Del Mar, Calif. – April 8, 2017 – The West Coast Dressage Convention, presented by SH Productions, kicked off on Saturday with a full day of education from the headline clinician, Olympic gold medalist Carl Hester MBE. Hosted in the beautiful town of Del Mar, California, auditors were treated to six lessons highlighting training through the levels from 4-year-olds to Grand Prix.
“It is not dressage that is difficult, it is making it look easy that is difficult,” Hester began. “Some horses are born with presence, while others you can train presence. Either way, dressage is about improving the paces.
“Dressage is training — you can’t take it as an insult if your trainer keeps reminding you something like ‘watch your left hand,’” Hester continued. “If you are not confident and do not take criticism well, you are going to have a hard time. You have to be open to learn. You have to have the patience to see it through.”
Throughout the day, Hester harped on the importance of correct contact.
“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,” Hester explained. “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,” he continued. “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.”
The bustling environment of Saturday’s clinic was a lot to take in for Amelie Kovac’s talented 4-year-old KWPN, Ivar.
“What should we expect from a 4-year-old?” Hester asked the crowd. “Rhythm and relaxation, which is quite difficult to achieve for a 4-year-old in this atmosphere!
“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!’” Hester laughed.
According to Hester, it is key to teach a young horse how to connect his hind legs through the rider’s contact. It may not be safely possible to allow a young horse to stretch too much in the beginning of a ride, but the rider must allow the horse to open their neck while being able to change the outline. Hester recommended instead of flicking the horse’s head up, to close your hand and lift the neck slightly to remind the horse not to duck behind the vertical.
“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,” Hester said. “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?” Hester asked. “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.”
Hester explained that in his yard back in England, they only ride their young horses for about 20 minutes, four days a week and they are turned out for the remainder of the week.
“Especially for a young horse, you want to end a ride when they are relaxed in their environment so they remember a positive experience,” Hester said.
While Kovac’s horse was forward thinking, but had tension, Sarah Lockman entered the ring next with the 5-year-old Dehavilland and Hester asked, “This horse certainly has the relaxation, but will he have the motivation?”
For most 5-year-olds, the basics should be starting to develop well. During this next age group, Hester had Lockman focus more on relaxing her horse’s back.
“I find that trot-canter transitions are the best transitions to encourage a horse to relax through the back,” Hester explained. “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.”
Continuing with his returning theme of contact, Hester explained that it is quite normal for a horse, especially a young horse, to duck behind the vertical while stretching. It is the rider’s job to finesse the stretch into the contact correctly.
“I often get asked, ‘How do you achieve a stretch?’” Hester said. “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?”
The third combination in the symposium was Luhua Custer aboard her 6-year-old KWPN gelding FJ Ramzes. Hester covered a wide range of topics during their ride from maintaining straightness through the short side, how to dictate rhythm and being disciplined in your expectations with every transition you ask.
According to Hester, it is a good time to teach the idea of collection and the timing of half halts when a horse is 6 years old.
“When they start to learn collection, it is very important that you don’t over push,” he said. “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 before you disrupt the pace,” Hester explained. “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.”
The first of the small tour riders, Tiffany Mahoney and Rey Del Mundo, a 10-year-old Westphalian, focused on activating the hind end during collected canter.
“When he collects, it loses the jump and its clarity and you need to have the jump for pirouettes and flying changes,” Hester said to Mahoney. “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.”
The rider would achieve the desired quality of canter, but once Hester asked her to do a specific movement, such as a flying change, the tempo would decrease and the clarity of the three beats of the canter was lost.
“You cannot afford not to be doing something every 10 meters,” Hester said. “His hind leg must think forward and quicker. Increase the impulsion in the movement, don’t decrease it. 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.”
An exercise Hester had Mahoney ride was a canter half pass from the corner to X. A few strides before X he had her place the horse in a slight shoulder in, then transition into a small canter circle in travers. Once they completed the circle, they would continue the canter half pass. The exercise helped increase the horse’s engagement without slowing down, while keeping his hind leg underneath him.
The second small tour combination consisted of Carly Taylor-Smith and the 7-year-old Oldenburg gelding, Rosalut NHF, and they worked on keeping Rosalut honest in his gaits and improving bend.
“He needs to be genuine with a better connection in the hind legs — he cannot avoid the flexion,” Hester explained. “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.”
According to Hester, it is the rider’s responsibility to supple the horse, and lateral work is key. To test how your horse responds to your leg aids, Hester recommended riding travers instead of shoulder in. The travers encourages the horse to give around your inside leg, while the leg pushes the horse away in the shoulder in. In addition to working on travers, he also had the pair half pass left a few strides, then leg yield right to improve the horse’s sensitivity and suppleness.
Terri Rocovich was the final rider of the day, and she has been training at the Grand Prix level on the 16-year-old KWPN gelding, Uiver. When asked to passage, the gelding became disengaged and his hind legs slowed.
“You have to look at your piaffe and passage as trot — it’s elevated and on the spot but the rhythm is the trot,” Hester explained. “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?”
Hester had Rocovich ask for a livelier trot by lengthening the stride, while not losing the rhythm. When they returned to passage, he had the rider post the passage instead of sitting to encourage the horse to go up. He mentioned that it was okay to sacrifice the forwardness in order to get a quicker, snappier passage. He also emphasized the importance of the transitions, and had Rocovich ask for one step of piaffe and then return to passage to work on the forward thinking aspect of their training.
Once Hester was pleased with the piaffe-passage work, the rider asked for help in the canter half pass zig zag.
“I do not train this movement on the centerline,” Hester said. “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.”
SH Productions’ 4th Annual West Coast Dressage Convention will continue on Sunday, April 9, at the Del Mar Fairgrounds with a new set of horses and riders. The first ride will begin at 9:15 a.m. PST.