Dover, McDonald and Hassler Headline USEF/USET Foundation Dressage Pipeline Clinic in California

Monday, October 13, 2014

Dawn White O’Connor and Aristo with coach Robert Dover. Photo by Kelly Sanchez
Dawn White O’Connor and Aristo with coach Robert Dover. Photo by Kelly Sanchez

From young horses and young riders to Intermediaire combinations knocking on the door to the big tour to those just getting started at Grand Prix, 17 horses and riders took part in the second USEF/USET Foundation Dressage Pipeline Clinic, held Oct. 11 and 12 at Epona Farms in Thousand Oaks, California. Made possible through a gift from Betsy Juliano and Havensafe Farm, the clinics are part of a strategy to track, develop and nurture dressage talent in the United States. U.S. Chef d’Equipe/Technical Advisor Robert Dover was delighted with the event. “We need more and more of these to ensure that no stone is left unturned.”

He was joined by USEF Developing Coach Debbie McDonald and USEF Young Horse Coach Scott Hassler. “We’ve produced a lot of medals together,” Dover said of himself and his fellow coaches. “We’re also people with a strong world vision. The U.S. is going to be back on the podium, and because of what we’re doing with the pipeline, it’s going to be self-sustaining.”

Dover said opening the clinics to the public made sense. “We can’t ask the community to be a part of something they don’t understand. [The sessions] aren’t just about the perfect moments; they’re about showing day-to-day life.”

Leading off both days, Dawn White O’Connor and Carla Hayes’ Dutch gelding Aristo demonstrated why Dover believes they are nearly ready for Grand Prix. “We need a fleet of great horses for you!” he told her. In a theme he touched on throughout the weekend, he urged White O’Connor to not settle for anything short of an immediate reaction from her horse. “You want to give the minimum possible aid for the greatest result,” he explained. “[If you give] a sharp aid, it should be like you got shot out of a cannon.”

Citing world-class competitors like Valegro and Totilas, he said, “The great horses don’t know that what they’re doing is hard—it’s not like it’s work. It’s our job to make them believe they can do it.”

McDonald stressed the same point in her session with developing combination Jamie Pestana and her own Winzalot. “Getting him forward should feel like a lightning bolt, but don’t let him run. It should feel like he could go all day.”

Noting that Winzalot’s temperament sometimes leads to blow-ups, McDonald said “difficult” horses require creativity on the part of their riders. “You have to skirt around it a bit versus putting pressure on him.”

U.S. Chef d’Equipe/Technical Advisor Robert Dover. Photo by Kelly Sanchez
U.S. Chef d’Equipe/Technical Advisor Robert Dover. Photo by Kelly Sanchez

Pestana later described her big Hanoverian as “an interesting mix of lazy and hot. He has to feel he’s in charge. Debbie knows how to stay a step ahead of him without causing a fight. She always says, ‘Don’t take it personally [if he doesn’t do what I ask]. That’s great advice.”

McDonald suggested riders think like trainers. “A good trainer isn’t someone who can take a horse around the ring and get an 80 percent. It’s the person who has trained a horse so well that anyone can get on and ride down center line.”

Working with Ariel Thomas and her own Heraldik Star on passage, McDonald first had the young rider transition from half steps at walk to the trot. “You can’t develop passage without an honest, pushing trot.” But when the Oldenburg gelding resisted, McDonald urged Thomas to think forward, “even if medium trot turns into a gallop. There can’t be a thought in your mind that you’re going to wimp out. You have to dig deep.”

In his sessions, Hassler suggested riders take frequent walk breaks to help their horses mentally as well as physically. “If we hurry, it’s a problem.” Hassler said he believes horses don’t intentionally resist what’s being asked of them. “They may be confused, or stiff or in trouble. Often they need a little encouragement. Go back to make sure they understood.”

“Forward is your forward, not his,” he told Amy Miller, riding her 5-year-old KWPN gelding Encore, the 2013 Markel/USEF Young Horse Four-Year-Old Dressage National Reserve Champion and recent winner of the California Dressage Society Young Horse Futurity for Five-Year-Olds. He complimented her for riding forward but not fast. “Forward is not fast,” he explained. “It’s a mental thought. Fast is really hard for horses.”

He praised Carly Taylor-Smith for not restraining Rosalut NHF’s youthful exuberance. Watching as she warmed up the canter in the two-point, he said, “I love this. She doesn’t restrict him; they have a dialogue.”

Hassler urged her to seek throughness and honesty with the Oldenburg gelding, the 2014 Markel/USEF Young Horse 4-year-Old Dressage National Champion. “If you can’t ride a transition from walk to trot honestly, don’t ride the canter. When he’s through and balanced, that’s when you pet him.” He recommended “playful” flying changes for a 4-, coming 5-year-old. “We have to be careful that we don’t ride counter canter for three years and then try the changes.”

Ashlyn DeGroot also had some youthful moments with DG Bar Ranch’s Dalina DG, prompting Hassler to say, “We never want to take their spirit away.” When the Dutch mare, who has competed in the USEF Young Horse Dressage National Championships as a 4-, 5- and 6-year-old and looks to be headed for the Developing Horse program, displayed some tension in her back, he suggested DeGroot ride some gait-to-gait transitions. “They’re relaxing,” he explained. “They encourage elasticity. It’s all about relaxation, not control.”

He urged all riders, whether professional or amateur, to focus on every step they ride, even if they have only 30 minutes. “Every moment, you should be 100 percent focused on your horse.” Dover reiterated the point: “The reason why the great riders have it going on is that their daily work ethic is 150 percent. Decide two things the day will be about.”