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Melonie Kessler Dressage Clinic


Melonie Kessler

Cheryl Becker and Mikato

Cheryl Becker and Mikato

Deborah Callahan and Briljanth

Deborah Callahan and Briljanth
By Nancy Brannon

Kathy Massey at Massar Farm was pleased to host a Dressage clinic with Melonie Kessler on the fourth of July weekend, June 30-July 1, 2017. Melonie is from Moorpark, California. She is a USEF “S” judge, and has been a judge for 23 years, and a USDF Gold Medalist. With 40 years of experience, she has trained and shown horses through the Grand Prix level. Melonie has ridden with some of the top dressage riders, including Hilda Gurney, and is the author of numerous published articles on Dressage.

Kessler’s foundation dressage training started with cavalryman Frank Danver. And it was instilled in her: don’t touch the mouth! Danver emphasized horsemanship in all his training, and she takes a hands-on approach in everything she does.

Kessler graduated from Pleasant Hollow farms’ Horse Career School in Pennsylvania with a diploma in riding, teaching, training, and stable management. Every job she has had, she worked from the bottom up, she said. She was once Abdullah’s groom!

As a clinician, she explains the movements and how to ride them – from the judge’s view point – and how the movements are scored.  She engages in dialogue with the riders during the clinic to help them further understand their riding, the horse’s response, and the training process.

Kessler’s philosophy in teaching and in training is always to show respect to the horse. She teaches the classic principals of balance and harmony, resulting in a willing cooperation between horse and rider. Her goal is to help people enjoy their horse through dressage.

Kessler frequently tells riders to praise their horses for doing the right thing – even if it’s only a small movement in the right direction. Kathy Massey was very pleased with the tone of Kessler’s lessons: “She has a very positive approach to riders and horses.” Kathy would like to get Kessler in the area more often for lessons, even permanently as the trainer in residence at Massar.

Being a competitor gave Kessler a positive outlook as a judge. “I know people’s pain. I get it. I became a judge to be a voice for the horse,” she said. She wants to guide the sport, so if she sees things in the ring that don’t benefit the horse, she doesn’t reward them with high scores. But because the judge’s position is a job, she still has to make the majority happy. Sometimes you get judges who are too negative, but she maintains a positive attitude. “I’ll say something like ‘it could be better if…’ and then pick something from the training schedule to inform the rider. You have to encourage people,” she maintains.

In dressage, the rider uses the aids of weight, legs and seat to influence the horse. In order to use the aids correctly, the rider’s body must be aligned and balanced, so that from a side view, the ear, shoulder, hip, and heel of the rider should be in a straight line at the halt. The rider should sit evenly on both seat bones and the length of the stirrups should be the same on both sides.

 “In dressage, when you use your legs, you must use them from the hip. In hunters, riders use their leg more from the knee. The leg needs to hang where the stirrup bar hangs. Get the feeling in your thighs like you are squatting a bit. You have to have angles and have to be able to move your thighs,” Kessler told a beginning dressage rider. “Your hands and arms must be independent from your legs, and your arms relaxed. The aids influence the horse, so use the aids to improve the horse’s gait, but don’t break gait.”

The rider’s eye focus is also an important cue. “Always look ahead to where you’re going,” she said. “Everything goes forward – like on a conveyer belt – and is preparation for the next move. And, straightness is basic,” she explained.
“Always think: how can I help my horse? Have a positive tension in the horse so that he/she is ready for the next transition.

“The horse must do what you want in a positive way. Talk to your horse! Praise your horse! It’s all about the horse and not the rider. Horses get their confidence from the rider. The horse can shy, but the rider cannot,” she said.

Kessler showed this rider how to do walk-trot transitions and long rein/short rein transitions. “In the free walk, let your horse reach down through the reins,” she explained.

She further explained how to do these transitions: “In downward transitions, relax your muscle tone. In upward transitions, contract your muscle tone. Push your horse into the walk (from the trot), even though downward transitions make the rider think ‘pull.’ And the walk should march. Pump your horse up in the trot. When the horse is trotting forward, you can trot all day (without a lot of tiring).”

Working in dressage helps the horse develop a strong back and a strong core. If the horse is stiffening in the head and neck, then the horse is concave in the back. You want the horse’s back to be rounded, sort of like a scared cat. When the head goes up, the back goes down.

After lunch, Kessler worked with a third level rider. Her advice echoed some of the basics, like the double kick “boom, boom” to get the horse moving forward better. To increase pace, she advised: “Post faster than your horse and your horse will follow your seat.”

She had this rider work on a two half circles exercise. She said, “For the collected trot, the gait should be elastic with shorter steps.”

Kessler believes that every rider should finish the ride with a feeling of accomplishment. “You are riding to enjoy the horse! But the horse must also realize that the rider is in charge. We’re trying to communicate with the horse through our muscles. A kind rider who works with the horse and accepts her cues – it’s like making deposits in the bank,” she analogized. “To improve, go an extra 10 to 15% beyond what you are currently doing. Ride for pluses! It’s school, but fun school. If it gets too regimented, it’s not fun anymore. Ride your horse to do his best; ride for quality. School your horse for better, not for perfect.”

For more information about Melonie Kessler, visit her website

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