Victoria's State Dressage Coach Mary Hanna flew into Melbourne to spend a couple of weeks with family and friends and to do a clinic with the riders who are on the Victorian Dressage Squad. The clinic was held at Mary and Rob Hanna's beautiful property Statene Park, which overlooks the water from Scotchmans Hill on the Bellarine Peninsula.
Mary was full of enthusiasm and had some very positive new ideas. It was fascinating to see her style influenced by the new(ish) trend in dressage where harmony and lightness are rewarded and work that is forced is not what the judges of today are looking for. Back in 2004, following the Athens Olympic Games the Interne national Judges that officiated decided to give an award for the horse that in their opinion epitomised "the happy horse" all enthusiasts commended this initiative and the inaugural happy horse award was given to Salinero ridden by Anky Van Grunsven. Many were a little surprised by the choice as Salinero was often tense in his work and did not always look "happy". Full credit goes to Anky, she is such a wonderful rider and in my opinion, it was her ability to calm and softly control such a hot horse that was rewarded in this inaugural award.
I mention this occasion as I feel that this was a pivotal time in the sport and heralded a change of thinking by the majority of judges which has carried over to the way we train and ride dressage horses. It must look soft and unforced, the horse must be at ease and the harmony and lightness will be rewarded - this is the essence of dressage - art and ease of movement!
I was very grateful that Mary took the time to explain what she had been working on with Sancette and Umbro during the time she has been based with Kyra Kyrklund and her partner Richard White at their UK barn while preparing for the London Olympic Games in a little under 12 months time.
Mary said, "I love working with them both, they have very different teaching styles and Richard is really good at explaining his corrections and very much focuses on the rider's position and posture. I have tried to help the riders to tap into this different way and I think the results can be seen in better balance and softer controls."
"Berni, we have probably done a big turnaround with the contact ideas, Richard has been working with me to get the horses into an easier, and more even contact. He is against the firm, often intrusive outside rein contact has been so much a part of the way we have been doing it! I am finding that my horses are going very much better and I get little resistance by using a constant but soft inside rein and easing the outside contact to allow the horse to bend and relax the neck. The frame and lightness comes from the energy created by the legs.... and that is another thing that Richard has helped with. I am using lower leg with the knee off the horse and thinking about "lifting the horse's tummy" and this allows his hind legs to come further under and lightens the shoulder to access more expression with the front legs - it is a softer way and I have found that softness and lightness just follow on.
Richard has worked with me to get my elbows back which in turn straightens the back and makes the connection to the horse's mouth come from the elbow. The hand is just the connection of the reins and arm and this gives a more ‘following’ contact. The rider’s shoulders are back with an upward inclination, the elbows are back and more level with the line of the rider’s torso and this facilitates a soft contact that comes more from the rider’s upper body, shoulders and elbows rather than directly from the hand. Mary said, “All of the riders have been able to adjust and the difference in the horses has been very noticeable!”
The first rider I was able to see was Monica Bird who was about to start on her second lesson on the lovely imported gelding Quinlan (he was the Medium Champion at the 2010 Victorian Dressage Festival. Monica is getting over a broken arm, so only did Saturday and Monday with Mary as she was still in a little pain and her horse was not competition fit. Monica did some warm up work, Mary said, "Just let him trot loose and relaxed, do not ask for too much engagement in the early stages of your daily work, he can be extra round to start, you must give his back time to relax and swing. At this point Mary asked Monica to stop and came to the side of the Monica’s horse and helped her to identify the new position. This was very helpful and gave Monica a good understanding of the differences. Quinlan seems to appreciate a soft contact and he showed some very nice engagement and expression in the work that followed. Monica worked on changes of rein through the circle and Mary said to her "Every time you change rein, you have to think about the changeover of aids and half halt into the new outside rein - maybe you should make the half halt before the corner then ride smoothly through the corner. Monica, think about using your leg from the hip, practice this in the canter as it will allow you to energise him with the lower leg and not grip with the legs. If you need to activate him, tickle him with the spur and then QUIET, do not use the spur too much. At the walk get the feeling that you "scoop" a little with your seat and swing through the hips to maintain the energy. If he loses energy, wake him up, but try not to nag him every step."
Mary commented on this part of Monica's lesson and said "Richard is so good with teaching position, when it is correct, you have so much more power. He has a way of explaining how to influence and not stiffen!" Mary put a lot of energy and personal commitment to getting this message across and feels that the Squad Members will all benefit from the things she has learnt.
"Bounce the rhythm of the horse and do not lean back, you need to sit upright, as leaning back is a bracing position and we do not want to brace as this causes stiffness in the rider … and resistance in the horse - very negative!" Monica told Mary that she was aware that her reactions were not as sharp as she would have liked! Time off with a broken arm has not been good for Quinlan's progressive training. Mary said, "Monica, don’t slow him into half pace - if you want to keep the ball bouncing, you need to bounce quicker - the rider must bounce the horse's rhythm. Pat him, then activate him, do not pull while you are using a driving aid. Bring your elbows back to improve your upper body posture. If you lean back, you cannot engage your core correctly - bring the elbows back and lengthen the front of your body!" Mary gave Monica some very helpful cues for the correction of position and I am sure that this will make it possible for Monica to do some self correction.
Mary reflected that the judges are more open these days and happy to reward when the work is good and they will also penalise when it is bad. So, as the rider/trainer we must work to make the work easy for the horse, it is our responsibility to ride well, sit correctly and apply the aids in a way that the horse understands. This is where beauty comes into the sport and judges here and overseas are looking for this special quality!"
The next horse to go was the 8 YO mare, Kinnordy Regasa (by Riverdance) ridden by Kate Nash (nee Boyes) and the talented but sensitive mare indicated that a softer and more harmonious way of riding would suit. Kate said to Mary that she felt that she was having a few problems adapting, but practice and attention to the lesson of the past two days will bring about good results. Mary worked on the same things, do not over-ride, use the leg but do not keep nagging with the driving aids and energise the horse thinking about the posture of their tummy to lift the frame and create natural self carriage and lightness of the forehand. "Don't forget to pat, to check the self carriage and connection."
Mary then said to me, "Many international riders have embraced this new way and you can see the results in the way that horses are going - this is the next generation of the sport and it is a very positive way forward!"
Kate's mare warmed to the softer even contact and the shoulder-in and half passes were very expressive and fluent.
"We will take a look at your working pirouettes, but before we do any turns, we need to come back to a shorter "pirouette canter" but only so much that you do not forsake the correct rhythm. Don't support her when you come back, the leg reminds the horse not to lean - that you are not going to support them through the transitions.” Mary reminded!
"Ride from the back end to correct mistakes - do not pull to correct, really think about the steadiness, she must have some "air" in the canter. Good, now she is comfortable, good. Don’t go too long as she gets tired and then problems creep in, be happy with a small amount of good work!"
I noticed the improvement in Regasa's canter and when Kate got the pace more forward and uphill, Regasa could do lovely clean and straight changes with a beautiful jump which highlighted the expression and quality of the horse's excellent movement. It was easy to see that fatigue played a role in the little mistakes. Mary said, "Do not go round and round, get a result and then give the horse a break!"
Mary covered most of the same concepts that she touched on with Monica and Kate said that she was finding it a little harder to the left, but she could feel that softness and harmony would improve as she and her horse get more used to some differences. Mary was pleased with Kate's progress over the three days and Kate enjoyed the clinic.
We went in for an early lunch.
Kate was the first lesson after lunch, this time on the 14 YO Yarra Valley Flemmingha (by the Dutch stallion Flemmingh) - a really beautiful moving mare that has enjoyed a great deal of success in her career. I first met Flemmingha as a foal at an AWHA Gala Day and can still recall the standing ovation that was forthcoming as the knowledgeable crowd identified the special movement of the chestnut filly foal. Kate is now well up the grades and competing Medium/Advanced with Flemmingha and the mare has had 4 embryo transfer foals - so has made a great contribution to dressage in Australia. Kate commented that she needs to be very tactful to preserve her horse's goodwill. "She is particularly sensitive about the contact, so the idea of "less is more" will really suit her." Kate used canter as a warm up for Flemmingha and Mary said, "Steady, do not do too much for your warm up, relaxation and a steady position are the first priorities. Try to use very light aids and keep her up in the tummy, bounce your seat to activate the spring in the horses paces. You need “connection” to get impulsion and expression. Engage her by bringing her tummy muscles up and bounce the rhythm you want - ride her up, do not pull up and this will mean less tension and resistance."
Mary said to Kate. "We will try some pirouette canter (short, highly elevated canter) and release the outside rein to soften the neck and relax the horse. When you do not get a response, you need to be sure to "ask" and be positive with the aids ... say, "Come On" and sit her on her hind legs." instructed Mary. “ Kate, make sure you get your knees off and get her tummy up under her. The inside rein makes the turn and the outside rein controls the turn. Before you do a canter pirouette, come back to walk travers and show her the turn with an outside half halting rein - turn left. Have the shoulders - a little to the right and hind legs - a little to the left. Good! Now come the other way … and get her tummy up before you begin. Pat her on the outside of her neck, do not block her onto both reins … and be sure to keep the neck soft!"
Mary advised, "When horses block on the inside rein, use outside leg - a diagonal aid!
Mary suggested that Kate use a more direct inside rein as the constant … and give more with the outside rein, to ease tension and allow the horse to stretch and soften in the neck. She said to Kate "The bending rein becomes the constant and be sure to release the half halt, if you hang on, it will only create resistance. Do not compromise, “ask” and ride correctly and thoughtfully. If you get stuck, change the rein, do some easier work and then come back to the problem side and start afresh - defuse the resistance!"
Kate was all smiles … and if horses could smile, I think Flemmingha would have had one too. She was a very soft and happy girl and so ended a great lesson.
Gitte Donvig was next to ride on her elegant Grand Prix gelding Port Said. Mary told Gitte to be sure to take time in the warm up and wait for the good feeling - don't force it ... and this will help to build up to the more difficult elements without tension. Words wisdom from mum!
Mary said to Gitte, "Preparation is the key, do not worry about the movement - concentrate on the quality of the preparation. You like to test to see if what I say works!"
After their warm up and some basic work, Gitte asked Mary to look at the canter pirouettes. Mary said, "You must not lose the forward canter steps, the paces must remain true, take the time to think it through! Take him in a counter change of hand in half pass (canter) - don’t always count in your training, ride the quality of the of the canter, bend and flow - you can count with the competition is getting close. Hold the line, make the change and THEN change the direction, this helps you control the straightness and minimize any swing. Now come back to the trot - forward with “air” and be careful not to make it too "passagy" - come on - up the tempo, Gitte."
Mary encouraged Gitte (and all the riders) not to pull back ... and to ride the transitions forward and upward. We will try some Piaffe/Passage work - always think forward and keep his tummy up to lighten the forehand and improve the self carriage and posture."
Gitte did some segments from the Grand Prix test and Port showed energy and ease, maintaining a very impressive frame - a high scoring performance!
Mary commented that Port can be quite deceptive as he often looks more relaxed then he really is and it is up to the rider to ensure that tension does not creep in and spoil the softness and quality of his work.
The next to ride was Stephanie Dijkstra with her imposing chestnut gelding Red Bull. Steph has had considerable success with her 8 YO and said that he is quite reactionary and sometime shows his tension in the contact. Mary said, "An honest connection prepares the way up to the bridle and with him, I would be careful to keep a soft but constant inside rein." Steph worked on easing the outside rein and felt that this was a key to maintaining her horse’s confidence and keeping him "with her"! Mary said, "Bring him around and from the next long side, we will try a half pass. Do not think sideways, stay forward and just keep his forehand on the half pass line, be still and smooth and do not disturb him with your aids!"
In the trot work, Mary warned Steph to watch the rhythm and be careful not to over-ride as this will interfere with the horse's confidence and therefore the regularity of his paces - a little less is best at this stage! Tickle him, do not kick. Think about his tummy, keep him up under your seat, give him a tickle with the leg and then use the seat to keep him going. Stephanie did a great job and her sensitive “red head” seemed to approve of the lessons they both learned.
The final rider for Mary's August 2011 clinic was Cheryl Fort on her striking liver chestnut stallion Rendezvous. Cheryl's travelling companion to Statene Park was her daughter Brittany who brought along the latest addition to the family - a 12 week old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel/Poodle cross named Basil. He is adorable and offered some light relief as he was passed around for a cuddle. I think everyone wanted to take him home!
Cheryl has just returned from a trip OS where she spent some time with Mary, taking in the lessons of Richard and Kyra. Cheryl noted that Rendezvous was not really fit enough to do his best work. This is a truly charming stallion, very quiet and well mannered - perhaps a little too quiet as Mary's first job was to help Cheryl to motivate him into action.
Mary felt that engagement of the hind legs was the key and following some nice forward canter work Mary went down and helped Cheryl to get some half steps happening in order to improve his posture and response.
This technique was very effective and Rendezvous improved activity and posture, it was interesting to note that when he was more energetic and correct, he took his rider into an "upward spiral" and she rode better and found it easier to maintain a good position of the upper body and steadier contact.
Rendezvous (Pictured right) showed an aptitude for the half steps and more advanced work and he is sure to go far, aided by his beautiful accepting temperament.
It was a pleasure to sit in on a day with the Victorian State Dressage Squad and I got the feeling that all of the riders who took part today will be able to put their lessons into practice and improve their horse’s both physically and mentally. Training is the key and having a Coach based in Europe and working with the best in the world can only be good for Australian Dressage. Some of the Victorian Dressage Squad members are also trainers and instructors and this means that being part of the Squad will also benefit their students.
I would like to thank Mary for allowing me to come along, take pictures and notes so that she can share her ideas with our readers. I look forward to doing it again soon.
More Pictures from the Clinic in the Slide Show