April 2016 - The Right Reaction
Written by Michele Vaughn
Thursday, 31 March 2016 01:52
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At the Trainers Conference and in everyday work, it all begins with response to the aids.

by Michele Vaughn

As I write this first column, it’s only a few days after the Adequan®/USDF FEI-Level Trainers Conference/West filled El Sueno Equestrian Center in Somis with more than 160 FEI-level trainers and riders.


Top FEI dressage judge Stephen Clarke, who has officiated at multiple Olympics and World Equestrian Games, was the featured presenter, along with California’s own FEI judge Lilo Fore, for two days of intense focus on the techniques and tools needed for success in FEI-level dressage.


“It all begins with reaction,” Stephen said in his opening remarks, setting the theme that carried through every ride. The horse’s honest reaction to the rider’s aids is the foundation for all dressage work, at every level.

Conference demonstration riders ranged from Olympian Charlotte Bredahl-Baker to Olympic and Pan Am Games veteran Jan Ebeling, and included FEI-level riders Amelia Newcomb, Cyndi Jackson, Sarah Lockman, Sandy Savage, D’Re Stergios and Sabine Schut-Kery. Their horses included 4-, 5-, and 6-year-olds preparing for the FEI Young Horse competitions and more experienced horses at or approaching the Grand Prix level.

Stephen emphasized the importance of reaction with each horse and rider. The horse must react honestly to the rider’s aids – the horse cannot be through, balanced, supple and have the rhythm we look for unless he does. Freedom of expression depends on those qualities. If we’re holding him back, if he’s running away, or if he’s on the forehand, it’s a sign that the horse is not reacting honestly and it’s impossible for the horse to have freedom of expression. This is as true for a young horse as it is for a Grand Prix horse.

It all begins with reaction: if the horse doesn’t react to your aids, you don’t have the horse through and rideable. He needs energy and impulsion as well as an honest reaction to the rider’s aids. Otherwise, the rider is working too hard for not enough reaction from the horse.

“Most horses don’t reach their full potential,” Stephen remarked. “We put limits on our horses and our training.” He added that good breeding has made it easier for horses today to fulfill the criteria of dressage; they have the conformation for collection and extension, the ability to sit as well as cover the ground, and they have the mental ability as well. However, few horses have no weaknesses.

The exception, he said, is the most consistent horse in the world at the moment: Valegro, who has no physical or mental weaknesses, and whose training has allowed him to reach his full potential. Most horses have more potential than we realize or bring out. To reach their full potential, they must be correctly trained without limits. We put limits on them by compromising their training.

Lilo spoke about what she wants to see in our horses: three clear gaits, a forward desire, and impulsion in the horse itself. A young horse should be proud and go forward with its own energy. Without impulsion, there can be no connection and contact.

Correct When You Have To: Leave Alone When You Can

Throughout the conference, Stephen was generous with praise for each demonstration horse’s good points and future prospects, and he zeroed in on what each horse needed to improve. These are just a few examples of his advice to some of the riders:

“She sits disgustingly well,” Stephen said of Amelia, later commenting, “For me, this is a horse with a real future.” To help her young horse react better sideways to the leg, he asked her to do a turn on the forehand, walk forward, and repeat.

“Correct the horse when you have to, and leave him alone when you can,” he advised Cyndi. He had them do trot shoulder-in, to extended trot, and back to shoulder-in on the long side to help her horse step further under with the hind leg and develop more uphill carriage.

“Create reactions you can reward – that’s what training is all about,” he told Sarah. “Transitions are the name of the game for this horse.” He instructed her to ask for a bigger reaction from her horse. “When he goes, you sit like a mouse.” The quiet mouse is the horse’s reward.

“The rider looked after the horse,” he commented of Jan, who was riding a green Grand Prix horse on day one. Stephen asked Jan to ride the pirouette only as small as the degree of collection he had. Carefully, as collection increased, the size of the pirouette decreased.

“I think this horse was made in heaven,” he told Sandy after they worked through a shoulder-in to half pass to shoulder-in exercise that improved her horse’s half pass. Lilo added, “The shoulder-in is the mother of all lateral movements.”

“Your riding is as good as anybody out there,” Stephen said to Sabine. Observing her warm-up routine, he compared her warm-up suppling exercises to the ballet dancer’s warm-up limbering exercises at the barre.
My notes from the conference could fill a book, but I hope this gives you a glimpse into the in-depth training that prepares horse and rider to go out and make dressage look so easy that anybody could do it. Anybody can – with a lot of dedication and training.


Michele Vaughn is a dressage rider and trainer who earned USDF Gold and Silver Rider Medals. She has coached her daughter Genay from her first ride through Grand Prix competition, and now coaches other riders as well. At her Starr Vaughn Equestrian in the Sacramento area’s Elk Grove, she breeds and trains champion Hanoverian sport horses, manages dressage and hunter/jumper shows, and hosts clinics and breed inspections. Michele and Genay will be sharing authorship of this new monthly column. For more information, visit www.svequestrian.com and www.dressagelifecoach.com.