David O’Connor on Dressage: ‘You Have to Make it Theater’

Will Faudree, Pawlow and David O'Connor. Photo by Jenni Autry. Will Faudree, Pawlow and David O'Connor. Photo by Jenni Autry.

David O’Connor focused heavily on dressage in the second of his High Performance sessions at the USEA Annual Meeting & Convention. With the FEI set to release new one-star, two-star and three-star tests for next year — and new four-star tests in the works — he also talked about some key exercises for riders to tackle with these new tests in mind.

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David used this transitions exercise in the High Performance training sessions this year, saying he saw huge improvements in entrances and halts because of it. In this exercise, riders go down the centerline and do a transition at L or I. It’s a great exercise for straightness, too, and one that Steffen Peters uses when working on halts and canter pirouettes.

David also likes the exercise of doing either 8 or 10 meter circles in each corner. And on the topic of corners, they should match the smallest turn in your test, he said. So, for example, if the smallest turn in your test is 8 meters, your turns should be four meters across the corner.

The Castle

The Castle

David likes to use small orange cones as visual aids to mark things like corners and the centerline. For horses that get nervous on the centerline, David likes an exercise he calls The Castle, which still uses circles in each corner but brings you down the centerline when crossing from one side of the arena to the next.

Half Pirouettes vs. Turn on the Haunches

David also emphasized the difference between a half pirouette and turn on the haunches, both of which will feature in the new FEI tests. In a half pirouette, the hind end keeps moving, and the movement should be done in about six steps, with the horse accelerating on the final step coming out of the movement.

Half pirouettes can be practiced in three sections, moving over for one-third of the pirouette then walking forward, and completing that two more times until the movement is complete. “It’s a turning exercise, not a lateral exercise,” David said.

In turn on the haunches, David said he constantly sees riders look at the top of their horses’ heads, and it’s critical for them to place their eyes on a visual marker to force their eyes to stay up. And accomplishing that in the turn on the haunches, especially in the new two-star test, can pay off big time.

“For me in the two-star test, that’s the money move. If you nail the turn on the haunches looking straight at the judge and canter, it’s aggressive, it’s pushy, and it’s the money move. Every test has the money move. That’s how you win your division right there,” David said.

‘This is Showmanship’

While halts have improved immensely, they continue to be a weakness, David said. “I still see people, when they go to halt, they try to fix their horse’s squareness at the halt. Don’t do that. Take a step forward. It’s always solving the problem by going forward. If you try to solve it at the halt, all it does is ruin your halt and teach your horses not to stay still.”

And why is all this so critical? Because, ultimately, a dressage test is performing on a stage, where every little detail counts; it’s theater, David explained, and that theme is going to carry through much of the team’s training in dressage this year.

“This is showmanship; this is being on stage; this is theater for competing. You’re on a stage — it’s here — and you have to make sure that you have that theater attitude. This is what I want people to see. It is the difference between the 45 and the 39. … You have to make it theater. That’s what this year is about. Two years ago we were talking about how to go through a corner and how to slow your horse down without the reins. This year, we’re talking about theater.”

David also recommended the riders purchase The Guidelines for Judging, a book published by the FEI that shows how each dressage movement should be judged.

“It’s very clear about what is being judged and how something is getting judged. Like in the medium walk, the overstep has to be by a footprint. In the extended walk, the horse’s mouth shouldn’t get below the point of shoulder and (with) an overstep of three to four hoof prints.”

Cross Country Jumps For Your Arena

David also wants all the riders to put a corner and a triple brush in their arenas at home. The corner angles should be 60 degrees with a 12-foot face on all sides, at a height of 3’3”, with a barrel or flowers in the middle and cross country flags. Ten to 12 inches on the edges of the corner should be slanted or rounded (see diagram).

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The triple brush should be two feet at the front of the wedge and 5’6” at the back. David likes to use fake boxwood brushes from Geranium Street Floral‘s website on his jumps.

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Once the riders have these obstacles in their arenas, the idea is to “make whatever game you can,” always popping over the fences both straight on and off bending lines at the start of a jump school so it becomes no big deal.

If you missed our report on David’s session from yesterday, click here to check it out, and thank you once again to David and Joanie Morris for allowing EN to sit it on the High Performance sessions at the USEA Convention.


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