So just what makes Charlotte Dujardin so good? Sure, she’s sitting on nice horses, but how did she become such a dominant player in the dressage world? As her Nov. 24 Masterclass held at the Georgia International Horse Park in Conyers proved, there’s no magic, just discipline, and lots of it.
As the session with the lovely horse Hero came to a close, Dujardin once again stressed the importance of pushing the horse more forward, even when stretching.
As the rider began her stretch the tempo slowed, and Dujardin said:
“Go forward. Use your legs! Just because you’re stretching doesn’t mean you’re going back to 2 miles per hour!”
Compared to the younger horses, Hero is more advanced in his ability to stretch—he was able to come out to the buckle yet still be pushing—so Dujardin wanted the rider to have purpose in the stretch. “When you go too slow, it’s not really pushing,” she said. “You have to think more about riding from the back end to the front end.”
As the next rider finished warming up, Dujardin used her to drive home a point about fancy-moving youngsters. She asked the rider to do just a regular trot around the arena. “If you were to look at this horse, obviously this is what you see when you are out back [warming up]. You see a nice trot. Easy, swinging. Is it special or spectacular? No. OK now pick up the reins.”
As the rider picked up the reins the trot became more active and had more suspension. “And you can see she’s already taught the horse to have suspension in the trot, so now she just sits and puts a bit of lift in, and the horse steps up in the frame,” Dujardin continued. “She can now create what we call suspension. So she’s lifting the horse up rather than riding the horse forward; she can make small half-halts for more expression in the trot. As he gets older and stronger that becomes higher and bigger. So what she’s got to do now is create regularity so the suspension stays the same.”
After a good trot warm-up Dujardin had the rider work on travers. “Travers is a really good exercise to get the horse supple,” she said. “Put the horse’s hip in from the left leg, bend the horse around the right leg and stretch on the outside.”
The rider had to ride a travers to shoulder-fore and half-pass in preparation for the next exercise, introducing flying changes. Dujardin usually starts introducing changes at 5 or 6 years old, but she emphasized that it’s important to have a quality collected canter first. She had the rider work on a figure-eight on the short side, which is how she introduces all horses to flying change.
“A lot of people try it on a short diagonal or across the school; it encourages the horse to run forward and away from the aid and away from the rider,” she said. “They speed up, and the horse is no longer on the hind legs, so the horse launches forward, does the change and is late behind. IF you do this on this [short] figure-eight and think about flicking from one side to another, count the rhythm and ask, it pretty much happens.
“If they make a mistake it doesn’t matter,” she continued. “Worst thing you can do is tell the horse off. If it makes a mistake, repeat the exercise. Sometimes a horse is lazy on the leg aid. I’d use the whip and leg at the same time. As I ask for the aid, I use the whip to flick it over. The stride you ask is the stride you have to hold the horse back. So you bounce, bounce, bounce, ask, and you pretty much get the change.”
Once a horse knows a flying change, Dujardin only works them on the wall, never on the diagonal unless it’s just before a competition. “When you teach a flying change, there will always be at the beginning one side that is weaker,” she said. “The horse will create a swing or a jump on that side. So the side that it jumps to is the side you put on the wall, to stop the horse from swinging from one side to another.”
After a bit of a walk break Dujardin had them canter in travers down the wall while maintaining an uphill balance, concentrating on flexion and bending. She asked for a bit more collection, bend and angle without letting him slow. As for the rider, her instructions were: right shoulder goes back, right hip allowing him to go forward down the line, so you’re sitting into the right stirrup and weight into the inside. With the left leg push the hip in more and bend him around right leg more.
Then Dujardin had the rider circle her on the centerline, keeping it at 20 meters, then rode travers on the circle without making it smaller, sitting on your bum to the inside. “Think about bending him up and over the right leg.” She then sent her out to “go large” to the centerline with half-pass to the right, then put her into the previous short figure-eight exercise with the changes. After successfully executing the changes she asked the rider to come off the wall and try a change on the quarter line.
“The preparation must be correct—the trick is the easy part,” said Dujardin, along with the ever-present riding mantra: “Less hand, more leg!”
Dujardin said when you’ve got a talented horse you’ve got to look after him a little bit and do less—working on suppleness and straightness and not always riding the movements. She phrased it as, “Riding him like you can always go into the half -pass rather than actually riding the half-pass.”
The next rider was on an 8-year-old doing Prix St. Georges, and Dujardin described how she usually starts her work session after warming up. “I start with my canter, as I feel the trot work is much easier after the canter,” she said. “You’ve made the horse more supple in the canter, and it really helps doing the canter first. Some horses who are on the hot side I might do a trot first, but a majority I start with the canter work.”
Once again they began in travers, and Dujardin explained that half-pass is essentially travers on a diagonal line, so if you can ride a good travers down the line you’ll be able to do a good half-pass. “I always imagine that diagonal line as I come into a half-pass as the wall, with the wall being on my outside, and I’m riding along the wall on my diagonal line.”
All of this was set-up for teaching the canter pirouette. Dujardin said riders should avoid riding the movements the same as you would in a test as horses learn to anticipate what you are going to do. Dujardin said, “You’re going to do half-pass from the corner to X, down the centerline shoulder-fore, a half 10-meter travers straight back into half-pass.”
I was relieved to see the rider look at Dujardin with the same “OHMYGODWHATDIDSHESAY” look I felt. “That’s OK; I’ll walk you through it,” she said.
Dujardin encouraged this rider to make it flow and said the rider’s job is to keep her shoulders slightly in front to enable the front legs to turn around the hind legs and go straight into half-pass.
“What you see a lot of riders do when they come into a pirouette, they come in quarters leading, and then they push so much with the outside leg that the pirouette ends up spinning round because the horse gets stuck, so the shoulders don’t come in front,” she said.
After completing the exercise successfully several times, Dujardin had the rider walk, but not before she insisted on quality transitions even when giving the horse a break.
“It’s about having discipline all the way up the levels,” she said. “Not letting it fade out because you start introducing other bits and pieces. The discipline has to be there the WHOLE time.”
Dujardin insists on proper work. No magic, no tricks, just proper work, every single time, every single transition.
Dujardin said when one gets to Grand Prix, the coefficient in a lot of the canter work is times two—the pirouette, the zigzags and the changes— so good canter is very important. She stressed not doing the test movements all the time and instead doing exercises to keep the horse supple and moving in front of the leg. You keep the horse fresh by working on the many trots one needs—the working trot, the collected and the extended trot—because many riders get stuck working in one trot.
The final horse to come in was Rocazino, who was working towards Grand Prix. As the rider warmed up Dujardin went on to describe what a work session for their horses looks like on a daily basis.
“They do four days a week in 45-minute sessions. Carl [Hester] and I both have a rider that will warm the horses up,” she said. “They all go for a long 10-15 minute walk first, then 10 to 15 minutes stretching. We try to keep the advanced horses going to a water treadmill twice a week, as it’s a great way to keep fitness without the pressure on the joints and the body. Before traveling to competitions they start upping the treadmill work about a month out.”
The rider said the canter zigzag was a work in progress, so Dujardin started her with a canter leg yield. “It isn’t something you ever see in a test, but it’s a really good exercise to get the horse to go sideways and get the angles much steeper [as preparation for the zigzag],” she said. “The zigzag might look easy, but I can tell you it is not. The angles are very, very steep. By using the leg yield it really helps the horse move away from the leg.”
Once they began the zigzag, Dujardin reminded her, “You’ve got to think of each stride bouncing and not going long and flat, because the longer and flatter you make it the harder it is to go back over. Each stride you make is bounce, bounce, bounce and change.”
Once the rider successfully performed this movement there was a grand cheer from all of us, who had been riding along by proxy. It was a fun movement to ride on such a nice horse from my folding chair!
“When you’re working on the Grand Prix movements you cannot do these movements every day,” Dujardin stressed. “One, you don’t school the same exercises as you do in a test, and two, you don’t do pirouette, piaffe and passage all in the same day. You have to come out and have a plan before your session. It’s like going to the gym and doing something really difficult and knowing you have to go back and do the same exact thing—you don’t want to go. It’s the same thing with horses; you’ve got to keep the work easy and fresh rather than drilling them and trying to keep doing it to the point where they get sick of doing it.”
When they began pirouette work Dujardin asked this rider to do travers to shoulder-fore, using the left leg to keep her horse up off the inside leg. The inside leg is the one that drives the horse forward and around. What a lot of people do is put their leg back and drive from the outside leg, which pushes the horse so far in that the horse takes over and spins round. “You’ve got to think about bringing the horse up and around with your inside leg not your outside leg. That’s why the exercise from the previous horse is so valuable,” she said.
The rider did the same exercise as the prior session to help with the pirouette, and Dujardin pointed out the issue. “You did your pirouette so small with quarters in that he’s stuck. You’ve got to think of moving the shoulders around and out,” she said. “You have to start, small start and big finish. You’ve got to keep that inside hind under the horse’s tummy (think positioning for shoulder-fore). You’ve got to think of the outside rein not just pulling to the left because if you pull left he will fall left. Think shoulder-fore to keep the horse upright, then turning the horse’s shoulders with two reins.
“The pirouette takes a lot of preparation, a lot of control, and a lot of riding off of your inside leg. Easy!” she joked.
Dujardin went on to describe how physically demanding work like this is on a horse. Looking at slow motion video or photos shows the fetlocks nearly on the ground due to the strain placed on the horse. This is why you can’t school this type of work every day—it is all about preserving the horses and getting them to last.
“This is the reason we retired Valegro when we did,” she said. “He was 16 when he retired. He did his first Grand Prix at 9 and had no injuries throughout his career and finished at the top of his game. He’s at home; he’s still ridden. The girls get to ride him and learn piaffe and passage, so for me that’s really what it’s all about. That takes horsemanship.
“I remember Isabell Werth saying to me at [the Rio Olympics], ‘Why are you retiring him?’ And I said, What else have I got to prove? He’s held all three world records and won everything there is to win!’ ” Dujardin continued. “I know why it was; it was because she was coming out with Bella Rose, and she so desperately wanted to beat me, of which, I would never let her beat me. I’m as much as a fighter as she is, and she is a fighter!”
I’ll end it here with my impressions overall of this clinic. (Remember I’m a neophyte!) I found it hugely educational and quite demystifying, actually. There is no magic to Dujardin’s brilliance, only really hard work through perfect practice. While nothing she said was at all surprising, it’s so inspiring to hear and see training methods succeed right in front of your eyes without gadgets, shortcuts or even tricks.