Confession time: up until early last year, I’d never seen a dressage routine. I knew about dressage the same way that most people know about windsurfing or bocce ball—I’d read about the sport and I knew enough to spout off the tagline “it’s like ballet with horses”, but the movements/scoring system was a mystery to me.
Enter Charlotte Dujardin and her freestyle routine at the FEI World Cup.
Charlotte and Valegro were my introduction to dressage. When I began my return to horseback riding as an adult, I knew I wanted to explore English disciplines (hunters/jumpers, three day eventing, etc.), and Charlotte’s How to Train Your Dragon inspired routine was the first dressage video I watched. Talk about setting high standards, right? 😛
The clinic was being held at the Evergreen Equestrian Park (the same place that the Show Buddy had her 4-H show back in July), so I was familiar with the venue—which made it all the more shocking when I entered the building and found it transformed into a regulation size dressage arena with a set of shops at the end (including an Olson’s booth where I bought a Breyer Valegro and a Sellaria Equipe booth that featured some damn fine saddles that cost more than my horse).
I spent a few minutes browsing through merch (while simultaneously mourning the perennially drained state of my pocketbook), then I climbed up into the stands and claimed a spot in the upper levels (there literally wasn’t a bad seat in the house). Soon the stands started to fill up and I was surrounded by snippets of conversations about training routines, show coat colors, and boot brands. It was awesome to be surrounded by people who share my passion for horses!
The idea behind Charlotte’s current tour is to display the different levels of training a dressage horse goes through throughout its career. The clinic started with a four year old and then finished with a Grand Prix level horse, meaning the movements and the instruction provided by Charlotte grew more advanced as the night wore on and the audience was able to follow along as Charlotte told the story of how dressage horses at her stables are trained through the levels.
Four Year Old: Sodovergards Landedel
To kick things off, a very young, very tense warmblood was led out into the arena. For the safety of the rider on board, the audience stayed hushed while Charlotte Dujardin introduced Sodovergards Landedel, a four year old Danish Warmblood gelding owned by local dressage trainer Aaron Janicki of Janicki Dressage (more on him later). SL was 17 hands of sexy (of all five horses featured during the clinic, I think he was the one I found to be most appealing to my eye), and while he was more than a little nervous to be schooling in front of an audience, he settled down pretty quickly once he was framed up and the real work started happening.
If I had three times as much courage and an extra 60k laying around, he might be a serious temptation. Alas, I’m low on both bravery and funds, so I’ll have to stick with my APHA. 😆
For a young dressage horse, Charlotte placed a lot of emphasis on training the basics. She stressed that the most important concept for a horse to learn as a four year old is stop and go (with primary emphasis being on GO).
“Horses have all their life to collect,” Charlotte said. “Just go forwards.”
Charlotte typically spends only twenty minutes a day on her four year old horses, with the first ten focused around submission and the last ten focused on encouraging the horse to stretch (particularly since dressage horses are primarily built uphill, which makes stretch work all the more important since its harder for an uphill horse to get the stretch). Stretching at the end, according to Charlotte, is also important because it makes the horse feel relaxed and ends things on a positive note that encourages the horse to enjoy the concept of working in the arena.
Between pushing SL’s rider to really stretch her hand towards the bit to encourage more forward motion and chiding her for letting sloppy downward transitions slide (a cardinal sin all five riders would receive admonishment for), Charlotte also provided some insights on SL’s conformation/movements and some of the things that she looks for in a dressage prospect. In particular she liked the circular motion of his front legs and the way his hind legs really reached underneath himself at the trot/canter, but was less impressed with with his overtrack/shoulder use at the walk (Her solution? More hacking out, especially uphill, plus ground pole exercises to stretch his stride out!).
In Charlotte’s view, though, the most important trait a dressage horse can have is trainability. She’d much rather own a horse with good gaits that really wants to work with her than a horse with fantastic gaits that has to be convinced to put the work in.
Charlotte also made a point of reminding both rider and audience that it’s important not to push a horse to continue to perform when their energy is clearly depleted. In her experience, horses do their best work at the beginning of the ride, when their energy is at its highest, so it’s unfair to ask them to continue when it’s grown physically challenging for them.
“It’s about the training. Dressage is gymnastics.”
Five Year Old: Harrold S
While SL finished stretching, in came our five year old: Harrold S, a Dutch Warmblood brought in by Darnell Dressage. Despite SL being 17 hands, Harrold look massive compared to him. He had a thick, almost blocky build with a delicate looking head. At first I wasn’t sure he appealed to me aesthetically, but his personality caught my eye right off the bat. Harrold happily sauntered into the arena without batting an eye at the hundreds of eyes watching him from the stands, and he didn’t so much as flinch when we gave SL a final round of applause (a fact made even more impressive when his rider confirmed he hadn’t been ridden in competition before). He was large, nonplussed, and a little on the slow side—my kind of guy. SL was too much horse for me, but I think I would have taken Harrold home right on the spot. 😀
Charlotte used Harrold’s introduction to talk a little bit about bloodlines (Harrold is by Vivaldi, a KWPN stallion known for his trainability) and then to point out that long horses like Harrold are harder to push underneath themselves, so the goal is to “package him up” to make his body shorter (and, conversely, a short horse should be ridden in such a way as to be made longer). She also said that big horses tire faster, and to keep in mind that “it’s all about the future” and it’s important not to overwork the individual dressage movements.
“Sometimes you have to forget dressage. It’s not always about being the best,” Dujardin warned. “It’s not about how quickly you can train your horse to do all the tricks.”
It quickly became clear that while not behind the leg, Harrold was slightly sluggish and not necessarily the most responsive to his rider’s leg. After spending a moment to profess her preference for hot horses over a kick ride, Charlotte focused her time with Harrold and his rider on the idea of really riding Harrold forward to help make him sharper off of the rider’s leg and to help him create a sense of self-motivation. She had Harrold’s rider focus on adjustability by pushing for big, extended gaits, then collecting him back up, then pushing him out again—but not without trouble. It took a long time for Harrold’s rider to really find the extension Charlotte was looking for (to the point where Charlotte even asked her if she’d ever taken a horse out for a gallop before, a question to which the rider laughed and then solemnly shook her head, which all but baffled Charlotte).
“Go on, be brave!” Charlotte said. “When I say go, he’s got to go.”
According to Charlotte, it’s a natural reaction on a young horse to hold them back, but in reality holding a young horse only teaches them to be backwards instead of forwards. It’s important not to chase and to soften the reins for an even contact, and to remember that lazy horses actually need less leg and hotter horses need more (a concept which can seem counter-intuitive). The goal is to develop a horse that enters a gait and then stays “self-propelled” without any additional pushing.
After Charlotte had helped the rider find all of Harrold’s gears (and taught her how to properly pat her horse, much to the crowd’s amusement) it was amazing how much the quality of Harrold’s gaits had improved. From there Charlotte let them move onto leg yields while she stood by and reminded them that bending on a leg yield was paramount to cheating. She also gave them strict instructions to work in the rising trot—young horses are typically not strong enough through their back to handle long periods of sitting trot, and it can make their back stiff and be detrimental to their development.
Out of the five horses featured in the clinic, watching Harrold S taught me the most because the problems Charlotte was addressing felt a lot like some of the problems that I have with my own horse (love him dearly, but he’s a lazy son of a gun).
“You have to ride forward.”
Six Year Old: Romance D’annika
The moment Romance D’annika, a six year old Swedish Warmblood brought in by Zoo Station Dressage, entered the arena, it was very clear she was a mare (and not just because recently cut Harrold’s eyes bugged out 😛 ). She had an almost delicate build—Charlotte called her “elegant, beautiful to look at”, then launched into the ever popular discussion about gender preferences in horses (her verdict being that she likes both geldings and mares, but that stallions are too much of a hassle because she “likes an easy life” LOL).
By six years old, Charlotte expects a horse to be able to perform small amounts of renvers/travers, shoulder in, and half-pass (AKA second and third level maneuvers). RD had experience with all of those (though her flying changes were not yet established). Her rider’s request? Exercises to help improve RD’s sense of submission—a feeling most mare owners no doubt sympathize with.
They started out working on RD’s shoulder in, with Charlotte really hammering home that the flexion should happen through the poll, not the neck, and that there should be a curve around the rider’s leg, but not a full bend.
From there they moved onto the travers as a lead into the half-pass (the idea being that the half-pass is like a travers on a diagonal line). Charlotte had the rider turn her hip towards the inside, then start the travers by leg yielding down the wall before adding the bend (the correct way to teach a horse the travers, according to Charlotte). Even through the travers and the half-pass, Charlotte reminded the rider to “try not to get stuck on one rhythm”—Charlotte had her extend/collect throughout the movements, all while keeping the rib cage properly bent around the leg and the horse on the bit.
Then it was an onslaught of transitions. Charlotte had the rider take RD down the long side of the arena while alternating between the shoulder in and the travers over and over again with varying levels of success. It was a lot to think about all at once, and whenever there was a minor fumble Charlotte was quick to point it out.
“Slap the rider and pat the horse,” she said when the rider accidentally misdirected D’annika. “You’ve got to look where you’re riding. Let’s see if we can pat both of you.”
By the time Charlotte called off the chaos, I can only imagine that both rider and horse were mentally frazzled. Unfortunately, they followed in the footsteps of the last two riders and made the mistake of biffing their downward transition, which meant they had to repeat it several times before Charlotte was content. Even then, Charlotte took a moment to lecture on the importance of having consistent standards while training, especially for transitions. After all, even downward transitions should push forward instead of collapsing down and back.
“I’m a perfectionist. I want to make it as good as I can get it,” she said, unashamed.
She let DA and her rider have a small breather and then, despite the rider’s warning that RD’s lead changes were not established, Charlotte made the decision to spend some time schooling them. She took them down to the far end of the arena and had them pick up a tiny figure 8 (10m circles!) so that they had a small, bouncy canter, then focus on pushing straight for the change.
A couple of awkward half changes later (and a reminder that rhythm is important and it’s okay for young horses to make mistakes), DA had one clean change on each side and a loud round of applause from the audience. They got a small warning from Charlotte about the “lead changes EVERYWHERE” phase of a horse’s training, then they got to end with a long session of stretching while Charlotte shared personal stories about her time at her own stables (including the fact that she saves Valegro for the last ride of the day because he always puts a smile on her face 🙂 ).
Prix St. Georges: Sashay
After an hour break for lunch, we came back to our seats to find a tiny powerhouse (powerhorse?) warming up in the arena. Sashay, a twelve year old Dutch Warmblood owned by Kat Southam Dressage, taped in at only 15.2 hands (which of course inspired Charlotte to share some of the story of Toretto AKA Pumpkin, Charlotte Dujardin’s own great-things-come-in-small-packages horse that she purchased during a clinic in California late last year). Sashay had a short, bouncy look to her movement and a very intense, focused personality.
Sashay’s rider chose to focus on improving their canter pirouettes for the majority of their ride time. After a quick demo of Sashay’s gaits, Charlotte quickly pegged her as a very tight, almost mechanical mare who was best served by improving her pirouettes by not practicing them. Instead she had them work on extending/collecting their canter on a circle, then sent them out to do a complex exercise involving the half-pass, shoulder in, and the travers in a way that built the foundations of their pirouettes without drilling them.
Charlotte coached her to collect/extend/collect/extend along the straight line and through the half-pass, then bring Sashay back for the shoulder in/travers (like a loose pirouette).
With that new exercises tucked away in their tool belt, Charlotte took a look at their four tempi changes (“I mean, they’re okay. You’ve got them.”) and then encouraged the rider to push for a rounder canter and more uphill movement to make Sashay’s flying changes really stand out. She stressed the value of exaggerating expression for a small horse, particularly one that has technically mastered the movements, but still lacks a certain flair that makes for truly captivating tests.
Taking risks is what wins medals. Push yourself beyond what you think you can do.
Grand Prix: Constant S
While Sashay and her rider finished up the last of their exercises, Constant S leaped gamely into arena. For a moment the audience (and Charlotte) got distracted by CS’s display of feisty-ness, then his rider got him back under wraps. At only nine years old, Constant S (a Dutch Warmblood from Janicki Dressage, the same stable that brought the four year old) was training at Grand Prix level (but not yet competing), which meant many of his movements were still a work in progress—it was really neat to see such a high level of finishing work happening in front of us!
After a funny moment where Sashay and her rider literally rode 8m circles around Constant S (much to the amusement of Charlotte), Charlotte introduced Constant S and his rider, both of whom had taken a lesson with her the day before. Charlotte gave the audience an overview what they had been working on (“I taught him how to count to six,” she said when talking about their work with zig zags and tempi changes), then sent them off to start working on their zig zags.
Right off the bat, CS’s rider got in trouble for cutting off one of his corners. Charlotte made him go around again and take the corner very deep, with a reminder that the corner sets up the timing for the whole movement, so it’s paramount to ride it correctly.
From there Charlotte coached him to be softer through his arms. Whenever CS got tight and started to pull, Charlotte had him push the horse forward and soften his hand. Pulling back on a horse that’s tense only causes the horse to pull more, which makes for a poor performance—especially at such a high level of competition as Grand Prix—plus good lead changes come from forward motion (AKA more leg, something my own trainer is always pushing me for, especially since I prefer a lazier ride).
They got a few good zig zags and then moved on—“Quality,” Charlotte said, “is more important than quantity.”
Tempi changes came next. As a tall male rider with long, long legs, he had a little trouble with his leg sliding too far back (a problem I’ll never have, LOL) and then over-cuing/touching his horse’s flank, but once he pulled his leg forward it came down to having the mental organization to stay focused and count the strides correctly (a tough job, especially since CS had a big, bouncy flying change). It was common for him to make his way down the long wall and then have to sheepishly apologize at the end for adding a couple of extras, which earned him teasing from Charlotte.
They spent a few minutes practicing some sequences of movements from the Grand Prix test (straightforward on their own, but downright hectic when you have to put them all together), then moved onto my favorite part of the Grand Prix demonstration: the passage to piaffe/piaffe to passage transition.
Before they got deep into the transitions, Charlotte had a good look at CS’s passage. Even the passage has to be ridden forward, so Charlotte had him spend some time extending and collecting up the passage (the same sort of adjustability exercise that she had every other rider do, albeit typically at the trot or the canter and not within a complex movement like the passage) before they got into the nitty gritty of the transition between passage and piaffe.
“Even the passage should have gears. Even the piaffe must have forward.”
It took me a moment to figure out what Charlotte was leading up to, but eventually the goal was to reel the passage in enough that CS could make a seamless transition down to the piaffe without losing his forward motion. From there stepping out of the piaffe and back into the passage was a matter of doing that same transition backwards. Charlotte explained that she likes all of her horses to have four different passage’s: their normal passage, an extended passage, the passage they use to get into the piaffe, and the passage they use to get out. Practicing those four different passages is what makes the transitions between passage and piaffe quicker and more refined.
“Don’t train the movements, train exercises,” she advised. “The horse should always be waiting for you.”
CS picked up the piaffe to passage transition fairly quickly, but he really struggled with the transition between the passage and the piaffe. Often he would sputter out right between the two, throwing in a walk or a canter step or otherwise fumbling with his legs in an effort to try to discover what his rider was asking for. The audience was on the edge of their seats every time the rider coaxed CS through it one more time, and when they finally got it there was a loud round of applause and murmurs of appreciation—we all knew the struggle that comes with trying to teach a horse something new.
At the end of the night…
Charlotte used her last few minutes to talk about the importance of always striving for better, particularly in a sport like dressage where there’s always room for improvement. She encouraged the audience to self-evaluate frequently, and to really push to make both rider and horse better with every movement.
“I always ask myself, ‘Is that as good as I can get it?'”
$150, six hours, and 1,000,000 notes later, Charlotte ended the clinic around 9:30pm. I hung around for an extra half an hour for the chance to meet Charlotte, then I left with two huge pages of notes (that have translated into this monster 3,600 word post), a signed Valegro, and a renewed sense of enthusiasm for my horse’s training (as delayed as it may be by his recent injury). I can’t wait to get back on Ezhno so that I can enact some of the things I learned from the masterclass!