by Carmen Franco for Eurodressage
I found the perfect excuse to make a mini-vacation trip to the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, Florida, to see the Carl Hester "Through the Levels" Masterclass 3 December 2022.
The place is one of a kind with its huge hotel and many buildings (arenas and barns with AC inside) surrounding it. It really leaves you speechless to see the size of everything and you are left even more amazed at this time of the year with the Christmas decorations. Winter Wonderland is the event going on: lights everywhere!
The masterclass was held in Arena 1 and it was absolutely packed. Lines started forming four hours before the event as seating was first come first served. This meant that the early birds had a good, centrally located seat while the late comers ended up quite far away from the action with poor visibility. This reporter paid 185$ for her ticket.
The program started promptly at the time announced and from the first couple of horses, we all started learning from the Master. Carl, with his usual humbleness, admitted he was stressed about the Masterclass and added that, even though he has done quite a few, they don’t get any easier for him. Carl had not seen the horses work and just talked to the riders briefly in the morning. The riders were selected (by the clinic organizer?) based on video entries and several of them were predictable Florida-based social media stars.
Famous, familiar or unknown, for Hester it was all the same and he worked with the riders with commitment.
"Canter is my Favourite Gait"
The first combination riding in front of probably more than 1300 people was Santiago Burssens with the 4-year old Oldenburg bred Fürst Rover (by Fürst Wilhelm x Dimaggio) and Canadian Mathilde Blais Tetreault with the 5-year-old KWPN bred Moreira (by Ironman x Krack C). Very nice young horses both, but quite diverse types. Santiago’s horse was tall and leggy, with great balance and ease of go.
Carl reminded us how important it is,when buying a young horse to look at the gaits but mainly at the canter as the Grand Prix has so many movements with coefficients. “Look at the canter both ways. Most of the horses have the right side stiff.”
Mathilde’s horse was a bit tense and distracted at times. “Not everyone can ride the same type of horses. Matching is important. Good reactions are the ones that are going to make your horse go to GP. There is no perfect horse, there is no perfect rider.”
As Mathilde went around at the trot and canter, Carl stressed the importance of the hand position to bring the horse to a steadier connection. He admitted one of his pet peeves was the rider’s hand holding the reins with open fingers. As he corrected these details, he also reminded her how to help the horse maintain better balance by not riding so forward. “Transitions are the key to a supple back.” While coaching her through the transitions, he insisted on “giving/easy hands.” The ideal picture of a finished GP horse is the one with a neck well arched forward and the rider being able to give with hands forward. “Horse needs to feel the door opening in front.”
As the horse relaxed, the strides got better, and Carl made us laugh by saying that the best walk the horses show, is always the one at the end of the test, because the rider relaxes.
"Good Collection Makes Good Extension"
Second session featured Neve Myburgh with Fashion Forward (Westfalian mare by Fahrenheit x Depardieu x Gratianus) and Andrea Woodard with Kaliber L (KWPN gelding by Franklin x Rubin Royal). Again, quite different horses but both great examples for the viewers.
Neve had asked for ways to improve the canter as her mare tends to be flat. Carl asked her to work in a circle and develop strides more in the spot, taking the poll up and shifting the weight to the hindlegs. Canter/walk transitions can’t look heavy. “Flying changes will help her make the canter better.”
Coaching her through by riding transitions, Carl reminded her to start canter with outside leg and to be consistent and soft with aids. Horse needs to be straight with the inside hindleg stepping in between forehand.
Andrea wasn’t clear on how to ride a shoulder-in with correct angle, so Carl worked on making the movement have a start in the corner with the bend and the angle, a middle where the strides are maintained over the line of travel, and a finish where the shoulders go back to the track. Every movement has these 3 phases. “Point your outside toe towards A or C” was a great tip for Andrea to find how to maintain the correct angle.
While working on lateral movements, he asked to give and retake the reins to make the trot look softer and not staccato. “It has to look natural.” He also made her sit with her upper body straighter, to go more with the horse, with an active but not pushing seat. In trot extensions Kaliber got a bit wide behind, which Carl said not to worry about as it’s just a strength issue. “Teach him slow opening.”
Neve went back to work on walk pirouettes on the wall to better know how big they were. They got clearly better after practicing a sequence of haunches-in followed by shoulder-in, then half-pass, leg yield, shoulder-in, then pirouette.
For the extended walk, he recommended to use the arms like rowing: “push neck away from the body of the horse.”
They went on into medium trot where he suggested to do it posting to help the reach and scope. “The horse needs to know how much it can do, push it.” If the back stiffens, play with some strides between renvers, straight, renvers. And never forget to reward!
“A good collected trot in a Grand Prix horse looks like medium trot, be confident of going forward and give with the reins!”
It was Andrea’s turn to work on flying changes on a serpentine where he stressed the rider should know the number of strides the horse does on a 20-meter circle. That will make riding movements and/or changes easier by counting because of the timing of the aids. Kaliber's changes were wonderful on the centerline!
"Always do the Opposite of What You Got"
In the third session, Carl admitted having “cheated” by selecting this horse because it was one he rode for a while. MSJ Charmer (Westfalian gelding by Charmeur x Danone x Rubinstein) is now ridden by Mikala Munter. It’s a big horse that can go easy for 20 minutes but not 30. Carl told us he learned to go forward when he accepted to be collected and lighter on hand. They worked on many repetitions between smaller and bigger strides in canter, maintaining the horse in front of the leg with a soft pressure and an easy hand. Through leg-yiedling the horse got more loose.
He reminded Mikala to ride the corners properly: “Don’t make your ring 18 x 58!” “Dedicate yourself to get better, nobody is perfect,” said Carl encouraging all of us to work on precision. "We can all improve our scores by riding with accuracy." And he went on to guide her through the Prix St. Georges zig-zag at canter stressing how to concentrate on the details: the corner needs to feel upright with bending, when leaving the track at F, follow the letters, point the horse’s head to H, don’t get to the centerline too early, ride the change straight, show equal bending.
During Mikala’s break, Carl said the ideal should be beginners on schoolmasters and to have a positive goal that all horses could get to Grand Prix. Not all of them will be super stars, though. After learning on schoolmasters, riders need to learn how to train one.
If the horse doesn’t have a natural, suspended trot, the way you sit down will help develop it: you must have movement/flexibility in your hips. Work on strides forward and back with the upper body up and a forward giving hand. Everything needs to look fluent.
And the tip for a better half-halt: brace yourself in the middle for one stride.
"Do You Think Charlotte Dujardin Will Ride That?"
Carly Taylor-Smith rode in the fourth session with Animo (Oldenburg gelding by Antango x Ampere x Jazz). Her challenge was to make the horse lighter in the hand and Carl suggested to do sessions of small canter / release through half-halts with hands giving towards the ears and stressed not to push and hold at the same time. After working on half-passes where the corrections centered on moving both hands to the outside if the horse wanted to drop into the inside shoulder or vice versa, they went down to the walk. Carl warned that when you have a young horse with a huge walk, they have the tendency to be slow and most probably they will be slow to learn the half steps. They went on to work pirouettes, then flying changes on the diagonal lines. The instruction was not to bend much in the corner before the line of changes and to focus on riding letter to letter. When a transition went wrong, Carl asked if she thought Charlotte would ride it like that. Even though we all laughed, we got a good reminder of how important is to be precise.
For sure basics will improve things, but also riding movements accurately will help with the progress. “Every horse is different, know how long your horse can do productive work.”
Another good piece of advice on how to improve the position of the rider was to think if it will fall upright into its feet, when taking the horse away.
"A Hot Horse Needs to be Ridden with Lazy Aids"
Denielle Gallagher and Come Back de Massa (Lusitano gelding by Galopin Font x Quixote) were the reserve combination for the Masterclass. Carl said he made the decision to let them ride as he knows how uncomfortable it feels to be in the position of reserve rider for the team. It was great to watch them work as it was the only non-warmblood of the group. Carl was very emphatic on making Denielle ride the hot horse with aids on and asked her to walk very short and slow on bending lines when he was tense. “Don’t give up on working the walk because he is stressed!”
With his usual humor, Carl made funny comments like “when you are my age, canter is your go to gait; trot is for the youngest” and he reminded all of us that no matter how old you are, you can always improve. When riding lines of changes, Carl asked her to do them on the track to correct the tendency to be crooked. He suggested to do steeper half-passes to improve the canter.
This pair worked in several movements finishing with schooling piaffe and passage. For the piaffe told her to use a lighter seat, for the passage heavier. He encouraged her to do the passage at posting trot too and help bringing the shoulders up. The horse needs to look like having two arches in his topline: one from tail to withers and one from withers to head.
Another funny comment was when correcting the hand position: “that piano hand needs to be chopped off… it’s doing nothing anyway! That is how you carry a handbag; this is how you ride!” mimicking turning the fist from horizontal to upright with thumb at highest point.
"Everybody is so Knowledgeable"
Final session of the day was Cody Harrison with Katholt’s Bossco (Danish warmblood geldin by Blue Hors Don Schufro x Michellino). They delighted us with Grand Prix work. Carl told us not to be disappointed if our first Grand Prix tests are in low 60s. It takes time to be able to produce scores for 8, 9 or 10; they require harmony and risk. “If you don take risks at home, don’t take them in competitions.”
For riding pirouettes, he stressed to be sure you can ride shoulder-in and travers in a small circle without tension in the rein and that you can canter easily on the spot. Start the pirouette in shoulder-in, use the outside leg as accelerator, the inside to keep the horse upright. Make your body long, and let the centerline be the middle of the pirouette, showing that most riders do it on one side of it. “Keep the poll up as if the horse has a glass of water between the ears.” Once you get the positioning in control, turn the shoulders first, think turning like a clock: each stride at 10 minutes marks.
For the changes he insisted on the rider doing them from the seat and leg, not from a swinging upper body. They repeated a few diagonals as they had the tendency to finish too early on the long side.
Carl advised to get horses prepared for the change from the quiet warm-up arenas to the main ring with spectators, lights, noise. “Everybody is so knowledgeable… when they see a horse not halting at X for the salute, they think is bad training…”
They finished with a lovely session of passage (where he stressed the importance of smaller steps for better engagement) and piaffe (where he asked her to think like rein-back but with neck away, light hand connection) followed by stretching in the trot. “Only when a horse is light in your hands, you can influence his legs” and “good training is when you can show your horse can stretch” were some of the final comments of the day.
Without a doubt, Carl’s charisma, wit, experience, and knowledge made the perfect ingredients for a fantastic, inspiring Masterclass. He was quick to address the issues and offer solutions, with positive changes that were visible in all the sessions.
by Carmen Franco for Eurodressage
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Carl Hester is the 2019 British Grand Prix Champion