By Laurie Bauchman
There are few dressage fans in the world that were not moved by the incredible winning performance at the World Equestrian Games by rider Edward Gal and Totilas, the magnificent black stallion.Together, they have made history by breaking world records in international dressage competition, including three gold medals at the WEG's.Edward arrived in Lexington, Kentucky a week prior to the competition, where he and Totilas were expected be unbeatable (sadly, it was there last performance ever, as Totilas was sold shortly afterwards).I had the incredible good fortune to be given the opportunity to ride in a clinic with Edward at Gayla Driving Center on Saturday, September 18th.
My excitement about this particular clinic was really off the charts, a feeling that was shared by everyone involved, including the organizers (Team Engaged), their sponsors , and one hundred auditors.We had all followed Edward and Totilas' success in Europe and with their record-breaking scores of greater than 90% in international competition.Videos of their amazing performances had been seen by all, and we could not wait for the opportunity to watch Edward train.Aside from the obvious talent that the pair was born with, I hoped to find out what other variables had helped to make Edward and Totilas the best in the world.
My friend and trainer, Becky Blikslager, was also riding in the clinic and we made the ten hour journey from North Carolina together.On Saturday, the morning of the clinic, Edward and his business partner, Nicole Werner, were brought down to the stables to meet us all.It was difficult not to be starstruck during the introductions!Edward was bright and friendly, showing no signs of jet lag from the long flight from Holland the day before.Shortly afterwards, I joined the other riders at a special table reserved for us so that I could watch the first two lessons. This included Becky's ride, which went really well and I was glad for the chance to see what Edward's teaching style was like.
At noon, all of the riders joined Edward and Nicole on the patio for a private lunch.This gave all of us a chance to ask some questions about their horses and training methods.I learned that Edward had not started riding until age 14, where he had a weekly lesson at the local riding school on a pony.Edward was 22 and studying at a university when he decided to leave to seriously pursue his riding career.He and Nicole, who serves as his "eyes on the ground", have been working together for 15 years.My horse William, is by the stallion Gribaldi, who also sired Totilas and whom Edward competed throughout his career.I asked Edward about his experiences with training Gribaldi's.He commented that they were smart and sensitive, that you had to be careful not to give too big a correction.Edward does not often ride with a whip, since he cannot use one when he competes internationally.
When it was time for my lesson, Edward and I spoke briefly about what I hoped to work on, which included flying changes and extended trot.We started our warm-up in a forward rising trot and canter with a longer rein (but with contact).Edward immediately told me to ride more forward.There were lots of changes in length of stride, mostly on straight lines as too many circles early on made the horse lose the forward tendency.When William stiffened, Edward said, "lower the neck, relax your hand, then forward".William moved over his topline with increased suppleness.Edward had a very definite idea of what he wanted to see with respect to the tempo and gait quality.He asked for it in a way that seemed easy for the horse, such as, "let him drop the neck a little more" and "let him canter", when he wanted more activity.
William warmed up nicely, so Edward asked me to shorten my reins to put him together a little more.When my horse stiffened, he said "make him a little more round, then relax your hand".Once I had a quality canter and a better connection, we began to address the straightness.I rode shoulder-fore to correct the haunches that were coming slightly to the inside.During any corrections, Edward's first concern was preserving the gait quality.The gait was not to change as a result of any adjustments I made.The horse must keep thinking "forward" and was not to stop or slow down just because I shortened the reins, made a turn, asked for lateral positioning, or approached a corner.In all of these situations he said, "Don't let him come back on his own.Keep it active."
Transitions were also ridden in a forward manner.Edward wanted to see an obvious jump into the walk-canter departs.Next, we collected the canter by riding forward and back on a circle.When Edward said "forward", he wanted an immediate reaction and to see a clear difference.We then started work in the counter-canter as preparation for the changes.Again, I was to keep the activity while lengthening and shortening the stride.Edward then asked me to change the flexion to the inside while holding the counter-canter. A few times, William threw in a flying change on his own."Doesn't matter.Just do it again", Edward said calmly.In order to improve the changes, he said that William had to learn to wait through the preparation while maintaining the activity of the canter."Collected canter has nothing to do with a slow canter", he said.
Edward then asked for a transition into trot, "Let him drop out of the canter, then forward".Because we had been paying such close attention to the gait quality through the ride, the medium trot was rhythmic and balanced.After our first extended trot Edward said, "He can do more".We repeated it first on the long side and then across the diagonal; William lengthened his frame and steps quite easily.I was then told "let him come back, relax your hands" in the transitions back to collected trot.We finished with a little shoulder-in.I was asked to ride it with greater bend and angle than is needed in the test.Edward warned me that William was again losing gait quality, during the first few steps of shoulder-in and that I needed to keep the tempo and activity into the lateral work.
The clinic was truly a once in a lifetime experience and I felt that William did some of his best work ever.What I learned was Edward's precision with the training clearly had much to do with his and Totilas' success.We watched the coverage of the WEG's the following week and were not surprised at all to see that the pair dominated the competition.Just this week, the news broke about the sale of Totilas to Germany and with sadness, I find myself thinking of Edward and how hard it must be to lose his partner.I don't expect to ever see another pair like them in my lifetime.Somehow though, I have a feeling we will see Edward's name at the top of the scoreboard again.