Judge and Coach Stephen Clarke Strengthens Knowledge at the 2015 Succeed/USDF Trainers Conference
Written by Betsy LaBelle - In Dressage - Saturday, January 24, 2015
The January 19-20, 2015 “Succeed/USDF FEI-Level Trainer’s Conference” held at High Meadow Farm in Loxahatchee, Florida proved to be a valuable learning experience for all who attended. With about 200 auditors, new footing and a super covered arena, the conference was clearly rewarding and beneficial.
Headlining the successful conference was official FEI International Judge and feature presenter British-born Stephen Clarke. Well-respected, Clarke maintains a base of operations in Cheshire, Great Britain where he develops young professional riders and has trained many horses to win national and international championships. Traveling regularly for training and judging throughout the UK, the US, and worldwide, he has judged major global competitions from Kentucky Horse Park to the World Cup Final indoor tournaments to European championships such as the World Equestrian Festival in Aachen, Germany and the recent Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France.
The goal of the conference was to promote effective communication between Clarke and the auditoring Trainers. Giving an example as a judge as well as a coach, Clarke shared a piece of the puzzle, “There’s a better way to say your horse needs to be more collected. Often telling the rider the horse needs to be more collected, the rider then takes hold of the front end of the horse. So, I’m careful how I talk about collection. The horse needs to be better engaged, often works better.” There were plenty of questions from the auditors needing further discussion on a wide-range of topics, movements, judging, and observation.
Clarke also discussed his view on the half-halt and on the different influences to the horse, “It’s impulsion within the balance of the steps.” He explained, “The rider must be able to increase the energy while the horse takes the weight further back on his body.”
Awarded several 8’s by Clarke, Shelly Francis and Patricia Stempel’s Danilo, a 10-year-old black Hanoverian gelding by De Niro, went through the Grand Prix test in a sort of ride-a-test format. Performing the piaffe movement with precision and earning a nine score, Clarke shared with the auditors how the horse’s pirouettes on the center line were with feeling and energy. Impressed and in discussion with the auditors and Shelly, he acknowledged how he looks forward to watching the pair succeed at the Grand Prix level. He spoke about how it takes five years to train a horse to Grand Prix and another two years in the show ring before a horse becomes established and successful in the international arena. Shelly, well on her way, used the venue to build confidence in her horse with an audience framed around the arena.
Clarke then worked with D’Re Stergios from Petaluma, California, a former figure skater who once rated third in the nation, who rode her own eight-year-old Hanoverian mare Sarumba. With a base of training from Lilo Fore, Stergios showed Sarumba's exceptional elastic and free-flowing motion. Clarke worked on relaxation with the mare and said the walk deserved a 10 in scoring. He spoke on the shoulder-in, “When you put a horse in a situation where it’s pushing off its inside hind leg, that is the foundation for almost every exercise in dressage.”
On the half-pass he said, “Preparation is key, the corner, the bend. I always say nose, neck, shoulder, then the half-pass. It’s the rhythm, then the horse’s body. The horse must be wrapped around the rider’s inside leg. Those are how you get the big scores.”
He said of Stergios’s horse, “This trot is so elegant, I’m at a loss for words.”
Clarke then introduced several exercises to further develop the half-pass in the trot. He had Stergios cross the diagonal, ask for haunches-in and then straighten. Her mare struggled to straighten after wrapping around the right inside leg and Stergios giggled as she noticed the difficulty. But the mare easily straightened after wrapping around the left leg on the next diagonal after the haunches-in. Together they completed the challenge with flawless potential as the trot continued to balance in even steps.
Next, Clarke had Stergios play with the tempo of the half-pass and then the medium trot between the haunches-in on the diagonal or half-pass. He also noticed that the medium trot lacked pushing power and he used the half-pass/straighten/half-pass exercise to improve the power of the stride. At one point he reminded Stergios, who looked pretty perfect, “Be sure you are riding forward into the contact. The contact cannot disturb the rhythm.” He must have seen something so tiny, as the rhythm appeared to be quite spectacular.
Clarke explained, “As a judge, we see horses slow down in the collection and speed up in the extension. For instance some riders do passage in the half-pass thinking it looks like a better trot, but that’s not the goal at all."
Pointing out that it’s best to be careful with a young horse, and not to ask for too many extended trots, he said that it’s better to do only a few steps within the exercises. Clarke stated, “What improves the trot will improve the extensions.” He continued, “With the haunches-in on the diagonal, then straight, then medium trot, half-halt and back to haunches-in on the remaining diagonal, the lateral work improved the quality of the trot. That’s not always easy to do, but D'Re has great understating of this mare.” Careful observance of the mare’s body, recalling elements of her skating formations and working with Lilo Fore gives Stergios great insight and understanding of any weaknesses in her horse’s movements.
Lilo Fore explained how, as coach to Stergios and Sarumba, she has had to temper their enthusiasm. Because they are so ambitious, Lilo has built a solid foundation of rhythm, rhythm, rhythm from the very beginning and also how to hold a tempo. Proud, she shared that Stergios did all the work herself with the horse and that she often must remind Stergios to do less or take a step back when the mare feels too much pressure. The mare wants to be perfect for Stergios, thinking she knows what’s being asked before she fully understands the brand new exercise. It’s obvious to any observer that this pair, Stergios and Sarumba, have something special in their communication, as all three gaits are 10s and each exercise only continued to improve those gaits even more.
A question later by one of the auditors asked whether Stergios’s hand position should be lower. Clarke responded that her hands were in a perfect position for her. Lilo shared that she, too, frequently requests to Stergios to lower her hands but, because of a short forearm, it often does not look right, either. Her arms look great and the small line between the elbow to bit may be the only fault line anyone could ever find in this pair.
To conclude the lesson on the first day, Clarke asked Stergios to work on two steps for the piaffe—he wanted to make sure the mare reacted and was praised for the reaction. When the mare did not react, Stergios galloped the horse to make sure it was understood that additional leg pressure meant a reaction must ensue. The mare understood and the next placement for the two steps (or half-steps) of the piaffe were there, along with a quick praise.
He asked Stergios to post in normal trot and let the mare go long in her frame as a thank you for the hard effort. He concluded by saying, “It’s very important to not only know how to turn the horse on with a quick reaction, but also a rider must know how to turn off the pressure and let the horse relax.”
Lilo Fore said it best, “Stephen never wavered from his belief that no matter who was in front of him at this conference, that it’s about a reaction and response from the horse; then one can be a peaceful and a rewarding rider.”
We all wish to thank USDF and title sponsor Succeed, Dressage Clinic, Mary Anne McPhail, and the volunteers Dressage4Kids Winter Intensive Training Program, Stephen Clarke and all the participants.