1. If the horse isn’t on the aids, the flying changes are doomed
There probably isn’t a rider on the planet who hasn’t struggled with changes at some point or some point in the future. Those pesky little skipping steps might look lovely and fluent, but they’re often a big hurdle to overcome in a horse’s training and a rider’s!
Often when you struggle with the changes, you’ll find lots of exercises to help improve them. And while it’s true that you need to have a well-balanced canter and your horse needs to be supple, there’s one golden rule, according to Tokyo 2020 Team silver medallist Steffen Peters: “If the horse is not on the aids, you are in trouble.” While you might get away with a change which is a stride late on the aids at lower levels, you’ll certainly never have reliable tempi changes. And if the horse isn’t responsive to your leg aids, you’re also far more likely to produce a change that is late behind rather than clean. So be honest with yourself from the very start about whether your horse is truly on the aids. Does he respond to a lovely light touch for the canter aid from the walk? Is he listening to your seat? Do you have to nudge him along every few strides in canter to keep him going? If so, be strict with yourself and your horse about expecting a clear and immediate response from your aids.
2. Quality over quantity
This is a piece of advice that can’t really be attributed to only one Olympic medallist. Team bronze medallists Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin are perhaps the best-known proponents of days off, easy work for young horses, and “letting your horse be a horse.”
But it’s not a new concept. Even double gold medallist Jessica von Bredow-Werndl made it clear that she schools TSF Dalera in intervals too, allowing her a couple of days off after a few days of intense schooling or training. The German is a big believer in creating a happy athlete and giving them lots of experience by doing lots of hacking and galloping work with her horses. And although not a medallist this year, Cathrine Dufour (who just missed out on the bronze) says the same thing about days off and interval training. So we’re noticing a bit of a pattern!
Moral of the story? Quality over quantity. It’s better to have three days of excellent schooling with breaks, stretching, or hacks in between than it is to have six days of sour, mediocre schooling. If your horse does something well, give them a reward and a little break. Be free and easy with the praise, and don’t keep “drilling” for the sake of it. Horses, like humans, need variation. They can’t be expected to give 110% day in, day out, for years.
3. There are many roads to Rome
So maybe that’s not the exact quote that Dressage queen Isabell Werth – who won her 11th and 12th Olympic medals in Tokyo – used. But she’s often said that finding the key for each horse is crucial to success. As she put it during an interview, “there is no horse without some problem, without some ups and downs, and the goal is to find a key and not to give up – if this one doesn’t work, we have to find another one. This is what I love to do.” One horse might need to be ridden lower in the neck; another might need a containing outside rein. One might require lots of outside flexion to get them straight. Others might need to go quicker in the hind leg. Essentially, though the basic principles remain the same, the actual methods you use might vary a little to suit a given horse. Like humans, we might all have to pass the same exams at school, but people learn the materials differently and excel in different areas.
4. Don’t be afraid of the power
Of course, Charlotte Dujardin was always going to make an appearance on this list. The hardest part was choosing from her many pearls of wisdom. One of the other strong contenders was the iconic “short reins win gold medals.” But in the end, there’s so much truth in this one small quote, and it ties into so many other things Charlotte has said. For example, in clinics, she’s famously always telling riders to gallop and get the horse forward and to be forward-thinking with the hand. Essentially, you have to harness your horse’s power rather than throttling it. Working with 500-kilogram animals means that you can’t be scared of their power but have to find a way to work with it to get the best out of your horse. This is especially true when you want to ride upper levels and really get those bold extended paces and uphill gaits. As the saying goes, stop riding with the handbrake on.
5. Be proactive
Sabine Schut-Kery was one of the most memorable performers in Tokyo and was responsible in part for Team USA’s silver medal in the Dressage. Although Schut-Kery is less prolific than the likes of Werth and Dujardin, her clinics have often focused on being proactive.
What exactly does that mean? Set expectations and communicate them clearly to your horse. Don’t wait for your horse to spook and then get flustered and correct it – instead, put your leg on in the corners to pre-empt any theatrics. If you feel your horse stall a bit in the hind end, correct it immediately before it becomes a “big deal” or a more extensive correction. Set your horse up well in the corners. Properly prepare for movements rather than thinking about them as you’re meant to be starting the half pass, pirouette, transition, or whatever it is you want to ride.
Bring as much to the table as your horse does!
Photo by Hippo foto