Feb. 28—Wellington, Fla.
The audience at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival showgrounds on Wednesday night got a two-for-one bargain when they bought tickets for a masterclass with Carl Hester.
Sure, they got to watch the British gold medalist teach six different horse-and-rider pairs at six different levels in the sport, from a 5-year-old all the way up to a Grand Prix horse. They got to hear Hester talk about training world record holders and gold medalists Valegro and Charlotte Dujardin. But that’s all to be expected from an event with this title. The bonus the audience received was plenty of comic relief from the famously hilarious Hester.
Consider this story he told about the importance of teaching a horse to relax:
“You think about one of these really big shows, the warm-ups are fairly quiet, and then you go through these curtains, and suddenly you’re in front of 5,000 people,” Hester said. “And you have 45 seconds to walk and trot and canter by the gate, and then what’s the first thing you have to do in the test? Stand still.
“And when a horse doesn’t stand still or comes above the bit and looks at something, most of the people in the crowd go, ‘Oh, how tense, how terrible, how awful,’ ” Hester continued, pausing to grin at the crowd. “Well come on in and have a go! It’s not easy to get that relaxation. I’m sure there are lots of people who can win medals with the relaxation they have in their test at home, but only three win them at the show.”
It was two parts dressage and one part stand-up show, and given the standing ovation Hester received it’s safe to say the crowd appreciated both performances. No videoing of the event was allowed but the Chronicle was on the ground to catch any and all bits of wisdom Hester had to offer.
Hester On Young Horses
The first student in the ring was Søren Wind riding 5-year-old gelding Just Perfect. It was a unique opportunity to watch someone with Hester’s level of expertise train a young horse and discuss what he looks for in his young stock and how he measures their progress.
Hester started simply, asking Wind to practice shortening and lengthening the horse’s canter on a circle to work on the horse’s contact.
“I would like to start to balance the horse on contact, so I can begin to find out what kind of temperament the horse has before I start asking him to change his frame,” Hester said. “We have to be able to stretch him, collect him, bend him and straighten him. If there is anything you need to remember from this masterclass it’s those things—you think about using those exercises when you train, and then you’ll know you’re getting your horse through, supple and using himself.”
This particular horse had a big medium trot, which was great, but Hester wanted the rider to work on the other end of the pace spectrum.
“You always have to do the opposite of what you have,” Hester said. “A big trot needs to learn to be little, and a little trot needs to learn to be very big.”
Hester spent a good portion of Wind’s lesson getting him to stretch Just Perfect’s pace and frame out longer, lower and more relaxed before collecting it back and stretching again.
“This part may seem boring, but you have to do it,” Hester said. “If you remember the word gymnastic you’ll remember you have to stretch and collect to get the elasticity.
“If I pulled one of you out here and said, ‘Put your leg behind your head,’ and I took your leg and forced you to do it, if you’re not used to that you can imagine how painful that is,” Hester said. “We can all be trained to do that, but stretching and collecting correctly takes quite a lot of time.”
It’s not just young horses that need to learn to stretch properly—Hester told the trainers in the audience to make their students know how to ride a good stretch as well.
“When the stretch was first introduced for the juniors I watched 84 tests at this show, and I saw 84 versions of stretching your horse,” Hester said. “Some that came off the bit, above the bit, some put their nose forward and stretched, a couple nearly fell over. It’s introduced, and it’s in there so that even at this level they learn to ride correctly; it’s not just hold your horse on the bit.”
Hester also cautioned riders against measuring the success of their young horses by ribbons won in their divisions.
“Some horses are made to be young horse winners; some are not young horse winners but will be Grand Prix horses,” Hester said. “So just because you take a 5-year-old out and they’re not a winner doesn’t mean they won’t be a Grand Prix horse. Some of the best Grand Prix horses we’ve had have not been successful in the young horse classes.”
Hester said even Valegro struggled with the stretching exercise.
“With Valegro, that horse took until he was 7 or 8 to stretch properly, and even then it was an issue,” Hester said. “You always have to be looking toward the future; you have to stretch them even more because they want to be up.”
An Exercise For Improving Flying Changes
In a different lesson, Hester helped a young rider, Rakeya Moussa on Davidoff van het Trichelhof, school flying changes and tempis. Moussa said her horse has a tendency to swing in the changes.
“What corrects a crooked change is more forward riding,” Hester said. He directed Moussa to canter on the rail, collect the canter, do a few steps of medium canter followed by a single flying change before collecting the canter and beginning it all over again.
“He’s constantly being put on his hind legs,” Hester said. “You can see how it changes the horse’s expression in the changes. He has to learn to jump forward and not jump sideways.”
Hester directed Moussa to use her whip in tandem with her leg and took the opportunity to explain proper whip usage to the audience.
“The whip is not to get the horse going, it’s to get him to react,” Hester said.
Most of the lesson was spent in this exercise rather than actually doing tempi changes, and for Hester that’s the whole point.
“The horse can obviously do the tempi changes, but we’ve got to make them better,” Hester said. “This is an exercise to make them better.”
A Funny Aside About The Outside Leg
In one lesson Hester reminded Chase Shipka on Ziggy to keep turning in the canter from the outside leg, and he turned to address the audience with a story.
“We have this really great jockey in England, he’s won everything there is to win, he’s been knighted, and when he retired he wanted to do a dressage demonstration,” Hester said. “And he said, ‘Carl, can I have a Grand Prix horse and do the demonstration?’
“I said, ‘OK, are you going to come have a go before the competition?’ And he says he’s going to have one lesson,” Hester continued. “So when he came I said, ‘What would you like to do in the demonstration?’ He said, ‘I’d like to do a flying change and some piaffe.’
“So we told him to canter down the wall and come across the diagonal and do a flying change,” Hester continued. “But when someone rides in the races, they’ve never really put their leg on a horse. He just stands up, gallops like hell and wins everything.
“He went down the long side, came out of the corner pulling the left rein, and the horse never turned. He just cantered down the wall with his head like this,” Hester continued as the crowd laughed. “That’s what happens when someone doesn’t use their outside leg. The point of the story is you have to turn the horse from the outside.”
Hester also issued a reminder about the inside leg.
“Sometimes when you use too much inside leg, the horse pushes the other way,” Hester said. “Your inside leg is a post for him to bend around, but don’t be so strong with it that he’s afraid to move around it.”
Borrowing From Other Disciplines
Hester doesn’t limit his equine experiences to the world of dressage—he talked about two different bits of advice he’s picked up from other equestrian sports.
The first was when he was encouraging a rider, Austin Webster, to help his horse, Abercrombie TF, have a better, swinging walk. First Hester instructed him to encourage the walk from his seat and not all from his lower leg because simply using leg would create a more up and down walk when what the rider needed was a more ground-covering gait.
“I know Thoroughbreds are very different from warmblood horses, but whenever I’m at the races I watch the horses walking in the paddock,” Hester said. “I try to think of that walk when I ride—a horse that’s really full of impulsion. They can really walk, the Thoroughbreds, they get the full swing of it.”
The second lesson Hester picked up from the sport of eventing, and it was a reminder to dressage riders not to school any one movement for a particularly long period of time.
“A lot of the event riders will tell you as they’re building up their fitness work, they go and do a four-minute canter and give the horse a break, a five-minute canter, and you give a horse a break,” Hester said. “But a dressage rider will get into canter and canter for 10 minutes when they’re doing something. It’s not the same kind of canter as the event canter obviously, but it is exertion, and we have to be careful not to over-school the horse.”
Don’t Forget Dressage Is A Journey
We leave you with this final bit of advice from Hester. It came from his lesson with Webster, who was working on the piaffe and passage with his small tour horse. Hester encouraged him to not simply think about the movement he was getting in the moment but rather the movements he could be getting a year from now.
“Generally if nothing’s gone wrong, and you’ve had your horse since he was 4, you’ve taken five years to get the horse to this point, and now you have eight years to get the horse better,” Hester said. “So you have to know how much you want to ask of the piaffe or passage at this stage because it’s just little bits and pieces we’re building on.”