Lightbulb Moments with Bettina Hoy

We brought you one report from on the sidelines of a clinic stop on Bettina Hoy’s January tour, and now we’ve got perspective from the rider’s eye. Ema Klugman checks in with her clinic report below.

EN always welcomes reader-submitted clinic reports! Please send yours to [email protected].

Neko Duvall jumps with Bettina during a lesson in Florida. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Riding with someone new can be like a fresh snowfall: if you’ve been skiing down the same slopes for a long time, you get stuck going down the same tracks. You find your groove in these familiar tracks, and it feels smooth and comfortable. But a new coach puts down a fresh coat of snow, giving you freedom to try new things and to forge new tracks.

I was very lucky to organize and ride in a clinic with Bettina Hoy in January. The three-time Olympian is as clever and witty as she is tough. You can sense her work ethic just from being in her presence.

I was worried, at first, that I would not be ready to ride with Bettina by the time she came. My horses had been in full work for only three weeks, and we certainly hadn’t been to any shows or clinics yet this year.

It turned out to be perfect timing. What we worked on with Bettina was training — old-fashioned, back-to-basics, daily work. We were not riding millions of movements or running through tests. I spent the majority of my lessons with my Intermediate and Advanced horses on a 20-meter circle. I had been worried that we weren’t ready to “perform” for the clinic, but that concern was misplaced. Bettina taught me how to school my horses day-in and day-out, and as I’ve been putting those tools to work in earnest over the last couple of weeks, I am seeing the value of her system.

 

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Here are some of my lightbulb moments from my weekend with Bettina, both quoted and paraphrased:

“Build a bridge for your horse.”

I loved this one. Bettina insisted that we communicate fairly with our horses. If the work was getting hard and the horse was struggling, she said “build a bridge.” It is a nice gesture: to meet the horse halfway. It felt like reaching out a hand.

“Don’t chase her; connect her.”

Bettina had me ride one of my horses more forward than I had ever dared to ride her. It was not a charging around the ring, however; it was a push into looseness. She insisted that the leg build the connection, and we got some of the best work out of that horse than I ever have.

“What’s happening behind you has to stay on line.”

What she meant was to think of putting the shoulders in front of the haunches, not the other way around. The mobility and control of the shoulder was a major theme in every lesson.

(Paraphrased): “The hard part is getting the horse truly through and supple. You need to be working the whole body. This way you are preparing the whole body for the cross country, for the running and jumping. All of the dressage work is really about keeping the horses sound in the long-term.”

It makes sense that riding a horse straight is important so you can get an 8 or a 9 on your centerline. But Bettina also pointed out that straightness is vital for long-term soundness: if your horse is always leaning on one side, they are going to put uneven pressure on different parts of their body and legs. Making them truly balanced carries over to the intensity of jumping and galloping.

“Open the door, and let her get on with it.”

I liked this visualization because it was similar to the bridge idea. It was a way of allowing the horse to perform rather than forcing them to do anything. “Open the door” means giving the horse freedom; often, this was by moving the hand forward or out, but never back. On one of my horses, in particular, I could feel how opening the door gave her an outlet to release tension and express herself more.

“The movements are just tricks.”

Related to the previous point, this idea was essential for understanding Bettina’s system. The point was that you have to have the horse working properly through the whole body; after that, the movements should be easy. They are just tricks to teach the horse once the basics are established. I had never thought of dressage in this way before. But it made sense: after spending two lessons doing 20-meter circles on my 4* mare focusing on the connection from the hind leg that weekend, I rode a few test movements the following week after warming her up the same way and they felt easy.

“It’s shoulder in, not ass out!”

(I think this one is self-explanatory, and too funny not to include.)

 

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I was also lucky to talk to Bettina in between lessons and over meals. My experience with her reminded me of what it feels like to talk to someone who really loves their job: she had endless fascination with the sport and with the horse. For as much as we get wrapped up in the details of our craft, it is important to remember that we are learning an artform.

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