The Steffen Report – The Life and Times of a New Zealand Dressage Rider

FEI Forum 153
Well. What an experience. Just in case you missed my previous (not so) subtle messages I had the chance to ride with Steffen Peters last weekend. This was not a clinic, but a forum and I was one of 12 riders on a variety of horses from throughout New Zealand asked to come along and present our horses to Steffen for use in the forum. We drove down from our new base in Cambridge to Fielding, a drive of about 5 hours. We were all allowed to take a ‘groom’ who got access to all sessions F.O.C. As I’m not quite that flash and don’t generally have help I invited a friend of mine, Carolyn McCree, to fill that gap – an opportunity she jumped at… although I’m not so sure she’ll repeat it! We arrived to find that we had unscheduled access to the indoor arena – right then. So I threw a saddle and bridle on and went for a cruise. Des behaved impeccably in the unfamiliar environment and I was struck by the group of very, very nice horses that Dressage NZ had managed to gather. I only spent 20 minutes on him with a stretch at trot and canter which was commented on by another rider. It never fails to amaze me what people expect of their horses – we’d just traveled halfway down the country, and I’m not going to teach him anything new at that point!!
Anyhow, the next day was the big day – we all got to ride for Steffen and Trond Asmyr – the FEI Director of Dressage. These sessions were poorly organized with some having 4 horses in and others only one or two. It meant for clutter for us and unfortunately it lead to an identity mix up later on that had me riding in the incorrect session for the forum itself. Not quite sure how my not quite six year old baby Medium level horse got confused with Vanessa’s 11 year old Grand Prix horse but there you go. Steffen was very complimentary about Des, saying he definitely had the movement of a top level horse and about the way we had been working. He did say that he would have liked him to be more in self carriage and that it was obvious that his balance was a little immature at times. He talked about the some of the work he intended to do with me the next day including lots of transitions and also said he would be riding him. He asked if I had a hunter/jumper background – which I do – I only took up dressage 6 years ago. Apparently I need to keep control of my ‘wings’! But he did say I was an effective rider…
So the next day the forum itself began. Steffen was introduced by rider in on my friend’s dear wee GP horse to ‘Stand up’ and a standing ovation. Pretty cool. There were some interviews and then a session on fitness which we mostly missed as we were to be on first up. The first ridden session was on conditioning and training and it was very quickly obvious that we were in the wrong session when we were asked to demonstrate canter pirouettes and piaffe/passage. Now Des may be progressing quickly through the grades but come on! Steffen thought very quickly on his feet and used us for a little haunches in at the canter and some medium/collected trot transitions instead. I have to say that I was very proud of my pony. He coped so very well with the crowd (about 400 people on a temporary stand) and the giant TV screen which did produce a few hairy moments as it was constantly changing. The afternoon session that I should have been in was on the young horse and it was interesting seeing him work with those horses and see them change, albeit frustrating from the stand! His message seemed to be about raising expectations and sharpening response to the never ending transitions. He was very big on contact and about the rider choosing their contact and not allowing the horse to force the rider to accept more.
On Sunday things progressed to schooling the specific movements. This seemed to be aimed more at the higher level rider with half pass, flying changes, pirouettes and piaffe/passage being the order of the day. Steffen did have some very useful tips for the exercises; I particularly liked starting the half pass as a turn across the diagonal to keep the shoulders in front, schooling the single change from a counter canter on a large circle to prevent swinging, a secondary aid to add energy to the changes, and schooling the piaffe as a passage on the spot for the horse that becomes grounded and shuffles. Trond had some great insight from a judge’s perspective, I appreciated watching the pirouettes schooled as a controlled haunches in on a small circle but being ridden in a test situation from a shoulder in. They were both obviously enamoured with a couple of the horses, in particular Louisa Hill’s Bates Antonello has both of their votes for our 2010 WEG team.
By this stage I was quite frustrated. Of course I had loved the opportunity to be there and present my horse but I had definitely gotten the short straw of not much input from Steffen due to being in the wrong session. However all was not lost. Our Sport Manager had noticed the disparity and when one of the other riders arranged for a quick session to work on her pi/pa I was asked to tag along. So after everything was over on Sunday and with most people heading home we brought Des back in for our very own private session with the master. Just a short session but so worth it! Steffen chose to ride Des and with his long legs and male strength (not to mention his impeccable feel, years of experience and talent for the job) he had him looking like an Advanced horse. I then hopped back on my horse who consequently felt like a Ferrari and had a wee tiki tour around on him with Steffen murmuring his wisdom from the sidelines. Nothing earth shattering, nothing that reinvented the wheel for me, merely an increased expectation. I’m to stop thinking of Des as a baby horse and more as a baby Advanced horse. Steffen is big on ‘perfect practice make perfect’ and increasing the general maneuverability and ‘handiness’ (a term he borrowed from Trond early on in the weekend). Oh, and I really need to watch my wings!!
Monday’s session was closed to the general public, just squad members, their coaches and the riders from the weekend invited. Basically this day involved various riders riding tests – the higher levels for both Steffen and Trond and then the lower levels for Trond alone as Steffen held a video critique for the Grand Prix squad members that hadn’t been invited to ride. I rode through 4.6 which is the Medium level ‘Challenge’ test. This was a huge ask for us – Des had only had one Medium level start the weekend before and the work was far more advanced and once again he did us proud. I didn’t warm up particularly well – you know how it is when you get new tools – it can be very easy to thrash them to the exclusivity of everything that has worked for you up until that point but essentially it was a clear round nicely done. I got some good constructive feedback from Trond. I talked with him a couple of times over the weekend and found him to be an insightful and intelligent person, as well a downright nice guy. I think the FEI have done very well to appoint him as our current Director of Dressage. We are in good hands.
We packed up pretty much straight after this and headed home – it had been a long weekend, we had five hours to drive and I started work the very next morning in my new job! It would have been good to hear Steffen talking about organising a campaign but a safe trip won out.
The photos are all from Saturday’s session and my friend and commercial photographer Annie Studholme took them.