My Amazing Experience at the 2017 Courtney King-Dye Horsemastership Clinic

Youth rider Sophia Chavonelle takes us inside this unique opportunity presented by Dressage4Kids, Inc.
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Youth rider Sophia Chavonelle takes us inside this unique opportunity presented by Dressage4Kids, Inc.
Sophia Chavonelle and W Spotlight, a 2008 Westfalen gelding by Sir Donnerhall

Sophia Chavonelle and W Spotlight, a 2008 Westfalen gelding by Sir Donnerhall

Sophia Chavonelle is a seventeen-year-old rider from Maine who has been in love with horses her entire life. Sophia joined the family of Vienna Farm in 2011, where she began her journey in dressage. She became hooked on competitive dressage after scoring an 82 percent at her very first show, at the Introductory Level, with her leased mare, Pippin. Since then, Sophia has had the privilege of riding several horses of all levels in clinics and shows around New England. Under the tutelage of Tanya Rennie, Sophia and Tanya’s horse DeJure competed from Training Level through Third Level in an amazing three years, with scores as high as 73 percent. The duo earned high placings at each level for their Region’s Championships and Year End awards. In 2016, Sophia earned the prestigious USDF Youth Volunteer of the Year award for her “dedication to dressage and the ability to be a positive role model for other youth, through exceptional volunteerism.” In the same year, Sophia met her first owned horse, W Spotlight, a 2008 Westfalen gelding by Sir Donnerhall. The pair immediately began training at the FEI Junior level. For the upcoming year, Sophia and Spotlight hope to compete at the North American Junior/Young Rider Championships, as well as pursue more international goals in the future.

The Courtney King-Dye Horsemastership Clinic is a yearly clinic hosted by Lendon Gray’s Dressage4Kids, Inc. About one dozen of the most promising and dedicated riders from around the country are chosen from the program’s TEAM (Training, Education, and Mentoring) clinics. The week-long clinic provides a wealth of information for the riders, from intensive fitness routines, lessons from top coaches, and exclusive field trips, lectures and demonstrations. All riders are expected to take complete care of their own horses, as well as hold themselves to a high standard at all times. The week brings out the best in riders and shows them the way to the top of our sport.

Day One: Arrival

To split up the painful 12-hour journey from Maine to Maryland, we made an agreement with fellow rider Emma Szegvari that we would bring her and her horse to the clinic if we could stay the night with her in Massachusetts. I think this was a great idea: it allowed us to leave later Saturday afternoon, give Spotlight a break from the trailer, and arrive earlier at the clinic. Plus, I made a great new friend.

We finally arrived at Riveredge, LLC in Chesapeake City, Maryland, at about 2:00 pm. I will never forget rolling down their driveway for the first time. Two dogs sitting atop brick columns greeted us as the black gates swung open. A row of arrow-straight oaks in circular plots of mulch lined the driveway. On either side of us were miles of black, wooden fencing bordering acres upon acres of pasture. I am sure I have drooled over this driveway on Pinterest at one point or another!

We unloaded our horses and walked them to their beautiful stalls, unpacked the trailer, and hacked around the farm's half-mile track. At 5:00 pm sharp, an introductory meeting was held at the stables. Lendon welcomed us all and explained the logistics of the clinic, what to expect and what was expected of us.

Settling in at Riveredge

Settling in at Riveredge

The indoor at Riveredge

The indoor at Riveredge

Day Two and Three: Riding with Courtney King-Dye

On the first day of lessons, two dressage arenas were set up on the track with a large tent in between. Scott Hassler was teaching in one while Courtney King-Dye taught in the other. Following morning chores, all riders were expected to watch and take notes during each other's lessons. No downtime!

Learning from the best, with Courtney King-Dye, herself. 

Learning from the best, with Courtney King-Dye, herself. 

At 11:15, Spotlight and I walked from the stables to the arena to meet Courtney. After introducing Spotlight and myself, I explained how we had been working on getting Spotlight truly moving from his hindlegs, forward into the bridle. He naturally holds himself in a 'carried' frame but stays disconnected and behind my leg.

Right away, Courtney stressed the importance of riding the inside hind leg into the outside rein. She explained how he tends to grab the inside rein (as do I) and swings his haunches out. To fix this, Courtney had me begin with inside bend, then push Spotlight off my inside leg until he yielded the rein, while I stayed ready to quickly allow his giving. We kept the sideways feeling until he did give, not a moment before or after. We began this exercise on a 20-meter circle at the walk, then continued it into the walk-trot transitions, using mainly my inside leg. We also worked on maintaining this in the haunches-in. Courtney had me begin the haunches-in before the corner so that he could use the corner to keep the correct amount of bend. This was very hard for Spotlight!

One thing that Courtney said that stuck with me was this: "I love when you make a decision in response to feeling and you become the trainer... If you ever feel like he's not responding enough and you need to do something else and you ignore what I say, I totally don't mind that. I want you to be the best trainer you can be."

To get more bend, Courtney then had us simply ride down the long side with his neck bent in, while keeping his shoulders and haunches moving straight. This allowed me to control each part of his body individually, as well as how much bend I wanted. While it was very hard for us to do this without letting his shoulders come in, she had me play with a haunches-in feeling, which built a more uniform bend throughout his body. Through all of this, Courtney had me periodically give my inside rein until it was slack to prove that neither of us was hanging onto it.

We then continued this into the half-passes, where Courtney really emphasized the importance of my use of the inside leg. We began on the quarterline, leg-yielded out, half-passed in, and leg-yielded again when he began to ignore my leg.

I think this exercise was my favorite part of my lessons with Courtney; it really allowed me to feel how I should use my inside leg in the half-passes so that I wouldn’t have to rely on inside rein at all. Another point that Courtney made was that almost all of the lateral work has the same placement of the aids, but that each exercise requires a different amount of each aid. For example, in going from shoulder-in to half-pass, we used more of an opening rein, asking for more sideways steps with the outside leg, and more bend from my inside leg. This simplified each exercise for me, allowing me to ask Spotlight more clearly.

Following lessons on the second day, we headed to the main barn's lounge where we ate lunch and listened to a lecture with Kyrena Parkinson about rider nutrition. It was interesting to hear about the importance of eating right as an athlete. After lunch, we met with Jennifer Kotylo who discussed pilates for riders. Jennifer talked about the importance of the core (abdominal, back and hip muscles) of a rider and how that translates to the horse as well. Throughout the week, we met with Jennifer to learn new stretches and exercises.

After feeding our horses, we met at the onsite house for a dinner with Courtney. She talked with us about her whole journey: how she got to ride for Lendon, her life experiences, the lessons she learned, the opportunities she was given and how she eventually made it to the Olympics. It was truly inspiring to hear her story.

On the third day, following lunch, we had a lecture with Scott Hassler on his philosophy as a trainer. While he had come to our meeting with a planned lecture which was to be followed by a guided tour of the facility, we had so many questions, we never got to either! While our questions were all over the place, the premise of the discussion was of fairness to the horse. As he wrote in a Dressage Today article, Scott really emphasizes the importance of being a coach to your horse. Here are some tips he shared with us:

• It is vitally important to communicate on the horse's level of understanding while maintaining a leadership presence. Make sense to your horse. Know their weaknesses but show them their strengths.

•"Fatigue and drilling are what make a horse hurt."

•Always ride with rules and expectations and stick to them; they are guidelines for your horse as much as they are for you.

•In searching for a trainer, you should like them as a person first and as a rider second. You will learn just as much about treating clients and horses as you will about riding.

•"Motion is lotion."

•How you ride is your reputation, that's what people will remember. Never be impatient with your horse—not once—it is not fair to anyone.

•Horses learn and gain confidence from:

    • Consistency
    • Repetition (but not drilling)
    • Sticking with a set of rules

I learned a lot from this lecture and Scott gave a lot of great advice. At home, I will continue to find and keep a set of 'rules' for Spotlight and be consistent with them.

After Scott's lecture, we headed to Select Breeders Services for a tour. We got to watch the entire process of “collection,” from when they actually collected the semen from the stallion (which I think traumatized my dad), to the laboratory analysis, to the storage and shipment. And we even got to meet the UPS guy. I had no idea how in-depth, methodical, and precise the SBS process was! 

Day Four: Field Trip Day

Following morning chores, we drove to the Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center. Wow! Fair Hill not only has stables and equipment for injured and sick horses but also offers multiple forms of preventative therapy, as well. Some of their services include:

  • Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy
    • Within the Therapy Center is a gigantic Hyperbaric Oxygen tank, used to treat nearly any ailment that the horse's body might suffer. The tank works by delivering 100 percent oxygen to the horse under increased atmospheric pressure. The oxygen is then delivered throughout the horse's bloodstream, delivering the naturally-healing oxygen to damaged or diseased tissue. According to the Fair Hill website, it has been used to treat "EIPH (Bleeders), post-race or post performance recovery, wound healing, throats (Chondritis, post-surgical healing), injuries with soft tissue swelling, bone infections, lung and abdominal abscesses, laminitis, chronic infections, bone and soft tissue healing and post-surgical healing and recovery."
  • Aquapacer
    • The best description for the Aquapacer is that it is an underwater treadmill for horses. The horse begins walking (at any regulated speed) and water is added (at any regulated amount). It is a very effective, controlled way of conditioning a horse with increased range of motion and resistance and without the high impact of the ground. I would love one in my barn someday!
  • Cold Saltwater Spa
    • The Spa looked similar to the Aquapacer, but without the treadmill. It delivers cold salt water to the horse's legs and is used to reduce inflammation, increase circulation and healing time, improve bone density, act as a poultice and provide increased aeration to the leg.
  • Solarium Therapy
    • The solarium uses short-wave infrared heat (from a series of lamps above the horse) to treat and prevent injury. It provides many benefits and is another form of therapy that I can see myself using on Spotlight.
  • Vibration Therapy
    • Very similar to the popular TheraPlate, Fair Hill has an entire stall with a vibrating floor. This allows the horse to be more comfortable while standing, moving or eating during therapy.

Day Five: Riding with Allison Brock

In my first lesson with Ali, we focused a lot on getting Spotlight to step up with his hind legs, especially in the half-passes. To do this, Ali showed me how to use an opening outside rein, a lot like a door hinged at my elbow. I pivoted both of my hands (especially the outside hand) to the outside, allowing his shoulders to "stop" and his hind legs to turn. This was really cool to feel how "closing" the forehand made his haunches lead, and "pushing" the forehand made them trail. In this, it was also super important to keep Spotlight's head from flexing out (as a result of my opening outside rein). This exercise was a lot to juggle at first but once I got the feel of it, it was a very helpful tool. Later in my lesson, Ali stressed avoiding the bad habit of over-preparation... Just do it! A few other wise words from Ali included:

•"I'm trying to teach you to be effective, not just ride around something. Try it again." 

•"I try to physically influence my horses to make them better athletes."

The lessons I learned during my rides with Courtney and Ali were comprehensive and cohesive. I will take all of the information and advice home with me and implement them at all levels of my riding. The experiences that I had with both are invaluable and I can’t wait to see the changes it will make in Spotlight and me.

Discussions with Allison Brock.

Discussions with Allison Brock.

All in all, Spotlight and I had an amazing week in Maryland. I really appreciate the ongoing support of Lendon Gray and Dressage4Kids, as well as their sponsors. I can't wait to participate again next year!

A Thank you (in no particular order!) to:

•Hassler Dressage, Riveredge LLC, and Leslie and John Malone for their time and use of their beautiful facility.

•Kim van Kampen and Hampton Green Farm for supporting D4K

•Jann Clark, Judi Gilsdorf, Susanne Hassler and Scott Hassler for their help in organizing the event

•Instructors Courtney King-Dye, Allison Brock, Scott Hassler and Olivia LaGoy-Weltz for taking time out of their busy schedules to teach us!

•Jennifer Kotylo for waking up before dawn to guide us through fitness and lectures

•Kyrena Parkinson, Ph.D. for her sports nutrition and saddle fitting expertise

•A Horse Box, Lara Osborne and The Collected Pony, and Joni Valerio and The Sugarplum Pony Bakery for their support and donations

•Lendon Gray and her team at Dressage4Kids for everything

•Emma Szegvari, her family, and Black Brook Farm for letting my dad, Spotlight, and I invade their homes, and for being a great guide and friend

•All of the supportive parents and coaches who helped their kids along the way. We couldn't do it without you!

sophia chavonelle and spotlight kisses