Classical Dressage in the Modern Age
Millbrook Farms Presents A Symposium with Gary Rockwell and Guenter Seidel
This is a famous Zen story, and I excerpt it here from the book “Zen Mind, Zen Horse,” by Allan J. Hamilton, MD.
“In a famous Zen story, a pupil approaches a great teacher and asks what activities he should undertake in order to reach ‘satori’, or enlightenment. The old Zen master answers: ‘Chop wood and carry water.’
After ten years of faithfully carrying out these duties, the frustrated pupil returns and tells his master, ‘I’ve done as you asked. I have chopped wood and carried water for ten years, but still I have not attained enlightenment! What should I do now, O Sage One?’
The master answers, ‘Continue to chop wood and carry water, my son.’ The pupil faithfully returns to his duties. Another ten years pass. During that decade, the student matures and reaches satori. He returns to see his master, wearing a simple smile on his face.
‘Master,’ he says, ‘I have reached satori, and now I am an enlightened being. What should I do now?’
The master answers, ‘Continue to chop wood and carry water then, O Enlightened One.’ The pupil bows deeply and retires to his wood and water.”
You see, dressage is not a destination, it is a journey. It is day in and day out of chopping wood and carrying water. Our masters on this beautiful fall weekend at the sanguine Millbrook Farms in Fairfield, Utah, owned by Peter and Sylvia Lawrence, were three time Olympian Guenter Seidel, and FEI ‘O’ Judge Gary Rockwell, who has represented the US at WEG, as well as judged in two Olympics. These two kind, warm, enlightened men, who have reached the pinnacle in our sport, spent the weekend illustrating to every rider and auditor just exactly why they have been able to reach satori. They made it clear that the tricks simply do not matter. What matters is the quality. The daily classical work necessary to build a correctly muscled and properly conditioned athlete can never be accomplished with shortcuts, and attention to detail, taking care of the little things, is what sets the rider apart.
Riders from across the intermountain west applied months ago to ride in this clinic. Two were chosen to represent at the combined Training and First Levels, two for Second level, and one each for levels Third through Grand Prix. Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Colorado were represented by horse/rider combinations, and auditors came from as far away as South Dakota. Since Mr. Rockwell and Mr. Seidel have never worked together in a symposium before, organizer Jan Lawrence left the door wide open for their interpretation, and they did not disappoint. This symposium turned out to be a rider’s dream come true, with nearly every common horse or rider issue appearing, and handled in the most classical way. If it is possible, this rider’s opinion is that Guenter Seidel is an even more talented coach than he is a rider. And, there was not a word that spilled from Gary Rockwell’s mouth that was not of monumental value. I wrote down more verbatim quotes than I have ever written at any clinic or symposium. Both men were funny, smart, supportive…yet very demanding of each rider. As Gary said at one point, in describing his judging and teaching philosophy: “I am very hard on the riders, because I am hard on myself as a rider.” Every rider had to check her ego at the door. While every combination was well qualified and had achieved good scores in the show ring, there were still many more logs to chop and buckets of water to carry. However, Guenter’s electric smile and Gary’s gentle insistence, combined with their collective wit which brought levity to many an intense moment, allowed each rider to feel safe to receive the constructive criticism, and each auditor to remain empathetic to the rider. The two worked together as though they had been all their lives, often finishing each other’s thoughts, or addressing an issue almost simultaneously.
Both Gary and Guenter were sticklers for detail in every facet of the work. A recurring theme in every ride was rider position. The most common mistakes were: hands too high; upper body behind the vertical; lower legs too far forward; improper canter mechanics; and looking down. Gary said: “Guenter and I are going to have a race but I’m going to close my eyes. Who do you think will win?”. Laughter ensued, but it was a serious point. They both elaborated on this by explaining that if you do not look where you are going a cascade of issues develop. Gary pointed out that if you do not keep the front legs in front of the hind legs, the horse does not have to pick the front legs up, seriously hampering the rider’s ability to develop the horse’s balance. Guenter added to this by explaining that looking where you are going influences the horse’s forward thought. Later in the first day after yet another “eyes up” correction, Gary joked “Tomorrow every rider who looks down has to pay more.” In regard to hand position, both men agreed, hands need to be kept low, especially the outside hand. Raising the hands causes the poll to overflex. Gary shared the observation that when a golf instructor shows a new golfer where to place her hands, and then walks away, the new golfer keeps her hands there! Not so with riders. It is not so easy due to the dynamic nature of riding a horse, and therefore the rider must be committed to developing the necessary fitness and strength in motion to keep her hands where they best help the horse. Failing to keep the elbows bent and at your sides causes the rider to round her shoulders. If the upper body collapses backwards and the lower leg comes forward, this forces the rider’s seat into the horse’s back in a continuously driving way, completely blocking his ability to lift his back and bring the hind legs underneath. When asked later to expand upon his instruction to one rider to use the upper leg, Guenter explained that using the upper leg can allow the seat to give more space for the horse’s back to come up. Gary pointed out that it is a very common mistake, when riding the canter, to allow the shoulders to fall backwards at the very moment when the horse most needs the rider to remain vertical. It is often done in an attempt to follow the canter, but the problem is, it is following in the wrong direction, and that along with tension results in the nodding so often seen in the canter, as well as forces the horse onto the forehand. Gary said to Fourth level rider Lindy Kinsman on her spectacular 13 yr old Lusitano stallion Visquiero V.O.: “He can do the canter, you just sit there.” To which Guenter dead-panned: “It’s that easy.” Many riders were asked to cross their stirrups in order to stabilize and quieten their positions. Understand that this was not your usual gentle seat lesson on a lunge line…these riders worked on simple changes, forward and back within the gaits, and lateral work, all without stirrups. I had to ride both days without them, and Hannah Johannson, the Third level rider on her handsome 8 year old Friesian/QH gelding Zander, had to do her entire solo 45 minute ride on the second day without stirrups! Madison Bigler, one of the Trainning/First level riders on her elastic 8 year old Hanoverian mare Dega’l had to do posting trot! Guenter rode three horses over the course of the Symposium. With each one, he deferred to Gary to ask how things were looking. Upon putting the rider back on her horse, he would ask Gary how the horse looked now in comparison to how it looked with him. This was clearly his normal way of studying his art of riding…seeking input from other sets of eyes. It served as a very compelling example to us all that a three time Olympian is careful enough to make certain that what he is feeling is correct by checking in with another rider. Other common corrections were toes up/heels down, toes forward, sitting in the direction of the bend(many riders tended to sit more left and needed to sit more right), and heels underneath the seat.
There were a number of recurring issues with the horses as well. Several horses had the tendency to curl behind the vertical; many were behind the leg but showed it in a variety of ways; correct bend was often lacking; as was throughness during the transitions or even throughout the work. Guenter advised Beatrice Marineau, on her expressive 15 yr old bay Grand Prix gelding Stefano 8, to “fight for the frame”. He told her to allow him come up in the transitions, and, to require him to work with a longer, more open neck in piaffe and canter pirouette. He told her that if she can’t give rein and ride forward, it is wrong. Gary quoted Robert Dover in telling “Trixie” that she will need to feel extension in the collection, and collection in the extension. Several riders had difficulty keeping their horses in front of the leg. My own 6 yr old gelding, Frisco Bay, likes to rely on his good looks rather than give forth a solid effort, and I in turn get very “busy” in an effort to energize him. Gary told me, after one correction which resulted in a kick out at my leg, that “a correction must be correct.” He said that if the correction does not yield a correct result, or cannot be done in front of a judge, it is not a suitable or effective correction. Guenter asked me to cross my stirrups which would stabilize my position, so that I could use quieter aids. By day two of this, my horse was able to stay very engaged and active, because I was now out of his way to work. My corrections had become more correct. Training/First level rider Susan Hallenberg, on her very elegant 6 yr old chestnut mare Ravinnia, was encouraged to really let “Vi” fly, with Guenter promising “I won’t get you bucked off!” Guenter advised Susan that Vi will be much easier to get on the bit if she is sent forward, rather than contained. Gary followed up by saying that if the tempo is too slow at this level, there will not be enough activity for collection later. By the end of the ride on Sunday, Vi was showing off her spectacular Rotspon/Donnerhall gaits. Similar advice was given to Second level rider Laura Lusienski on her studious and handsome 10 yr old chestnut Lusitano stallion Zaire. By encouraging more freedom and forward thought with this pair, Guenter was able to work vicariously through Laura to mold “Z” into a magnificently correct, elastic and expressive horse. Watching from atop my horse, I was awed by his perfect upward arc from tail to poll…he looked like a painting in motion. While working with Andrea Lewis on her 10 yr old Intermediate 1 gelding Beaumont, Gary pointed out that the I-1 test is a surprisingly big step up from Prix St. Georges, and tends to separate the horses more. Guenter worked with Andrea on improving Beau’s bend in all of the work. Gary advised that she should feel a softening to the bending aids before riding into the pirouette, so that she would not have to pull him into it with the inside rein but instead could give into the pirouette. With the Prix St. Georges and the Intermediate A/B horses, Guenter and Gary stressed throughness in the transitions. The inimitable Trisha Kerwin, on the PSG Old/Arab mare Casini, was advised to address the stiffness in the bridle with just the wrist combined with a tap to the hind leg. Tasha Coleman, on her 12 yr old ISR mare Bellini, was asked to work her with a deeper, rounder neck for much of the ride. This worked helped “Peach” become much more elastic and through in her topline. Gary, the King of Quotes, said, “You have to get girls working without them knowing they are working.” He went on to say that lazy horses and mares have a strong sense of what is reasonable. On the second day, Guenter rode Peach, and in making a correction for lack of response, he tapped her with the whip but then let her go. Gary pointed out that because Guenter sat so well, when he made the correction, he left a door open for her to respond. When Tasha got back on, her superb ability to execute instruction and Guenter’s even more superb ability to coach combined to create a stunning evolution in this mare’s way of going. Guenter joked…”You’re making me look bad, she looks better with you than she did with me!”
The Reserve Riders Lara Oles and Liz Hirschland had the toughest job of all…keeping their horses braided, loose, and ready to step in at any moment, for multiple levels, should a horse or rider come up injured.
There were presentations during the lunch hour both days. On Saturday, Graham and Sue Newell of LimeLite Saddlery presented on the topic of “The Evolution of the Modern Dressage Saddle”. They had many very excellent pieces of advice with regard to saddle fitting and how to keep your horse comfortable in his work, so much so that the topic should be an article all in itself. On Sunday, Jeff Monroe, DVM, presented on the topic of Acupuncture in the Dressage Horse. Again, this presentation was so helpful and thorough that it could only be addressed fully in its own article. Also during the lunch hour, and throughout the Symposium, amazing gifts were raffled off. Various items such as Back on Track saddle pads; polo wraps; whips; an 8x10 commissioned portrait; The Horse Angels, a book by Mark Neihart; and other great gifts were handed out to the auditors. Riders were spoiled with embroidered saddle pads donated by LimeLite Saddlery; embroidered bridle bags and stall organizer bags donated by Dover Saddlery; polo wraps; and various grooming essentials. Gold Medal sponsors were Eva Maria Adolphi, Jim and Donnette Hicks of Sage Creek Equestrian, Sage Creek Catalog, and Premier Equestrian. Many other individuals and retailers donated to make this whole event classy and fun.
Watching Guenter “paint” with words to create beautiful works of art out of each horse and rider pair, as Gold Sponsor Donnette Hicks described to me later, was an experience I think anyone involved will not soon forget. “Professor” Gary tied everything back to the Training Scale with so many sound pieces of advice that I got a hand cramp trying to get it all down on paper. As another Master, Abraham Lincoln, said over a hundred years ago: “If I have six hours to chop down a tree, I will spend the first four sharpening my axe.” It became evident to us all that these men practice what they preach in their work with horses and riders, and better examples I cannot imagine. Guenter instantly settled my shaky, star struck nerves with his welcoming smile. He exudes a simple, deep joy that is infectious and undeniable. When talking with Gary Saturday evening, I felt like I should be sitting in an overstuffed leather chair by a crackling fire, with a glass of port in hand while we discussed the theories of riding into the wee hours.
The entire Lawrence Family and the students and friends of Millbrook Farms came together to produce a learning experience beyond compare. Gary and Guenter were able to unwind at the end of the Symposium on Sunday evening with a glass of wine and some fly fishing lessons from Millbrook head trainer Gary Lawrence and his nephew Evan Hills, capping off a very successful weekend with well-deserved fun.