Clinic Recap: Two-Day Teaching Masterclass with Carl Hester

Carl Hester with Megan Lane, Intermediare II, on Denver. Photo by Karie Alderman.

I confess, that when my non-horsey husband gave me a two day pass to audit Carl Hester’s Oct. 21-22 Masterclass in Palgrave, Ontario, I was amazed (how on earth did he come up with that!) and a tad concerned …. I’m not an active eventer, coming from the long format era, but still ride, currently a lovely but occasionally naughty OTTB. What would I get from such a high level of dressage? How could it possibly be relevant to me?

Well, it was relevant, and I took away some very important basics. See my list of tips and quotes from Carl, listed below, but first and foremost in my mind were these two: the more the horse learns, the less you should be doing, and — transitions. There are never too many! As he said a number of times over, the horse should be doing the work, not you, and transitions should be like pouring cream!

Photo by Karie Alderman.

Carl came to Palgrave to share his humour, insights and remarkable encyclopedia of dressage training. Presented by Equestrian Management Group (EMG), Carl won over his audience of 1,100+ each day in mere minutes, encouraging the audience to enjoy themselves as they learned. And the learning never stopped — Carl did each session for three hours at a time, two mornings and two afternoons — non-stop. Not a drink of water, no helpers, no leaning …. standing comfortably in the very centre of the ring, he created a small circle, and gestured eloquently when the visual would add to his commentary, usually eliciting laughter, often guilty laughter, from the crowd. Good humour, witty remarks, teasing comments, and serious instructions created a learning environment that kept the audience captivated from the opening moments on Saturday right through Sunday afternoon.

Each day was started with 4 year olds, then 5 year and 6 year olds as the next two sets. They were followed by a transition to 3rd level, Prix St Georges, Intermediare II and Grand Prix. His pupil from the UK, Rebecca Edwards, rode a demonstration each day, both times on a horse she had only ridden once before. Her comments were interesting because they were based on a fresh experience, and not a compilation of history with either horse.

Becky Edwards, Carl Hester’s long time student from the UK, doing a guest demonstration, depicting what it might be like to try a horse for sale. Photo by Karie Alderman.

Those riding in the clinic represented different horse and rider types, at different levels. The same principles were applied, with allowances for how each horse could learn. Riders too demonstrated differing abilities in translating instructions and information into practice. These differences encouraged each of us to understand that we all learn in different ways — horses as well as riders. In his yard, after 20 minutes of walking, 20 minutes of stretching, his horses work hard for roughly 20 to 25 minutes, no more. In the clinic, he adjusted his teaching to allow the horses some rest time over the hour in the ring.

Most impressive was how quickly Carl could pinpoint a weak point of the horse/rider, and find and describe the key to transform the horse and rider. Sometimes the problem was obvious — a horse anticipating the corner and falling into it — but other times it was almost invisible — creating a new balance for a sophisticated horse and rider to allow for more elegant engagement. In this case, he asked the rider to allow the horse to move forward when she asked for that, rather than contradicting her instructions by holding him as he tried to go more forward. Through that session, Carl had the horse moving more freely and then worked with the rider to ‘gather’ the forward movement, rather than restrict. Can’t you see how that would apply to any level of flat work or dressage?

Brittany Fraser-Beaulieu riding All In, Grand Prix. Photo by Karie Alderman.

I can’t encapsulate the entire clinic, but so much of what he taught was focused on the horse being forward, obedient, not rushed, and responsive. As a rider, you must be equally willing to let him go forward, be obedient, produce bigger tempo without speed, and expect him to be responsive. “If you want to be an elegant rider, the HORSE has to do the work. You can’t be shoving and pulling and steering and expect to get good marks.”

He was so thoughtful of the younger horses, reminding riders to pick up their reins, and then thanking them as the audience gently applauded! Tip of the Day: No matter what level you ride, if ever you have the opportunity to go to a Carl Hester clinic, buy your ticket right away!

Jacqueline Brooks, 3rd level, on her young horse Emmett Top, half brother to Valegro. Photo by Karie Alderman.

Quotes over his two days:
– “I do hundred of transitions, loads of them, so transitions become like ‘pouring cream.’”
– “You can’t do too many transitions.”
– “Don’t make a face – the worse the transition, the bigger my smile.”
– “Open your mouth and breathe!”
– “You are not supposed to be going back to the stable exhausted and red, the horse
should be doing the work, not you.”
– “Turn from the outside.”
– “Use lengthening and stretching to improve balance.”
– “When stretching for that swinging back, the tail should move and lift.”
– “Find the right swing speed, open your hands wide to encourage reaching for the bit, and close your hands when collecting – it brings the bit closer to the sides of the mouth.”
– “How you [the rider] stand IS balance – keep that balance on the horse.” (Carl criticized some riders for leaning back.)

Jaimey Irwin, Grand Prix, with Donegal V. Photo by Karie Alderman.

– “‘Unclench’ your toes”
– “When you click or touch, something must happen.”
– “Be black and white – you ask, you get.”
– “If you open your fingers, the horse falls through the bit.”
– “Don’t bend the horse like a bike and handle bars – you cannot push your inside hand
forward like you are holding handlebars.”
– “Get a light canter, most importantly, do not get obsessed about ‘is my horse on the bit?’”
– “Riders should do less and less, as the horse learns to do more and more.”
– “Is it a Canadian custom to ride the your whip way up in your hand?” (Oh, sorry … Canadians are famous for apologizing.)
– “Shoulders-in is JUST that, not quarters out. Come around and start a diagonal trot, use the outside leg.”
– “Early training – everything is a preparation; for instance, have to stand square, even when getting on and off. Don’t settle for halfway, be consistent.”
– “Stretching – the older the horse, the better at reaching.”
– “Find your horse’s ‘swing speed’ as the horse stretches.”

Tom Dvorak, PSG, on Cyrus. Photo by Karie Alderman.

– 20 minutes walk up and down hills, 20 minute stretching, 25 minutes of real work, then some more stretching
– He uses water, treadmill to help with fitness

– Carl and Charlotte ride four mornings a week and teach to make a living the rest of the time.

Rebecca (Becky) Edwards from UK:
– Started with Carl as a little kid, since he taught her mother.
– Becky rode a horse only once before riding for Carl in the clinic.
– To get a horse’s head up, Carl had Becky ride with her thumbs on top of the rein, so the rein came into her hand between the thumb and her first finger. She was ‘steering’ from her shoulders and elbows. It worked.

Kahla Ishoy, 3rd Level (Medium/Advanced Medium) on Sakima, an 8 year old Hanoverian. Kahla’s late father was the 3 day event rider Neil Ishoy, and her mother is the very successful international Dressage rider Cindy Ishoy. Carl told the audience that Kahla’s mother had asked him “to work Kahla and Sakima on their medium trot.” Kahla showed Carl their medium trot, and said he didn’t know why her mother was so concerned, “it is a very nice medium trot” (and then of course, helped Kahla make it even better!). Photo by Karie Alderman.

What to do when a horse is anticipating corners:
– Ride into the corner and stop. Let the horse stop, so you are not making him stop. Then turn on the forehand or turn in the original direction. Keep stopping in the corner from walk, trot and canter, until the horse listens. This really worked. The horse in this exercise was remarkably better staying balanced in corners, and the rider was complimented when she took the initiative to repeat the exercise when she felt the horse was beginning to lean.

Going forward:
– Click or use your leg, release, collect – repeat. Be careful not to block the horse as he’s responding with the forward action you asked for. Let the horse move forward. Be subtle.

Your balance on a half-pass:
– Look to the inside hind leg, to get a feel of freeing up the outside hind leg which is doing the hard work.

Young Rider Vanessa Creech-Terauds with her Hanoverian mare Fleur de Lis in the PSG; she was extraordinarily adept at taking Carl’s instructions and applying them, winning her a gasp from Carl at the end of her session, when he learned she was only 17 years old! Photo by Karie Alderman.

Words of wisdom:
– If you want to be an elegant rider, the HORSE has to do the work. You can’t be shoving and pulling and steering and get good marks.
– When doing serpentines with flying changes, do four strides and change, do not be looking for the line… know your horse. You shouldn’t have to count.
– “Give the horse the reins”…. “is that giving the horse the reins? You’re being a little bit Scottish, as we English say.” (A good laugh from the audience)
– “Do five flying changes”… rider does four … “Do you know where 5 is? It’s after 4 ….” (A guilty laugh from the crowd — we’ve all been there!)
– How do you teach a horse to halt? A small step or 2 or 3, to step up into the halt, and do NOT hold your horse in the halt. They must hold themselves until you give another instruction.
– If your horse won’t stay in the halt, do a very small circle back to the same point, and ask again. (Do not walk forward and try again, but go back to the same place, otherwise, the horse didn’t learn that his lack of halt is unacceptable.)
– Correct every single halt. Don’t let it slide. The horse should correct quickly, not so slowly as to get a mark off.
– Use the contents of your boots!
– Train light … if heavy, you can never develop those ‘invisible aids.’
– Enjoy what you do, or your horse won’t either.

GO CANADA!!!! Photo by Karie Alderman.