Charlotte Dujardin’s Playful Process Part I: Young Horses

Nichole Charbonneau and Enya WS stand with Charlotte Dujardin.

Sherwood, OR ­– October 5, 2015 –­ Charlotte Dujardin’s intimate clinic at Devonwood Equestrian Center, presented by Scott Hayes, included 14 demonstration sessions featuring horses at progressive ages and levels. Dujardin presented a wealth of valuable information over the two days of the clinic. We shared her tips from the first day on selecting, buying and starting young horses, and now we’re bringing you her level­by­level advice in two parts, with this installment addressing the training of young horses and Part II aimed at those schooling the upper levels.

General Advice for Young Horses

Scott Hayes and Charlotte Dujardin

Dujardin said her sessions with young horses are all about building solid basics through short, positively focused sessions with clear goals.

“The most important part of training these young horses is like building the foundations of a house,” she said. “If you have bad foundations for a house, your house is not going to stand. It’s the same with a horse. If you have bad basics, it’s going to hit you when you start to go up the levels. You can cover it up so far, but then it all shows.”

She stressed that she wants her young horses happy and forward thinking, and she tries to make their jobs extremely straightforward.

“I don’t want them tense and I don’t want them afraid,” Dujardin explained. “I just want a reaction, that it’s really black and white ­ when I touch they go, and when I half ­halt they stop.”

In her young horse sessions, she makes it a point to do hundreds of transitions and vary figures to keep the horse always waiting for the next aid. When introducing lateral movements like leg yields and half­pass, Dujardin offered a helpful suggestion ­ let the quarters trail.

In addition to introducing riders at the start of each session, clinic organizer Scott Hayes frequently interjected with questions from auditors

“If you make them too parallel it’s much harder for them to keep the swing and the same lift,” she explained. “If you make it a little bit quarters trailing, it’s much easier than for the horse to find that natural balance and suspension.”

There are some definite “don’ts” in the pages of Dujardin’s young horse training book. For example, she never asks her young horses for the collected walk.

“At that age they’re not ready to shorten and collect,” she said. “For me it’s always thinking free walk to a medium walk and then trotting so that I don’t interfere with the walk and change the rhythm of the walk. When the horse is strong enough, then I collect it.”

She also avoids the sitting trot until the horse is older and stronger.

“I want the horse to be as loose as possible in his back,” she explained. “I want him to always remain forward thinking. If I sit on his back then I’m closing the horse down and making the horse tired. I want my horses to be athletic, loose, supple and happy.”

Dujardin explained that posting trot is common practice even with her older horses for their lateral work, as it helps keep them loose and lift their backs more easily. She called on the stereotypical, simplistic notion of “dressage as sitting” as reason for resisting the temptation to sit too early.

“There’s nothing worse than when people think dressage riders have to do sitting trot,” she said. “They sit on them, they’re bouncing all over the place, the horse is so tight in its back. Then they make their stirrups longer so they sit and grip, and they think that’s dressage cause you’re doing sitting trot. No. That doesn’t work! It’s having the horse supple, loose and free, to be able to sit.”

4­-Year-­Olds

Jennifer Williams and 4­-year-­old Sotto Voce, First Level

According to Dujardin, the working frame of a 4­year­old should be an easy outline where they feel comfortable.She said her sessions with 4­year­olds max out at 20 to 25 minutes, with lots of breaks for “a walk and a breather,” as she puts it.

“They’re physically not strong, so the work they’re doing is quite demanding,” she reminded the audience.

According to Dujardin, a 4­year­old’s job is made to be very simple: straight, go and whoa. “Come back from the hand and go from the leg,” she frequently explained. These reactions are their sole job, with perhaps the most important being the “go” from the leg. This notion came up in many sessions, in which she’d frequently have riders “go for a yeehaw” around the arena, getting horses more forward thinking.

Jennifer Williams and 4­-year-­old Sotto Voce, First Level

More specifically than “go,” both legs mean go and one leg means move over or away. Dujardin said that with a 4­year­old, the only lateral work she would do would be simple, baby leg yields from quarter line back to track, or one down the whole long side.

Brooke Voldbaek and 4­-year-­old Generosa S, Training Level

Once more, stressing the time factor for working young horses, Dujardin described working past their physical fitness level as a destructive waste.

“What you don’t want to do is work your horse when it’s tired,” Dujardin explained. “Because it’s no longer learning. You just want to keep it very easy, just encouraging the horse to go forward. I don’t want him to come out sweating and puffing like a really hard workout. I just want him to know that he’s done walk, trot, canter, that he understands my leg aid, he understands my half ­halt. That’s enough; that’s all he needs to do.”

Brooke Voldbaek and 4­-year-­old Generosa S, Training Level

Dujardin ends all her sessions with a stretch, but she explained that particularly with the very young ones, “the best stretching you will get is at the end of a session.” Youngsters don’t yet understand stretching up and over their backs, she noted, and thus you’ll be most successful getting a stretch at the close of a ride.

5-­Year-­Olds

Alyssa Pitts and 5-­year-­old Selestial R, Second Level

“At 5 years old, I’d want to start to now ride my horse a little bit more up to the bit,” Dujardin said. “I would be doing a few more transitions, longer lines of leg yield, perhaps teaching a little bit of the travers. If not travers, just with the hip in down the wall.”

When introducing the half­pass, Dujardin suggests that moving from centerline to the track is easier because a wall is a place they are more willing to go. All of this work is meant to be done in slow, patient stages, building little bits of suspension and contact through asking, trying and playing.

“So we’ll have a play,” Dujardin said to Gail Redinger on Formancier, First Level

Again, Dujardin emphasized the importance of keeping horses forward when beginning to ask for more in terms of contact.

“He’s got all his life to collect,” she explained. “You’ve got to teach him to stay forward. You’ve got to really think of keeping him up and soft in your hand.”

Alyssa Pitts and 5-­year-­old Selestial R, Second Level

When asking for a more sophisticated kind of contact, Dujardin made clear that riders are not meant to be carrying their horse’s heads.

“Think rounder without you holding him there,” she told one rider. “You’ve got to get him straighter and softer in your hand.”

6­-Year­-Olds

Nichole Charbonneau and 6­-year-­old Enya WS, Second Level

Six is the age when Dujardin introduces the sitting trot.

“I probably start sitting on mine when they’re 6 years old, when they’re strong enough in their backs,” she said. “I feel they benefit and are strong enough at 6 years old to then start to carry my weight. ”

She also begins to familiarize horses with the double bridle around that age.

“I would probably just do easy stretchy session in the double bridle to start with,” she said. “I wouldn’t try to do a full work session, just slowly hacking in them, so that the horse adapts to having the two bits. Bit by bit I’d slowly do a bit more. I find the majority of my horses go better in a snaffle than they do in a double.”

Alyssa Pitts and 6-­Year-­Old Quintessential Hit, Developing Prix St. Georges

During the 6­-year-­old sessions there was a lot of discussion and practice of flying changes. Dujardin explained that if youngsters act up in these instances, it’s important to be patient and not to punish them.

“It’s not the fact that’s she’s being naughty and doesn’t want to collect, she simply is green and still learning,” she explained to Nichole Charbonneau with Enya WS. “You never tell them off for making the late change or if it doesn’t happen. If you tell them off if they make a mistake it’s 10 times harder to teach them the flying change because they become very tense and very nervous and then it’s a huge issue to try to correct. You simply just keep repeating it until the horse learns to understand what you’re asking.”

Dujardin shared that even at 5, she’ll have a quick play to see how they’ll react when asked for a change.

“I’ll have a flick across the diagonal and if it happens it happens and if it doesn’t it doesn’t,” she said. “I just play and make it so it’s really just simple and easy and enjoyable ­ not something they’re afraid of doing.”

At 6, under Dujardin’s system, horses are now more physically capable of handling some collecting work. “She’s 6, so she should be able to start really sit and collect now,” Dujardin said to Charbonneau.

Charlotte Dujardin at Devonwood Equestrian Center in Sherwood, Oregon

In all her young horse sessions, Dujardin expressed a great sense of empathy, constantly reminding the audience to take into account each individual horse’s age, fitness level and mental capabilities for their workload. She offered, for example, that it’s okay to start young horses in their easier direction, or that coming on the forehand when asked to move forward is not the end of the world.

“You will find, sometimes, when you push your horse more forward, he goes down on the forehand,” she said. “That’s fine as young horses. That’s normal because they’re not strong enough to maintain the uphill carriage.”

She reminded everyone that it is okay for them to make mistakes, that it’s part of the process. She also suggests hacking them out with older horses to give them assurance. The point is to make the work enjoyable to help instill confidence.

“It’s really important as young horses that you give them good experiences, that they’re not frightened and scared,” Dujardin said.

Gail Redinger and 5­-year-­old Formancier, First Level

Check back for Part II, featuring Dujardin’s advice for bringing along upper level horses.

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