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International Eventing Forum – The Not So Easy Dressage Horse – Christoph Hess & Sam Griffiths

_MG_2090The International Eventing Forum has become a ‘must see’ in the calendar which was packed out with nearly 500 people present. A poignant minute’s silence was held for Richard Meade, who Eric Smiley described as someone who had made a lasting impression on him as a young rider and who was a key supporter of the Eventing Forum.

Eric Smiley introduced Christoph Hess as one of the most positive judges and coaches in the horse industry and said that ‘if you could bottle his enthusiasm then Guinness would have a competitor!’

International dressage judge Christoph Hess was discussing the ‘not so easy dressage horse’ with the first guinea pig pairing being that of Sam Griffiths on 2* horse On the Brash.

_MG_2141Christoph started by saying he was very happy to be here at Hartpury and had mainly been here for pure dressage. Christoph had not seen On the Brash before. Sam Griffiths was then handed the microphone and was asked to talk about his horse. Sam said that the horse had been round 2* and was a super jumper but needed improving on the flat as the horse tended to get tense and needed to have more relaxation.

Christoph Hess soon had the pair trotting round the arena. ‘You trot the horse to loosen up the horse. From the trainer’s point of view we have to get a contact. When I first saw this horse, I thought what a nice horse but at first he was tense but he has become more relaxed. He has a lovely rhythm and this is the first thing a horse needs. When they relax the supple becomes better.’

‘What about the contact? this would be a challenge to open the horse up in the throat latch area and the horse must use the neck as much as possible. The neck balances the whole body.’

_MG_2114Christoph explained that this was vital for all disciplines in that the neck should be out and relaxed. ‘No horse would run across a field with a short neck. They need a long neck.’

‘You open the neck and open the throat latch to become nice in front. Sam is doing this by riding forwards and allowing with the hand. Sam Griffiths is a rider who understands the system. The system is ride with a longer frame/neck whilst using driving aids a little bit with shoulder in.’

As someone watching, I understood Christoph’s reference to driving aids as in riding forwards positively. When referring to releasing the throat latch, I understood that as the area that a lot of horses can become tight just behind the jaw – the throat lash area.

Christoph Hess had Sam Griffiths riding shoulder in along the long side of the arena in riding trot which would be an easy trot for the horse and encourage the horse to swing more. ‘The scales of training are important. This horse needs to learn to use his back more. The back is the bridge between the front and hind legs. The back is still weak on this horse. Sam Griffiths is using the inside leg so the horse is under the centre of gravity to open the neck more and more. The neck being longer and relaxed will help the back. Shoulder Fore and Shoulder In will all help this.’

_MG_2095‘Shoulder In helps to ride the horse from the inside leg to the outside rein. Sam Griffiths can demonstrate this down the long side by giving away the inside rein. There should be an open neck while giving away the inside rein. The horse gets more suppleness and swing over its back. The horse is now seeking the contact more. The happier the horse, the healthier the horse will be. Good welfare for the horse is through good training for the horse.’

‘Is the horse ready for transitions? To develop the paces and swing/harmony between the horse and rider there should be smooth transitions between trot and canter.’

Watching Sam go round the arena, Christoph commented that ‘the canter is nice. A dressage judge always has BUT in his mind when looking at a horse.’ In this case it was that the canter is not always clear in a three time rhythm and that the horse could have a longer stride. Christoph explained that this was often an issue with a big canter because you look to naturally contain the canter and that many people then don’t work on riding forwards again after teaching the horse to shorten it.

‘A little bit more power, ride the canter a bit bigger. Then the horse is more in front of you.’

_MG_2133Christoph had Sam change between a deep seated canter into 2 point position (rising canter). This would then help a horse who is weak in the back to be more able to lift the back to open the frame and stretch the neck. For me one of the take home pieces of advice was that when changing your pace into a downward transition that you don’t look to finish the canter instead you look to start the trot. When moving up a gear again you look to start the canter rather than finish the trot. I am certainly guilty of riding the upward transitions positively while probably being too negative in my thinking about the downward transition and this simple advice will change the way I think about the change through the downward transition. For me it was interesting to see that Sam’s horse was doing the downward transition without tension and keeping the neck out.

‘Giving a longer rein is part of the 1*A test. The open neck is horse friendly riding. The horse has a steady contact and moves open through the throat latch.’ The horse with a longer neck can use its legs more and get the hind legs underneath. ‘The horse’s paces have improved from the beginning.’

_MG_2268Christoph explained that many riders ride forwards on the long side of the arena but then lose this impulsion on the short side of the arena. Looking at Sam’s horse he explained that the horse is stronger on the left rein and that we as riders have to help the horse to become even in both reins.

Sam Griffiths was asked to use more inside leg in the canter transition to give more energy in the upwards transition. Tension was creeping into the canter so Christoph set Sam an exercise to ride 15m circles in every corner of the arena and ride shoulder in down the long side. Christoph commented that the horse was becoming a bit short in the neck and that this needs time, passion and patience to resolve. Doing exercises like this for the horse was a gymnastic exercise. There is no difference in pure dressage, show jumping and eventing in the way that you train the horse.

_MG_2270Christoph commented on Sam’s hands saying that they never pulled back or went into his body. Sam swings with the driving aids into his hands which then are direct into the horse’s mouth.

‘From the judges’ point of view, is the rider able to ride the horse with a long rein? Are they able to ride with a giving and taking rein? If the rider is able to do this then they should be rewarded high marks. Can the rider be one handed?’ Christoph was very keen that the horse should stay the same in its way of going and the true test was for the rider to ride one handed and the horse remained relaxed.

It was mentioned that the horse had started a bit tense at first but by doing the exercises the horse started to accept the leg. The last exercise with the 15m circles helped to balance and enable the horse to be ridden positively. Christoph commented that it was noticeable that the horse became more supple in the body and rein particularly out of his corners.

_MG_2285Christoph then referred to the new FEI 1,2 and 3* tests. ‘Always in your mind should be what movements are in the new tests as there are a lot of curved lines. The shoulder in and half pass are more demanding at 1* and 2* level.’

‘Its very important to ride proper corners. When riders are able to ride proper short sides they will be prepared 100% in the right direction for the new tests. On the 1/4 line in shoulder in, which then moves into half pass at 4* level. This will only work when the rider prepares from the corner.’

Christoph commented on Sam’s horse that the more he rode the 15m circle exercise the clearer the canter beat has become. The next exercise was for Sam to lengthen the canter down the long side (medium canter) from the shoulder in and then go back into shoulder in before riding the 15m circles in the corners. The exercise would help bring the horse’s inside hind leg more underneath him. On the left Christoph commented, ‘that the horse was still a bit shorter in places and that it is good that judges can do half marks as this canter is perhaps half a mark less than the other rein.’

_MG_2286‘The more the horse is relaxed, the more it can produce better gaits.’

‘In the downward transition riders should picture starting the trot, rather than finishing the canter. During the aids into the downward transition riders should barely be using the rein but instead the rein should be used to maintain the contact. Judges are looking for the horse to be relaxed and if the rider gave a longer rein then the horse would take it.’

Sam Griffiths was then handed the microphone to comment on the ride. Sam said that the horse ‘felt really rideable and if we can continue to get that then I believe he will do a good test. It felt like there was lots of swing in his back. This horse can be stilted but this felt a lot smoother.’

_MG_2298There was a noticeable improvement in the way Sam’s horse went through doing the simple exercises. I for one will be taking those exercises and using them on my green 6yo as they were applicable for any horse at any stage of training.


About the author


An amateur rider who produces all her own horses. I have competed at novice level and sadly never got further due to bad luck with horses but I am still ambitious to achieve a lot more. I have a riding qualification in UKCC2 and a diploma in NLP. Sports science and particularly the mental game fascinates me. For a day job I work for a large multinational brand.