1200 dressage enthusiasts.
Sold out, incredibly perfect venue on an incredibly perfect-weather weekend.
1 fellow by the name of Carl Hester, masterclass-ing through two well-run days of back-to-back, personally selected horse and rider combinations. He worked them. He taught them. He challenged them and he praised them. It was all so seamless and effortless that we sat mostly entranced, hour after hour, hardly noticing the passing of the day.
I was only able to make it to the Sunday session, but there was plenty to be gained from just that. It was like an educational Dressage party with the "who's who" of Canadian Dressage, some "big names" from other parts of the world, and our own friends and colleagues from near and far. For us horse-crazy, dressage-obsessed people, what could be better?
The notes were better.
Because starting with the youngest horses (4 years old), to the 5- and 6-year olds, then to the Prix. St. George horse, the Intermediare and the Grand Prix horses - we were carefully guided to identify, and then resolve, the basics.
I came home with so many notes (hand)written in my little clinic book. Even though most of the horse/rider combinations were high level and working on the more complicated movements, so much of what Carl focused on was rooted in the basics. He'd pinpoint one basic modification of an advanced movement and everything about the horse would change - confidence, boldness, posture, balance... you name it.
The following is my interpretation of what he said, of course. I've narrowed it down to what I thought were the top 6 most relevant points, in backward order of importance. I hope some of it helps you too in your riding.
6. Invest in instruction.
First thing in the morning, he went on about the costs of horse ownership. We all know it takes a lot of money to buy, then keep a horse. But his point was that while we prepare our horse ownership budget, we should put as much attention to our learning budget. He said that to be a top rider, you should be riding with an instructor every day! (Made me wonder: what makes us "normal" riders think that we only need once a week - or less - lessons??!!)
I guess it's all about priorities in the budgeting.
5. Stretch at the beginning and end of your ride.
"As the beginning of the session should be, the end of the session should be: long neck, stretch over the back, swing."
Right at the beginning of the day, when the two four-year-old horses were in the ring, Carl explained that he literally stretches his horses for 10-15 minutes before he starts the lesson part of the ride. Start with a long rein but with contact until you're absolutely sure the horse is settled. Slow the legs for a slow swing speed. Start the top line muscles moving and working.
He said he tells his riders at home to go off and do circles and changes of direction. He wants to see the horses stretch in walk/trot and canter.
Then they work on transitions. Finally, they shorten the reins to begin working.
He was looking for swing. He was looking for cadence. He was all about the relaxation of the horse and rider.
4. Be "pretty" but also be effective.
While he did a lot of positional corrections on the riders, and insisted on good posture, good tone in the core, and positioning of the hands and legs, Carl insisted that position on its own isn't good enough. We must be effective with our aids, and get the response we are aiming for.
3. Do it again until you get it right.
Carl didn't actually talk about this, but he demonstrated it with almost every rider. He was very particular and when he set his expectation, he wanted to see the horse and rider achieve it before moving on.
So for example, one horse would lift his head and neck through the trot/canter transition. This indicated that the horse was starting the transition from the front end. He asked the rider to do a shoulder-fore before the transition (position the shoulders just slightly to the inside) to improve the engagement of the hind end. Then he had the rider repeat the transition several times until the horse glided smoothly into the canter.
"It's all about pushing to the limit but not pushing over the limit.
2. Be forward-giving.
I loved every time he was able to get the riders to be (more) forward giving. Don't get me wrong. They were all excellent riders with soft, quiet contact. But still.
He would ask the riders to push the horses to contact (which also highlighted the importance of the horses responding adequately to the leg aids), then release (just a feeling) and invite the horse to go forward.
"Push him to contact, release and then push to contact again."
In every instance, the horse would visibly transform: rounder, lighter, more expressive. Every rider commented on how they could feel the difference and it was obvious for us auditors even from the ground. He insisted that the more advanced horses must be in self-carriage; he wanted the horse "on his own legs" so that he was balanced himself.
"Good riders balance horses so the horse can do anything."
This one really resonated with me. I think this is the key take-home idea for me. If there is anything that I must do, it is to constantly improve my skills so that I can achieve better balance for the horse in everything. How to achieve better balance?
Throughout the day, I took notes. There were different suggestions for different horses, but I found a few repeated themes: slow the legs down; shoulder-in or even shoulder-fore; shoulder-in on circles; "half-transitions" (almost do the transition but don't); full transitions (trot/canter/trot/canter); short steps to long steps in the same gait.
So much to think about! I think everyone came out of the clinic feeling inspired, motivated and ready to ride our own horses with all these thoughts fresh in our minds.
*Photos were not allowed, but there are many photos on the official Caledon Equestrian Park Facebook Page. Click on the blue Facebook logo below to see the photos.
Finally! The Ultimate Rider-Centered Program!
Ready for something completely different? If you liked what you read here, you might be interested in the new Horse Listening Practice Sessions.
This is NOT a program where you watch other people's riding lessons. Start working with your horse from Day 1.
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Now is the time to re-evaluate your goals and path to riding success!
If you’d like a structured, but personal tool to set goals, take a look our Goal Setting for the Equestrian: A Personal Workbook. The pages are designed for you to set and keep track of your progress over the course of a year.
Included in the book:
- design your overarching goals
- long- and short-term planning,
- debrief your special events such as clinics or shows
- reflect on, plan and evaluate your goals
- sample goals and pages
The Workbook is available for instant digital download so you can print the pages right off your computer. There is also the option of a paperback version if you’d rather have a professionally bound book to hold in your hands.
Read more here:
Try This To Feel "Forward": If you’ve never felt “forward” before, how on earth are you supposed to learn it? You need a friend to help you with this one.
18 Reasons To Establish "Forward" Energy: It isn't always easy to establish and maintain a forward, energetic but contained movement. Whether in walk, trot or canter, both you and your horse have to ride in a forward - but not running - manner.
Demystifying "Contact" In Horseback Riding: Sometimes it feels like the word "contact" has other-wordly connotations. Is it related to celestial retrogrades, or long-told mythical verbal traditions, or is it a yogic position unreachable by the average equine enthusiast?
An Awesome Over-The-Back Suppling Warm-Up At The Walk: I've been using this exercise as a warm-up for both myself and my horse lately and I'm seeing great results! It's an active but relaxing way for both of us to loosen up.
How To “Flow” from the Trot to the Walk: Although we rely on our hands too much and initiate all movements from the horse's mouth, there are many alternate aids we can go to, especially for a downward transition. Here are three steps to develop a balanced trot-walk transition with minimal rein pressure.