I attended a clinic with Ulla Parker on September 13th at the fabulous facility of Cedar Creek Farm. Ulla Parker is a Danish native and resides on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She is a Master Bereiter and USDF silver medalist. She has trained with and worked for top trainers in both Europe and the States, among them Mikala Gundersen, Lars Petersen and Scott Hassler. She has ridden in clinics with Michael Klimke, Debbie McDonald, Ingo Pape and Steffen Peters. She won the East Coast Selection Trial for 6 year olds in 2012 and was qualified to go to Verden. In 2014 her students earned Silver medals, Regional Championships, BLM championships and placed in the top 10 at the National Championship.
If you can’t tell…. Ulla is a great trainer and gets great results!
I have to admit when I saw the lineup of riders I was a bit nervous. My trainer, who is a fabulous rider of course, was riding two horses at the clinic and some of the other riders were Ulla’s regular students and rode as high as Prix St. Georges and have won multiple medals and awards. Pretty intimidating company.
I recently purchased a four year old Quarter Horse who is just learning dressage and as a rider I have only shown Intro Level. I had to wonder if I was shooting a bit high coming to a clinic with so many good riders. Would I be disappointing to teach? Would the other riders wonder why someone at my level thought I could come to the same clinic as them? But I had helped organize the clinic and figured I should certainly attend and do my best.
I arrived shortly after my instructor starting riding so I got to watch some of her lesson. It was going fabulous of course – her and her student’s horse looked great and Ulla was giving out her trademark phrase of “Yaaaah. That looks good.” Not that I wanted something bad to happen during their lesson but I may have felt a bit more confident going into mine if it wasn’t going quite so well!
I was next in the lineup and we began in the walk, working on bend and staying on the circle. Ulla pointed out that when my mare’s outside shoulder drifted out I needed more inside leg because it meant we were not going forward enough to get the proper bend. I had been giving her a bit more outside leg so this was a good “aha” moment for me. Forward movement is key to getting good bend. Ulla said, “think of it like a bicycle. If you aren’t going forward enough, you won’t be able to steer.”
She also pointed out that I let my mare get away with bits of naughtiness without correcting it immediately. For example, there are times she evades by moving off sideways and she reminded me I need to correct it strongly and quickly or she would learn evasion was possible. It has to be 100% clear to her that she won’t get away with any evasion, ever.
Other items we worked on were the fine line between going with the forward movement without giving it away and making sure the inside hind leg was pushing. I have a tendency to ask for more forward motion but then guard against what “might” happen. It’s a bad habit because it will shut down a young horse that should be learning forward is a good thing. With a little bit of coaching, I got the trot and the kudos from Ulla we were searching for, “Don’t accept anything but this trot…. Yaaaaah!”
I learned a lot during my lesson but I learned something really monumental as I watched the other lessons after mine. I kept hearing the same things I had heard during my lesson. Sure they were doing more advanced movements and wow, their horses were beautiful and strong and talented but in the end dressage is about the basics over and over again and even at the higher levels, the basics are essential.
I heard, “Get the hind leg and keep her connected.” Later when one rider was practicing their counter canter, I heard, “you need to ride counter canter just like you do regular canter – don’t be afraid to let it out and bring it back in. Be careful she is not running. She needs to push. Bring her back in with a quick hind leg.” And then, “Tell those hind legs to push, not just move.. … yaaah… beautiful!”
Later I heard, “Goal is to keep the same rhythm in the trot…Collect a bit more but keep the same rhythm.”
Okay… so they were doing much more advanced movements than us but in the end they were still working on keeping the hind leg pushing and keeping a regular tempo, just like me and my mare.
After the clinic I asked Ulla who she likes to teach, expecting her to say the top level riders. She surprised me by saying, “what I love is the ‘aha’ moments and that happens at all levels. I just like to teach someone with an open mind who is willing to learn.”
What an ‘aha’ moment for me. There is no reason to be intimidated about riding in clinics, no matter the level of the other riders. Dressage is about where you and your horse are at that moment, trying your best and improving on what you did yesterday. At every level the basics are still important and something we all go back to over and over again – keep that pushing power going from behind, maintain the bend, straightness and relaxation.
Some other great tips I heard:
- Half halt before and after the movement so she doesn’t get too strong in your hands. Always start and finish with a good half halt.
- The half halt needs to be a little bit stronger when she is not engaging in the back end right at the start so you don’t have to correct so hard later.
- It’s not enough that she comes back in collection, she needs to keep the swing her back too.
- Keep steady, positive tension in the reins. He can’t come through if you keep throwing it away.
- Use transitions. Bring her back, push her forward. Change the transitions up to get that inside hind leg working.
- Don’t use the outside rein to hold him to the track. He has to do it because of your inside leg.
So what is my take away message? Attend clinics! I hear from folks all the time why they don’t attend – “I don’t like people to see me ride.” “I need to get more lessons before I can go.” And my favorite, “I’d be a waste of the clinician’s time.”
You aren’t ever a waste of a clinician’s time. Remember that they all began at the bottom and most of them begin at the bottom over and over again as they bring along new horses. What is important is that you come with the open mind Ulla mentioned, the willingness to learn and the ability to listen and work hard during your lesson.
Hope to see you at the clinics!