Isabell Werth Masterclass at Helgstrand USA: "As Much as Necessary, As Less as Possible"

Thu, 02/01/2024 - 19:05
Training Your Horse
Isabell Werth masterclass at Helgstrand USA on 29 January 2024. Werth coaching Mackenzie Peer on Lorence de Jeu :: Photos © Carmen Franco

-- Text and Photos © Carmen Franco for Eurodressage

It’s not a secret that I’m a total Isabell Werth’s fan and I had the chance to watch her one more time in a free Masterclass at the beautiful Windsome Farm of Helgstrand Dressage USA in Wellington, Florida, on 29 January 2024. 

Sport Under Pressure

Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is the controversy surrounding Helgstrand and the undercover documentary Operation X. Who do we support? The following words were spoken by Andreas at the beginning: “we are in a situation where our sport is under pressure and it’s good to explain how we do things.”  Isabell Werth agreed and followed by saying "mistakes need to be, corrected, and make things transparent to be able to maintain our sport going forward. We are athletes, we are nothing without being able to perform with our partners."

The clicker counted 879 attendees and they all will agree with me in saying that it was an absolute treat to be able to see her coach four of Helgstrand's sales horses. As the cherry on the cake at the end it was even more outstanding to see her ride one of their previously sold horses, Patricia Ferrando's Honnaisseur, who is in training with Lars Petersen, the head trainer at this location. 

Werth in Wellington
The program was supposed to be just an hour, followed by a Masterclass with jumping legend Ludger Beerbaum. The dressage part took over 2 hours and only because Isabell needed to be interrupted in every session. “There is never enough time in these things” or “they are making signs over there; we need to finish” she jokingly said. Her desire to teach and improve the horses and riders  was palpable. 

Andreas himself did the introduction with his eyes beaming with pride to have the two of the most famous riders in the world together at his place. Business partner Ludger Beerbaum was also there to give a Jumping Masterclass, but it has less attendant than Werth's dressage masterclass.  The two German masters share no less than 18 Olympic medals altogether, 12 of them are Isabell’s.

They are outstanding athletes and their presence there proved their close alliance and partnership with Helgstrand Dressage despite the ripples caused by Operation X.

If You Love the Fire, You Have to Accept the Smell of Smoke

Hannah Bressler on Sir Giant
The first one in the presentation was a lovely 2018 Oldenburg gelding Sir Giant (by Sir Donnerhall x Florestan). Rider Hannah Bressler  did a great job managing the tension as the atmosphere was quite intense. Despite the tension, the horse showed very clear walk with shoulder freedom and overtrack. Isabell remarked on the advantages of his uphill conformation, otherwise it needs to be done with training. She also commended the forward attitude of the horse by joking: “you need a motivated horse, otherwise 60 meters get too long.” For her, top horses are hot, but they focus on their rider. 

They went on to work on transitions between and within gaits, mostly on circle lines. There was a constant reminder for the rider to look for the steady connection through the tempo changes, even if the horse becomes “heavier” for a while. The little transitions and tempo variations will promote the engagement of the hindleg, the engagement will improve the balance, and in the end, the horse will carry itself into lightness.   

Werth coaching Bressler on Sir Giant
She touched on the topic of the Young Horse competitions and said she’s not interested in them, she worries more about training transitions with suppleness, thinking what comes in the future for Grand Prix. If you go to Young Horse competitions, you have to train the expression early on.

She coached Hannah through many transitions with the clucking of her tongue and the never failing, very German: “zsoooo” to make the horse get more relaxed with a nice cadence and swing. There were always instructions for the use of the hands, mostly lowering them; using the legs in great timing; and above all, using the seat. The conclusion: “this is not spectacular, but this is good for elasticity to make the horse go to Grand Prix.” He looked proud at the end. 

Concentrate on Your Horse, Not on the Mirror

The second horse had just arrived from Europe two days ago and was overwhelmed with the atmosphere. He didn’t do anything bad, but just a bit terrified of going down one of the long sides. Isabell quickly coached Emma Count to keep Newton Jil T, a 2018 born KWPN gelding by Franklin – Desperado x Florencio, on a circle around her insisting on the bending with inside leg and rein. She said, "maybe is not correct but bring your hands wider” this to keep an easier control of the path and to bring the horse to the outside rein, which had to be low.

Emma Count on Newton Jil T
Isabell really encouraged Emma to give the horse the confidence he lacked, through both legs and hands, with a lot of support of the seat; first at the walk, then at the trot rising, then sitting. When he gave a few signs of relaxation, she told her to make the circle bigger but still staying away from the fence. At some point Isabell threatened to close the mirrors: “concentrate on your horse, not on the mirror!” After working a few rounds each way at the canter, they went back to the trot. His canter is big and, even though she wanted to work on collecting it, had to settle with it. “Today is not the day to work too many exercises because he is too impressed with the atmosphere.” They did work on some leg-yieldings from the quarter line to the fence to get more control.

At the end she said she wished to have had a few more minutes to keep finding keys to help him relax and encouraged Emma to leave at the trot as she had better control with the impulsion, than at the walk. The advice to all of us was to take horses like this to many different places and to shows with days in advance to help them settling in. Despite the tension, he showed beautiful, flowy gaits.

As Much as Necessary, As Less as Possible

Then was Mackenzie Peer's lucky turn to come in with Lorence de Jeu (2016 KWPN gelding by Glamourdale x Jazz x Flemmingh). At first view, Isabell suggested he needed more flexion and asked them to work on leg-yields. He showed some nice swinging over the back, but Isabell kept insisting Mackenzie to work with her seat to bring elasticity into the horse. They went a step further on engagement compared to the previous horses and showed some “passagey” steps which Isabell described as “still not perfect passage, but he is very nice from behind and regular”. 

Werth coaching Peer on Lorence de Jeu
They worked on shoulder-in and half-passes, changing the tempo through them. For more freedom of the shoulder, concentrate on starting the half-pass on shoulder-in. 

It was very good to see the work at the walk: they went on full diagonals a few times in extended walk, then collected over the short side. You could clearly see the improvement in each diagonal as Isabell coached Mackenzie to let him stretch and open in front: “let him chew.

At the canter they worked on collecting and opening the strides and at one point we heard: “don’t just sit nice, be effective, you are allowed to move! Collect as much as necessary, as less as possible.” They managed to perform nice transitions within the canter without interrupting the jump. 

When working on flying changes, more straightness was required as the horse would lean on one shoulder more than the other. For the correction, it was asked to pay attention to the alignment of the shoulder in the line of travel. They went from the diagonal to work on the third track for easier alignment.  They moved on to canter pirouettes working on a circle around her, then to piaffe. The timing of the instruction made a big difference to the results we saw. The pirouettes kept the canter jump through smooth turns and the piaffe showed engagement and regularity. They just needed to develop the maturity to feel comfortable staying in the movement. 

Improve Your Horse During the Exercises

It was time now for a more seasoned horse: Alexander Helgstrand came on the 15-year old KWPN bred Eye Catcher (by Vivaldi x Partout) to demonstrate Grand Prix movements.

Alexander Helgstrand on Eye Catcher
He had freshly arrived in Florida, but you could tell he is experienced and wasn’t faced at all with the environment like the younger ones that went earlier.  They started a very normal warm-up where Isabell even asked for the trot to have less expression. When they moved to collected work, they showed some beautiful half-passes with nice crossing legs. Isabell remarked the importance of the inside leg to make the horse move forward, not just sideways. She helped Alexander with her voice to find a better timing for the passage aids and said: “this is what I would like to have at competitions sometimes.” Of course, we all laughed and we ended up clapping at the rhythm of the passage too! 

To get to the piaffe she suggested getting a smaller passage first. She asked him to go on a diagonal line and collect without thinking of piaffe, when there was a good balance on the seat, then ask for it. She also encouraged Alexander to move the horse in the piaffe, turning left or right. “Lunchtime is going to be a bit shorter; we are not here to eat.” She said referring to how long it was taking her to work this session. And honestly, we could have watched for so much longer! 

The Queen Gets On

Werth on Honnaisseur SJ
Alexander left the arena with all of us clapping at the rhythm of his passage and his proud father told Isabell with a big smile on his face: “now let’s see if you can do it better than him, it’s always easier from the ground as many knowledgeable people do.” They were bringing a horse into the arena for her to get on. She took the joke with a short reply “I don’t know why I said yes to this”. It was not just an educational day; it was also fun to hear these exchanges and comments between them. 

Isabell Werth told us she had ridden Honnaisseur SJ (aka “Hugo”, Patricia Ferrando’s 12-year old Grand Prix horse by Connoisseur x Jazz) for ten minutes in the morning and he was very spooky and fresh. She had planned to say they gave her the wrong horse if things didn’t go well, but he was relaxed and seemed happy to have her on the saddle. 

Werth on Honnaisseur SJ
It’s difficult to believe she didn’t know this horse for more than what they did in the morning, because they went on to really give us a Masterclass on riding. The warm-up was a normal rising trot, letting him stretch and feel his reactions, testing how well connected and in front of the aids he could stay as she was worried about the shape of the neck, it could look short.  She made clear she was working him round and deep and not putting him up all the time in a show frame. At the canter she concentrated on keeping the rhythm when collecting and bringing the horse to the seat. “Flying changes are different from rider to rider, find the key to do them the way of the horse.” Of course, she went on to do two and one tempi changes, beautiful, straight, expressive.

In every movement she rode, she described what she paid attention to: the shoulder, the ear, the hindleg, her leg, her seat. She admitted her mistake when she was not right about asking something and then  went on to try it again with better preparation. “During work, move the horse, this is not a static thing.” In the pirouettes and half-passes she opened the reins (separated her hands wide) to help align the shoulders. She rode the horse in a very round frame

She finished the session with an outstanding passage in a correct frame performed to the attendees’ clapping hands.  She was obviously having fun and said: “not too bad.”

How Do We Improve Our Sport?

Andreas Helgstrand and Isabell Werth
The conclusion of the Masterclass was a little speech from her about how we all try to get the best out of our horses, not everyone has a top horse, and we all make mistakes. Things can’t be judged by a picture from social media. She then gave another push of support to Andreas by saying that she has several horses in training from Helgstrand Dressage and it has been a positive experience for them. "I am not saying this because of the current situation, but because it is the truth, and we all have a responsibility to preserve our sport.”

Andreas came in with his wife and thanked Isabell profusely, gifting her a piece of jewelry from their collection. The audience was  invited to lunch of hamburgers and sausages with fries. Ludger Beerbaum was on after the food had served.

It truly was a fantastic way to spend a few hours on a cold Florida Monday!

-- Text and Photos © Carmen Franco for Eurodressage

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