We feature Olympian Lisa Wilcox in this edition of an occasional series on top dressage trainers who tell how they were temporarily stumped at some point in their dressage careers with problems like a dressage horse that struggles with the flying change. These tales are fascinating because most of us see only the finished product at a dressage show or on a dressage video and assume the dressage training must have gone smoothly. Certainly, Lisa Wilcox and other top dressage riders make it look that way. The manner in which the toughest training challenge is resolved is a lesson to all of us in persistence, patience and good horsemanship. Hear how Lisa Wilcox worked through her toughest dressage training challenge (teaching the flying change to a Friesian named Emmitt Sport):
I came across my toughest training challenge with a Friesian gelding named Emmitt Sport. All dressage horses come with a cross to bear, but I usually don't have to go as far out of the box as I did to figure out how to get this dressage horse to react.
Emmitt came to me when he was 5, right after I moved my training base from Europe to Florida. He was gorgeous, a big guy. If you ever saw "Ladyhawke," he looks just like the Friesian in that movie. He was a man magnet, that horse. Guys would just flock around his stall. A typical Friesian, he had a big tail, feathers on his legs and a mane that was so thick and long it had to be braided when I rode so it didn't get tangled up in the reins.
Today's Friesians are starting to look more lean and narrow with longer legs and finer bones, but Emmitt was as wide as he was tall. Friesians were built to pull rather than to carry themselves on their hind ends as a dressage horse must do. Creating a dressage horse out of him was a challenge because I was taking him out of the discipline for which he was bred.
The first thing I did was to build his condition so he could do general work. Because Friesians are not bred for endurance, their energy is short-term, and it would take an amazing amount of energy just to make it one time around the arena in a canter. On the positive side, Emmitt had quite a good canter. He could do a beautiful counter canter, and I could do lovely pirouettes with him. I also had to worry about his sweating as he dealt with all the humidity in Florida.
After five months, I sent him back to Maryland, where his owner lived, and we maintained his training at the clinics I did there every two months. This was a process that took place over a year and a half. When it came down to his 6th year coming 7, it was time for him to learn flying changes.
This requires skill from the rider. The rule of thumb for starting them: The horse has to have enough balance to perform a quality counter canter. The change comes from the half halt and leg coming together. It is such a question of timing and balance of horse and rider that it is not so easy to do. For that reason, I prefer having a professional teach the horse the change and then the amateur can get on and do it. Even if the rider may make a mistake, the horse is in the right frame of mind despite small balance issues from the rider.
Emmitt had a good canter and was ready for it, but he just didn't seem to understand. When we put a leg on him for the change, there was no reaction. Finally, the owner asked me to take him back again, which I did, but although he now had a foundation, after three months, I still hadn't been able to confirm the changes. There was no reaction, not even a flinch or cross canter. I'd never had a horse that didn't react to some degree.
As a trainer, I know you can't always put a time frame on these things. You have to be flexible; it is important not to force a horse when teaching him. Thank goodness the owner allowed Emmitt to stay another month because that's when I started to think outside the box. I thought about how a trainer needs to study how horses think to know what makes them react and from there create a new understanding.
Here was a horse with a heavy body type, so wide that it was difficult for him to keep his balance. He didn't want to fall down. With this in mind, I realized that every time I applied my legs for a change, he wasn't reacting in an effort to maintain his balance on all four feet. I would sit on him, and he could counter canter all day long, but he would not allow me to change his balance with my leg. So I had to do something, create something, that would give him a balance issue, something that would spark him into reacting. Otherwise, the mosquito on his back (me) wasn't going to get him to move.
One day, I saw some cavalletti stacked outside the barn. I thought, wait a minute. I could create a situation, so that once he got all four feet off the ground, I could teach him the change in the air, just like the jumpers do. I pulled a cavalletti out and set it up so he had to jump it. We cantered over it, he jumped and I asked for the change while he was in the air. My theory worked and a few cavalletti later, he figured it out. Eventually, I didn't need to use the cavalletti.
The next challenge came when the owner rode him during his final month with me. Would she get the change through her aid as I had done? She did! It was successful. Corking champagne bottles could be heard all over the farm. Since then, Emmitt's owner has had him out showing. He has won at Third Level and is now doing tempi changes.
I have yet to find a perfect horse. My objective is to work with their mental capabilities and gain their trust. That is how I come to understand them, which enables me to work with their physical deficiencies, if any. This takes time and patience. For example, most people don't know what it has taken for Isabell Werth to bring a horse like Satchmo to the Grand Prix level. Professional trainers know how many hours they must spend working on and improving the horse's weaknesses and mental capabilities. Think long-term, and you will not only have a horse that understands you but also one that enjoys what he is doing. This is the key to harmony.
This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Dressage Today magazine.
Lisa Wilcox won a team bronze medal at the 2004 Olympic Games and a team silver medal at the 2002 World Equestrian Games. Again representing the United States, she also earned individual silver at the 2000 Open European Championships. After 12 years in Europe, she is now based in Wellington, Florida.