2017 Aspden Fund Recipient: Amanda Perkowski
The chance to participate in Lendon Gray’s Winter Intensive Training Program was absolutely the experience of a lifetime, and one I would recommend to anyone who is interested in the pursuit of a serious dressage education. I am leaving Wellington, Florida after three months with a wider knowledge base and entirely different perspective on what it means to do dressage well. I am extremely thankful to The Dressage Foundation and the Cynthia Aspden Youth and Young Adult Development Fund Grant for helping to make this program financially possible for me.
The program runs January-March of each year, and is based out of the beautiful Hampton Green Farm owned by Kim Van Kampen. I made the trip to Wellington with 17 other young dressage riders from around the country, and participation was a longtime dream of mine as well as many others. A typical day begins at 6:30am, with everyone arriving for morning chores and hurrying to care for their own horse as well as their assigned duties in the stable before fitness. Fitness was run by the fabulous Tonya Latorre, with a focus on exercises to improve rider position, balance, and stamina. After fitness, lessons begin. Everyone is welcome to take a private or semi-private lesson with Lendon, or one of the numerous other assisting instructors the program made accessible. Each day the group either attended a lecture or took a field trip, bringing in experts from every aspect of horse management and training. After lecture, everyone completed afternoon chores and headed home to get ready to enjoy many of the numerous evening events Wellington has to offer. Whether it was Friday night freestyles, Saturday night jumpers, or another equestrian event (often which free food would be served) it was certainly rare to be bored!
My experience in the WIT program was slightly unconventional. During the first week of the program, I had a freak riding accident during one of my lessons. This resulted in a fractured pelvis, crutches, and no riding for eight whole weeks. The first day of my injury, I allowed myself to sit in the hospital bed, cry, and feel sorry for myself. I had dreamed about participating in the WIT program for years. I formally had hopes of a CDI season at the Young Rider level, goals of a USDF silver medal, and plans to take full advantage of every riding and learning opportunity I could pack into three months’ time. The second day of my injury I resolved to end my pity party, cheer up, and look at the bright side. I was alive, ok, and set to make a full recovery. I narrowly missed what could have been a major and invasive surgery. I may have been injured, but I was injured in Wellington, where there is more to learn about dressage and horse management in the Winter than anywhere else in the world. I was reminded of this by two of my hospital visitors, Olympians Lendon Gray and Allison Brock. Sitting with Lendon, she assured me that just because I could not ride this winter did not mean the learning would stop. I could still sit every day and watch lessons, shadow top trainers around Wellington, spend time at Global, attend lectures/trips and take advantage of all the opportunities the program had to offer. When Ali Brock came to visit, it was an unexpected surprise which really boosted my morale for the months to come. Our very first trip as a group was to visit Ali’s farm to watch her train (before my accident). It was easily one of the most inspiring and touching trips of the program, and I left her farm with a new hero. We had the chance to watch her school one of her up and coming young horses and ask questions, and some of her responses had me tearing up as they resonated so closely with me. It can be so scary as a young person wanting so badly to go into this business, and it can be easy to fall into the trap of comparing yourself to those with the flashy horses and fancy clothes. Ali talked about her time as a working student, before she knew if she would ever “make it” and said if she could go back and tell her younger self one thing it would be to say that everything will work itself out through hard work and determination. It was so refreshing to hear the backstory of such an accomplished top rider and it gave me more faith to just keep moving forward and pushing towards big dreams.
The first morning after my release from the hospital, I hobbled into Hampton Green Farm to watch the days’ lessons with Lendon and attend the lecture. One thing that is really emphasized throughout the program is the importance of a journal, and now that the program is completed I treasure my book full of lesson summaries, training tips, and lecture notes. I have some of my major takeaways from Lendon highlighted in my journal:
Ask yourself, are you doing to the best of your ability what you can already do? For example, do you have the focus and willingness to always ride the best transition you can, or the best halt? Or do you allow laziness and sloppiness to creep in. Hold yourself to a higher standard in your riding and on the ground. Lendon credits much of her success to never wanting to be corrected for the same mistake twice!
Do not underestimate the value of stretching your horse DURING your ride. It is not something that should only be reserved for your warm-up or cool-down.
When you walk, do you walk? Or do you forget about energy, overstep, and swing in the gait? Again, emphasis on focus and good practice which will carry into the show ring.
Transitions! Not just from gait to gait, but within the gaits. This was something that was demonstrated by every top rider we had the chance to see. Want a crisper half-halt, lighter, more responsive horse, better balance etc? Transitions, thousands of them.
Who are you on the ground and in the stable? Punctuality and organization were major themes of this program. How you carry yourself and your attention to detail will carry over into your riding. Take responsibility for yourself and your stuff.
And finally, corners, head up, it's the details which separate the good from the best!
To my surprise, a broken pelvis did not stop me from making the absolute most of this incredible opportunity. We learned from so many wonderful people that it would be impossible to list them all, but some highlights for me include:
A lecture from Shana Chase, DVM on all that goes into caring for horses in South Florida. I know more about summer sores, fungus, pythium, and thrush then I ever thought I could want to!
A visit from dressage master Arthur Kottas, who really made me more aware of the function of the hind legs as being the source of energy and push, and how the transfer of weight behind biomechanically improves the horse.
Auditing the Robert Dover Horsemastership clinic, and witnessing first-hand the results of detailed training. A few ideas which stood out to me were:
Feel like you can do any movement from the collected walk, always have the electricity ready. Know you can pirouette, halt, or extend at any moment. As well as to allow the horse the chance to make a mistake, and then correct him. Let him learn the difference between right and wrong.
I also had the chance to listen to Charles De Kunffy speak, and watch him teach top rider JJ Tate. I loved the focus on becoming part of the horse so that you are not a burden, and how lightness, softness, and balance will positively affect the horse.
We visited the facilities of Ali Brock, Debbie McDonald & Adrienne Lyle, Marcus Fyffe Dressage, Jan Ebeling, Mikala Munter, Catherine Haddad Staller, and Lisa Wilcox to name a few.
All of the incredible lectures on topics ranging from sports psychology, bit fitting, equine lameness, nutrition, syndicates, equine dentistry, horse sales, traveling to Europe, and so much more. So many experts donated their time to come and speak to us, and we are all so grateful for the chance to learn from them.
In addition to learning more than I thought possible, I also accomplished more of my goals than expected. I participated in the USDF Instructor Certification Program over the course of three months, attending the three educational workshops and finally the exam. I am happy to say I passed the three-day exam, consisting of a written test, verbal exam, riding practical, teaching practical, and lunging practical. I get to leave Wellington a USDF Certified Instructor through First Level, and I am looking forward to moving on to the next levels of certification in the future. It is such a valuable program which really focused on classical theory and application. It sets a standard for those who wish to teach dressage and I really think it has a positive impact on improving the quality of dressage education in this country overall.
Additionally, during the final weeks of the program I had the chance to accomplish my long-term goal of earning my USDF Silver Medal. This was all thanks to the extreme kindness and generosity of one of the best friends I made during the program, Lara Erdogus-Brady. Lara offered me the ride on her lovely FEI gelding, Stenkaergards Mr. Swing King (Duke to his friends). She sacrificed her own lessons and show time for the last three weeks of WIT, so I could lesson on and compete her horse. It was not easy to head down centerline at PSG after two months without riding or bearing weight on my right leg. You forget how many muscles you use while riding and the level of fitness it really takes until you don’t do it for a while and everything hurts! Although I was certainly breathing hard after my tests at Global, Duke was so kind and tolerant of me that we were able to successfully earn the scores for my silver... even with a still semi-broken pelvis! I cannot express my gratitude enough towards Lara, Lendon, and assistant trainer in the program Mica Mabragana for getting me ready and back riding so quickly.
Although my WIT experience was far from what I originally expected, it was absolutely some of the best and most education filled months of my life. I have left with so much new knowledge to draw upon for the future and so many great friends and people I hope to know for a lifetime. Receiving the Cynthia Aspden Youth Development Fund Grant from the Dressage Foundation was a huge help in being able to afford this endeavor. I am so thankful to all who make this program possible, as so many give their time and efforts to make WIT what it is. The results are individually life changing and ultimately a major benefit to the future of dressage.