As editors at Dressage Today, we get to spend quite a lot of time reading and writing about top horses and riders. But it’s always a very special experience for us when we get to see them come to life beyond the pages of our magazine. On one picturesque mid-March afternoon we had the opportunity to watch Laura Graves school on home turf at Havensafe Farm. As we sat underneath the shade of the covered arena during The Dressage Foundation’s (TDF) Florida Dream Tour, Havensafe was humming with activity, but was also strangely peaceful. The Florida sun shone brightly and there was a light breeze. With the seemingly endless parade of top-notch horse-and-rider combinations schooling their horses in the ring that day, it might have been difficult for the average dressage rider to process that this experience was actual reality.
In 2000, Michael Poulin, Olympian and national board member of TDF, proposed a new idea to take four top young American dressage riders to Europe for a two-week introduction to European dressage trainers, riders, facilities and events. TDF funds this venture, called the International Dream Program to allow Young Riders the opportunity to enhance their understanding of dressage theory through a European tour. Currently in its second year, The Florida Dream Tour is a fundraiser for the International Dream program and emulates the experience by offering the general public of all ages a unique inside look at the lives and training of high-performance riders based in Wellington.
Not only is it exciting to see these dressage celebrities outside of the context of a show ring, but it is a privilege to see the beautiful farms they call home. The added opportunity to discuss training philosophies with them also makes for a truly memorable experience.
The first stop on the 2016 tour was Havensafe Farm, owned by Betsy Juliano. Tucked away in a tranquil woodsy setting, Havensafe is home to a myriad of top riders and trainers, including Laura Graves, Adrienne Lyle, Olivia LaGoy-Weltz, Jennifer Baumert, Young Rider Molly Paris and Kathy Connelly, who provided commentary for the auditors during our time at Havensafe.
Throughout the rides that morning, Kathy emphasized the importance of a confidence-building warm-up. “The warm-up is integral because it’s where the horses find their confidence,” she said as Jennifer schooled the 9-year-old Danish Warmblood Ramiro, and Molly rode the 10-year-old Westfalen gelding, Diamant Sky. “This is when the horse gives you his heart and his mind,” Kathy explained. As the session continued, she also discussed the importance of varying the work schedule so that horses look forward to coming out to the ring to do their jobs. Luckily for the riders at Havensafe, there are plenty of trails (dubbed the “Serengeti”) for hacking that make this easy to incorporate into their routine.
During the warm-up, Kathy added that the horse should look like he is moving forward because he wants to, not because of the rider’s leg or whip. But she reminded us that the forwardness and engagement must also be adjustable. “When schooling movements, it is necessary to dial down the amount of engagement,” she said, explaining that these dial adjustments should be made depending on the horse. She reminded us that it is important to continually work to develop the quality of the horse’s gaits and that stretching isn’t just for the beginning of a ride—it should be used throughout the ride and also offers a reward. Above all, she said, it’s important to make the most of every single ride. “When you get to ride only so many schools per year, every step counts,” she said.
Laura echoed this way of thinking in her question-and-answer session with the auditors. With top competition horse Verdades (“Diddy”) in-hand at her side, she explained that his training routine includes four schooling sessions per week in addition to a light stretching day, a hack day and a day off. “When we work [Diddy], we only work him at the highest quality,” she said. In her experience, she has found that some horses become stressed just seeing their tack, so she incorporates bareback trail rides into her routine.
Next, we watched Adrienne school Betsy’s 9-year-old Oldenburg mare Horizon. Adrienne describes the mare as an “energetic little worker bee,” and they are currently showing in the Developing Horse Prix St. Georges. “My focus with her is getting the expression we want though relaxation,” Adrienne said. “If the rider were to try to do anything through strength or kicking, she’ll just get worried.” Kathy pointed out that Adrienne is very skilled at riding in a way that is rewarding for the horses, and by observing Horizon’s ears, eyes and tail, it was apparent that she felt confident and appreciated.
Olivia and the 12-year-old Holsteiner gelding Rassing’s Lonoir (“Lono”) came after Adrienne and Horizon in the ring. Kathy explained that Olivia and Lono provided a great example of using a strategic warm-up to ride “in balance and for balance.” Olivia described Lono as a hot horse with big movement. The strength with that much suspension can be hard to bring into balance, Olivia and Kathy agreed. “You don’t want your horse to start out with a huge range of motion,” Kathy said. “You want to be able to grow it and bring it back down.” Olivia added that a ride doesn’t need to begin with big, impressive movement from the start. “Don’t feel like you have to start where you end up,” she said.
Laura entered the ring again, riding the 6-year-old Westfalen gelding named Fizau (“Fizzy”), who is owned by Susan Shattuck. Laura said that she first needed to find the “go” on Fizzy, but now it’s a matter of finding the “whoa.” Laura rode quietly, without force, focusing on balance and rhythm and developing symmetry. Kathy explained that throughout the horse’s training, it is important not to overlook the walk. “So many people are enamored by the trot,” she said. “But the walk is so important because you can’t change much. Same with the canter. But you can improve the trot.” She added that while young horses can’t do extended and collected walks, they can do modified transitions within gaits, such as free walks and medium walks.
Our second stop of the day was at Stillpoint Farm, which is owned by Arlene “Tuny” Page, and is the base of David Marcus and Nicholas Fyffe. Watching these three riders interact in a lesson is more like observing a meeting of great minds. We first watched Tuny school the 13-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding Woodstock, who is her current Grand Prix horse, as David and Nicholas provided feedback. David emphasized the importance of developing quality gaits and a quality relationship with the horse. With Woodstock, they focused on ensuring that he was honestly in front of his rider’s leg. “Being in front of the leg is about establishing the desire to get him to go on his own, rather than about producing a big trot,” David said.
Nicholas then rode the 8-year-old P.R.E. stallion Fiero HGF, and David pointed out that he views Spanish horses as capable as Warmblood types. In response to an auditor question, David said that their goals are the same for all of their horses, regardless of breed. “We want to take them up the levels as happily as possible by training according to their weakness and their conformation,” he said. David explained that another goal for riders should be to always work to maintain small, correct aids. He advises not to compromise correct riding in the effort to perform a certain movement, like the one-tempi changes.
As Nicholas worked Fiero, David said they prioritize fostering the horse’s confidence level in his own abilities and desires. In schooling the passage, David pointed out that Fiero has a strong desire and ability to stay on the spot, but if he is too on the spot, he can get backward in the connection. “That’s why we can afford to push him forward in the passage,” he said. “Always ride the forward or else you have nothing to bring back,” he continued.
Tuny then rode a second horse, the 11-year-old Oldenburg gelding Dr. House, whom she likened to a diesel truck—he starts slow and then gets hot.
David pointed out that in contrast to Woodstock, who is built more like a square, Dr. House is more rectangular in shape. He said that this conformational difference can make a big impact upon how they train the two horses. “What works on a horse with a short back won’t work on one with a long back, and what works on a hot horse won’t work on a quiet horse,” he explained.
Nicholas elaborated, saying that when they train, they focus on the horse’s reactions. “It’s not just a case of receiving a reaction, but a reaction in the right moment that is relative to the aid,” he said. Nicholas also emphasized the importance of refined half halts. “The more powerful the hind end, the more finesse of the half halt you need to keep the balance where you want it,” he said. David added, “At the end of the day, we’re all just looking for finer half halts.”
David later rode a very talented 8-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare, Edy Rava, whose sensitive temperament requires her rider to come into the arena and not be in a hurry. David said that having dedicated staff in the barn is a critical part of their success, especially for horses like Edy, as they can take note of how she acts before coming to work in the ring. “I’m always as grateful to the people working in the barn as I am to the people working in the ring,” Nicholas said. Tuny agreed, saying “The bricks and mortars don’t mean anything,” she said. “It all comes down to the people.”
After our visit to Stillpoint, we headed over to Janne Rumbough’s MTICA Farm. Janne is a Danish-born Adult Amateur who moved to Wellington in 1975 and built one of the area’s first dressage facilities. Also known as the First Lady of Dressage in Wellington, she was awarded the 2014 Adequan Global Dressage Visionary Award in thanks to her contributions to the sport. Also in 2014, Janne and her homebred P.R.E. gelding, Junior, won the Adult Amateur Grand Prix Freestyle Championship at the U.S. Dressage Finals. Janne is the owner of Mikala Gundersen’s International Grand Prix horse My Lady (“Lady”) and is also coached by Mikala.
At MTICA Farm, we had the chance to listen to Mikala work with Janne on some of the upper-level movements. “Always work on shifting the weight to the hind legs to make the front end lighter,” Mikala said.
In the passage and piaffe, she advised Janne to become lighter in her seat and not sit too far in the back of the saddle. Janne was an exceptionally gracious host and allowed the auditors to roam the barn and meet each of her horses, who all curiously hung their heads out of their stall doors with ears pricked forward.
Bell Tower Farm
Our last stop was Bell Tower Farm, home to Mikala and her grand prix show-jumper husband, Henrik. During our visit, we were also greeted by the 24-year-old Philippine dressage rider Ellesse Tzinberg. With Mikala’s guidance, Ellesse is getting mileage in the international Grand Prix arena on her own 19-year-old Dutch gelding, Pavarotti 85, and balances dressage training with her schedule as a professional model.
Ellesse guided us around the Mediterranean-style farm and Henrik even took a moment to allow visitors a chance to try out their HorseGym USA equipment, which included a hydrotherapy spa and a vibrating therapeutic machine. Back outside in the ring, we watched Mikala school Lady, the 16-year-old Danish Warmblood mare, in an arena that not only included sections of a dressage ring, but also a nearly full course of stadium jumps. Mikala explained that she chooses not to ride with an outside rail in the dressage ring because it requires her to fully utilize her outside aids.
On Lady, Mikala said she focuses on shoulder control and regulating the tempo. “She likes to control the tempo and I like to control the tempo,” Mikala said. “Maybe one day we will agree,” she said with a laugh. Although Lady has an outstanding competition record in the elite ranks of dressage, Mikala explained that she was challenging from a young age. “She wasn’t ridden before she was 6 years old because she bucked everyone off!” she said. Even 10 years later, Mikala says that the mare’s temperament is best suited to six days of work in a ring each week.
In the rest of her ride, Mikala used counterflexion to get the mare to lengthen her neck and used small canter circles to build strength in her hind legs. She finished up with work in the passage, which she said is Lady’s favorite movement.
It’s not easy to return to reality after spending the day soaking in the sights and sounds of the country’s top dressage training facilities, but even just brushing elbows with the best gives us the glimmer of inspiration that we need to breathe new life into our own dressage journeys.
Many thanks to TDF and The Florida Dream Tour, which was generously sponsored by Taylor Harris Insurance Services, Ltd. and Gardy Bloemers Wealth Management Advisor of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management.