Dressage Training in Germany with Lisa Wilcox and Ernst Hoyos

A junior rider spends an idyllic summer training with world-class dressage trainers Lisa Wilcox and Ernst Hoyos.
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A junior rider spends an idyllic summer training with world-class dressage trainers Lisa Wilcox and Ernst Hoyos.
Lisa Wilcox with Suzanne Laporte | Photo courtesy Lisa Wilcox

Lisa Wilcox with Suzanne Laporte | Photo courtesy Lisa Wilcox

What promised to be a typical day began with a surprise. Before heading to the barn that morning for my usual routine of feeding the dressage horses and cleaning stalls, I received a telephone call. I had no idea that this call would be one I would never forget. "Hello, Suzanne. This is Lendon Gray."

In the back of my head, I was thinking this call might have something to do with an application I had sent in for a dressage training scholarship with USET rider Lisa Wilcox. In January, I came across a small section in a local magazine with the heading "Training Opportunity in Germany." I am always applying for scholarship programs or training opportunities that I feel would be of help to me and to my horse. As I read on, I became excited because I thought that I might have a chance at this. My brother, Trae, was also interested in applying, so this project became something for us to work on together.

I was in shock as Ms. Gray was saying congratulations. My mom was standing beside me, curious to see who would be calling me so early in the morning. She later told me that she could tell from the look on my face the purpose of the call. She pinched me so that I would say something instead of simply standing there with my mouth open. I thanked Ms. Gray, who coordinated the application process for Lisa Wilcox, and hung the telephone up, then instantly picked it up again to call my trainer. After my very loud and early wake-up call, Bent Jensen was actually in a very good mood once hearing my news. I think my family and trainer were almost as excited as I was. When I finished calling everyone I could think of, I ran down to the barn to inform my partner Wittus of our new summer plans.

How I Won the Scholarship
Although I was not completely satisfied with my application video when I viewed it, an unedited 10-minute ride, I realized why Bent had waited until the deadline to make a video. My workouts had been going well, and I figured that my daily video sessions would just get better and better as we continued to practice.

After a few days, I realized Bent was not planning to bring the camera out any time soon. Weeks passed and still there was no hint of making a video. I was beginning to get worried that Bent and my mom had forgotten all about it. Bent and my mom had known that I would get very frustrated over being recorded each day if my 10-minute rides were not perfect. So, on the very last day to make the deadline, Trae and I mounted and rode out to the ring to see Bent there with his video camera and the "professional videographer"--my mom.

I tried to ride normally and ignore the billions of butterflies swirling in my stomach. Let me just say that I thought I would die when I finished my 10 minutes! Wittus was having a spooky day and was shying at everything from leaves blowing across the ring to the grass moving in the wrong direction. I had a few leaps in the flying changes as if he was trying to jump over the gusts of wind, and a few fast pirouettes that felt like a reining-horse spin. I was resigned to send in what I had after my trainer and mom told me it was better to illustrate a normal day where things were not perfect. Trae and I mailed our essays and videos to Ms. Lendon Gray.

Why I Gravitated to Dressage
There is not one thing I could imagine myself doing if I didn't have a horse. All my life I have been riding, whether it was my own horse, a borrowed horse, or a school horse. Every summer I attended horse camps, always being the smallest or youngest of the group but willing to ride any horse they would hand to me. After a few years of riding, I was given my first pony. I could now ride my very own pony at the shows and camps, and could hang out with all of my friends with their ponies. I rode in the Cordele Watermelon Parade (Cordele is a very small town in southern Georgia where I grew up) and sometimes to the Burger King drive-up window.

After a period of combined training, I realized that I was not too good at the jumping phases. I was never authoritative enough in the stadium jumping so we always ended in last place. The only part I truly liked about the cross-country was the galloping. My real interest was the dressage test. I finally decided to sell my pony to a young beginner and begin training in basic dressage. Fortunately, my parents were supportive enough to spend a great deal of time driving me to the barn or to shows.

When I was young, I had always dreamed of riding in the Olympics, having my own famous horse and signing autographs for the fans--the glory part. As I developed in my new dressage training, I discovered I loved the learning process during the mental and physical workouts between rider and horse. Every dressage participant knows this sport is a never-ending learning experience. Even if you think you are too old to ride, you can still learn and enjoy dressage by watching others. I soon began to set small goals for myself, simple little things to build upon with a dream of international competition and a future as a professional.

I Work Hard for My Dream
For the readers who think "Oh yes, this is all a piece of cake if you are wealthy and have parents who do everything for you," you have me mistaken. I realized at a young age that life is not full of handouts. My parents, my brother and I have worked hard so that we could pursue dressage in a way that fit into our lives, and I appreciate this sacrifice. I am very thankful for what I have right now. You don't have to have expensive, fancy horses to be successful, and you don't have to have an incredible barn with an indoor and mirrors to learn dressage, although many do this for the social scene. What you start with should always be enough at that moment, and this acceptance provides the best way to improve if you work hard enough. The love of the learning process and your dedication is what will shape the rider you become.

I came across my horse, Wittus, though my brother. Trae and I had always tried to attend Bent Jensen clinics that were not too far from our home in Georgia. At one of his clinics that I missed because my horse at home had bitten my finger, Trae was offered an invitation to go to Wellington, Florida, to train with Bent. In the meantime, I was soon to be horseless as mine was becoming too old to show at my level, and I had found a buyer for him. After the sale, my mom and I packed up for the Sunshine State. Wittus was owned by Toni Barnes, a good friend and rider from the north who wintered in Florida and worked with Bent.

Toni purchased Wittus in Denmark as a 3-year-old and now he was coming into his sixth year. Toni was having bad luck trying to sell him and was ready to just give up and put him out to pasture. When my eyes came to Wittus among all of the horses for sale, I immediately knew without question that he was the one for me. When Bent told Toni how well Wittus and I connected, she decided to help a young rider and friend, and we came to an agreeable purchase arrangement. Bent invited me to stay in Florida, and my parents had no fuss about this since it was the most convenient and money-wise plan.

Once I was settled in Florida with my family, Trae and I were out in search of jobs to support our future junior/Young Rider paths. Holding fund-raisers with friends and yard sales of used tack, we collected a good amount of money. My share was put towards the shipping of Wittus to Germany for my summer internship with Lisa Wilcox and Ernst Hoyos. Our fund-raising has been put on hold until I get back from Germany. To pay my grandparents and parents back the I.O.U.'s for this trip, more odd jobs and busy work will fill my days when I return home.

Flying to Germany for the Summer
I arrived in Germany after the longest trip of my life. I was so anxious the entire way, and had to contain my excitement in a small seat next to a large man with long arms and legs. I was so jumpy that I nearly spilled my drink on the man who was taking up my space. He was relieved I caught it just in time.

At the airport in Frankfurt, I spent my first Euro dollar on a cola. I was embarrassed when I handed the checkout lady too much money, and the look on her face confirmed my odd southern accent when I said "hallo" and "danke." The guards walking around the airport looked like soldiers in a movie, carrying machine guns and wearing military uniforms.

I searched the airport looking for the friends of Bent who were to pick me up. We found each other, and we began our journey to Reisenbeck, where they lived, by way of the autobahn. Oh my! I was so scared that we were going to crash that I was sweating. The driving was so fast and seemed so out of control that I kept my eyes closed most of the trip. I was so relieved and worn out when we arrived at their house that I could barely keep my eyes open during dinner. I decided to sleep late the next morning to help the jet lag. Yes, jet lag was a bitter surprise!

We then went on a tour of the village in Reisenback and visited Ludger Beerbaum's stables. The Beerbaums were in Florida last season jumping, and it was fun to meet them in Germany. That evening we were off to Cappeln and on that darn autobahn again! We drove down the gracious, tree-line driveway to Gestuet Vorwerk, the Oldenburg Stud Farm where Lisa Wilcox and Ernst Hoyos train. I could not stay in the car another minute as soon as I saw the entrance.

Arriving at Gestuet Vorwerk
I met everyone and had a tour that took quite some time because the farm is so huge. I also met the rain. I have never seen so much rain in my life. Every day it rains "cats and dogs" and makes the air colder than I thought it could get. Now I know why all of the pastures are high with plump green grass.

Shortly after I settled into the routine of things, I went with Mr. Hoyos and Ms. Wilcox to Judith Balkenhol's birthday party. Judith is the wife of Klaus Balkenhol, coach of the U.S. dressage team. It was so unbelievable. I never imagined going to the Balkenhols' farm. I felt star-struck watching (current World Champion) Nadine Capellmann and (U.S. Olympian) Guenter Seidel to my right, and Lisa Wilcox, Ernst Hoyos, George Williams and Debbie McDonald to my left, all sitting back playing a relaxing game of blackjack. It was a surprise to hear them having ordinary conversations and acting like normal, everyday people. There were a few in-depth conversations about horses, but also some about not knowing what socks to wear for the night! The facilities were beautiful and looked very different from the pictures I had seen in magazines. The garden and arena areas were perfectly manicured both indoor and out. In a comfortable sitting area between the two arenas, you could turn you head one way and watch people in the indoor, and then the other way to see the outdoor. Ms. Wilcox told me that it was especially nice in the cold of winter to sit in a heated room rather than freezing in one of the chairs outside. I walked through the barn and met the horses. They were munching on hay looking totally different than they do in the show ring, but still had a sparkle to them. It was the coolest party I have ever been to.

Learning the Ropes
During my first week at Gestuet Vorwerk while waiting for Wittus to arrive, I became familiar with the daily chores and routines. I was taught these routines from both Mareika Peckholz, Lisa's bereiter (a professional that has successfully completed a three-year course at the German federation's national school in Warendorf) , who competes on Regal Dancer and rides the young horses, and Ferdinand Krogmann, Lisa's professional groom who works with the younger stallions as well. At first, I was worried about getting in Ferdie's way at the shows, and I only jumped in and helped with the most obvious chores. After a few shows, I became better accustomed and more helpful. Ferdie no longer seemed annoyed with my help, and I grew closer to these members of the Vorwerk family and was finally able to relax.

I have learned a great number of "rules" from being at the shows and being on the farm. Number one: Do not walk around with your spurs on! This is represented as being very disrespectful and is looked upon with disgust. Another very important rule here at the farm (and in general in Germany) is to be on time for meals. At first, this rule was a problem for me as I had a difficult time organizing my day so that my chores and riding did not coincide with mealtime. Everyone from Gestuet Vorwerk is served a home-cooked meal in the main dining hall. The horses even get the lights turned off for their own after-lunch naps.

Another rule I found to be an unexpected surprise is that Saturday is the trail-riding day for the stallions. I had no idea that they would casually take these famous and valuable stallions on trail rides through the woods and in the countryside with tractors, trucks and cars speeding by on very narrow roads. These stallions, of course, have temperaments of old ponies, not minding the cars or the shrieking children carelessly passing by on their bikes. Saturdays are great fun for me as I get to ride one of these fabulous stallions on their trail rides!

By the time Wittus arrived, it was clear to me when to begin at the barn--usually 7:30 a.m. I knew what time each horse was ridden, which horse needed special bandages or saddles, and I prepared them for Lisa to ride. Wittus coped with the transport and new surroundings better than I thought he would. He enjoyed the green pastures and was extremely interested in the mares with their foals scampering around their legs. One time, as I was on Wittus walking to the riding hall, a foal was so curious about what I was doing on the back of a horse that he ran up behind Wittus. He followed us around until the mother called him back. I found this amusing, but Wittus was happier once we were rid of the extra shadow. I am excited with anticipation to see what Ms. Lisa and Mr. Hoyos think of Wittus and me. Although they have already seen me on video, it is totally different when you are actually in person.

Lessons from Lisa & Ernst
I have been getting lessons every day now with Wittus and it has been very different from what I had expected. It was no big adjustment to only school in a snaffle as preferred by Lisa because I generally did not work in the full bridle back at home. All this time riding Wittus, I did not realize how lazy he has been about working for me. He only shows half the gait he has, and he is not as "through" as he can be. I understand that we have a long way to go. We first have to make him sensitive to my leg. This is a very exciting and important step for me. Lisa told me that he must respect my leg so that it does not take hundreds of requests to get him through a movement. As it turns out, he is not a lazy horse at all and at times is on the verge of being hot. Lisa would like him to become sensitive to weight changes and the slightest movement of an aid because the less the rider does with her body the better it is for the horse. It took about one week to get him better from the aids, but I still must strive to have him more through and to have an honest connection - this I will work on each and every day.

My seat is being corrected during each lesson. Lisa is constantly telling me to relax my pelvis and let my weight sink into the saddle. Wittus must accept this weight on his back, yet I have to become flexible enough to allow the movement to flow through without blocking him. Using my stomach to steady my arms and legs, I must make certain that my neck is holding my head up while my hands are low and quiet near the front of the saddle. My thighs need to remain relaxed and not pinched. Distributing my weight in the seat and down through my heels, my stomach and hips should take the horse's movement. A daily correction from Mr. Hoyos is, "Look where you are going. Head up!" If you are looking down at the horse's neck, your head will fall forward causing that weight shift to allow your shoulders and upper body to fall forward. I was better able to tell what my horse was doing once I stopped concentrating on him with my eyes and learned to rely on feel. It is not so easy for me to break old habits, but my desire for a better understanding of the correct seat and its effect on training makes me persevere.

Lisa advised that it is not good for the horse to school test movements every day, but rather do exercises to strengthen the muscles and the lateral bend. Ultimately, the test movements will become easy once you have the exercises polished. A favorite exercise of mine helps to strengthen the hind end and achieve more lateral bend throughout the body. We begin on a 20-meter circle at a forward (not fast) working canter with a lot of jump and ground-covering expression. If I feel him begin to slack off, I increase the working canter to a medium or extended canter on the circle until I know he is honestly through and taking the weight on his hindquarters. I work in a shoulder-fore position and once he is balanced, I gradually spiral down to a small volte while maintaining this forward rhythm and shoulder-fore position. I continue to spiral down to a circle as small as possible, and ride a few strides of very collected canter. I understand the shoulder-fore positioning in this exercise helps his hind legs to step underneath his body. I slowly spiral out, increasing into a medium or extended canter until I get back to the 20-meter circle. This simple yet difficult exercise has helped all of his canter work greatly.

I had difficulty keeping him straight after a canter pirouette. He would try to gravitate back to the wall in a rather canter half-pass position. He used the wall to help find his balance after a pirouette, and would use this positioning to his advantage. I now mostly work the entire lesson on the second track of the arena so that we can practice and improve his balance without giving him assistance from the wall. An exercise we use to build his balance and make him more through for the pirouette is to ride them on the centerline, making certain he is absolutely straight and forward going towards A or C after the pirouette. I have to be careful not to collect him too much before the pirouette or I risk losing the engagement and power from behind, which has on occasion resulted in a walk pirouette instead.

Going to Aachen-the World's Premier Dressage Show
Lisa was preparing for Aachen, and I was excited that she obtained guest passes for me, my mom, Bent Jensen and John Zopatti, plus Lisette Milner and Gina Miller (American riders in Germany training with Ernst Hoyos). Before we left for the show, Bent and my mom were able to see me ride in a few lessons with Wittus, the Oldenburg stallion Revan (4-year-old full brother to Relevant), and the Hanoverian stallion Don Gregory (Donnerhall-Graphit). My visitors were very pleased with my riding, and commented on how much Wittus and I had changed in such a short period. Wittus would now enjoy a short vacation.

Aachen seemed more like a mini-World Equestrian Games with hundreds of fans from all over Europe. We first headed to the credentials office to receive our special photo passes. These passes would allow us into the warm-up area, a separate spectator section for the competitors and guests, and to the nightly parties held under the tents by the sponsors. I felt so special when Lisa took the time to smile and talk to my visitors and me while she was warming up. In the VIP section, my mother snapped some photos of me sitting next to famous riders I have always admired. Aachen was so unbelievably fun I will never forget it.

It is entirely different to watch riders compete in real life than on a video. You do not get the entire perspective from a two-dimensional video, nor can you feel the electricity and excitement in the air. Whether you are a horse person or not, everyone loves to watch the freestyles, so that final day the arena was filled with anticipation and excitement. I watched some good rides, saw some mistakes, and thought the choice of choreography was so interesting for each different horse. I observed that the horse's moods seemed to change over the course of the show. Some who had started out elastic and full of energy were quieter and more difficult to ride on the final day. Others who were so tense to begin with that it caused some mistakes seemed to relax and settle into beautiful movement by the end of the weekend.

The next pair to perform is Lisa Wilcox and Relevant! My nerves could not be contained in spite of my nail biting. I felt an odd sense of joy and excitement knowing that now I was part of their lives. I have ridden that horse standing there, and have taken lessons from the very person on his back poised at the entrance appearing so calm. Concentrating so hard, I felt like I rode every movement with them, knowing the possibility of a sudden spook or jump. They are in such harmony together and having watched them train every day makes me even more aware of the work and dedication it takes to make it to the top. When they finished, it seemed like the applause would never stop for this pair. I have many photographs from Aachen, but it is those once-in-a-lifetime images I will keep in my mind of precious happenings, such as a smile from Ms. Lisa or a wink from Mr. Hoyos.

I Compete at Two Shows
I have now competed in two shows in Germany. The first was in Alhorn, a small show to help prepare me for Rastede, which is the Oldenburg-area Championship show. I was relieved to be able to show a little before I return home and compete at Devon. I have to admit that I was nervous and did not know what to expect for this first show. I had no idea what I would wear because I had not come prepared with any show clothes. Luckily, I had met a nice American at Aachen, Gina Miller, who trains with Mr. Hoyos. Gina loaned me shirts and a tail coat, and Lisa gave me some Cavallo show breeches of hers as well as her cylinder (top hat) and short coat. I was prepared with my experience of grooming at Lisa's shows, so I was not worried about that routine.

In Alhorn, I rode the M-3 and M-5 tests which are similar to our Fourth Level tests. While you are riding your test, a speaker calls the movements over a microphone, but it is in German. Lisa had already helped me translate the movements from the test book beforehand and I was confident that I had the tests correctly memorized and consequently had no test errors. I wrote my teacher in Florida that I wish to substitute my Spanish classes with German classes when I return.

In Rastede, I concentrated more on improving my overall test appearance with better movements. At this show, I rode the PSG test. The most difficult aspect for me was negotiating my way through the warm-up area, which was packed with riders. I could not maintain good concentration while horses clipped our tails or cut us off, and found it difficult to keep Wittus relaxed. I have to keep my head up and learn to anticipate where other riders are going to make easy adjustments in my warm-up routine. Although I did not place in this big class, Lisa and Mr. Hoyos were pleased with my ride and made me feel more confident with their reassuring words and thoughts on my test.

Cindy Snowden, Lisa's friend and the person who arranges her clinics in America, had come for a visit and told me how wonderfully I had ridden that test. (Mrs. Snowden helped me prepare an outline for this article and assisted with the final editing). I was relieved that everyone thought I had a good ride and only had nice things to say. This is just one more part of my learning experience.

I Come to the End of My Idyll
It is the end of August and I will soon be leaving to return to the United States. My immediate plan is to compete at the 2003 USAE Junior Dressage Team Championships at Devon in September. I have been selected to "Team Liberty" and will have one week to prepare after Wittus is out of quarantine. I have many distant goals but right now, I wish to concentrate on finishing my junior year with the Championships. As I recently turned 17, I hope to qualify next year for the Young Rider Championships and ride for USDF Region 3 with my brother, Trae. If we both qualify, this may be the first brother and sister Young Rider team. I look forward to sharing what I have learned this summer with Trae, Bent, and my riding friends at home.

I am very excited to see my friends and family, but I also find it very hard to leave given the vast opportunities and knowledge here in Germany. The path this trip has laid before me allows me to see my future clearly. My confident attitude will guide me to fulfill my new goals and dreams. I have discovered that if you stick to your heart and remain dedicated, things you once would not imagine might just happen. This opportunity is one dream that came true for me.

I am thankful to have had people so willing to fill me with their knowledge and encourage my own improvement. I never expected the people I have met whose lives revolve around their love of horses to be so down to earth. I have experienced methods on training different from what I had learned previously. Ultimately, however, I know the goal for the horse and rider is universal. Versatility is a very important lesson I learned--you do not push or demand a horse to be what you wish, but shape them within their individual capabilities to bring out their best qualities.

Three months ago, I would never have imagined doing piaffe on Relevant, which will unlikely feel the same on another horse. Riding all of these stallions and learning to longe the young horses with proper techniques have completely changed my views and thoughts on my work. Listening to Mr. Hoyos train Ms. Wilcox and watching as she competed in Hickstead, Aachen and other horse shows makes me wonder if I will ever reach this level. What I do know is this--no matter how long it takes or how much of a struggle it is, I will work with all the dedication I have in my heart to be the best that I will be.

Saying Thank You
I wish to give thanks to Mr. Jochen Happ and Mrs. Gudula Vorwerk-Happ, the owners of Gestuet Vorwork, for welcoming me to the farm and into their lives. I thank Mr. Hoyos and Ms. Lisa for sharing their knowledge, time and training with me and making certain I was comfortable and happy. I cannot forget my family and trainer, whose support and encouragement gave me the courage to fill out the application. Finally, I must thank Ms. Lendon Gray and The Dutta Corporation for their assistance in helping to arrange this trip.

This opportunity has been more than I thought possible. I hope that next year's scholarship recipient will appreciate this as much as I have. I never imagined that I could learn so much in such a little time. I could not have wished for anything better.

Suzanne Laporte's article about her experience in Germany was first published in the February 2004 issue of Dressage Today magazine.