Published on November 27, 2013

Erin Shea in USDF Connection Article

In September, Foster and I traveled to the the Sport Horse Prospect Development Forum presented by Dressage at Devon, at Apple Knoll Farm in Millis, MA. The forum was led by Scott Hassler and Ingo Pape and was an amazing educational experience for us both.

The United States Equestrian Federation’s December USDF Connection issue features an article about the forum. Foster and I were honored to be part of the article! Check out the text version of the article below, or download the full PDF.

USDF Connection December 2013 issue cover.

Bright Futures

USDF Sport Horse Prospect Development Forum makes successful debut

By Peggy Halpin. Photographs By Carole MacDonald.

The USDF Sport Horse Prospect Development Forum, presented by Dressage at Devon, a USDF education partner, and supported by Hassler Dressage, had a successful maiden voyage September 14-15 at the beautiful apple Knoll Farm, Millis, Ma. Created by the USDF Sport Horse Committee, the forum aims to bridge the educational gap for horses, riders, trainers, and breeders between the USDF Sport Horse In-Hand Program and the US Equestrian Federation Young Horse Program by providing a correct system for starting sport-horse prospects. The forum was hosted by the New England Dressage Association.

At the helm were the well-known young-horse experts Scott Hassler and Ingo Pape. Friends and business partners for two decades, Hassler and Pape trained with the late German master Herbert Rehbein for several years. Based at Hassler Dressage at Riveredge in Chesapeake City, MD, Hassler is the USEF national young-horse coach, the founder of the USEF Young Horse program, and the founder and organizer of the annual Young Dressage Horse Trainers Symposium at Hassler Dressage. Pape’s Hengststation Pape in Hemmor, Germany, is one of that country’s leading private stallion stations. Pape’s Hanoverians have won ten Bundeschampionate medals and three FEI World Championships for Young Dressage Horses medals. Most recently his five-year-old mare, Scara Boa, by his stallion Scolari, won the 2013 world Five-Year-Old title.

Goals and Format

Key in producing a solid riding horse is the starting and handling of the three-year-old, and this was the emphasis of the forum.

“They remember everything—good and bad—so make good training decisions to avoid bad experiences and develop a confident foundation,” said Hassler.

Serving as demonstration horses were five three-year-olds. To provide contrast between the three-year-old and the four-year-old year, also invited were three four-year-olds. According to Pape and Hassler, the horses were selected for their potential to become dressage sport horses. Their riders all are emerging trainers and competitors of young horses, many of whom have participated successfully in the USEF Young Horse Program.

The presenters emphasized the control of the young horse in the basic work, and the importance of developing his trust and relaxation by treating each horse as an individual and coaching him along the way to help him be successful. According to Hassler, his goal for the forum was to show that every horse needs a development and training plan that is custom-designed to suit his needs. Pape strove to emphasize the importance of the basics and the daily development of the partnership between horse and rider. Pape demonstrated his philosophies as he lunged a three-year-old gelding who had become fractious in the symposium environment. Trust comes first, followed by mental and physical relaxation and then the training scale, Pape explained.

Details and Openness

First up was Brendan Curtis on the three-year-old Flavius MF. Flavius MF had been under saddle only about 60 days, as was true of all the three-year-olds. Like all of the demonstration riders, Curtis had brought an inexperienced, unpredictable young horse to a foreign atmosphere to be viewed by an audience—not an easy venture.

The three-year-olds began on the lunge. Hassler said that this is one of the most important phases in training a horse. Take your time, he said, so that the horse has a good experience and is not physically or mentally overfaced.

On the lunge, the horse should move in a ridable tempo with a ridable mentality, Hassler said. During the forum, lungeing was never used as a time for the young horse to race around, buck, and let off steam.

The forum audience benefited from the fact that nothing was “sugar coated,” and clinicians and participants alike were willing to speak honestly about the challenges of working with young horses.

One beautiful, talented, and smart three-year-old gelding was clearly playing the “Who is boss today?” game. As soon as Pape took over the lunge line, he noticed that the horse’s noseband was too loose, the bit was adjusted too low, and the flash strap was so loose that he was able to flick it off the horse’s nose. In Germany, Pape said, the fitting of the bridle is well defined and is scrutinized at every show.

With the bridle fit improved, Pape began the lunge-line work. The gelding immediately attempted to invade his space, buck, and throw his front legs in the air. Watching Pape handle this impetuous youngster was a lesson in itself. Pape does not allow bucking or misbehavior. To get the horse to focus on his work, Pape asked for walk-halt transitions with his voice and a half-halt on the lunge line. His goal is for the horse to respond to his voice commands, he explained, so that when he rides he has to do less with the mouth.

As the horse gained focus and self-control, Pape moved on to walk-trot transitions and then trot-canter. The trainer was focused on the horse, and he expected the horse to focus equally on him. Pape never lost his patience or resolve, and he never raised or changed the tone of his voice. The horse rewarded him with his focus, trust, and relaxation.

In his work at home, Pape lunges before every ride so that the horse knows his voice, he said. He also likes to see the horse accepting the bit and giving in the poll before it is ridden.

Think Forward

Olympian Lendon Gray, who attended the forum as an auditor, commended the demonstration riders for bravely letting their horses go forward and not trying to make corrections every time a horse got out of balance or resisted. Horses’ heads went up, down, left, and right; there were hollow backs and profiles that dipped behind the vertical; but the riders quietly and consistently rebalanced their partners and waited with quiet hands to receive the contact. Never was a head “played” down. As Pape put it, “The problem is in front of you; the solution, behind you.”

Hassler added that it is easy to put a horse’s head and neck in a “frame,” but he wants the horse to learn how to relax into a correct outline instead of being manipulated into position. Don’t hurry to solve this problem, and use the reins to guide, not to restrict, he said.

During one ride, there was a discussion over the definition of “forward.” Hassler explained that forward does not equal speed or running the horse on the forehand. The rider must determine the horse’s ideal tempos; in fact, a rider may need to back off to find the right degree of forward.

It is easier for a young horse to be forward if he is straight, Pape said. Even if a horse is going too fast, never take your leg away, he added; all communication is through the leg. If the horse is too forward or running, then use walk transitions to slow and rebalance him.

Both clinicians value the canter for helping young horses develop the ability to be forward. In many of the demonstration horses, the canter was not free and rolling forward, with the horse using his back. In these cases, Pape requested that the riders go more forward in the canter, always straight down the long side of the arena—at times eliciting some gasping and breath-holding by the audience as the riders sent their horses into big, ground-covering strides that allowed them to feel their backs in the canter.

“Do not try to hold the tension down,” Pape said. “Try to ride the tension forward.”

When the riders did this, in many cases horses’ headtossing abated and they became happy in the canter. Pape advised: if a horse is tense at first in the canter, keep him cantering instead of doing short sets. Let him learn to like the canter.

“Don’t ‘visit’ the canter,” Hassler concurred. “Let the horse feel his back coming through. once the horse has figured out his canter, then the rider can start to do transitions—transitions that feel good for the horse in his body, not just transitions for the sake of transitions.”

Pape commented that he sees three-year-olds being ridden in too many circles. He prefers to start on straight lines, which are easier for the horse, and adds bending lines later when the horse is warmed up. Otherwise, he said, the horse falls out on the shoulder too much on the bending line.

Scott Hassler works with Erin Shea on Foster RW.

Photo by Carole MacDonald, published in USDF Connection magazine, December 2013.

Next Steps

If a horse demonstrated sufficient mastery of the basics, Pape would ask the rider to vary the length of stride in trot and canter, explaining that transitions within the gait are important for loosening the horse’s topline.

Another of Pape’s favorite exercises are what he called “wake-up calls” with the leg, often in the form of quick walk-trot transitions: applying the leg when the horse is behind the leg and then becoming passive with the leg when the horse gives the correct reaction. It is not good to ask with the leg all the time, he said. He starts this exercise when the horse is three years old so that he learns to respond to ever-lighter aids. To help the horse understand what is desired of him, Pape rides the walk-trot transitions in the same place in the ring, using lighter aids each time.

As Erin Shea warmed up her three-year-old KWPN stallion, Foster RW, the horse started with good balance, relaxation, and contact in trot and canter. Shea’s question to the clinicians: What now? Pape recommended not lateral work, but work on straightness, transitions within and between gaits, and adjustments to the stride length. He advised Shea to vary the work while ensuring that she does not overface the horse—perhaps a lunge-line session one day, a ride the next, and a hack the next, for instance.

Because Foster RW was able to take a good contact, Pape frequently instructed Shea to let the horse go long and low in the trot and canter—not on loose reins but with contact. A proper stretch, he explained, shows the correctness of one’s training. Pape had each rider end the session in a long and low stretch, with the horse swinging forward into the contact.

As we progressed in the training scale with the four-year-olds, Pape advised always thinking forward, not quicker. Keep the rhythm, he said, remembering that the work is easier for the horse when he is straight. He commented that there is a short time window on every forward driving aid: never compromise on the up transition; it is OK to compromise on a down transition, but never up.

As Pape worked with the more balanced three-year-olds and the four-year-olds, he started requesting half-halts, with inside flexion to outside rein followed by a softened inside rein to improve the swing and relaxation in the back.

On Balance

On the first day of the forum, as each horse finished his session, he was unsaddled so that the audience and the clinicians could evaluate his conformation and physical development. Hassler used the opportunity to access each horse’s weight, explaining that he has seen too many overweight three-year-olds; and to look at the balance of each horse from withers to hindquarters. If a horse is growing at this stage and quite high behind, it may be better to wait for a while before resuming training, he said.

One of the highlights of the forum was the opportunity to ask questions during the training sessions. The audience of professional riders, trainers, and judges made fascinating comments and asked intelligent questions as each horse was worked.

Hassler concluded the forum as he began, reminding all in attendance to focus on starting horses correctly. “Have a clear purpose for everything you do. The best training of the horse is a good decision, end of story. Respect the horse,” he said. “We are our horse’s coach, so we have to make good decisions and guide them along the way.”

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