Dressage enthusiasts wrapped in stadium blankets, clutching hot drinks and notebooks looked on as Germany’s two-time Olympian Dorothee Schneider and her selected horse-and-rider combinations brought the time-tested training system of her homeland to life before their eyes.
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Schneider was the latest headliner to make the trek overseas to share her wisdom with this eager, engaged audience at the annual New England Dressage Association symposium. Past events have set a high bar, spotlighting clinicians such as Great Britain’s Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin and Finland’s Kyra Kyrklund. This year at Mount Holyoke Equestrian Center in South Hadley, Massachusetts, was no exception.
Schneider opened the event, held in October as the region’s foliage bursted with the amber and crimson hues of autumn, by giving an overview of her approach to training. While knowledgeable dressage fans quickly realized that there was—not coincidentally—a strong emphasis on the elements of the Training Scale, Schneider also emphasized that you, as the rider, must have the feeling for the individual horse you sit on. In her training, she focuses on creating happy horses who are willing partners and confident in their jobs. Part of this, she reminded auditors, is providing them with plenty of reassurance and reward in the arena. Outside of the arena, you must allow them to live a lifestyle that promotes their wellbeing. Horses need to go out in the field and paddock every day, to spend time in the sun and move on their own, she said. Following are more tips from Schneider that are applicable for horses and riders of all levels.
1. Make your horse feel proud of his work. “Give your horse positive feedback so he can be motivated to do the next step, feeling proud of himself and like he is doing something well—so he feels happy to do this with us,” Schneider reminded the riders.
She frequently encouraged them to pat their horses to reassure them and “stabilize the mental situation.” This applied to young horses who were balking at the audience and, alternatively, more experienced horses who were overmotivated and needed to be calmed. For example, Alice Tarjan’s Third Level mare, Hester, showed sensational movement and significant talent for piaffe and passage, which she offered even at moments when it wasn’t necessarily desired. “Alice’s horse is spectacular, but she needs calmness to be more with her rider,” Schneider explained.
2. Utilize the second track. The second track is to the inside of the path along the rail. Riding on it gives you a feel of how balanced the horse is between both of your reins and both of your legs as the rider. This helps you manage his straightness.
3. Be aware of your horse’s strong and hollow sides and train accordingly. “Every horse has one hollow and one stronger side, and we have to manage this certainty in our own riding and training,” Schneider said. This is natural and inevitable. Riding on the second track also helps you be more aware of this. The strong side is the side on which the horse has more difficulty bending and flexing his own body. On the opposite is the hollow side, where the horse bends and flexes by himself (natural crookedness) to the inside—therefore it’s more difficult to turn the horse because you easily lose control of the outside shoulder.
4. Remember to feel the rhythm. Every horse has a particular rhythm in which it is easiest for them to swing in the gaits and find the contact to both reins. It is your job as the rider to find the best rhythm for your horse, so he is able to use his back.“Feel the rhythm and support it with your pelvis and your hips,” Schneider coached Vincent Flores aboard the gray Danish mare Southern Belle SWF, reminding him to maintain a defined three-beat rhythm in the canter. Often when discussing rhythm, Schneider used the phrase “take a seat,” advising riders to stretch in their bodies, open the knees and sit into their horses. Doing this helped riders communicate the desired rhythm more clearly to their horses.
5. Focus on the hind leg. Throughout the clinic, Schneider emphasized many of the fundamental concepts of correct dressage—not the least of which was riding the horse from active hind legs, over and through the back, reaching to the bit. She included several reminders to focus on the hind legs in different ways. For example, when a horse and rider transitioned from walk into trot, she said that the impulsion of the first step of trot comes from his hind leg. Also, in posting trot, imagine that you take your horse’s inside hind leg with you as you go upward and forward in the rising moment. Later in the horse’s development, controlling his hind legs on the line of travel is one of the important factors of a good quality flying change.
6. Incorporate (outside) shoulder-in. In every session, Schneider instructed riders to utilize shoulder-in. This tool helps to stabilize the horse’s inside hind leg underneath the body and also makes riders drive with their inside legs to the outside contact for better connection. Shoulder-in is about getting the horse to bend throughout his body, not just in his neck. “Riding shoulder-in does not mean riding with too much flexion. It means moving the outside shoulder in front of the inside hind leg,” she explained. During Katie Robicheaux’s Fourth Level demo ride aboard Grandioso, Schneider used shoulder-in to help Robicheaux prepare for half passes by confirming correct bend. “Bend your horse around your inside leg. The best preparation for the half pass is in shoulder-in.”
7. Encourage your horse to reach to the bit with an open neck and throatlatch. Schneider incorporated periods of stretching at every gait in every session. It helps to promote relaxation but also improves the horse’s balance. This stretching work was important for all horses, but it was especially helpful for horses who ducked behind the contact or were tense. “Your horse must be going to the bit with an open neck,” she said. Later she added, “Show them the way in the stretching, but not without contact.” If you find that your horse comes behind the bit, take your hand down and forward as you activate the hind leg (providing motivation) to stabilize the contact over the back to the bit. You need to keep an even feel on both sides of the mouth, and your horse needs to stretch evenly into both hands. Avoid crossing your hands over your horse’s withers.
8. Ride forward to your hands. “When you need more contact with your horse’s mouth, don’t take your hands higher,” Schneider explained. You can raise them for a moment if you need your horse to come higher in the poll but only in combination with driving from the hind leg to the bit via a correct seat. Afterward directly take your hands down and in front of the saddle. You can always make your reins shorter, but as you do, remember to keep your hands in front of the saddle. Think about riding your horse longer in the neck to the bit but shorter in the area behind the saddle.
9. Play with your wrist for more freedom in the horse’s mouth. You can use your wrist to vibrate your hand, which will help create movement in the horse’s mouth and poll, making him lighter in the contact. This is especially helpful if you have a horse who gets strong. Don’t use your whole arm because it will be too severe.
Germany’s Dorothee Schneider is a two-time Olympian with more than 400 FEI-level victories. Schneider was born into the equestrian world, as her father Hans-Eberhard Schneider was a Trakehner breeder, stallion owner and Grand Prix judge. In addition to her father, her mentors include Holger Schmezer, Michael Rasch, Hans Riegler, Jonny Hilberath and Monica Theodorescu. Originally, Schneider had thought of becoming a veterinarian and riding part-time, but instead she diverted from the plan to become a professional rider. She remained on her family farm and then studied finance, working as a bank clerk to develop a sense for business. In 2002, she established herself at her own farm, Stud St. Stephan, southwest of Frankfurt. Schneider did not have access to abundant financial resources, so she climbed the ranks of dressage by turning young horses into Grand Prix mounts, earning herself the nickname of “Championmaker.” Today, Schneider’s facility has 50 stalls, and she currently rides 10–12 horses per day, from young horses through the Grand Prix level. She claimed medals at the 2012 London Olympics and the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics and earned the team gold medal at the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina. At the 2019 European Championships, she won team gold and individual silver in the Special as well as the Freestyle and became the sixth rider in history to score above a 90 percent, taking 90.561 percent in the Freestyle. She was also recently awarded the prestigious title of Reitmeisterin (riding master) by the German Federation and is the 35th rider—and third female—in history to receive this honor.