Producing a young dressage horse is a time consuming and emotional journey. Education for riders going through this process is vital to success, and who better to glean some knowledge from other than the legendary Carl Hester and FEI 5* judge Peter Holler.
Carl really needs no introduction, with multiple medal wins at international championships including the World Equestrian Games and Olympics. He is also trainer and mentor to Charlotte Dujardin, arguably one of the world’s best riders. Add to that he trained the infamous Valegro, and you start to wonder if there is anything this man cannot do when it comes to dressage. He’s wonderful to watch, with witty humour and always seeking the best for the horse.
When Peter Holler speaks you get a sense that he takes his job very seriously. Rightly so, it’s no mean feat to be an FEI 5* judge whose judged at the Bundeschampionate World Championships for dressage horses. He’s also ridden at Grand Prix and trained multiple riders to Grand Prix. I think we are in safe hands with these two.
In the showcase we get to see the top three placed young horses in each age group, four young horses are first up to get familiar with the arena. We have the winner Esteem (by Prestige) ridden by Natalie Ciappara, a big bay mare who is very studious with soft ears always listening to her rider. She has beautiful rhythm and cadence, and is well developed for her age. The second place getter is the elegant black Remi Furst Hit by Furstenball. He’s a bit overwhelmed in this atmosphere and I’m sure his rider Melissa Van Den Berge has her hands full. Our third equal place getters are Somerset Flemmington ridden by Shannan Goodwin and Quadriga Galicia ridden by Marcela Adkins. Galicia is the smallest of the group, standing at 158cms, and it’s refreshing to see a small horse holding their own. Just goes to show that size doesn’t always matter!
Carl and Peter want to see the horses in the walk. Peter explains they are looking for a horse with a clear four beat walk with no lateral tendencies. They are not worried about the horse having a large overtrack, Peter commenting that “the biggest walks are not often the best walks” as sometimes these big walks struggle when collected later on. Moving onto trot, Carl wants the riders to do at least twenty metres of medium walk before making the transition to trot, to better prepare the horse. Carl explains that transitions at this age should still have an element of self carriage. As the horses trot around the arena Carl encourages the riders to “ride a curve” through the corners to allow the horse to maintain their rhythm and balance. He tells us to look at the trot of a young horse and think “how will that develop in the future”, it’s about having good mechanics of the trot not necessarily the flashiest trot.
Moving into canter and you can see the 4yo’s struggle with the transition, some needing to run a few steps to get into canter. The quality of the canter and transitions in and out are very dependent on the horses balance. Carl jests that a 20m circle can feel like “a circle of death” as the young horse leans on your inside leg to help with their balance. To aid the balance Carl has the riders canter out of a trot leg yield in the opposite direction to their canter lead, to place the hindlegs in a better position. Peter comments that the canter has to have a good quality as it’s not as easy to improve as the trot, and that even as four year olds they want to see an uphill tendency.
With that the four year olds leave the arena on a quiet clap at the request of Carl, it’s great to see them being given this learning opportunity for their futures. Wise man!
Our three five year olds are first placed Highfields Bella Vita (imported by Beltano) ridden by Deborah Oliver, second placed San Fama ridden by Emma Flavelle-Watts, and third placed Fromelles ridden by Jayden Brown. The winner Bella Vita was a stand out, a sparkly mare with her ears always pricked forward. San Fama was a big bay Australian Warmblood with a lot of cadence but perhaps not the balance of Bella Vita. Fromelle’s looked like he still had some growing to do yet, however a nice type who you could see was trying hard. At five Peter and Carl acknowledge that a year on makes a big difference in training and development. Peter states that they expect to see a little bit more of the 5yo’s when judging the test, that the horses are a bit quicker in their reactions, can collect a bit more, and have consistent balance. Peter advises that judges aren’t “asking for perfection, just potential” to which Carl quickly retorts that “it doesn’t seem like that when you are riding a test!”.
From a training perspective Carl is happy for riders to use rising trot in order to develop the swing in the trot, “mix up your rising and sitting until nothing changes when you go sitting”. During the 5yo showcase we hear Carl and Peter talk a lot about suppleness. Watching, it feels that at this age the suppleness issues are starting to show up. A quick trot stretch break next. Carl is diligent during the stretching, he wants to see the horses seeking the contact forward. This is the only time we see Bella Vita not excelling. She’s a shorter type and Carl says that’s just how’s she’s built, explaining more compact horses will struggle with a stretch and need longer to achieve a good result.
Moving into canter Carl wants to see more adjustability, can they go forward and come back? Bella Vita easily achieves this, whereas San Fama being a bigger slower developer can go forward really well but struggles to come back. Carl suggests she does her lengthening on the circle to help the horse stay around her leg and assist with an uphill balance. Fromelles to me is the least developed, and Carl wants to see more “arch” in the frame, Jayden gives the rein and Fromelles uses the moment to soften and stay in self carriage. From a judging perspective Peter really wants to see the 5yo’s with an uphill tendency and a quick hindleg with adjustability. Carl guesses correctly that Bella Vita was the 5yo winner, stating that all three are lovely horses but Bella Vita is the “neater more engaged” horse and the others just need a bit more time. It’s a moment to reflect on, that not winning a young horse class doesn’t mean you don’t have a good young horse!
Our 6yo olds are in the ring now and Carl observes that the 6yo and 7yo test are very difficult, especially for an amateur rider. “To produce a horse of this age to do good half passes, good transitions, and flying changes is very difficult. Hats off to those people that can produce horses to this level because it’s not easy”. Peter agrees that for an amateur rider to teach a flying change and then perform it in a test is very difficult.
Our six year olds are the winner Remi Downunder (by Don Dancier out of NZ Renai Hart’s Remi London Attraction) ridden by Hope Beerling. Second placed is Lovestruck, a big bay mare by Lauries As with great cadence, and then our third place getter the imported Florestan mare Federation ridden by Danielle Keogh.
Straightaway we are into lateral work. Both Carl and Peter want to see that the horses remain supple (there’s that word again), and that both sides are even. Watching the horses work Lovestruck has the most suppleness of the three but struggles with balance and gets too low in the neck at times. In contrast the other two stay nicely out to the bridle but perhaps could develop their suppleness more. Carl and Peter discuss the half pass of Lovestruck, Peter loves her expression and crossing even though she is not so good in the neck. Peter says I would say this is good “which is an 8” and Carl makes the crowd laugh when he says “what do you have to do to get a 9 or a 10 around here?” For perfection Peter comments that Lovestruck needs to improve the neck to get a higher mark again. The two masters are on the same page!
It's time for a walk break. Carl and Peter both agree that a walk that scores highly in the young horse classes may not be easy to develop to score highly in the Grand Prix walk tour, encouraging us to be careful with the young horses that have a huge walk.
Flying change time. Danielle on Federation choses to do her flying change out of a half circle, and the mare struggles. Carl wants more preparation and the mare to be more uphill before the change is performed. The mare anticipates and Carl says “don’t surprise her with your leg, keep it on rather than putting it on just for the change aid”. Federation is now cantering shorter and more uphill, Danielle has shortened her reins and is sitting up with her leg on. Carl has her canter down the quarterline, leg yielding to the right quietly to move Federation off her left leg before asking for a change from right to left. The resulting change is magic.
The other two choose to do it off a straight line. Remi Downunder looks very established in the changes maintaining a good rhythm, it looks easy and Peter confirms this would score well. “Some people have it and some don’t” Carl quips whilst watching Hope on Remi Downunder and muses “I wonder if you were the winner yesterday”, he misses nothing!
The six year olds like the earlier horses all finish on a stretch. I love that Carl ensures all the horses are finishing on an easy task and having a good experience. His training in this showcase is not for the crowd, it’s for the horses.
We only have one 7yo, “Metson” ridden by Jayden Brown. Metson is actually the full brother to the 5yo Fromelles Jayden has ridden earlier. They are carbon copies of each other nearly. Carl states “this is one we prepared earlier” due to the likeness of the two horses.
The 7yo tests are new to New Zealand, being used for the first time in 2018. The tests are virtually the equivalent of Prix St George. It requires a lot of skill in the tests. Peter says the 7yo needs to be able to carry themselves far more on the hind leg. They want to see self carriage, an ability to sit, obedience and quick reactions to the aids. Peter says in the 7yo test they allow the pirouette to be a little bigger but that it must still show all the elements required to be performed well (sit, balance, suppleness, rhythm).
Carl and Peter decide to focus on the pirouette, and the preparation for it starts with some on and back and half pass to supple the horse and make him more adjustable. Metson anticipates the flying changes out of the half pass. “Anticipation isn’t a dirty word, it shows an intelligent horse but of course the horse must be obedient” states Carl, so Jayden goes again and rides some more changes until Metson is more on the aids.
Doing the pirouette work Metson tries to avoid truly sitting by going a bit crooked, putting his quarters to the right. Carl tells Jayden to keep Metson’s right hind leg to the left. As Jayden makes these adjustments we can see the quality of the potential pirouette improve. Metson disunites initially when asked to put his right hindleg left, this isn’t a problem for Carl who says it’s just the horse showing that this is a bit difficult for him, and that this is a weakness that needs developing over time. Carl doesn’t ask Metson to perform a pirouette, saying there is no point and that it is more important to give Metson a good experience.
Carl announces that Jayden and Metson were the 7yo winners, “they were the only one”. The crowd starts tentatively clapping and Carl states “you can clap, he’s a winner!”. To perform a 7yo test well deserves accolades, regardless of how many people compete. Metson scored 70.657 in the first round, and 67.368 in the second round, very positive scores that deserve congratulations.
From the 4yo’s through to the 7yo Carl and Peter’s emphasis is on initial quality of paces, improved through training. You get the impression that the young horse tests might not be suitable for all horses, but that they are a good basis for ensuring your training is on the correct path if your horse is mentally and physically capable of performing them. Carl earlier told us to “remember these young horses are a dream”. How prophetic, they are a dream and this showcase has demonstrated that a young horse with three correct paces, that is then trained correctly, can fulfil all our hopes and aspirations.
Article by Alicia Zeludko - Photos © Stephen Mowbray
This article was first published in Dressage NZ Bulletin - September 2018 issues. Reproduced with kind permission of ESNZ.