Loxahatchee, Fla. – June 14, 2018 – Presented by Lendon Gray’s Dressage4Kids during the winter equestrian season, International Grand Prix competitor and trainer Catherine Haddad-Staller demonstrated her tried and true training style with horses ranging from 4-year-olds to Grand Prix. Held at Fair Sky Farm in Loxahatchee, Florida, Haddad-Staller encouraged auditors to be interactive throughout the training sessions as she broke down the training scale and worked up the levels with many different horse and rider combinations.
With a 4-year-old who had only started under saddle in the fall of 2017, Haddad-Staller’s main focus was ensuring the horse sought a natural connection, working correctly with forward-desire and straightness. She acknowledged from the beginning of the warm-up that his temperament and work ethic were faultless, and he was seeking the connection with the bit rather than being held in an artificially manufactured frame. Haddad-Staller noted that even though his nose was tilted out a bit initially, it was acceptable for him as he was still straight and moving forward in the connection.
To ensure the gelding’s training up the levels is successful, Haddad-Staller emphasized the importance of a proper connection to the bit in all three gaits. Starting at the walk, she detailed the most vital aspects:
– A four-beat rhythm
– Overstride (tracking up)
Haddad-Staller reminded the audience to always follow the bit with their hands so as to not disrupt the forward motion and corrupt the relaxation and elasticity. Doing so will encourage the horse to step forward and upward to the bit, while the horse works through and over its back correctly.
“The tail is your barometer of elasticity,” she said. She went on to explain that monitoring the action of the tail will give you a good indication of whether or not he is working through his back.
When asked by an audience member how to create a natural frame for a young horse, she explained, “It should always be the horse’s choice what kind of frame he makes. We don’t use the reins to make the horse round. We give him a certain length of rein and let him choose what to do. The horse will almost always choose to come round when you are driving forward. It’s a product of the activation of the hind legs.”
O Captain, a 6-year-old gelding who had been imported from Germany just several months prior, had been working at the level of a 5-year-old since being set back slightly in his training. Upon arrival from Europe, O Captain needed time to settle in his new home and develop confidence in both his environment and his work. To help him acclimate, they did a good deal of desensitization and in-hand work.
Aside from helping him with relaxation, Haddad-Staller identified the main areas of work they focus on with the gelding, including walk-to-canter and canter-to-walk transitions, flying changes, shoulder-fore and improving his self-carriage.
In order to help the gelding with his balance and self-carriage, she encouraged the rider to ride as straight as possible, being equal in weight with both her seat bones and her hands. To help with this concept, Haddad-Staller told her to think of riding with the skeleton rather than the muscles. When the rider is relaxed, their skeleton is draped over the horse instead of gripping in tension. Being relaxed and equal in the weight will help keep the horse aligned.
“I like to refer to straightness as alignment,” Haddad-Staller said. “Straightness is very high on the training scale. You can’t have true collection without the straightness.”
She also pointed out that the rider was following the motion of the trot in her pelvis and not trying to resist the movement, which is helpful to the horse in keeping balanced.
“Harmony and balance have a lot to do with connection,” she said. “You have to learn how to move with the horse, not be still—We have to make sure he is super happy in how we are sitting on him at all times. You can see it in the horse’s face.”
Haddad-Staller also emphasized the importance of having a saddle that allows the rider’s seat to move up and down while still allowing the horse’s loins to move freely. The more forward the horse is, the more he has to engage and stretch his loin.
The 6-year-old mare Fantine, who Haddad-Staller explained had been in training with her since she was four, was a good example of how important it is to address the horse’s conformation and how that affects their work. She pointed out that the mare had a high-set, long neck proportional to the rest of her body, and as a result, she has to start out her warm up slightly more round than a horse with a shorter neck.
“All the energy you create should go in the direction of the bit,” she explained.
Haddad-Staller said that the mare had learned the counter canter, walk-to-canter transitions and turn on the haunches in her 5-year-old year, so lead changes were next on her list to be taught in her sixth year. To help teach these efficiently, she reminded the rider to keep the horse’s shoulders up by keeping her active and in front of the leg.
“If the shoulders are up, it’s easy to make a canter depart,” she said. “You have to be able to balance a horse on its hindquarters to do anything with it.
“She has to be taught to follow the seat,” Haddad-Staller said as she observed the rider ask for a downward transition from the canter to the walk by just stopping the movement in her seat.
To begin developing extension in a young horse, she described how asking for extension has to come from a place of collection. “We want the horse to be uphill and pushing from behind,” she said. “If you can’t stop, you can’t go.”
The rider should aim to engage the horse behind the saddle instead of pulling with the reins to slow down in collection, and for a horse with a long body and neck, Haddad-Staller acknowledged that this can sometimes be a challenge.
“The important thing about training a horse from the bottom to the top is inspiration,” Haddad-Staller said. “That comes out of relaxation and happiness—I think of submission as an agreement to work together.”
Fabulous, an 8-year-old gelding Haddad-Staller’s had in training for around eight months, had recently competed in his first Developing Prix St. Georges class. Because the gelding was very consistent in his rhythm and correct in his gaits, their main focus was refining the flying changes and pirouettes. Fabulous had a tendency to jump more in his left change than his right, so she asked the rider to practice making the big change just a bit smaller.
“Most horses will express on one side more than the other,” Haddad-Staller explained. “Many judges won’t notice this until the very top level.”
To help the rider fine-tune the canter pirouettes, Haddad-Staller offered her some useful tips to remember.
“It is your mind in the pirouettes that turns the horse,” she said. “Just think about doing it. The horse follows her eyes. This is years of work on the seat and a horse that knows how to follow the seat. When you develop this fine language with the horse, discussing more advanced things then becomes easy.
“Horses have taught us this language, not the other way around,” she continued. “Dressage is a universal language between horse and rider. Listen to what your horse is trying to tell you.”
Moving up through the upper-levels, Haddad-Staller worked with Frankie, a 9-year-old mare who has been in Haddad-Staller’s program since she was born. During her session, the rider practiced fine-tuning her aids for the Grand Prix movements.
Haddad-Staller explained that flexion usually refers to the position of the horse’s neck, which should not be more than an inch in either direction, otherwise you risk creating a misalignment. To help, she uses shoulder-fore to teach flexion, while still prioritizing straightness.
“You’re now at the level you will have to really address straightness issues,” she said. “Centimeters matter. Dressage is basically gymnastics for a horse.”
While working on their piaffe and passage work, Haddad-Staller encouraged the rider to think of gathering energy in collection and being light off the ground to help the mare maintain her rhythm and engagement.
“Impulsion isn’t about speed, it’s about push,” she said. “We’ve trained our horses from the beginning that if we close the leg and touch with the spur and they don’t go, we will tap them with the whip. Until they go, we won’t remove the light spur aid. By doing that you can create very light leg aids.”
With a gelding that has a tendency to be spooky and forget to trust his rider, Haddad-Staller explained that they had been working on response training with him for several weeks to recondition his reactions. No matter what was happening around them, the gelding was asked to focus on and trust his rider, remaining calm.
Haddad-Staller demonstrated this response training by using several different forms of stimuli, including a large flag, pillows and even asking the audience to clap and not stop until the gelding had relaxed. With this method, the horse was taught that in order for the “scary” thing to be taken away, he had to relax, move toward it and not react. It stayed if he tried to turn and run instead.