Riding in Balance with Carl Hester: Day Two of West Coast Dressage Convention

Del Mar, Calif. – April 9, 2017 – The second day of SH Production’s West Coast Dressage Convention with Carl Hester continued to focus on the importance of basics up through the levels. Hester reiterated that the quality of the connection is paramount to achieving success in each movement from the young horses up to Grand Prix.


Joseph Newcomb rode the beautiful 4-year-old For Finland. The horse went into the contact well and was relaxed in the symposium atmosphere. Hester once again emphasized that the rider should not expect to work a young horse too long or too hard, and explained that his own training regime involves a two-day cycle consisting of two days of work, two days off to focus on fitness and then two days of work again.

Joseph Newcomb and For Finland
Joseph Newcomb and For Finland

“If you want to do dressage, it’s important you know what to look for in a young horse,” Hester explained. “The walk should have a solid, clean rhythm that tracks up. The trot should have swing, but I’m not too concerned with the trot at this age. The canter — I like when it has thrust and push from the hind end. You can train the suspension in the trot as you work up the levels. Look at the walk and canter of a young horse.

“You may get lucky and find a nice, quiet 4-year-old then it turns into a raging monster at 5 and 6 years old,” Hester laughed. “As they become stronger, they may start flexing both their new muscles and personality. Before moving on to gymnastic work, be safe.”

Joseph Newcomb and For Finland
Joseph Newcomb and For Finland

Hester had the rider work on transitions and ask the horse to find his balance without the rider’s help.

“A 4-year-old horse needs to be ridden where they can find their rhythm,” Hester explained. “You don’t have to go too deep in the corners if that disrupts their balance and rhythm at this age. You must ride in a balanced position yourself. A small rider can ride too heavy, and a larger rider can be light — it’s all about effective balance.

“When you ride, how often do you give and retake of the reins?” Hester asked. “That is very important. The horse has to be given the opportunity to balance itself.”


The second ride of the morning was Teri Paton Rich and the 5-year-old mare, Belissa. Hester explained aspects of the FEI 5-Year-Old Test, including the walk-canter, canter-walk transitions and teaching the horse to take more weight on their hind.

“It takes a fair amount of training to show the first stages of teaching a horse to sit, especially in the canter,” Hester began. “You need to adjust the balance — it’s a bit too horizontal at this stage, which is pushing onto the rider’s hand. Encourage the horse to sit up more.”

Teri Paton Rich and Belissa

Hester emphasized the correct timing of the release of the half halt as to not restrain the energy.

“The half halt lasts one stride — if you are holding it more, you are stopping the energy from going into self-carriage,” said Hester. “Check the balance with a half halt, then release and let go. Don’t do all the work for her. It doesn’t have to look perfect, it has to be corrective. The first reaction has to be forward. If you aren’t happy with a transition, go forward first for half a circle then go back to the previous gait and do the transition again.”

An exercise Hester recommended to try was to rise at the trot for three steps, then sit for a few steps to test if the horse is holding his back. According to Hester, until they learn the cadence and swing of the trot, he rides them mostly in rising trot to take the pressure away, while the horse is learning to carry itself.

Teri Paton Rich and Belissa

Horses get used to riding in an arena and both the horse and rider will anticipate the corner as they know they are going to make the turn. Oftentimes they will float through the short side without the rider actually riding and the horse not paying much attention. Hester had Rich head toward the corner in a trot and a few strides before ask for the walk. He had her slightly leg yield into the corner at a walk, pick up the trot for a few strides around centerline and then ask for the walk and leg yield into the next corner.


Cyndi Jackson rode her well-developed 6-year-old gelding Sir Amour, and Hester began their ride working on encouraging the horse to take more weight on his hind, as the horse tended to have a flat collected canter.

“In the canter, test how he sits,” Hester explained. “Do not hold him in your hand — if you are holding and tapping with your leg or whip, he is stuck. He can begin to understand the aid is to come up, not go forward. There may be times when you have to sit it out if he is still holding himself until he lifts his hind leg up underneath you. Wait, develop and then relax again into a working canter. Whatever you are making when you collect him, you have to take with you into the forward.”

Cyndi Jackson and Sir Amour
Cyndi Jackson and Sir Amour

Hester had Jackson ride many forward and back transitions within the collected and working canter to help improve the quality of the activity, which in turn helped them have more expressive flying changes.
“If you risk going too forward, you will lose the suspension. Could I walk beside you when you collect the canter? Or will I have to run holding onto your knee to keep up?” Hester laughed. “We have to understand that impulsion is not going faster, it’s what creates the uphill activity.”


David Blake rode Heide Spirit, a very expressive 7-year-old Oldenburg mare, and Hester explained how a horse with such big movements often has difficulty finding their balance and maintaining the same rhythm. The goal, Hester emphasized, is to get the horse to carry herself and become more genuine in her self-carriage. The quality of the expression of the gaits is the direct result of the basics: suppleness and relaxation.

“Trust that the horse will carry herself and when the reins start moving the horse should relax her mouth,” Hester said. “The more you have the snaffle-feeling, and the horse is not hanging on the curb, that’s a genuine connection.”

David Blake and Heide Spirit
David Blake and Heide Spirit

The mare was slightly hesitating before the flying change, so Hester had Blake collect her on the spot in the canter so that she achieved a more uphill outline and improved the balance. Then they would ride forward for three strides and ask for the change. They continued that exercise by immediately making her wait again, collect, then ask for three forward strides and ask for another change.

They also worked on the mechanics of beginning the canter pirouettes.

David Blake and Heide Spirit
David Blake and Heide Spirit

“When you begin to work on the pirouettes, do a working pirouette in a working canter,” Hester explained. “Do not let her think it is difficult. Ride travers on a 10-meter circle and then transition to shoulder-in on the circle. Do not cut the energy by asking her to sit too much. When you can do this without any tension on your inside rein, you can do the pirouette.”

Prix St. Georges 

The next pair to ride with Hester was Rebecca Rigdon and La Fariah, and right off the bat Hester had them do an interesting exercise to test the horse’s rideability. He had Ridgod trot down the long side, halt straight into the corner and then turn into the rail and make a small volte, or turn on the forehand, to change directions. He had the rider demonstrate this in both directions at the trot as well as in the canter.

Rebecca Rigdon and La Fariah
Rebecca Rigdon and La Fariah

“Anticipation should not be a dirty word,” Hester said. “Horses are not stupid and it’s quite normal they want to help. If they are a little forward thinking you can use these exercises that don’t squish their spirit, but keep them listening and improve the degree of rideability.”

They moved on to work on the half-pass, where Hester had Rigdon improve her weight aids by leaning over to look at the inside hind leg as she rode her canter half-pass. He also wanted to see the mare take more weight on her hind and the rider improve the connection between her lower leg and the horse’s hind leg.

“A good shoulder-in is the key to a lot of things,” Hester said. “With a young horse, until they develop, I look for three track shoulder-ins, not four. By riding a shoulder-in on the quarter line, test if you are losing the horse through the outside. A shoulder-in is not called a haunches-out.”

Developing Grand Prix & Grand Prix

There were two riders on Sunday afternoon who were in the stages of training the Grand Prix, and the first to ride with Hester was Nicholia Clarke and Quincy. Accuracy was a theme throughout the ride, and when Clarke rode a canter half-pass zig zag, Hester laughed, “It’s a nice picture, but you are not accurate. They don’t write letters just for you to do something entirely different. This isn’t a freestyle!”

Nicholia Clarke and Quincy
Nicholia Clarke and Quincy

From improving the ground cover in the tempi changes to improving regularity in the passage, it all went back to the basics of being an effective rider.

“We want the horse bouncing off the floor — use your heel. Mean it! Be effective and pretty. Don’t sit like a fairy!” Hester said. “Let him make the mistake, and you correct him. He needs to learn to do it himself.”

The final rider of the clinic was Charlotte Bredahl aboard her Danish Warmblood gelding, Hamilton, and she wanted to work on the transitions in and out of the piaffe to passage.

“Transitions are important, but it takes time to develop,” Hester explained. “Find one rhythm the entire way through. The whole point is so the horse doesn’t think he is coming back, and I want him in front of your leg into the transition. In the passage, ask for one piaffe step then immediately back out.”

Charlotte Bredahl and Hamilton
Charlotte Bredahl and Hamilton

Hester then had Bredahl school the pirouettes beginning with working pirouettes, but then moved on to improving the accuracy of the pirouette on the centerline. He explained that when he rides pirouettes he thinks of where he wants each canter stride to land as a point on a clock.

“Some people spend so much time doing working pirouettes they get nervous doing full pirouettes on the centerline,” Hester chuckled. “When you come down centerline, it’s so easy to keep the pirouette on only one side of the centerline, but you need to be accurate. Do not let the horse decide to make it smaller than you want.”

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