Jul 26, 2022

Tackling the Six Levels of the Dressage Training Pyramid at Day One of the EA21 Morven Park Regional Clinic

The EA21 Morven Park Regional Clinic participants with instructor Shannon Lilley. USEA/ Samantha Haynie photo

What are the six levels of the dressage training pyramid? This was the opening prompt to the riders on day one of the USEA Emerging Athlete 21 (EA21) clinic. Twelve athletes were selected out of 150 applicants to ride at Morven Park with Pan-American Games gold medalist and USEA Instructor's Certification Program (ICP) instructor Shannon Lilley. The USEA EA21 program's goal is to support an increased pipeline of young riders from the grassroots of eventing to the sport's top professionals.

The riders shared their journeys and reasons for applying for the EA21 Clinic. It was imperative to the selectors that the riders be chosen for their riding ability and not solely on their horse. "We have to identify, 'do they want to work and make it? Do they want to live and breathe it?'" mused Lilley about narrowing down the riders for the National Camp in January 2023, where they'll ride with David O'Connor.

Riders rode in groups of two throughout the day. While the horse and rider combinations warmed up as they usually would, Lilley observed the pairs, deciding what exercises would be the most beneficial. Each rider shared their strengths and weaknesses and the assets and issues of their mounts. She then tailored exercises for each group surrounding the six levels of the dressage training pyramid: rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, straightness, and collection.

Lilley encouraged the first group of riders, which consisted of Elizabeth Gill and Kiera Kenny, to focus on the seat to maintain the horses' straightness. She gave them exercises, including leg yielding, so the horses would push over their backs, elongating the frame.

Gill previously worked for Liz Halliday-Sharp. "I was a working student for her for two years," Gill said. "I ride at the Intermediate level. This clinic was interesting to me because I'm in college and not where I'm with a ton of people. This is a great way to be present in the sport and ride with more people and get my name out there and have more eyes on me."

Lilley explained that more complex movements develop engagement and impulsion. Throughout the day, she had the various groups ride a counter-canter to maintain straightness and haunches-in on a circle. Another exercise Lilley suggested was leg yielding from a larger to a smaller circle while maintaining contact and rhythm to encourage engagement and collection.

The second group of riders consisted of Ayden Schain and Lea Adams Blackmore who both compete currently at the CCI3* level. "I applied to this clinic because I thought it was a great opportunity to learn from someone different," said Blackmore. "I think it's so awesome to ride with as many people as you can and pick up little things from everyone, so it just seemed like a great opportunity. This program is a cool idea to help people get to where they want to go."

The next group, which was made up of Sarah Ertl and Rebecca Roth, focused on similar exercises to relax the horses. "If you work through a muddled rhythm with gait changes and leg yielding, you can develop more complicated movements once the horse is working through their body," said Lilley.

"I really want to join the pipeline of top-level eventers and would love to be on one of the U.S. teams and do this professionally," Roth shared following her ride at the clinic.

In the next group, Audrey Littlefield and Adalee Ladwig navigated Lilley's exercises surrounding the six levels of the dressage training pyramid. Ladwig has dreams of galloping across the country at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event CCI5* one day and saw this clinic as an opportunity to get her name out there. " If I got the chance to represent the USA, it would be absolutely amazing," she reflected. "I'm super excited to be here and ready to show what I've got."

Lilley led the next group consisting of Addi Neumeyer and Caitlin O'Rourke in another series of exercises to work on their rhythm. "It's important to establish a clear rhythm in gaits," commented Lilley. "This isn't found by hurrying the tempo. Slow your tempo to create longer steps to make a clearer rhythm in the horse's gait. Use the shoulder-fore and shoulder-in on the quarter-line with the hind end by keeping the hips on the quarter-line."

Neumeyer made the trek to Virginia from her hometown in West Lafayette, Indiana, where she rides with Lee Ann Zobbe. "We've been running Preliminary for the past year and I'm hoping to do a CCI2*-L with him so he can show me the ropes," Neumeyer said of her horse, Junior. "I wanted to come [to this clinic] for the experience. Coming from Indiana, you don't have a lot of opportunities, especially for riding upper-level. I wanted to get a good experience at a clinic like this."

For O'Rourke, there was one thing that stuck out to her about the EA21 clinic when she was applying. "I applied for the list because I really liked how they were looking for riders and not necessarily combinations. I think that's so important because so many people don't have the funds to have the nicest horse. It's nice to be part of a program that is just starting, to be there at the beginning."

Lilley had the final group of athletes, Kate Bearer and Meg Pellegrini, leg-yield at the canter, bending the horses away from outside leg and leg-yielding on a circle. Shortening the canter in a leg-yield makes them sit on their outside hind leg and further powers the canter. She explained that when the rhythm is precise, it creates a better connection and helps to maintain straightness by engaging both hind legs.

" I think [this clinic] is a really good experience for all of us young riders to be in one area at the same time and work on sportsmanship, being a team, and just being part of a big community, while putting the pressure on a little bit," said Pellegrini.

"I was overall really pleased," said Lilley at the end of the first day. "All the girls took instruction really well. The whole point is that the exercises then create the success of that pyramid. I really think that they got it. Like everyone, every horse got better. I thought all the balance points by the end were better than at the beginning. I think the riders made it so the horse got to the strongest point they could get to. I was really pleased with that."

As the day wound down, several riders grazed their mounts during the evening debrief. A discussion about what it must be like to represent the U.S. on the team led to questions about Lilley's experience at the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.

“Buck [Davidson], myself, Lynn [Symansky], Hannah [Burnett], John [Holling] -. we ended up coming here [Morven Park] for our final outing," Lilley reminisced. "It was awesome. We all got along so well. Everyone was just trying to make everyone better. As a teammate, the support you give to your riders is so paramount. It's not just about you. A bit of selflessness is really important. Everyone needs to feel that energy. No one person was trying to be better than the team and that was really important," Lilley reminisced.

She tied her experience at the Games to the EA21 clinic's goal of encouraging a team atmosphere. "People are in it for more than just themselves, there is camaraderie in the sport as a whole and that's a big deal to carry forward in your generation. Then as professionals, you can carry that on to the younger riders you teach."

Day Two of the EA21 clinic at Morven Park continues tomorrow with show jumping.

The remaining EA21 Regional Clinics are scheduled as follows:

Central – Holly Hill Farm (Benton, La.) | August 1-2, 2022 | Coached by Rebecca Braitling.

West Coast I – Aspen Farms (Yelm, Wash.) | August 15-16, 2022 | Coached by Rebecca Brown.

West Coast II – Twin Rivers Ranch (Paso Robles, Calif.) | August 17-18, 2022 | Coached by Rebecca Brown.

For more information on the EA21 Regional Clinics, click here.

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