Eventing Dressage vs Dressage: A Clinic Review with William Fox Pitt

I’m not an eventer, but I secretly admire them. I’m terrified of cross country and cross rails seem high to me. To have the courage and bravery to gallop a horse across an open field and tackle obstacle after obstacle is something that I’ll need A LOT of mental coaching to ever feel capable of tackling.

That being said, I signed up to audit a William Fox Pitt symposium that was recently held here in Wisconsin.

Why would a dressage rider go to an eventing clinic?

Well, it’s William Fox Pitt. Even if I never jump a course in my life you have to be able to learn something from an Olympian.

But… he’s an eventer #thehorror

And eventing dressage is not dressage. #saidthedressagesnob

Dressage is dressage and any horse can do it.

After all, how many times has George Morris said that if something is wrong on the flat it will be wrong in the jumping? Flat work done correctly is dressage.

Dressage is a foundational principle in training that systematically strengthens the horse.

So, what did I learn from an eventer about dressage?

I was pleasantly surprised to hear how much emphasis WFP placed on proper warm up and relaxation.

We began the day with a group of Beginner Novice and Novice riders. All of the participants were on horses that they were training which created a unique environment and shifted the emphasis to creating a strong foundation for their horses to both physically and mentally perform.

Immediately WFP emphasized the need for a structured warm up and talked about the way he thinks about breaking it up into three sections.

For a typical 30 minute warm up for lower level horses (i.e. not in the CCI levels):

Section 1: A walking warm up to get the horse moving and relaxed in the environment. WFP affirmed the need to expose the horse to the environment that they are in. He reminded the riders not to become limiting in the rein in an effort to ‘protect the horse from their environment.’

He also emphasized the need to establish good connection so that the horse would be ‘ready to be asked’ when you want them to do more work. I thought this was an excellent way to sum up the need for throughness and connection in any kind of work without making it feel limiting and restrictive.

Section 2: Connected and Correct

He asked the riders to ride in rising trot to get their horses moving in a round and down frame to encourage throughness. For horses that are comfortable with it WFP also said that he prefers to keep his weight slightly forward in the canter to encourage the horse to raise its back and engage its core muscles. He did state that this might not work with younger horses since the weight shift could excite them. Transitions were also a tool that was suggested to help keep the horse interested and mentally present in the work.

WFP also told the riders to ride by feel and stay tuned in to what their horse’s needs were.

Section 3: Practice the movements from the level

WFP said that usually only the last ten minutes of his warm up is when he’ll begin to practice the movements of the level he’s about to test in. He repeatedly stated the need to keep the horse comfortable. He highlighted the fact that poor performance usually comes from achiness and tension that is created in the warm up.

Getting down to work WFP offered some sage advice for eventers entering the dressage ring.

“Eventing dressage isn’t difficult movements but they are difficult to perform correctly.”

Starting from a dead straight center line to differentiating circle from corners, WFP ran the lower level riders through a simple test he made up on the fly. Offering comments and scores for each movement as they were ridden. It was easy to see the emphasis that he placed on accuracy and correctness.

He reminded the riders that a badly ridden test is under the rider’s control. One of the keys for success was picking targets for accuracy but also not being too abrupt with the aides so that the test flows. WFP’s prefered style being to include an ‘and’ in his aides to give the horse 2-3 strides to respond. For example “whoa and Whoa”.

The theme of relaxation continued with the Intermediate group.

During the warm up WFP commented on the horses relaxation but repeated pushed all four riders to be more expressive with their horses. He said that if you are finding the movements or test boring, think of showing off your horse in those moments. Make the judge look at you and take note.

A keyword for this middle section, and carrying over to the advanced group was ‘dynamic suppleness’.

Repeatedly WFP got after the riders for being too careful and cautious. He said that if we work at home and warm up with a lower energy level and then suddenly ask the horse for more when we enter the arena it breaks their routine and creates tension.

With this group, WFP began to also incorporate leg yielding with the work. Again, restating that it’s a seemingly easy movement but it’s also difficult to get high marks for. Every stride of the leg yield needs to be the same in all ways: reach, rhythm, relaxation, connection, bend, throughness etc. A trick WFP also taught the riders was that if you are leg yielding left, you should be posting on the left diagonal and if you’re going right, you should be on the right diagonal. Posting incorrectly will throw your horse off balance and disrupt their movement.

The necessary first step to any kind of movement was submission.

WFP reinforced these ideas for the advanced group:

  • Proper warm up

  • Relaxed, dynamic, energy

  • Accuracy and expression

WFP also encouraged the group to be imaginative with their dressage works so that their horses would stay more mentally engaged and responsive. Emphasis was placed on the need for the rider to be confident and brave in their dressage, adjectives more commonly applied to the cross country rounds.

He also began to emphasize the positioning of transitions to help hide mistakes from the judge, especially with canter departs and leg yields.

A final take away that cropped up in every group’s dressage work was the importance of the walk. WFP returned again and again to the fact that the walk is extremely important. Especially as the rider moves up the levels. It may seem like it’s only a small movement but any bobbles in the walk affect the summative scores at the end of the test.

WFP repeatedly said that he uses the walk as a measure of the horse’s readiness to work and mental state. Emphasizing that a correct, forward, and well connected walk was essential.

For some horses who were struggling with tension and forwardness in their walks, WFP asked them to continue at a trot or canter but to return to the walk for short periods of time. In this way, the rider could work out some of the negative energy and build the walk into the horse’s regular work routine without mentally overwhelming them.

 

My big takeaways from all three sessions were:

  • The importance of a proper warm up

  • The need for consistency and routine

  • Balancing work and rest

  • The importance of the walk

  • The importance of relaxed yet dynamic energy

  • The need to be creative to keep the horse mentally engaged

  • Perform movements with accuracy

  • Be brave and confident

  • Dare the judge to give you poor marks

  • Give the judge a reason to wake up

And even though these points came from an eventer, don’t you think they apply to plain old dressage too?