Lexington, Ky.—Jan. 21
Riders did their homework ahead of the second and final day of the Back To Basics Masterclass with Charlotte Dujardin.
Dujardin began the day by reminding riders of the vital role of the warm-up, especially for young horses. Dujardin’s horses spend 10 to 15 minutes before every dressage school day walking along the driveway at her base in Gloucestershire, England. Dujardin also prefers not to drill horses with too much serious schooling. Horses in her program work six days a week with four schooling days and two hack days. Schooling days might be as short as 20 or 30 minutes, depending on the horse’s age and level of work.
Another important consideration for young or inexperienced mounts is keeping the level of difficulty appropriate, which can be challenging when you’ve got a talented prospect and are tempted to test their abilities. Using 4-year-old training level horse Erdstern as an example, Dujardin said she doesn’t always expect a horse of this age to stretch out at the trot yet (although Erdstern is somewhat advanced for his age and can already do a little of this). Horses who are able to stretch might spend an entire schooling session doing light, stretch work if they need an easier day.
“It’s important to learn correctly how to stretch a horse,” she said. “That’s not just putting a horse’s neck down, letting it be behind the girth and drop off your contact. That is having a horse that takes your hand down long and low. What you really want to be able to see is the top part of the neck stretch down. You’re looking for the tail swinging back and forth, because that’s how you know his back is moving.”
Dujardin definitely doesn’t expect young horses to collect yet, as most will not be strong enough to do so properly.
“If you think about it, these horses have their whole life to be collected,” she said. “You want them riding forward, thinking forward for themselves. If you always have the handbrake on, then the horses are going to be behind your leg because you’re constantly telling him to slow down. Ride them forward, try and create that energy and enthusiasm in your horse first. A lot of people say ‘Let’s go forward,’ but they’re still holding the front. They hold them, and they push.”
Another of the basics Dujardin tackled for lower level riders was straightness. Many riders fail to understand when a horse is really straight, especially at a canter. Dujardin wants to see horses’ inside hind leg tracking in between the front feet.
“What is straightness? The horse’s head must be in front of the chest, the inside hind leg must come up in between the front legs, and I don’t want to look down the long side and see the quarters in. That’s not straight,” she said.
On Day 1 of the clinic, Dujardin discussed her hesitation to allow horses and riders to become too reliant on the whip, as she believes it sets horses up to become dull to the leg and ultimately require too much of the rider to keep them going. On Day 2, she provided advice for riders who may have already observed this issue in their horse.
“Sometimes just take them around the field,” she said. “Don’t do a lot of work out in the field; open them up, canter, and really try to get them forward, trying to get them thinking for themselves. Sometimes having them in an open space where they can really get going can freshen them up mentally.”
Dujardin also focused on the importance of setting up to corners and transitions on Day 1 of the clinic. All riders came back Sunday with improvements in both areas, though Dujardin still found small details which cost riders too much in the show ring.
“Really, we should be better at test-riding,” said Dujardin as she instructed third/fourth level rider Susan Harris on Endeavour Adventure. “I think test riding is one of those things where you watch a lot of people make a lot of mistakes. It may be something as silly as the 8-meter circle. If you watch a class of tests at Prix St. Georges, there may be probably a handful of people that have ridden a correct 8-meter circle because the rest ride a 9- or 10[-meter] circle. And you get a mark for your whole circle, just doing eight meters.
As horses move farther up the levels, it becomes more and more important to break each test into small pieces for schooling. There is so much required of a horse in a Prix St. Georges or Grand Prix test, it’s impossible to school every part every day without exhausting the horse. Dujardin encouraged riders to choose a few pieces each day—preferably the ones that are their least favorite to ride, since they are likely the areas most in need of improvement.
In between schooling sessions, Dujardin provided an update on Valegro, fondly known as “Blueberry.” The 16-year-old is enjoying retired life and still gets ridden four times a week and is enjoying jumping. Blueberry took Dujardin’s fiancé, Dean Golding, for a spin on Christmas Day. Dujardin had assumed the pair would just walk but had a few nail-biting moments when they decided to trot and canter.
“He had wellies on, jeans on, with an elf jumper. On his hood he’s got bells, so he’s jingling around, and poor Blueberry’s got to be wondering what the hell is going on,” she laughed. “He got straight into canter, and Blueberry was the perfect schoolmaster whilst Dean was bouncing out of the saddle. To think he’s done what he’s done, but anybody can ride him. He’s one of those horses that’s one in a million, that’s for sure.”