Carl Hester Offers Exercises For Precision And Expression At NEDA Symposium

Oct 20, 2022 - 8:00 AM

Blogger Sara Bradley covered the New England Dressage Association’s Fall Symposium, featuring Carl Hester, on Oct. 15-16. What follows is her coverage of Day 2. If you missed it yesterday, you can read her Day 1 coverage here.

The second day of the New England Dressage Association’s Fall Symposium, featuring British Olympian Carl Hester, started with a new pair of young horses appearing before the crowd of almost 800 spectators, which gave the clinician a chance to talk about his approach to young horses.

Work with young horse should be short and sweet, he said—about 20 minutes of focused work, with emphasis on a balanced pace, stretching and developmentally appropriate transition exercises. As the horses mature, he starts adding bits of lateral work to encourage the horse to engage more clearly with the outside rein, and to begin to become more ambidextrous.

In Hester’s stable, his team typically starts horses under saddle at 3 1/2 years old, then gives them the winter off to mature more before picking up work again as 4-year-olds.

“No horse works more than four days, regardless of age,” he said. “We like to see two work days, then a hacking day—which is so good for young horses—then two more working days, and then a weekend of turnout or hacking.”

NEDA young horses
Carl Hester (center) with young horse participants Courtney Bolender riding Isolde (left) and Kevin Hadfield riding Fine Royal (right) Sara Bradley Photos

Young Horses: Quality In The Canter

On Sunday, the canter was a focal point as Hester worked with 4-year old Fine Royal, ridden by Kevin Hadfield, and 6-year-old Isolde, ridden by Courtney Bolender. Focusing on the canter is important, even with youngsters, he noted, “because you look at the work in the FEI tests, and so, so many questions are in canter.”

Hester complimented Bolender’s riding in the canter, remarking that her frequent tempo adjustments and transitions made for a meaningful workout.

“Not all transitions are from gait to gait—the micro adjustments of the gait to bring it more forward or back are equally important,” Hester said. “And when is a transition good? [When] the horse is relaxed, the horse is balanced, and the horse is off the forehand.”

Hester also complimented Fine Royal’s temperament and rideability, taking the large crowd in stride, as well as the quality of his canter.

“When you start with a natural talent, as this one is, the work will be easier,” Hester said. “I ask myself: How will the flying change look? How might the pirouette look in the future? For this horse, I expect quite good. This is a horse I would like to sit on myself, and canter for a half an hour.”

Third Level: Tracks And Transitions In Trot

The third level pairs, JazzBeat ridden by Leah Drew and Mølgaards Rafiness ridden by Katie Robicheaux, returned from Saturday.

Each movement should have a clear start, middle and end, Hester emphasized. Using Robicheaux to demonstrate shoulder-in as an example, he wanted a clear, three-track beginning to the movement, consistency of angle and expression through the middle, and a clear transition to straightness for the finish. As Robicheaux demonstrated, he suggested small but meaningful corrections, such as a more supportive outer leg, or a slightly raised inner hand to combat tipping. Then she tried the exercise on the quarter line to evaluate the horse’s honesty in the straightness.

“The rider cannot cheat when they are away from the track,” Hester said.

This was a wonderful segment for the audience, as each correction led to a clearly visible improvement.

Focusing on the trot with Drew as well, Hester asked for trot-walk-trot transitions to help sharpen her horse’s reaction to her leg without allowing speed to creep in.

“Look at the difference in his frame as he begins to get more collected—he is more up and round, noticeably better. I like that,” Hester said. “Compared to yesterday, this horse is 100% lighter to the bridle.”

Drew appreciated the effectiveness of the transition work in getting her horse responsive and in front of her leg.

“Something we have struggled with is the horse getting unresponsive and heavy to the hand when he is hot, and today’s work really helped me with that,” she said.

Fourth Level: Timing The Changes

Hester focused on perfecting the timing of flying changes with fourth level riders Jordan LaPlaca, on Gold Play, and Jocelyn Kraenzle, on Shurreal.

As Gold Play was showing excellent results from Saturday’s flying change schooling, Hester asked LaPlaca to try a more advanced exercise Sunday. In what proved to be a highlight for spectators, LaPlaca and Gold Play were asked to ride a serpentine and execute flying changes when they crossed over the centerline. Both the straightness and the placement over the centerline were priorities.

Emphasizing the timing of the change, Hester counted down to the exact moment that LaPlaca should ask for each, which was helpful for auditors to witness.

NEDA Shannon
Shannon Dueck on Angelika MW were the Intermediaire 1 demonstration pair. Carole McDonald Photo

Kraenzle worked on the same timing challenge, and Hester gave the audience a useful exercise to take home when he had Kraenzle count her canter strides out loud—”one, two, three,” with the change happening on the third count—to improve the timing of the flying change, like a jumper counting strides to a fence.

“You may have a gold star,” Hester said when Kraenzle executed ideal timing and the horse showed perfectly harmonious flying changes.

Kraenzle appreciated having the new exercise to add to her tool box.

“It was so helpful to me, counting down to the changes,” she said after her ride. “The horse knows the change aid, but that exercise allowed me to be more clear and more confident.”

Prix St. Georges: ‘Dressage Riders Think In Terms Of Years’

Lauren Sammis on Heiline’s Oh Land and Olivia LaGoy-Weltz on Fade To Black came in as the developing Prix St. Georges teams.

Hester started by asking Sammis to check in with her horse’s adjustability and willingness to collect the canter, which the pair had worked on the previous day. On Sunday, they were able to progress to asking for maximum collection and engagement, bringing the horse’s inner hind even more actively under her body, through shoulder-in.

“This is a great improvement from yesterday, but we must remember, dressage does not happen overnight,” Hester said. “Dressage riders think in terms of years, and many steps in the journey take that kind of time to develop.”

Hester then put Sammis through steps towards a lighter and more beautiful trot. He encouraged her to utilize the snaffle rein clearly while carefully collecting the trot, almost to a piaffe point, then asked her to build the power of the hind leg with a deep seat and rhythmic touches with the whip to assist hind-leg activation.

After such a dynamic exercise, Hester told the audience that horses should not be ridden every day as though they are competing, or always asked for their most difficult work. It was a point he returned to throughout the day.

“Training is what we do daily,” he said. “It’s about strength and skill-building. In training there can be less pressure, less need to make it perfect, more chances to correct and praise. With young, developing horses like these, we ask them to ‘try’ something, such as a passage step, and then we leave it.”

Hester took the developing pirouette work one step further with LaGoy-Weltz. Revisiting an exercise from Saturday, he had her half-pass to centerline, shoulder-fore to C, and then make a half circle in the corner of an ever-reducing size. This sequence helped the horse feel what the pirouette should be like, and it set her up for ideal balance and positioning.

As the horse already had a good education in the half-pirouette, it was enlightening to see each step broken down to include bend, balance and sit. Small adjustments from LaGoy-Weltz, such as less leg pressure and more seat aids, created big differences in the movement.

“The way he broke down the mechanics of it was so refined and specific,” LaGoy-Weltz said of the pirouette progression exercises. “Sometimes, when you work alone a lot, you are analyzing and trying, but then to get such amazing feedback makes a tremendous difference. It may have looked like small changes, but they were hugely helpful.”

Intermediaire: Building The Zig-Zag

Shannon Dueck on Angelika MW and McKayla Hohmann on Numberto took the stage to demonstrate the Intermediaire work.

McKayla Day 2
Carl Hester works with Intermediaire 2 demonstration rider McKayla Hohmann during the second day of the NEDA Fall Symposium in South Hadley, Mass. Sara Bradley Photo

Hester put Dueck through an exercise that progressively built the difficulty of the canter zig-zag while prioritizing the quality of movement.

Dueck first schooled the simpler Prix St. Georges zig-zag, which asks horses to half-pass left from the corner at F to X, execute a flying change at X, then half-pass right back to corner at M and execute a second flying change.

From there, he asked her for the more advanced Intermediaire 1 zig-zag—which in the test asks for three half-passes going 5 meters each side of centerline and flying changes between each—but told her to simplify it for her horse by moving laterally in leg yield rather than half-pass. This allowed the horse to show more expressive movement and stay in a better balance while introducing the more complex pattern.

“Look at the improved movement this training gives the horse,” Hester said, “This makes the figure easier while training and creates expression. Again, this is why we don’t ride daily as though in a competition; training like this give the horse room to grow.”

Dueck’s mare showed excellent capability in the sequential changes down to two-stride changes. Then, work began on developing the one-tempi changes. Starting simply with two, one-time changes, the horse was soon confidently showing several in a row:

“All good until you did the ‘Hokey Pokey’ at the end,” Hester critiqued Dueck with a laugh. “Sit still through them, and you’ll have it.”

On the next effort the changes were effortless, and the crowd applauded.

Dueck said she appreciated Hester’s focus on improving her horse’s gaits.

“She has three very average gaits, which have developed over the years,” she said. “With his help, it’s exciting to see how much more expressive they can be as we work toward the Grand Prix.”

Intermediaire II demonstrator Hohmann focused on piaffe and passage—“keep the seat down in passage, get lighter in piaffe but remain seated in passage,” Hester said—but the clinician also used their session to talk about managing older horses like 21-year-old Numberto.

Similar to young horses, “less is more” with older horses as well, Hester said. Their riders should always look to the horse to ensure he is eager to do the work.

“The way that he put emphasis on the horse doing the work happily meant a lot to me,” Hohmann said of her session, “and to have him go back to the basics to make the advanced movements better made so much sense.”

Grand Prix: ‘As Long As It’s Better Than Yesterday’

Mica Mabragana riding Diamond Rosso, showing the Grand Prix work, was the closing rider of the weekend.

After touching on pirouette exercises that were challenging the previous day, Hester offered Mabragana some sage advice that any rider could apply to their training challenges:

“Don’t get desperate; it’s only dressage!” he said. “You have years to make your pirouette better. As long as it’s better than yesterday, that is all that counts—and they are!”

The work continued in canter, striving to make the horse as straight and adjustable as possible in order to make precise pirouettes on the center line. Positioning into shoulder-fore, and bringing the tempo forward and back on centerline were meaningful exercises for this horse, and the audience could see the immediate results.

“This is a great exercise for you, Mica,” Hester said. “It doesn’t wear the horse out, but it makes you think.”

Mabragana provided an inspiring finale to the weekend of training and education, ending her session with fluid passage to piaffe transitions.

“That is really good,” enthused Hester, as the crowd applauded, appreciating the high note with which the weekend ended.

As the crowd dispersed, the overwhelming agreement was that Hester had made dressage accessible to all. From the weekend riders to the professionals, the message Hester brought to the event was understood: Regardless of the level you ride, returning to basics; improving the horse’s reaction, straightness and rideability; and always keeping the lines of communication open and fair with your horse are of paramount importance.

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