Last year, we had the excitement of auditing Carl Hester's Masterclass, and this year, it was Charlotte Dujardin. Or just "Charlotte", as we call her, because her incredible accomplishments have made her a household name in our neck o' the woods.
I attended only the Sunday sessions, but the riders were new and there were horse representatives ranging from 4, 5, 6 year-olds, to Prix St. George and Grand Prix levels. So we got a great overview of the progression through the levels, and the exercises that she would use to improve each horse.
These tips are purely my own interpretation of what she said. But I thought I'd share my notes with you.
1. Horse's Daily Lifestyle
She started off by talking about their horse keeping strategies in their "yard". She said the excitable horses go out overnight, the horses with normal energy go out for the day, and the quiet horses go out for half-days or so. All of their horses get turnout every day, and they believe in letting horses be horses.
It all sounds great, until you realize that she's talking about literally the tip top of the "top horses" in the world!
The horses get worked 4 times a week, go out on the trail the other two days, and get Sundays off completely. She says that both she and Carl are interested in maintaining the horses' longevity. They want every young horse to make it to Grand Prix (if it can) and then be rideable long enough to develop at the Grand Prix level going into their teen years.
She mentioned that Valegro is still going strong, teaching young riders all about Grand Prix, and heading out to riding demonstrations at big venues. He also still enjoys his regular trail rides!
2. Young Horses and Their Riders
She had high praise for riders who bring along young horses, mostly because of the learning curves they have to ride through until the horse matures. She said that young horses need brave, balanced riders, as many horses typically start quiet and sweet, and then get cheekier as they get stronger and more opinionated!
She showed great patience with the young horses, and worked with the riders to help the horses overcome their tension in front of the large crowd. One horse kicked out repeatedly, and the only thing she said was to keep asking for trot (forward), stay away from the crowd (!!), and maintain contact. In time, the horse settled and finished with awe-inspiring movement, indicating a huge potential to come.
She uses the stretch in walk, trot and canter for warm-ups and cool-downs. Don't just ride with a long rein and the horse's head anywhere; he has to be forward and taking the bit from the rider forward and down. As she worked the 4-year-old, it was evident that "forward" was more forward than you might think. It was as forward as the horse needed to be free moving in his gait and back.
However, she qualified by saying that you might not be able to stretch every horse like that right from day 1. She said it took her 2 years to get a stretch from Valegro at the beginning of a ride! So if the horse is excitable, better to start the ride with shorter reins and in an uphill outline and work toward the stretch over time. Safety first always!
She did a great demonstration of relaxing the 5-year-old horse (that was overwhelmed by the closed-in crowd) using a simple walk to trot to walk transition exercise. She coached the rider to send the horse forward with two legs, maintain even contact on both reins, and keep the head and neck directly in front of his chest.
After a short trot, she'd bring the horse back to walk, just before the horse got stronger or more excited. We could almost feel the horse calm through the walk transitions, and the movement through the back was more visible with each successive trot. It was a soothing, peaceful exercise that settled the horse's mind and invited him to relax and release.
5. Awesome Canter Work
I took away two great tips for canter work from the more advanced horse sessions. At this point, she was helping the riders develop collection and a more uphill balance.
One exercise was to stay in canter and send the horse forward, then ease him back, then send him forward again. Use the half-halt to rebalance the horse - not for more than a stride so the rider doesn't end up blocking or holding the horse. The rider shouldn't feel like she has to carry the horse.
In the collection phase, she encouraged the rider to make the horse more active. If the horse doesn't respond to a light leg, "go for a yeehaw"! She wanted the riders to move out in the canter, energize and then come back to a more active collection.
Then the exercise progressed naturally to the canter-walk transition. She told us that we shouldn't "fall into a heap" after walking! So she had the rider move out in canter, collect-collect-collect, and by then, the horse could easily walk right out of the canter, as long as the rider was actively riding the walk.
She urged us to ride at home as we would want to ride at the show - with precision and good movement, so excellence can become a habit.
The sessions were practical and gave us many ideas for our own riding, but my biggest take-away from the day was less about the skill building and had more to do with the way she treated both the horses and riders.
I imagine her teaching style is much like how she rides her own horses. She was at once kind, gentle, encouraging and supportive, and also firm, clear and absolutely specific. She let the horse guide the lesson, coached the rider as much as needed, and addressed each horse at its level. She didn't shy away from the difficult moments but never seemed to get too worked up about any problems.
It was a wonderfully inspiring day!
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