15 Dressage Training Tips from Lisa Wilcox

Lisa Wilcox and Ernst Hoyos gave a two-day clinic last April. It was Wilcox’s third sponsored by the New England Dressage Association and the first time Hoyos had accompanied her. The duo gave the more than 300 clinic participants a glimpse into the daily training they do at home at Gestut Vorwerk in Cappeln, Germany. As a result of her collaboration with Hoyos and the Oldenburg stallions at Gestut Vorwerk, Wilcox now holds third place on the FEI/BCM Dressage Rider Rankings–third best in the world and highest American ever. Wilcox also was a member of the U.S. silver medal team at last year’s World Equestrian Games.

Lisa Wilcox and Ernst Hoyos at a NEDA clinic | ? Patricia Lasko

Hoyos, who spent nearly 30 years riding and training at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria, is not only Wilcox’s trainer but also her life partner. Their humor mixes with the serious focus of their training when he calls her “the old lady” if she is not quick enough, and she calls him “grandpa” if he forgets something.

Three professionals brought the horses on which Wilcox and Hoyos demonstrated their training methods: Adam Lastowka brought Macho, a 9-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding owned by Paula Fiorenza and Paint It Black, a 6-year-old Dutch Warmblood owned by Emily Glidden. He trains at Wadsworth Farm in Danvers, Massachusetts. Christopher Hickey of Westhampton, Massachusetts, and Wellington, Florida, brought Werbellin, a 9-year-old Hanoverian stallion owned by Rachel Ehrlich; and Lisette Milner brought her 11-year-old Oldenburg gelding Skydancer and 8-year-old Dutch Warmblood stallion Eminence. The trainers also rode and got some great training in the bargain.

Wilcox often had the audience laughing with her while she worked hard to explain how they train and why. She rapidly translated questions and instructions from English to German for Hoyos and then back again for the audience–both on the ground and while riding. She was at once serious, funny, self-deprecating and always dynamic in her efforts to let her audience in on the wealth of knowledge she has acquired in her 10 years living and training in Germany. It’s as though she wanted her fellow Americans to share in her success. Here are 15 tips the duo stressed during the clinic:

Wilcox and Hoyos work in-hand with Paint It Black. | ? Patricia Lasko

1. Never come into the barn and say, “I have one hour to ride and then I have to get home.” Always come with a plan, never a timetable.

2. If a horse had too much bend in his neck during the shoulder-in, try this correction: As you come around the corner, let him think he is going onto the diagonal but ask him to do shoulder-in down the long side instead. First try it on the track and use the wall. Next try it on the second track.

3. To improve, ask yourself, “What am I doing in my body?” You have to have control over your own body to ride well.

4. The more you step into your inside stirrup, the more you are in the horse’s center of gravity.

5. To make a horse’s trot longer and bigger, drive forward into a more constant connection. This will make the rib cage looser.

6. See how your horse is reacting. Feel how he is feeling. Get a feel for when your horse is tired. You de-motivate a horse to work hard when he is tired. Know your horse’s personality. All horses are different so the trainer must have a feel for all types.

7. With foundation work, you create a happy mind in your horse that allows you to do the hard stuff later on.

8. The rider’s seat, in general, is straight for collected trot, a bit back for the passage and a tad forward and lighter for the piaffe. None of these are extreme changes.

9. Hoyos emphasized that if a horse fidgets with his head, don’t react or pull. Stay quiet. If the horse tosses his head a bit, he’s saying that his muscles are sore. But he?’s got to get through the work that day. So keep your hands low and ask for more bend to stretch the soreness out of his muscles. Never lose the rhythm. Keep your inside leg deeper to stay in a driving position. Keep the hands quiet and constant.

10. If a horse gets strong, you must send him forward. Do a 10-meter circle to get him connected again.

11. The horse is not carrying himself if his head is bobbing up and down at the poll. To correct this, the rider must have very quiet hands and keep her stomach out and quiet. There must be no disturbances in the mouth. Just push him forward.

12. To keep your hands steady and quiet, form a bridge with the reins by holding both of them in both hands.

13. For horses that are not self-motivated to go forward, the rider must be quieter with his hands. He must try for more energy without shortening the neck. A rider should be able to ride without hands. The hand is an assistant to riding. It’s an aid. It can kill the driving aids.

14. Too much use of haunches-in might not send the horse into the future correctly because the hind end can come up instead of down and put the horse on his forehand. Shoulder-in and shoulder-fore are better exercises because they always keeps the inside hind leg stepping under. Use many variations of shoulder-fore and shoulder-in–different grades and angles help the horse find his rhythm and become supple.

This article is excerpted from an article appearing in the August 2003 issue of Dressage Today.

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