Christoph Hess on Working with the ‘Not So Good’ Dressage Horse

500 people are in attendance at the International Eventing Forum at Hartpury College in Gloucestershire. In session one, Christoph Hess spoke about working with the "not so good" dressage horse. Or this could be entitled "Why I love this trainer!” It was such a huge pleasure to hear these words from Christoph. My hope is that his messages reach an even larger audience and this is why I report them.

Christoph Hess gives a thumbs up to Sam Griffiths at the International Eventing Forum. Photo courtesy of Jon Stroud Media. Christoph Hess gives a thumbs up to Sam Griffiths at the International Eventing Forum. Photo courtesy of Jon Stroud Media.

Christoph Hess is an FEI ‘I’ judge in both dressage and eventing and is currently the Head of Instruction at the DOKR, or German National Federation. He takes every opportunity to promote a horse friendly system of training and emphasizes over and over again that we should work with the horse.

First rider: Australian Sam Griffiths, famous for his partnership with Happy Times, on Rufus, his talented but tense 2* horse.

Christophe worked Sam and Rufus largely in working trot and canter with simple figures using a mixture of light seat and dressage position. These were his truly wonderful key instructions in this first session:

“Dressage is used to promote the mental and physical well-being of the horse and should be logical. Dressage should promote a happy horse: This is our highest goal — a happy horse, a happy athlete.”

“It is important that the neck is open at the throat latch. Too many horses too short in the neck in all disciplines. Today’s horses are always in a frame, but often they don’t seek the contact properly, and you can’t give high marks to a horse that is behind the bit.”

“Opening the neck gives the horse the possibility to use the back. Allow the horse to seek the bit.”

“Use light seat to help the horse use his back. It’s like the rising trot. Too many horses in canter are balanced but not correct because they are not true 3 time with a period of suspension. This must be protected.”

“Taking a strong contact to hold the horse together is ridiculous.”

“Horses benefit from a rider that sits independently without a reliance on the reins for balance. At times, you can ride with one hand and pat the horse, give a long rein to let him stretch. A well-balanced rider can easily retake the reins without too much fussing. I would like to see more dressage movements ridden with reins in one hand!”

“Learn to ride the corners by riding 15-meter circles in each corner. The new FEI event tests emphasize the use of corners and correct bending lines.”

“The normal schooling day to day is the preparation for the new tests. You do not need to keep riding the test because the homework is the test.’’

“This work is for all the disciplines — as much for jumping as for dressage, and it is for all horses and all ponies.”

“What a session! What a horse! What a rider!”

Sam was delighted, saying that Rufus became really rideable with much more swing in his back than in the past.

2nd Rider: Scotland’s Nicky Roncoroni with her lovely grey Advanced horse Stone Edge aiming for British team at European Championships at Blair Castle.

Christoph warmed Stone Edge up in a very similar way but also included leg yielding and asked for more impulsion to keep the quality of the paces. Then he introduced travers and lengthening. Once again, he asked Nicky to work in a light seat at times, particularly in canter and in the lateral work.

It is very important to first get a feeling for the horse.”

“Riders use the spur instead of the calf of the leg. This is wrong. As trainers and judges, we need to encourage putting the rider in front of the leg, NOT the spur.”

“With the bend on the circles and in the travers, it is important to use as little inside rein as possible. If you need the inside rein, there is something wrong with the earlier work.”

“He is a little behind the bridle, so like all horses he must be allowed to stretch, and you must be very sensitive with your hands to go with the movement of the mouth. If necessary with a longer rein but with a contact.”

“You need to produce a walk. So work at the walk as well as the trot and canter. Get a good feeling of the body working in the walk.  The walk is a mirror of the training of the horse.”

“Open the neck. Open the neck. Open the neck. The more you do this, the more he will be happy. Ride with the reins in one hand and give the rein, then make the circle smaller with no rein contact. The horse must seek the rein, and the rider must ride from the front to the back. To ride from the front is WRONG!”

“You cannot ride in collection before the horse is 100 percent in front of the leg, open and forwards. Using the body will get longer steps. So all riders must do the basic work long enough to get this.”

“Happy horses get high marks. Good basics get high marks. Too many horses do the movements held and forced, and this will get low marks.”

“When you drive the horse into a transition, you have to have a bit more the idea of a light seat. When you sit too heavy, you work against your horse. Think of a swinging seat, not sitting harder into the saddle, which is incorrect.”

“Wow! What a lovely horse. Top class. A hero in white with three lovely paces.”

Nicky said he usually goes like a peacock so she feels she can use this way of riding at home to overcome the problem.