Young Dressage Riders Build a Strong Foundation

Olympian Lendon Gray’s Winter Intensive Training Program improves the dressage training of horses
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Credit: Betsy LaBelle Hannah Corjulo takes instruction from Lendon Gray.

Credit: Betsy LaBelle Hannah Corjulo takes instruction from Lendon Gray.

Sixteen riders under the age of 21 traveled to Wellington, Florida, for Lendon Gray’s Winter Intensive Training (WIT) Program to improve the dressage training of their horses. From January 3 to March 28, Lendon, along with several international riders who gave impromptu clinics, helped these Young Riders develop their skills. They improved their horse’s gaits while learning exercises to connect, correct, balance and align specific movements in their dressage test level. Three of the attendees, Molly Maloney, Katelyn Kok and Hannah Corjulo, each share one of their riding challenges and what they learned from their three months of dressage-intensive training. 

Developing Canter Pirouettes

Credit: Betsy LaBelle Program participants support each other at a dressage show.

Credit: Betsy LaBelle Program participants support each other at a dressage show.

Molly Maloney, 21, from Dover Plains, New York, explains the process she learned to strengthen her 9-year-old Oldenburg gelding, Flyboy, for the canter pirouette: 

“This past winter, I was honored to participate in Lendon Gray’s Winter Intensive Training program. One of the major things I needed help with were my canter pirouettes. During my season in Wellington I got the chance to work on my pirouettes with the help of a variety of different exercises. 

“Lendon taught me that to perform a canter pirouette, you and your horse must be able to canter in place, which is called a pirouette canter. This requires a high degree of collection and balance. The quality of this canter will establish the quality of the pirouette. The goal is to get three to four good canter steps that are almost in place but continue to be active from behind. 

“The next requirement to setting up the pirouette is having full control of the horse’s body. I started by asking Flyboy to do haunches-in at the canter down the long side. Once he could achieve this in both directions, I then asked him to maintain it around the corners. This was initially difficult for him, as he would get short behind in the canter or try to run right through my aids. This process took patience.

“Once we achieved success, I moved to haunches-in on a 20-meter circle. At this point Flyboy had a basic understanding of what I was asking. Therefore, I started to do haunches-in on a smaller circle. Lendon encouraged me to do the first two steps very small and then increase the circle diameter for a few steps, giving him a short break. Pirouettes are hard work for the horse, so a lot of short breaks after each successful execution encourages him. It is important for the horse to know that he can do it. 

“One of the great exercises I did with clinician Juan Manuel Munoz Diaz was haunches-in at the canter on a 6- to 8-meter circle, then a down transition to walk, keeping the haunches-in. Once we transitioned into walk, I asked for a few steps of walk pirouette, then we went back into canter. This is a fabulous strength-building exercise. Once Flyboy and I could execute these exercises with ease, it was time to start making some smaller schooling pirouettes.

“I found that one of the hardest things about a canter pirouette is that it is such a balancing act. I was always scared that Flyboy was going to stop in the pirouette because in the beginning, he would. I wanted the pirouettes so badly that when he would get stuck I would just let him, thinking this must be what it is supposed to feel like. Once I realized that this was wrong, I would overdrive him in the pirouette, making it into a beautiful cow-pony spin.

“Another bad thing I did when I set up for the movement was twist my body like a pretzel, all hunched over and crooked. It took a lot of repetition for me to sit up straight and learn the balance of my seat and leg within the movement. 

“Preparation is a large part of a well-executed pirouette. When you turn on the diagonal to do the movement, you want to get a good pirouette canter a few strides out, maybe push the haunches a little to the inside, sit heavy on your inside seat bone and sit up confidently. Also make sure not to over-drive the horse in the turn. Let him do the work. After all, you are about to make a 1,200-pound animal sit on his haunches and slowly spin in a small circle with grace and elegance. 

“Pirouettes are all about feel. It takes a lot of different elements from horse and rider, such as repetition, patience and fitness, and a good set of eyes on the ground to achieve a canter pirouette.

“Since I left Florida, my canter pirouettes have greatly improved, but this did not happen overnight. It has taken me eight months to be able to say with confidence that I can do them. 

“My pirouettes are starting to become more expressive, and they are a lot of fun. I was very lucky to be able to work on this and many other good skills while in Florida. A huge thanks to Lendon Gray and all the trainers for helping me make this possible.”

Improving Forward

Credit: Betsy LaBelle The participants with founder Lendon Gray (fourth from left) visit U.S. rider Catherine Haddad Staller (sixth from right).

Credit: Betsy LaBelle The participants with founder Lendon Gray (fourth from left) visit U.S. rider Catherine Haddad Staller (sixth from right).

Katelyn (Katie) Victoria Kok, 20, from Norton, New Hampshire, worked on forward motion with Morgan Enshoj.

“Forward isn’t just an ingredient to correct training; it is a product. Forward does not just refer to the horse’s speed. Rather, it refers more to the strength and tempo with which a horse moves and the power behind each stride that lifts the shoulders while maintaining engagement, balance and throughness. Forward can be ground-covering with a long stride, as in an extended trot, or it can be contained and on the spot as we see in piaffe. So, because “forward” is a broad term that can present itself in many ways, it can be a struggle to know when you have it or not. 

“A horse that is forward feels ready, eager to take the next step and answer an aid. The energy of the horse’s movement flows in a productive manner and the horse is responsive to the rider’s aids. This is the difference between correctly forward and incorrectly running. 

“Another difference is that when a horse is forward, he is reaching up with his shoulders, under with his hind legs and to fill the contact. A running horse tends to snowball, meaning that when he goes faster, the energy starts to push his shoulders down, his hind legs out behind and his head above the contact.

“Not all horses are created equal, and some welcome the idea of being forward, while others would rather talk about it later. For horses that are less athletic, born to be couch potatoes or not as quick on their feet, you have to build up their interest and educate them on how to be forward. This can be done, but there are a few requirements for the horse. Basic obedience and response to the rider’s aids are the first requirement. Does the horse yield to leg pressure and stop and go when asked or do you have to give an aid three times before he responds? It is important to have the horse respond quickly to the basic aids like hands, legs, voice, etc. 

“Another requirement is that the horse have the correct balance for his skill and fitness level. Riding in the correct balance will help the rider get a useful forward energy rather than a running-forward motion that makes the horse strung out. 

Credit: Betsy LaBelle Molly Maloney and Flyboy work with clinician Juan Manuel Munoz Diaz as part of the winter program.

Credit: Betsy LaBelle Molly Maloney and Flyboy work with clinician Juan Manuel Munoz Diaz as part of the winter program.

“The last requirement is a correct reaction to half halts. This ensures that the horse sets his weight back and onto his hind legs rather than just slows his tempo. Each half halt should affect the horse’s balance and weight distribution; having a correct and effective half halt will put the horse in a position where he can move freely forward and not lose engagement, throughness and balance. 

“Once you have these basic requirements down, what is next? Focus on exercises that will help your horse steady his balance, engage his hind legs and lift his shoulders. Mind your own body position, making sure you are even on both sides of your horse and not leaning back. Stabilize yourself with your core, and allow the forward motion of your horse through your seat and hands. 

“Transitions between gaits and within gaits help the horse shift his weight backward onto the hind end and will increase his obedience and quickness to the aids. Quick trot–halt–trot transitions can help. Picture a halt that contains enough energy to lift the horse straight into a powerful trot, not a halt that stops the energy and pulls him down into the halt. 

“Leg yielding is a great way to make the hind legs step under and lift the core of the horse. Shoulder-in can help create freedom and control the shoulders. When asking a horse to move forward, it is important to think of the request as an aid. You ask, he answers. Do not keep asking or nagging. Instead, correct the horse immediately, then relax your leg and allow with your hands and seat. 

“As always, work within your horse’s limits. If he is not so fit, ride for a short but productive amount of time in the dressage ring, then go out and build his cardio fitness in other ways. Make sure your training sessions are fair and build the horse’s understanding to the new forward concept. Do not forget to have fun and smile! Happy riding!”

Credit: Betsy LaBelle Hannah Corjulo and Sarah Roda at Hampton Green Farm in Wellington, Florida.

Credit: Betsy LaBelle Hannah Corjulo and Sarah Roda at Hampton Green Farm in Wellington, Florida.

Understanding Uphill Balance

Hannah Corjulo, 18, from Kingston, New York, discusses uphill balance with her 22-year-old Westphalian, Essex.

“Riding a horse uphill is the end goal of all dressage riders. Lower-level tests require a horse to carry his weight in horizontal balance. This means that he distributes his weight evenly on all four of his legs. In advanced tests, the horse’s weight is carried more on his hindquarters, giving the appearance that he is moving uphill. This may seem like an easy concept, but, in fact, it can take a rider–horse combination many years to achieve.

“The rider’s position and seat must be in proper alignment and balance before she can ask anything of the horse. The energy of motion should be able to pass from the horse’s hindquarters through the rider’s flexible seat and giving hands to reach the bit without interruption. 

“Contact is extremely important for getting the horse to remain uphill. With your legs, push impulsion into him. This impulsion will stay if it is caught by a hand that follows the natural motion of the horse. 

Credit: Betsy LaBelle Hannah Corjulo and Sarah Roda at Hampton Green Farm in Wellington, Florida.

Credit: Betsy LaBelle Hannah Corjulo and Sarah Roda at Hampton Green Farm in Wellington, Florida.

“To help the horse understand correct balance, use exercises that naturally put him in an uphill balance (transitions, 10-meter circles, etc.). In addition, use exercises that include ways to establish or reinforce the half halt.

“One obvious mistake riders often make when trying to ride an uphill balance is lifting the horse’s head with the hands. The horse’s head might be higher, but the forehand won’t rise.

“Another disruption to the uphill balance is the loss of going forward. This point hits close to home for me. I ride a 22-year-old horse who has seen many different riders and he is set in his ways. Taking him to Florida for the Winter Intensive Training Program gave me a chance to use a different set of eyes and a different approach with him, and, as a result, we were no longer miscommunicating. My riding improved when I finally understood and could feel the uphill balance.” 

Thoughts from the Founder

By Lendon Gray

The Winter Intensive Training Program turned out to be the most amazing experience I have had. The group of riders spanned age 13 to 21, from pre-Training Level to Grand Prix. Their mounts were everything from a Quarter Horse to highly trained warmbloods and PREs. I was so inspired by this group’s enthusiasm, dedication and camaraderie. We were all amazed at the generosity of the various professionals who shared their knowledge with us. And, of course, none of this would have been possible without the generous support of Kim Boyer and Hampton Green Farm. So I am “giving up” three more snowy months to work with another group coming this winter. To learn more about future programs, visit dressage4kids.org.

Credit: Betsy LaBelle Katelyn (Katie) Victoria Kok and Morgan Enshoj put their training to use as they compete in Florida.

Credit: Betsy LaBelle Katelyn (Katie) Victoria Kok and Morgan Enshoj put their training to use as they compete in Florida.

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