Touch n GO Farm

Whitesburg Georgia

It IS Worth the Effort PDF Print E-mail

by Scott Nutter

Georgia Dressage & Combined Training Association (GDCTA)

Nothing fosters understanding like experience. I never had the proper appreciation for volunteer event organizers until April 15th and 16th, 2000. That was the weekend Southeast Dressage Symposium 2000 was held in Atlanta, Georgia. One hundred and fifty participants from eleven states converged upon Henderson's Arena to watch, listen and learn from Oberberieter Karl Mikolka. The format was ambitious, the schedule was tight and, as of Friday night, things were not running smoothly. To make matters worse, I was in charge. Hundreds of hours had been spent organizing this event down to the finest detail. A dozen dedicated GDCTA volunteers had contributed time and resources. As I walked in the arena at 7 am Saturday morning I couldn't help but wonder, will it be worth it?

This symposium was actually born in a moment of weakness. My wife Gigi is the GDCTA Vice President of Dressage and had been tasked to find an instructor for the 2000 dressage symposium. Last fall, despite knowing his dislike of seminar style events, she asked Karl if he would be willing to conduct such a program for this organization. Much to our surprise, he agreed.

Nine months later the audience realized from the outset that this event was not going to be just another clinic. Saturday morning I welcomed the crowd, made a simple introduction and handed the microphone over to Karl. "Good morning" he began "I am here because one of my students, Gigi Nutter, caught me in a moment of weakness and for some reason I agreed to do this Symposium!" Not the most encouraging words anyone ever launched an event with. Having previously organized clinics with Karl, I knew first hand his opinions regarding auditors. He begrudgingly waived his "no note taking" policy for this event and fully understood that I had advertised this program as totally auditor oriented. Still, would he make the crowd feel welcome? As the six demonstration riders entered the arena, I wondered if anyone would notice the event organizer sneaking out the back door. I feel fortunate to have stayed. For had I left, I would have missed an extraordinary performance.

The intent of the program was to put a broad spectrum of riders and horses in front of the audience. Many "symposiums" use only experienced riders on exceptional horses. While it is fun to watch professionals ride million dollar mounts, very few dressage enthusiasts can envision themselves in similar circumstances. Over the two-day course, the goal was for every auditor to feel at some point like they were watching someone like themselves. Accordingly, the demonstration rider group was comprised of two professionals (Gigi Nutter and Kelly Duncan), two adult amateur dressage riders (Diane Thomas and Coleen Pridemore), one adult amateur event rider (Sherry Farley) and one junior young rider (Adrienne Rogers). Aside from my wife, each had only worked with Karl on two or three occasions.

Saturday, began with a discussion of work in hand and lunging. Many riders in this country lunge their horse regularly but very few seem to understand how much beneficial training can be accomplished in this manner. It seems that most riders use a few minutes on the lunge line as a means of warming up a horse prior to mounting, not as a method of schooling the horse. Karl started with the basics of proper equipment handling, positioning and voice commands. Throughout the session he explained the concept of the lunge and why the old masters placed such importance on its use. During Karl's days at the Spanish Riding School it was customary to receive a daily lunge lesson for the first three years of training. He related these essential fundamentals to early and advanced schooling of horse and rider. He also made it quite clear that this work is essential to acquiring an independent seat and an awareness of the horses natural motion.. While Kelly, Adrienne, Sherry and Coleen did their best to illustrate Karl's points, a lack of proficiency during some of the exercises became apparent and served to punctuate the need for more practice. Mr. Mikolka stressed that four hundred years of tradition training riders on the lunge line in Vienna should not be ignored.

While lunging may be only partially understood in America, effective work in hand is practically considered a black art. In five years, I have watched Karl employ many diverse and effective groundwork techniques. He has shown several students that the occasional whack on the croup and touch on the hocks is far from real in-hand work. Gigi and her horse Fahrenheit prose_107.jpgserved as teaching tools while proper fit of the cavesson, trainer position, in-hand line use and whip techniques were explained. No one can impart a complete understanding of in-hand work in a single day but with Karl's constant coaching, Gigi went from disorganized initial attempts at simple walking, to properly coaxing piaffe steps out of the big warmblood. Judging from the audience questions that followed, many in attendance empathized with the demonstration riders and realized the need for more discipline in their own groundwork. Karl also pointed out safety issues and the importance of a qualified training partner.

After a short lunch break, demo riders with young horses returned to the ring for the afternoon session. Kelly Duncan and Sherry Farley performed some simple schooling figures while Karl questioned the audience about what they saw. As problems were identified, he asked the auditors what should be done to correct apparent problems. After a few suggestions, Karl stated "before I ask the riders to perform an exercise I must know that they have an awareness of their horse." To prove that they had the necessary feel, riders were asked to announce an individual footfall during each stride. They passed the stands shouting "now...now...now" each time the inner hind leg struck the ground. Karl then built on this concept with other combinations of inner/outer and front/hind. This ability to sense each component of a stride is essential before a well-timed correct exercise can be executed.

Once the riders had demonstrated this awareness, Karl outlined exercises focusing on specific areas for development. As each exercise was performed the improvements were immediate and obvious. Many in the audience were shocked at the degree of change and how quickly the effect was realized. Most dressage riders are accustomed to performing endless repetitions of a movement in an attempt to improve its quality. Karl's techniques are rooted in the centuries old methods practiced in Vienna and other academies in Europe. This was beautifully illustrated as he coached each rider throughout the proper exercise, its purpose and how to measure its success. When the training session was nearing an end, Kelley and Sherry rode various movements to show the positive transfer from exercise to test requirement.

The remaining riders worked with horses from third level to Intermediare and Karl's focus never shifted. When each horse and rider performed movements from twenty meter circles to piaffe and passage, the prescription for improvement was the sameÉ..sound basics and effective gymnastic exercises. Several times Karl emphasized the concept that a rider must constantly test a horse's ability to perform basic schooling exercises to insure that it is on the aids and attentive. If at any time the horse is unable or unwilling to perform the basics, they must be re-schooled until they are once again confirmed. Endless drilling of test movements is pointless. The final session concluded in typical Mikolka fashion. Every horse had improved significantly and every rider had practical, tangible knowledge to go home and train with.

Auditor reaction was one of stunned amazement. It was clear that many in the audience arrived with a belief that dressage involves a mystical path from lunging to top hats and tailcoats. Karl showed the group that good results are within everyone's grasp if they follow the classical principles. Ordinary breeding and less-than-perfect confirmation are facts that must be considered but need not prohibit a rider from brining out the best an animal has to offer. One the contrary, I think Karl feels that riders have an obligation to learn correct training techniques so each horse can learn with enthusiasm and perform with pride.

Excerpted from Karl's Symposium Guidelines:

What is Dressage?

  • The gradual development of the physical as well as mental abilities of every horse regardless of breed and bloodlines
  • A method of training that makes each horse - not just the perfectly built, into the best it can be by enhancing gaits and optimizing natural conformation
  • Dressage is good basic horsemanship.

The time it takes to achieve all those goals is often miscalculated, resulting in many horses being rushed through the levels without ever being confirmed first.

What Dressage Should Never Be.

  • The exploitation of a talented animal for financial gain and personal recognition
  • Dressage is not teaching quick "cued" or "push-button" reactions but rather responses resulting from systematic gymnastic conditioning
  • Dressage is not the drilling of isolated movements totally divorced from a thorough, methodically designed training program.

The educational content was more than most could absorb in a single day but the excitement Karl had created was evident in the buzzing conversations during the afternoon break. For those who wanted more, Karl's wife Lynn brought a video retrospective of Karl's career. The film is not really intended for public consumption and is only occasionally shown at private clinics. As the lights dimmed I observed the faces in the crowd. From his first days at under Podhajsky, to the building of an Olympic team in Brazil, to a move to the US and Tempel Farms, an exceptional lifetime spent with horses was revealed. The footage held everyone's undivided attention until the audience burst into applause at the end. One smiling auditor commented, 'Watching Karl ride gave me chills!'

With the lights up, I asked Karl to summarize any key points he felt auditors should take away from the program. He didn't make a comment. Instead he took a marker and wrote a rather long word in Greek on a presentation board. Not being fluent in the language, I asked him to translate. "The word means 'Change your thinking'." Karl explained that the phrase was from Xenophon's original riding treatise. "As you study dressage, both you and your horse must be willing to change your thinking."

I returned home Saturday night relieved that no great complications had occurred and the departing crowd seemed pleased. Feeling a bit more confidant following the first day's results, I couldnŐt help but wonder "how can we top this?"

When will I learn? One should never underestimate Karl Mikolka.

The next day the gates opened and I saw a few new faces blended with those from the day before. Sunday's format was simpler to schedule but presented some technical difficulties. Aside from his credentials as an instructor/trainer, Karl Mikolka was an international dressage judge who was being offered "O" status prior to retiring in 1986. We intended to conduct a modified Ride-A-Test. Karl was supposed to assume the position at "C"and score tests ranging from Training Level to Intermediare II. The term "modified" refers to the fact that we wanted to have Karl wear a microphone throughout the tests and let the audience hear each movement scored with accompanying remarks. For more than a few riders, the notion of hearing "4" blasted through the sound system during the halt at X seemed a little disconcerting. After some repositioning of speakers, those that wanted to hear the live scoring were able to and the riders suffered few distractions.

The morning's equipment problems kept me occupied until five minutes prior to the first test. When I cornered Karl to give him a few last minute details, I made a passing comment that later changed the direction of the entire program. The rides were scheduled in groups of five with Question & Answer periods and a lunch break. I told Karl that there was enough time in each group for him to explain his scoring in greater detail if he wished. As the program progressed, limited time might be available to propose an exercise if he felt it would benefit a particular horse or rider. Karl thanked me for the flexibility, took his cup of coffee and headed for the judges' stand.

What took place over the next six hours left a lasting impression on every person in attendance. We all wish we could listen to a judge score each movement at a show. Hearing Karl score each movement aloud and the reason for the mark proved enlightening. Novice and professional alike said that the concept provided a much greater insight into what a judge was looking for. The idea wasn't unique to this event and judges forums have conducted similar formats for years. What made the day so special was the extraordinary demonstration of training skill that followed.

I was a little surprised when Karl left the judges' stand after the first ride to help the rider with a problem evident in the test. After only ten minutes and an exercise or two, a dramatic improvement was obvious and the audience applauded the results. That was all the inspiration Karl needed. After every test Mikolka, the Judge, left the platform, headed into the arena and became Mikolka the Trainer. Turned out in full show attire, riders were directed to perform gymnastic exercises. Some he worked in hand or on long lines while others were lunged. Once the "mini lesson" was complete he directed most riders to perform a movement from the test that had been poorly executed. Without exception, every horse and rider team improved. Just when the crowd thought the last lessons results couldn't be topped, out he would come again and perform another miracle.

The audience became so involved that Karl lost all track of time. He worked through the Q & A sessions and skipped his lunch break. By 4:00 everyone was exhilarated and exhausted. I feel confident in saying that there are very few people in the world that could have put on such a performance. As philosopher Henri-Frederic Amiel said "To do easily what is difficult for others is the mark of talent. To do what is impossible for talent is the mark of genius." On Sunday, Karl Mikolka showed every symposium participant the genius of a true "Master."

The Georgia Dressage and Combined Training Association tries to conduct one dressage symposium each year. Regardless of format or personality, the intent of these programs is always the same, to educate the riding public. Thanks to Karl Mikolka, Southeast Dressage Symposium 2000 set a high standard for instructional excellence and proved to be a rousing success. Each rider who attended left with a much clearer understanding of what is possible with the right guidance from a knowledgeable trainer. Karl had not conducted such a seminar in well over a decade. He may never do it again. The students of dressage who attended should consider themselves quite fortunate to have been able to study with such an accomplished professional. For those who were unable to make the trip to Atlanta, I cannot urge you strongly enough to watch Karl work at the first opportunity that presents itself. He is the most thoroughly accomplished, underutilized and under appreciated asset in American dressage.

Personally, as of Sunday night my work was only half finished. Karl stayed for two more days to conduct a private clinic. After nine months of planning, hundreds of hours of work, countless e-mails, phone calls and conversations culminating in a two-day stress fest; do I feel that organizing Southeast Dressage Symposium 2000 was all worth all the effort?

You betcha!

 
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