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Island riders prepare to meet international dressage master
"Dressage" is the French word for "training," but when applied to horses and humans, it might be better imagined as the addictive pursuit of the perfect partnership of horse and rider. Students of dressage dedicate themselves to hours of work with their horses, progressing slowly toward the smooth, supple execution of a series of standard movements and figures that have been studied and refined over centuries.
Arranged by Martijn Stuurman, a Dutch dressage trainer teaching at Red Pony Farm and working privately at Willow Farm, both in West Tisbury, the six-day clinic is the first of its kind here and a rare chance for Islanders to get hands-on advice from Mr. Isselhorst and a panel of professional dressage judges.
The goals of dressage, to supple and strengthen the horse, make it possible for Sandroman to step well under himself, under rider Martijn Stuurman. Photos by Ralph Stewart
"Most clinics are only three days," Mr. Stuurman explained this week. "We decided to test a new educational format and offer six days. After three days, riders are just beginning to get an understanding of what they're trying to accomplish. With extra time, they'll have a chance to work out their individual problems with Ralf."
According to Mr. Stuurman, the program entitled "Total Dressage: Training, Showing and Judging," will bring together riders, judges, trainers, and audience for an intensive six-day regimen at Willow Farm. After completing the clinic, riders will be asked to perform an appropriate dressage test that will then be scored by recognized judges. The results will be discussed symposium-style with Mr. Isselhorst, the riders, judges, and audience. "The goal," Mr. Stuurman said, "will be to develop a better understanding of the lower level dressage training and of the judge's eye for correct classical training and the execution of a dressage test."
Dressage enthusiasts and Island residents Molly Cabral, Jennifer Rose, and Alexia Jason all plan to participate. "It's amazing the clinic will be held right here on the Vineyard," said Ms. Cabral. She and her horse Giovanni, a five-year-old, train together five to six days a week at the Red Pony with Mr. Stuurman. "I'm really excited that a trainer of Mr. Isselhorst's caliber will be here."
Teammates Sandroman and rider/trainer Martijn Stuurman.
Ms. Jason, who teaches basic riding and dressage at Crow Hollow Farm in West Tisbury, plans to use the clinic to hone her own skills. "He's pretty good," she said wryly. "It's a rare chance to watch someone from another country and culture. We don't get that kind of exposure here, and Germany is the backbone of dressage."
Dressage is both a method of schooling and a competitive equestrian sport. It dates back more than 2,000 years to the ancient Greeks. Greek horsemen practiced dressage to prepare themselves and their mounts for war. The warriors were thought to be braver in battle, because their stallions showed an extraordinary aptitude for pirouetting, leaping, turning and moving sideways, maneuvers that not only look beautiful but help in eluding or defeating enemies on horseback. Classical dressage, as it has come to be known, fell into a lull during the Dark and Middle Ages but enjoyed a resurgence during the Renaissance, particularly in Italy.
Ralf Isselhorst, international trainer and judge
Internationally accomplished rider and trainer Ralf Isselhorst in competition. Photo Courtesy of Ralf Isselhorst
Ralf Isselhorst has earned an international reputation as a classical dressage trainer and instructor. He apprenticed for 18 years with Dr. Reiner Klimke, the "guru" of dressage in Germany, and went on to establish his own name in the field, serving as the official trainer of the Korean dressage team at the Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea. His goal is to help talented riders with quality horses to reach the Grand Prix level. Mr. Isselhorst travels worldwide and maintains his own training facility at the Riding Club Appelhulsen in Germany.
Today dressage is an Olympic equestrian sport and a basic training discipline for any horse and rider. As the young horse becomes stronger and more balanced, the dressage discipline teaches the horse to be obedient, supple, willing, and responsive. The rider guides the horse through a series of movements and figures using the subtlest of "aids" - a closing of the fingers, an imperceptible shift of weight, a squeeze of a calf. The goal: to develop the horse's mind and body in unity with the rider. Dressage is a step-by-step progression from simple to increasingly challenging movements for horse and more subtle aids from the rider. More and more is demanded from the horse as he becomes mentally and physically prepared to respond, and more and more subtle communication from rider to horse also develops.
Dressage is trained and demonstrated in a hierarchy of specific levels, from introductory through Grand Prix, that build on each other and reflect the development of the horse and rider. From walking and trotting at the beginning level to complex zigzags, piaffes (a trot in place) and pirouettes at the Grand Prix level, dressage strengthens the horse and teaches him to carry himself and the rider on his powerful hindquarters, an achievement in art and athleticism at each level. As a competitive sport, it is performed in a rectangular arena with a set of letters that designate where movements are to be executed. Judges are looking for accuracy of the transitions (changes of gait), obedience, suppleness of the horse, quality of the gaits and the rider's use of aids and relaxation of horse and rider. The judges use a scoring system from 0 through 10. Zero means that the movement was not executed, 10 means excellence. Nine is considered an extraordinary mark.
Rider Martijn Stuurman allows Sandroman, the Hanoverian gelding he is training, to stretch his topline and relax at the trot in the indoor arena at Willow Farm.
"It's a gradual process," she explained. "It's exhilarating to maximize the horse's physical nature and combine it with our own balance. Building that harmony takes years of practice and it's never complete - there's always more you can achieve."
For more information on the Total Dressage clinic with Ralf Isselhorst, presented by Willow Farm and Red Pony Farm, contact Martijn Stuurman, 774-210-0395. E-mail email@example.com.