The excitement in the large crowd was palpable as Great Britain’s Carl Hester walked to center arena for his first New England appearance at Pineland Farm in New Gloucester, Maine, on Oct. 14 for the New England Dressage Association Fall Symposium.
While greeting the audience he gave credit to his past mentors for assisting him in his climb to the top. “So if you don’t like my method, blame them, not me,” he quipped, bringing the first of many rounds of laughter to the large indoor arena.
The morning focused on developing young horses, starting with 4-year-olds and finishing up with the developing Prix St. Georges horses.
We were treated to some really super riding and a great selection of talented horses. Symposium organizers received more than 100 video applications from riders vying for the clinic slots. Each pair chosen was more than able to show the requirements of the level and did so with grace under pressure.
As the clinic got rolling, a clear theme emerged for the youngest age group of horses. Hester placed much emphasis on riding transitions, dozens of them, scratch that—HUNDREDS of them! (And not just any old transition, but one that is as crisp, balanced and forward as your horse can manage.)
This was actually a theme that continued for the entire day. While the requirements and difficulty of the transition work became more challenging as the levels did, there was major emphasis placed on this skill for each and every level. Mr. Hester is like the Oprah of transitions, “Transitions for YOU!!” and “Transitions for YOU!!!” This was something that worked for everyone, and the audience could clearly see and appreciate this. Also, transition work is something that everyone can do and understand. One need not be an Olympic medal winner to improve their horse through transition work!
The 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds were absolutely stellar in an electric environment. “Wouldn’t mind getting that under the Christmas tree” was a compliment from Hester to Flirt, who was the 4-year-old model, expertly piloted by Brittany Murphy. (I wouldn’t mind either!) Flirt was an incredibly good sport about showing off in front of a large crowd, and Hester repeatedly complimented his relaxation and cooperation. They were able to demonstrate lovely forward going, elastic stretching and obedient transitions. Hester encouraged Brittany to change Flirt’s balance slightly in the transitions to canter to encourage the gelding to balance less on his neck.
Within the young horse groups we saw a clear progression from the basics of a 4-year-old, stretching, freely reaching and developing balance, to the much more advanced 6-year-old skills of playful collection and expressive flying changes.
I really enjoyed the way that Hester allowed the young horses to play in their work, finding structure through transitional exercises and then freedom through stretching.
Eiren Crawford rode Bacary, the 5-year-old. This horse was a big, leggy, expressive giant—lots of fun to watch! Much work was done in the canter to improve the horse’s connection to the bridle, which had a positive impact on the quality of the trotwork. Hester had Eiren play with canter to trot to walk transitions by making just a few trot steps between canters to improve the balance. The horse gained confidence in this exercise, and his frame became lovely as he carried more weight behind. Hester noted that it can be challenging for expressive young horses to find balance within their forward energy, and they can sometimes become too short in the neck to compensate. As Bacary carried more responsibility on his hind legs, his frame opened, and he became even more expressive (hard to believe!).
A highlight for everyone was watching the powerful Giuliano B, ridden by Karin Persson, absolutely crush the 6-year-old requirements. I lost a bit of my pro-writer poise while watching this pair, and only could think, “This horse is RAD!!!” Karin did some terrific work getting him to narrow his base and improve his forward energy with some shoulder-in in the canter. The improvement to his changes after this was immediate, and the expert crowd was most appreciative. Hester had this pair play with transitions within the gait, making the canter larger then more collected, playing with collection in the trot, and creating more balance. After the horse had revved up his engine a few times in canter, he showed us some lovely changes (and the crowd went wild…well, as wild as we dared with young horses!!).
After the young horses made an exit we were treated to some great third level work from Katherine Poulin and Jannike Gray. Their horses were somewhat different, which made for an interesting class, but once again work on transitions was a focus. Jannike, up on Ravanti C, showed the effective use of the rail to develop more honestly straight changes. Hester encouraged riders whose horses tend to drift or tip in the changes to use the rail as a guide for absolute straightness. He also had Jannike make transitions into more expressive canter to improve the quality of the changes.
After a tense moment due to the boisterous crowd at the beginning of their ride, Katherine quickly brought Fairmount into relaxation with transitions in canter, from stretching to greater connection. They continued in trotwork, demonstrating the effective use of shoulder-in on the quarter line to improve balance through the body and into the reins. They provided the audience with an excellent visual of owning the horse’s whole body in lateral work, not just the neck. Hester had them do repeat changes from shoulder-in, to a very short diagonal, to shoulder-in. This clearly improved the horse’s balance to the bridle, as well as expression.
Working through the mid-day sessions with two riders up, Hester focused on a couple of key points for each horse. No matter what the issue was, he always made sure each horse was meeting the bit with ease, staying open through the neck, and keeping balance in transitions. It quickly became apparent that lazy transitions were unacceptable! Many horses (and/or riders) were given a few reminders not to allow their horses to schlep into the walk when going towards a break.
We were treated to a variety of quality developing FEI, and proven FEI horses as the day went on.
Before the lunch break, Shannon Dueck rode Bourgogne, and Molly Maloney rode Fellissimo in the fourth level/Developing PSG class. Again, the selectors did a super job picking out two very different horses for us. Molly’s horse was confirmed at PSG and looked very comfortable in the work. Hester encouraged her to be more bold and ride for bigger movements (and therefore, bigger scores). Her receptive horse took all the suggestions well, becoming much more electric in his canter work and showing some really nice sequential changes. Shannon’s horse was a little more charged up by the 900-plus people in his arena, and a bit more green. The exercise Hester had her use to promote greater suppleness and swing was to work both shoulder-in and travers on a circle in the canter. Again, very effective.
At lunch break the takeaway tips of the morning were:
-Ride 100, 200, 300 transitions in every ride.
-Simple exercises are often the most effective in gaining your horse’s confidence, suppleness and trust. When in doubt, test the connection, play with transitions, stretch.
-And if you want Carl Hester to say “NOPE” at you, allow your horse to fall apart when it is time for a walk break!
The afternoon session brought us more FEI work and a good number of Grand Prix horses. I am going to go into great detail tomorrow regarding these pairs (since this is getting long winded), but here is a highlights reel:
The small tour group of Emily Smith and Adam Steffens was inspired. Adam showed us some confirmed work, with emphasis placed on retraining his lovely mount Zikomo De Grand to think that pirouettes are fun, not work. Adam was also readily able to tell us exactly how many strides his mount could cover in canter on a short side. (Impressed!) Hester challenged him to ride a short stride in eight powerful strides, and when he did, the crowd erupted. Hester chuckled and said, “Wish I could get a round of applause for counting to eight!” (And the crowd went nuts again!)
Emily was the “star” of the day, according to Hester, as she was willing to be very experimental with her contact to improve her horse’s contact and frame. She was bold under so much pressure and tried applying different pressure to the reins. Her horse was pleasantly surprised by this, and he looked completely different after a bit of work. Very impressive riding from a young rider.
Ashley Madison, Jane Karol and Laura Noyes Putnam wrapped up the day with their Grand Prix horses. Each of them had different focus points, and it was super for us to see pirouettes schooled, passage and piaffe transitions smoothed out, and the reminder that even at the upper levels the details cannot be ignored. The theme of transition work continued, at a much more advanced level, and high emphasis was placed on riding perfect corners because, “All movements are ridden out of corners!”
Thanks to NEDA, Carl Hester, all the volunteers and the Pineland Staff for a great first day. This certainly is an enormous undertaking! I am fairly certain that all of New England showed up. The place was pretty well packed, and Pineland Farm and staff were very accommodating! (Final stats: 950+ attendants. And everyone brought their own car, from the looks of things!)
Stay tuned for the report from Day 2!