Reflections on the Robert Dover HorseMastership Week — by Julia Barton, participant

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Julia Barton is 14 years old and lives in Lawrence, Kansas.  She is a freshman at Bishop Seabury Academy.  She won the 2015 13 & Under U.S. Equestrian Federation Seat Medal Finals with her pony Bonnaroo.  She was invited to ride in the 2016 Robert Dover Horsemastership Week clinic, created by Lendon Grey’s Dressage4Kids five years ago. She audited the clinic in 2015.

Julia Barton and Dolce Vita with Robert Dover coaching at his HorseMastership Week in Wellington, Florida. © 2016 Ilse Schwarz/
Julia Barton and Dolce Vita with Robert Dover coaching at his HorseMastership Week in Wellington, Florida. © 2016 Ilse Schwarz/

WELLINGTON, Florida, Jan. 12, 2016–What became an inspiring, eye-opening experience for me at the Robert Dover Horsemastership Week began in a familiar, unglamorous way:  me riding in a car, hurrying to a barn, changing into my riding clothes.  That happens a lot back home in Kansas.

On the last day of 2015, my mom and I had flown Southwest from Kansas City to West Palm Beach, landing just before noon.  The clinic did not start until Jan, 5, but we arrived a few days early so I could meet and take lessons on a young, talented mare, Dolce Vita owned by Carol Cohen, of Wellington. We had never met Carol either, but had been connected through a mutual friend a couple of weeks before. Our appointment was for 1 p.m., and I was a little nervous.

Most riders at the clinic brought their own horses. For me, that just wasn’t an option. Shipping my pony, Bonnaroo (aka Bonnie), down for the week was much too expensive and stressful.  We thought about driving and trailering her down ourselves, but it was just too far (1,450 miles/2,330km).  And besides, I knew all of the horses and riders at the clinic were schooling the upper levels. I figured my German Riding Pony/Quarter Horse cross mare, schooling only Second Level, would have stuck out, and not in a good way.

Luckily, Carol Cohen offered me a chance to ride her lovely Dolce Vita. She had sent us videos of the mare and I was excited by what I saw. But as most riders who have ever looked for a horse know, no matter how perfect a horse looks on paper or video, sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Whether because the horse proves to be more difficult to ride than anticipated, or the rider and horse just don’t “click,” all horses are a different ride. With this is mind, I didn’t know if Dolce Vita would be a good match for me in the clinic, or what I would do if she didn’t work out.

As we arrived at the barn, a few minutes late, I had no idea how the week was going to go.

* * * * *

I probably got invited to ride in the Robert Dover Horsemastership Week because I won the 13 & Under USEF Seat Medal Finals last August.  When I did, I kind of felt like I was following in the footsteps of my trainer of five years, Clare Krska, who won the 14-18 Seat Medal Finals in 2010.

As my primary trainer since I first started, Clare has brought me from being scared to canter at the age of nine, to successfully competing at Second Level with a pony we have trained almost from the ground up.  Clare learned from Arlene Rigdon, who was one of the founding members of the U.S. Dressege Federation and trained with Col. Bengt Ljungquist. I remember at 10 years old sitting in Clare’s saddle while she sat behind me on her beautiful Dutch mare Rominicka, riding tempi changes with Clare’s arms around me and her hands holding the reins over mine so I could feel what correct changes felt like. We met through Mission Valley Pony Club, a branch of The U.S. Pony Club based in the Kansas City area. There weren’t a lot of other young dressage riders in my area, but Clare and I were together and she was my mentor and like the older sister I never had, so it didn’t matter. I stayed over at her family’s house the night before shows, and Clare even helped me with homework and drove me to the barn when she was headed back and forth to college in Lawrence.

With guidance from Clare and her family, and help from my mom and family, I bought my first horse, a Quarter Horse, rode in my first recognized dressage show at Intro Level, became an active Pony Club member, eventer, and foxhunter, and found my current dressage pony, Bonnie. When we bought Bonnie from her breeder in Missouri, she was a four-year-old, 30-day under saddle, leggy, chestnut pony with a mane that stuck straight up out of her crest. Bonnie’s mane has since relaxed. She hasn’t.

Bonnie was a huge challenge for me as a rider in the beginning. Clare and my mom weren’t sure if we should even buy Bonnie because she was so hot and, well, opinionated.  We spent a lot of time in the round pen doing ground work and trying to convince Bonnie I was the one in charge. Arlene came and looked at Bonnie and said she was perfect for me, so that gave me hope. After months of lessons and training with Clare, Bonnie started to seem like something I could handle, if just barely.

But two years ago, when Clare headed off to medical school in Colorado with her self-trained Grand Prix mare in tow, things changed for us. Our lessons became less frequent, but more intense. Fortunately, Clare found a wonderful dressage barn near Elizabeth, Colorado where she boards and trains with Nicole Glusenkamp and Sharon and Grant Schneidman. The only thing about the barn that is not perfect for Bonnie and me is that it is a 10-hour drive from my home in eastern Kansas. We trailer out to Colorado for short periods of time, long weekends or holidays, and I stayed longer last summer. But, for the most part, I have been on my own to train this wild pony of mine.

Even at home, time is an issue. The barn where we board Bonnie in Kansas is an hour’s drive each way to and from our house. I’m still in traditional school, not online or with a tutor. I ride in the evenings, so when we get home from the barn at night I’m pretty tired. Most days I just go to bed and get up at 4 a.m. to do my homework. I make the most of the weekends. If there is a good clinic in the area, I make sure we get there. If there is a helpful book or video I can get my hands on, I try to learn everything I can from it. Sometimes I just talk to Clare on the phone and we solve problems the best we can that way. Sometimes she just says, “Wait ‘til I’m home next month and we’ll figure it out.”

Our dressage community in Kansas is small and spread out, but passionate and very knowledgeable. We are a hardy group, as the weather isn’t always on our side. Since Clare moved away, there have always been trainers in Region 4 willing to step up and coach me at shows. There aren’t many kids who ride competitive dressage in Kansas, but the ones who do ride well. The barn where I board is mostly hunter/jumper kids in the evenings. I work my way around their jumping lessons and try to stay out of their lines. Everyone is really nice to me, even if they don’t understand exactly what I’m doing, why I am going sideways, or doing transitions every few strides.  Of course, Bonnie and I have bad days, and sometimes bad weeks, but I can always find comfort in the fact that no matter how many times she bucks or rears in a ride, we have a community of people cheering us on. One ride at a time, with our eyes set on improvement, we get there.

* * * * *

My first rides with Dolce before the clinic showed me that she was clearly talented, and I liked riding her.  But I still wondered how we would fit in among the other riders and pairs, given that we were new to each other and that I had never competed above Second Level.  Dolce and I were probably both a little nervous when we moved her to the stables at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center complex the day before the clinic started. She had never been there.  I had never ridden there.  Carol Cohen helped Dolce get settled in her stall for the week and brought everything we might need.

Our first ride at the grounds was rough.  We were both distracted, nervous, and not performing to our best.  After my ride, Dolce wouldn’t drink her water. Meanwhile, I was recovering from a bad cold and feeling exhausted. Carol called the vet as a precaution and I stood there watching Dolce, thinking we were quite a pair and wondering if we’d end up making it in this clinic after all.

Luckily, Dolce decided to drink her water after a few hours, I got over my cold, and the atmosphere of the clinic was anything but competitive. As more and more horses arrived, we both made friends and felt more comfortable with our surroundings. No one cared at what level I had been schooling or competing.  In fact, for the entire week, all the riders only seemed interested in improving themselves, their horses, and supporting the riders around them. After dismounting from lessons, riders were often showered with questions like “How was your ride?” “What did you work on today?” or even, “Were your half passes better in your lesson today?”

Even among competitive athletes, everyone wants to see improvement in all those involved in their sport, especially those of us in the tight-knit community of young dressage riders. I started to make new friends, while Dolce became more and more relaxed. Within a couple of days, she was acting like she went to shows all the time.

* * * * *

The Robert Dover Horsemastership Week was set up so that riders rode with the same clinician for two days in a row.  We then took a break from riding for a day of lectures and seminars.  We then rode the last two days with a different instructor.

My first instructor was Olympic hopeful Laura Graves. Laura came into the ring with a positive attitude, and we immediately went to work on convincing the nervous mare to relax over her back, and move straight and very forward. She reminded me to praise the mare the moment she went forward off my leg, which was very helpful for a horse that tends to suck back behind the leg, especially in show environments. We worked on getting her completely straight to my outside rein at all three gaits, but especially at the walk, where there is the least natural momentum and forward movement. The next day Laura helped me warm the mare up in a way that got her straight and forward from the very beginning, so that we could start to incorporate her correct work into movements. We worked on riding her shoulders straight down the long side in renver, with minimal bend through the neck. We also focused on riding her with a consistent bend through her body in transitions, half pass, leg yield, and shoulder-in. Before I knew it, the mare’s movement was fluid, and she was showing a lot of self carriage.

On our third and fourth day of riding, I worked with six-time Olympian and four-time bronze medalist, Robert Dover. Robert, with his natural enthusiasm for the sport, went right to pushing me and the mare harder. We worked through lead changes, counter canter, half pass, and walk pirouettes. Dolce Vita had really absorbed the concepts we worked on with Laura and was moving forward with true straightness, which led to her almost floating through the movements.

During my lessons with Robert I started to realize that Dolce Vita was truly something special, and I think he did, too. To every half halt, even at the young age of seven, she naturally flowed into a passage. She had a natural ability to move sideways. She was not too complicated of a ride, and a fun one at that.

After warming up for my second lesson with Robert, he had me ride very forward half passes and shoulder ins, so that she carried herself. The more lateral work she did, the more cadence she added to her gaits. We jumped into the canter, working on developing pirouettes and quarter pirouettes, a concept that came naturally to her. After a walk break, Robert directed me to trot, and through every stride half halt her and ask her to sit. Within one circle, she had a beautiful, round, sitting passage. Then from the walk, I asked for her to sit back and I pushed her forward, from which she flowed into a lifting, rhythmical piaffe. Her natural ability for these movements really set into stone for me how special this mare was.

Julia Barton on Dolce Vita enjoying the Rober Dover HorseMastership Week clinic. © 2016 Ilse/Schwarz/
Julia Barton on Dolce Vita enjoying the Rober Dover HorseMastership Week clinic. © 2016 Ilse/Schwarz/

At the end of my lessons with Robert, he asked me some questions about me, and Dolce Vita, and he expressed enthusiasm for both of us, individually and as a pair.  It was surprising, and exciting.  Robert encouraged me to train with horses of the caliber of Dolce Vita – “quality stock,” as he put it.  I’m not sure if Bonnie is what he had in mind.  But it was incredibly encouraging and inspiring to have both Robert Dover and Laura Graves take an interest in me and in my development as a rider.

On the flight home, and immediately upon arriving in Kansas, I talked with my parents about my thoughts, and goals, reflecting on Robert Dover’s words of advice and encouragement.  We are not in a position to buy a horse like Dolce Vita, and I am going to continue working through the spring and summer with Bonnie. We will compete in the FEI Pony classes this year.

But Robert’s words opened my mind. Riding a horse like Dolce did, too. Now I can see possibilities that I didn’t before. Robert challenged each of us to find ways to stay in the elite level of the sport, regardless of our personal situation. So, I am going to return to Wellington this spring for a CDI show, and Carol said I could ride Dolce Vita again in some lessons while I’m here. Maybe other people will let me ride their nice horses too. Then, next fall or winter, we are going to consider whether I come down to Wellington for a longer stretch, maybe as a working student, taking online school.  I don’t mind cleaning stalls, or tack.  I’m a hard worker and I have good horsemanship basics from Pony Club. Plus, some very nice friends already offered to let me stay with them, and a top trainer offered to teach me.

Whatever happens, my experience at the Robert Dover Horsemastership Week confirmed for me that there are people in the dressage community, in Wellington and elsewhere, who are generous, supportive, and willing to help young riders like me pursue our goals in the sport, even if we don’t have the best resources at home. For that, I am thankful, and even now more than ever I am excited to see what the future holds. With a little luck, and our eyes set on improvement, I think we’ll get there.