British dressage great Carl Hester returned as the featured clinician for the New England Dressage Association’s Fall Symposium after selling out the event during his first appearance in 2017. To the delight of the almost 800 dressage enthusiasts who filled the arena at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, on Oct. 15 and 16, the master was on form, liberally mixing his trademark humor into two days of education with demonstration horses and riders ranging from green to Grand Prix.
A staggering 100-plus video applications were submitted by prospective demo riders, symposium organizer Beth Beukema said, and on the first day of the event, the knowledgeable attendees got to see Hester work his magic with the talented pairs who made the final cut.
Young Horses: ‘Straightness Starts At This Age’
First up Saturday were the young horses, 4-year-old Forever P, ridden by Katie Bachli, and 5-year-old Hosanna, ridden by Lillian Simons. Hester began the session by observing both horses in all three gaits, giving the youngsters an opportunity to take in the large crowd.
“This is where the young horses get the education. Hot horses need the training in these situations,” Hester said. “For the horses this weekend, it’s not about pulling them apart but about having a look at them today and making small changes to improve.”
Knowing that both horses were new to the electric environment, Hester complimented both Bachli and Simons on their riding.
“It is always smart to ride in contact prior to stretching on young horses, to see how they react to the environment,” he said. “Safety always comes first but particularly with youngsters.”
Simons and her powerfully moving horse were encouraged to practice “almost walk-half transitions” in the trot to encourage balance from behind.
“He has one gear,” Hester observed. “It is a good, forward gear, but he now can be taught that there is another place to go with his body. Every horse has a swing speed. Some need to be more forward, and some need to be ridden a bit smaller to find it. Today, your horse needs to be a little smaller.”
Hester put Simons through practice in shoulder-fore to straighten her horse on the left side. “Straightness starts at this age,” he said. “I expect that 90 percent of the horses will be this way today, curled to the left.”
With Bachli, Hester spent time on transitions between trot and canter. He asked Bachli to lighten her seat a bit in the upward transition, to help the horse maintain forward balance. The transition work that Bachli demonstrated was what Hester described as “a wonderful place for all young horses to go.”
“This teaches them so much about balance and responsiveness,” he said.
Hester finished with stretching work, emphasizing its importance.
“How can you make something supple if you keep it in the same place all the time?” he asked. “This is such a good place for young horses to go.”
Third Level: Creating Power Without Rushing
Next to take the arena were third level pairs Leah Drew on JazzBeat and Katie Robicheaux on Mølgaards Rafiness.
Beginning with Drew, in the canter work, Hester noted that the horse should be “hotter in the collection [but] not more forward—let’s not confuse speed with being in front of the leg.”
The pair used canter-walk-halt transitions to better develop the half-halt and improve the connection and uphill balance.
“This horse is very obedient and willing but simply has become used to sitting in the hand,” Hester noted. “So we will change that.”
In the trot work, Hester was impressed with the talent JazzBeat showed.
“This is lovely Leah, and I could watch you trot around like that all day,” he said, adding with his trademark humor, “But you are good at that, and instead, we will work on what you are not good at.”
This brought them to some work from trot to halt. JazzBeat had discovered that stepping back to achieve a square halt was easy. To encourage him to step forward to the halt instead, Hester had Drew immediately trot or walk forward any time the horse stepped backward or sideway while halting to show him that there was only one correct direction to move. After several forward-moving corrections, he stepped forward obediently into a square and balanced halt.
“Every halt should be square” Hester said. “When you mount, dismount, halt in the beginning, middle or end of work, all halts should be square.”
With Robicheaux, adjustability took center stage. Hester focused on collecting the canter, leading to the horse being focused enough to canter almost on the spot. Hester complimented the horse’s ability to “sit” but encouraged patience while allowing the energy to lift his forehand.
He encouraged Robicheaux to create power without rushing, as they worked toward a better canter from which to develop pirouettes in the future.
“I love doing things like this,” he said. “To me, this is what dressage is about: the adjustability, the forwards and backs.”
The theme of adjustability and responsiveness continued in the trot. As Robicheaux worked to build power in the collected trot, Hester encouraged her to use a step count through the short side as a way to monitor her progress.
“Collection is power, and knowing your stride count is an effective tool to use to see if it’s going the right way,” he said.
Fourth Level: Anticipation Is Not A Dirty Word
Fourth level riders Jordan LaPlaca on Gold Play and Jocelyn Kraenzle on Shurreal next took the stage.
LaPlaca used canter-walk-canter transitions to set the stage for flying changes on his athletic horse. The transitions not only would confirm the correct aid prior to attempting a flying change but also would help the horse with balance, Hester said.
“In canter to walk, a hot horse will canter off the toe rather than to sit, supple the joint, and push off more effectively,” he said. “Once the focus is there, the work is better, and the horse will also sit more and develop more correctly.”
As LaPlaca moved to flying changes, Gold Play showed some lovely efforts as a result of what Hester described as positive anticipation.
“Anticipation is not a dirty word,” Hester said. “Some anticipation to the flying changes can be good, as surprises can cause tension. When a horse is keen and clever, anticipation can create a positive chance to improve the change itself.”
Kraenzle’s session began in the trot, with focus on keeping balance and cadence in the lateral work. Hester asked the pair to work shoulder-in to a short diagonal and back to a shoulder-in to encourage the correct angle while keeping the cadence in trot. Continuing next in half-pass, Hester suggested Kraenzle use rising trot to encourage continued swing and complimented the horse’s effort.
In canter, Hester asked Kraenzle for shorter strides and to add a “half stretch,” which allowed for better softness in this movement.
“Even if it doesn’t feel great, just stay in the movement until the horse says, ‘OK,’ he said.
After a bobble in a flying change, Hester said “make a real difference with your heels, and ask her to wait for you. She is getting ahead of your aids.” When Shurreal then did a perfect change on Hester’s exact count, the crowd sighed in appreciation.
Prix St. Georges: Progression Toward Pirouettes
Progression toward canter pirouettes was a focus with the Prix St. Georges pairs, Shannon Dueck on Angelika MW, Lauren Sammis on Heiline’s Oh Land, and—later in the day—Olivia LaGoy-Weltz with Fade To Black.
With Sammis’ slightly green mount, Hester focused on the canter half-pass and pirouette development. He emphasized that every pirouette should start and finish from shoulder fore for optimal positioning. To improve this, Hester asked for a half pass to centerline, then more collection into shoulder fore, and then back to half-pass. The exercise brought improved confidence to the horse’s balance. They then progressed to counter canter with moments of added collection to straighten the horse.
“Counter canter is an incredible tool for balance and straightness,” Hester said.
With Dueck’s more experienced mount, Hester got right into developing pirouettes, using a version of the same exercise Sammis did—half-pass to centerline, then a shoulder fore—finishing in a working pirouette in corner.
“This exercise gives the horse a good idea of what she is doing and where she is going,” he noted.
Working with Dueck on the Prix St Georges canter zig-zag, he encouraged her to ride with more precision to improve her already very good work—“X is always at X,” he joked.
Showing an example of how best to do a flying change at C, Hester asked Dueck to count her strides as she counter-cantered across the short side. Then, knowing it had been an eight-stride short side, Dueck was able to time her change perfectly.
This was an exciting session to watch, as both riders were more than capable of demonstrating quality work at and above the level. The crowd appreciated the expertise and was clearly impressed as both pairs showed exceptional talent.
Thanks to a missing shoe earlier in the afternoon, the third Prix St Georges pair, Olivia LaGoy-Weltz and Fade To Black, rode after the first group. They also worked on the progression toward canter pirouettes.
“In the collected canter, I don’t expect a 7-year-old to be on the spot, but we can make the steps quicker to make the pirouette easier,” Hester noted.
In the pirouettes, Hester advised Lagoy-Weltz to use a smaller inside leg aid. Once the horse adjusted to this change, clear improvement to rhythm and balance occurred. In the sequential changes, Hester was pleased with their straightness and energy, especially for a young horse, as well as LaGoy-Weltz’s forward riding.
Intermediaire: Straightness For Results
Up next, showcasing the Intermediaire 2, were Numberto and McKayla Hohmann.
Hester amused auditors with a tale of riding 21-year-old Numberto in his younger years, before he became the wise schoolmaster he is today, as Hohmann put the gelding through his paces in the canter.
Working on tempi changes, Hester made small adjustments to straightness with great results.
Since straightness had been a theme throughout the day, Hester took a moment to break down the steps: “Get the horse’s head in front of his chest, balance through the shoulders, and then through the middle. You’re like a plane on the runway ready for takeoff!”
As a reminder to keep the aids accurate for their one-tempi changes, Hester said, “You can’t think about what the horse is doing; you just need to continue with the aids!”
Grand Prix: It’s Still About Straightness
Rounding out the list of impressive pairs was the final rider of the day, Micaela Mabragaña riding Diamond Rosso.
Hester talked about using half-pass to improve the canter, as it requires the horse to truly stretch its body. He had Mabragaña work on the stretch both through the sideways work and through tempo adjustments in the canter. Moving to the sequential changes, when a bit of miscommunication happened in the one-tempis, Hester suggested better definition of the leg aids: “You’re on a trampoline! Your legs can’t stop moving,” he cued. “In the ones the seat has to remain down. Panic can set in, but the seat must remain in place to get the timing.”
In the working pirouette, Hester explained that the purpose is to maintain a more forward gait, more of a “working” feel than in the true pirouette. He then had Mabragaña do this by thinking of her outside leg as the accelerator to add impulsion. Once again, straightness became the focus when Mabragaña lost some organization as they went into the pirouette practice on centerline.
Hester put her through some shoulder-fore work to improve the balance before adding the pirouettes. While straightness is essential, it is hard to manage, even at the highest level.
“Don’t fall left! Don’t fall right! Or left again! And Mica, tomorrow, no drinking at lunch,” Hester joked with her.
The takeaway message from this packed day was that no matter what level you ride, all the work can be improved by honing in on the basics. Straightness and responsiveness are paramount to the success of the movements, and the changes that were seen because of the improvements was clear. The session concluded with much applause, and a group of auditors eager to learn more on Day 2.
Check back tomorrow for a recounting of Carl Hester’s second day at the NEDA symposium.