The 2011 Global Dressage Forum concluded on Monday 31 October 2011 with an apex, when British European team gold and individual silver medalist stepped on the podium for a masterclass on pure dressage training and true horsemanship.
Following the massive success of British Dressage at the 2011 European Championships in Rotterdam, dressage finally seems to have taken the long, coveted turn for the better in which lightness and harmony are praised and scored by the judges instead of the push-and-pull extravagance of some top riders, who are unable to let go of the reins for a second.
A very anxious Carl Hester, who had waved the offer to speak at the Forum for many years, took the podium at Bartels’ Academy and owned it! “I was forced into coming out,” Hester joked. “For the last three years Richard Davison and David Hunt have been promising me that I would do the job at some point.”
Carl brought along his student and fellow team mate Charlotte Dujardin to demonstrate his beliefs on how to properly manage and train high performance dressage horses.
In order to break the ice, moderator Richard Davison sat down with Carl for an upclose interview on the rider’s life and how he became involved with horses. “I feel like I’m fed to the lions being here,” Carl joked. “The thought of coming here is very nerve-wracking. I’m very nervous off-the horse.”
The amiable and sympathetic Carl is extremely outspoken, funny, witty and sharp as a razor-blade. His talkative nature disappears, however, when he’s about to ride in a show. “Competitions is the focus of what I’m doing. It’s very important I have one or two people around me when it comes to that point,” he said. “I spend my entire life talking and I don’t want to talk when I’m about to ride. I just like a small group around me.”
Hester had a very tumultous childhood, being the son of a teenage couple. He was almost put up for adoption but then kept by his grandmother because he was “a pretty baby”. He was raised on the small Isle of Sark. “My grandmother frowned upon my mom. She was sent to a half-way house, when you are 4 to 5 months pregnant, so you weren’t spotted getting bigger,” Hester said about his parentage.
His estranged father Anthony Smea is a famous British Actor (The English Patient, Coronation Street, East Enders) but has been absent from Carl’s life. “Father is an actor and had children all of his life. I have lots of half brothers, half sisters, and he’s still having children now.” The last time Carl saw him was one year ago on the train to London, where his dad asked him to lend 50£ but then literally ended up running away with it jumping the fence in order not to have his train ticket checked. “There goes my fifty quid. I will never see that back,” Hester recited.
When Davison asked him why he is not “a lot more scarred than this,” Carl replied that he was raised on a small, safe island made him feel normal. “You can’t blame your family for everything,” he said. “The island I come from is idyllic, there’s no cars, no crime. In the school playground there is a prison -- two cells built of stone. It’s in the Guinness Book of Records as smallest prison in the worl. You were only allowed to stay there for 48 hours and only went there for being drunk or disorderly. We used to throw stones at the prisoners. Even the doctor goes everywhere on a bicycle, so if you have a heart attack you better have a young doctor.”
His first contact with horses was with the carriage horses that worked on the island. “I was friends with the drivers when I was 7 or 8. I always wanted to make some money and sat on the carriages for the tourists and then I got more money. After they finished work I rode them bareback to the field. I didn’t ride in a saddle until I was 16.”
A Break at Bechtolsheimer
At 16 Carl tried a career in horses and took a job working at Fortune Centre of Riding Therapy. He took his British Horse Society Assistant Instructors (AI) exam during his 2 1?2?year stay there.
After leaving the Fortune Centre, Carl went back to Sark for six months, before returning to the mainland to event for Janni and Christopher Taylor for three years. “They didn’t have any children so I became their first son,” Carl reminisced. “They never spent more than 1,000 pounds on a horse. Every horse we got was a pig. I got flattened a lot, squashed a lot. Three horses went out of that yard to the Olympics. I learnt to be experimentive.”
In 1989 Carl made the definite turn to dressage when he got a job as rider at Wilfried Bechtolsheimer’s yard. “How lucky am I to turn up there,” Carl confessed. “I had been on apprenticeship wages for 6 years (10 pounds a week). The car I drove to the Bechtolsheimers for the interview was so old that I didn’t dare to drive up the drive way. I parked it outside the property and walked up the drive way.”
Carl’s life changed instantly. “I presumed I would be a rider kept in the cellar at the back of the house,” he said. But then he was told he was going to have 200 pound a week and a house. “You’re kidding, and a ride,” was Carl’s reaction. “I had a different lifestyle. For three years I lived the life of a king. Private jet, hotels,” Carl explained. “The first time we went to New York we stayed in the Plaza. I remember I couldn’t find the bed, the room was so big.”
Carl said it was a funny introduction to the nitty-gritty of the dressage world. “All the fancy horse dealers in the world rang me and asked me ‘if I liked a horse’ and I thought they were genuine, but they were actually trying to get to Doctor B,” he said.
After three and a half years at Bechtolsheimer, Carl first set up a yard with Kate Carter for 10 years before going independent in 2004. “If you live and rent off other people you have they do what they want,” Carl said. Hester is now based near Hartpury, where he lives in an 1820 built old tanning mill house with old beams and a river next to the house, which raised concerns for flooding. “It has never happened, so far.” He has three dogs and an innumerable number of farm animals . “I’m a farm person,. I have chicken, parrots, fowl, and one parrot.”
Two Different Horses with Two Different Ideas
For the Forum Carl brought along two demonstration horses: the 7-year old KWPN gelding Nip Tuck (by Don Ruto x Animo) and the 9-year old KWPN stallion Valegro (by Negro x Gershwin). “They are two different horses with two different ideas,” he said.
Just like Nathalie zu Sayn-Wittgenstein said the day before, a feeling might trigger a rider’s intuition to keep on working with a horse, even though all signs might be against it.
“Nip Tuck has been rather difficult, but I think he’ll be great. I’ve made maybe some wrong decisions with horses in the past. I get on him and I feel that he’ll be amazing. He might have plenty of faults but if it feels special, you might be able to do something with it,” Carl explained.
Carl discovered Nip Tuck as a yearling and bought him with three more youngsters. “One of them I really wanted. I bought four bay colts. My aim was to sell three and keep one. It’s buy four, get them cheaper, like at the supermarket,” he joked. However, then something awkward happened. When Carl sold Nip Tuck as a green horse, he ended up putting his favourite colt on the trailer by accident. When the lady noticed she had a passport mismatching the horse she went back to Carl. “She wouldn’t give that horse back, so I had to give her the right passport. Hers grew this big (gesturing one meter high) and doesn’t move and mine is this one (gesticulating at Nip Tuck),” Carl smiled.
Breaking in Nip Tuck was not a walk in the park. He’s “notoriously hot” and “when he was 4 and we broke him in, he was very frightening. I did three months of trotting, because in canter he would bolt. He was not nasty, but very scared. So we just trotted. “
Carl tried competing him in the young horse classes but the show atmosphere was too much to cope with for the sturdy dark bay gelding. “With a horse like this you do not put him in situations that he feels so uncomfortable,” Carl explained after he told the story of how Nip Tuck bolted at the prize giving as a 5-year old. “He lives in the field and I only bring him in at 7 o’ clock in the morning, ride him and then put him back in the field. He can’t do that for the rest of his life but it’s fine for now.”
Training Horsey Athletes
Though each of his horses is different, the way Carl manages them is very similar with animal welfare and true horsemanship as directives. At Hester’s yard each horse gets four days of schooling (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday) with a hacking break on Wednesday and Saturday and a complete field break on Sunday. “We teach on Wednesday and Saturday’s because I can’t live from my riding,” Hester admitted.
Carl’s training ideas are “quite simple”. Dressage is “gymnastics for horses: stretch, collect, bend, straighten it. Don’t ride forward without control. With a lot of hot horses I don’t ride with spurs, especially when I’m teaching them something. When a horse is very intelligent and sensitive, they need to learn things. Going round and round is not enough to keep them occupied.”
Carl starts his training session on a horse with small walk exercises: “collected walk, long reins again and lots of transitions.” In trot he trains the lateral movements to supple the horse. “I don’t train much half passes so I do mostly leg yielding to supple the horse. It gives less wear and tear on the horse as the half passes are restricting. Even the zig zag we train in leg yield.”
A soft and light contact with the bit is essential at any time. “I test it while I’m riding. I test that at any point I can drop the rein so that he can stretch the neck. I’m always working on the correct frame. It’s more important than how deep, and stretched I ride him.”
Hester allows room for his horses to make mistakes. “Don’t override the horse to keep it going, but let it make some mistakes,” he said. “When I press the button, he has to stay in that movement on his own. “
With Nip Tuck Hester has to face the challenge of the horse’s conformation. “He’s got a bit of length in the back, so the hind legs are further behind him. The quickest for him to learn to use the half steps were forward half steps.”
On the big bay Carl rode a small walk, a few half steps in which the hind legs come more under, and then he trotted onwards. “I do this until I lose the hind legs and repeat it. Big movers have to be small movers, forward horses have to be collected. Always do the opposite,” he added.
Carl does most of the trot work in a rising trot. “Very rarely we sit the trot. Most of the trot is done in rising to encourage the horses to stay loose. Sitting can only make him move bigger.”
The large framed Nip Tuck was often flexed sideways, and not rolled, to supple the neck, but with a soft and unforceful contact. “I do the stretchy stuff to get him to carry his own head and neck. I flex with the rein, he flexes and then I release it. I unlock the neck. Each time I flexed him and he releases I get more stretch in front of the saddle.”
Carl’s competition horses are known for the happy expression, willingness to work and sound minds. Before Carl starts riding his horses, they are hacked 15 minutes, stretched 15 minutes and trained an immobile halt 30 times. “’It’s your fault if you can’t canter up the centerline and do a halt,’ said Doctor B and that’s something I always remember,” Carl explained.
At the end of every session his horses go round the field again and Carl’s not afraid to canter them. “We work them on the hills. I always find it interesting how dressage riders keep cantering round for hours and hours because they are working on something. In eventing we do a 3-minute canter, a break, a 3-minute canter.”
While referring to his top horse Uthopia, Carl said his method of training might take longer in time, but the horse stays healthier. “It will take me longer to get him stronger, to cope with the demands of the test, but that’s the way I work.”
Carl added that his horses are saddle broken at the age of 3,5. “We have a vet inspecting the horses every 6 weeks. We do lots of surface changing, walking on three different surfaces every day.”
“There’s Always Two at the Top”
Hester’s assistant trainer Charlotte Dujardin rode Carl and Roly Luard’s Valegro at the Forum. The bay is without a doubt one of the most talented, if not the most talented dressage horse on the international show scene. The 9-year old young Grand Prix horse did six Grand Prix tests in his life and won team gold at the Europeans.
“He got five weeks in the field after the Europeans, so he’s fat. I find it important for him to get a mental break. Then he had three weeks of walking on the road to harden his legs up. He’s back in training for almost four weeks,” Carl explained.
It doesn’t happen very often that a trainer altruisticly gives a top Grand Prix horse to his student and enables her to score 78% in an international Grand Prix. Dujardin has been working at Carl’s yard since 2007 and they are the personification of “opposites attract.”
“She’s not allowed to speak before 12 ‘o clock in the morning so we don’t fight,” said Carl. “She’s hot tempered, I’m not. She winds me up. She calls me granddad, she gets my blood up and then I ride better. There’s always two at the top!”
Carl and Charlotte always watch each other ride on Uthopia and Valegro. “She watches my session, I watch hers. We are very much in tune with each other.”
Though Carl focuses more on fitness, suppleness and mental health than test-riding, with the workaholic Valegro the pair did train consciously on getting the Grand Prix ingrained. “We trained the Grand Prix at home, so he knew where he was going to (at shows). Good anticipation is good, for instance for clean changes. It gives him the activity for the jump from behind.”
In principle Carl prepares for a show three weeks in advance. “Three weeks before I would build up and keep on building and then be more peaceful when we get there; just so that they have the energy right before the test.”
Valegro is a very alert and reactive horse. “He’s very sensitive, a touch of the rein, a touch of the leg. I want a horse that reacts when I touch him with the whip,. He needs to jump in the air, or have its tail in the air. Otherwise they should give it away as a police horse.”
Carl describes the powerful Valegro as a Welsh Cob: “This horse looks so strong in his power. He has a short back, a big ass. He’s got the head of a duchess and bottom of a cook.”
“He sweats between his hindlegs straight away,” said Carl. “That’s where his activity comes from. He’s got that power. As a 4 and 5-year old he didn’t have the trot. We started working on that when he was 6. He always had a huge extended trot but to get the softness in there (was the problem).”
With the compact Valegro Carl works much on stretching him over the back, getting him long and relaxed. “It took until he was 6 year that he was stretching in the way I felt it was right,” said Carl. “Stretching with this horse is best at the end of the session. Only do it at the end when it’s going to be beneficial. He needs to stretch in trot with the neck low, without running. This was his difficulty, just the looseness. People give up on it too quickly, either because it’s a bit difficult or it’s boring.”
While Carl was explaining his training methods and ideologies, Charlotte kept on riding Valegro in a rising trot allowing her horse to relax and stretch in the body. The emphasis on the basic work and not so much on exercise training is done to safekeep the health of the horse. “You have great moving 4 and 5-year olds but if your aim is Grand Prix and having your horse for a long period of time, it will be easier to be economical and ride him economically, so there is no punishment to his joints and his body. It’s work and it’s suppling and it’s making him last.”
Carl prefers not to ride with whips as he selects sensitive horses to work with. The piaffe he also trains from on top. “If I do pick up a whip I do it to help him with rhythm. Maybe one slap to make him react to the leg but then we put it down again. I don’t want to come out of the show ring with a red face and then blame it on a virus (for the horse not being forward).”
Charlotte and Valegro showed some piaffe steps in and out of walk. “It’s very important to know that you have the relaxation in walk after the piaffe. The piaffe should come out of relaxation, not from tension,” said Carl. “Like Kyra (Kyrklund), I like a piaffe where the reins are almost hanging and not one where the horse is pushing against the bit.”
Carl trains the tempi changes on the long side and uses the wall to straighten the horse.
At the end of the demo, Dujardin again allowed the horse to stretch its neck. “With the final stretching, don’t just do it one round. Do it 5 to 10 minutes, so it really means something and does something good for the horse.”
To Carl it is vital that horses can enjoy a horsey life while being top athletes at the same. “That mental break after the Europeans thought Valegro more than let’s make him better.”
Carl concluded his demo with his views on healthy horse management: “The best way to keep your horse sound is to keep it moving. They are out for one hour and half, but only trained for 30 minutes. They go out in the field, or in the walker or on the hard for 20 minutes like this horse. It’s a full time job to do this at the best of your ability.”
In a panel discussion after the demo, Dr. Hilary Clayton commented Carl that “You don’t drill dressage every day. It is the physiologically and psychologically healthy way of managing horses.”
Text & Photos © Astrid Appels/Eurodressage.com - No Reproduction Allowed without permission
Eurodressage Coverage of the 2011 Global Dressage Forum