by Roxana Schoen

Steffen Peters dressage clinic

As I sat at my desk job last April watching Rolex Kentucky while pretending to work, the following thought crystallized in my head at the end of the dressage: “Most of the European riders look like they are halfway to Steffen Peters. Most of the American riders look like they never *heard* of Steffen Peters.”

I’m sorry that thought occurred to me; I felt sad for U.S. I love to jump as much as the next horse junkie; even in my 50’s, I’m still addicted to that thrill of pitching myself and my horse at speed over an obstacle. I’ll never become a dressage-only rider. (Never say never, right? Come laugh at me when I’m 90 because I’ll probably have changed my mind by then.)

Until I’m 90, I’m still going to prefer to jump. But I cannot jump any horse well (and therefore do not enjoy jumping that horse) if that horse does not have really solid dressage skills. Somewhere inside me is a dressage junkie who is not to be denied, I guess.

Given all of the above, this jumping junkie drove 2+ hours (one way) to get myself to the Steffen Peters clinic put on by Hassler Dressage at Riveredge Farm in Chesapeake City, MD on Sept. 7.

Here are some nuggets of gold, from an auditor’s viewpoint:

– Even in warm-up, test the tools you have – do a little half-halt, etc. If he’s tense, relaxation can be the whole focus of the warm-up, but if he’s relaxed, try to lengthen/shorten, shoulder-fore, test things. Does he maintain position? Has he truly understood your aids?

– Before you move into the next gait, get the horse into the most productive frame to achieve the best quality gait you are about to move into.

– Rider’s leg: for a driving leg, use mostly the lower leg, calf-down. For a collecting or downward transition leg, use the whole leg, thigh through calf, with a softer calf.

– The horse should maintain a gait or position until the rider says come back. Leave the horse alone and see if the aid lasts. Don’t let the horse trick you into repetitive aiding. (That last sentence got repeated A LOT.)

– If you keep your focus on getting the best quality of gait in a movement, you will be satisfied with 1-2 steps of perfect movement (and when the horse starts to struggle on step 3, ride forward and out of the movement.) 1-2 perfect strides of a movement is better than struggling through the whole movement. Riders get too focused on completing movements, instead of focusing on getting the highest quality of each part of the movement.

– If commitment from the horse is not there to do a movement, then don’t do it. If the horse is incorrect in the first stride of the movement (not 100%), then don’t do the 2nd stride. Analyze every stride of the movement.

– “Prepare to walk; don’t just walk.”

– Use straight lines to maintain energy and expression, for example, when changing rein. Curved lines lose expression.

– If the horse gets stuck, analyze the aids. If the horse doesn’t respond to an aid fully, correct it then and there every time, Otherwise the horse trains us to repeat the aid over and over.

– Evaluate a judge’s feedback with knowledge of our horse: know what the horse’s challenges are. The judge can say “needs more collection”, but you need to know what amount of collection gives you a good feeling from the horse – he needs to feel balanced.

– If a horse has less than perfect conformation, the answer to what the main challenge is, is not his conformation. You can’t change that. The answer is aids that help him achieve the feeling you’re after. Aids are the only thing you can change: what can I do at this particular moment with my aid, is my aid managing everything that is going on?

– Learn to prepare for a movement and finish a movement – don’t just fall into and out of a movement.

– The goal of performing movements isn’t to “somehow get it done” – the goal is the horse’s education and understanding. For example, test on a straight line whether he’s in front of your leg, before you collect, before you turn. He has to be honest on a straight line.

– Always go back and take care of basics, between movements.

– Halt: Organize it, before you halt. In the halt, the feeling should be that you could piaffe/passage/rein back, etc.

– “Submission” really means cooperation, mutual respect.

– Every time you give a given aid, there is only one correct answer by the horse. If he’s at least trying to answer correctly, praise him.

– Don’t compromise on the standards of a movement. Compromise to a horse’s temperament, talent, level of education – compromise comes in how we apply an aid and how much. But don’t compromise on the standards of a movement.

– When training, don’t be happy with a 6 on uncomplicated movements. Always insist on high quality (7 or better) basics, between working on more advanced movements.

– For transitions, analyze the feeling, don’t think about the transition. If the horse is not in the correct frame, is stiff, resisting, wrong balance, not collected enough, not in front of leg – then don’t do the transition. He should feel at every stride he’s ready to do the transition. Ride until he feels ready.

– Every day, do 7-8 halts. Make sure the horse knows we want square halts.

– The essence of dressage is to make it look simple and quiet. Try the simplest aids first. Heels down is a lighter leg aid, leg forward toward girth is a lighter leg aid – if the horse can’t figure it out, *then* try a stronger aid such as the leg further back, etc. Goal of movements should be peacefulness – firm but peaceful. Always analyze what the least aid you can give is, to achieve the goal.

Steffen Peters was an eminently gracious, kind, supportive clinician, with a self-effacing, polite manner. He’s consistently logical and intelligently analytical in his approach to solving rider problems – there’s no mystery involved. He formulates his thoughts into clear, straightforward ideas, and repeats key ideas whenever applicable (so it’s easy to see how important a specific key idea is, applied to all horses). He’s fit as a fiddle, a silent but very visible advertisement for the value of rider fitness.

If you want serious motivation for any riding endeavor, I believe you cannot go wrong in seeking out this oracle who we are so lucky to have in the U.S.