Posts tagged: clinic

Clinic: David DeWispelaere

I intended to do a blog post about this clinic right after I rode in it – but time got away, and away, and away. Here, instead, is an article I wrote about it for the latest edition of Cross Country Magazine.

David DeWispelaere is a Grand Prix rider and trainer known for his use of classical dressage methods, emphasizing lightness and harmony in the communication between a horse and rider. He regularly conducts clinics throughout the United States and Europe. This April, he spent three days teaching at several farms in the west metro.

I rode my 6-year-old gelding Poe in one of David’s sessions, and audited several others. What stuck with me the most about David’s approach was his softness, patience, and calm attention to each horse’s emotional state. Before my ride, I caught part of a session with a young, sensitive mare. David had her rider go with a longer rein on a 20-meter circle, encouraging the mare to find her own balance while soothing her nerves with this simple exercise. In very little time the mare relaxed and stretched down, going in an even rhythm. Once she was calm, David had her rider “try to get a little closer to her” by shortening the reins slightly. The mare stayed even, round, and comfortable, and the pair were able to go on to cantering around in the same calm attitude – a nice accomplishment given the mare’s history and greenness.

I’m an adult amateur event rider with a young horse whose attention span and interest in dressage is still a work in progress. I’m currently trying to teach him to carry himself like a horse instead of a giraffe, so my work with David was largely focused on encouraging Poe to relax and seek contact.

David began our lesson by asking about our background, then had us show him how we typically warm up. Once we were ready, he put us on a 20-meter circle with a long rein, then asked that we gradually spiral in to a smaller circle, always encouraging Poe to stretch into a long contact. David emphasized that when the horse is going well, we should leave them alone: “That’s when he should go the best – when you do nothing, when you leave him alone when he finds the right way.”

I was impressed by David’s use of simple instructions and movements to educate both the horse and the rider. On the smaller circle, he asked me to reach forward to touch Poe’s neck with my inside hand. It revealed instantly when my outside aids were effective and when they weren’t. Without a good connection in the outside rein and Poe’s respect and understanding of my outside leg, giving away the inside rein would make the circle bigger. This is a concept I’ve read and heard a thousand times – a simple, classic exercise – but something in the way David showed me created a lightbulb moment. His awareness of how this exercise guided my horse’s attention and attitude was key – it taught me something new about the purpose of the pattern, rather than just its mechanics.

Throughout the lesson we used simple tools – enlarging and decreasing the circle, serpentines – to try to show Poe that he’s responsible for his own balance. (I love my horse’s big head, but I am NOT interested in holding it up for him!) “If he loses his way,” David said, “show him the right way again. Then give him more freedom. We want him to go round because he reaches for the contact, not because you have to hold him there. It should feel natural for him to go round.” It’s been hard to kick the instinct to try to “help” my horse by shortening the reins and asking more loudly, but ultimately it should make him into a more thinking, willing partner.

Probably my greatest take-away from this clinic is the value of patience. Though there were plenty of appearances of Poe’s giraffe impression, when I continued to ride the patterns calmly, patiently, and correctly, he eventually figured out that it’s easier and more comfortable to stretch down. He started to take more responsibility for his own way of going, and tune into what I was asking him. David and I also discussed other tools for getting Poe’s attention, including changes of gait, backing, and in-hand work.

I enjoyed David’s soft, thoughtful approach to each horse he worked with, and his emphasis on trust and communication. For more information on David, visit

David DeWispelaere

Derek McConnell Clinic

So, I just realized that I never circled back to do a post about the Derek McConnell clinic we did at the end of March. (I mentioned it briefly in a previous post and then apparently put it right out of my head. Which also reminds me, in a follow-up to that post: Poe started eating his grain again quite happily when I left his supplements out of it. I’ve ordered a fresh batch from SmartPak and hopefully we are good to go. Also had his teeth checked — he is scheduled to have them done, but he’s still been eating fine since I chucked the supplements.)

The clinic went well! It was pretty tough and to be totally honest I felt a little demoralized afterward. I just think Poe is such a fantastic boy and I am definitely not the caliber of rider he deserves. But, you know, he’s my guy, and I don’t think he’s sitting out in the field wishing it were Oliver Townend moseying out to get him. (Though who knows, maybe he is! If Ollie came up to me, with or without a pocket full of candy, I would happily go with him…)

We spent the first day really focusing on flatwork. We did quite a bit of warm-up work, with lots of transitions and Derek repeating his downward-transition mantra over and over: sit back, say whoa, and move the bit gently around the horse’s mouth with your fingers. Also lots of dressage-type talk about the proper positioning of your legs to ask the horse to bend. I think his over-arching message was about focus: have a plan for every ride, and make each minute of that ride count; be consistent. Train, train, train. He is obviously a man who is not afraid of hard work and who believes in the big Sustained Effort.

He had us do a little “course” over canter poles. When I rode it, I felt like Poe was blasting through it, just really running. He’d been pretty strong in the warm-up, really blowing off all my half-halts — he was definitely my away-from-home horse. When I watched the video back, I couldn’t believe it. You can see for yourself about a minute in. He’s just cantering along, la la la. He felt like a freight train but looked absolutely fine. That was my biggest take-away from the weekend: What feels way too fast is probably almost fast enough. (Apart from the time when he really is too quick and isn’t listening and leaps both the trot pole and cross-rail in one go. That is the difficulty with babies: it’s so so hard to know when and how much to push, because it changes by the second. You can watch that lovely moment at 2:18 — though, like everything else, I think it felt a lot worse than it looks.)

On the second day we repeated the previous day’s warm-up: lots of transitions and reminders about down transitions and changing the bend via our leg position. Poe was blowing off my half-halts worse than the previous day; he was by far the biggest-strided horse there, so we had some issues with running up on other people. I ran into some of the same difficulty the first day too — in the canter warm-up I was paired with a woman whose horse refused to canter at all, and all the fences created an obstacle course that made it pretty much impossible to maneuver around with our current level of steering. When sitting back, saying woah, and moving the bit gently around Poe’s mouth didn’t work, Derek had me do a sort of slow see-saw thing — I hate to call it that, but it’s the best I can think of to explain. He had me put slack in one rein and pull the other slowly but strongly, then switch. Poe was not thrilled about it but with Derek’s coaching it did prove effective. I wish now I’d asked him about graduating from that — it’s a bit too crude to keep around in our dressage work, but something for the toolbox anyhow.

After warming up we moved on to course work. Poe was wonderful, I am pathetic: story of my riding life. Again, the lesson is MORE FORWARD. I also need to get in the habit of (and in shape for) putting on a stronger leg at the base of the fence. He needs that support and encouragement, even when he feels totally committed — he can still stall at the last second.

(For those using a feed reader, the videos may not be displaying — you’ll have to click through to the site to see them, or directly to YouTube: Day 1 and Day 2.)

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