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A Day's Magic: Clinic with Dr. Gail Hoff-Caroma
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A Day's Magic: Clinic with Dr. Gail Hoff-Carmona

Clinic Report by Kristin Hermann

"Oasis", PA Arabian Magazine, Spring 1987

Emphasis was on the indispensability of correct basics during a full-day dressage clinic at County Classic Arabians, in Washington, Pennsylvania in September. (1987). The clinician was Dr. Gail Hoff-Carmona, PhD., well-known both as a dressage trainer/instructor/judge, and as a breeder of Egyptian Arabians.


Where Gail goes, so goes her fifteen-year-old stallion, Serr Maariner, four times National Champion Arabian Dressage Horse, USDF Gold Medal winner, and Arabian gentleman of talent and personality. His Musical Kur at the Grand Prix level ws, as usual, thrilling even to those whose knowledge of dressage was limited. Few people attending the clinic, however, fitted into that category by the end of the day. Many students at this clinic never had had a dressage lesson before, yet Dr. Hoff-Carmonas knowledge of advanced dressage did not hinder her ability to convey the importance of a Training Level foundation.


Repeatedly, the audience heard over the loudspeaker: "You want that horse working in front of your leg!" To exemplify, Gail illustrated on her stallion the difference between an engaged halt, and one from only the hand. Further demonstration clarified the concept as she rode another Arabian, influencing it to reach into the bit by activating its haunches, then began a discourse on horses that are taught a headset.


"Many newcomers to dressage think that a headset is the correct way to put a horse on the bit, but see how this pony's back is now hollow, and the stride has shortened because of the headset? This is uncomfortable for a horse", Dr. Hoff-Carmona explained, adding bluntly, 'I consider this kind of riding cruelty to horses."


Throughtout the day, various head positions were analyzed. "Putting a horse in a headset destroys the freedom of the gaits; the impulsion from behind is not allowed to work through the horse's whole body. Because of this, the horse works in two pieces and the back end is uncoordinated with the front. The horse working behind the bit or leg also develops the same way as a horse in a headset. You want a horse a little in front of the vertical so that its energy will pass through its body from back to front and ultimately become light in your hand."


Self-carriage was another basic that was many times reiterated. Often she asked students to drop their reins and allow their mounts to find their own balance. Some were reluctant to do so, but with encouragement they learned that they could trust their horses.


Dr. Hoff-Carmona observes the groups first at a free walk to evaluate each horse and rider. She explained poll flexion, asking each rider to feel for their horses submission at a halt. Horses stiff in the jaw and neck were placed in sidereins to help their riders feel flexion. Next, the horses, in a free forward trot, were allowed to find contact with the bit by reaching and stretching their necks and spinal muscles. Half-halts, to control the frame of the horses, were then brought into play.


"Half-halts have to be instantaneous", Gail explained. "They develop from your leg and seat, not just the hand. Drive into your half-halt and don't be afraid to use the whip in a downward transition. I push a horse up into my hands. I open the door by creating a bend, a softness with the inside rein and I hold steady with the outside rein. When the horse is light, I am light. All this has to be instantaneous. The roundness of a horse is created from the leg, not the hand."

From the rising trot and 20-meter circles, students then dropped their stirrups for sitting trot, smaller circles, and leg yielding. However, with her concern for the limitations of the horse and rider, Gail kept those not ready for sitting trot in a rising trot. "Your seat will inhibit your horses forward motion", she explained.


"When a back is tense I prefer to stay off it", she added. Exercises were given to loosen the stiff riders and improve balance. "Rotate your leg in from the hip. Drop the knees down. I dont want to see space between your calves and the horses barrel. ONCE YOU GET YOUR LEG ON THE HORSE, IT NO LONGER BELONGS TO YOU, BUT TO THE HORSE."


"You have to feel what your horse is doing underneath you. You will never get bending without impulsion", Dr. Hoff-Carmona insisted.


Working each student individually at the canter, she stressed that the horse must maintain its balance. "Circles help a horse to balance; if the horse rushes, make a circle", she instructed. "One can spiral down circles to develop the horse's strength. However, the activity of the hind legs must remain active. NOTHING WITH DRESSAGE IS DONE ABRUPTLY."


The rhythm of each gait was discussed as the riders learned how to increase and decrease the paces without speeding.


In between lessons, a demonstration of the progression of dressage training was part of Dr. Hoff-Carmonas clinic approach. She rode her Grand Prix horse in a snaffle to illustrate that it was the engagement of the hindquarters that was elevating his head, and not a double bridle. The pair began with a Training Level frame and movements, advancing to leg yielding, shoulder-in, travers, and half-pass. She and Serr further demonstrated more than one way to teach half and full canter pirouettes, and remarked that teaching the flying change was easy because all one had to do was be able to count. She then proceeded to prove the statement with a series of correct, then incorrect changes.


The third part of the clinic was a lecture on choosing a dressage prospect. Gails statement that any breed is suitable for dressage probably surprised those who know that she has been breeding Arabians for some 25 years. "The breed does not make the dressage prospect, but the way an individual horse moves. Movement is the most important criterium", she emphasized.


"Swedish warmbloods", she mentioned, "particularly have a stride of lightness and suspension, displayed in a movement of elevation, extension and then a float, like the old classic Arab. Arabians however", Gail stated unconditionally, "are easily the most intelligent breed."


She believes that any horse can be trained up to Second Level, and that beyond this level only the talented horses advance. "Basic dressage will, however, help those horses with weak conformation areas", she concluded.


Training plus talent plus an unrelenting commitment to the classical methods of dressage have proved once again to be a kind of magic, and few of the horse people present departed without taking a touch of it with them.



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