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Conrad Schumacher – Lessons to be Learned

By Raja “Rya” Lahti McMahon

“What are you, 12??” he belted. I was in awe, he saw me give her a tiny scratch on the neck with my finger. I started to smile. Maybe? I had just started riding again after my pregnancy and quite frankly, I was giddy. I had stopped riding and continued teaching in April due to my pregnancy, and now with only a short time back in the saddle, I was on my young mare Carette. We had a wonderful partnership prior, but now 5 months later we were learning each other all over again.  Luckily he was here to guide us and make sure we were heading in the right direction.

He of course, is Conrad Schumacher. We’ve heard his name before, but I can easily say we don’t nearly know enough about this master of dressage. He is a living legend and we are so very, very lucky to have any opportunity to watch him at work. I can only tell you what most people already know, he was trained by the late Josef Neckermann, won the German National Championships, was a member of the national team (with the likes of Harry Boldt, Reiner Klimke, Klaus Balkenhol, etc), developed multiple Olympic medalists in 3 different countries, not to mention he developed the German young rider program and contributed to the American young rider program as well.  Wow, and I thought sleeping through the night with my little one was a feat…

What I do know about Conrad is his passion for teaching and developing the next generation of masters. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to train with him while he was coaching the US Young Riders. A few years later I found myself riding in Germany at Conrad’s beautiful farm, and I continued to realize how lucky I was to make this opportunity happen. Back in California, I found myself trekking across the state to continue my education with him. What kept bringing me back? In California we are blessed with a high density of Olympic talent, so why Conrad? And then it hit me. Conrad teaches feel and timing in such a way that you can develop it yourself. For example, by the time someone on the ground tells you “more inside leg” or “softer in the neck,” it’s too late. At that point, you can only fix a problem, not prevent it from happening in the future. (Albeit, an eye on the ground is better than no eye at all.) Conrad’s method of teaching is to develop riders to feel what it means to have the right timing of the aids by using strategic exercises and gymnastics for very specific issues. He starts with basic principles like neck control, softening of the neck, moving away from the leg, “yes ma’am” from the horse and “I will” from the rider. You will hear him say things like, “In principle…” or “The idea is…” so you have the larger picture of what you’re trying to achieve, then he works on the piece of the puzzle you are missing to reach your goal.

“Bring her inside (leg) to outside (rein), when she has given, and the outside leg is in position, then you canter. You must do that. I don’t say when to do it, you do it on your own. The feel – that’s your thing,” Conrad says. He puts horse and rider in an exercise of 10 meter voltes with transitions at the rail. He repeats the exercise until the horse begins to anticipate the upward transitions and begins to associate the correct timing of the aids with the “relief” of being “allowed” to canter with only the smallest of aids. The once stiff upward transition to the canter turns to butter. “There is no stress anymore because she understands your aids.” The question then becomes, when we encounter resistance with our horse during training, how much is simply a miscommunication or lack of preparation?

The magic in Conrad is his ability to break down issues to the basics. It’s not good enough to say the horse isn’t “through” the back.  It’s even worse to think you can force “thoroughness”. The seamless connection between horse and rider starts with the horse’s willingness to trust the rider.  Why is the horse lacking and where is the rider failing? In most cases, it’s about the right feel and timing of the aids. The right aid at the right time (in most cases) will result in the need for a smaller aid.  If you use the right aids at the wrong moment you get resistance. When you get resistance, you develop distrust and a horse unwilling to work. Forcing a horse at this point will never result in success. The concept of smaller aids for bigger success is a cornerstone of his training. I got to experience this first hand when I was training at his farm at Hotgut Neuhof.  I was to ride one of his grand prix horses named “Westi. “Let’s see what happens,” he says. I replied, “See what happens??!? What is this guy going to do to me?” “Don’t worry, we’ll just see” he simply replied. Westi turned out to be one of the most inspirational horses I have ever ridden. At nearly 17.3, he was big, and as Conrad put it, “He’s so big, and you’re so small, I wasn’t sure if you would be strong enough to ride him.” The truth was, I wasn’t strong enough at all at the time and if he did require any strength, I wasn’t going to deliver. What happened was not magic, it was the right aids at the right time for this big guy and it worked brilliantly. Westi taught me that just because he was a big guy, I didn’t need to yell. In most cases there is a simple answer, we just have to take a step back to see the big picture and be willing to take it back to the basics.

He also teaches on a continuum. Issues we have with our horses or training are generally speaking, not developed over night, and thus, not solved overnight either. Two or 3 days training with Conrad isn’t a solution, it’s a direction. His passion for teaching young riders, professionals and amateurs alike is in the continuum. Nearly everybody comes to him with a problem, some bigger than others. This is usually due to a communication error between horse and rider. He may ask you where your issues are, but by the time you’ve picked up the canter in your warm up, he’s already got a plan in mind, and more than likely it’s back to the basics. I used to joke and say that the first day with Conrad is eye opening. The second day makes you want to cry. And the third day you finally see where you’re going. After repeat Conrad clinics, he remembers you and quite surprisingly, exactly where you left off. “Remember last time, this guy (referring to the horse) couldn’t do that” he’d reminds you. “Now he goes, like butter.”

Conrad’s trip to San Diego in October was an enormous success. Getting a clinic incorporated into his schedule is, quite possibly, mission impossible. It’s taken me the better part of a decade, but we are happy to announce at Del Mar Dressage ( that Conrad will be coming back for clinics. Be it by riding or auditing, he is a master not to be missed. Please contact Bettina Loy at Del Mar Dressage for future clinic dates.

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