US dressage enthusiasts had an unrivaled experience with Olympic team gold medalist Carl Hester at the weekend, with the popular trainer and rider taking delegates “Through The Levels”.
The 4th Annual West Coast Dressage Convention in Del Mar brought the dressage superstar across the ocean and he did not disappoint. Delegates at the first day of the convention were treated to six lessons highlighting training through the levels from four-year-olds to Grand Prix.
Hester had words of wisdom for all levels of horse and rider.
Here is some “Stuff Carl Says”:
“It is not dressage that is difficult, it is making it look easy that is difficult.”
“Some horses are born with presence, while others you can train presence.”
“To get a horse to Grand Prix, they have to learn to take the contact – you will not make it successfully to Grand Prix without proper contact. The contact from the hand to the mouth is key from beginning to end. In fact, a horse who is behind the contact is more difficult to fix than a horse who is heavier in the hand. They have to learn to feel the bit and the rider’s hand.”
“A horse balances itself with its neck. When you see a horse riding with a short neck, that means the balance is on the rider’s hand and the horse is not in self-carriage. Everybody has to work on that in every level.”
What should we expect from a four-year-old?
“You have to be able to put your leg on even if they are hot and naturally forward thinking. The rider has to say to the horse, ‘I hope you know I’m here!'”
“What happens when we ride forward with no balance and no contact is that we are making it even more difficult to teach the horse to accept the bit. Instead of pushing for a large, expressive gait, go very slowly in the trot. Start to use your weight, while posting, to change the pace. When you go forward, you must go forward in balance!”
“Is your horse tight and jigging in the walk? Here is a silly exercise: in the walk, stand up and then sit back down. Stand up. Sit down. You need to relax your bottom in order to help the horse walk with more relaxation.”
Young horses and going through the grades
“I find that trot-canter transitions are the best transitions to encourage a horse to relax through the back. When a young horse is not strong enough, the transitions may come up over the contact during transitions. Utilize impulsion and a forward seat. Continue forward thinking in the canter to trot transitions. The transitions should take him to the hand, not away from it. You do not want to cause bracing in the back.”
“I often get asked, ‘How do you achieve a stretch?’ It’s a worldwide issue. The stretch is often just behind the vertical. Over bent and behind the bit is not the right feeling! We have to get the stretch. The horse needs to open his back and have no blockages in the body, while the hind legs need to come forward. The stretch tells us: Is the horse relaxed in his body? Is he relaxed in his brain? Does he have self-carriage?”
“When they start to learn collection, it is very important that you don’t over push. You’ve pressed the button to canter, now he has to learn to carry and take you without you over riding. Put your lower leg on and off – ask the question and take away pressure when he offers until he finds where he needs to balance himself. You must immediately remove pressure as soon as the horse gives you what you want – that is the reward for the horse.”
“The half halt constrains the forward energy, but releases it right before you disrupt the pace. The aid encourages him to take the weight on his hind legs. It’s not going backward, it’s riding forward. The half halt brings the horse in front of the rider.”
Small Tour and Grand Prix pointers
“You need to have the jump for pirouettes and flying changes.”
“Collection is not slowing down! When you collect in your seat, the horse bounces. His hind leg has to come down when you ask for collection, while opening the door in the front. Make sure you ride the hind leg in order to create a good canter. You have to think each stride is a flying change.”
“Use exercises that help engage the hind leg, not slow it down. How many strides do you ride in a 20-meter circle? You need to know. An exercise I love is to ride a short side in seven strides, then next time ride it in ten strides. This helps the rider be aware of the activity.”
“We have to be aware of the outside leg and inside rein as well, not just the inside leg to outside rein. Don’t let the paces get too artificial while working on using his back. Feel the mouth – massage through your fingers – let him forward genuinely from the hind end.”
“Creating a good trot is key. We don’t want a passage-y trot. When a horse is dwelling, they are holding their back and getting behind. Ask for bigger and smaller steps – is the reaction honest? Are the hind legs pushing forward or are the front legs pulling?”
(On the canter half pass zig zag) “I do not train this movement on the centerline. I ride it on the side so I know I am covering the same amount of ground left and right. Also, do it first in a leg yield as it is more forward thinking than the half pass.”