Charlotte Dujardin’s Playful Process Part II: Upper Level Horses

Colleen Church McDowall and Lord Albert, Grand Prix.

Sherwood, OR ­- October 8, 2015 – An estimated 850 auditors absorbed training advice from Charlotte Dujardin’s two­day clinic, hosted by Scott Hayes at Devonwood Equestrian Center Oct. 3­4. We featured Dujardin’s process for buying and starting young horses and now are presenting a two­part series covering her tips for correct training at all levels, beginning with young horses and moving up through the Grand Prix. This second installment shares Dujardin’s advice from her upper level sessions; click here for Part I with advice for young horses and lower levels.

A frequent phrase heard in Dujardin’s upper level sessions was “bring the ears up.” When seeking a sophisticated sense of contact, Dujardin was all about short reins toward the mouth, with riders making sure to not hold the horse’s head.

“At any point in my training, when I’m riding, I want to ride the horse straight and up,” Dujardin explained while aboard Dorian Dark. “I have short reins, hands together so I can bring him uphill.”

The eight upper level sessions were more lesson­-like than the young horse sessions, which were peppered with training tips. These were not demo rides. Dujardin asked the audience to empathize with the riders, knowing in their position they’d like to demonstrate highlights, but were instead being pushed to work through the areas needing improvement. “Nothing gets past me,” she’d say.

Therefore each session was highly individualized. “It’s like a jigsaw,” she suggested. “You get something, then something else goes…”

General Tips

The true test of a well­ schooled upper level horse is whether they are able to remain loose and supple throughout the work, not tight and holding. “I want the whole of his body to be loose and supple,” Dujardin said while riding Dorian Dark. “So when I’m riding, I think, ‘Can I bend him? Can I stretch him? Can I straighten him? And can I collect him?’ If I can do all of those things, I know I’ve got a supple horse.”

Charlotte Dujardin works with Dorian Dark, Developing Prix St. Georges

“And he has to be supple in both ways, not just one way!” she added.

In all the upper level sessions, accuracy was a large practical component of executing exercises. Corners were a particular focus point for Dujardin. She frequently let riders know when their corners had been “terrible,” making them a preparatory necessity before proceeding with an exercise.

“That’s how important corners and short sides are,” she explained. “People who ride rubbish corners are going to ride rubbish movements.”

The same went for transitions, particularly when riders prepared to give their horses “a walk and a breather.” She cautioned riders not to cheat themselves in these golden transitions before a break and instead to make the transitions honest and not fall apart. Dujardin was also, as one might expect, a stickler for geometry. She frequently made quippy comments like, “That circle’s 8 meters, not 9.”

Dujardin makes it a point to practice halts down centerline and halts around the outside of the arena almost every day, reminding the audience that the halt makes the first impression for the judge. She shared that while she does practice the reinback, she is cautious not to do too much. When she does, she’ll do exercises to ensure she stays in control of every step. For example, she’ll halt, back up a few steps, halt again and back up a few more ­ never the same as in a test. She wants the horse waiting for her so that she can be in control of every footfall.

Kim Mitchell and Oso Grande (“Teddy Bear”), Prix St. Georges

This notion of gymnasticizing movements from the test at home rather than drilling test movements came up frequently. Dujardin mentioned the canter pirouette as one movement she avoids practicing in the same way as she’d ride it in a test.

“We always ride working pirouettes, and we’re doing lots of exercises within the pirouette, so that the horse never learns to anticipate,” she said.

Dujardin preached patience in teaching changes, both with the horse and with yourself. She kept sessions very upbeat and frequently interjected with relatable stories to keep things positive.

“Once you find you do fours and threes and twos, then you can’t stop them taking over and they want to do changes everywhere,” she said. “You turn across the line ­ they pop a change. You turn again ­ they do a change and it’s like, ‘Oh my God, will you stop doing that?!’ But you can’t tell them off, obviously ­ that’s what you’ve been asking them to do for so long. Then they just think they should do them everywhere. You just have to stop, then pick up canter and correct them.”

Charlotte Dujardin reacts as Kim Mitchell and Oso Grande nail a line of changes

In this and her other relatable tales, the implication was that it’s not about being perfect all the time, but rather honing the ability to patiently and playfully problem solve, no matter your experience level, starting point or ultimate goals.

Prix St. Georges

Riders working or developing Prix St. Georges received a lot of practice with their changes. Dujardin likes to use the walls when teaching these and shared that she never practices going across the diagonal.

When thinking about starting the pirouettes Dujardin had many riders practice “pushing the hip in” on a circle to start. “

Molly Eastridge and Donnerspiel, Prix St. Georges

The front legs are going to do a 10 meter and the hind legs are going to do do an 8 meter,” were her instructions for this particular exercise.

Dujardin also had riders play with the idea of moving between travers, shoulder fore and back to travers. This was in order to get the rider to honestly ride off both legs, pushing the horse away from the inside leg into the outside rein, so the horse couldn’t lean in on the circle.

Charlotte Dujardin coaches Colleen Church McDowall and Dorian Dark (Developing Prix St. Georges)

She shared a particularly helpful exercise for schooling the pirouette which she used with a few riders: shoulder fore down the centerline, then at A or C, changing position into a half “10” meter circle in travers (maintaining a 10 meter circle with the shoulders and aiming for an 8 meter circle with the quarters), pushing the hip in on the circle, then proceeding back to centerline in half­pass.

Grand Prix

On the first day, at the start of one of her Grand Prix sessions, Dujardin took a moment to note that here would be the time and the payoff for building up solid basics.

“You’ll see with the basics how easy it is to then move on to the tricks,” she said.

In addition to keeping work sessions playful, Dujardin mentioned that in the test, it’s important for the rider to be able to let things go, to be as present and effective as possible.

“Everything we do in the Grand Prix comes up so quickly,” she said. “If you make a mistake, you’ve got to forget it and move on because if you think about that last mistake, you’ve had it. Then a mistake and a mistake and a mistake comes on. So you have to be really quick to push (past) it and forget it!”

Jessica Wisdom and North Forks Cardi, Grand Prix

Dujardin had many wonderful comments and suggestions to share with riders while schooling exercises for particular movements. When discussing the extended trot, Dujardin expressed disappointment in the many flashy movers seen at this level.

“You see a lot of these Grand Prix horses doing masses with the front leg and their hind leg has no overtrack in the extension,” she said. “As expressive and fantastic as it may look, it’s not correct! The horse is doing in front what they should be doing behind. It’s got to be equal.”

Still at this level, Dujardin highlighted the importance of a horse’s forward thinking tendency. Particularly for the extended trot, she suggested paying close attention to preparing around the corner with the feeling of building up stored energy.

“I always want to have the feeling that when I turn on that diagonal line, my horse is like a Ferrari – it’s waiting to go,” she explained. “And when I put my foot on the accelerator, VOOM – I’m off. The worst thing is when you turn on that diagonal line and you’ve got to kick and push the whole way across. That’s not pleasant. It really doesn’t feel nice, it doesn’t look nice, so you’ve got to really have that feeling that you get on that line and off you go.”

This forward thinking mindset transferred into all Dujardin’s piaffe work as well. She wanted all riders to creep forward in the piaffe to ensure the movement didn’t become backwards or contracted. She offered that a great time to start introducing the beginnings of piaffe, jogging in place, can be done out on the trails.

Charlotte Dujardin works with Wrevolution, Prix St. Georges/Developing Grand Prix

“You know when you’re out hacking and a horse goes off in front and your horse starts hanging back behind and starts to get a little bit jiggy­jiggy?” she asked the crowd. “That’s when is the best time to start playing. I do a lot of it out hacking and playing around so that they just find it a little bit easier to pick it up, and it’s not so stressful.”

The Importance of Play

Even at upper levels, Dujardin reminded auditors about the importance of playing and schooling exercises to make things the least stressful as possible. She complimented Alyssa Pitts, with 8­year­old Furst Fiorano, on her ability to pose the work as a playful question.

“What I like about them is that he does everything, and she plays with it,” Dujardin said. “It’s not demanding, it’s not stressful.”

Alyssa Pitts and Furst Fiorano, Developing Grand Prix

“He’s only 8,” she reiterated. “He’s only learning and he’s only playing.”

While Furst Fiorano worked on schooling pirouettes, Dujardin took the opportunity to remind the audience how much is being asked of the horse physically with this level of collection, and the importance of not drilling the exercise.

“If you were to record when he sits like that and put it in slow motion, you’d see how much weight he has to take on his hind legs,” she said. “His fetlocks are almost touching the ground! He has to really sit and load those hocks to really sit down. Not only is he carrying his weight, but he’s taking the rider’s weight. So it’s really important that you don’t do too much.”

Jessica Wisdom and North Forks Cardi, Grand Prix

Overall, Dujardin expressed that the most important aim of working horses at these upper levels is to ensure that the work is conducive to their health and longevity. Therefore, when she works her horses, she’s doing gymnastic exercises, not drilling test movements.

“We don’t do test stuff, we do exercises,” she said. “It’s a lot ­ when you get the horse to Grand Prix, there is so much sitting, so much collection. You wouldn’t want to do that every day. It’s just too much. We want to make the horses last forever!”

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