Rutledge Farm Sessions, under the direction of Aleco Bravo-Greenberg, continues to bring world-class equestrians to Middleburg to teach clinics open to all levels of riders in show jumping, eventing, and equitation. On September 14-15, dressage joined the list of disciplines when Olympic medalist and technical advisor to the U.S. Dressage Team Debbie McDonald worked with eight riders whose equine athletes represent the gamut of levels from Training to Grand Prix.

Within a few minutes of each session, Debbie saw what needed help and went to work with exercises appropriate for the horse’s level of training. She’s very encouraging, a bit demanding albeit gently, and makes certain that the horse has a positive experience to end an exercise. She also holds the rider accountable to learn to be consistent in their aids so that the horse can learn how to respond and move correctly.

“You can’t hurry a horse,” Debbie said. “They all learn at a different pace. But you have to know your horse — how much the horse can handle and process in a session. You can’t be greedy, asking more and more. You have to be sensitive and know when to move on — the moment you feel even a hint that the horse understands an exercise. Don’t keep going on and on until the horse loses it. Be patient. Everyone learns at a different pace. You simply can’t hurry a horse.”

Dressage means training according to a very progressive system with well-articulated requirements to master at each level. It takes years to develop the horse’s muscles and strength, mind, and body, to achieve the uppermost levels, especially Grand Prix.

Each day began on the Training level with Salerno, 5-year-old Hanoverian gelding by Sir Donnerhall, ridden by Nikki Smith of Smith Equestrian, Middleburg. The upper-level event rider owns Sal’s 9-year-old half-brother, Sir Valentine, with whom she’s currently eventing at the 2-star level. This summer Val won every class they entered between First and Third level to qualify Nikki for her U.S. Dressage Federation bronze medal.

“Sal just had a growth spurt to 18 hands. He’s very big,” Nikki said. “I love bringing along young horses, especially ones as lovely as Sal. A good foundation in the basics of forward, straightness, and connection is the key and Debbie focused on all three of these.”

With Sal and Nikki, Debbie corrected the rider’s use and timing of the outside rein. “The outside rein is used to straighten, but just for an instant and then both hands soften and encourage the horse to go forward to the bit,” explained Nikki. “I was having a tendency to stay too long on my outside rein when straightening, causing Sal to bend a bit to the outside and feel trapped.”

Debbie knew exactly what the rider needed to do, and it worked wonders. “A small correction with my outside rein, followed by softening the reins and going forward really helped with straightness and getting Sal to move forward over his back to the bit, which improved our connection,” Nikki said. “Sometimes a small change can make a huge difference and that was the case for us this weekend.”

Melissa Palmer, who lives near Rutledge Farm, and Reagan 10, her 7-year-old Oldenburg mare, are at 2nd level. As thrilled as she was for the opportunity to work with Debbie, she couldn’t help wondering what they might learn in two lessons. “I have to say I already felt like I got a lot out of Saturday, but Debbie gave me some good tools Sunday to take home to work through this tough phase we’re in.”

As for Debbie herself, she loves training, loves teaching, and enjoys seeing these two- and four-legged athletes moving in greater harmony, but it all comes down to the rider as a trainer: consistency, balance, straight, forward, impulsion, correct contact, self-carriage. Dressage is not for sissies, human or equine. It’s as demanding as classical ballet, more so, being an inter-species endeavor.

Each afternoon featured duos at various stages of Prix St. Georges and lastly, at Grand Prix, Ellert HB and Lucy Tibbs. Debbie offered pertinent training insights for each horse and rider, according to their levels, but one of the most pragmatic bits of advice she shared is a heads-up for riders not to make their horses dead to their aids by over-use of leg and spur. “The horse’s reaction to your aids is crucial,” she said. “When you put your leg on their side, they must go forward. The rider has to train the horse correctly.”

Bottom line: “Be patient,” encouraged Debbie. “It’s constant communication that develops from consistent aids that will come from seamless riding when you teach them through repetition. Be patient and don’t rush the horse. I want riders to be fair to their horses and be their voice. It’s so easy to want it all now, but it just doesn’t happen that way. Please be kind and get more training. Find an instructor who has been certified if you plan on going places in your career.”

Upcoming Rutledge Farm sessions include Will Simpson – jumper/hunter, Ali Brock – dressage, Phillip Dutton – eventing, and Stacia Madden – equitation.

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