Kira. Photo by Kathryn Barret.
Performed by the best horses and riders, dressage looks easy. That's the way it should be for everybody, says Sonoma-based trainer Daniel Rocks. It takes work, of course, but not the kind that induces teeth grinding and gritting it out.
"Dressage is not a mystery," Dan says. "If you get your horse loose and round and through, then you can do just about anything with him." Often that means going back to instill the basics and there's no shame in that. A proponent of lifelong learning, Dan studies the techniques of the sport's best. "The top horses in the world are still ridden like they were 4-year-olds: round and through," he observes.
"I insist that my horses and clients master the basics before advancing to the next level. We don't do a horse any favors by holding them together." A horse that won't or can't maintain light self-carriage is usually a horse that hasn't learned to use the right muscles, the trainer explains. "Just as in fitness training, it's hard to lift the weight with the right muscles and it's easy to lift it with the wrong muscles." There are no shortcuts for teaching a horse to use the right muscles, but the pay-off is big in the form of horses that move forward freely and with impulsion at every level.
Daniel & Binero.
A Connecticut native, Dan worked for several international riders and trainers before settling in the Bay Area about 10 years ago. He came to dressage by way of polo, jumping and other disciplines. "The reason I do dressage now is that I've done most of the other disciplines and dressage is the one that creates the fittest, healthiest horses. I've seen horses break down in other disciplines and I didn't want to watch that anymore. This is my life and it's my obligation to learn the best way to keep horses going well and going year
Dan was cocky when he first came to dressage. "I really thought it would be no problem to just sit there and ride and get my balance back," he recalls of his introduction to dressage many years ago when returning to riding after an injury. "It's embarrassing how arrogantly I underestimated the true challenge of this sport. Becoming a skilled dressage rider is the most humbling endeavor I have ever embarked on."
Dan started his own training business three years ago and is based at American Canyon Training Center, 35 minutes north of San Francisco, where he lives. "I've had the privilege of traveling and studying with great trainers," he says. "Each has something to offer." He counts Pam Nelson, Ann Guptill and, more recently, Axel Steiner as among those who've influenced him the most. Then and now he is a student of the sport and the riders, horses and coaches who excel in it. "We need to look at the top people, who are continuing to produce horses that compete at the international level and last, year after year."
His clientele includes those with and without competitive ambitions. They share Dan's conviction that dressage is the best way to build a strong, happy healthy horse.
"Dan is a wonderful person and a wonderful horseman," says Lorna Goode. Currently schooling Grand Prix movements with her PRE stallion Jaleo, Lorna loves Dan's ability to meet students and horses where they are and help them get to the next level. "The horses are his work," she says. "But they are also his passion."
The "loosemeister" is Dan's nickname among students, Lorna reports. "He can get on anything, including the stiffest horse in the world, and within five minutes, the horse is
"Loose," however, doesn't apply to Dan's teaching style. Sometimes getting as much exercise as his students, Dan's out there at X doing everything possible to coach constructively. He likes imagery to convey concepts and prefers show over tell. "I try to help my students imagine what things should look and feel like." Repositioning a leg, pinpointing the muscles required to sit the trot and putting a rider on a schoolmaster to feel a specific exercise are among his tactics.
Although he typically rides eight to 10 horses a day and coaches several students, Dan also makes a point of volunteering within the thriving San Francisco-area equestrian community.
Competitive equestrian Daniel Rocks sits atop Jaleo XXX (14 yr old PRE owned by Goode Rider) before his performance at Dressage in the Wine Country in Santa Rosa, Sept. 17, 2011.
Photo by Alvin Jornada
In the process of saving a severely neglected horse named Sammy, Dan got the ultimate opportunity to demonstrate the power of dressage. Dan supports the Sonoma County C.H.A.N.G.E. Rescue program, co-founded by his veterinarian and friend Dr. Grant Miller. When his client Angela Decarli adopted Sammy from C.H.A.N.G.E. in 2008, Dan signed on to work with the mare. Sammy had been confined to a small stall for most of her life, was near starving and lacked muscle tone and range of motion. Behaviorally, "she was a mess." Today Sammy is healthy and strong and doing Second Level dressage work. She's made a few appearances at clinics and Dan hopes she can make a schooling show debut this year.
Dan took on Sammy's training as a contribution to the rescue effort, but the endeavor quickly became a gift in and of itself. "This has been the most rewarding thing in my career to watch something like this," he explains. "Sammy went from a disaster to where she is loose and strong and holding herself together. It is a testament to what dressage can do."
The trainer also enjoys his recently assumed role as board president for the Cornerstone Assisted Riding & Equitherapy, C.A.R.E. program, run at a private facility in Napa.
For more information on Daniel Rocks Dressage, visit www.danrocksdressage.com.