Take Time - A Message During the USDF National Symposium

By Eliza Sydnor

One of the benefits of being a USDF Certified Instructor is that you get invited to watch the first day of the USDF National Symposium for free! This year, the symposium featured Klaus Balkenhol at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center. The list of demo riders reads like a Who’s Who in American dressage: Steffen and Shannon Peters, Guenter Seidel, Sue Blinks, Leslie Morse, Christine Traurig, David Wightman, Hilda Gurney, Charlotte Bredahl, Laurie Falvo-Doyle and Christina Beal.

USDF Certified Instructors were invited to attend the “warm up” day of the symposium, Friday, December 2. This smaller group made for a more intimate setting, and Mr. Balkenhol welcomed questions from the auditors throughout the day. Many people took him up on this offer, and good discussions ensued.

The main theme of the day was: Take Time! Throughout many of the lessons, Mr. Balkenhol stressed the importance of taking time in the training of dressage horses, both with the trained horse, and especially with the young horse. He reminded the riders and the auditors that it takes a long time for the young horse to fully develop, and then it takes even longer to build up correct muscle through training that will keep the horse sound and healthy for a long time.

By Eliza Sydnor

All Star Riders Under Klaus Balkenhol

The morning started with Steffen Peters on Lombardi and Charlotte Bredahl-Baker on Komo. Each horse and rider worked through the movements of the Grand Prix with help from Mr. Balkenhol. He wanted to see good preparation from the riders as they entered the more collected movements such as pirouettes, piaffe and passage. He also reminded the riders always to ride forward between the collected exercises to refresh the horse and keep the gaits pure and of the highest quality. Throughout the day Mr. Balkenhol made sure that the horses were given plenty of walk or stretch breaks. In the stretching he really wanted to see the riders lengthen the reins and have the horse take the neck both down and out. “Longer, longer! Give more!” he said over and over.

Next up, Leslie Morse rode Kingston and Christine Traurig rode Magic. These were two more examples of solid Grand Prix horses that were being fine tuned rather than being taught anything new. Mr. Balkenhol had them start with walk on a longer rein, keeping the neck long and low until the horses were relaxed in their new environment. Only then did he allow them to go on in the trot. Minor seat corrections such as lowering hands slightly and looking straight ahead instead of down and to the side made significant changes in the half passes. Mr. Balkenhol also wanted the riders to give more with the rein, especially the inside rein, after they entered the movement. “Let him go, Let him go!” he would say.

As the work moved toward the higher collection, the theme of taking your time returned. As Leslie entered the pirouettes with Kingston, Mr. Balkenhol would say, “You have time, take time.” By allowing the horse a little more time, the pirouettes became smaller and smaller and more and more seated. The same held true for Kingston’s piaffe, which was beautiful.

By Eliza Sydnor

Sit Into, not On Top, Your Horse at the Trot

The work continued in a similar way with the small tour horses. Shannon Peters was praised for her lovely seat on Marlando. Mr. Balkenhol commented that she really sat “into” the horse in the trot, instead of “on top” of the horse. He wanted to see Marlando more up and out on the vertical in all the work. He asked Shannon not to flex the horse too much to the inside in the canter work. With many of the riders, he had them occasionally counter bend the horses slightly in the canter to bring the inside shoulder in more and then return to a slight position to the inside. The horse’s canter would get bigger, and the neck more open after these slight flexions in the poll. He reminded the rider always to sit on the inner seat bone in the canter when doing this work.

When a horse had a problem in an exercise, Mr. Balkenhol often went back to something the horse new better and then returned to the more difficult exercise. “It is very important for all horses at all levels that they must be able to fulfill the requirements of the training scale,” he said. If one part is not correct, one must work on that before going on. When David Wightman had trouble with the two tempis on Partouche, Mr. Balkenhol had him go back to the canter half pass. He rode up the center line and did a half pass to the middle of the long side. Once this was good, they rode the same pattern, but asked for 3 two tempis on the line from the center line to the middle of the short side. This way the horse stayed calm, did three nice changes, and was rewarded with a break.

By Eliza Sydnor

Developing the Young Horse Dressage Horse

In the afternoon we saw young horses. David Wightman, Laurie Falvo-Doyle, and Steffen Peters rode their 5-year-olds, and again Mr. Balkenhol stressed the importance of giving these young horses the time they need. Steffen rode a stallion that looked very muscled due to his conformation and the fact that he was a stallion. Mr. Balkenhol said that this can be dangerous, because people believe that the horse is strong because he looks strong. But all horses need the time to develop their muscles properly, and the trainer cannot rush this process, no matter how good the horse is in conformation or movement. This young stallion had such extravagant movement, and Mr. Balkenhol was very careful to keep the movement correct. Just as an example to the auditors, he had Steffen ride the horse really strongly down one long side and told him to make the trot huge and passage-like. This kind of trot looks impressive because the horse’s neck came very up and his front legs were very flashy. But immediately his back went down and his hind legs went more out behind. Mr. Balkenhol also stressed the importance of keeping the canter correct in such a talented young horse. “When the canter gets too uphill, it becomes four-beat,” he said, “because the inner hind leg no longer lands with the outside fore.”

Walk breaks and stretching was just as important to Mr. Balkenhol with these young horses as with the older horses. He wanted the riders to start with long reins to get the neck loose. Once the neck became loose, then the back became loose. “The back is the center of movement,” he said. The movement of the horses cannot be correctly developed and the musculature of the whole horse cannot be strengthened if the back is tight.

By Eliza Sydnor

Americans Now Breeding Horses of Equal Quality to the Europeans

The last two horses of the day were 2.5 year old Dutch Warmbloods from DG Bar. Mr. Balkenhol was impressed with the high quality of these two and agreed with an auditor who said she believed that Americans were now breeding horses of equal quality to the Europeans. A discussion ensued about the risk of working horses too early in order to prepare them for stallion testings, mare testings, or auctions. “In Germany we have 20 to 30 horses of this quality born every year,” Mr. Balkenhol said. “But by the age of 5, there are only 1 or 2 left.” He talked about how the cavalry riders of yesteryear were more patient with their horses’ early training because they had to last a long time. They couldn’t afford to have their horses’ careers finished by the age of 10.

Mr. Balkenhol is an inspiration to watch because his love for the horse is always apparent. He helped improve each horse and rider regardless of their level of training. I found his work with the young horses especially interesting. He loves to work with young horses because “they have an innocence about them, and at the same time, pride,” he said with a smile. The day ended for the many USDF Certified Instructors with a strong reminder from Mr. Balkenhol to keep that pride and noble quality as the horses age and advance in their training. By giving the horses the time they need, we will ensure the health, happiness and longevity of our beloved partners.

Eliza Sydnor for DressageDaily.com

HorsesDaily.com 'On the Scene' at the 2005 USDF Meeting