The four 6- and 7-year-old horses featured in the clinic are living proof that development and training don't happen on a strict timeline; each horse is an individual and will progress at different rates and react to stressful situations differently. Despite being more or less the same age, they ranged from First to Third Level, and all but one showed varying degrees of stage fright in the large venue. However they all demonstrated superb quality and excellent potential for the future.
Recognizing that no two horses progress at the same pace, Charlotte still has a basic set of expectations for her own horses at this age; shoulder in, travers and half pass should now be well-established and she likes to introduce the single flying change between age 5 and 6. "There's no hurry to get the change in but it shouldn't be a big deal for most horses this age. If you have trained a good collected canter, it's not difficult to teach a good flying change," she said. Lateral work is particularly important at this stage to develop suppleness and strength.
Jaimey Irwin and Fortissimo (6yo, First Level)
This big, impressive-looking gelding captured everyone's attention the minute he walked into the ring. Charlotte cautioned that with a horse that naturally has such big movement, you want to encourage it to move smaller and in a more easy way, to reduce wear and tear and preserve the horse for the long run. "My goal with every horse is always the Grand Prix. I don't care about winning young horse classes or at the lower levels; the horse has got to last if it's going to be successful at Grand Prix."
Fortissimo was extremely nervous in the main ring and despite Jaimey's best efforts, never really was able to completely relax and focus on the job at hand. It was a wonderful demonstration of patience and tactful riding from a skilled professional who quietly worked through moments of tension and rewarded moments of relaxation. "We can all see how nice this horse is and we want to see what he can do but there's no point in trying when he's this tense and worried," said Charlotte. "In a situation like this the only goal becomes getting the horse to breathe, getting him to a point where he's not afraid and finishing the session on a positive note." Specific notes on the work they were able to do included:
- Use lots of serpentines, circles and changes of direction with a nervous horse to keep it guessing a little, keep its mind off the scary situation.
- Shoulder in and travers on a circle are excellent to build suppleness on the stiffer side and make the horse more even from right to left.
- Horse has a high quality canter, up and out with a lovely use of the shoulder and very active hind leg. A round and active canter like this indicates horse will have a good flying change and pirouette down the road.
- Horse is clearly nervous but keeps trying, never says no. Keeping this horse going is never going to be a problem.
- An experienced rider like Jaimey is exactly what this horse needs; he can gain confidence from the confidence of his rider. Inexperienced rider on an inexperienced horse is not a good combination.
Leah Wilkins and High Energy STH (6yo, Second Level)
This elegant mare showed her nervousness in the arena by sucking back somewhat, and bearing down on the hand a little when Leah used her legs. In horses as in life, forward fixes almost everything. "Sometimes you just have to forget about dressage and go for a good yee-haw," Charlotte said, encouraging Leah to have a good gallop around the perimeter of the ring. Once the horse was more relaxed, she moved into the lateral work at the introduction of the single change (which unfortunately I missed, due to a badly-timed phone call which I couldn't ignore.) Charlotte's advice included:
- Use lateral work to occupy the horse's mind and keep her from spooking.
- Do shoulder-in away from the wall to test if horse is drifting or not. Leah is doing it very well but lots of people cheat by pushing the quarters out, rather than bringing the shoulders in.
- Then try moving between shoulder in and renvers on the same line by changing the flexion.
- Travers is the best exercise for suppling as it bends the inside while stretching the outside of the horse's body. When the mare resists bending on her stiffer side, just keep correcting and riding through it.
- Half pass is simply travers on a diagonal line. Ideally it should be parallel but not when teaching a young horse. Make it easier at first for them to succeed by allowing the it to trail slightly.
-As horse gets stronger over time work on making half pass more parallel without allowing the rhythm or contact to change.
- Set up the half pass correctly in the corner before. If you ride a bad corner you will ride a bad movement.
Justin Ridgewell and Jolene (7yo, Third Level)
Justin unfortunately encountered much the same situation as Jaimey did. Despite the fact she schooled comfortably in the empty arena the night before, Jolene was simply too afraid of the large crowd on Saturday to demonstrate much of the Third Level work. "Justin is thinking 'this is horrible,' but everyone in the audience is learning from it because their horses all do the exact same thing," said a sympathetic Charlotte. After canter work settled her down, Jolene was able to show off the qualities that made Charlotte say, "This is the type of horse I go for. She's very go-ey, very athletic looking and quite uphill by nature." Specific comments included:
- Keep the poll up; you should be able to see the top piece of the bridle.
-Make little corrections when she drops down to keep the neck up and open.
- Rider needs stronger seat and stronger core to sit up and back more - tendency is to tip forward from the hip somewhat.
- Horse is very supple laterally, finds it easy to switch between shoulder in and travers
- Increase difficulty by starting in leg yield from centre line towards wall, then switch to half pass.
- By age 7 horses should be working on the pirouette. Start with a 15m circle in shoulder in, followed by a 15m circle in travers, then spiral the circle in towards more of a pirouette feeling.
- This horse shows ability to sit and hind leg does not get slower, keeps a good jump in the canter. Will be capable of a good pirouette.
- Another pirouette prep exercise is to gradually collect the canter more and more with smaller steps until almost cantering on the spot, then forward again for several strides.
- Think walk with your hands and canter with your legs. If horse doesn't stay in front of the leg in the collected steps go forward into medium canter right away, or even a good gallop.
Janine Little and Billionaire (7yo, Third Level)
The handsome gelding Billionaire received my "rock star of the day" award. Despite his young age and relative inexperience, this horse didn't bat an eyelash at the crowd, the constant movement, or the indoor environment. He has the training to show the audience some of the more advanced movements and he and Janine treated us to a lovely, harmonious demonstration. Having taught Janine privately before, Charlotte joked she could be tougher on her at the clinic. Her comments included:
- At this stage the horse is more balanced and can be kept together with the seat and legs, not the hands.
- Begin with canter work to activate this horse - he's a little sluggish by nature.
- To prepare for flying change work, begin with travers down the long side.
- Some horses just put the hip in without truly bending. Make sure you are really achieving a stretch through the outside of the horse's body.
- Be brave and forward in the tempi changes. Cover more ground, make the change happen higher off the ground.
- Do the changes on the wall to help the horse stay straight. If horse jumps to the right in the change, think leg yield a little to left.
- Need to ride the actual canter as bravely and forward as the changes. Changes are bigger than the regular canter.
- In the trot work this is the stage where you can really start to add suspension.
- Horse can keep the suspension on straight lines currently but struggles in the lateral work. Keep the angle of the shoulder in and travers more shallow to make it easier for horse to maintain suspension.
- "That's your trot!" after the medium trot, Janine found a new gear for this horse with much more energy, activity and expression, sitting more and truly pushing from behind.
That's it for now. Come back tomorrow for a recap of the four FEI level sessions!
About the author
I'm a middle-aged, overweight, rusty re-rider who refuses to let any of that get in the way of my passion for dressage.