Dressage Training for the Eventer with Heath Ryan | An Eventful Life

Dressage Training for the Eventer with Heath Ryan

Heath Ryan

Heath Ryan has seemingly boundless energy (fuelled by god knows what as he never seems to eat during the day), rides most horses he has attending a clinic and expends a huge amount vitality in his very vocal coaching. I can hear him now

“Go for it, just a fraction more and a bit more, that’s it. GO!!!!!”

Heath’s definition of fractions is completely different to mine. He goes from an encouraging murmur of ‘Lovely, lovely, lovely. Tuck the hind, tuck the hind” as you circle around him on a seemingly impossible canter circle to very loud exhortations of “Keep the jump” as he has you belting up the long side of the arena.

It isn’t just vocal – Heath pushes you and the horse physically to keep exploring the edge of your comfort zone; lack of comfort being the more operative words as I am constantly amazed that I don’t fall off in sitting trot when I have a lesson with Heath. It feels SO uncomfortable, SO forward and still he wants more but when I see it on video it looks fine and the tempo is good; it’s just that my lazy body and lazy horse aren’t used to it.


Vaughan Ellis

      Vaughan Ellis and Northern Isaac


This is the experience that Vaughan Ellis had in his first lesson with Heath recently (yes, ex-blogger Vaughan who is still hiding a bit under a rock but is slowly pointing his nose back in the direction of eventing). Vaughan almost turned to the dark side when he started to ride the lovely but a bit naughty Northern Isaac, owned by Sally Stelling.

The twelve year old Isaac, by the Warmblood stallion Falkland Victory out of a thoroughbred mare, was graded novice dressage and working elementary when he bucked Sally off last October, resulting in a fractured pelvis. Vaughan, ever the gentleman, stepped in and started to ride Isaac while Sally was recovering and he quite enjoyed doing the ‘dressage stuff’ on this talented horse. Luckily he discovered that Isaac could jump a little bit too and so, with Sally not likely to ride again for a while, Isaac has a new career in eventing and Vaughan couldn’t resist the offer of a training session with Heath.

Heath’s lessons follow a general plan; the rider warms up his horse then Heath usually jumps on board before handing the horse back to the rider for the rest of the lesson


Heath riding Isaac


“I don’t ride the horse to make it go better” he tells me afterwards (although it usually does in my experience) “I ride their horse so that I can communicate better with the rider when they get back on and we can discuss what’s happening underneath them. It’s more of a mutual discussion then, rather me guessing what it feels like and just telling them what to do”

He is quite impressed by Isaac as he puts him through his paces, testing his lateral movement then slowly increasing the tempo in trot and canter and Isaac starts to work a little bit harder. You can almost see his ears start to flick around as he works out what he needs to do and then it’s back to Vaughan to carry on the good work.

“He’s interesting” says Heath as he hands back the reins “You need to keep it simple and forward. Keep the tempo quick (not fast) because if he doesn’t keep coming forward you could get into trouble” (At this point, Sally, who is sitting watching, nods knowingly)

Tempo is a big part of Heath’s lesson today. Whatever the pace, he wants it “like a metronome” and the same quality of trot from the horse whether Vaughan is in rising or sitting trot.

Transitions too need to be forward, especially downward transitions which can tend to get a bit stuck and need to be gymnastically forward rather than slowing down.

When Vaughan mentions that the trot feels fast (welcome to my world, Vaughan) Heath wryly comments

“What you feel sitting there doesn’t really matter, it’s what the judges see that’s important”

Heath’s right; the sitting trot work that they are doing looks very good.



Years of riding both eventing and pure dressage mean that Heath’s ring craft is tuned. On the second day, as Vaughan is competing that weekend, he tones down the forward movement and works on the test movements Vaughan is to ride that weekend.

To begin with he points out that the reason for doing the dressage test “is to win the damn thing”. He wants “relentless accuracy” from Vaughan and for him to “Identify your secret weapons where you can really nail it”

“Know where your strengths are and play to them rather than worry about the weaknesses”

He makes Vaughan and Isaac practise certain movements over and over again and has some advice worth remembering for everyone who ever does a dressage test

“When you circle the arena to go in, think to yourself ‘Here I come Mr/Mrs Judge – just you watch this’ "

“ When you finish the test, be it good or bad, salute with attitude. If it’s good, enjoy it. If it’s bad take it and go on. Even if it’s a disaster, don’t worry about it, everyone has those (believe me I do lots of disastrous tests) the only thing you can do is keep going”

It reminds me of the famous saying by Winston Churchill “If you’re going through hell, keep going”

In fact Vaughan certainly didn’t go through hell in his test that weekend; he scored 33.60 to be equal 5th after dressage in the Intro class at Geelong Horse Trials. He’s now a convert to forward sitting trot and clinics with Heath

Watch our recent video interview with Heath

Watch Vaughan Ellis' cross country round on Isaac at Geelong Horse Trials