Written by: Alison King

Three fundamental take-home lessons for every rider.

Thumbnail for 3 Lessons from Carl Hester

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It’s not every day you get a lesson from a true master of the sport, but more than 1,000 spectators and a handful of lucky riders got just that opportunity when Carl Hester, dressage master, travelled to Canada last October for a masterclass at the Caledon Equestrian Park northwest of Toronto.

With a stunning selection of horses from four-year-olds to grand prix veterans, and a lineup of riders which included members of Canada’s Olympic dressage team, the weekend was a treat from start to finish. The star of the show, of course, was Hester himself. Humorous, self-deprecating, and with a laser-sharp eye for exactly what each horse and rider combination most needed to work on, he both entertained and educated the audience for two full days.

While most of us may never have the chance to compete in the Olympics, or even ride a grand prix horse, we can all learn something of value from Hester. Throughout the clinic he provided tips and prescribed exercises that every rider, at every level, can work on at home. Here are three of our favourites; each can be performed in walk, trot, or canter, depending on the level of difficulty desired.

Exercise 1: The Halt

The halt transition is featured at least twice in every dressage test from walk/trot to grand prix, yet this most basic movement is a weak link for many riders. Hester accepted nothing less than perfect halt transitions at the clinic and reminded riders that not only is trot-halt a key movement in lower-level tests, it is also the foundation for future piaffe and passage work. Every halt must come from behind, with the horse perfectly square, relaxed, and immobile. Preparation is key.

  • To halt squarely, the horse must step forward into the halt with the hind legs. To prepare for a square halt, ask the horse to first shorten the stride, taking increasingly smaller steps into the halt.
  • Perform the halt using a deep seat, long leg and straight upper body, closing your fingers without pulling back on the reins.
  • Is the horse square? You must be able to feel without looking. (Lower level riders can double-check in a mirror or with a ground person, but you must learn to feel it for yourself.) Close your eyes, sit in the middle of the saddle and feel whether one or both sides of the horse’s back are pushing up against your seat. If just one side, the other hind leg is trailing behind and must be corrected.
  • If the halt isn’t square, fix it by walking forward first, then re-establish the halt. Once you know the horse is square, note the difference in how it feels.
  • Don’t rush out of the halt into the next movement. The horse must learn to stand completely still, attentive but relaxed when halted.
  • On the centre line, perform a halt from walk, trot, or canter. Only when the horse is standing square, immobile, and relaxed, transition forward in the gait of your choice. Immediately circle right and return to centre line and halt. Repeat the exercise again, this time circling left after the transition out of halt. Continue alternating circles right and left with halts in between all the way up the centre line.

Exercise 2: The Corner

Dressage is all about balance. Every corner of the dressage ring is an opportunity to breathe, half-halt, and rebalance the horse. Hester was quick to point out that when one rider consistently cut her corners short, not only was she missing the opportunity to rebalance her horse and correctly prepare for the next movement, she was also effectively turning a 20 x 60 metre dressage ring into a working space of only 18 x 50 metres.

The following exercise is not only a helpful reminder to riders to use their corners, and a great tool to prevent an eager horse from running through the half-halt, it serves to a create a very responsive horse who is truly working from inside leg to outside rein. As with the first exercise, it can be performed in walk, trot, or canter to vary the level of difficulty.

  • Begin by going large. On the short side of the arena stay straight as you approach the corner and halt about a metre before you reach the wall.
  • Once the horse is square, immobile and relaxed, perform a turn on the forehand.
  • Transition forward in the gait of your choice and repeat the exercise as you approach the corner in the opposite direction.
  • Once the horse is responsive and truly on the aids when performing the exercise on the short side of the arena, try it on the long side.
  • Vary the gaits for added difficulty.
  • Next, repeat the exercise only on every second corner. On the corners without halts, ensure you are riding the horse through the corner, and that it’s not pulling you around the turn.
  • Half-halt and establish balance and connection in and out of every corner, as if you are preparing to halt.

Exercise 3: The Adjustable Stride

How well do you know your horse’s stride? How elastic and adjustable is it? The horse should be like a rubber band, able to move forward and back effortlessly within a single gait. While hunter and jumper riders work extensively on reducing and increasing the number of strides it takes to cover a certain distance, Hester emphasized how important it is for dressage riders to develop this skill as well.

It’s essential to know whether you are lengthening and shortening your horse’s stride while maintaining the same rhythm, or simply speeding up and slowing down. When lengthening the gait while maintaining rhythm, you will cover a given distance (across the diagonal, for example) in fewer strides. When collecting the gait, you will increase the number of strides it takes to get from point A to point B.

  • In an ordinary but active working gait (walk, trot or canter), count the number of strides it takes your horse to travel the length of the arena’s short side.
  • Without sacrificing rhythm, balance or impulsion, reduce the number of strides. If it took eight strides in your working gait, can you lengthen the stride to do it in six? How about five?
  • Now collect the gait and increase the number of strides it takes to cross the short side. Can you do it in 10? 12?
  • Accuracy is key to dressage success and you must be able to ride your horse this precisely at all levels.

More advanced riders can incorporate this exercise into their flying change work:

  • Canter five strides across the diagonal and then perform five three-tempi changes.
  • Next, try seven two-tempi changes, and so on.
  • Work on covering more ground with each change, asking the horse for more ‘jump’.