Exercises and Advice from Robert Dover

Three riders share the lessons they learned on throughness, connection and more from this six-time Olympian.

“Robert told me to visualize in my mind’s eye the best gait that I can in each gait and ride that,” said Lynn Jandrowski of riding in a clinic with Robert Dover. “This has really helped me have higher expectations for Valsar and the other horses I have in training.” Valerie Durbon

When riders attend a clinic with six-time Olympian Robert Dover, they usually come with goals to reach and issues to address. This was the case when Greber Dressage hosted the current U.S. dressage chef d’équipe/technical advisor for a two-day clinic in Whitehall, Virginia, in May. Three clinic riders of differing levels shared their goals and experiences.

While Robert quickly spotted the strengths and weaknesses of each horse-and-rider pair, he reminded the clinic riders that they all have common goals. Each, he said, should own:

1. The rhythm of the footfalls in all three gaits—how fast or slow each
footfall is

2. The tempo—the speed with which you are covering each meter of ground in all three gaits

3. The frame of the horse—how high or low or how short or long

4. The length of stride

Robert used a combination of concepts, visualization and exercises to get riders closer to achieving the optimum of all these fundamentals.

One of Nicole’s goals with Hide was to sharpen her skills at collecting. Robert encouraged her and other riders to ride their horses more forward into a lofting collected medium trot, essentially “folding up” the extension into medium. Valerie Durbon

Nicole’s Lessons: Throughness, Connection and Straightness

Rider: Nicole Del Giorno

Horse: Hide, a 5-year-old KWPN

Background: Respectable year in the U.S. Equestrian Federation Four-Year-Old Dressage Test level; prior to clinic, they schooled Second Level

Goal: Compete in the FEI (International Equestrian Federation) 5-year-old test before the end of the year.

Issues to address:

  • Achieve greater throughness
  • Develop straightness to help produce collection
  • Sharpen her skills at collecting, simple changes and medium trot

As Nicole and Hide started their ride, Robert introduced the “rubber-band” exercise. In the work, Nicole moved Hide from collected trot to medium trot and back to collected both on a circle and around the whole arena. (With less-experienced horses, the rubber-band exercise might be from working trot to lengthened stride.) Robert said to see “the grandest version you could possibly envision in your mind’s eye of you and your horse dancing around the arena,” adding that “you should have the beautiful vision of [Olympic gold-medalist] Valegro’s passage or extended trot. Try to match that vision. You can’t create what you don’t imagine.” He also told Nicole that if Hide was slow with his responses, she should “getty-up and go”—activate her leg and seat until the thought of just these aids makes the horse think go. The results were very prompt transitions. As they improved, Nicole found much better consistency in her throughness and connection with Hide. Later she said, “I needed a basic degree of ‘go’ to accomplish throughness. So he took us back to basics—‘Leg on’ [plus seat] means ‘GO … NOW.’ It has changed Hide’s attitude 100 percent. He thinks it’s a game now.” As they did more work and Hide improved his acceptance of the contact, the straightness issues started to resolve themselves.

When Nicole’s second-day ride got under way, it was clear that this new ability to stay connected was well on its way to being firmly established, so to help further with the canter straightness, Robert had Nicole ride an exercise that used every bit of the arena. She was to canter the long side and short end, go across the diagonal, then at X (the center of the arena) ride a 10-meter circle, returning to the same diagonal line and then ride a simple transition to walk with an immediate transition back to canter on the new lead. The pattern requires balance, straightness and consistency in the canter. The horse must stay balanced on the diagonal line with no wall to help, maintain the same pace to X, ride the 10-meter circle with no loss of impulsion and then change the bend and maintain suppleness so the simple change is clear and correct. Nicole said of this exercise, “It seems like a simple pattern, but there is no cheating. It keeps me and Hide honest in what we are trying to achieve.”

As Nicole and Hide finished their weekend, Robert said she should not hesitate to take Hide to the USEF Five-Year-Old Dressage Test class the next weekend: “Be fierce and fearless—go for it.” Nicole says she did as he suggested and that Hide’s overall scores were 7.7 and 7.6, winning both days.

Sarah learns about the mechanics of the walk from Robert, which helps her to correct Lyam’s slight tendency to slip into a lateral walk. Valerie Durbon

Sarah’s Lessons: Clarity of Connection

Rider: Sarah Kern

Horse: Lyam, an 8-year-old KWPN

Background: Training Fourth Level

Goal: Enter the Developing Horse program at Prix St. Georges.

Issues to address:

  • Develop tools for Lyam’s spookiness, which causes tension, resulting in dropped shoulders and poll, leading to a loss of cadence
  • Overcome Lyam’s slight tendency to lateral walk
  • Find a new goal or focus during the clinic. “I hope he gives me a new task to work toward or identifies a weakness I am not aware of,” Sarah said.

According to Sarah, Lyam’s biggest challenge is his excitability, which can cause him to lose his rhythm, especially in the walk where he tends to go lateral as he gets tense. When addressing this, Robert explained the mechanics behind the walk, saying the walk steps are always correct in the four-beat rhythm, or “pure,” in two situations (unless the horse was bred to pace):

  • from halt to walk, the step or two in the transition to walk after the halt
  • from walk to trot, the step just before the transition to trot.

With this in mind, he had Sarah practice riding the walk as if at any next step she would go to passage. The idea of passage would keep the horse thinking about going on to trot but never quite making the transition, thus the walk steps are each like the walk step just before the trot—pure. Because Lyam had to constantly be thinking about this potential transition to passage, he was no longer able to get lateral. To further the improvement of the walk, Robert added a half pirouette in walk. Sarah said afterward that this had the effect of sharpening Lyam to her leg, which helped him think more forward toward the passage.

Lyam’s tenseness also sometimes created a quick and short trot stride, unlike the moments when he was relaxed and showed better length and cadence. Robert commented—not just to Sarah but to the other riders as well—that, in general, riders need to get rid of the “shades of trot”—he wanted to see a trot that maintained the same rhythm whether the tempo, length of stride or degree of collection changed. Using the “rubber band” again, as he had with Nicole, Robert had Sarah concentrate on getting a reliable “GO” and maintaining a very correct and consistent contact so she was clear exactly what was expected of Lyam.

As Sarah became clearer in her instructions to Lyam, his tension decreased and he became consistent in his rhythm—he seemed to relax into the work and no longer showed “shades of trot.”

“I started to notice and feel every time I threw my hands forward and dropped the connection instead of supporting [Lyam],” Sarah said after her first ride. As this became second nature, Lyam’s trot became the trot that Robert was looking for, which was easy to adjust whether it was collected or medium or in shoulder-in or half pass.

Sarah continued to improve the clarity of her connection and aids in the collected canter work. To test Lyam’s suppleness in the canter while improving the canter’s jump, Robert introduced an exercise: a 20-meter circle that spiraled in to a volte (a 6-, 8- or 10-meter circle), then spiraled out to a three-loop serpentine of the full arena, maintaining the same lead. This required Sarah to concentrate on keeping Lyam forward in the volte’s collected/pirouette canter and maintaining that feeling spiraling out because the counter canter in the second loop required nearly as much balance and jump as the volte. “I realized I currently give and take too much in the canter pirouette work and Lyam slows down and pulls through the turn.” With the spiral, “It gave both me and Lyam an idea about how it should feel” to do a pirouette: that he only needs to be guided around when everything is correct.

“One last thing [Robert] brought up that I really liked was to remember to praise your horse,” Sarah added about her clinic experience. “Lyam needs confidence and I can help with that by letting him know when he does a good job.”

As with all of the clinic riders, Robert encouraged Lynn to own Valsar’s rhythm, tempo, frame and length of stride.” He also wanted the horses to respond promptly in the transitions.

Lynn’s Lessons: Half-pass and Canter Pirouette

Rider: Lynn Jandrowski

Horse: Valsar, an 8-year-old Andalusian, bred and owned by Melody Light

Background: Competing at Intermediaire I

Goal: Reach Prix St. Georges this year

Issues to address:

  • Find more scope and reach in the half-pass
  • Correct a dropping shoulder in the canter pirouette
  • Address her horse’s desire to anticipate what comes next instead of waiting

As with Nicole and Sarah, Lynn’s lesson with Valsar began with work in the “rubber band.” Robert had them work on a 20-meter circle, having Lynn feel as if the transitions from extended gaits to collected gaits were easy and seamless. At one point, he encouraged her to ride more forward into a lofting collected gait, essentially to “fold up the extension.” This idea transformed the trot by keeping it super active as Valsar dropped his croup and changed his carriage. Once Valsar was moving at his best, they began to work on the lateral movements, always with the medium gait in mind.

One of Lynn’s goals was to improve the reach in the half-pass. To do this, Robert had her ride medium trot, point the horse’s chest at the letter she was traveling to, ride the haunches-in and not hurry. By committing Valsar to the line of travel, it freed up his haunches to draw him over into the crossing for the half-pass: His reach got longer and crossing became greater without losing the forwardness of the gait.

Improvement of the pirouette required a multi-step approach, starting with the “rubber band” in canter on a circle, then on a spiral. As Lynn rode in on the spiral, she had to maintain the energy she had developed on the larger circle. Next Robert had them come out of the corner and take the canter into the half-pass on the diagonal line to solidify the engagement and as they came to the centerline, move into a working canter pirouette on the diagonal. In this pirouette, Lynn’s task was to ride out of it the moment Valsar tried to take over. This quick correction, combined with the confirmed engagement, helped him realize he had to wait and could no longer fall through his shoulder. Lynn added that “it also helped to take my hands slightly toward the outside of the pirouette in order to control his shoulder” as Robert instructed.

After the clinic finished, Lynn said, “Robert told me to visualize in my mind’s eye the best gait that I can in each gait and ride that. This has really helped me have higher expectations for Valsar and the other horses I have in training.” Just a week after the clinic, Lynn had a very successful competition, winning both USEF Developing Prix St. Georges classes at the Lexington Spring Dressage show in Virginia.

Without a doubt, Robert gave 110 percent to each horse-and-rider combination, making it a riveting weekend for not just those riding but also the auditors. His expectations for the horses and riders were very high and through his infectious encouragement, attention to the smallest detail and adherence to classically correct training, everyone was able to reach these lofty goals.

This article was originally published in the September 2017 issue of Practical Horseman. 

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