The Masterclass took place in the Stadium of the Adequan Global Dressage Festival on Feb. 28. Six horse and rider combinations came in and for a continuous three hours Carl taught the riders, entertained a standing room only audience and was,as always, full of practical wisdom. So what do I mean by Soundness and Sanity? It is the soundness and the sanity of the horse that are the most important element for Carl Hester. It is worth remembering that he did not burst upon a startled world and rise to instantaneous stardom once he discovered the dressage superstar horse Valegro! Carl has been riding, teaching , training, coaching , representing his country in Olympics and World Equestrian Games and other major international competitions for decades! Nor has he ever paid seven figures for a gobsmackingly gorgeous young horse at the auctions. Valegro was found when he ‘failed’ at the stallion testing.
SOUNDNESS Carl stressed the importance of good movement where the horse is using all the parts of its body, shoulders, neck, back , hind quarters in a manner appropriate for its age and development. There is a fashion for a fantastically flamboyant trot in dressage at the moment. Several of the horses came in with this trot but by the end of their sessions they were trotting like normal horses. Beautiful and very talented normal horses but normal horses. The horse will have a much longer competition life if the gaits can be developed in a way that goes along with strength and muscle development in correct training.
SANITY I stopped counting how often Carl spoke of relaxing the horse. Competition horses are often under a lot of pressure both in competition and in training but it is possible to give the horses a chance to relax and let go of stress. Every……Single….. Horse we saw stretched at the end of the work. Every horse! And not just lollygagging around tripping on their noses! This was a good stretch taking the contact forward and down and releasing the back muscles . Stretching!
I stopped counting how often he asked riders to give with their hands, to release with their hands. He didn’t want to see horses with short necks pulled into submission.
He recommended changes of scenery and work for the horses, hacking out and having a gallop or having a day when they are just ridden for half an hour in a stretching frame in walk trot and canter.
All these things are good for the horse’s mind. This is how you keep your horse sane.
Now for some of the gems from this masterclass.
THE YOUNG HORSE
“In a young horse you want to look at the walk and the canter. And safety must come first. What is the temperament like?”
“If you just ride forward, forward, forward, the horse can end up on the forehand”
“Always do the opposite of what the horse wants to do. If the horse has a big trot do a little trot and if he has little trot he needs to do a big trot.”
“Give and retake the reins all through the ride.” At this point the rider gave the reins but not enough. “That’s a Scottish give….too little and too short. GIVE the rein, to the buckle, that’s an English give!” Carl then told us to look at how the horses muscles had begun to move in the shoulder and the back. “This shows relaxation.”
“Just because you take a five year old to a show and it doesn’t win it does not mean it won’t be a Grand Prix horse.”
“If you feel like you have nothing in your hand it does not mean you have a good stretch. People say dressage is all about being up and on the bit but that has nothing to do with dressage.”
“At the European Championships I saw 84 versions of stretching—–above the bit, below the bit and a couple nearly fell over.”
OTHER WORDS OF WISDOM
“Take a risk in training!”
“The plait ( braid) behind his ears has to be the highest point on the neck.”
“You will hear hundreds of explanations for the half halt. I’ve heard hundreds! The half halt means ‘rebalance’. The horse says “balance me”.
“When your horse is spooky the more forward you make it the worse it gets. The horse has to have a chance to have a look at things.”
“How many transitions do you do in a ride? If your upper body says ‘whoa’ that is a transition. If you say:”I’ve done 300 transitions” I will say “That’s normal.”
“Often doing less will give you more.”
“The horse has to be in self carriage and the rider has to be in self carriage too!”
“When I see race horses walking in the paddock before a race I think that is the walk we want. “
“Any horse that gets to the Grand Prix is not stupid.”
“When I am away my riders will do trot and canter in stretch for half an hour. If they can’t do this, stretching in self carriage there is something wrong with the rider or wrong with the horse.”
“Always finish with the horse in a good frame of mind so he goes away with a positive experience.”
“Everything I’m saying tonight is MY opinion. We all develop our own system. It needs to be good and obvious to the horse. Whatever you decide your aids are STICK with it. The horse learns from the repetition of it. It must be black and white.”
The three hours passed quickly and judging by the applause at the end everyone enjoyed it and came away with things to work on with their own horses. I know I did.