Herber City, Utah, is a beautiful Western town with stunning views of the Wasatch Mountains. You might think it’s more about skiing than dressage, but last fall, Olympic team silver medalist Adrienne Lyle was on-hand at Jim and Donnette Hicks’ Sage Creek Equestrian Center. Genevieve Rohner, a Grade IV para rider, won Dressage Today’s Win A Day clinic with Lyle that was sponsored by Vita Flex Pro. The contest originally took place in 2019 but was delayed by COVID-19, and then Lyle competed in the Tokyo Olympics. Finally, almost two years after Rohner knew she had won, the clinic took place. And as she said, it was worth the wait.
Rohner rode two horses on the day, and the other participants rode different types of horses: a Friesian that tended to get too upright and tight in his neck, a sensitive mare that liked to hide behind the vertical, a gelding that was dull to the leg and a Quarter Horse who needed to be more compact. Despite the variety of horses, Lyle’s training themes were the same: The horse needs to accept the contact equally on both reins, be respectful of the leg and move forward promptly when asked. The differences came in how to accomplish this.
Tempo and Bend
For Rohners’s first ride, she was on her own 7-year-old Hanoverian gelding, Donut. As they worked, Lyle focused more on the effectiveness of her student’s aids to help bring out the best in Donut.
Lyle started out the session stating that having a clear idea of the tempo you want is necessary and having the horse stay in that tempo is important. To establish the tempo, Lyle reminded Rohner to always start with the lightest aid possible and progress to stronger aids if the horse doesn’t respond–first a light calf, then a little kick and then tap with the whip. She also stressed that the rider should be very clear when the aid goes on and when the aid comes off, so the horse knows he has the correct answer to what the rider
Once Donut was traveling in a steady tempo, Lyle addressed his bend. She explained that the outside rein controls the length of the horse’s body and balance, and that the neck shouldn’t bend more than the rest of the horse’s body. A common mistake that many riders make is pulling on the inside rein to increase bend, but Lyle had Rohner focus on applying more inside leg. She had her ride shoulder-in to really focus on using that inside leg and said that if you can let go of the inside rein and the horse maintains the angle, then you know you have him honestly off your inside leg.
When a Horse Shortens His Neck
Facility owner Jim Hicks rode Zeus, his 15-year-old Friesian stallion. Lyle helped him get the horse to stretch his neck out and down while using his back more instead of getting too upright and short in the neck. This helped the horse be more honest in the connection.
Lyle said to always be aware of how much contact you have. It should be the same in both reins. If it is unsteady and there’s a loop in the reins, you’ve lost the ability to channel the horse’s energy. She reminded Hicks to keep his fingers closed but his elbows elastic to allow the horse to stretch into the contact without changing the rein length. If the horse gets too light in the connection, sit back, add leg and “ask the horse to pull you in a good way,” she said.
To help change the horse’s balance from upright and tight to forward and down, Lyle suggested closing the leg so the horse would push from the hind legs and look for the connection. Lyle likened the horse’s balance to flying a plane. Sometimes you really want that plane taking off—the equivalent of bringing the horse uphill by lifting the withers and neck. Sometimes you must level it off. In that case, bring the horse up, balance him and find a place where his balance is equal in front and behind.
When the horse pushes from the hind legs, relaxes his neck and pokes his nose out, then he is carrying himself and not just using his neck. Once this is established in the warmup, the rider can add collection. The horse needs to be able to adjust his stride without changing his body. Lyle admitted that is difficult and reminded everyone that “the challenge in dressage is getting the horse shorter behind the saddle and longer in front of the saddle.”
Respect the Leg
Adult amateur Lily Berry was next on her 20-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding, Finn. Finn tended not to move promptly forward from the leg and/or maintain the tempo. When you pick up the contact after walking on a long rein, make sure he doesn’t slow the tempo, Lyle told Berry. Lyle again mentioned the order of aid strength—light leg, small kick and tap with the whip. In this case, she reminded Berry to use her wrist when tapping the whip and not pull on the rein. Lyle instructed her to continue to ask until Finn gave the right reaction. Once Finn was forward, Lyle reminded Berry not to lose that energy.
Lyle also told her not to give up her position once Finn was on contact. “The quieter you are with your upper body, the more he will listen to your lower body and your leg,” she said.
They continued with rapid walk–trot transitions to further sharpen the horse to the leg. As they progressed, it took less and less time and effort for Berry to get Finn to respond promptly to a lighter leg aid.
Basics of Balance and Contact
Rohner was back for her second ride of the day on Beth Weaklely’s Da Vinci Code (Leo), whom she had ridden only once before. Since she didn’t know the horse well, Lyle kept to the basics of balance and contact.
Leo also tended to raise his head and use the underside of the neck. Lyle said that if the horse’s head comes up, don’t worry about doing something with your hands to get it down. Instead, maintain the connection on the outside rein and push the horse forward into it. And while the contact needs to be steady, the hands can’t lock into it because that makes the horse defensive. The rider needs to keep an elastic elbow.
Lyle had Rohner try counterflexion to help with the connection. This is done by flexing the horse until the rider can just see his eyelashes on the outside. In some cases, the rider needs to wait the horse out until he softens.
“It’s all about timing,” Lyle said. The second the horse thinks about stretching, you need to give him a chance to. If the rider continues to hold after that moment, the horse will start to feel stuck.
It is also about patience and believing in the aids. “It’s not about how fast I can get him onto the connection,” Lyle said. “It’s about how correctly I can get him onto the connection.”
Riding a Sensitive Horse
Next to go was Sydni Petersen riding her own Rosa Red, an 8-year-old Rhinelander mare. This horse was very sensitive and avoided the connection by hiding behind the vertical. In this case, the correct connection was still the goal, but Lyle went about achieving it differently.
While keeping your leg off a sensitive horse might be tempting, this type needs a supporting leg. Lyle suggested thinking of draping your legs around the horse in a relaxing way. Also, riding the horse on the second track gives you a place to move the horse sideways. She recommends constantly pushing the horse off one leg and then the other to get the horse to relax the back and give the horse some security. “Riding too light can make the horse nervous so you must take charge,” said Lyle.
Once the horse accepts the leg without being overly reactive, you can start stretching the head and neck forward. Lyle stated that the horse opening the throatlatch comes from his accepting being pushed into the contact and remaining stretching. She stressed to give only as much rein as the horse will take and keep the contact. If you give too much, this type of horse will wonder where you went and get nervous.
In training, Lyle said not to worry if the horse curls a little. Instead, focus on the feel of the contact. The rider pulling the neck up may seem like a good idea, but it’s more like a Band-Aid®. It really doesn’t solve the problem. Rather, the hind leg marching underneath is what gets the horse up in front because a horse curls when the hind leg gets out behind, and the horse gets sucked back. This marching has to happen a little at a time so Lyle suggested thinking that every stride has a half-inch more ground cover than the stride before. As Peterson applied Lyle’s suggestions, there was a noticeable improvement in the horse’s frame.
Bringing a Quarter Horse’s Hind End Under
The last ride of the day was Rohner’s current coach, Annie Sweet, riding a 16-year-old Quarter Horse gelding named Jake. He is an upper-level horse with the typical large hindquarters of a Quarter Horse, which made it more challenging for him to bring his hind end under. He was a very willing horse, so Lyle gave tips on how he could be even more successful.
When Sweet started to lose some quality of the canter, it was because the horse had gotten long. To counter that, Lyle suggested riding each corner as a quarter pirouette. She also said to think of the horse as a square, not a rectangle—hind legs under, withers up, weight back. Then, she explained, when asking for the horse to go more forward, don’t let him get longer. The tempo needs to be quicker in the collection.
In the walk–canter transitions, Lyle had Sweet work to put weight on the hind legs first. The horse needs to get a little hot with the energy boiling underneath the rider. But after the horse worked a bit and felt flat and out of energy, instead of chasing the horse forward, the rider really should bring
End-of-the Day Wrap-up
Everyone had waited so long for this day and loved it so much they hated to see it end. Lyle was gracious and even shared her silver medal with the participants. As for Rohner, she hopes to have her chance at her own Olympic medal. Her current long-term goal is to represent the United States at the 2024 Paralympic Games, and she took her first step by competing in her first CPEDI in Wellington, Florida, in March 2022.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Practical Horseman.