The 2015 USDF Trainers’ Conference

The world’s top dressage judge, Stephen Clarke, inspires trainers from around the United States.

Credit: Jennifer Bryant Annie Morris and Julia’s Magic, an 8-year-old Danish gelding owned by Denise Sarnoff, demonstrate the ideal underlying qualities that allow horses to develop through the levels.

FEI Dressage Judge General Stephen Clarke knows he has an educated audience of dressage fans at Mary Anne McPhail’s High Meadow Farm in Loxahatchee, Florida, January 19–20. In the winter sun, he asks his audience how many are trainers and how many are judges, and to set the stage, he explains that he wants riders to train as if each horse were, one day, going to be a Grand Prix horse. To that end, he tells us in advance how he proposes to work with his demonstration horses and riders. He says he wants prompt reactions, straightness and throughness from the beginning. Throughout the two days of this conference, he’s quick to notice when those qualities are missing and he’s quick with praise when they’re present.

Underlying Quality

Credit: Jennifer Bryant Stephen Clarke liked the contact and self-carriage of Sir Velo ridden by Noel Williams. The 8-year-old Westfalen gelding is owned by Melissa Mulchahey and trained by Bill Warren and Bill McMullen as well as Mette Rosencrantz and Noel’s father, George Williams.

The first horse, ridden by Annie Morris, owned by Denise Sarnoff and trained by me, helps Clarke demonstrate the ideal underlying qualities that allow horses to develop through the levels. Morris’s mount, Julia’s Magic (Cado) is an 8-year-old Danish gelding. “I like him straightaway,” Clarke says. “Annie’s on a winner before she even begins. This horse is beautiful and built to do the job.”

The quality of the gaits is key to Clarke. “This horse’s walk,” he says, “has four very clear beats with natural overtrack. The tempo [or speed of rhythm] is correct; that is, the horse doesn’t look lazy or tense.” Clarke reminds us that the walk is the telltale gait, which means that issues with the walk indicate that there’s a problem in the training—usually a lack of throughness. He notes that Cado’s walk would get high marks, and he quips, “I’m sorry, Annie, but if you don’t get high marks on the walk, you should be shot.” Of the working trot, he notes its absolute regularity with its clear moment of suspension, soft spring, correct tempo and slight overtrack. He notes that it’s common to see flashy front-leg activity with small or nonexistent overtrack. “The horse should be at least tracking up,” he says. He also praises Cado’s canter with its clear three beats and moment of suspension. 

Because of the horse’s throughness, Clarke notes that the horse will be able to develop more expression. He praises the contact, the frame and the totally natural outline of the horse along with the fact that he looks the same traveling in both directions. Clarke comments that it is hard to find such a fine example in any country in the world. “When I’m judging young horse classes, I always look at the horse and ask if I would want to spend five years of my life training him—if you’re very lucky, you can train a horse to Grand Prix in five years. If the answer to that question is yes,” he adds, “the scores will be very high. I’d kill to have this horse.”

In addition, Clarke praises Cado’s fine temperament and confidence. “He comes in here with the audience so close to the arena and he doesn’t say boo. So, we have a quality, correct, nicely balanced horse for his stage of training, and now it’s only a matter of developing that which is already correct. Where do we go now?”

It’s All about Reaction

Credit: Jennifer Bryant Shelly Francis rides Danilo, a 10-year-old Hanoverian owned by Patricia Stempel.

“Transitions, transitions, transitions,” Clarke says. “Transitions between and within the gaits. The rider must get a reaction when he asks for these transitions.” He explains that downward transitions teach the horse to take weight on the hind legs, and they must happen instantly. “In the warm-up arena at big competitions we don’t see competitors practicing movements,” he notes. “Rather, we see them doing walk–trot transitions and transitions within the paces to improve the horse’s reactions.”

Throughout the conference, Clarke warns riders against holding on with a backward contact in order to keep the balance. He comments that many people override to create an effect, so he often encourages riders to release the contact to prove that each horse is in self-carriage—not relying on the rein for support.

Claire McNulty, one of Lendon Gray’s Dressage4Kids riders, is aboard Reel Adventure, a 14-year-old Hanoverian by Rotspon, owned by Kristy Lund. McNulty rides the FEI Junior Individual test for Clarke, and she has a beautiful seat and position; however, it isn’t always enough to keep her horse in front of the leg. Clarke recommends that she not think of making a canter transition. Rather, he says, “Think of going from trot to gallop. Play with him. Pretend he’s a racehorse and make quick transitions.” Then Clarke recommends that McNulty do walk pirouettes and then transition immediately to gallop. The walk pirouette puts the horse in a good position to go. He reminds us that the horse’s reward is when the rider is still and relaxed. “Be a tiger when you don’t get a response,” he advises. “Then be a mouse when you get the reaction you want.”

Noel Williams rides the Grand Prix test with Sir Velo, an 8-year-old Westfalen gelding owned by Melissa Mulchahey. The pair is trained by Bill Warren and Bill McMullen as well as Mette Rosencrantz and Williams’s father, George Williams. She not only has a beautiful riding position, but her smile conveys the ease with which she rides. Clarke helps by encouraging her to persist with her aids. He wants the horse to give her a submissive feeling and stay in front of the leg. “He knows how to piaffe,” says Clarke. “Don’t back off. Stay there and relax. Make it good and make it on your terms.” Sir Velo rose to the occasion and Clarke was thrilled with the contact and the self-carriage of the horse.


Credit: Jennifer Bryant D’Re Stergios and Sarumba, her 7-year-old Hanoverian mare, traveled from California for the conference.

Clarke is relentless about the poll being the highest point of the horse’s frame, but he wants the audience to understand the reason behind the rule. “It’s not good enough to just say ‘it’s the rule,’” he says. “It’s related to whether or not the half halt goes through. Half halts go through to the hindquarters when the poll is the highest point.”

Lisa Pierson rides the FEI Intermediaire I test with Baryshnikov, a 14-year-old Hackney gelding. The horse is enthusiastic but has some contact issues in the test. Clarke is encouraging and sympathetic to Pierson’s problem. He compliments her on her seat and position and notes that she has no option when riding a test other than to keep on riding. But in order to fix the contact issue, the half halt has to go through, “so the poll has to be in the right place.

“The point of competition,” he says to the audience, “is to win it, and Lisa wants at least a 70 percent,” he says. “She is trying to half halt, but instead of the weight transferring to the hind legs, the horse gets short in the neck. If the poll is not the highest point, it’s impossible for the half halt to go to the hind leg.”

 Clarke often refers to the “point of contact,” which seems an exceptionally accurate description of what we normally think of as the location of the contact. It’s a term that most in the audience haven’t heard. Clarke proceeds to work with Pierson to help improve her horse’s point of contact and make the poll the highest point. He directs Pierson onto a 20-meter circle and asks her to insist on the poll being up. He advises that she keep a relaxed, forward contact without holding the horse. “Then you have to make some decisions. The half halt must work and if it doesn’t, your next stride should be a transition.” They do walk–trot transitions and the horse is hot. Clarke coaches her through it masterfully. “You refuse to hold him back,” he says, “and if he runs away, you go to walk.” In time, her horse reaches more honestly to the bit, the “brakes” start to work and the contact issues resolve significantly. 


Credit: Jennifer Bryant Jennifer Baumert rides the Developing Horse Prix St. Georges test on her 8-year-old Danish gelding, Ramiro. The Developing Horse test is a national test, which Clarke had never seen and found interesting.

Shelly Francis rides the Grand Prix test with Danilo, a 10-year-old old Hanoverian by DeNiro, owned by Patricia Stempel. They demonstrate “railroad-track straightness,” and Clarke gives Francis a 9 for a rider score. He advises her on the piaffe and passage, suggesting that she “make an early transition to a piaffe that moves a bit forward, then do a few steps on the spot and then go forward and out.”

 Christina Vinios rides her own Donna Carina 6, a 9-year-old Oldenburg mare by Don Primero, and demonstrates leg yield. “I wouldn’t dream of doing any lateral movement with bend until I could do leg yield well,” says Clarke. He doesn’t want any bend—just slight flexion away from the direction of travel. Vinios begins by going straight on the diagonal line, then she develops leg yield by bringing the shoulders either right or left to make the horse straight and parallel to the long side.

D’Re Stergios rides Sarumba, her 7-year-old Hanoverian mare by Sir Donnerhall I. She and her horse have come all the way from Petaluma, California, to be demonstrators at the USDF Trainers’ Conference. As a student of Lilo Fore, Stergios demonstrates exceptional skill on her mare. In the shoulder-in, the horse demonstrates tremendous freedom in the shoulders, and the gaits are lofty and cadenced. “Let’s have a little play,” says Clarke, and he pretends to “auction off” the gaits. Most agree to give the medium walk an 8 and the extended walk a 9.

Jennifer Baumert rides the Developing Horse Prix St. Georges test on her own 8-year-old Danish gelding, Ramiro, who is by Don Romantic. The Developing Horse test is a national test, which Clarke has never seen, so he finds it interesting. He helps Baumert and Ramiro by explaining how he trains the challenging counter change of hand (beginner zig-zag) that is in the test. It’s a place where horses often lose balance and straightness. He asks them, from M, to do right half pass to the quarterline, then shoulder-in left until it is well established and then do half pass left (see diagram 1 on p. 33). The audience can see that Baumert avoids the common problem of anticipation, which would cause her horse to lose the bend, balance and straightness in the second direction. “In competition,” Clarke adds, “you do an invisible shoulder-in and the horse will know to stay balanced and straight.”

Baumert demonstrates the same exercise in canter with shoulder-fore instead of shoulder-in on the quarterline. “When you’re satisfied with the balance,” explains Clarke, “the flying change is the first stride of the new half pass.” Later Clarke asks them to demonstrate a favorite exercise of his for developing engagement. They do a serpentine in canter with half pirouettes on the centerline (see diagram 2). They do the exercises completely in left lead canter and then in right lead canter.

This 2015 USDF Trainers’ Conference was an exceptional success. Clarke not only brought his knowledge and experience to the table, but he brought the kindness and sense of humor that he’s known for. 

Stephen Clarke’s Goals for Each Horse


The foundation for the Grand Prix is started when the horse is very young. If you want to have a Grand Prix horse that does prompt transitions to piaffe, he must react to the aids promptly in simple transitions such as walk-trot-walk from the time that he is 4 years old.


The horse is “through” when the energy from his hind legs goes over the back into a soft, elastic connection point and the rider is able to stretch the horse without limit. Rising to the trot and stretching in the warm up encourages the horse’s back to swing, and it invites greater throughness.


Every horse is stiff on one side and hollow on the other. It’s our job to make that fact invisible through systematic training. The rider should give the impression that the horse is absolutely straight. If the rider doesn’t sit straight, the horse can’t be straight.






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