When your dressage instructor calls you and asks if you’re interested in auditing a clinic with her, you just say, “Yes!”  In this case, it happened to be a clinic with Janet Foy, the renowned dressage judge and trainer.  She really needs no introduction, but if you want the details, check out her website.

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You need one of Charlotte Dujardin’s “yee haw” moments! Get that horse moving!

In short, you’d better believe she knows her stuff!

Given all her accomplishments, you would think she would be a stuffed shirt, but she’s nothing like that at all! She has a quick wit, an irreverent sense of humor, and occasionally slips in a salty word or two.  She has a keen eye, a sixth sense about what’s happening on the side of a horse/rider that isn’t facing her, and seems to be able to see out the back of her head.  She gives unvarnished feedback, but it comes out in a kind and supportive way — like she knows you and your horse can do better. And don’t think for one minute that she’s going to let you off the hook without you proving it to yourself. Be prepared to dig deep when you ride with Janet.

Our hosts were Wyndham Oaks in Boyds, Maryland, about an hour outside DC.  They have a beautiful facility, which they shared graciously with us. It’s truly a slice of “horsey heaven.” If it weren’t so darn far from my house and my job, I would consider boarding there myself.

So here we were, in the massive indoor, with a proper 20×60 arena marked out, and a viewing gallery for the auditors. To begin, Janet gave a brief talk on judging and scoring, pointing out where rider lose “cheap” and “easy” points, and explained how they multiply throughout the scoring sheet by carrying over from the score for a single movement in a test (sometimes a double weighted score), to affecting the collective marks.

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Cinnamon, the Connemara, stole the show. He came well turned out, and performed his best. But Janet saw where he and his rider could improve…

The way the clinic worked, each horse and rider got 45 minutes of her undivided attention.  To begin, each student rode the USDF test of their choice, during which, Janet provided running commentary and scoring for each movement. When the test was complete, Janet asked each rider how they thought the ride had gone. Then she sent the rider back out to do specific exercises to help with the areas where they had trouble.

Here are some of the highlights:

– Make your #1 goal to be to ride a crisp and accurate test — If the test says canter at A, then pick up the canter at A, not the corner before, and not the corner after.

– Know your test!!! — Her biggest pet peeve was people competing who had obviously never ridden the test they were performing at the show — ever!

– Command attention with your entrance — It’s your first impression, so make the most of it. Enter with a commanding gait. Halt completely for three seconds. Salute with your non-whip hand. Look at C and nod without moving your eyes. Then move out at a commanding gait again. Do not adjust your seat while halted.

– Training is black and white — One aid, one answer, immediate response. If you don’t get the correct response immediately, correct with a whip within three seconds of the mistake.  Then always go back and re-test to make sure you get the right reaction from a light aid.

– Practice 20m and 15m and 10m circles — Circles are simple, but not easy.  Set out cones or some other marker (we used human sacrifice) and measure out your circles. Ride them until you can do them in your sleep, and can feel whether they’re the right size and shape. It takes 5,000 repetitions to make a habit.

– Make your circles round and symmetrical — Most people ride lopsided 24m ovals instead of 20m circles. Don’t just follow in the tracks of the previous rider.

– If you botch a movement — Skip it entirely, accept the score of zero, and focus on executing well on the next movement.  This is the best way to limit the damage to your score.

– If you make two or three significant mistakes — Consider excusing yourself.  There’s no point in putting yourself through either the frustration of the rest of the test, or the psychic damage of a super low score.

– Because I said so! — Remember, you’re the boss! One mare at third level absolutely knew her job, but didn’t want to put out the effort for her rider.  So Janet focused on having the rider communicate clearly that when she says trot, she means now, not when the mare felt like it.

– Don’t coddle your horse — Recognize that they work an hour a day. When they’re not working, they get massages, and treats, and fabulous tack, and pretty sparkly blingy stuff and time in a sunny pasture with succulent grass.  So when you put them to work, don’t accept no for an answer. Obviously if they are injured or unsound, that’s one thing, but don’t take the sass or the laziness from them.

– Reward the initial reaction — When Janet teaches piaffe, for instance, she has her rider walk, then two steps of piaffe, then rewards the horse with sugar. What she’s trying to get across is the connection between the aids and the initial correct response. Then she seals the deal with a small treat.

– Be quick with your contact — Janet is an advocate of taking a quick and strong rein aid, and then relinquishing the pressure fully.

– Use your corners! — Don’t cut your corners! This drives dressage judges crazy.  Remember, you should be riding a straight line down the long side, and a straight line down the short side, connected by 1/4 of the smallest size circle in your test.  If your horse’s extended gait is modest, then make the gait smaller in the corners before and after the extension.

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Janet (in blue) and a couple of volunteers perform as “human sacrifices” to help a rider with the size and shape of a proper 15m circle.

– Choose your test wisely — Each level has multiple tests; choose the test for you and your horse based on your strengths. For instance, first level test three is “canter hell,” according to Janet.  So if you’re not so strong in the canter, choose one of the other first level tests.

– Keep going at free walk — Wait until the horse’s nose touches the letter before you take up the reins.

– Train at “boring trot” — Train daily at the boring trot to get more submission and suppleness. Then show at the fancy show trot. Check every day to make sure you have the fancy trot, but once you know it’s there, go back to the boring training trot to get your work done.

So having read her bio, and seeing the stunning facility, I was quite intimidated to start.  Having met Janet, had some conversations with her, and watched her teach through the levels — literally from Training to Grand Prix in a single day — I can’t wait for her to come back. The only improvement I could think of would be securing a riding slot in her next clinic