So I had promised a while back to provide periodic training updates on Gus's new program and I'm happy to report it's going well. As I'm sure you all know, the training process isn't a straight line from A to B - far from it!
The biggest challenges initially were to get Gus moving really freely forward and learning to balance his weight better off the forehand. He made huge progress over the first few weeks, then hit a bit of a wall as muscle fatigue and a touch of Belgian draft stubbornness set in.
Now we're past that wall and back in a progress phase where every day seems to come with a big breakthrough. He's feeling fitter, his balance has improved enormously and with that so has the quality of his gaits. It's exciting to get glimpses of the horse he will be six months or a year from now. While he's never going to be a world-class FEI horse that's ok - I'm never going to be a world-class FEI rider either! ;-)
I know another plateau is lurking around the corner so I'm enjoying this fun phase while it lasts.
On my end, I'm still struggling to improve both my fitness and my position. These aren't exactly new issues, as every coach who has ever taught me will tell you! But they are slowly getting better, and the difference in how Gus goes when I am steady and strong in my position is really noticeable. (Again, something every coach I've ever had is saying to themselves "I told you so!" right now). I'm also learning to focus on the positives from each lesson, rather than over-analyzing the negatives and dwelling on them.
I hope you are all enjoying your horses this summer and making progress on your own journey, whatever your goals are.
Onwards and upwards!
It was my great pleasure to spend this past weekend scribing all three days for the Spring Dressage Jubilee at Caledon Equestrian Park. Thankfully I scribe much better than I ride, and always enjoy the chance to watch dressage and learn from the judge I'm paired with. There's no better way to realize what you do wrong in your own tests than sitting at C and watching dozens of rides from the judge's perspective.
Three days is a LOOOOOONG time to spend locked in a a tiny hut with a stranger, so when scribing for a multi-day show it's important to choose your judge wisely. The right judge not only makes the experience educational, but also fun. Luckily I was matched with Rene Huyge, a true gentleman with a great sense of humour who never seemed to mind answering my countless questions during breaks and generously encouraged me to develop my eye,
I've got some overall thoughts about the show to share, along with some specific tips and tricks for riding a better test - things we all know but somehow fail to remember when we enter the ring at A.
The fact this show even exists goes in the "good" column. Kudos to EMG Group for taking over the running of these shows and ensuring Ontario dressage riders have the opportunity to compete at this world-class facility.
Over three days I saw horses and ponies of all shapes, sizes, colours and breeds, and riders of all ages and abilities. Dressage is for every horse and the entries this weekend reflected that - from Western dressage and National Pony Cup classes, to Walk Trot through Grand Prix.
Looking at test sheets from all the different rings, it was great to see judges using the full spectrum of marks. There were 9s and there were 2s, sometimes on the same test!
It was disappointing to learn that the level of volunteer support needed to run a big show like this just wasn't there. Kudos to the many CEP staff members who gave up their weekend and stepped in at the last minute to help. Aside from the very busy pros and coaches, I think almost everyone at the show, either competing or supporting a rider, could find the time to volunteer a few hours over the weekend to run tests, hand out ribbons, or add up scores. This is probably a topic for a blog post of its own - what would it take to get you to volunteer? Would a discount on future entries help? Any other incentives? If you haven't volunteered at a show, why not? This issue goes far beyond this one competition to every show across Canada.
I saw very little ugliness at all during the weekend - no rough riding, no abusive coaching, lots of positive support from fellow competitors. As much as I love sitting in the booth though, the experience always makes me relieved to not be skilled enough to judge. So much pressure and so many factors go into assigning every score!
If you get a score you don't feel you deserve don't take it personally. It's one moment in time and it's based on what the judge saw in that moment. Another judge may see the same thing and mark it quite differently. That's part and parcel of a subjectively judged sport, unfortunately.
While some judges do mark lower overall than others, I can say with 100% confidence that every judge wants to give a good score. They want to see you ride for an 8 or a 9 and are disappointed when a bobble or mistake brings that mark down to 5 or 6. Every judge I've ever scribed for has rooted for each rider to succeed.
Tips and tricks for better scores
Test after test I saw riders losing marks for simple mistakes - the same mistakes I make when I go into the ring too. Especially at the lower levels, accuracy is EVERYTHING, as there's not much else to be judged on. Pay attention to the details as much as you can and your scores will go up.
Find centre line and try to stay on it. Sounds obvious but you'd be amazed how many people enter at A two metres off centre line and stay there.
Use your corners well. If a movement starts at F or H, for example, use the corner before to ensure you begin the movement right at the letter. If you start your diagonal line or shoulder-in three strides past F, you're giving away marks.
Get to X. In all the tests with loops to X and back to the rail, perhaps 3 or 4 riders actually hit X. This is one error which is glaringly obvious from C so really pay attention when in the show ring - chances are your ring at home is a slightly different size and it may not feel quite the same, especially with all the distractions of show day.
Circles don't have corners. Sounds obvious too doesn't it? Really work to show a difference between the arc of the circle and the corner when you are going large - this will also help with your circle size and shape.
Circles have to be not only the prescribed size, but also placed correctly. A 20m circle at B or E can't go all the way to the P-V line. Find a marker on the fence that’s at the outside point of the circle and use it as a guideline.
Free walks and stretchy trot circles need to show way more stretch than I imagined. Watching your test videos back can be helpful here - personally I’m always surprised that what I thought FELT like a good stretch was actually quite minimal when I watch it after.
Go forward - really forward! Especially at the lower levels, having that energy and activity often is the difference between a 6 and a 7 or even higher. It also really helps with a spooky or looky horse.
Use your time before the bell wisely. Again, this is a great time to really make your horse go forward and not give them time to spook or get distracted. Canter if it helps get your horse energized. It’s also a great time to find your markers on the rail that will help you ride the most accurate test possible.
Don’t sweat it if things go wrong. Riding at shows is not like riding at home and sometimes the easiest things at home become nearly impossible to achieve in the show ring. Judges and scribes have seen every mistake under the sun and they have nothing but empathy for riders when they just aren’t having a good day.
If there's one thing I know about the internet, it's that people will get offended over anything. And apparently I ruffled a few feathers by using the phrase "just riding' in my previous post. Let me be perfectly clear. There is absolutely nothing wrong with just riding if that's what you want to do. But there is a difference between just riding and dressage.
If all you want to do is brush your horse and feed it carrots, that's a-ok too. But if you WANT to do dressage and you're struggling to enjoy your rides, get help from a skilled pro. If you WANT to get to FEI Levels, but have never ridden or trained a horse past First Level, please get help from a skilled pro. If you WANT to progress up the levels but can't seem to get past Training Level after years of trying, for goodness sake, get help from a skilled pro.
Now that we've cleared that issue up, what should you look for in a pro?
Like most people, I tend to use the terms "coach" and "trainer" interchangeably. Everyone's needs are different but most struggling riders will get the greatest benefit from working with someone skilled at both riding / training the horse themselves and teaching us how to ride / train the horse.
I talked to a number of different riders, trainers, coaches and students to come up with this list. Some (like #1) might seem obvious, but you'd be surprised by how many people call themselves a "dressage trainer" despite having little to no dressage experience at all. The list is by no means definitive; feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments below!
1. Understand the difference between a riding instructor and a dressage trainer. There are lots of talented instructors out there but before promoting themselves as a trainer who specializes in dressage, someone should have successfully TRAINED multiple horses THEMSELVES up the levels. To what level will depend somewhat on your own goals, but most of the people I've talked to agree that Third Level is a reasonable minimum standard.
2. The horses they train and the riders they teach should consistently move up the levels. The easiest way to verify progress is through show scores and most recognized shows will list the trainer on the results sheet, if you want to do a little anonymous Google research first. However, a reputable trainer should have no problem sharing verifiable results with potential clients. Showing isn’t everything and there are obviously many good coaches who don’t compete, for a variety of reasons. Without competition results, however, it’s tough to verify someone’s claim of training multiple horses to FEI levels, or to identify a clear and consistent pattern of students progressing up the levels.
3. Choose someone whose experience matches your goals. If your goal is Grand Prix, it doesn't make sense to train with someone who has never ridden anything higher than a Third Level test, does it? If your goal is to compete, then choose a trainer who is not only successful in the show ring themselves, but whose students are successful too.
4. Find a trainer whose training program and teaching approach are a good fit for you personally. This is not a license to become an armchair expert and tell your coach which methods, exercises and gadgets they should be using, based on the latest training article or dressage forum thread you read! You're paying for their expertise and you need to trust in their methods. But their teaching schedule must work for your lifestyle. The care at their barn (if you are boarding and not just shipping in) must meet your standards. If you lack confidence or need a lot of positive reinforcement in order to learn well, a trainer with a "tough love" style of communicating may not be the ideal choice for you.
5. Choose someone who is committed to their own development as a rider and trainer. Dressage is a sport of life-long learning. A good pro recognizes that they benefit from skilled help as much as the rest of us and will regularly take lessons themselves, participate in clinics, and / or compete at shows.
6. Do your homework. Look up scores, and fact check any credentials, awards and accomplishments they claim to hold. Ask for references from past and current clients, and follow up with them.
Gus and I have recently embarked on a new training journey. It seems many of you want to hear about the struggles and progress in my quest to someday move beyond First Level, so I will be sharing some of those ups and downs here, as well as launching a blog series about coaching and training in general. What's the difference between the two? What do you look for in a good coach / trainer? Where and how do you find the right one for you? I'll explore those questions over the coming weeks, but first some general advice purely of my own inexpert opinion.
A friend of mine recently asked my thoughts on whether her horse should be getting training rides from her coach. My short answer? Yes. Not just specifically for this horse and rider, but for almost every aspiring dressage rider and their horse.
Here's a quick test for determining (in my opinion) whether a consistent pro training program would be helpful for you. Consider the following questions:
1. Are you a professional rider / trainer?
2. Do you have time to ride your horse 5-6 times per week?
3. Do you have experience riding dressage horses at the level at which you ultimately want to compete?
4. Do you have experience training horses to the level at which you ultimately want to compete?
If you answered no to any of the questions above, then yes - pro training is essential if your goals are to progress, improve your horse and move up the levels in dressage. Whether you actually compete is not really relevant in my mind, although it's the best way to ensure that you truly are progressing. Dressage is training. If you aren't improving and your horse isn't improving than you're not doing dressage; you're just riding.
Getting regular help from a pro isn't admitting defeat, or cheating, or taking a short cut. Learning from experts is how we all improve. Even Olympic riders work regularly with their trainers. It's just common sense. If your goal is Third Level, for example, but you have no experience training a horse to that level and building in him the correct musculature, way of going, suppleness, strength, and self-carriage required to then teach him the movements of that level (which you also have no experience teaching a horse) then how can you reasonably expect to achieve your goal?
And buying a horse trained to your goal level is unfortunately not a quick answer either, if you have no experience at that level, unless a skilled pro is also riding that horse and helping the rider learn. A Third Level horse can quickly become a Training Level horse in the hands of a Training Level rider with no outside help. It's simply a recipe for frustration.
Carl Hester's most valuable piece of advice when he was in Toronto for a clinic last year was to invest in the training, not the horse. Buying an expensive horse and skipping the training won't get you as far as buying an ordinary, but capable, horse and spending your money where it counts - on the training.
How much, how often and how intense that training program is will depend on your skill level, your available time, your budget (of course) and your goals. For some people, one pro ride a week in addition to lessons is enough. For others, the horse really needs three to five sessions a week with a pro. That's where Gus and I are at right now. My trainer works him 5 days a week, which may include any combination of lungeing, ring work, hill work and hacking. With my current work schedule I can usually only get to the barn three times a week. On those days we do a lesson with me riding once she has gotten him going, so I can get the idea of what correct feels like. So far it's working well and I'm delighted with the progress we've both made in just four weeks.
Stay tuned for more updates about our journey and my next post about what to look for in a dressage coach / trainer!
I posted a few behind the scenes pictures on Friday from the incredible masterclass with Carl Hester at the Caledon Equestrian Park. Here are a few more for your viewing pleasure!
My first post about Day 2 of the Carl Hester masterclass covered the young horse sessions in the morning. Once of Carl's most valuable tips from the whole weekend came during this portion of the clinic. While discussing youngsters in general, he noted his preference for buying only "cheap" horses ("cheap" to Carl is under 10,000 pounds). He noted that any young horse is a bit of a risk; spectacular gaits and conformation at 3 or 4 are still no guarantee of success at Grand Prix. Carl's advice: invest in the training. That's where you get your money's worth. That wisdom applies to every rider and every horse, particularly us amateurs who juggle riding time around the demands of jobs, families and other commitments. My advice? Take Carl's advice. Work with a good trainer consistently, both in lessons and with the trainer riding your horse, and do it as often as you can afford.
Back to the clinic recap!
Rebecca Edwards & Cosima
Carl's student Rebecca - one of Great Britain's top young riders - gave a demonstration ride on Cosima, a Holsteiner mare owned by FEI Junior rider Allie Youngdale. Cosima is much hotter and more sensitive than the gelding she rode on the Saturday, and Becky explained to the audience what she was doing and feeling while Carl put her through her paces.
She struggled at first to keep Cosima in a consistent contact and Carl had a unique solution to prevent the mare from coming against the hand - one my own coach Debbie often has me try whenever I'm tempted to get in a pulling battle with Gus. He took away her curb rain and asked her to reverse the snaffle rein so that it comes over the top of the hand and down between the thumb and forefinger - what's called a "driving rein" by some. Rebecca noted she felt an immediate difference and the improvement in the connection and relaxation was clearly visible to the audience.
Click here for a photo of how to hold the "driving rein."
Tom Dvorak & Cyrus
Pan Am Games silver medallist Tom Dvorak has had a very successful season competing the lovely Cyrus, owned by Carla Bahr. It was a pleasure to watch this pair in the clinic as Tom skillfully executed the exercises prescribed by Carl. Feedback from Carl included:
- Tom has already established a straight, clean and correct flying change with this young horse
- To achieve 9s and 10s you have to be willing to take a risk. Ride forward, create more expression and trust your horse.
- Exercise to test knowledge and adjustability of your horse's stride - ride the short side of the arena in 8 canter strides, then 10, then 7, then 12. Tom executed each challenge flawlessly.
- Same concept using tempi changes on the diagonal, varying the number and the difficulty: 3 changes every four strides, then four 4s, seven 2s, etc. Are they placed evenly on the line? Tom is very disciplined and knows his horse well. He knows precisely where to begin his changes on the line, and how to vary it and lengthen or shorten the stride depending on the count.
- Flying change aid comes from the lower leg, not the upper body. Tom is a good example of a rider who keeps his hip down, seat down, and leg down in the change.
- Cover more ground, and take risks by making each change bigger than the canter stride
- Passage/trot/passage transitions were repeated until Cyrus was bringing his hind end underneath himself more rather than pushing the hind leg back. Improvement in the trot expression and suspension was significant following this simple exercise.
Megan Lane & Denver
The crowd was treated to its second Olympian of the day when Megan Lane entered the ring on Denver, a 9-year-old KWPN gelding owned by Deer Ridge Equestrian. In what might have been the understatement of the century, Carl commented: "Cute horse." Spectacular is a more accurate description. Megan hopes to show Denver at Grand Prix next year and he certainly has the talent, training, and superb gaits to bring her success in the international ring. Carl's comments included:
- Super canter on this horse. Quality and expression in the canter is what makes the difference between a 7 and 9 for flying changes. A better canter, like the one in this horse, results in a higher moment of suspension in the change.
- Horse has a natural ability to collect but can get slightly behind the leg in collection, pushing up and down rather than out to the hand. Transitions in and out of medium canter help keep the horse forward to the hand.
- Carl likes to teach the canter zig zag to the horse using leg yield, rather than half pass at first. Start with 4 strides in one direction, change, and 4 strides the other way, then work up to 6 strides.
- Perform the exercise in a minimum of working canter, don't collect too much.
Every movement is created in the corner, don't let the horse slow down and get behind the leg in the corner, this is where you need to go more forward.
- It doesn't take an expert to see this horse is an exceptional mover.
Brittany Fraser-Beaulieu & All In
"Presence" is the word Carl Hester used to describe All In, Brittany Fraser-Beaulieu's Grand Prix gelding. It's more than his sheer size (enormous) or the quality of his gaits (breathtaking) but a commanding presence that makes everyone in the room take notice.
Judges have noticed as well. Thanks to her back-to-back freestyle wins at Saugerties and Devon this fall, Brittany is currently the top-ranked Canadian dressage rider (#64) on the FEI world standings. Carl stated that All In was among the top 10 horses in the world. High praise for a girl from New Glasgow, NS! Some of Carl's comments as he worked to perfect their performance included:
- Brittany usually works the canter first, then trot, so Carl suggested lots of transitions forward and back in the canter.
- Tempting to override such a big powerful horse. Allow the horse to do it himself until he relaxes and starts to sit more and come down with more weight on the hind legs.
- In preparation for pirouettes, work on shoulder-in and travers on the 10m circle.
- Excellent exercise for more fluid pirouettes that don't lose the forward energy: From the corner half pass to X, pirouette at X, continue across the diagonal in half pass. All In showed some tension and stickiness in the pirouette during this exercise so Carl suggested doing two - first a regular pirouette, followed by a larger working pirouette with the neck relaxed and down.
- A good pirouette starts and ends with shoulder-in. A good shoulder-in before you begin is half the battle.
- Shoulder-in, pirouette, straight ahead, change lead, shoulder in and pirouette again, all on centre line. Excellent test of straightness and control.
- Passage work shows some 8 and 9 quality steps, but could still be be lighter and rounder.
- In walk think of pushing the horse's head and neck away from the body. (This advice was repeated in several sessions from young horses to Grand Prix. Something we should all try at home I think!)
- Walks like he's on hot coals - would like to see feet stay on the ground for just a fraction longer with each step.
- In piaffe think of very small piaffe steps with the front end to keep the shoulders lifted and the back swinging.
- Should be always using invisible moving and closing of fingers to keep the horse soft to the bit, not taking over or getting strong.
- With a light, small rider and such a big horse it's the bending that will keep him soft and ridable.
- Stretchy trot and a long walk session is crucial after an intense work session like this.
- This is a horse that is going to be representing your country.
- What is an athletic horse? We're all looking at it.
- I'm very jealous. Who wouldn't be? Exciting, lovely horse to finish up our sessions with.
I can't stop smiling. That was simply the best weekend ever, and I bet there are 1,200 other people out there who agree! Day 2 of the Carl Hester masterclass was even more spectacular than the first. We are so incredibly lucky to have a facility like the Caledon Equestrian Park, and so very fortunate that Craig Collins and his team put in the effort required to host a world-class event like this for Canadian dressage riders and fans.
I have hundreds of behind the scenes photos to go through and many tidbits to share from Carl in the days to come. But for tonight, before I collapse in an exhausted heap, here's a little recap of each session today.
Session 1 - four year olds
Andrea Bresee & Ismeaux
Erin MacQuarrie & Iron Butterfly
A super day for both these young horses. Carl had a few general tips for young horses:
- At this age stick to long lines and big circles, and don't interfere with contact too much.
- Encourage horse to reach for the bit, both in contact and in stretching trot
- Lots of stretching, lots of walk breaks
- Have a warmup plan in your head; just going around and around doesn't accomplish anything. Focus on working the topline.
- Know when to stop, when enough is enough for your particular horse. Push to the limit, but not past the limit.
Ismeaux was calm, cool and collected again today - a truly remarkable temperment in a 4-year-old. Carl's comments for Andrea included:
- In the walk, use your upper body and arms to push the horse's head and neck away from the body. Think of a rowing motion.
- already has a good walk but improves significantly once the horse relaxes
- Focus on lifting the part of the neck right in front of the wither
- When the horse wants to curl behind the bridle a little, think of nose forward
- Use light touches with whip to encourage horse to push from hind end.
- Lovely horse, very willing, nice nature
Erin had a challenging couple of days Thursday and Friday trying to encourage Iron Butterfly to relax in the intimidating stadium atmosphere. The environment was simply too overwhleming for this young mare at first, so Erin made the smart decision not to overface her, opting to end their session with Carl yesterday after successfully spending a short time in the ring at a relaxed walk. The strategy worked, as her horse displayed the calm, willing nature Erin's used to seeing at home in the big ring today. Carl really appreciated that Erin travelled for 15 hours from New Brunswick for the clinic. "If I have a competition more than 90 minutes away or a start time after 4pm, I withdraw," he joked. Carl's other comments for Erin included:
- Erin set the horse up for success with her approach yesterday
- Horse looking today exactly as he likes to see a young horse go
- Good job allowing the horse to go foward into her downward transitions and find her own balance
- Nice natural rhythm but can get quick; slow down by sitting up with upper body, no need to use reins
Session #2 - Five year olds
Tina Irwin & Simsalabim
This is a very talented young mare and Carl was clearly impressed, saying several times that he'd like to take her home. He said there was nothing "man-made" about Sim's trot; she showed even, long steps, a very strong hind leg, is able to lift the shoulder up and reach in front. At this age the only element missing is the suspension, but these good mechanics now suggest she will have a lot of expression in piaffe and passage in the future. He also was very complimentary about the quality of Tina's riding, not surprising for a Pan Am Games silver medallist! Additional comments included:
- Always remember to bend from the leg, not the hand
- Don't expect perfect collection in a 5-year-old but must be forward and active with the correct rhythm
- Trot is already very good so would focus more on training the canter
- Point of trot to canter transitions is to push from behind
- Point of canter to trot transitions is to go forward to the hand with swing & rhythm
Session #3 - Six year olds
Jane Fraser & Banjo GCF
Full disclosure - I have a soft spot for this horse / rider combo. Jane and her sister Susan are legends on the east coast, and are widely credited with introducing upper level dressage to the Atlantic Provinces. They were my first dressage coaches, travelling to Newfoundland regularly to teach us - a bunch of kids on Quarter Horses who didn't have the first clue about the training scale, or what the outside rein was for. Our regular coach, Kathryn Macleod, brought Sue and Jane to the province for regular clinics and worked with them to develop training plans for each of her students. 20+ years later it was surreal to stand next to Sue today while watching Jane perform brilliantly in front of Carl Hester. Some of his comments included:
- Thrilled to see a rider who bothers to train the basics, this after Jane produced three flawless halts in a row.
- Use small walk steps into the halt to bring horse's hind legs forward
- Start with transitions on the wall to help keep horse straight, then test straightness with halts on centre line
- Ride in shoulder fore position to help horse bring hind legs closer together, as horses are naturally wider behind than in front
- Trot/halt/trot is an important exercise not only for the dressage test but because it is the foundation for future passage work
- Impressed with flying change; green but straight and correct
- Lovely horse, so trainable and willing to be helped. "I might steal him," said Carl.
Session #4 - Third & Fourth Level
Jacqueline Brooks & Emmett
Kahla Ishoy & Sakima
This pair got the benefit of sharing their sessions in order to ride both days with Carl and it was great to see the progression from one day to the next and the beginnings of higher level work such as passage.
Comments for Kahla:
- Focus on timing of the aid for flying change. If you ask once horse is already up, it's too late. Ask when he is about to come up.
- Carl noticed changed to the right weren't quite as straight. do changes along the wall to help horse stay straight.
- More forward canter will help him stay straighter as well. Keep that impulsion from the forward canter into the collected work
- Rider must define the rhythm, don't let the horse decide what it is
- Lovely, elegant rider, Carl says as the daughter of Cindy and Neil Ishoy, she was "bred to have good hands."
Comments for Jacqueline:
- This horse really benefits from rising trot, helps him get quicker off the leg
- When horse tends to get too slow, use travers to make him soft on the inside rein from the outside leg
- Started off working on flexions today so the blockages Carl noted in the canter yesterday weren't there today
- Jacquie must have dreamed about bend last night - not enough there on Saturday but much better today
- Tendency for this horse to keep neck too high and a bit back, must always work on neck long and reaching out to the hand. Improvement in Emmett's already lovely gaits was immediately noticeable when the neck softened and lengthened slightly.
- Talent for passage is clearly there, this horse finds it easier to start from a jog, then move into passage.
- Exciting horse for the future
To be continued...
Lots more to talk about including another demo ride from Carl's student Rebecca Edwards, a masterful example of how to ride the PSG from Tom Dvorak, and a stunning Grand Prix prospect ridden by Olympian Megan Lane. Last but not least, which Canadian's horse did Carl say was "better than several of the horses currently ranked the top 10 in the world?
So sorry but I've been up at 5am three days in a row, have a mountain of laundry to do, school lunches to pack and kids to tuck into bed, so you'll have to wait until tomorrow to read my thoughts on the rest of Day 2. Stay tuned!
Day 1 of the Carl Hester masterclass is done and dusted and what a day it was! More than 1,200 spectators packed the Caledon Equestrian Park and I can't imagine a single one walked away disappointed. Carl was personable and funny, able to put the riders at ease while honing in on areas needing improvement with a laser focus. Some changes were dramatic, others more subtle, but every single horse and rider demonstrated a noticeable improvement in their way of going with Carl's help.
Fair warning: I was working at the clinic in an official capacity, so sometimes work duties took me away from the ring. Though I didn't see every moment of each session, I will recap each one briefly to the best of my ability for the benefit of those who couldn't be there in person.
Session #1 - Four year olds
Andrea Bresee & Ismeaux
Erin MacQuarrie & Iron Butterfly
The four-year-olds were originally scheduled to come in together, both to give each other confidence and because Carl feels an intense 45-minute session like this is too much for most horses that age. However Erin's horse was understandably overwhelmed by the atmosphere during her practice rides and she opted to take a conservative approach to preserve her young mare's confidence. After allowing Andrea and Ismeaux time to work with Carl alone, Erin, who came with her horse from New Brunswick for the clinic, had some relaxed walk time and a little trot around the ring. With a positive experience in the ring for the horse today, here's hoping they will be able to do some work with Carl tomorrow.
Some key points from Andrea's ride:
- Young horses have different musculature than more mature horses. Ismeaux not developed yet in front of the withers, so need to ride in a way that encourages him to fill up and lift this area.
- Practice asking the young horse to lift and carry the frame for a few strides, then stretch forward and down. Repeat.
- To raise the horse's frame, bring the hands together with knuckles touching
- In the stretchy trot check whether the area in front of the withers is lifting: in this case it was.
- Horse has a lovely natural rhythm in walk, trot, and canter.
- Never push him faster than his natural "swing speed," as the horse will fall on the forehand.
Session #2 - Five year old
Maya Markowski & Something Royal
This lovely mare owned by Fiona McLellan was very calm and focused in the stadium environment. Comments from Carl:
- Complimented the horse's "easy attitude" but would like to see more reaction to the rider's leg.
- Alert the horse first with a cluck, then touch with the heel and the whip to get a reaction from the hind leg.
- With enough repetition the horse will learn to react immediately to the leg alone, without the need for cluck or whip.
- Don't ride a 5 year old horse too deep in the corners; they will lose balance
- Timing of aids for trot to canter need to be more precise, especially with a young horse
- Horse has good gaits, lovely nature and work ethic, needs to improve suppleness
Session #3 - six year old
Cecile von Martels & Captain, My Captain
Carl commented that the FEI 6 Year Old test requirements are quite demanding: shoulder in, half pass and flying changes all in self carriage. For that reason we usually only see pros such as Cecile riding this level as it is very difficult to bring a horse correctly to that level in such a short time frame. Tips from Carl:
- To learn flying changes, horse must have self carriage in a short enough canter
- Work on adjustability of canter forward to longer strides and back to shorter strides without losing balance and self carriage
- Alternate sitting and rising trot with young horses. Carl does little sitting work until horse is 6.
- Horse must learn to stand immobile and relaxed on no rein. You cannot hold the horse in place in halt.
- Carl noticed Cecile's riding idol was listed as Charlotte Dujardin and joked, "I don't think I can help you anymore."
Session #4 - Third / Fourth Level
Kahla Ishoy & Sakima
Jacqueline Brooks & Emmett Top
Spectators got two for the price of one today as Carl suggested Kahla and Jacqueline ride together both days rather than one today and one tomorrow. Great example of two stunning, talented, yet totally different young horses.
Sakima is an 8 year old Hanoverian imported from Germany and owned by Kahla's mom, Cindy Ishoy. Carl's exercises for Kahla:
- Perfect the canter to walk transitions, aiming for a 9 or 10 quality.
- Let the walk freely move after the transition from canter, stepping more forward until the horse is truly through.
- Lighten the hand on the last stride before the downward transition to maintain the canter energy into the walk
- To improve flying changes, motivate the horse's outside hind with your outside leg.
- Again work on ability to move forward and back within the gait
- Take the risk, go more forward into the change. Might make a mistake but end result is straighter, bigger, more expressive changes.
Canadian-bred Emmett Top is by Negro, making him a half brother to Valegro. Carl's comments for Jacqueline included:
- Horse "sits" so much naturally, need to encourage him to sit a little less and reach forward.
- Need to keep the wither lifted with the horse reaching out to the bit
- With such a huge canter stride, Emmett can get heavy, landing on the forehand in the flying change. Use travers and shoulder-in without allowing the horse to slow down.
- This horse is an overachiever!
- Need to help the horse carry himself with the wither up, really benefits from rider rising in the trot
Session #5 - Demonstration ride
Rebecca Edwards & Ramiro
Rebecca is an accomplished British young rider, member of their Young Rider team at the 2017 European Championship Under 25s Star the Future Award.Ses She trains with Carl and he commented that she has a similar background and shares other similarities with Charlotte Dujardin. For this clinic, Carl thought it would be interesting for the audience to see Backy ride an unfamiliar horse, and one who is not her usual type. Canadian FEI junior rider Allison Youngdale provided her lovely gelding Ramiro for the demo. Carl led Becky through several exercises while she provided commentary regarding what she was feeling, thinking, and doing to learn how to get the best out of an unfamiliar horse. Super riding from a clearly talented rising star.
Session #6 - Prix St. Georges
Vanessa Creech-Terauds & Fleur de Lys
The only Canadian young rider of the day, Vanessa more than held her own against the more experienced pros. Carl commented how impressed he was with her talent and performance. Exercises and comments for Vanessa included:
- In a hot horse the tension can sometimes enhance the expression of the gaits or, as in Fleur's case, make them a bit tight.
- Use shoulder-in on a circle to improve relaxation, pushes horse away from inside leg and horse becomes more settled on the bit.
- Want to improve pirouettes? Horse first needs to be able to canter on the spot.
- "On the spot" means still having impulsion and self carriage, but at a speed someone could walk alongside the cantering horse.
- Work forward and back within the canter, taking the lift created in the collected canter with you into the more forward canter.
- Pirouettes were well executed but need to show more suppleness and bend.
- Used forward and back exercise also to improve flying changes: 4 strides of forward canter, flying change into very collected canter almost on the spot.
- Do not neglect halts - have to perform them at the start of every test.
- Horse MUST stand still and be relaxed on a loose rein
- For square halts use small walk steps into halt to encourage horse to bring hind legs forward
- Small changes make a big difference with this horse
Session #7 - Intermediare II
Karis van Essen & Camistry J
Karis has trained this horse to the big tour herself - no small accomplishment! Carl suggested working on a couple of fundamentals which will help them at Grand Prix:
- Not using corners well, makes the ring 18x60 instead of 20x60.
- In trot first, then canter, go straight down the wall towards the corner and halt before the turn. Turn on forehand to change direction and repeat.
- Great exercise to make sure the horse is really on the aids
- Use centre line and long diagonals rather than the perimeter of the ring for shoulder-in in canter, followed by flying change at the end.
- Practicing away from the wall tests the straightness and ensures the horse is really through.
- Make the horse straight using the inside leg, not by bending the neck
Session #8 Grand Prix
Jaimey Irwin & Donegal V
This pair was an absolute treat to watch and the audience was enthralled. You could have heard a pin drop in the room. Carl was very enthusiastic about Donegal, calling him his favourite type of horse and saying he had enormous future potential. The audience clearly appreciated what they were seeing, bursting into applause at the end of each exercise. Some tips for Jaimey from Carl:
- Don't let the horse get too quick. Come out of passage slowly into a passage-y trot before on to collected trot.
- Great demonstration of how we as riders can improve the trot. Can be a bit quick and flat but use the collection to develop more suspension and swing and the trot is much more spectacular.
- Half passes were well done: lovely, quiet and fluid - making Carl's job easy
- In piaffe and in transitions from piaffe to passage, focus on keeping horse light.
- Tremendously talented horse
Tomorrow we do it all over again with several new riders to watch, including Jane Fraser who travelled with her horse all the way from Nova Scotia, Tom Dvorak, Tina Irwin, Megan Lane and Brittany Fraser. Time for me to put down the laptop and go to bed!
Check out our Instagram and Facebook feeds for some behind the scenes pictures from today. On Monday I will post a full gallery of photos from all three days. If you're at the clinic tomorrow, wave and say hi! If you can't attend, then check back tomorrow night for the rundown on Day 2.
Well that may have been the best day ever! I spent the entire day at the Caledon Equestrian Park, taking advantage of the Equestrian Canada dressage symposium in the morning, and hanging out behind the scenes in the afternoon as riders prepared for the Carl Hester clinic. I want to tell you ALL about it but hardly know where to begin. Perhaps this text I sent to a friend sums it up:
Just got home. Exhausted and my back is killing me but had an amazing day! Got to hang out with people I haven't seen in more than 20 years. Finally met and had lunch with (para dressage rider) Robyn Andrews and her mom. Spent time with Jane and Susan Fraser, who were my first dressage coaches. Watched lots of AMAZING riders and horses and chatted with Carl Hester. I can pretty much die happy now. :-)
The EC symposium was well thought out, well-run and a tangible benefit to riders of all levels who pay the dressage levy fee with their competition entries. It really deserves its own blog post and hopefully I'll have time to do one later this week, but in the meantime a couple of highlights.
The opening session saw Christilot Boylen (standing in for Belinda Trussell), Lorraine MacDonald and Cara Whitham going through the training scale and evaluating selected movements from Second and Fourth Level tests with the help of some very brave demo riders.
The second morning session was hosted by two-time Olympian Jacqueline Brooks and her freestyle designer, Tamara Williamson of Kurboom. Tamara is the creator of some of Jacquie's most memorable performances including the opera freestyle, the Hallelujah freestyle and the stunning new Sound of Silence routine which she debuted this fall. The pair shared their process for finding the right movement for each gait and modifying it to perfect the rhythm. I will post video of the ground-breaking Sound of Silence freestyle as soon as I have time to upload it. I don't believe a Grand Prix freestyle has ever been performed in competition before to a single song.
It was a treat as always to see Jacqueline riding Goose, and to witness up close just how much he loves his job. As soon as the music came on his whole demeanour changed and he was eager to perform for us.
In the afternoon, all the riders selected for the Carl Hester clinic had the opportunity to introduce themselves and their horses to Carl, and acclimatize their horses to the big ring while he observed. It was impressive how calmly the horses handled the unusual setting, even the young ones. One 4-year-old was a little overwhelmed but managed to relax by the end of her session.
Anyone going to this clinic is in for a big treat - not only for the rare opportunity to see Carl teach in person, but because the horses and riders really showcase the depth of talent in Canada we have at all levels, from 4-year-olds to Grand Prix veterans.
The day concluded with an informal meet and greet / cocktail reception for Carl and the riders. Everyone keeps asking me, "What is Carl really like?" From my observations this afternoon and a brief chat with him at the reception, I'd say he's exactly what we've seen in interviews and on TV: warm, personable, funny, and very down to earth.
The biggest - and possibly best - news of the day came at the reception, where Equestrian Management Group head Craig Collins announced that EMG would be running dressage shows at Caledon Equestrian Park next summer, with plans for one of them to be a 3* CDI. This is a welcome relief to GTA dressage riders and fills the void left when Cornerstone announced 2017 would be their last year running shows at the venue.
I could go on and on (and on and on) but a picture is worth a thousand words, right? Enjoy this mini gallery from today's events, and check back tomorrow for a full report on day 1 of the clinic.
The Carl Hester clinic in Ontario is less than a month away and the internet was abuzz today as the rider names were announced. Fourteen horse / rider combinations will be featured over the two days, ranging from the FEI 4-year-old level to Grand Prix. As well a special guest (I'm not at liberty to say who yet) will do a demo ride each day.
So who are the lucky Canadian dressage riders chosen to work with Carl? Let's get to know them:
Originally from Saskatchewan, Andrea is a well-known rider and trainer based at FoxFire Equestrian in Uxbridge, Ont. She is an EC Level III coach and represented Canada at the 2007 PanAm Games, helping lead the team to a silver medal. Andrea will be riding Ismeux at the 4-year-old level
Does Jacqueline Brooks really need an introduction? The two-time Olympian and owner of Brookhaven Dressage in Mount Albert, Ont. is a Canadian fan favourite with her popular grey gelding D Niro. However the famous "Goose" is staying back in the barn for this clinic and Jac will be riding Emmett Top, a half brother to Valegro whom she has been bringing up the levels and competed successfully at Fourth Level this year.
Vanessa, daughter of well-known rider Diane Creech, is proudly carrying on the family dressage tradition. She has been a medallist at the NAJYRC, both in the junior and Young Rider divisions, and in 2017 began competing in the U25 Grand Prix classes as well. Her mount at the Carl Hester clinic is Fleur de Lis, a Hanoverian mare owned by her sponsor Leatherdale Farms. Vanessa and Fleur captured individual and freestyle silver medals at the 2016 NAJYRC and had a successful summer in 2017 competing at several of Europe's biggest shows.
Tom is another well-known and well-respected international rider who probably needs little introduction. He has represented Canada at the PanAm Games, World Championships and World Cup. Together with his wife Ellen, Tom operates Friday Hill Dressage in Hillsburgh, Ontario. He will be riding Cyrus in the PSG, an exciting young gelding owned by Carla Bahr.
Brittany is one of Canada's brightest rising dressage stars. Originally from New Glasgow, NS, she spent much of her career in New York and Florida working with Ashley Holzer. Brittany recently relocated to Montreal where she has established her own training business. We'll see her ride her KWPN gelding All In at the Grand Prix level in the clinic. This pair was part of the silver medal team at the 2015 PanAm Games, had a very successful winter in Wellington and summer in Europe, and just scored their first large tour victory with a win in the Grand Prix Freestyle at the recent CDI3* in Tryon, North Carolina.
Jane Fraser might not be a household name across Canada, but the Fraser family is something of a dressage legend on the east coast. Jane and her sister Susan are widely credited with introducing and nurturing high level dressage to the region and have been both competing and teaching throughout the Atlantic provinces for more than 30 years. Based out of Susan's Fraser Equestrian Centre in Port Williams, NS, Jane has been partnered with her clinic mount Banjo since 2014. At Bromont in 2016, the pair received an 80% at Training Level, making Jane the first Maritime rider with this remarkable achievement.
Jaimey & Tina Irwin
The owners and operators of Stoney Lake Equestrian in Stouffville, Ont. this husband and wife team have made a real name for themselves in the dressage world. They have been in the international spotlight since their Young Rider days and now have some very exciting horses ready to compete in the Grand Prix ring. Jaimey will be riding Donegal V in the clinic on Saturday, while Tina rides 5-year-old Simsalabim on Sunday.
The daughter of Canadian dressage legends Cindy and Neil Ishoy, Kahla has proven that talent runs in the family, both as a successful competitor and up-and-coming young professional trainer. She will be riding Sakima at Third Level, a lovely imported gelding owned by Cindy whom Kahla competed this summer, winning the Third Level Open Division championship at the Cornerstone Summer Classic.
As part of the silver medal-winning Canadian team at the 2015 PanAm Games and representing Canada at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Megan Lane has etched her name in our national dressage history books. We're used to seeing her compete with her Olympic mount Caravella, but Megan has a string of top prospects at her home base Deer Ridge Equestrian in Loretto, Ontario. We'll get the chance to see Denver, a 2008 KWPN gelding by Vivaldi, at the Intermediare II level in the clinic.
Erin MacQuarrie may not be a familiar name to many dressage fans in Ontario and points west, but she is well known in Atlantic Canada for more than 20 years of success in the show ring, her talent as a trainer and EC Level II coach, and the quality warmblood breeding program she runs at her Hampton, New Brunswick farm. Erin will be featured both days in the 4-year-old group aboard Iron Butterfly (not Iron Maiden as listed in the announcement), a Dutch warmblood she bred and trained herself.
Maya is one of Canada's up and coming young dressage professionals. She first gained international attention by twice representing Canada at the Nation's Cup in Wellington, FL with Lumiere, and hasn't looked back since. A former student of Canadian Olympian David Marcus, Maya now operates her own business, Equest Dressage, in Cambridge, Ontario. In the clinic she will be riding 5-year-old Something Royal, owned by Fiona McLellan.
Karis Van Essen
Born in Toronto and raised in B.C., Karis has ridden and learned from dressage masters all over the world. She spent time in California as a working student for Elizabeth McConnell, then travelled to Germany to work with Canadian Eiren Crawford. When she returned to Canada in 2010 she began working with dynamic duo David Marcus and Nicholas Fyffe, spending several winter seasons training and competing with them in Florida. Karis now operates KVE Dressage and will be riding her own mare Camistry J in the clinic at the Intermediare II level.
Cecile von Martels-Perry
The von Martels name is a familiar one to Canadian dressage fans. Though perhaps not as well-known internationally as her brother Chris, Cecile von Martels has been involved in the family dressage business her whole life riding, training, importing and selling top quality dressage horses. She will be riding Captain, My Captain in the 6-year-old level.
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