Wellington, Fla.—Feb. 7
There’s little doubt that Isabell Werth is one of the best dressage riders in the world. She currently has three horses in the top four of the world standings, and it’s likely that she’s run out of space to keep her ever increasing number of medals. So it’d be easy to believe that the German rider has somehow figured out some secret the rest of us are missing that keeps her on top year after year. Turns out her key to success isn’t some magic formula, but something we are all capable of doing, as we learned during her packed master class at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival.
What was magic was how quickly Werth transformed the six horse-and-rider pairs participating in the clinic. The horses ranged from a 5-year-old to a 12-year-old schooling the Grand Prix, but no matter what stage of their development, Werth focused on the same principles, with astounding results.
Make The Outside Rein Your Friend
Whether you are dressage rider or a jumper, it’s an adage we’ve all heard throughout our riding careers: inside leg to outside rein, and Werth repeated that phrase to nearly every participant.
A holding inside rein can act like a hand brake, restricting the activity of the inside hind leg, and Werth encouraged riders to stay off the inside rein, instead stating that “the most important thing is the outside rein in the canter.”
When Anne-Marie Hosbond’s young horse Flashdance started to get earthbound, Werth told her to flex the horse to the outside. Even when the horse is going forward, if it’s restricted by the inside rein, the hind leg will come higher without reaching forward underneath the horse.
“You want it to be not as hectic,” she said. “It becomes longer because the hind leg is free and not blocked by the inside rein.”
Don’t Stifle The Rhythm
One of the sins Werth zeroed in on with a number of riders was the desire to go to the reins first.
“Not the reins then the legs,” she told Jacquie Brooks, who was riding 12-year-old Westwood. “The legs should be there when you go to flex him.”
Even on the hot, nervous horses, Werth reminded riders that going to the hand wasn’t going to solve the problem. If you close the door with your hands first, the horse ends up fighting. When riders closed their legs first instead, the horses settled into the contact.
“You should use your lower leg for balance and to bring him back,” she told Austin Webster. “Don’t spread your legs away from him. Use your legs for the halt.”
She had Webster take his inside hand off the reins and use it solely to pat Abacrombie TF so the horse would feel less constrained.
“He needs to breathe; he needs to calm down,” she said. “There’s a thin line between enough and too much. He has to relax, and you need to feel the second it’s too much, and he wants to escape. You’re not allowed to hold because then he explodes. It’s really important that he go out at the right second. And it needs to be independent of your reins because he’s pulling and running more when you go to your hands.”
Benjamin Albright’s horse Falstaff had the tendency to stall in neutral, which resulted in the horse going upward rather than forward, so Werth reminded him that it was his seat that should control the length of stride instead of the hand, and no matter what the horse should always be thinking forward.
“Use the inside leg, but don’t interrupt him with the reins,” she said. “When you shorten the reins, the horse starts to collect from the front; you want him to do it from the hind end.”
Finding More Gears
So your horse knows the movements, but how do you turn that 6 into a 7 or the 8 into the 9? Elasticity and suppleness.
But you don’t achieve that by drilling the half pass or pirouette or whatever else might plague you. It’s all about the basics.
“Of course you can ride the exercises, but it’s about the quality,” she said. “It’s always a question of basic suppleness and elasticity.”
OK, that sounds easy enough, but how do you put that into practice?
“Don’t start the exercise until you have a good canter,” Werth told Lauren Sprieser as she rode Guernsey Elvis through canter half-passes and pirouettes. “If you lose the jump [in his hind leg] correct him, then start again. Test how he’s reacting on a circle first, then do the exercise.”
When schooling pirouettes, Werth didn’t care whether riders were doing large pirouettes or the smaller ones; her main concern was that the activity in the canter stride remained.
“Whatever you do, improve the gait, then do the exercise,” she stressed.
To increase suppleness, Werth had riders ride shoulder-in each time they progressed to a new gait. But she didn’t want them to stall in one gear all the way around the arena.
“Have little transitions in the exercise,” she said, encouraging riders to open and close their horse’s strides every once in a while to increase elasticity.
“Do more basic work to improve flexibility,” she said. “It gives you more possibilities.”
Keep Them Focused
Many of the horses in the master class had never gone under the lights at Global, and especially not with such a large audience. Yvonne Losos De Muniz’s 9-year-old Felicia came in looking nervous, so Werth had her start with an easy trot focusing on being “as fluid as possible.”
“Sit to give her support and confidence,” Werth said.
Even when the mare settled, it was evident that she was hot and had an active mind.
“This horse is so motivated you have to keep her busy and focused on you,” Werth said, instructing Losos De Muniz to utilize lots of circles, lateral work and changes of directions to keep the mare’s attention. “Always something new; do different lines or no lines to keep her concentrated on you.”
“Not a quicker horse, quicker you,” Werth said when Losos De Muniz wasn’t varying her ride often enough, earning a laugh. “This horse needs you to make him busy; you want him to think slower and wait for you.”
Brooks also had a hot horse who was anticipating and throwing in passage when asked for collected trot, and Werth reminded her that bottling him up wasn’t going to solve anything.
“Let him go!” Werth said. “You have to give him the confidence. You can’t always try to solve the tension. Just ride!”
• “Keep soft contact with the lower leg to the body, so he’s not surprised with the leg comes.”
• Werth is a proponent of riding with a longer curb rein. For those riding in double bridles, she encouraged them to shorten just the snaffle and not choke up on the curb rein.
• “The hind legs follow the front legs; the front legs do not follow the hind legs.”
• All that work in the shoulder-in became the secret to a stronger half-pass. Werth didn’t want riders to rush straight into half-pass just because they were at the correct point in the arena. Instead she told them to establish a shoulder-in before beginning the sideways movement.
• “The moment he comes up [and gets stuck in the pirouette] go forward for two steps and then bring him back.”
• “You have to sit still and keep your seat no matter what he does.”
• “With a young horse I love lots of transitions, especially if it’s not in the contact already. Going forward and coming back is good for suppleness.”
• “Finish with rising trot in a relaxed way. Always keep them swinging.”
We’ll be on site all week for the five-star at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival. Stay tuned for beautiful photos and stories on all the big winners.