Lessons with Silva Martin

Seven lucky riders won a day of training at Windurra—home of Silva and Boyd Martin.
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Seven lucky riders won a day of training at Windurra—home of Silva and Boyd Martin.
Daphne Soares and her 6-year-old OTTB, Anakin, are schooling Preliminary level in eventing. Daphne and six of her friends, including her son, traveled to Windurra for the day, spending the morning working on dressage with Silva Martin and the afternoon schooling cross country with Boyd Martin.

Daphne Soares and her 6-year-old OTTB, Anakin, are schooling Preliminary level in eventing. Daphne and six of her friends, including her son, traveled to Windurra for the day, spending the morning working on dressage with Silva Martin and the afternoon schooling cross country with Boyd Martin.

Who would you invite to join you if you and 10 of your closest friends had the opportunity to spend a day with Grand Prix dressage rider Silva Martin and her three-day-eventer husband, Boyd? That’s a question Daphne Soares, 44, of Long Valley, New Jersey, had the opportunity to answer when she won a contest sponsored by Dressage Today, Practical Horseman (DT’s sister publication) and Purina Horse Feed. The clinic took place at Boyd and Silva’s farm, Windurra, in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, last September.

Silva is a Grand Prix dressage rider who represented the United States on the gold-medal-winning team at the 2014 Nations Cup in Wellington, Florida, and Boyd is a member of the U.S. Eventing Team and competed in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. 

Daphne and six of her friends traveled to Windurra for the day, spending the morning working on dressage with Silva and the afternoon schooling cross country with Boyd. (You can read about the cross-country portion of the clinic in the January issue of Practical Horseman.) Over lunch Boyd told stories about his Olympic experience and then gave everyone a tour of the eventing barns to meet some of his world-class event horses, including Blackfoot Mystery, Welcome Shadow, Crackerjack, Shamwari, Remington XXV and Neville Bardos. 

Daphne, a professor of evolutionary neurobiology at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, attended the clinic with her 6-year-old off-the-track-Thoroughbred gelding, Anakin, whom she bought as a 2-year-old. Together, the pair competes at the Preliminary level in eventing. Daphne’s 11-year-old son, Tzur Haspel-Soares, who also attended the clinic, competes at Novice level with his pony, Lovee. 

During her time with these riders, Silva focused on the basics. She began each session by letting the riders go through their typical warm-up routine, first riding the horses forward around the outside of the ring, then adding some circles and bending exercises at the walk, trot and canter. Then she asked the riders to begin suppling their horses before practicing their respective dressage tests.

Session 1: Tzur and Lovee

Tzur is working on riding the USEF Training Level dressage tests and he really wants to ride a musical freestyle. His pony, Lovee, is a willing partner, but Silva said that getting her more forward and supple will help Tzur score extra points with the attractive little mare. 

Daphne’s 11-year-old son, Tzur, competes at Novice level with his pony, Lovee, and really wants to ride a musical freestyle. Silva said that getting Lovee more forward and supple will help Tzur score extra points with the attractive little mare.

Daphne’s 11-year-old son, Tzur, competes at Novice level with his pony, Lovee, and really wants to ride a musical freestyle. Silva said that getting Lovee more forward and supple will help Tzur score extra points with the attractive little mare.

Silva had Tzur work on holding the inside bend, pushing with his inside leg and leg yielding to the outside to push Lovee into the outside rein. In an effort to score extra points at Training Level, she also had him work on keeping the bend through his turns and using lots of changes of direction to supple Lovee. 

Silva believes that Tzur has an excellent position but needs to remember to sit tall in the saddle to make his seat more effective and to present a more polished picture. “Sit down, push your seat into the saddle and keep your heels down,” she said, at which point Lovee’s ears went back and she lost her forward energy. “When your mare gets a little nappy, ride her forward again. Push your seat down and open your shoulders,” Silva coached.

Tzur hoped to ride Lovee to Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” for his freestyle, which he practiced after someone cranked up the music from a car stereo so he could give it a run-through. But Silva suggested that he go back to the drawing board and find music that better suits his pony’s gaits. “You would think the canter is fast and that you need faster music, but really the canter needs slower music,” she explained. “I don’t think this song will work for you.” 

By the end of his lesson, Tzur was sitting tall and proud in the saddle and smiling as he rode. Silva was duly impressed with the progress he made. “He’s a very good rider. There wasn’t too much to improve on!” she said. She went on to say jokingly, “He’d better keep an eye on that pony though or I’ll be stealing her for [her 1-year-old son] Nox!”

Session 2: Jen Garutti, Rumsey Keefe and Deena Cahill

First Silva asked the group to warm up as usual and watched the horses and riders walk, trot and canter in both directions. She told each rider to go forward and straight, not sideways, in the beginning, emphasizing that the horses needed to push under with their hind end and that the riders shouldn’t let the horses’ hindquarters trail behind. During the warm-up, Silva suggested that the riders try to touch the saddle pad with their little finger to keep their hands down and steady as the horses were still working in a fairly low outline. 

FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Rumsey Keefe, Jen Garutti and Deena Cahill rode together in a session with Silva. The group warmed up with a walk, trot and canter in both directions. During this time, Silva asked the riders to focus on riding the horses forward.

FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Rumsey Keefe, Jen Garutti and Deena Cahill rode together in a session with Silva. The group warmed up with a walk, trot and canter in both directions. During this time, Silva asked the riders to focus on riding the horses forward.

After a warm-up focused on getting the horses forward and warming their muscles, the riders walked a few minutes to give their horses a breather. Then they started trotting circles and serpentines, beginning to supple the horses in both directions. 

As the riders began to supple the horses, Silva said, “Bend them to the inside and catch them with the outside aids. Bend the horse around the inside leg, no drifting to the outside. Open the shoulders, pushing the withers up.”

Next, shortening the reins, riders began putting the horses together in a more collected outline. “Keep the hands down and ride forward and up from your seat,” said Silva. “When you ride forward, be careful not to push the horse past the steady rhythm. The horse should feel very even and consistent in his stride.”

Rumsey planned to move her OTTB, Eighttofasttocatch, up to Training level this fall, then Preliminary next year. Eventually her daughter, Ryan, will start competing him.

Rumsey planned to move her OTTB, Eighttofasttocatch, up to Training level this fall, then Preliminary next year. Eventually her daughter, Ryan, will start competing him.

Finally, each rider schooled her dressage test. Rumsey, schooling Training Test B, focused on consistency. “Make sure you have the right trot for the test. Down the centerline we want the same trot the whole way, not five different trots,” said Silva. “The judges should only see two legs from the front if the horse is straight. You want to feel as if he’s in a tunnel between both reins and won’t hit either side of that tunnel. Stay tall and look where you’re going.”

This test includes 20-meter circles in both directions. “You want your horse to make a round circle around the inside leg without any drift,” said Silva. “You want a steady, even contact with the horse’s mouth, no loop or slack in the rein. Think about keeping his shoulders to the inside on the circle.”

At the medium walk, she said, “Play with the bit in the transition to keep his mouth soft, gently moving it in his mouth with your fingers to keep him supple without moving his head. You don’t want to see-saw the bit back and forth, just keep softening it in his mouth.”

And on the stretching circle, she suggested, “Open your shoulders and try not to lean forward with him. Before the diagonal trot, try to get him together, and then push. The beginning of the test was great, then you lost accuracy a bit. Let’s practice the walk again.”

On the trot diagonal, Rumsey’s horse broke to canter. Silva said, “OK, still send him forward. On the short side focus on the push, then on the diagonal allow him forward, which will help you keep your rhythm better.”

Jen’s Connemara/Quarter Horse pony mare, Labras Leannon, was the highest-placed pony at the 2016 American Eventing Championships (AEC).

Jen’s Connemara/Quarter Horse pony mare, Labras Leannon, was the highest-placed pony at the 2016 American Eventing Championships (AEC).

Jen was riding Training Test B and again Silva encouraged her to play with the bit in the transitions. For the lengthening at the trot she said, “Before the corner take up the reins and then allow your horse to lengthen across the diagonal. Go! Get her a little rounder so she doesn’t fall apart halfway through.”

Deena trotted boldly down the centerline, but overshot X for her halt. “You can’t miss the half halts. You need to ride little half halts to balance him,” said Silva. “You also need to slow down for the transition instead of gunning it into the halt. Keep your leg on, but don’t go too fast.” 

Silva elaborated, “Deena likes to ride forward, which is good, but she needs little half halts to get a little suspension/air time in the medium trot, which she can achieve with little half halts every stride. Sitting up taller and closing the hand and leg will help balance the horse and bring him together.”

Session 3: Daphne Soares, Nancy Seybold and Ryan Keefe

The format for this session was the same as for the second group with the early warm-up focused on getting the horses forward, then adding circles and serpentines to supple the horses. Nancy’s horse is heavyset and has a big, strong neck. He loves to stiffen his topline and carry his neck too high, so Silva had Nancy working on encouraging him to relax through his neck and back. “He’s a big horse and so uphill that he gets a little hollow sometimes,” Silva said. “Think about dropping the base of the neck. That’s the bridge to the back, and you want to keep the back up. As you add in bending lines and circles, keep pushing the base of the neck down.”

Daphne tends to lean too far forward on her young horse, and Silva encouraged her to stay behind the movement with her upper body. “Keep your leg by the girth, not too far back, and move the horse’s shoulders in—if you move the haunches out, he curls around too much. You want less bend, a steady rhythm and the shoulders in.”

Sixteen-year-old Ryan Keefe and her Cleveland Bay mare, Secret, are competing at Training level. Ryan plans to sell Secret to begin riding her mom’s OTTB.

Sixteen-year-old Ryan Keefe and her Cleveland Bay mare, Secret, are competing at Training level. Ryan plans to sell Secret to begin riding her mom’s OTTB.

Silva offered comments as riders warmed up. “Ryan, keep her rounder before the canter to get better transitions. Nancy, keep your hands steady, no loop in the reins.”

As in the previous session, the riders went through their tests and Silva critiqued their rides. She suggested that in the free walk Daphne encourage her horse to take long, slow steps, not just walk faster. To Nancy, she said, “Keep him between the reins and legs, leg on and eyes ahead. In the free walk get that neck as low as possible.”

At the end of the sessions, Silva said, “They’re all nice horses, and we enjoyed the group of riders. Daphne chose a great bunch of friends and we had a lot of fun working with them!” As a final suggestion she said, “Another thing that everyone should remember is that accuracy is very important when you are riding a test. There’s no point throwing points away. Most of the time you have control of accuracy while there are plenty of other things that are less in your control.”