I was blessed with tickets for my birthday to attend the Carl Hester Masterclass with my mom. The symposium was held at the Caledon Equestrian Park in Palgrave Ontario, the host site for the 2015 Pan American games for dressage and showjumping. My mom and I made a weekend of it, and stayed at a bed and breakfast close by. We headed out at 5:30 am to make the almost 3 hour drive to the park.
The event was sold out, with 2000 people attending. Some had VIP tables, with lunch and wine served. We had bleacher seats, but were treated with free coffee, water, drinks and snacks. Photos and videos were not allowed. We arrived early to get good seats and met up with our coach and some friends. I was really excited to audit, being a fan of Charlotte Dujardin who Carl has coached for nearly her entire career. I knew he was talented but wow, he really blew me away with his knowledge and training philosophies. He is probably my biggest idol now, I think tied with Micheal Jung, which if you know me at all, you know how obsessed I am with MJ!
The session started with Carl talking about how he cares for his horses. He said he is different than most in Europe as he turns his horses out every day. The horses which are 4 and under live outside. They come in first thing in the morning for breakfast, are ridden after and then turned back out. He said it is such a different idea that he had people asking him if he thought turn out was the key to winning medals. He laughed about it, and said no, the training is the key to winning medals. That being said, turn out is part of the program he believes in. He also only works his horses 3 or 4 days a week in the school. The other 3 or 4 days a week they do hill work, hacking, or water treadmill.
His training goal is always the Grand Prix. He does not believe in the Young Horse classes. He feels those horses majority of the time do not make it to the upper levels, and that the horses who do well at the Young Horse classes are not horses who are meant for the Grand Prix. His focus is training to the highest level, and the Young Horse classes are more for a resale or breeding type interest. He does not train his horses in a quick fashion either, so the Young Horse classes do not fit into his program. He said you can expect it to take 6 years to take a horse from start to Grand Prix. So from age 4 to 10. He does not start horses before the age of 4.
He does not think horses at this age need to be showing, although some do because they are born to show. You have to know the horse and decide if it is worth stressing them at the early stage of their training. He suggested clinics like this type are good to get the horse exposed without the pressure of expectations.
The riding portion of the clinic started with two 4 year olds. The one 4 year old sort of fried her brain and only came in to walk around and then left. He was adamant the horse have a positive experience. He could also tell the horse had been worked really hard the night before, and he said he does not like to work horses when they are tired. He prefers them fresh with lots of energy as the training is more positive in that scenario. He told the rider to let the horse rest and come back tomorrow and asses if she was relaxing more and ready to do some work.
He immediately noted the other 4 year old was behind the vertical, and ridden with too much hand. He had the rider start by getting the horse to stretch down to the contact. He starts every ride with 20-25 minutes of stretching work. The 4 year olds do not do more than that a day. If they were not turned out he may add a bit of hacking after but majority of the time this is enough. Stretching is the basis of his training all the way up. It is mentally and physically relaxing for the horse. Stretching does not mean nothing in the hand though, you still need contact. Lightness does not mean an empty hand, lightness is a horse carrying itself. He explained that young horses need someone who is confident, quiet, and able to give the appropriate discipline when needed. If you are not this person, then you should not be training young horses.
He emphasized that you need a plan. With young horses you need to ride big circles, big lines, and not go into the corners too deeply. Be safe and see how much you are able to trust your horse. The young horse needs to be able to steer, stop, start, and stretch before it learns anything else. He recommends transitions in a forward seat for young horses. He does this so the horse does not feel like it needs to raise its head and neck in the transition or the canter. If your horse is spooky, ride in a shoulder fore position. An often spooky horse is a horse missing basics. He also reminded the rider, that in order for a horse to be straight they must carry their head in the middle of their chest. You can check their ear position often to make sure you do not have a bend in the neck.
With the horse who was behind the vertical, you could see the muscle at the base of the neck had a dip to it. This is an easy way to see if the horse is lifting through its shoulders to the bit. He said just thinking long will allow the horse to move up into that. When you want the horse to move forward, you move your upper body slightly forward. You should always be sitting in the center of your saddle, and have the feel that you are standing, so that if your horse disappeared beneath you, you would land on your feet. The feel in your hand - contact - should feel like the horse is slightly resting in your hand.
He shared that he thinks a horse behind the bit is more difficult to correct than a horse who leans on the bit so you really want to be sure you do not encourage this. If a horse goes behind the bit, hold your hands closer together. Your hands should be together, thumbs almost touching in front of your saddle, and when you stretch you can hold your hands lower and wider. Wide hands above the saddle make the bit very sharp. If a horse is heavy or on the forehand, raise your hands and the horses frame will raise. He said until you are riding carrying your hand in front of the saddle for your entire ride you are riding wrong. The only thing you can do when your hand is in front of the saddle is pull back, and not down. And trust me, Carl does not approve of you pulling on horses face, whatsoever! Especially not to get it into a frame.
This 4 year old had a habit of sticking its tongue out the left side. This is because he was avoiding the contact. To correct it, the rider was to watch for the tongue and put their left leg on every time she saw the tongue come out. This gets the horse to think about its hind end rather than what is happening in its mouth. It becomes a habit and you need to become aware and consistent in correcting it.
With young horses you have to keep it very basic. You need to decide when enough is enough. Is this good enough for this horse at this moment. He does not ride young horses until they are tired, he rides them for a short time and ends on a positive note, with lots of stretching. Not just one trot around the arena, he does circles, transitions, etc in the stretch before he finishes his ride.
Getting ready to ride with Carl Hester! “When your groom happens to be your mom who happens to be an Olympic medalist!” Thank you @dressageaddict.ca for this great pic!! #carlhester #sakima #equestrian #dressage #olympian #caledonequestrianpark #masterclass #repost @caledonequestrianpark @carlhestermbe
He talked about swing speed - the speed at which you find the horses "swing" - i.e. the dreamworthy float. Some horses swing speed is faster and some slower. For some if it is too fast it throws them off balance. Do not pull back to slow horse, use your body, relax your leg and head up to the sky to half halt. The half halt should only last half a stride, not two or three strides. Your aids need to be black and white. You need to ask until you get it. Try and make perfect transitions every time. Even at the walk and when taking a break. Your horse has 24 hours a day when it is not working, in that hour you ride you are training the horse. Every movement, every transition.
The riders that followed were Intermediaire, PSG, and then Grand Prix. He worked these horses all the same, starting and ending with stretch work, and then observing and choosing one or two things the horses needed help with. I didn't make notes for these horses because as you can see, I had already noted so much and my horses are no where near this level. I also wanted to watch and not be writing so I could see everything and remember it. The differences are minute but I do have eye for it and when I see the changes it gets etched in my brain. I did also listen intently and made note of all the exercises he used. He showed us A LOT of exercises, each with a specific purpose which were tuned to the horses in the clinic. There was noticeable improvement in all the horses by the end of the session. It was really remarkable to see.
Wondering what happened on Day 1 of the Carl Hester master class? We’ve got you covered with a full report at www.dressageaddict.ca. Check it out and share your thoughts about the clinic! [PC: @karieelizebethphotography] #carlhestercep #legend #inspiration #dressage #horse @caledonequestrianpark @carlhestermbe @tina_irwincanada
Off to dream of turning Penny into a dressage princess!