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Agriculture Today

La Vernia instructor earns dressage honors

La Vernia instructor earns dressage honors
Dressage instructor Susan Hancock of La Vernia displays the Region 9 Teaching Excellence Award from the U.S. Dressage Federation, recognizing her skill as an instructor in the art of dressage. Hancock was named the winner from all entries in a five-state region.

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Pascalle Bippert
WCN Correspondent
December 19, 2012
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The French word dressage means “training,” and no one does it better in Region 9 than Susan Hancock of La Vernia. She was awarded the U.S. Dressage Federation Region 9 Teaching Excellence Award and $5,000 in recognition of her outstanding ability to educate others in the art, sport, and science of dressage. Hancock beat all other instructors in Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas who competed for this prestigious honor.

A little background

Hancock, a La Vernia resident for nine years, grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., and began riding at the age of 9. She began teaching dressage at the age of 23. She belongs to the Alamo Dressage Association and her students compete for honors in the sport. Her students also come to Susan to learn how to train their own horses.

The instructors had to do several things to be considered for this Teaching Excellence Award. To be considered, applicants must be a permanent resident in their region and submit an 11-page essay application, a DVD of four 20-minute lessons, letters of recommendation from their peers, and two testimonials from their students. A panel of five reviewed the applications and chose the award recipient.

Mirror, mirror

When I arrived at Hancock’s riding arena I saw two riders on horseback. After I greeted her, I looked back at the arena and only saw one rider. It was then I noticed a giant 70-foot mirror at the other end of the area. The mirror, actually seven mirrors 7 feet each in length attached together, form a wall of mirrored glass along the back of the arena. Hancock uses them as a teaching tool so the riders can check their movements, carriage, posture, and their horse’s movements, in order to see what they are feeling on the horse. Harmony, rather than stress, is very important to achieve synchronized movement between rider and horse.

A dressage rider is not allowed to speak to the horse while in competition. Only nonverbal forms of communication and cues are allowed. The rider uses seat, legs, and hands as cues to speed up or slow down or turn their horses. The reins are held against the horse’s neck to indicate direction. The goal in dressage is to become so in tune with the horse that the rider’s very thoughts -- “canter,” “trot,” or “slow down” -- are communicated nonverbally to the horse.

Beautiful ballet

Dressage is much like horse ballet. The horse walks swiftly and smoothly and points its toes (hooves) and prances and pirouettes, and the rider and horse must move as one. Dressage has been compared to competing in professional figure skating. The rider and horse must complete required choreography movements at specific times and intervals.

Big block letters placed along the edge of the arena at certain distances guide the participants to perform specific maneuvers. Perhaps one of the most difficult moves is piaffe. The horse must raise its leg while stepping forward and hold it suspended while raising another leg and suspending it while putting the first one down at the same time. It is not easy for us humans to do, yet somehow the dressage rider communicates the directions to the horse and the result is breathtaking. There is now a separate class of competition for this, musical freestyle.

Life lessons

Hancock said sometimes when the rider she is training reaches a plateau or an impasse, she will get on the horse and communicate with the horse what she wants; the horse and observing rider will react with “Oh! That’s what we need to be doing!”

When Hancock lived in Oregon, she taught kids who were abused, neglected, or in juvenile detention how to ride horses. The kids learned to care for the horses, feed them, groom them, and earn their trust before learning to ride. They had to learn to trust Hancock as well. In learning to control their emotions, they, in turn, learned how to get the horse to cooperate and both horse and student enjoyed the ride.

An apt student

In practice, Hancock uses a cordless lapel microphone to gently give directions to a student, Kathy Lubianski, delivered to her headphones. The microphone is not allowed in competitions, however.

Lubianski just retired from a 29-year career with USAA and started learning dressage from Hancock this past May. In this short time, Lubianski has learned to communicate effectively with her horse; she recently won the high point champion first level in her last show competition.

Not just for the elite

If you view dressage videos on the Internet, you may see what look like wealthy, highbrow folks riding horses. But dressage has come a long way. No longer is it a sport belonging only to the wealthy, privileged elite.

Traditionally, the horses were from select breeding stock with a long lineage of equine royalty. Hancock is helping change the sport to open it to equine lovers of any social status. Horses of any lineage can be excellent dressage horses. Kathy’s horse, Pogo, is a Paint-Trekehner cross. She has had him since he was 6 months old. Hancock said he used to hide in the back of his stall when it was riding time, but now dressage has him waiting at the door, nickering to her, “Is it my time to prance?”

Horses like dressage. It helps them build muscles and improves their posture, carriage, and attitude. Harmony between rider and horse is one of the goals of the trainer and rider and is also judged at shows.

Western flavor

Hancock said Western dressage is becoming more popular as well; this uses a Western saddle rather than the English saddle. The American Quarter Horse Association is becoming more involved in the sport, she said.

Hancock also continues to educate herself by taking lessons from her coach, believing that there is always more to learn about training horses and instructing students. She competes with her two horses, whom she has trained herself -- Prinz Lombard at FEI Intermediate 1 and Wrenaissance at First Level. The competitions are becoming very popular and are held in Boerne at the Rose Palace near Boerne Stage Road. Riders must have their own horses in order to begin training.

Find out more about the art of dressage at Hancock also offers lessons; contact her at 541-231-9438 or

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