Wednesday, May. 28
As an equestrian, the lessons in which you walk away with a completely different perspective on riding are rare and precious.
I recently took one such lesson with Britta Johnston, of Mountain Vista Farm in Amissville. Johnston is a German Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) dressage trainer, specializing in classical dressage. She focuses on the fundamentals of the rider’s seat and balance.
What Johnston teaches can be helpful to horses and riders of any discipline.
You don't have to own a well-bred dressage horse, or even enter high level competitions to get something out of it.
“We work on the development of the rider’s seat, because I find that coming from a classical background, a lot of riders don’t have a very strong seat,” said Johnston. “We also work to systematically develop horses through the training scale. That’s the classical way.”
I rode Johnston’s schoolmaster, Rio, by Rosenkavalier, one of the most significant Westphalian sires with an impressive list of offspring including the Grand Prix dressage horse, Rubens.
The most remarkable thing about Rio is that even though he has had severe navicular changes and a fused hock for many years, he is capable of impeccable upper level movements. Johnston said that she is able to keep Rio sound with out any supplements or injections by instilling proper training and providing excellent shoeing.
In the lesson we worked on making a diamond figure within a 20-meter circle as a straightness exercise.
I felt how one should properly steer with the seat, utilizing the stirrups to stabilize the upper body and learning not to move the head too much while looking through the turns.
I felt how to stop or slow the horse down by tightening my obliques and thighs. After getting Rio into a proper working frame I was able to feel a piaffe and a passage for the first time. It took a lot of upper body strength to to hold Rio in the collected condensed trot, and it felt like nothing else I've ever felt before.
Johnston began her riding career in Germany training in dressage, show jumping, eventing and vaulting. She trained with Danish Olympic dressage coach, Rudolf Zeilinger and earned a bronze medal when she was 13 and a silver medal when she was 16 from the German Riding Federation. For over 30 years Johnston has started horses and worked them through to FEI levels.
Johnston returned to the Northern Virginia area and set up shop in Amissville in October. She previously lived in Virginia for about seven years, until her husband received a government assignment overseas.
“I decided after teaching and training in Germany to come back and become a U.S. citizen,” said Johnston. “This area just lends itself to training horses and the horse business.”
Johnston still travels abroad regularly to look at import prospects and to teach clinics. She recently took a trip to Canada to work with one of her students, Maya Markowski, who is on the Canadian Dressage Team.
Advanced level eventer Colin Fraser also trains with Johnston at her farm. He has trained with many big names in the eventing world, and worked as a barn manager with U.S. Olympic eventer Stephen Bradley. Fraser was an assistant trainer at Morningside Farm in The Plains and decided to move to Britta’s farm after he returned from this past winter season in Aiken.
Johnston plans on holding a series of clinics at her farm through out the spring and summer. The first one will take place on May 10. She explains that any age or level of horse and rider can benefit from her clinics.
“Anybody can bring their horses, because dressage is good for anybody,” said Johnston. “Jumpers, eventers, dressage riders, fox hunters, trail riders, anybody can improve their horses through dressage, because dressage is training that makes the horses done properly and last longer.”
For more information, visit http://www.brittajohnston.org
Left to Right : (Yellow shirt) Robert Leuck riding Susan Ralston's pony, "Gabriel", an imported 11-year-old sport pony from England and (in pink shirt) Colin Fraser riding Cambridge Rose a 6-year-old thoroughbred.
Photo by Adam Goings