those things is a thought — a half halt away. Ask her to dance a little more.”

After working on collection and extension in the canter on a 20-meter circle, Dover helped the pair with their transitions in piaffe and passage.

“The piaffe and passage need to be very close to each other,” Dover explained. “It’s all half-halt to half-halt.”

He also stressed the importance of gaining even greater control of the horse’s rhythm and tempo while continuing to breathe and stay relaxed.

Regulating Tension
Laura Graves instructed Gwendolyn Powers aboard an 8-year-old Welsh Pony cross mare, Calliope, and Graves gave tips on how to manage tension in order to get the most out of their ride. To start off, she explained that she did not want the horse too warmed up, so that any issues that may arise in the warm-up could be addressed in the lesson.

Gwendolyn Powers and Calliope with Laura Graves

Gwendolyn Powers and Calliope focus on regulating tension under the watchful eye of Laura Graves (Photo: Annan Hepner)

“Do not let her reaction become the thing you focus on,” Graves said. “The main thing with a tense horse is not to think you will be able to fix it right away. Do not make her go closer to what she’s scared of immediately and make her go to work. Start hearing her footfall like a metronome. Be really careful with the tempo that you post and give her a steady place to go to in your hands. Make your hands wider and lower to give her a more comfortable place to go.”

To encourage a horse to settle, Graves recommended the rider to relax, take their time and focus on controlling the horse’s body without pulling the hands backwards.

“If you can control the tempo, you are in good shape,” Graves continued. “Then you get to the point you can control the topline as well. We are so afraid of having things look ugly in our sport, but it is okay to have moments that don’t look pretty.”

Gwendolyn Powers and Calliope with Laura Graves

Gwendolyn Powers and Calliope with Laura Graves (Photo: Annan Hepner)

Powers was encouraged to become the leader for her mare, especially when Calliope became unsettled by her surroundings. “She has to know that you are sure of what you’re doing — staying confident will help her be confident and trust you,” Graves said. “Be a little more clever than they are.”

Graves had the rider insist on improving the quality of their second level work, especially in the straightness and self-carriage in their canter.

“Give her a place to go — you want her to be over her back, straight through the hind legs into the bit,” Graves said. “For the horse to become straighter, your legs need to be more present. Get her a little more forward in the canter, then bring her back a bit. When she leans too much on the inside rein, ultimately it is going to harm her ability for self-carriage which is what you need in these transitions.”

Graves had Powers perform canter leg yields as well as counter canter to encourage the horse to carry herself more with the inside leg, as well as improve their straightness.

“Don’t be afraid to look down at her neck and keep her on the outside rein,” Graves said. “Get soft on the inside rein and push her with the inside leg. Push her a little more through. You want to know your horse is sensitive to your leg, but not so sensitive that she explodes. You want her to start accepting that you are going to touch her with the legs.”




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