I vividly remember sitting in the crowd and openly weeping with friends when Charlotte Dujardin won the FEI World Cup Final (Las Vegas) on her illimitable Valegro with a killer freestyle in 2015. I remember thinking she had to be this magical, perfect rider with a partnership that just naturally happened due to good coaching and a good horse.
I didn’t have much of an understanding of upper-level dressage (and still don’t, actually!) and focused mainly on watching upper-level eventing the previous 15 or so years. As a matter of fact, I can name 12 four-star events where I sat and watched 70-plus dressage rides over two days with nary a blink. Personally I think that qualifies me as a super hero who should be wearing my underwear on the outside of my breeches, but that’s for another story.
To say I did not understand—truly understand—the level of dedication and work it takes to reach the highest levels of dressage goes without saying.
Over the past two years thanks to friends who are more interested in learning a good canter pirouette than cantering down to a horse-eating trakehner, and the career-ending injuries and unexpected deaths of my own hopeful entrants back into the eventing scene, I’ve started focusing more on making my egg-shapes into something closer to circles rather than galloping over fixed objects.
I recently found myself on the receiving end of a wonderful purpose-bred 4-year-old dressage horse. A mare I’d met as a yearling and thought “holy.bajeezus.” The ears alone would melt any heart, the temperament the most perfect.
And so I jumped into pure dressage and headed into the world of REAL rhythm, balance, straightness and a universe of circles and more circles and even more circles. And that’s how I ended up at the Charlotte Dujardin Masterclass put on by SH Productions at the Georgia International Horse Park on Nov. 24. I tell you all of this to preface this write-up as someone who has barely scratched the surface of understanding of dressage. Be gentle with me!
It is fun going into a clinic not knowing anything about what you are about to see, and I was absolutely not disappointed.
Dujardin has a voice and is not afraid to use it. She looks like sweetness and light, but she very well might be the George Morris of dressage—a take-no-excuses type who insists on proper riding EVERY moment and not quitting until it is done right.
The clinic began with two 4-year-olds in the ring—both very different in type—one small and powerful and mature looking and the other much larger framed and lanky with room to grow into himself.
Dujardin began by explaining that she doesn’t typically compete her 4-year-olds, but she will take them to shows and demonstrations to expose them to the show life.
“Young horses can be a little disappointing at times,” she said. “When you go into the arena and your horse sees something it’s petrified of, you can make a lot of mistakes, and that’s it if it’s your only horse to ride.”
She went on to explain that taking them on field trips to get them used to seeing different sights is important, as just taking them to a show where horses are coming at them in the warm-up can be overwhelming when they don’t school with other horses at home.
“You are trying to always have a good experience,” she said. “Even if they are a little silly or naughty in the arena they go back in the warm-up, and [you] just stretch them or work them until you feel they have that relaxation and put them back away on the lorry.”
Dujardin only works her own 4-year-olds for 20 minutes at the most. She concentrates on not overworking them, as it risks making them stiff and sore once they start to tire and then introduces the possibility of injury. She emphasized that the difficulty in having only one horse to ride is the struggle not to overdo it.
The first things she concentrates on is rhythm in the gaits and introduction to contact, making note of how the horse feels in the mouth, recognizing that some horses are naturally quite strong in the hand and others light. Dujardin said she would rather have a horse who was heavy in the hand versus light as you can teach a heavy horse to be lighter, but it’s much harder to convince the lighter horses to take the contact.
When looking at young prospects Djuardin concentrates first on the character of the horse. Her horses need to want to work and do the job. She then looks at the walk and canter, which she considers the most important.
“Everybody is always saying ‘wow’ about the trot or, ‘Oh that one’s a bit boring,’ but a flashy trot is not important,” she insisted. “As you start to train, a normal trot can look very spectacular, and as you teach suspension you can affect the trot. A good walk and canter are very important.”
As the young horses trotted around, Djuardin remarked that one had a bit more experience and was a little better in the rhythm and movement, but it didn’t necessarily mean one would make it farther than the other. The other, larger horse simply needs more time to mature and become strong enough to carry himself in a balance. She’s a big believer in working young horses like this for a few months and then turning them out for a while as they grow and change shape. “Physically and mentally it’s so good for them to have that break,” she said.
As the young horse session wore down and the next rider came in Djuardin discussed teaching a horse to react to the leg appropriately. “What happens when I touch it with my leg?” she asked. “I don’t want to keep the horse going with my legs. I teach the horse straight away that when my leg goes on, he must go forward. I release my leg, and the horse must stay without me having to overwork it.”
She warned riders to not fall into the trap of, “It’s 4, and I have to help him along,” because this habit affects the foundation of your training.
As the 5-year-old began working Dujardin zeroed in on being an effective rider and “getting all the knowledge you can into this horse correctly, particularly all the transitions and teaching the horse to go forward. Everybody is all about doing the tricks, but I will tell you, the tricks are the easy part—anybody can do the tricks. But what makes the tricks so special and gives you the higher marks in competition is all the work put into basic training.”
As the horse and rider worked in the ring, Dujardin began asking for a more forward pace. She went on to explain that a young horse has its entire life to learn collection, and that we as riders don’t ride forward enough.
As the rider struggled to get as forward as Dujardin was asking for, she shouted an enthusiastic, “GO! GO! You got it! Kick the horse! Use your legs! Go for a gallop! Go for a yeehaw! Get out of the ring and go for a fun romp!”
She said you must create the forward movement and capture that positive energy to form the proper balance. Too much forward or going forward too quickly forces the balance out and down. She encouraged riders to have the horse come up and round in the contact for short periods of time as keeping the horse up in the bit too long can create a stiff, sore and unhappy horse. They aren’t used to being in this frame, so bring them up in the bridle for short periods and then let them down to stretch and relax over the back.
As this horse and rider got truly forward, the ample crowd hooted and hollered in celebration, and I’m sure we all were thinking the same thing: We’d all been there, thinking we were going SO fast, but the reality is that we were putting eight strides in a five. (You can take the girl out of the event world, but you know the rest!)
This rider on a sizable and huge-moving horse looking visibly worried as Dujardin encouraged, “MORE! BIGGER! Go FASTER! GOOOOOOOO!!!! Use your legs, and GOOOOOOOO! Breathe! GALLOP! Let LOOSE! GALLOP MORE! and GO! GOOOOOOOO!!! GO MORE! Are you breathing? Have you ever gone that fast before? That’s it! Very good! THAT is your working canter! You are going to have to sweat a little up there!”
The effect of the good natured cajoling from a very determined Dujardin was remarkable. The horse transformed in front of the crowd, and Dujardin exclaimed, “Your horse can’t believe his luck! He’s saying, ‘Thank you, Charlotte!’ ”
Every auditor in that ring was sitting in the tack with her. Wanting to kick, maybe a little worried about kicking this big moving horse, and relieved when she did kick, and it worked out swimmingly. I saw a few silent thank yous for this rider getting out there and being human and allowing all of us to learn while she had a bit of a tough go of it.
Once forward was better installed on this pair Dujardin began working on the downward canter-walk transition. She explained that the balance of the canter needed to be able to change from the forward working canter to the collected canter—collected enough that someone should be able to walk alongside, and then “keep thinking walk with the reins and canter with the legs.” Several attempts at a canter-walk transition, and the point was made—keep coming forward into the walk, don’t stop the movement—use two legs, two reins, stay straight.
This pair’s homework was to do lots of these half-halts—rebalancing the horse without holding all within one stride and working on installing a more consistent forward canter. Without these aids installed one cannot do a proper canter-walk transition, and it’s exceedingly important as it’s the very first movement a judge sees. “If you cannot come into the ring with a good canter-halt, that judge is already thinking, ‘Oh my God’, so everyone needs to think about that.”
Check back soon to read all about the upper-level clinic participants.