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Notes from the Stephen Clarke Clinic & Symposium - Brisbane 2015



With the help from sponsor, the QLD Festival of Dressage, the Dressage QLD Judges sub-committee undertook to bring the FEI Official International Judge General, Stephen Clarke, to QLD – and bring him they did. Stephen was quite simply – pure brilliance. I came away totally inspired to train and strive towards improvement in this ever challenging sport. A huge thankyou to the DQJSC, the QLD Festival of Dressage and to the event supporters, Riders xoxo, Stacey Alexander Equestrian Style, and Equistore, for making Stephen’s visit and this amazing opportunity possible. After watching 3 days of lessons and the Symposium, below gives an impression of what Stephen Clarke is all about: On Dressage

  • What we’re interested in, is that each horse has a future in the sport

  • Train the horses to do the job for themselves

  • The dressage horse needs to be active enough that you don’t need your leg; and balanced enough that you don’t need your rein

  • The rider must never let an exercise sacrifice the essential question about forward thinking


Some Stephen Clarke Quotes


  • ‘He knows what he is doing – so don’t let him pretend he doesn’t’

  • We should always be ready to be surprised

  • They have to earn their living

  • Let the family history GO

  • Horses are better at training riders than riders are at training horses

  • You can ONLY collect a horse that is in front of you

  • This horse has made too many choices in life already…

On Young Horses


  • The basic paces must be correct, in good balance and going forward of own accord

  • Sow the seeds for the future

  • The purity of paces must be maintained and enhanced

  • No limits in the frame

  • We don’t care if it’s a young horse or a GP horse, they must always be in front of the leg


On the Warm UP


  • Deeper, rounder, looser – stretch the topline longer

  • In the warm up, the rider has to check if there are any limits on how deep, how round, how loose they can put their horse. If the horse puts a limit on, it is the rider’s job to work beyond these limits. Push the limits away. There has to be NO limits.

  • Lateral submission through every turn and corner

  • The warm up is essential to make them sensitive


On the ‘Up’ Frame


  • Be ‘up’ or ‘down’ – never in the middle

  • Be Black or White – no grey


On ‘Behind the Leg’


  • Don’t ride it faster because they are behind the leg – it’s all about reaction

  • Make him sharp and forward

  • BE the tiger – and then Be as quiet as a church mouse

  • You need energy in order to collect it

  • If you feel them behind, give little surprises - a lot

  • If he back peddles (thinks backward or backs off) in the downward transition – flat out gallop in response

  • Don’t put up with half-reactions

  • Give yourself a lecture about what you’re NOT going to do: no compromises with leg reaction… when you touch them with the leg, there will be a bloody (not literally!) reaction


On Resistence


  • When a horse offers resistence, we can make the mistake of taking it personally – and we mustn’t do this

  • Some horses LIKE to argue and if they succeed – they win

  • Don’t get sucked into the fight

  • Use a combination of exercises to develop what you want… this is quite a good game to get him into – shoulder in, to a more forward gear, to travers and then a 20 metre circle deep, round and loose again

  • If he sets himself against you – ride one side in leg yielding – don’t join in with what he’s doing

  • Give him a break and then we’ll change the ball game a little bit

  • When he runs away – stick to your plan – shoulder-in a little bit

  • He just HAS to do it – perfection can come later

  • Don’t get sidetracked – stick to the plan - horses like this are good at changing the subject

  • Horses are good at training riders! We want to be better at training horses, than they are at training us to accept what they are prepared to offer

  • The important thing is your constant message – I won’t get sucked into your resistence – it’s a psychological game

  • He would like to be long and on the shoulders – try not to go there – do shoulder fore 15 metre circle and upper body back – stay on the hindleg with a forward hand. He’ll have no choice but to come to the hindleg

  • He’d love for you to hold on to him where he wants to be – but we’re not going there, refuse to support him

  • Ride a smaller circle with leg on, rather than pulling him back to the hindleg


With Spookiness


  • Don’t take him on with the rein in the spook, but be clear about submission to the bend

  • He needs to be more worried about your inside leg than what he wants to look at!


With Horses with a ‘Slow Hind Leg’


  • By nature – he pushes away to evade engagement – goes passagy

  • Make sure the tempo is quick enough to be a REAL trot tempo

  • GO more fast forward than he would like

  • Onto canter, and again too slow… quicker, quicker; you need a real crisp jump to each canter stride

  • Even though he is an FEI horse, you need to always train him like a good 4 year old

  • There must be no blocks anywhere – deeper, rounder, looser

  • No matter how advanced the horse – pay attention to the quality of the warm up

  • NO ‘hover’ – the hind leg must go under – end of story

  • Keep hands in front of your body – always into a more forward contact

  • Train him into a fast forward button

  • When you bring him back with the rein – you compound the problem – he blocks in the back and goes slower behind. Instead bring him back with a forward contact and think shorter/quicker

  • Ask for quick, sharp and handy reactions - and then a quick thankyou on the neck

  • The rider has to build ‘come back quick’ into the work – and if any back peddling – GALLOP

  • Watch he doesn’t slow down in the hindleg when you alter his balance more to the hindquarters

  • He has to learn to come back by stepping under – rather than coming back on your rein


With more Phlegmatic (ie: lazy) Horses


  • She is a bit of a diesel motor

  • Bit deeper – just so you know there are no limits. If you suspect a limit, push it away, don’t accept it

  • Be one step ahead of her

  • Trot – make lots of gear changes, even in the lateral work

  • Left to her own devices, she would be happy to just coast along – but it’s time to ask bigger questions

  • It’s all about producing honest reactions that you can reward her for, and not that you ask for something – and she thinks about it

  • Can you make gear changes in shoulder in? surprise her! Just as she starts humming to herself – surprise the hell out of her!

  • Always come back into more activity

  • She has to work for her living

  • And if she does come quicker – a quick thankyou from the rein


With Horses that Tends to Lean


  • She’s looking for too much support in the rein

  • Try lots of simple transitions – refuse to support her – Say instead, I expect you to carry yourself

  • Just make her good enough that you can let go

  • Absolutely forward contact – Don’t hang on – now you’re training her to do it for herself.

  • Take the ‘water wings’ (aka: floaties) off.

  • Canter – shoulder fore/up to the bridle/in balance – don’t hold her

  • Organise her when you have to – and let go when you can

  • Don’t support them

  • Forward contact

  • Keep hands in front of your body

  • Teach them to self-carry

  • Upper body away from your hands/let go of your inside rein

  • Rely and trust your half-halt

  • It always MUST be possible to LET GO. If you can’t, DO something about it


On Transitions


  • Play the transition game with no compromises

  • Forward contact when you go forward to the upward transitions and ride forward to the downward transitions

  • Lighten up the split second you have them

  • Nothing backward in the point of contact

  • You can lift your hands momentarily to lift the poll, but don’t support him up there

  • When you make a downward transition within the pace, his tendency is to get on the shoulders… try to ride him in shoulder-in so he can’t get onto the forehand

  • Downward transitions are the chance for the rider to change the horse’s body weight to the hindleg

  • The half halt is a re-balancing aid and/or a warning signal

  • The rider should be able to Switch on and switch off the horse ie: have an energy trot and a sleeping trot


On Lateral Work


  • Leg yielding comes first because we need to make sure the rider has control of no bend, before they try controlling bend

  • Shoulder-in is uniform bend away from the direction of movement; travers is the same uniform bend, with a more 4 track angle, but looking in the direction of movement

  • No real difference between travers and half-pass – just the steeper the line, the more bend is required

  • The inside rein looks after the direction, the inside leg looks after the bend and activity and the outside aids control the movement

  • Any lateral exercise is only as good as the preparation…. So if you don’t have them in the preparation – don’t ask for the exercise

  • Aim shoulders always in direction of movement

  • Temptation for the riders to create bend with inside rein – this is a rider mistake – it is the inside leg’s job

  • Inside leg at the girth for shoulder-in


On Extended Trot


  • At the risk of an accident, make a dramatic transition – take a risk!

  • Make the drama happen in the first few steps


On the Flying Changes


  • There must be submission to the new positioning ie: the new side

  • The energy and quality in the canter before the change must be good

  • He needs you to be confident because he’s not that sure of himself – have very positive aids

  • The changes are better than the canter – they gave the game away! If they can change like that – they can canter like that!

  • If they come croup high and behind leg – the exercise is go on a bit, and then back a bit – and then a few one’s; on a bit back a bit – then a few one’s; they need to think forward

On Pirouettes


  • It’s the subtle ways they make us compromise, that we need to be aware of.

  • Try a 4 loop serpentine with half pirouettes over centre line and ride out really forward. Make the decision before you do it – have a destination and GO there

  • All you need for a good pirouette is to have him 100% in front of you with invisible shoulder fore

  • Make a decision – if it’s feeling small – make it big; If it’s feeling big – make it small

  • With her pirouettes – you must make the decisions – ‘Don’t let her hold you to ransom in the pirouettes’ – Try this - Ride a square, do a quarter pirouette in each corner and gallop in between – she must think forward – Once she goes into that labored slow motion canter, you’re lost


Piaffe Tips


  • The difference between piaffe and passage is the moment of suspension

  • Exercise 1 -stay in collected walk and stay in this gear and ask for a few short steps

  • Exercsie 2 – from collected trot, into short steps in collected walk gear

  • Reaction is EVERYTHING – must be electric

  • As soon as they are behind the leg – GALLOP!


For me personally, I took home...


  • Be prepared to react like a tiger, then sit as quiet as a church mouse

  • Be as effective as you need to be to get the job done

  • 100% respect of the half halt and the accelerator

  • Whenever you lose the uphill going (and he loses balance) don’t continue in the movement – gallop – get him in front of the leg and eager again – then continue

  • A good exercise – half pass on diagonal – straight on diagonal in medium trot – and back into half pass on diagonal

My thanks to sponsors, Horseland – Gold Coast and Proteq Equine Bedding, for their endless support. With their help, I can produce the horses in the best of tack, equipment and condition. Also thanks to Borsato’s owner, Traci Bolt, for every day I get to work with Borsato.

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