Wilcox - when there is a will
Story - Chris Hector
Photos - Roz Neave
The German dressage fans are having
to come to grips with the fact that quite a few of their Grand Prix
competitions are being won by an American, Lisa Wilcox riding a team
of stallions from one of Oldenburg's largest, and most historic studs.
He was one of the first of the new style of breeding stallions who also held their own in the competition arena. Mrs Vorwerk was also prepared to look beyond who own borders when she went in search of a rider to replace Martina, and found her in former US eventing rider, Lisa Wilcox, who discovered dressage when she married a US based German Grand Prix rider/trainer - before moving on to Germany to hone her equestrian skills. Once again, it is a move that has paid dividends for Mrs Vorwerk. Lisa Wilcox and Rhodiamant missed out on a place in the American team for Sydney when a qualifying show lost its CDI status (don't ask it is one of those American 'objective selection' things) but is well and truly in line for a place in the team for next year's World Championships in Jerez. Riding Rhodiamant's little brother, Royal Diamond, she took out the six-year-old title at last year's Bundeschampionate - and with a string of top stallions competing at FEI level, Lisa is riding high.
So how does an American end up riding some of Germany's most expensive stallions? In an earlier interview, Lisa suggested that the crucial ingredient was 'luck' - that she, Lisa was the right height, and in the right place, at the right time. Watching her work at home you realise that an awesome ability to focus is probably the more important factor. When we arrived at 8.30, we were just in time for a cup of coffee with Lisa, at four o?clock, seven horses later, it was her last for the day. Throughout that time, the concentration was total, responding to each horse as an individual while at the same time working through a very defined system that she has developed with her Spanish Riding School trained instructor,
Ernst Hoya. Her first ride was Regal
Dancer and he was about to step out in his first test which is why Lisa
was reading the test book and muttering to herself as she traced out
the pattern in the indoor school at a walk. She put down the book, picked
up the rein and was straight into canter, a nice round canter, and a
very nice flying change, the session had only just begun and Lisa was
already asking for a very short canter, really making the horse take
the weight on his hindlegs, and into a training pirouette, a very small
volte making the horse bring his front around his hindquarters. Aside
from the occasional slow, deliberate lateral flex, Lisa's hands do not
move, they are absolutely quiet and still. Now she is tightening up
the pirouettes? we've gone 15 minutes and still not a single step of
From an FEI competitor to a real baby
- Raoul is just back from his 100 day test where he was 4th with 122
points at the Neustadt-Dosse testing station. 'It's just my second ride
with him, I just want to relax him in the indoor. He plays with the
bit and pushes his tongue down. I think they must have been using a
sharp bit on him, so I've gone to a fat double broken snaffle. You can't
blame the riders at the testing station, they have such a short time
to get it done. He's got used to just being with the other guys, now
he has to learn about mares and foals again. Most important is that
he has got to learn that even when he thinks he doesn'twant
'I ignore what he is doing. I talk
to him; I use a lot of voice with young stallions. If you pressure them
with your seat, they react negatively, if you relax your seat, they
relax. I know when I get to this corner he is going to react, but I'm
staying ahead of him in my thoughts, that's how you can help a young
horse.' And sure enough, as Lisa croons, 'it's fine, it's fine' young
Raoul goes smoothly through that 'bogey' corner.
So out comes another of the Vorwerk stallion stars, Relevant 'a big guy with a big eye, and he can see all those mares!' 'This horse is just a pinch further along. You can stay more on the spot with him in fact he gets to be a bit of an over-achiever after piaffe and passage, so again, I have to get him to relax.' 'I am working with him on getting his one times changes straighter, his twos are pretty good. I am so lucky that all the horses I ride are breeding stallions and are not going to be sold.
Going into the WEG at Jerez, I've got
Rohdiamant, Relevant and Friedenf?rst." Once again you can't believe
how cool and elegant Lisa is, still as focussed as she was when she
started out about seven hours ago.
Do you think it is the influence of the Spanish Riding chool, through your instructor, that you move so quickly to hortening work in a training session?
'No, I do that because you only have so much in the battery ? that's the horse's energy level. Some people spend a lot of time at the beginning, long and low, draining the battery,hen you want to get to the stuff where it's really needed, and he battery is half empty. Also you are dealing with their haracter, they are tired and not so happy about doing what they are doing because they are running on half-empty. I'd rather soften up through transitions, forwards, backwards, this is my softening, and at the same time, I'm activating the hindlegs. Then I can get more quickly into the harder
work, when the horse is at its best. You have to remember my horses have been on this program, so they know what they are doing, and they are fit, I wouldn't recommend it for everyone, I built them up to this level. But you will notice that what I did with Roadster and with Raoul, that was very different, they are building up in the same direction, but they are not ready yet. My goal is to use the energy at the right point, that's what keeps them happy about what they are doing, if they are strong enough and fit enough to do it. If I wait until they are tired, and say 'okay piaffe and passage' they go aaah, and I'm going to feel it, and their ears won't be quite as? they have to have fun doing what they are doing.
I have to teach them, but at the same time I want them to have fun. When I go into the arena, people say 'wow! It looks so easy'.' But you were saying sometimes it isn?t easy, sometimes there?s a tonne in your hand?
'Sure, but when it still looks easy outside, I'm happy about that, that's riding, that's my job. Grin and bear it when it seems like it is unbearable but the point is that the horses are never going to be the same, I'm going to have great days and I'm going to have other days. But it has to look the same all the time. I've got to present my horses to the best of their abilities and I can't let the world see he is a little strong. That's part of it, grinning and bearing it, and even when you say 'shoot, he's not so good today' but anyway, that's the sport.'
When you did your pirouettes, you almost always did one and a half or two pirouettes, never just one? 'It's because if I come in and I notice I don't have the right rhythm, then I keep going until I have it. Then I get 'dee dum dee dum dee dum' not 'dum dum dum'. If I have the rhythm from the beginning to the end, then I get out. If I only ever do one pirouette, then they learn do one, and get out. They have to be on the ball ? does she mean one, or does she mean one and a half, or is she going to do two. They've got to wait for me to lead, and that's part of it ? there?s no point in getting into a routine with them because they are smart, they are extremely smart, and they get ahead of you in their thoughts, and I've got to keep them waiting for me. When's the cue, when's the cue, when am I allowed to leave the pirouette? But mostly I wanted to wait until I got the rhythm I wanted and then let them out.'
Where did you find your instructor?
'Martina Hann?ver was here, and working with Jo Hinnemann. Ernst used to do a lot of work with Jo Hinnemann. They would go together, it would be like 'load up your horse and go to Jo and Ernst' and they would work together, one would ride and one would work on the hand. And you would watch your horse being worked by two professionals, then they would switch, and the other one would get on, and the other would work underneath. They would work like 20 horses in day those two guys! Jo had some things to do, and so he sent Ernst up here in his place to work with Martina, and that's how the relationship got going. After I started here and Jo was getting involved with Holland and had so little time, Gudula said 'I think I will call Ernst' ? and
thank god. It was the best thing that could have happened to me.' You don't use your hands much except for that little bit of lateral flexing and softening?
'It's a combined thing, I do a half halt straight to soften him in the throat latch, vertically, and just a small half halt laterally. More I don't need otherwise I'd pull him out of balance and out of his rhythm, and I would have a rhythm mistake, in a half pass or whatever. I have to be able to do the smallest softening, that's the magic so that in a test, nobody sees. I come into a corner and I notice 'oh god he's hanging on an inside rein' and if he is used to being ridden this way, then I just need the bare minimum, and I can get the effect that I need without the judge going 'rhythm mistake in half pass.' That?s why I am a firm believer in do what you would do in a test, at home every day, and then the tests are going to be that much easier. Keep on a really strict system. And what I want in a test, I ask for exactly that at home. There are no misunderstandings for the horse. He knows exactly my aids, softening aids, and he's prepared, in a very short distance, I can get him pretty soft without anybody seeing. The most important thing is that I don't bring him out of a rhythm.'
Do you go into a working session ? say like the first one with Regal Dancer ? with a plan? I had such-and-such a problem with him yesterday, so today I'll focus on?
'He was actually pretty good today, I had more trouble with him yesterday, today he was pretty good, I was happy with the results of yesterday's work. Today you noticed that I read my test through, and today I prepared him for things that will be coming at the competition this weekend. Doing these pirouettes on the centre line, and
things like that. What I was doing today was a lot of transitions, because I wanted him to be able to come back, go forward, come back in a test situation. I want him to get used to expanding and contracting in a test situation, and that?s what I worked on today.' You don't have anyone helping you from the ground?
'My trainer, Ernst Hoya is coming next week, he comes for three or four days every two weeks. Other than that, I'm on my own. I've got my mirrors, and I've got discipline and his voice in my ear. I hear him all the time; it's a funny thing. Even when he's not sitting here on the bench, I hear him. This stuff is going through your head and as a rider, you have to have that self discipline every single day to get to the level we want ? up there in the international sport.' Is that hard for you ? you are the only dressage rider here on the stud, doing it on your own?
'No not at all. I have my system, and I like not being interrupted by another system. I don't have to watch something else going on, I'm just into what I am doing. It is very interesting to watch other riders at a horse show that I do. I sit down at the arena, you look, and you get ideas, and you talk to your trainer. At home I know I have my system and I'm not being interrupted, I can concentrate completely on what I am doing.' When you came to the Vorwerk Stud, you had previously ridden in a 'normal' training centre ? suddenly you were riding stallions followed by stallions followed by stallions? did that take some adjustment?
'No, it's just when you are riding a stallion being aware that you are on a stallion and being sensible about the things you do. Other than that you are dealing with basically the same problems you have with any horse, except you saw today with a character like Rohdiamant, when there are mares nearby and they start whinnying, that adds a bit to my working day, getting their concentration 100% of the time.' Which is largely a result of the rider concentrating 100% of the time - which also probably gives an entirely wrong picture of Lisa Wilcox. Off a horse, she is far from serious - in fact she is a very warm, very friendly and very funny individual - but on a horse - that is another story.