Archive | July, 2016

Stephen Clarke and the unlimited treasure chest of pearls

6 Jul




Among the many phrases that seemed ridiculous to utter even half a generation ago, one good candidate is “The British School of Dressage” .After all, they pronounce it dress idge, accent on first syllable..

How seriously could one take that?

Around 2011, with a total surprise  team gold at Europeans, the British announced their arrival  on the top of the podium, beating the highly favored German and Dutch teams.

Then of course in 2012 Olympics , for first time ever, the team gold and the individual gold to Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro,  setting a new standard in harmony and points/percentages.

‘Char and Bloobs’  have of course gone on to being the only 2nd rider to hold all 3 records at the same time ,following the magical combination of Ed-and- Toto.

Not to mention World Cup  and Europeans .

Obviously, this ‘overnight sensation’ and leap to medal contention did not really  happen overnight.

So two days spent listening to British 5* judge Stephen Clarke  seemed a great idea.

Clarke has been instrumental in rewarding the ‘natural’ movement over the artificial and often tense but flashy movement of years past. Himself a former international rider, Clarke wears so many hats: he is FEI’s Judge General (or ‘pope-general’ as many call the exalted position), and has been headlining trainer conferences and seminars for several years now, always a joy to riders and spectators alike. His seemingly effortless ability to come up with pearls of insight on a continuous basis is stupefying. It is like watching a sculptor chip away…here! and …here! and suddenly, the beauty hidden within the stone reveals itself.

The USDF Trainers Conference was held at El Sueno Equestrian Center, Somis California. There was ample parking, lovely CDS  volunteers , shade around the covered arena with excellent footing, and an excellent PA system.

Bring it on! Was the only thought as auditors sat 3 deep in their own and borrowed chairs.

The two days featured 8 horses, starting with 5 year olds, through to FEI . Along the way,  FEI O judge Lilo Fore added her insights in Q and A sessions as well as keen observations on each horse and rider.  Lunchtime each day was also Q and A, and Olympians Charlotte Bredahl-Baker and Jan Ebeling added rider perspective.

Each horse came in, showed their warm up , performed  a test — and then in the most charming  and polite way, Clarke made suggestions and observations. Horses hind legs moving away from the movement out behind suddenly underneath themselves and glorious.  Tension replaced by swinging backs, soft ears, smiling riders.

“If I have to pick a number one priority” says Clarke, “”it is Reaction. On the first aid from the rider.” He went on to say that getting a reaction to that first aid is the key to creating energy and making a connection.

We had amazing horseflesh ,experienced trainers and riders ,and each and every one ,along with the enchanted spectators, watched as new power and expression were added, Clarke suggesting at times to take the risk, make the movement bigger, go ahead, dare to!, he encouraged.

Each session was tailored to specific areas, but some favorite ideas appeared throughout the day.  The idea of developing shoulder-fore to  keep the horse straight and balanced, withers between both horse and rider hips; the idea of stretching the horse along the outside rein, careful not to position the horse with too much inside rein; the forward-back exercise, where the horse is encouraged to lengthen the frame and then sit a bit more on the hind legs,— Clarke cautioned riders to be careful not to create passagey , hovering trot. Only when the horse is truly collected and has impulsion and is reacting to light aids did he suggest slowing a movement down to develop passage.

Any time a horse failed to react, the rider was encouraged to really go forward, build up some energy and only then try to ‘shape’ it.

Clarke was careful to point out that if a rider sits shoulders behind vertical, there is the very real danger of pushing the horse’s front end down, on to the reins.

As the first combination of the day warmed up, Clarke started out, “Every rider goes to competition to do well. The breeding has only gotten better, so it really comes down to training .”

He pointed out that Valegro was not born with no weaknesses—he was trained, and continues to train .

“It is us , the riders,”  he continued  ‘who too often compromise and put limits on what we expect of a horse, both in terms of spectrum of movement and reactions.”

He made clear that his #1 priority in schooling is Reaction ,as stated. True submission is about the rider gaining control of the horse’s hind legs . This control can only happen when the horse agrees to react immediately to the rider’s light aids.

“Jumpers in Europe use a lot of dressage these days in order to maintain balance and rhythm around technical courses,” he continued. “They need instant reaction to have a hope of doing well.” He added—how can we  as dressage riders ask for less?  which makes him a sport-wide resource.

Anyone can suggest exercises and they will usually ‘help’ a problem. But Clarke has the ability of a TOP trainer to find the priority, work on that,and by extension, the movements become better and the balance/rhythm stay correct. That he can do all of this and find a humor that disarms and focuses the rider , even in this public situation–as though he and the horse and the rider are all in this together, equally visible to the spectators– that is his charm.

Judging young horses , Clarke said he immediately asks himself—“ would I want to spend the next 5 years training this horse?”

First of the day, Amelia Newcomb/Gatsby  5 yo KWPN G   (Sir Donnerhall x Jazz)

A theme was established as Clarke asked the rider to be sure to keep horse on outside rein and ask less positioning with inside rein. Clarke praised the elegant riding. Lilo noted that the horse showed  the desire to go forward, which reflected well on the training.

Next, Cyndi Jackson/Sir Amour  5 yo Han G (San Amour x De Niro) This PSI Auction horse price highlight came in showing his movement, but at first was locked back behind the saddle and ‘looky-looing’, impressed by the surroundings. Excellent work to get him through and over the back and really showed his power and willingness to stay connected. His willingness to stretch down—the reward Clarke asked EVERY rider to offer the horse at the end of the session—was proof of his trust and confidence.

Sarah Lockman/ Floriana B , 6 y.o KWPN gelding  (Vivaldi x Adriana B)  performed a 3rd level test and then spent the session establishing better connection and focus to get the all-important reaction to the rider’s first aid. “And then” says Clarke, “the rider must sit like a churchmouse.”


Sandy Savage 12 yo mare Releve (Rotspon x Welt Klasse) first of the day in a double. 4th level test.

After the test, worked on flying changes. Lilo : “Pirouettes really show the horse can sit and take the weight. Keeping uphill balance will help in the changes as well.”

Clarke used forward-back in the canter  to keep the energy and impulsion , asked the rider to use shoulder-fore to keep the horse positioned . With this well-schooled horse, Clarke  asked for more transitions within gaits, so that the extended movements and connection matched the excellent “sit” ability of the mare.




  1. D’re Stergios/ Sarumba Hano mare 9 yo (Sir Donnerhall x Lanthan)

Stergios  is based at Lilo Fore’s barn. Clarke remarked on horse’s athleticism, use of joints and generally wonderful  gaits.A really fantastic mare, the pair were participants in the 2015 Trainer Conference that Clarke did in Loxahatchee, Florida. His admiration for this incredible horse had not dimmed one iota.

They do the Prix St.Georges . Clarke: must have relaxation BUT also make sure horse stays focused and reacts to rider so don’t lose forward energy. They worked on and illustrated the need for the rein to always be given forward , so that the horse takes the contact happily and with trust. Clarke used the pair to illustrate what happened when a rider takes the rein backwards and the horse loses balance and focus—and of course, impulsion.

Clarke went on to say that he asks riders to think about engagement—the hind legs staying impulsive in the balance—rather than collection, which too many seem to associate with the front end and the reins. Sarumba’s walk was a true 10, and her owner-rider’s delight in her mare was felt by spectators as well.

  1. Bredahl/Hamilton 10 yr old Danish G  (Romanov x Hojmoses Diva) Intermediaire One.

Bredahl warmed up with beautiful lateral work. Clarke then remarked, ““The test is: can the horse keep same rhythm in lateral, collected, and extended gaits? That is proof training is correct.”

He asked Bredahl to leg-yield in  canter to make sure Hamilton stayed  balanced and on outside rein . Another favorite exercise was used for several horses.  Counter-canter right, the rider asks for shoulder-fore looking  left and the horse to be responsive to rider’s left leg. Clarke explained that this helps horses strengthen balance and be straight enough for clean change.



  1. Sabine Schut-Kery/Sanceo 10 y.o. Hanoverian stallion,  (San Remo x Ramiro’s Son II)   Intermediaire II

Even in the warm up we see Sabine ‘ask questions,’  keep checking the connection, focus, balance, impulsion. Clarke was charmed by the rider’s invisible yet effective aids.

Lilo Fore immediately pointed out, “ This  horse shows adjustability in frame as well as gaits and paces.”

Clarke immediately added, “She puts him in  frame and then we see he stays there on his own. True self carriage !”


And then, for a few moments, we had The Clarke and Fore Show:

LF  The long and low work lovely. Now we will see if she can put the horse up and out!

SC: if she can’t, will eat my hat!

LF: you don’t have a hat!

SC: I can find one—but I wont need it!

This combination were part of  the gold medal US team at  Pan Am Games and showed how they gained a team slot.. Sanceo  was supple over the back, swinging and confident.

Despite a 75+ score  in Int. II at the show immediately before this Conference, Sabine insisted she still has a lot to work on. Clarke immediately produced a giggle. They decided to work one one-tempis. . “Ride them like he has never done them before” says C. “You have to stay there and help him”

This lewd to discussion about flying changes, which Fore and Clarke agreed are the most personal and idiosyncratic movement, as no one gives exactly the same aids in teaching the movement. Indeed, it is the only movement that either happens within one stride—or it has not happened, even though it is usually called a ‘late’ change.  Lilo Fore pointed out the need to give the ‘change’ aid as horse finishes a stride in order to influence NEXT stride.

Lilo reminded us all that it is important to NEVER take reins backwards when horse is landing  ie RF hits ground, give aid for Left C and make sure reins allow horse to continue forward movement.

This led to Fore and Clarke  discussing how to score a mistake.

Clarke:  “ If the pair are trying for expression and taking a risk which fails—I often give 5

Fore : the change is  not the issue. The issue is how the rider uses tools to set up for the change. If the balance and rhythm are not there to begin with,  I will give 4 –but one has to judge the entirety, not just the mistake.“


Sanceo, refreshed from a walk break , now worked on piaffe. Clarke said, “let him travel forward… and only then ask a few strides on the spot.” Gradually, he then pointed out, they had  increased Sanceo’s comfort zone for what is easy.

Lilo Fore: “ this kind of schooling, where rider keeps everything so it is easy for the horse—this keeps the horse relaxed and forward — and helps to keep soundness.

8.Jan Ebeling/Darling (Donnerhall)   12 y.old Old? Gelding, they do the Grand Prix.

Clarke and Jan agreed the weak point was the pirouettes and so they went to work. “A pirouette,” says Clarke, “can only be successful to the degree of collection the horse willingly offers.”

He added—“this horse needs faster reaction to rider’s aids.”

The exercise that worked turned out to be: establish the canter, a few forward-backs to make sure the horse is focused, and then ask for ONE step of pirouette  turn — and immediately get out of it, as a reward..

Did this a few times in walk before returning again to canter.  The horse began to really take weight behind and turn on his own. Jan using shoulder-fore to keep horse straight and on outside rein. A few more tries, and Darling began to offer the pirouette turn.

A very happy Jan agreed that was where to stop, patting his horse, and immediately going to the same long and low posting trot stretch as Clarke had asked other riders to do.


Lunch discussion featured Clarke, Fore and Olympians Charlotte Bredahl-Baker and Jan Ebeling. Questions on cards filled out by the audience were answered—and then—why do we not have the right to show in a  snaffle at Grand Prix?

Sides were almost immediately drawn, Bredahl-Baker and Fore in total favor of snaffle only. Lilo Fore emphasizing, “The horses will say Thank You!”

Everyone talked about mouth size/problems , two bits vs. one etc.

Jan says he recognizes their argument and validity but can not be sure, as the double represents training.

Clarke and Jan both say they  think of the  double as a tool. Jan suggests, “Maybe different divisions?”

Fore and Bredahl-Baker point out that the new FEI tests for 7 yr olds-will allow snaffle and double in the  same class


Sabine brings her PRE stallion, Marques XXXVI. The 12 yr old black PRE stallion is Selecto VI x Alroso XXVI.  He is brilliant in ‘the 3 Ps of dressage” – Piaffe, Passage, Pirouettes. Sabine and Marques were USDF’s  PSG Horse of the Year in 2013—and then the horse had to have a long layoff, a soft tissue injury now fully healed.

So they work on incremental aids—using shoulder-fore in walk to gradually connect horse, give a little rein, so he lengthens frame, keeps contact,and finally takes longer steps.

Clarke says  “Your riding as good as anyone out there, including medal riders. I expect you to make more teams. “

Jan Ebeling brings 13 yr old Hessian stallion Rassolini  (Rubioso N x Silvano).  The stallion is doing Grand Prix.   Clarke immediately zeroed in on the problem. He told the auditors that he had judged the horse at the show only a few days ago, and the stallion has taken to sometimes ignoring Jan’s  request for piaffe.

Clarke asked Jan to ride the Grand Prix, give an aid and immediately be prepared if the horse did not comply with the first request. Rassolini piaffed around the outside of the arena, turned up centerline, and ignored Jan’s aid. Jan immediately turned a half circle back to long side, gave a few taps with the whip for immediate reaction, turned up centerline at A, and again asked for piaffe—this time getting the beautiful response he had gotten at the show while  working outside the arena. Clarke told the audience, “In this case, it is not a matter of letting the horse piaffe while moving forward instead of on the spot. There is not enough reaction to the rider when first asked—and there can be no compromise. “

Jan and Rassolini did a few more piaffes, the horse’s reaction now genuine and the movement matching the elegance and power displayed in the rest of the Grand Prix.

A fitting end to the two-day conference.







Defining Dressage Success

1 Jul

A popular definition of dressage is, ” 6 minutes of a rider looking to park the horse.”  Or, “horse ballet.”

These and other such definitions are part of the reason the sport is not popular .

It is a nice fantasy that dressage judging is the reason IOC is not happy with dressage.
IOC cares about money In, not statistics Out.
If dressage had its own Oleksandr Onyshchenko** (head of Ukraine Equestrian Federation, gas company magnate and show jumper rider, not to mention at one point owning all the horses that made up the Ukrainian team whose riders came from…several countries) or its own Mario Hoffmann** (head of Slovakian Endurance, banking magnate and endurance rider who stepped in to put on the 2016 World Endurance Championships when FEI suspended Endurance in the UAE), then dressage would,I remain confident, find the sponsors it so sorely needs to raise interest ,raise “media presence” and thus raise more money that IOC continually demands.

{ { ** Of course, both these hugely successful businessmen have been accused of corruption in their respective fields, but that is almost like a seal of approval, as hardly anyone can amass a fortune without being accused of something by somebody. Just ask Google.}}

The problem for equestrian sport is that it is relatively expensive to put on compared with track and field, let alone all the ball sports, gymnastics,etc. Relatively expensive and, thanks to a weak international umbrella federation, not really gaining in popularity except where it is already popular and Global Champions Tour has revved up interest.
Dressage judging and education , in fact, has never been better. Saying it can even be better still is of course true. Saying it is unfair, biased, scores are too variable within one test/one judge panel, basically is overkill.
In a large international class– 25,30 and more Grand Prix horses, most will get between 6 (Satisfactory) and 7 (fairly good).
AT this moment, there are only some 13 rider/horse combinations that have received 80 or better in a technical test. A score that would not even get them a spot on a regional team in gymnastics or figure skating.
This is because try as one may, judging a human athlete,aka Rider, performing with a non-human athlete, aka Horse…is not the same at all as any other sport or really, activity.
Show jumping and eventing have jumps and,of course, the reality that other than the pesky dressage in eventing, an absolutely clear way to judge who is winning and losing.
Dressage is about subtlety. It is about making something hard look easy. It is about partnership, harmony,and is defined best perhaps by the late,great Dr. Reiner Klimke: “to ride a great horse is to know a little better what it feels like to be a god.”
Dressage is about theater, about catharsis,about athleticism in much the same way that the ancient bull dances of Crete married awe and entertainment.