Teaching Young Dressage Riders

A German-born trainer cultivates young dressage riders in the heart of Texas.

Credit: Courtesy, Jennifer Stephens Emma Claire Stephens rides Persona Grata, an 18-year-old Dutch Warmblood, in a clinic with Lisa Wilcox. The 10-year-old dressage student recently earned her USDF bronze-medal scores.

As she was formulating a successful training system for the young riders, German-born and-educated head trainer and barn manager Yvonne Kusserow, of Rocking M Stables (RMS) in Dallas, Texas, noticed the need for them to gain an understanding of dressage so they can grow to thrive in the sport.

With more than 80 students, the youngest of which are around 6 years old, Kusserow has based her training system on Germany’s four distinct techniques: a solid, safety-oriented foundation of classical horsemanship; a systematic structure that follows the horse’s biomechanics along with the dressage levels; an understanding and respect for a horse’s thinking while conducting exercises; and, last but not least, the Training Scale of rhythm, relaxation, contact, impulsion, straightness and collection. 

“We replicate the German standards within our program by taking fundamental tests that coincide with the USDF/USEF test levels. Once I understood the American dressage levels and rules in 2008, I knew how to create our own achievement tests to help a rider be confident and prepared for the proper level,” Kusserow says.

Similar to a school year, the training period at RMS starts in August and ends in May of each year. “At the end of April, the kids perform an achievement test which we call ‘Level Testing’ or ‘Achievement Testing’ and they get a certificate,” says Kusserow. “This indicates the student’s proficiency at her level, which is then discussed with the rider and her parents. It’s a really good approach because it helps the parents have a better understanding of dressage while building confidence and knowledge in the student.”

The training sessions have been designed to accommodate a beginner in preparation to become an advanced rider, offering group lessons for young students on horses available at the stables. Each level involves dressage, cavalletti work and a hint of jumping. There are five training stages, each with a specific set of goals, that include focusing on horsemanship, as the kids also learn about stable and riding management.

Credit: Courtesy, Yvonne Kusserow Yvonne Kusserow gives Allison Hopkins and her 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood, Windsor, thumbs up after the rider and her teammates received the 2015 NAJYRC Junior team bronze for Region 9.

Kusserow has unique connections to the State Equestrian College in Vechta, Germany, where she completed the two-year apprenticeship, becoming an FN Bereiter. After completing the vocational requirements, she was accepted to the German Masters program in Warendorf and graduated in 2011 as a Pferdewirtschaftsmeisterin

Each year, Kusserow and a few students travel to Vechta to participate in a Performance Medal course. “The students participate in a two-week clinic with two riding lessons and one theory lesson per day to prepare for the final tests, where they are evaluated in dressage, jumping and theory,” explains Kusserow. “After passing the final tests—so far we have not had anyone from RMS not pass—the participants get a medal in that level to put on their riding coat or just to keep as a memory and a certificate. It is always a great experience for our American students to see how the process works in Germany. It is a fun experience for all.”

Kusserow has a wonderful assistant and main trainer for the lesson program in Allison Stai, who works with the younger kids and helps handle the thriving group, in turn allowing Kusserow to oversee the testing as the program director. Kusserow works with the older kids as they climb the levels. “We have students who own their own horses and ride in First Level, on up.” Many have graduated from the program and are doing really well at the upper levels under Kusserow’s instruction. “It is true, we teach many students at Introductory Level, but it should be noted that our program provides a foundation for riders to continue in equestrian sport throughout their lives. Over the years we have had many students who ride at and win many regional and national championships.”

Kusserow’s program and facility offer opportunities to the community that would not otherwise be available. “Because the students live in regular neighborhoods and can’t keep their horses in their backyards, they need a fun program for riding horses. Here at RMS, we’ve created a set of principles and procedures so that young riders truly learn how to perform knowledgeably and confidently.”

This successful system highlights Kusserow’s skill for incorporating fun into the learning process. “We require the beginning riders who have never shown to come and participate in a scavenger hunt during two local competitions where the older students compete. It’s important not only to get the kids out there but also to inform their parents, to make them aware of the world out there.” She continues, “If the audience doesn’t understand what they are looking at, dressage can be boring. By educating the family of the riders, they are more likely to understand and share the love for the horse and sport and support their young rider, which is so important.”

The scavenger hunt creatively introduces a variety of aspects of competitive dressage. For instance, students must determine which judge is judging Third Level, Test 3, requiring them to learn about the scoreboard and scoring. There are many tidbits to hunt for. They leave the show more equipped, inspired and further ready to compete effectively.

Clinician, top rider and instructor Lisa Wilcox, winner of more than 600 competition ribbons, including a silver medal at the FEI World Equestrian Games and a bronze medal in the 2004 Summer Olympics, recently gave a clinic at RMS. “I’m so impressed,” says Wilcox. “The kids have fun here while learning. Yvonne knows how to ignite their enthusiasm in a way I haven’t seen before. She understands how their minds work and teaches them to try. The door is open to try. She excels at fueling their confidence until they succeed. She nurtures their imagination in such a natural way. I never have an opportunity to teach kids. Usually, I teach only adults. I was floored by this program.”

RMS prides itself on living up to its motto—“have fun and be safe!” 






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