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  • Abi Kroupa

Laura Graves Dressage Clinic: Clarity of the aids & creating a self-going horse.

Mere days before the Georgia Dressage and Combined Training (GDCTA) Laura Graves’ two-day clinic began, Georgia residents were enjoying unseasonably mild summer temperatures. However, by the time the weekend arrived, we welcomed Laura to our typical “Hotlanta” style, hot and sticky summer weather. Luckily, we were blessed to have Shannondale Farm, USEF Elite Training Facility in Milton Georgia, host the clinic which features a world-class indoor arena with two level view areas, a lounge, kitchen, restrooms, and PLENTY of shade.

Photo courtesy of Meg McGuire Photography©

The facility was grand, but the setting was intimate. The clinic had over 50 auditors and 8 riders over the two days. There was a wonderfully diverse group of horses ranging from Friesian Sport Horses to Premium Dutch Warmbloods and riders included Juniors, Amateurs, and Professionals.

Photo courtesy of Meg McGuire Photography©

I’m just your average small time professional trying to balance horses, training, plus having small children of my own. At this point in my life, I can only dream about long-term goals of international competition. But what I loved about Laura, from the beginning, was her positive friendly training style and the way she really simplified the training process. As I just finished a season at Prix St. Georges with one of my horses, and am getting ready to start showing my new young horse, I was ready to be inspired and motivated to be a the best rider I can be.

Clarity of The Aids

Reaction to the aids, connection, and straightness were the clear theme over the two-day clinic. In each lesson, Graves reiterated the importance of clarity when you are training your horse and “creating a situation for the horse where we can educate them.”

The first rider on day 1 was Logan Wilson and 4-year-old Monterey Bay (Monty). It was a unique opportunity to watch someone with Grave’s level of expertise work with a young horse and discuss what the expectations are at this stage in the training process. Monty had confidence in his rider and handled the atmosphere like a seasoned pro.

Photo courtesy of Meg McGuire Photography©

Graves worked with Wilson to improve the connection, especially in the transitions. She discussed the importance of methodically making sure the horse “understands the aids at the beginning of training.” Graves emphasized that, in training, timing of the aids is crucial. “The second he gives you have to remember to give as a reward.”

Graves also stressed the importance of educating our horses on every piece of equipment we put on them, including the bridle. “The horse must first understand a soft, supple connection before we are able to start driving them into it from our leg and seat aids.”

Regulating The Tempo

The next pair in the ring were professional rider Jennifer Davis and six-year-old mare Cassiopeia. Graves commented on how wonderfully the mare stayed in front of Davis’ leg. She helped Davis on regulating her tempo and stretching her neck to lengthen her frame.

Photo courtesy of Meg McGuire Photography©

With a hotter horse, Graves helped Davis “warm-up in a way where you can look for a doorway to slow her down mentally and physically.” They worked on circles, bending lines, and transitions. Graves schooled them with an emphasis on the quality of the walk in the walk-to-canter transitions. “It should always be your best scoring walk before the canter transition.”

“She has to learn to find her own balance at a slower tempo and allow you to put more leg on.”

Junior rider, Gracie Sizemore, and her 7-year-old elegant Dutch gelding looked forward to solidifying their connection with Graves’ help. On day one, they worked on improving sharpness from aids, particularly in the transitions.

Photo courtesy of Meg McGuire Photography©

Suppleness, straightness, and reaction to aids were illustrated throughout various exercises and visualizations. The leg should not work to maintain the gait. Leg aids should only be necessary to cue transitions. Graves emphasized that it was the horse’s job to maintain the gait without nagging aids from the rider.

The morning of the clinic showed a nice progression through the different levels of training, going from young horses through Grand Prix schoolmasters.

True Self Carriage

The next rider was Ashley Keller, professional rider aboard Lingh’s Sinclair a 9-year-old gelding currently competing at FEI Prix St. Georges. Graves spoke about moving horses through the levels and how leg aids, and their meaning to the horse, progress with the training - going from just moving forward, to moving sideways, to collection, to eventually piaffe & passage.

Photo courtesy of Meg McGuire Photography©

“It gets to a point in training where the horse begins to understand true collection. At Prix St. Georges, when you bring the horse back, you want him to create more energy and engagement from behind.”

Keller warmed up with canter transitions within the gaits going from collected canter to medium and extended canter.

Graves made a point to focus on Lingh’s Sinclair’s reaction to the leg. “Only touch him if you are changing something. Otherwise, he should maintain on his own.” They also worked on connection and making sure he was pushing forward into the contact when Keller put her leg on.

They did various transition exercises on a circle, allowing the horse to find his own natural balance and tempo in the collected canter. Graves then wanted Keller to test if he was truly self-going by letting the horse make a mistake (such as breaking to trot) before making a swift correction.

Understanding Straightness and a Self-going Horse

The rest of the lessons and rides on Day 1 continued with a focus on creating a self-going horse with emphasize on straightness. Creating energy with leg aids was the rider’s first job. Only then can the rider contain the energy through the connection of the reins.

Graves worked with Amateur rider Laura Carter and her Lusitano on symmetry and straightness. Graves explained that “Straightness is not a lack of suppleness, but equal suppleness on both reins.”

Photo courtesy of Meg McGuire Photography©

Graves commented that everything we do in Dressage is about symmetry. When we ride the tests, the movements are done equally in both directions. So, we must train our horses to be symmetrically and equally strong in both directions. Ultimately this leads to a sounder more balanced horse.

Day 2: How Hard Are You Working?

On Day 2 we saw significant improvement with all the horses’ reactions to the leg aids. Graves explained that a horse must be in front of the leg, responsive to light aids, and able to maintain the gait they are in without constant aids from the rider – no matter the level.

As a rider, always ask yourself, “How hard are you working?”

Ashley McCormick was the first rider of Day 2. She is an adult amateur currently riding PSG on her own gelding Lord Bonsai. Graves and McCormick continued their work on the horse’s reactivity to the leg. Graves stressed the importance of the timing, off the aids, when making a correction. Otherwise, the correction becomes another aid.

Photo courtesy of Meg McGuire Photography©

Graves schooled the pair on being forward and supple at the same time. “There has to be a boundary in the front for the horse to push into and be supple.”

They also worked on consistency. “The rules have to be the same, always! As soon as you accept less of a reaction to the aids, that is the new standard in the horse’s mind.”

Positive Tension

Marissa Collins, an adult amateur rider, lessoned on her lovely grey 18-year Iberian Warmblood for both days of the clinic. Her rides focused on sharpness to the aids and a consistent connection.

Photo courtesy of Meg McGuire Photography©

Graves spoke with them throughout both days on the importance of the boundaries of leg and hand aids, and turning a horse’s negative tension into positive tension. “When you find a place of resistance where he starts to struggle, it’s an opportunity to train.”

They worked on equal suppleness in both reins which ultimately leads to true straightness. They did various exercises to address controlling the tension and allowing Collins to relax her horse’s back by creating energy forward from leg to hands. Graves asked, “Can you feel your horse’s energy in your hands?”

“Absence of contact is not the same as lightness.”

Photo courtesy of Meg McGuire Photography©

The Standard

Graves insisted on rider accountability and only accepting quality transitions and gaits from all the riders and horses. “As soon as you accept less, that’s the new standard in the horse’s mind.” However, when you drill a movement, the amount of bad quality work tends to outweigh the good.

Laura Carter and her gelding came out the second day with a much more relaxed and flexible warm-up. Graves and Carter continued to work on the walk-to-canter transitions. “Find the walk that is your horse’s best walk and only ask for the canter from there.”

Photo courtesy of Meg McGuire Photography©

Graves worked with them on “not letting the tempo of the walk change when going from the walk-to-canter.”The rider must be able to regulate the walk before the transition to canter.

Quality of the gaits and transitions was a trend that continued to the next rider, Abbey Dondanville and her Grand Prix Friesian Sport horse mare, Glory. Graves and Dondanville warmed up with transitions, allowing her mare to lengthen her frame.

Photo courtesy of Meg McGuire Photography©

Dondanville and Glory worked with Graves on pirouettes. As an accomplished Grand Prix pair, they know this movement, but maintaining suppleness, bend, and adjustability were key components that Graves focused on.

“The Pirouette is still a canter. Don’t compromise the fact that it’s a canter.” They schooled with bending exercises that helped isolate the horse’s neck and shoulders. This way she could perform the pirouettes while still maintaining the tempo of the canter and suppleness of her neck.

Photo courtesy of Meg McGuire Photography©

Building Blocks

“Stack the blocks. Don’t just move from one block to the next.” was a phrase that Graves continued reminding to all of the riders.

“If everyone would realize the Grand Prix is really just variations of the walk, trot, & canter, we would all settle down about a lot of things.”

At the end of the clinic, each rider went away with a more self-going horse that was reactive to the rider’s aids. Graves had a positive way of teaching that kept the atmosphere light and fun. She focused on the rider’s having effective and correct aids, and she also insisted on consistent quality from her students.

Photo courtesy of Meg McGuire Photography©

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the weekend:

“It is our responsibility to educate the horse on every piece of equipment we put on them. The horse must first understand a soft contact before we start driving them into it.”

“The main objective in the horse’s education is clarity of our aids.”

“Every time we get on a horse, we have to think of ourselves as their personal trainer.”

“Always be tidy in your training. Always do good transitions.”

“Always ask yourself, How hard am I working?”

“As soon as you accept less, that becomes the new standard in the horse’s mind.”

“Absence of contact is not the same as lightness.”

“Equal suppleness is true straightness.”

“Finding the place where the horse struggles a little bit but doesn’t fail every time. This is the place where you can train and improve overtime.”

“Let the horse figure out how to use their entire body in a way that feels natural to them.”

Photo by Shannon Brinkman

Laura is an American Dressage rider and trainer. Her and her horse Verdades "Diddy" won the FEI World Cup Finals - Dressage Grand Prix Paris 2018! Verdades was USDF Grand Prix Horse of the Year 2017. This combination represented the USA in 2016 Summer Olympics ensuring a team bronze. Laura became the first American dressage rider to be ranked No. 1 in FEI World rankings, aboard her longtime partner Verdades. She is one of the most successful USA dressage riders of all time. Her training is steeped in solid background of USDF instructors, Anne Gribbons, and Debbie McDonald. Laura has an accessible demeanor and makes riding light and fun despite its demands.


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