Carl Hester started his lecture demo by saying all dressage is something we all do as riders. Dressage is not reserved for certain types of rider. Even opening a gate out hacking requires dressage as you do turn on the forehands and move the horse across from the leg.
With this explanation about dressage being for everyone Carl introduced Archie who is a 6yo coloured cob and had started doing dressage four months ago with very good scores of 72%-77% in novice tests. One thing which struck me looking at Archie was how ordinary he was but his turnout was so exceptional that it elevated him. It made me think that so often we ask why do we bother to plait and turnout correctly for events but Archie looked stunning being turned out to such a high standard and it did elevate your impressions of him.
The second horse was one Carl thought very highly of in Houghtons Delegardo who is by Diamond Hit. Carl said he tends to buy most of his horses as 2.5 year olds but he bought Del while watching him in a young horse class. Carl said he was cantering past and it was such an amazing canter that he had to have him. The horse was being ridden for Carl by Amy Stovold.
Carl says you should look at the paces and look at what each horse should be capable of doing. You start with rhythm. Does the horse have an obvious rhythm? Are they on the forehand naturally? Archie is strong and chunky with a good rhythm and he is built to pull things so is strong through the shoulders. Archie needs to learn to carry the weight behind. Del on the other hand has a super loose rhythm and also naturally carries himself uphill which will make things easier as he naturally carries himself.
Archie could not canter when he first started but he has a strong canter as the hind leg comes underneath him. Carl said it is well worth training a horse with such a strong canter but ultimately you can hear Archie coming whereas you cannot hear Del in canter. Del was described as having an amazing hind leg and that is why Carl was so keen on him when he saw him.
You should always look at a horse on both reins. Archie sits up more on the right rein whereas on the left rein he goes faster in order to help balance. Del is fairly even on both reins.
In extended canter you should see the suspension. This was very clear with Del. Carl mentioned that they needed to do more work with Archie as he needs to be more of the forehand.
Del has a huge walk with a very clear overtrack. The walk was described as a very important pace because it picks up double marks. Carl highlighted that at Grand Prix technically the walk should be the easiest bit of your test.
Archies rider did a very good job in walk riding him. Carl highlighted that she was making the walk better through pushing the neck and the head out. You don’t want walk to be an up and down pace so you push it out through the leg without pushing the horse out of his rhythm. By moving the horse longer you can give them space to bring the hind leg forward.
Carl explained that if the horse is behind the vertical then the horse cannot use his back properly.
Next Carl worked with Archie to get him more off the forehand. Carl explained that trot was the pace which could be most changed and was the pace he worried about least if the other paces were strong.
Carl advocated the half transition as being the most effective tool for helping get the horse off the forehand. This is a slowing of the pace so in trot almost back to walk, find the balance and then step on the gas so the stride gets bigger and longer. While riding forward if the horse goes down in front then make another half transition.
Straightness is also an issue for Archie. The hind feet need to land in the front feet prints. As riders we can get obsessed so much with one side of the horse to get that straight – Archie for instance is stiff on the left but the right rein has been forgotten as the rider has worked on flexing the left.
‘A horse should learn straight and forwards from the very beginning of its training. ‘
‘Most people ride the horses head to the inside but the head should always remain in front of the chest. You should always be able to feel both sides of the horses mouth. If you do a transition from trot to canter the outside rein needs to bring the horse round.’
‘The hand in front of the saddle is a forward hand. Horses get heavier with a longer rein. You should have short reins with a forward hand. Check self carriage through give and retake.’
Carl said that as Archie’s canter was a highlight he would do lots of work in the canter as it is most off the forehand.
‘Shoulder in on a circle is a good exercise because it engages the horse. Archie is wider behind (hind is wider than the shoulders) so you have to think of the inside hind under the front. ‘
‘Ask yourself are you holding the horse together or letting it be in self carriage? Keep checking. A long rein tells the horse that it has done well and time to relax.’
Next we looked at Del. Carl has not competed him but he was clearly very pleased with how Del was dealing with the atmosphere in the arena at Your Horse Live. Amy Stovold is not a very tall rider and Carl explained that short people can ride big horses but they should not stifle the horse with their lower leg.
Most of the work with this 6yo is done in rising trot. While demonstrating shoulder in, Carl said that the horse does not change rhythm.
Carl highlighted that when riding everything should have a start, a middle and a finish.
‘Corners are where everything should be sorted and happening.’
‘The best way to get the hind leg activated is to send the horse forwards and then to bring it back in the pace.’
‘Shoulder In is the first steps to engagement and travers is the first step to collection.’
‘If the rhythm changes then something was not right and the horse has lost balance.’
Amy turned down the centre line to ride half pass and Carl noted that the horse was resistant on the turn to the hand and lent into the bit. This was either because the horse lost balance or the rider did not prepare properly.
‘A rider needs to plan ahead and communicate all the time to the horse.’
‘You should be able to stretch the horse out at anytime. This is basic work. The horse should not speed up or fallen over and has relaxed his whole body on a long rein.’
‘Flash in a horse should not be through tension but relaxation.’
Carl pointed out that Del walks even bigger when relaxed – ‘he is all loose and floppy’.
‘Archie will never find it easy to lengthen the trot and will just end up more on the forehand. But Archie has potential as every now and again he reaches for that longer stride. With a horse like this you have two options get it on its hind legs more or teach it to really trot in a big open field and keep going until he gets it and develops more push.’
Carl said that looking at Archie he could very likely do Prix St George because his canter is so good. Whether Archie does medium or Prix St Georges it has the same movements but its what the canter will be able to do which makes the difference between the two levels.
It takes five years to train a horse to the top.
‘Circles keep the horse balanced and around the leg.’
‘When the horse goes forward within the pace the rider should relax the upper body and keep the hand forward.’
‘With Counter Canter it is easy to push the hind leg to the outside but you need to keep the hind leg underneath you.’
‘Dressage riders are cheats covering up their horses faults in front of a judge!’
‘Hotter horses are easier to train for Grand Prix.’
‘Quickest way for a young rider to learn is to ride good horses so Carl lets his working pupils also ride his Grand Prix horses so they are able to help a young horse.
‘A session should begin and end the same way with relaxation.’