Last weekend, a few of my team members attended the Carl Hester Masterclass at the Thunderbird Show Park in Langley, BC. I know many of you were able to attend as well and I heard that it was a great clinic. I wasn’t able to attend as I was teaching my own clinic in Colorado, but Olivia from my team shared her top ten takeaways from the clinic with us!
Olivia from Team Amelia here. Last weekend I had the great opportunity to attend Carl Hester’s Masterclass up in Canada. It was such a great experience. There were so many beautiful horse and rider combinations from the Young Horse Level to the Grand Prix, and it was amazing to watch the transformations in the horses as Carl worked with them. I learned a lot and came away with nearly 12 pages of notes! Since Amelia was unable to attend, she asked me to share some of what I learned with you all. Here are ten (ok! eleven!) of my takeaways from the clinic:
1. Transitions, transitions, and more transitions!
Throughout the entire clinic, Carl talked about the importance of doing lots of transitions. He explained that every good rider does hundreds of transitions when they ride. This doesn’t mean you just do transitions between gaits, but little transitions within gait or “half-transitions” as Carl calls them. If you’ve been following Amelia for a while, you’ve probably heard her talk about this too!
Transitions help develop connection, impulsion, self-carriage, and collection in your horse.
Carl also explained that transitions can help your horse become more rideable. With hot horses, riding lots of transitions helps you get your leg on so that you can ride forward, and with lazy horses, transitions can help you keep them hotter and on your aids.
In every class, from the four-year-olds to the Grand Prix horses, Carl had everyone do lots of transitions. With the younger horses, Carl had the riders do a lot of basic transitions between and within gaits, and as the more advanced horses came into the ring, it was fun to see how he used different exercises with transitions within the gait to help improve the flying changes and canter pirouettes.
2. The Basics to Correct Our Crookedness
During the clinic, if the horse was having trouble with a movement, it was usually because they were crooked. As I watched each horse and rider combination, I couldn’t help but notice – it’s all about straightness! But, it’s not about forcing your horse straight; Carl emphasized it’s about getting your horse relaxed, supple, and connected so that they can be straight. All the exercises that Carl used to help the riders were focused on getting the horse relaxed, rhythmic, supple, and connected, and then, getting the hind legs aligned underneath the body.
As he was teaching, Carl explained that Dressage is all about the basics and getting our horses even on both sides. Though the basics might be slightly different depending on what level of Dressage you are riding, he still stressed that focusing on the prerequisites for the next level, and the base of the Training Scale is important, as they are the building blocks that will help you progress!
3. Impulsion Makes the Difference
How do I make my seven go up to an eight or a nine on my test? If you compete, this question might have crossed your mind before. And, the key is impulsion! While natural talent does play a role in the quality of the movements, the activity of the hindleg and your horse’s ability to sit on their hind end and push off their hind leg is what makes the difference between a seven and an eight or nine.
4. Forward and On the Aids
Did you know both hot and lazy horses can be behind the leg? While one horse might be too fast and one too slow, both need to become responsive to your leg aids.
One of the young horses was on the lazy side, and the rider had to push the horse to keep going. If you have a lazy horse, these tips from Carl may help you:
- Do lots of transitions! Transitions between gaits will help get them more responsive to your leg.
- Don’t bore them! Change direction, ride different patterns, and use your transitions to make it interesting.
- Think “breathing leg”. You put your leg on and then it comes off.
And, if you have a hot horse, guess what? Transitions can help you as well! You need to be able to put your leg on a hot horse. Transitions between gaits, as well as within gait, can help get your horse more responsive and listening to your aids. Carl explained that you have to get them to “wait” for you, otherwise, when they feel your leg they will just keep getting hotter and more out of balance. Using shoulder-in or shoulder-fore can also help, especially if you have a spooky horse. If your horse starts looking at something, putting them in shoulder-in can help get them responsive to your inside leg, engage their inside hind leg, and help get their attention back on you.
5. What are the Ingredients to make a Good Grand Prix Horse?
You may have wondered before “What makes a good Grand Prix horse?”. Throughout the clinic, Carl explained what he looks for in a good Dressage horse. Here are a few points that he made about choosing a good horse:
- Conformation is important, but the feeling the horse gives you is almost more important! It’s all about the partnership.
- Does the horse have a good walk and canter? Both walk and canter need to naturally have the correct rhythm. While you can influence these gaits somewhat, you can’t influence and train them like you can the trot.
- Does the horse over-track? The best Dressage horses have to be naturally reactive behind and able to both sit on and push off their hind leg! Look for a good over-track of about two hooves. This can be a good indicator that your horse will be able to use their hind legs well.
- Big movement isn’t always better. Horses with big movements are beautiful, but we don’t want them to be at the extreme. We need our horses to have beautiful, expressive extensions and also be able to collect and sit for piaffe and passage. A good Dressage horse needs to be able to use their hind end and over-track.
6. Carl’s Routine – Less is More
With the clinic’s focus being on training a horse up the levels, Carl talked a bit about his personal training routine with his horses. He explained that over the years, he’s discovered that in Dressage, less is more. He said that a Dressage rider’s favorite saying is “Next year!”. And it’s true! Dressage is hard, and it’s important to take the time it takes to train your horse. With consistency, you will get there!
At home, Carl’s horses get arena work four days a week with a schedule of two days on and one day off. Arena work focuses on relaxation and the basics for whatever level they are working on and ends with some stretching work on a long rein. The off days are hacking/fitness days, and then on Sundays, the horses get to just be horses out to pasture.
7. Relaxation in Collection
Collected work can be fun because that means piaffe, passage, and canter pirouettes! One thing that Carl pointed out was that collection must come through relaxation. Forcing collection can cause injury, and it is important that collection is not done under tension. He explained that many riders want to add leg and force their horse to get into collection, but this is incorrect, as adding leg at the moment of collection causes the horse to become tense. He also pointed out that you don’t need to sit the trot in collected movements all the time, and switching to posting the trot can help get your horse relaxed and over the back when you are schooling collected movements at home.
8. Count Your Horse’s Strides
A big part of Dressage is geometry, and counting your horse’s strides can help you ride forward with accuracy. Knowing how many strides your horse makes on a 20-meter and 10-meter circle in all three gaits and in both directions can help you ride accurate movements and figures, and at higher levels, knowing your horse’s stride and being able to count will help you ride accurate canter pirouettes and be able to plan your lines of flying changes!
9. What Makes a Good Contact?
What does a good contact feel like? We want our horses to be light in the contact, but we still want to be able to feel their mouth. Carl says that he likes to feel the horse just gently resting on his hand. Your horse must have forward energy to create consistent contact, and as the rider, maintaining a straight line elbow to bit is essential. Transitions, especially transitions within gait, are a great exercise to help work on getting a nice, light contact.
10. Rider Position for an Effective Half-Halt
The half-halt is something that is an essential part of the rider’s toolbox. It’s a regathering of your horse’s energy, and the key to making smooth transitions. But it can be so tricky to master because all your aids have to happen within seconds! The one comment on the half-halt Carl made that stood out to me was, “In the half-halt, think of the front of your body getting longer, and the back of your body getting shorter.” This really put a great image in my head to help me maintain my ear, shoulder, hip, heel line, stay stable in the saddle, and provide stability in the contact so that I can give an effective half-halt.
11. The Key to a Good Walk
As you may know, the walk is a coefficient in your Dressage test, so practicing the walk is important. Carl says that you want your horse to “walk like a racehorse”, where they are using their head and neck in the walk, and over-tracking around two hooves. Ideally, in the free walk, we want the nose to come on the vertical and then go in front of the vertical, on the vertical, and then in front as the horse walks. For horses who want to free walk with their nose behind the vertical or have trouble using their head and neck, Carl explained that riding a serpentine and doing lots of bending and turning at the free walk can help them relax and come over the back.
I hope that you enjoy these takeaways and that they help you with your horse!
Olivia, Team Amelia”