London, U.K – Dec. 16, 2019 – One of the most highly anticipated competitions of the year, Olympia, The London International Horse Show, kicked off Monday, Dec. 16 with a new educational event ‘Dressage Unwrapped’. The masterclass brought four of Great Britain’s decorated trainers to Olympia Grand for an educational session that covered a variety of topics from young horse development to rider psychology in competition. In its inaugural year, Carl Hester, Gareth Hughes, Richard Waygood and Richard Davison provided an afternoon of entertainment for a packed audience as Hughes, Pippa Funnell, Charlotte Dujardin and Jess Dunn demonstrated their lessons over the course of the 90-minute session.
First to enter the arena was Hughes aboard Sintano Van Hof Olympia (Sandro Hit x Silvano). With the 9-year-old gelding, Hughes discussed the importance of developing horses as athletes, demonstrating a series of movements and exercises starting with the trot.
“We use a lot of the movement from the small tour level as exercises to set up our Grand Prix horses,” explained Huges. “Once we get a gymnastic body, we need gears. If you don’t have gears, the arena will feel much smaller. The more secure a horse becomes, the bigger the arena feels.”
The British rider then started utilizing leg yields to create suppleness in his horse before moving on to more advanced lateral work. In the half-pass, Hughes emphasized the importance of his horse being able to wait throughout the movement so that if Sintano is with him, he can really ride, but if not, he can save the line by making adjustments by asking him to wait. The ability to make a horse adjustable gives confidence to the rider as they know they can ride a line to the best of their ability.
Speaking of control, Hughes reiterated the importance of transitions in creating a top athlete. “You can never do too many transitions! Our constant ability to adjust a horse is what gives us control, and control is what creates an athlete,” he explained. “This horse is 9 years old and I am hoping he will go for the next ten years. If I don’t treat him like an athlete, I will have a horse with Grand Prix knowledge that is like riding a picnic bench!”
Transitions also improve another important component to Hughes’ philosophy on horse development: confidence in the aids. When a horse has confidence in a rider’s aids, it allows the rider to be able to ‘save’ a horse, and a horse to be able to ‘save’ a rider. With confidence in a rider’s seat, leg and hand, and the proper knowledge, a horse will have the ability to adjust his tempo, which is what helps a rider have control to improve a line.
As for his schooling routine, Hughes believes in four days a week of schooling for young horses. With four days of schooling, a light day and then a full day off, his horses get the work they need to make adjustments in their rides without being overworked.
“It is important that we remember these horses are fulfilling our ambitions as riders, so we need to fulfill their need to be horses,” concluded Hughes.
Next to take center stage under the lights of Olympia Grand was Dunn, who would be riding a mock Intermediate I in front of FEI 5* dressage judge Stephen Clarke. As Dunn navigated her test, Clarke provided live scoring of each movement and explained the reasoning behind his scores. He pointed out the highlights of her test but was also quick to show the audience portions of the test that could be improved.
Following the test, Davison, who is familiar with training Dunn, stepped in to help her correct the lower scoring movements, especially with her horse’s bending.
“We want to check the bending responses from her horse. As riders, we need to find the right sort of pressure, and if the horse turns its head and bends its neck, that is a response,” said Davison. “Find training positions that are different than where they are in the test and get the horse really responding in this different spot. Then, go back to how it is in the test. Keep testing the response. The motivation for a horse to do these things is the rider minimizing pressure.”
Recently named BT Sport Action Woman of The Year, Funnell entered the arena next aboard a young 5-year-old horse called “Bento” that she had ridden for the first time earlier that day. With Waygood, the performance manager to Great Britain’s senior eventing team, instructing from center ring, the pair demonstrated some of their favorite exercises over poles to focus on the basics. The first exercise was two boxes, one within the other, that Funnell used to trot through in all different angles and directions.
“The box is good for the horse to figure out where their feet are and it’s good for riders to feel what horses are doing underneath them. We have to allow horses to think for themselves,” shared Funnell.
Waygood added, “There is something for everybody in this exercise. We want a horse that moves through the poles with their neck and tail balanced. This builds cadence in the trot. The longer the horse is off the ground, the more impulsion he has.”
Moving on to a series of trot poles, the young horse first struggled to find his footing. Funnell, however, stayed out of his way, allowing him to find his own feet. The poles allowed the horse to start moving over his topline, lifting his legs higher than before and thinking about each pole as he stepped over it. As soon as he began using his body how Funnell and Waygood desired, they added a perpendicular pole on the ends of the exercise that the horse had to trot on an angle to make a sharp 90 degree turn over the series of poles.
Funnell moved on to canter two poles set in a line, an exercise more commonly used in showjumping. In the line, the eventing rider asked her horse to be adjustable, adding and taking away strides with each pass.
Last to ride was Great Britain’s top dressage rider, Charlotte Dujardin and Gio (Apache x Tango), taught by her very own mentor and trainer Carl Hester. At just 8-years-old, Gio schooled Grand Prix movements.
“As a horse gets more advanced, the basics get more complex,” Hester explained. “The lines we do in the Grand Prix are very tight and riding through the corners without losing rhythm is very difficult.
Hester also explained the role that having a strong core as a rider plays in refining each and every movement in the Grand Prix and improving the basics. With a stronger core unit, the rider can gain even more control and maintain the horse’s rhythm.
“How you sit on a horse is very important with how you influence the rhythm,” Hester said. “You must have a good rhythm in the trot and you must have a good rhythm in the canter. She has a very strong core. If someone pulled the horse out from under you, would you land on your feet?”
As the demonstration progressed, Hester highlighted that riders have many different types of aids in their toolbox – their legs, seat, reins, and occasionally the whip. He explained that the whip is not a ‘keep going’ aid, it is a teaching aid to encourage rhythm. The horse should remain sensitive to a whip and should respect it. If it bucks or goes slow, that is an incorrect response.
“Is your horse in front of your leg? Your horse needs to freely move forward. You don’t have to be a Grand Prix rider to realize transitions are the basis of everything,” Hester said. “How do you do a good transition? You have to be able to canter your horse on its hind legs. If you don’t prepare, the horse will pull forward on your hands.
“The canter-walk transition is important because that is how you teach the flying change. Your lower legs are connected to their hind legs. Take it to the next level with a flying change. You have to ask at the right moment, otherwise your horse can be late behind or late in front. Because Charlotte’s control is so sensitive the changes are easy. Also the wall helps the changes stay straight versus riding them on the diagonal.”
He emphasized the importance of focusing on the scales of training, establishing a good rhythm in all three gaits and the highly collected piaffe-passage work.
Dressage competition at Olympia, The London International Horse Show, will begin on Monday, December 16 with the FEI Dressage World Cup™ Grand Prix at 6:40 p.m. (GMT). On Tuesday, December 17, with the FEI Dressage World Cup™ Grand Prix Freestyle will take place in the evening as the highlight event of the day.