Debbie Rodriguez, 'S' dressage judge, 'r' eventing judge, USDF Bronze, Silver and Gold Medalist. Available for clinics, lessons and judging.

Trainers Notes


Rider Fitness

Winter in Florida

Warming Up



 A big part of moving through the levels successfully in dressage is mastering new movements and patterns. Often it is easy to get so focused on the patterns and movements and criteria for moving along that the purpose of the level gets ignored. Setting goals and a time frame for moving up the levels is good but only if you are able to perform with strong basics at the given levels.


           Some clear examples are when a rider is able to sit the trot for five minutes First Level seems the place to be. A more important measure would be the ability to keep the connection and balance needed for the extra requirements and lengthenings. The purpose stated on the test is to confirm that the horse in addition to the requirements of Training Level has developed thrust and achieved a degree of balance and throughness.


            The other obvious place is when moving to third level as soon as an inkling of a flying change exist the rider feels ready to compete at third level whether or not the pair is able to stay supple and through. Again the Purpose stated on the test is To confirm that the horse having demonstrated that it has achieved the thrust required in Second Level, now demonstrates in each movement-especially in medium and extended paces and in the transitions to/from the collected movements-rhythm, suppleness, acceptance of the bit, throughness, impulsion, straightness and collection. …..


            The written purposes on the tests could not make it any clearer that the correct basics are expected in all movements and transitions. Riding the pattern accurately is only a modifier and a place to start. Being able to get through the test with no mistakes is not enough if you and your horse are not able to achieve with some consistency the stated purpose of the level.


            It pays to be honest with yourself as you evaluate your skill and ability at a level. Be sure that you are not only confident with each movement in a test, but that you are also able to keep a fair amount of correctness in the test. Again be sure to look under the directive ideas for each movement. Most directives include the word quality. Yes it is the quality that counts. If your connection or throughness suffers each time you make a transition or start a movement perhaps you are not yet confirmed enough to be competitive at that level. This doesn’t mean that eventually you won’t be able to perform the test successfully. It just means that you need to take the time to more thoroughly establish your basics at home before expecting success in the show ring. There is no shame in staying at an appropriate level for you and your horse.


            Everybody sometimes has an off day however if the comments from the judges often refer to needing stronger basics it will be worth your time to heed this advice. The basics are what we refer to when using the training pyramid. Rhythm, suppleness, acceptance of the bit, throughness, impulsion, straightness and collection. Sound familiar?


            Once you are able to keep a connected, balanced, supple, active horse through your test at home you will be ready to ride that test in competition with a true expectation of success no matter what the level.


Last year, driving home from Dressage at Lexington 2007, I heard a country song on the radio. The song by Lawrence Tracy goes on about ‘finding out who your friends are.’


It talks about ‘driving your car off the road, stuck in a ditch in the middle of nowhere.... Somebody’s gonna drop everything and jump into their car…..The truth don’t lie, you find out who your friends are.’


I had to laugh because I know my friends would be thrilled if all I ever asked of them was to drag my car out of a ditch in the middle of nowhere. If you know someone that manages a dressage show, the requests and demands on the friendship are a little more involved. For starters Dressage at Lexington is three days long plus a set-up day. So if I ask you to volunteer to scribe, score, ring steward, run or hand out ribbons--the request is normally for three days of duty and possibly set-up and take-down. Many hands make light work. Over the years most of my friends have spent countless hours checking entries, preparing score boards, putting labels on tests, cleaning dressage rings, organizing ribbons and prizes, preparing the program, designing a website...etc.  All this before the show even gets going. Sure, you get free pizza for lunch and a t-shirt on show day, but we all know that just doesn’t cover it.


Many of the volunteers for Lexington have come again and again for years. Mothers whose daughters have long since grown up and moved away continue to call and ask what their assignment will be this time. Just last night, one of the boys that has helped since he was shorter than I am called to say that he will be there for all days of Lexington before shipping off to basic training on the Monday after the show. Now that’s dedication.


Many of the volunteers are also sponsors. This means they not only give freely of their time, but in addition they open the check book and offer prize money for a class they particularly enjoy. So you can see a call in the middle of the night for assistance with car trouble would be nothing to my friends.


These folks are my friends and family but they are also great friends of the sport of dressage.


‘The truth don’t lie, you find out who your friends are….”







I am a petite woman.  For the majority of my life, I have had minimal muscling and strength.  Many of the people I instruct can relate to the difficulties this kind of physique creates in being a successful rider. Through the years, many instructors have suggested that I take-up some form of conditioning exercise, outside of my riding, to increase my strength. For too many years I misunderstood the reason for adding strength. I thought more muscles would be for stronger aids to influence my horses. With some indignation, I would think to myself that I did not want to have horses that needed a weight lifter to effectively ride them.  I wished to have horses that only needed the lightest of aids. Far too many years passed where I ignored this advice.  (Except for the times during my eventing days when I would occasionally take up jogging to quiet my instructor.)  All the while I struggled to keep my seat squarely in the saddle, and most lessons consisted of the repeated advice to bring my shoulders back.


It wasn’t until a few years ago, I was enlightened.  I realized that the importance of a fit and strong rider was not to give harder aids to the horse, but for the rider to maintain a correct position to be able to control and influence the horse with more subtle and lighter aids.


All the years of struggling to sit evenly was not due to a lack of ability or effort, but due to a general lack of fitness and strength through the hips and core. My rounded shoulders were not due to any real or imagined genetic or conformation flaw, but to a lack of strength through the shoulders, back and abs.


Once the light went on I was able to work with a good physical trainer, who was familiar with other sports and riding, to strengthen my core. My training involves an aerobic warm-up, stretching and stability work along with strengthening exercises for the core muscles. This is the program my body has had the best response to, and that fits my lifestyle.  I travel frequently, and I do not need equipment or a gym to get through a workout. When I am on the road there is no excuse to miss a workout. However there are many programs, such as Pilate’s, yoga, and core fitness that provide a good balance of stretching and strengthening.


Immediately there was a positive difference in my riding.  Most notably, I am able to influence the stability of my seat in lateral movements and control where the weight of my seat goes. The other big difference is that my hips and seat bones no longer hurt after many hours in the saddle. It is easier to keep a positive attitude during rides now that there is no discomfort.


Yes, I still have to constantly remind myself to keep my shoulders back.  But, at least it is something I can do without pain or frustration. Taking the time off the horse to get fit for riding is something I wish I had understood years ago.







 For the past several years I have had the wonderful opportunity of taking a few horses to south Florida for a month in the middle of winter. Knowing that I will be going to a major dressage Mecca is a motivating factor in itself. In January, when it is hard to stay motivated because it is cold and wet and there are no shows on the horizon, I know that the horses need to be kept in good shape so that they are ready for the serious work they will get in Florida.


 Since I take 2-3 horses and stay for just one month, as opposed to ‘the season’, it is hard to make advance reservations for stalls and trainers. In the beginning this was difficult to live with. However, I am now confident that horses will get sore or sold and riders situations will change and by the time I am ready for the trip stalls will become available. This makes each year a surprise as far as stabling and training goes.


 In 2005 and 2006, Five Star Farm was home for February. It is a beautiful stable with a nice covered arena. Mette Kjellerup is the owner/trainer. The stable is also open to outside trainers.


 This year there were several Grand Prix horses in the barn and at neighboring facilities. It makes you sit up straighter just knowing the quality of riders in the ring with you.


 Several mornings each week I had a lesson with Mette on Avrawn, the 14-year-old Connemera/ Thoroughbred cross,  I have been trying to get more competitive at I-2 this past year. While I was having my lesson there was an experienced GP rider on a very nice GP horse also having a lesson or the horse getting a training ride. It was interesting listening to the instruction going on in the arena, for a starting I-2 horse and for an experienced GP horse. One might think there would be a big difference but in fact the advice was remarkably similar. It was also quite similar to the advice I give the training/ first level riders I teach at home.


 The instruction was about getting the horse in front of the leg, more engagement, controlling the neck (more throughness), controlling the shoulders (more straightness and balance) and the rider staying in control. Of course the degree of each of those can be incredible, but the basics are what you need to refresh and improve at every level. Even when working on specific movements most comments are on the horse staying in front of the leg/seat and staying active. The quality of every movement gets better as the rider is better able to keep the horse in front of the leg and active even in the strong collecting half-halts and movements.


 Seeing how much the basics continue to be the focus of training even at the upper levels renewed my commitment to being much more attentive to the basics and keeping the expectations high when working with all my horses.


            Basics- Rhythm-relaxation-contact-straightness-impulsion-collection






            Last weekend I had the pleasure of being a spectator at Dressage at Devon for two days. The weather was perfect, clear fall days without wind or rain. The horses and riders were some of the best and a joy to watch.


            I went with the hope of seeing how different riders at those levels handled the warm-up to have the horse loose and ready but not too tired to show some brilliance. I went looking for a magic formula that would make my warm-ups easy and successful.


            What I found was no surprise. There were as many warm-up strategies as horse and riders. Many of the Fourth Level and Prix. St. George riders used portions of the test or in many cases the whole test in their warm-ups. There was no concern about the horses knowing or anticipating the movements. By the time the horses qualify to ride at Devon they have already competed with those tests for an entire season. These riders were concentrating on perfecting the series of movements one last time and most had a ground person giving feedback on the balance and correctness of the movements.


            Many others concentrated on getting the gait quality up. There was stretching but nothing exaggerated or too deep. Many of the Fourth Level horses spent time going in and out of passage to help get loft and cadence in the collected trot. Definitely a case for schooling a level or two above the competition level, an idea we all read about but that doesn’t always fit in with the reality for most of us. In the non-CDI classes a few trainers got on their students horses and got the passage and lift. It is amazing to see how a rider can change the look of a horse in a second or two.


            The Grand Prix’s were later in the day and into the evening. All the Grand Prix horses came out at some point during the day for loosening ride. Most of them went around the ring like old pros. It was as if they knew that it was not yet show time- no braids, no top hat and tails. Most of them were out for 30-45 minutes just walk, trot and cantering with a little passage here and there and very few of the movements. Then in the evening before their ride time most took about 30-40 minutes including a long walk to start. At this level most seemed to spend the serious work time in piaffe and passage and then some canter work with a few pirouettes before entering. It was definitely not a taxing warm-up and it was easy to see why when seeing how much energy it takes for a good GP test.


            So I had a fun and motivating weekend watching some wonderful rides, but I came home with the knowledge that there is no sure formula for a warm-up at any level and the responsibility lies with the rider to know their horse and the situation on any given day.



Debbie Rodriguez      Williamsburg VA

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. No images or content on this site may be copied or reproduced without express written consent. Site designed and maintained by Mpire Photograpy & Graphics