Wellington, Fla. – March 24, 2022 – The International arena at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival (AGDF) ordinarily showcases the tip of the iceberg of the training process, condensing years of diligent schooling into a five-minute test. On Thursday evening, however, it was the training that took center stage. The stands were filled as spectators gathered to absorb the abundant wisdom of famed German Olympian Jessica von Bredow-Werndl. Five lucky riders, representative of a variety of levels and ages of horses, were hand-selected to participate in the masterclass.
Jessica von Bredow-Werndl’s record speaks for itself. She enjoyed precocious success as a junior and young rider, winning six gold medals at European Championships before going on to win countless medals in the most prestigious dressage championships in the world. Most notably, von Bredow-Werndl won three gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 where she made history as one of only a handful of riders to score over 90%.
Von Bredow-Werndl knows the importance of not just sharing training pointers, but also instilling a positive riding philosophy in her students. “The most important insight I’ve gained in recent years is that it’s not about how far we get, it’s about how we get there.
We think we are not good enough, so how can our horses feel good enough? Horses need confidence too. Remind yourself why you do this sport, it’s because we love the horses. It’s important to enjoy the journey with them, to look after them, to have fun.” Von Bredow-Werndl encouraged the riders to create a positive experience for their horses. “Talk to him, praise him, give the rein” were phrases heard frequently throughout the rides.
First in the ring with von Bredow-Werndl was Canada’s 26-year-old Grand Prix rider Hannah Beaulieu on Siri, a 6-year-old Oldenburg mare. Beaulieu had been a rider in von Bredow-Werndl’s farm for two years, so the two knew each other well. Von Bredow-Werndl knew Siri was a hot horse, so the goal of the ride was for her to feel calm and comfortable in the competition atmosphere. “As a young horse, she needs to collect good experiences now. It’s not about her expression right now, it’s about her confidence.” She encourages Beaulieu to slow down, breathe, pat her horse, and give the rein. “When she wants to look around, let her look.” Siri had very expressive gaits, but von Bredow-Werndl wanted to focus on a smaller trot, with balance coming from a supple horse and active hind leg.
After the warm-up, which von Bredow-Werndl instructed to be “as short as possible but as long as necessary,” the pair went on to school the flying changes. “Ignore the mistakes and give a positive reinforcement on the good stuff,” von Bredow-Werndl commented. From the centerline, she instructed Beaulieu to make a leg yield then switch to shoulder in or travers, and aid to change. The haunches in helps to activate the inside hind leg for horses that are slower behind. “Take all of the weight behind the saddle, pretend that you’re taking off in an airplane.”
Next in the ring was Great Britain’s Louisa Marcelle-Eadie and the 8-year-old Elan de Chenu. Marcelle-Eadie struggles with her horse hanging on the reins, which von Bredow-Werndl confronted by working on the carrying of his hind legs. She instructed Marcelle-Eadie to drop the curb rein and instead signal Elan de Chenu to carry himself by pushing and giving. “Lift but don’t hold,” she commented. “It’s a big difference. The less you carry him in the front, the more real strength he will gain.” The combination started their work with canter half passes in order to supple and raise the horse. However, von Bredow-Werndl encouraged Marcelle-Eadie to take pause within the training for frequent rest. “It’s so important to take enough walk breaks. Of course we want them to be strong, but if they don’t know they will get these breaks regularly, they have no motivation to give what they can. Ask him to do his very best, but not for a very long time.”
She also instructed the rider to remember the importance of staying on her seat to maintain the lightness. “When you want him to do uphill changes, you have to sit like it.” To end the ride, von Bredow-Werndl asked Marcelle-Eadie to practice transitioning to half-steps within the collected trot. This allowed her to test the feeling of the hind legs carrying while giving up the control of the front.
Emily Donaldson and her own 13-year-old Beaujolais were next in the ring with the objective of developing a beneficial warmup routine. To start, von Bredow-Werndl instructed Donaldson to trot, go down the centerline, do a leg yield, and proceed into shoulder-in to build suppleness and activity. “I don’t make a big difference for a 6-year-old horse or a 13-year-old horse in the warmup.” Again, the theme of the ride was focusing on the activity of the hindlegs and the release of the front. The thought of passage within the trot was an important tool. “I like to compare horses with highly intelligent children. When they don’t understand what we’re asking for, we have to find different ways to explain. Some horses will get it easily, some will take a little longer, but horses always want to do it right. They don’t want to make mistakes on purpose.”
Von Bredow-Werndl encouraged Donaldson to test the responsiveness of the horse to the seat and core and to open the back by riding forward and back without the hands. “Take it easy, smile. Don’t be so strict. You’re both very introverted,” she laughed. “I want you to become more extroverted in your riding, more cheeky. It’s not about how many good steps he shows us, it’s just that he shows them in the first place.”
Donaldson struggled with the horse holding his neck too high, so as soon as he came up in the neck, she asked the horse to walk, and continue the cycle of stretching the back and relaxing the neck. The ease and independence from the hand von Bredow-Werndl hoped to cultivate in these transitions were meant to carry over to the higher level movements, like the tempi changes.
“It’s important to have playful consistency,” she said. “You can have fun with the horses, but if you don’t give them safety and self confidence in the consistency, they don’t understand what you want.”
The next combination to train with von Bredow-Werndl was Kristina Harrison-Antell and the 9-year-old Dutch gelding Felix. Giving up control was an important element of the lesson to get the horse active from behind. Another objective was to build Felix’s confidence in the ring. “We want the horses to develop as personalities. When we suppress them, they can’t become proud and come out of themselves. When we want them to show in big competitions, they need that attitude.”
Von Bredow-Werndl used many exercises to help Felix carry himself. Small transitions and supplying exercises, like transitions from medium canter to collected canter and shoulder-in to haunches-in were important elements of the ride.
The pair worked with von Bredow-Werndl on the flying changes, which was already one of Felix’s highlights. “Let the horse know that the aid is coming, look up, and sit back to give the horse space to move in front. Be straight without being stiff, move with his change. Thrust forward with the hips instead of sideways,” von Bredow-Werndl encouraged.
Though Felix already had a talent for changes, Harrison-Antell was still encouraged to give in the process to make the movement even more effortless and uphill. “I think for Felix in order to move on and do the next step, he needs to be quicker behind,” she says. Von Bredow-Werndl taught the rider to motivate the horse to make smaller and quicker steps by making half-halts in the circles or in the corners, but only by activating the hind leg and not using the rein. She also had Harrison-Antel practice short diagonals of extended trot to test the submission and carrying power.
Von Bredow-Werndl appreciated that Harrison-Antell was “an extroverted rider with a good attitude.” She also appreciated Felix’s “cheek,” commenting, “I love that he tried to buck a little bit in the beginning, it lets you know they’re still alive!”
The final clinic rider was Ali Potasky aboard 9-year-old KWPN gelding INXS. In her warmup, von Bredow-Werndl encouraged Potasky to think about yoga on her horse, maintaining a short body and long neck while keeping him on the hind legs from the very first step. “Only trot as forward as it allows you to maintain the swing and weight on the hind.” Once again, von Bredow-Werndl stressed the importance of getting off the reins and using the seat to maintain self carriage. “The more he tries to use your hands for help, the less help with your hands you should give him.”
Potasky was taught an exercise in which she took the shoulder out and shoulder in within the steps of the pirouettes, focusing on the inside hide leg staying under. Von Bredow-Werndl emphasized training the pieces of the pirouette rather than only the whole. “This helps the horses understand how to use their body. It’s like a puzzle. I’m focusing on the separate puzzle pieces before putting it together.” Another exercise the pair used was small quarter pirouette turns from letter to letter. The exercise focused on developing the straightness and lightness of the aids while maintaining the feeling of being able to go out of the movement at any time.
To conclude, von Bredow-Werndl noted, “Dressage is there for making the horses more beautiful and keeping them healthy. That is why we focus on keeping them on their hind legs and encourage them to carry themselves. I don’t train my horses more than two or three days in a row without a break. I hack them out throughout the week because it’s so important for them to have mental balance as well as physical balance. They need to have a variety of life so it doesn’t get boring. It’s our job to give them the best life possible.”