8 Ways Dressage Rider Laura Graves Proves You Don’t Need a Big Team Behind You to Do Big Things

Laura Graves, a DTO featured trainer, is a modern day Cinderella story of sorts. Actually, her story is Cinderellaish, as is her demeanor. Cinderella was just a regular girl who turned into a princess without losing her humility and kindness. She is one of us.

In an era where the concept of hard work is often thought to be lost on today’s equestrian talent, it’s refreshing to see a rider who is notorious for doing all of her own barn work and horse care. If dedication in all aspects of your craft is the mark of a true professional, then 2016 Rio Olympic Games team dressage bronze medalist Laura Graves fits the bill to a T.

Laura and the 15-year-old Dutch Warmblood Verdades claimed their second victory of the 2017 season in the pair’s first competition since Rio, with a win during Thursday’s FEI Grand Prix CDI-W presented by Yeguada de Ymas, as well as during the “Friday Night Stars” FEI Grand Prix Freestyle CDI-W at the Adequan® Global Dressage Festival on Friday, January 27th. Not only did Laura top Friday’s leaderboard with a score of 80.72 percent, but she also received Friday’s Owner and Groom award.

Laura is used to wearing the hat of owner, groom, and rider and—more often than not—all at the same time. She attributes her impressive work ethic to her extreme Type-A personality, adding that she likes to do most things herself.

Laura didn’t have the financial support of sponsors in the beginning of her career, so she made the most of the opportunities she had, including taking the chance to develop a horse that many deemed to be too unmanageable and too unpredictable to train for the top levels. At the start of 2014, the duo wasn’t even ranked in the top 700. Six months later, Laura and Verdades found themselves among the top 10 horse and riders in the world after a 5th place finish at the World Equestrian Games that same year.

It’s been a difficult road, but the time Laura dedicated to learning “Diddy” inside and out has resulted in a whirlwind seven-year journey that captured the heart of a nation and witnessed the rise of one of the world’s leading dressage combinations.

In an interview with CNN, Graves compared her journey with Diddy to a fairy-tale. “I was Cinderella and all it takes is Prince Charming to turn your whole life around. I’ve always had my Prince Charming—just maybe he was a frog for a while. But I think it’s important to remember how hard Cinderella worked before she caught a break.”

Read on for eight of the many ways this modern day equestrian Cinderella proves that you don’t always have to have a big team in order to accomplish big things:

1. After relocating to Florida to focus on Diddy’s development, Laura found a stable she could work at in exchange for lessons while she trained with U.S. Olympic dressage rider Debbie McDonald. (P.S. She likes to clean her own stalls!)

2. Laura told Allure magazine that her background in cosmetology helps her in multiple aspects of her day-to-day horse care. One bath time tip she lives by: Don’t wash your horse with shampoo and soap every day. Like people, too much of these products can often leave horses’ skin dry and irritated.

3. Along with cosmetology, the experience of acting as her own groom also informs the products that Laura uses on her horses. Keeping the health and quality of her horses’ coats in mind, she loves to use natural coconut oil on their muzzles.

4. She always braids her own horses’ manes and tails. However, because grooms stayed at the official Olympic venue and athletes were required to stay off-site, Rio was the first time Laura allowed a fellow team member to braid her horses.

5. As we all know, performance matters most, but an immaculately turned out horse doesn’t hurt either. Laura prides herself on her ability to clip her horses evenly and without marks.

6. It was just last year in 2016 that Laura enlisted the help of a professional groom for the first time: enter super-groom Alex Levine-Nevel.

7. After every show, Laura comes back to the barn to show her appreciation for her horses’ work by personally treating them to apples and carrots.

8. The motivation behind Laura’s approach to her career is perfectly summarized in a conversation she had with Jeff Haden of Inc. magazine: “You can see an amazing reflection of who we are as people in horses. That’s how I look at my sport and my business. You only get back what you put in.”

Photography by Erin Gilmore for Noelle Floyd and Noelle Floyd Style

Source: Ollie Williams for CNN, Seunghee Suh for Allure Magazine, and Jeff Hayden for Inc. Magazine

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Are Dressage Riders Over Tightening Nosebands?

I often get feedback on videos and in regards to specific ways of training, tack and horsemanship. I’ve often gotten questions regarding nosebands and tongues and so I found this an interesting and important read that I wanted to share.

The bottom line, is that you should be able to stick 2 stacked fingers under the noseband, to ensure it is fastened properly and humanely.

At the 2016 International Equitation Science Conference in Saumur, France, on 23 – 25 June 2016, researchers Doherty, Casey, McGreevy and Arkins presented their investigation into noseband tightness levels on competition horses. They measured noseband tightness in 750 horses competing in dressage, eventing and performance hunter classes internationally.
Forty four per cent of nosebands were extremely tight and only 7% were fitted to the recommended tightness level of the equivalent of two fingers. Tight nosebands may cause uncomfortable levels of pressure and pain in horses and are difficult to justify on welfare grounds.

Nosebands are used by riders to prevent the horse from opening its mouth, increase control and, in some cases, to comply with the rules of competition. Compared with standard cavesson nosebands, the crank noseband provides a mechanical advantage of 2, i.e. it doubles the tension for a given force used to tighten it. Possible negative consequences such as discomfort, pain or tissue damage are of concern to equine scientists and the public.

Their study sought to identify the level of noseband tightness applied to competition horses. Using the ISES taper gauge, noseband tightness data were collected from 750 horses competing in national and international competitions in eventing (n=354), dressage (n=334) and performance hunter (n=62) competitions in Ireland, England and Belgium.

Data were collected immediately before or after the performance. Using the taper gauge as a guide, results were classified according to the number of ‘fingers’ that could fit under the noseband at the nasal planum, and assigned to five groups: 2 fingers; 1.5 fingers; 1 finger; 0.5 fingers or zero fingers. Different tests were applied to compare noseband tightness levels between disciplines and horse age. screen-shot-2017-02-27-at-9-39-43-am

Seven per cent of nosebands were fitted to the recommended 2-finger noseband tightness level while the remainder had nosebands fastened tighter, with 44% fastening it too tight for even the tip of the taper gauge to be inserted beneath the noseband (zero fingers). Twenty-three per cent of nosebands were at 1 finger tightness and 19% at 1.5 fingers.
Significant differences emerged between disciplines with the highest levels of noseband tightness being among eventers, followed by dressage competitors with performance hunter classes being lowest. Horse ages ranged from 4 to 19 years. Noseband tightness did not differ significantly with age. Comparison of noseband tightness levels between four year old horses (n=80) and five year old horses (n=59) found slightly higher levels of noseband tightness in the five year old horses, but the difference was not significant.screen-shot-2017-02-27-at-9-40-33-am

The prevalence of such tight nosebands aligns with the ISES position statement calling for the resumption of noseband checking and should trigger further research into the behavioural and physiological implications of tight noseband usage for horses. The current lack of guidelines and regulations regarding permitted noseband tightness levels permit the use of noseband tightness levels that may be detrimental to horse welfare.

Source: ISES – Photos © Astrid Appels – Silke Rottermann – Barbara Schnell

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A Dressage riders suggested list of ideas worth thinking about in 2017 by Reisa Bonetti-Sullivan

I just want to start out by saying that the featured image above, was purely used as research to see the response rather than an actual idea I am suggesting we think about. LOL. Both pictures posted are not affiliated with DTO but used for educational purposes.

I don’t usually make resolutions at New Year’s. Why, I don’t know. As I sit, thinking about it, I suppose it’s because I feel like I should be making changes as needed any day of the year. dressage in the field
However, I am going to take this opportunity to put thought into what real changes I would like to put into motion around my equestrian life.

1. I will be kinder to myself, giving myself more credit for the riding I do right
2. I will be stricter about not letting my horse lean on the bit, not even for a second.
3. I will go into each riding session with two exercises that I will use for the purpose of getting him sit behind
4. I will go into each riding session with two exercises that I will use for the purpose of getting him quicker behind
5. I will spend more time training outside of the court and less time inside

Each person will have their own unique list of course. But taking a few minutes engaging in this, has brought value. Give it a try.

Which brings up an interesting point; why don’t we hack out AND work on suppling, lateral work, transitions, flying changes, pirouettes, etc., etc.? We hack out as an opportunity to give our horses and ourselves, a refreshing break, to languish and relax. However, if the footing is good, what is stopping us, from actually using that as a schooling session? After all, Dressage stems from the work the military did with their horses, teaching them to perform movements intended to evade or attack the enemy whilst in battle. Battle certainly didn’t take place inside a Dressage court, thus they used these movements anywhere. While we have of course learned much over the years and operate in a manner that which protects our horses health and welfare to the maximum extent, is it wrong to school outside of the arena? If the sun is out and we have access to a beautiful trail or grassy field with sound footing, why don’t we school there instead? Hmmmm…an idea worth thinking about.

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How to get your horse on the bit

I was recently asked by a member for a video recommendation, to help them understand how to get their horse on the bit. They felt that our videos that addressed this did not actually start at square one. In my search for what this customer asked, alas, they are correct, we having nothing that begins at ground zero. Until we create that, the following is my most helpful and simplistic advice.

The goal is to get your horse to push from behind, engaging his hind legs, reaching them under his belly where he can really activate the hind end which engages his back and moves the energy over his poll and you can feel this energy by way of light pressure on the bit evidenced by a feelings of light weights in your hands while holding the reins. You want about a pound of weight in each hand. It is with this lightness and feel of connection on the rein that you allows you to administer a few subtle aids such as a direct rein aid or indirect rein aid, half halts, halts, rein-backs.

Getting your horse “on the bit” as required in Dressage, means getting that connection from hind leg to the bit, felt in the hand. To obtain this, you first have to get your horse to move actively forward. You then need to make sure he maintains his rhythm, like the never changing tick tock of a clock. Once this is achieved you are ready to get him on the bit by giving him a light surge with the calves to say go forward while your hands are in fists, thumbs on top, holding steadily, then you immediately collect that energy with the outside hand by slightly tightening your fist and then you give a tickle aka; supple with the inside hand, then you let your tightened fist loosen a bit, both hands are back to their fisted rein hold, asking him to stay connected, hind legs active and you feel steady contact on the bit. With some horses you will need to do this every few strides, with some you may have to hold it longer than approximately 3 seconds or so, some will be easy and you will simply keep your steady contact with thumbs up and straight line, light fist, no loop in the rein from the bit to the hand, allowing your elbows to move like hinges with his rhythm so you don’t accidentally shut him down, by giving a halt aid. This action, of keeping a firm outside rein and tickling with the inside, sometimes both sides and giving him a little squeeze with the calve to say lets go, but remind me that your recycling that hind end energy over your top line by letting me feel your constant lightness in my hand, is all part of getting him on the bit and keeping him on the bit.

In the very beginning, you may have to supple more to show them the way. Sometimes, you may have to do more than lightly tickle (pinky movement). You may have to use the bit like a massaging hand to get them to relax and be steady and all the while you must remind him that he must still go forward. You must remember, to supple or massage, keep the forward and then you must relax the aids, with your goal being that he will remain in self carriage, aka; doing it on his own. This is of utmost importance, otherwise you may end up with a horse that is too heavy on the bit, and relies on you to constantly be keeping him on the bit and it will feel like you have to weight lift while you ride. Keep a picture in your mind regarding the direction of energy; a horse with his nose in the air, can’t recycle energy or thrust forward from behind if the energy from behind moves upwards into the air, it is then gone. A horse that hides behind the bit, or ducks behind, can’t recycle that energy if he makes a sharp u-turn at the poll, it dissolves into his chest. Moving actively forward from behind with the poll at the highest point, nose on the vertical is the key. Creating an even loop or oval from back to front, is what you want to strive for. As your horse progresses, so will his amount of engagement from behind and with that his front end will be able to lift as his hind end begins to sit.

This my friend, is the goal.

Keep in mind, I am not a certified trainer or coach, I am however blessed with having been able to watch over 60 of the world’s top trainers work with thousands of their horses and students on this subject and I am sharing what they do in a very simplistic amateur friendly way. I too am an avid and active rider and deal with these issues too. I hope that this has been useful and has served you.

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Behind the Scenes Interview of Reisa Bonetti-Sullivan, for USDF Connection, November, 2016


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The illusive half half, of utmost importance for all equestrians, hear it many different ways.

Hearing things a different way: the illusive half-halt

The section of my book this article stems from is about an epiphany I had when I was “practicing” walking after my accident. When I’d just begun to learn to walk with a cane instead of leaning on a person, I used to walk up the sidewalk with my husband on guard. During one of these walks, it struck me that training my body in therapy is starkly similar to training it in riding and all the same rules apply.

For instance, simply hearing the same correction described in a different way can help. In therapy, I’d always been told to take a longer step with my right leg, but try as I might I couldn’t make my body do it. Then my therapist told me to leave my left leg on the ground longer, and what do you know, thinking of leaving my left leg on the ground longer caused my right leg to take a longer step by necessity.

A rider must also find what she needs to think of in order to achieve the desired result, and, just like in my therapy example above, that thing often isn’t about the change she wants to make itself. For most of the corrections I want to have happen, I’ve found terminology that will achieve the desired result with most students. However, I always need to be willing to alter my language.

For instance, when I want the student to make a proper half-halt–one that doesn’t just slow the horse down but shifts his weight back and increases his power–usually telling her to get her horse’s “butt down!” will achieve the desired result: her core tightening; her seat sinking down; her weight shifting more onto her butt without her actually leaning back; her legs telling the horse’s hind end to keep going while her arms tell his shoulders to wait. But if I see that the phrase butt down isn’t achieving its purpose, I need to find another phrase that does.

Sometimes telling her to think of riding the horse’s hind feet to his pole does, sometimes telling her to tuck her tailbone in does, or simply to sit in him, not on him. Other times I find that I need to describe what I want her body to do in a way that she can relate. To do this, I have her stop and look at me, and I try to show her what I mean by something I have termed the everything half-halt. I sit up very tall and pat the upper part of my belly–my core–and say, this tightens. Pat the lowest part of my back and say, this kind of roaches. I put my hands (which are in riding position) down quite low and say, the hands come down and the elbows tighten–they don’t pull, they just stop following–for just a moment while the tailbone sinks into his back and the legs tell him to go forward.

These variances of the “butt down” command work with a rider who has previously felt a true half-halt, but for a rider who never has, I need to give her an exercise that will make one happen naturally so that she can feel what her body does during the natural half-halt and then mimic it when she needs to deliver one. Simply doing trot/walk/trot transitions provides the clearest sensation in both the rider’s body and the horse’s reaction. My own students are accustomed to me insisting that they must make the gait they’re transitioning from perfect before transitioning to the next, so they often spend too many strides in the walk trying to make sure it’s perfect, but I tell them in this exercise to think of it as one movement: trot/walk/trot. They must barely get into walk before trotting out of it.

The important thing in this exercise isn’t the transition walk to trot, it’s that the effect of the trot/walk/trot provides the feeling of what an actual half-halt is: essentially it’s making the shoulders wait and the haunches catch up. The rider asks for the walk, which will stimulate her core, but by knowing she needs to trot right away, she will keep the horse thinking forward. The transition to walk makes the shoulders wait, the transition to trot makes the haunches push off, and the rapidity between the two brings the haunches closer to the shoulders thus creating the uphill balance and increasing the power.

Once the rider has memorized the feeling that her body has during the exercise and has achieved the horse’s uphill balance, I have her trot and plan to walk, but as soon as he shifts his weight to his hind end and elevates his pole, trot on. She may walk or she may just almost walk, as long as the balance shifts back.
When she consistently doesn’t need to go all the way to walk, I have her not change the tempo at all, just do the everything half-halt. She needs to be prepared though, that any time the half-halt doesn’t make the desired difference to the horse’s balance, she needs to return to actually coming to walk to reiterate that that half-halt means something.

I tell students that this half-halt reminder of keeping the uphill balance is something that every GP continually uses everyday. We’ll do it without thinking every few strides. A viewer won’t see them, but they’re a constant reminder to keep the uphill balance and will be used in between movements, during them, and to prepare for them.

Written by Courtney King-Dye,

To get more on Courtney please purchase her book, Courtney’s Quest, Courtney’s Quest“>click here.

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Selling your Dressage horse? Should you look for quality or quantity of traffic?

It seems that in order to succeed at marketing of your Dressage horse for sale, both quality of traffic and quantity are needed.

High quality traffic to a site where you list your horse for sale is essential. Quality of visitor over quantity of visitors, is king in this scenario.

The importance of content on a site and how it influences ones world, is what drives visitors to engage. DTO reigns supreme in terms of engagement compared to 90% of the equestrian websites that exist. Our content is compelling and game changing to our members thus they spend real time on the site. In fact our members spend on average 38 minutes per session on DTO. That is abnormally high for any website but is proof that our content is compelling and important to them.

Have you ever been watching a show, event, movie, video, in which you are very interested however your mind wanders for a moment, perhaps you check your email, send a text or look around the rest of the site while watching what your interested in. Our members do this too, often scrolling on over to the Horses For Sale tab, as they watch and listen to the training video in the other open screen. Its natural, normal and happens.

So if you would like to expose your Dressage horse for sale to an audience of engaged, riders, who are serious about their equestrian life; so engaged that they spend time and money on expanding their learning and knowledge as a DTO member, then you may want to post your horse on DTOs Horses For Sale page. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

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Make Stress Your Friend, featured on DressageTrainingOnline.com

Stress isnt the enemy. Learn how to make it your friend and build your personal resilience.

I love this talk given by Kelly McGonigal, health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. I found it inspiring and actually necessary for my health. Screen Shot 2016-10-27 at 3.19.25 PM

Relating to riding, we often feel stress when we feel we are not reaching our goals or we are in a new situation and we dont know how our horse will react or we are at a competition getting ready to go into the ring. We feel that tightening of the stomach, the hitch in our breath.

Lets stop thinking this is a bad thing and simply understand it is our body preparing us to deal with the situation. The stressful situation is tied to meaning for you, whatever it is that is causing you to feel stress is driven by some type of fear, tied to a meaning that you believe says something about you.

Flexing our stress muscle actually builds strength, so what ever stress inducing situation we may have around riding, think of it as an opportunity to go to the gym, flex that stress muscle, so we can wake up stronger thereafter.

To see the video on this discussion, please click here.

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I Am The Face Of Truth, by Reisa Bonetti-Sullivan

People dont want to hear the truth because they dont want their illusions destroyed. Friedrich Nietzche

I read an interesting post today on LinkedIn. I socialize there as a business persona and non horse related. There was a post I read, about people often not really wanting to know the truth. Instead, many operate from a place of positive thinking. They use being positive as an escape from issues, problems, or things in their lives that need to be changed.

The post went on to suggest one should ask themselves questions or litmus test their happiness in key areas of their life. The key here is to answer yourself with honesty and truth. Truth is the key. Truth is very hard for many. Wouldnt it be interesting if you asked a few key people in your life those same questions about you and heard those answers too? Would they give the same answers about you? That could be a serious eye opener now could it not?

I whole heartedly agree with performing this questioning of oneself, I do this, a little too often I might add, which is why I am perpetually striving for betterand yes, I do realize, sometimes the peak, is actually in accepting and loving being in the space of exactly where you are.

Many move through life just accepting what rolls out before them. While it would be nice to live that way, in the end those same people get steam rolled time and again. Many times, they actually seem accepting of that too. The truth is, some are actually happy living in this manner because they never have to be in a conflictual or trying situation. They never have to fight. Although to me this concept of living seems ludicrous, its their life and not mine to judge. What can be judged is how I react when their passivity affects me.

Because I am passionate about my equestrian life, I always relate my thoughts back into my horsey world. I ask if I am happy with where I am at in that space. My answer in NO.

Here is the beginning of my analysis:

Q: Why am I not happy? Answer: I am frustrated that my horse and I are not further along that I had hoped to be by now.

Q: Why do you think you are not farther along? Answer: Either I am a crappy rider or my horse is simply not able to be what I want him to be no matter what rider he has.

Q: Why do you think you are a crappy rider? Answer: I cant get my horse to do what I want him to do. He has been lazy and very heavy in the bridle, FOREVER. Forever. No really, forever. No matter what I do, it doesnt have a lasting change. I have to ride ugly and not the way I want to affect any change. This makes me sad.

Q: Why does this make you sad? Answer: Because I have a vision of gliding along on my horse and we are this beautiful harmonious pair achieving high levels of success in our sport. I do not feel my reality is in line with my vision.

Answer: Maybe you need to change your vision? What would this look like?


Answer: Maybe you need to change your reality? What would this look like?

Stay tuned for more.

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Judge rating system for Dressage shows

People often wonder about the ratingsystem for dressage shows (of all levelsschooling, recognized, national and international)forthe different USDF, USEF and FEI ratings and what is required to achievesuch ratings. Below it is explained.

All judges qualified to officiate at recognized dressage shows in the United States are either licensed through the U.S. Equestrian Federation or the FEI (International Equestrian Federation). The former governs national competitions while the latter governs international competitions. The U.S. Dressage Federation does not license any judges, although it is integrally involved in the education of judges through its L education program.

At schooling shows, there are no requirements for judges credentials, although I would strongly encourage show organizers to hire USDF L graduates or USEF-licensed judges whenever possible. Either way, the ideal is to hire people qualified through the levels at which they are judging (so riders never perform in front of judges less knowledgeable than themselves).

For recognized shows, here is how the judge ratings break down:

USEF judges

  • r (recorded or small r)licensed to judge through Second Level
  • R (registered or large R)licensed to judge through Fourth Level
  • S (senior)licensed to judge through Grand Prix at nationalcompetitions
  • DSH (dressage sport horse)licensed to judge in-hand classes. This certification is broken into two levels: r and R, which are comparable to the recorded and registered titles described above.

FEI judges

  • 2* (new)licensed to judge a limited range of international competitions through Prix St. Georges and Intermediaire I (including 3* small-tour competitions and CDI 1* and 2* competitions); this rating is for judges whose home countries have no Grand Prix classes.
  • 3* (formerly known as international candidate or C)licensed to judge international competitions through Grand Prix, except for Olympic Games, FEI Grand Prix Championships and CDIs above the 3* level
  • 4* (formerly known as international or I)licensed to judge most international competitions, excluding the Olympic Games and World Championships
  • 5* (formerly known as official international or O)qualified to judge all international competitions

There are several additional designations and training programs for a growing list of special dressage classes, such as equitation and young horse classes. These are all spelled out in the USEF and FEI rulebooks.

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