If you were lucky enough to attend the Carl Hester Masterclass at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala this weekend, then you’re lucky enough.
What an absolutely fantastic day of training. Carl’s sensible and relaxed yet demanding approach to each horse and rider pair made for very educational rides.
In addition to the under saddle portion of the clinic, I was quick enough to snag tickets for the “private audience” that followed the riding. We were treated to a private conversation with Carl led by the insightful Betsy Juliano. Carl’s candor struck me most, and it was so generous of him to share his life experiences with us. To that end, I’m excited to share my notes (mostly in the form of direct quotes) from the clinic but I’m not sharing anything that he spoke about during that fireside chat-esque gathering. It was too special and too kind. So thank you again, Carl & Betsy for that memorable evening.
Here are some of my favorite takeaways from the Masterclass:
CREATING HARMONY IN THE GAITS
From the very first ride to the last, we saw him dig into improving the rhythm within the gaits before working on anything else. He reminded us that in the training pyramid, rhythm is the foundation and that “bending and one-sidedness is something that you will work on all the way through their career.” So it’s not just my six year old gelding?! Phew.
It might come as no surprise that he worked on a lot of transitions, particularly with the young horses. Do more transitions than you think you need to. He noted that, “trot to canter is a pushing stride and canter to trot is to get the horse to swing. Every horse has a swing speed, where is is naturally in his own balance.” He said that we are always looking for flexibility without tension.
“If you just remember one thing; stretch, collect, bend, straighten.”
There was one rider wanted some help developing expression, something so relatable to most of us, to which Carl instructed, “You need to teach her to canter more on the spot. You need her to wait more. You must ride forward in canter-walk, the horse should land and step forward. Always think inside hind leg between the front legs.”
“Good collection makes good extension. Have to have the horse pushing to your hand. Put the life in and then you take it forward. A top dressage horse has to push.”
I’ve heard/read several times before that hacking is a big element in their program and he reiterated that point several times. He told us that in his experience the horses go best with two days of work, one day hacking, two days of work, one day hacking and then an off day.
I found it interesting that the hacking wasn’t just for loosening joints and muscles or letting the horses see something besides the sandbox. He said, “We hack so that they learn to use their necks. The head and the neck has to move. You have to use your arms and your upper body to push the head and neck away.” Even leisurely strolls can help develop a star.
You don’t want crazy and you don’t want a police horse.
Reactions are what helps train the horse to Grand Prix.
Generally you always have to do the opposite of what you’ve got. If you’ve got a horse with huge paces you have to make them small, if you have a horse with small paces you have to make them big.
We had a fair amount of discussion about rider position, particularly the hands. Now mind you, these were all gorgeous riders, but it was so helpful to have details that the every-man (hi!) can work on. We don’t all have that Charlotte Dujardin seat after all.
He wants our hands in front of the saddle, closed on the reins (no flappy opening hands everybody!), elastic elbows, with thumbs upward and carried. There was a bit of work regarding giving the hand, and it was in many situations for many different reasons. Spooky baby horse that you don’t want to let go of? Needs to learn to not rely on the hand. Grand Prix horse that looks a little heavy but actually is in self carriage? Let go with the hand. I loved that he told us several times, “the horse has to always feel like the door is being opened. Don’t push and pull at the same time.”
It was a little relegating to me when he said, “remember when I said I needed to see your hand move? When he’s loose in your hand then you can influence his hind legs.” LIGHTBULB. Everything comes from the hind, if the horse is in self carriage and through his body, we can affect the hind end. And alternatively, “if he gets too light it is your job to move the bit into the corners of the mouth until you feel the contact.”
He didn’t forget our lower body either. “Good riders have a good pelvis and can absorb the movement. Good riders follow the movement. You’re not supposed to just sit still.” He never wanted anyone to push with their seat, but to follow the motion quietly through a flexible pelvis. He differentiated between a working seat and a relaxed seat by saying, “a working seat is engaged, the relaxed seat is the horse is already taking me.”
No aid is meant to be applied and left on. “Your leg has to breathe.” As I’ve heard other great trainers explain as well, busy aids will make the horse tune them out. Carl took it a step further and told us, ‘if your leg is just on the horse doesn’t have a chance to come back the other way.”
I’ve been working hard on my halt halt and leg timing as I approach half steps with my young horse so I found it very timely that he discussed half halts in some way with most of the riders. He encouraged separating the aids. Some direct quotes because it’s best explained through his words;
When you do a half halt bring your hips through your hand
Wait until the horse rests in the hand and finds balance
When you give a half halt, I need to see the rein go loose immediately after
When you make a half halt, he still needs to think forward
Think forward in the half halt. The minute the horse comes back , you go forward. The minute he goes forward, you come back. So the horse gets more energetic.
We had a couple of really interesting and helpful examples of horse positioning through certain movements.
One pair wanted clarification of the angle in shoulder in. He told us that his outside toe and eyes will face the letter on the short side he’s traveling toward (a or c).
In travers into their bend the horse should look straight into the corner. And in general, you have to see the letter that you’re traveling toward through the horse’s ears.
When you ride walk pirouette it has to come from shoulder in. You have to be able to half pass in walk. Half pass out of it so you keep teaching the horse to keep their hip in.
He talked a bit about self carriage throughout the day. Saying, “Lots of people think about over the back but I also think about the underneath of the neck so it has to come up and carry the head.” Reflecting on that image, can’t you just picture beautiful Nip Tuck and En Vogue’s perfectly arching without strain necks? “If there’s wrinkles in front of the saddle then there’s a retraction in the neck. Those wrinkles need to be ironed out.” What an image!
As with most professionals, he liked the canter for evaluation of the horse’s quality but told us that he gets a lot of information from the walk. “For other people, watching the walking is usually the most boring, but for me it’s the most interesting because I can see his natural movement; Where is the horse going to take my hand?”
He highlighted the importance of straightness in changes. If teaching Iofnteaching tempis) or working on straightness in general it was best to use the wall. In terms of rider positioning, he told us, “The horse does the flying not the rider. Flying changes come from your leg and your seat down. Keep your body straight and it’s just from your lower leg…The most important thing of the changes is the horse must follow you.”
With a horse that was rushing the ones he told us, “It’s a very good problem to have a horse that’s in front of you thinking forward.” Forward and energetic is something to work with as opposed to behind the leg.
And one of my favorite lines was about committing to the request. “Be positive. Don’t do those little tickly little lady aids.” We all know what he means and this sound bite will live rent free in my head for all time.
We all (audience and rider alike) had a slow time grasping the concept that we should know how many strides our horse takes in twenty meters. NOT a twenty meter circle, but twenty actual meters. The horse in the ring did it in eight (so we learned) and so it was four strides across to the centerline, meaning that’s where the flying change should occur. This is a sport of precision after all!
The horse has to react forward but you have to open the door to be fair to the horse.
When you train them you have to stick to the same thing.
It doesn’t matter if you can’t do it perfectly it matters that you keep attempting.
And my most favorite thing he said all day;
‘They’re dreams aren’t they? All the young horses are dreams.
Always have the hope that your horse can make Grand Prix. You’ve got to have that belief that they’re going to do it. Not all of them will have the super star edge but you have to believe in them.”