Back to Basics: A Masterclass with Charlotte Dujardin

Back to Basics: A Masterclass with Charlotte Dujardin

By Leslie Morris

If I had the chance to ride any horse in the world, it would be Valegro. To me, he embodies what a dressage horse should look like after years of correct training at the top of his field. So when I had the opportunity to learn from the rider who trained Blueberry, as he is called by all who know him, I signed up to go to Back to Basics: A Masterclass with Charlotte Dujardin at the Kentucky Horse Park with my friend Helen George (bonus). Here are some of my notes, thoughts and hopefully not too much rambling on the clinic that did not disappoint!

The Chronicle of the Horse posted good articles on the two days of the clinic. If you want more information on the horses and riders and probably a more organized review, I recommend you look them up. I want to write about Charlotte and Carl Hester’s (because she deservedly gives most of her credit to him) approach to training the horse. This clinic provided lots of examples of how they look for, and then train, their horses.

What Is ‘The Right Horse’?

Charlotte started on day one talking about looking for the right horse. Big caveat here: this is what she looks for and what works for her. After all, she told us that she likes hot horses, the crazier the better. Now I like a hot, sensitive horse, but not crazy, and I do think that’s what she was talking about. So my first Charlotte quote is “Spend money on training, not the horse.” She looks not at breeding, but good temperament (see… not crazy). A good walk is important: a horse that walks through its whole body, but not a ’10’ walk, they are too hard to collect. A good canter is also a must have; a good hind leg, it’s the horse’s engine, so a good push. Now the trot she doesn’t worry about. In fact, she says the bigger moving horses have more risk of injury and Blueberry’s trot was not good when he started in training. She and Carl have had a lot of success on horses that did not cost a fortune.

Watching the Rides

With the first horse, a 4yr old, Charlotte stressed look at the trot and what can you do with it. She works her young horses 20 minutes in the ring after a 15 min warm up in a field by one of her grooms/riders. (She needs one as she rides 11 horse a day!) Think about the horse’s temperament and conformation and understand what the horse can do. The horse needs to react to the leg correctly. When the leg is on, the horse must go. Reaction to the leg is an important lesson for the young horse. And it’s something Charlotte came back to with all the horses thru the Grand Prix horse. In this young horse we saw an example of what happens when you push the go button. The horse’s frame got longer and he got on his forehand. Solution: keep good contact with both reins, slowing down the horse after the forward. So that the horse understands half halts, almost walk with smaller and smaller steps and then add leg to go forward….a rebalance.

Transitions became the theme of the clinic. Charlotte said transitions may be boring to work on, but dressage is about repetition… “Every transition has to be good and if it’s not, do it until it is. “ One exercise she used was to put the horse on a circle and ask go, go, GO. The circle helps keep the horse together. She stressed easing into the forward and into the back. It helped the horse to have him in shoulder fore. And then came a classic Charlotte quote when she asked the rider for a walk transition. It wasn’t up to “Charlotte standards” so, “Pat the horse, slap the rider.”

Transitions are about balancing horse, so to test the balance, give the reins for 2-3 steps.  To end with a young horse, she lets them stretch down with a wide lower hand in contact with slight inside flexion. It’s usually only the older trained horses that start in stretch.

The second horse was a 5 yr old in 1st-2nd level training. He was a very different shape and temperament from the 4yr old and a good example of how you have to adjust the training for the horse. By the way, I think this clinic did a good job of picking horses that Charlotte could use to demonstrate different training techniques. This horse was so uphill, he needed exercises to help him low and stretch. And he was way hotter, too. Charlotte… “Horses that are hot, you have to put your leg on and lazy horses you have to take your leg off. “ With that in mind, her go-to exercise was leg yield in a slight diagonal line. Charlotte explained the leg yield has flexion, not bend. If you bend, the horse falls out the shoulder. The minute the horse takes over, go straight. For this horse she had the rider think reverse and a slight half pass feel.

The 4th level horse that followed was my favorite of the clinic and from the comments, I think Charlotte’s too. The horse was a little tense coming in to the large arena with over 200 auditors. Charlotte’s exercise was shoulder-in and then travers in canter with more forward, of course.

She really loves the travers in canter to get the horse supple and forward and back transitions in travers. The rest of the horses did this exercise in warm up. Also shoulder-in and travers in trot. Next she had the rider work on canter half pass starting in shoulder-in. The horse was quickly soft going and so on to the exercise of half pass on centerline to E or B then counter canter on short side to medium canter across the diagonal, centerline to half pass again and then this time long side flying change.  OK, apologies for the long exposure to the exercises…. This is what I love in clinics, exercises that I can go home and use on different horses. So next time I write… “OK exercise”… you can just skip that part. Here comes another one: to teach flying changes, start at the end of the arena, come from the corner like you are going to do a figure 8.  Instead of going straight on centerline, slightly turn to the corner keeping the horse straight and uphill and before corner change. I haven’t had a chance to play with this one, but I think it could be helpful to get the horse more uphill.

The Prix St George – Intermediate 1 horse was an older horse; Charlotte explained we can’t change this horse but we can get her more supple and on the aids. So guess what…. more transitions and forward to collection. She reminded the rider to shorten her reins… “ I can hang my washing on those, they’re so long.” She started with travers on track, then travers on circle and forward and collect. From there the exercise progressed to shoulder-in to travers in canter, and then half pass from rail to centerline, then shoulder-in to travers on centerline. When the horse broke to trot… another Charlotte quote… “Your legs are like they’re on holiday.” Really, it was all in good fun. Charlotte is tough, but fair, and has a great sense of humor. Especially with the older horse we want to do the tricks, but the basics is what makes the horse better. Charlotte suggested canter walk transitions instead of canter pirouettes and the afore mentioned exercise.

The Grand Prix horse was an Andalusian that was very nice and typical of its breed, very uphill and easy to collect. Again, a horse that needed to get longer in his frame. Charlotte preached not to rely on the whip so much. She says she rides a lot with no whip. The horse should move forward from the leg. The exercise here was canter zigzag zags (remember from the 2nd level horse on they warmed up with canter travers on long sides transition to shoulder fore before corner.) The zigzag zag is a hard exercise. You have to be so precise in your count and placement. This horse was new to the rider. She needed to get the horse more forward. Charlotte said, “You’d get time faults for your dressage test.” Charlotte said she had four young up-and-coming Grand Prix horses and she feels like she’s learning to ride the GP test all over again. You have to have the right timing for each horse. She worked a little piaffe passage work before the end of the session. Mainly trot to passage and back to trot looking for a lower longer neck and in piaffe allowing the horse to travel forward.

Charlotte gave us a glimpse into her training schedule. She and Carl train their horses in the arena on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. On those days, the horses start in the field warming up in walk, trot, and canter and then she and Carl ride them for about 20-30 minutes depending on the level. The horse are all cooled out, put under lights to dry and are then turned out in fields. Some horses stay out all night. On Wednesday and Saturday all the horses are hacked out and some go on the water treadmill and some have massage and chiropractor work. Sunday is a day off. Charlotte herself has a personal trainer she works out with, a chiropractor, a sports masseuse, and a sports physiologist that she works with. It takes a lot to be the best!

Day Two, More Exercises

Wow! That was just day one! Day two all the riders and horses must have dreamed about their rides because everyone came back better. Warning: day two is all about the exercises that continued to improve these horses.

The 4 yr old started out with three loop serpentines and then four loops to loosen up. Which was followed by medium trot. This horse did what a lot of horses do learning to lengthen-he broke to a canter. Charlotte said if he canters, doesn’t matter, it’s a reaction…that’s good. The next exercise was canter leg yield. From the quarterline leg yield to rail continue in shoulder fore counter cantering through short side then back to true canter across diagonal. Don’t stop when the horse makes a mistake, fix lead and keep going. That was enough: a lot for this horse and he did well, so he got to stretch and finish.

The 2nd level horse was tense again the second day. The rider started him in trot and he kept breaking to canter. Charlotte said, “He still looks jolly…if he wants to canter, let him warm up in canter.” At this point, Charlotte said something interesting “Pat, not stroke the horse.” Basically, if you pat the horse’s neck you are giving more than you would in a stroke, trusting more. After warm-up, they started with leg yield on a circle followed by shoulder-in on circle and then leg yield on diagonal like day one. They went on to medium canter – remember this horse is too uphill and tight. The exercise was shoulder fore on the quarter line and keep that in medium to keep horse straight. Then to collect the horse, lots of downward transitions thinking “walk with the reins, canter with the legs.” Collect from forward. “Make sure the last step is yours, not his.”

Next was the 4th – PSG level horse warming up by changing angles to get the horse listening: travers, shoulder-in, straight in canter. The medium trot was next, getting the horse to accept the leg even if he was keen. They then started work in canter half pass using the length of the arena and counter canter short side to flying change half way up long side. Yes, it was as easy as that for this horse. Did I mention I liked this horse?! Medium canter and collected canter work was next. There were many, many transitions performed working on getting horse to stay in canter by himself. This exercise easily leads into canter pirouettes. Charlotte had the rider go on a 15 meter circle in haunches in. They ended the session in trot work with some half pass followed by working on a better trot having the rider think passage and touching the horse on the croup with a whip when he got tight to get him more forward. Now the horse was really accepting the leg and it was amazing how a nice trot became really nice.

Next was the 16 yr old PSG – I1 mare. She began with canter in travers on the long side.  As the mare approached the corner before the next long side the rider was instructed to do haunches-in and then into shoulder-in before moving horse to half pass to X. From X continue in shoulder-in then turn at the end and continue the same exercise. You could see how this leads to pirouette work. Tempi changes were next, keeping the poll up and then leaving the horse alone. As I looked at my notes, I thought there couldn’t be that may more exercises for this horse, but wait… shoulder-in to 8 meter circles to half pass, then extended walk to collected walk and then finally extended trot. Charlotte at the end, “She’s a good old bird, isn’t she.”

Last was the Grand Prix horse. Horse was pretty warmed up and they started with canter zig zags. Charlotte had the rider start on the rail in canter leg yield six strides then change, followed by starting on centerline leg yield with the GP movement 3-6-6-3. Horse got too behind the leg: “If he needs a yee haw, go on!” This progressed to the exercise in half pass. Charlotte helped the rider a lot in her placement. They worked on tempi changes, 3s, 2s and then 1s, keeping the horse straight and forward. Bounce him off the leg – Charlotte suggested more leg to drive him forward instead of more swing to leg, then you can do less when he knows you better.

Canter pirouette work started again on a 15 – 12 meter circle in haunches-in and increasing and decreasing the circle. This exercise moved on to full pirouette work. This is about position and control. Keeping the canter was stressed – think canter, canter, turn, turn. They ended with trot zig zags. The horse has to be supple, listening to the half halt and to the leg! Wait: there was rein back work too! The horse needed to listen to leg corrections faster and rider needed to think passage to halt.

Somewhere in all this, Charlotte managed to give an update on Blueberry. He’s of course king of the stable. Alan, his groom, guards him like a bulldog. Charlotte says “They fight about who gets to ride him.” Blueberry gets hacked out with all the other horses and gets the same turn out. She told us about how her fiance, Dean, asked to ride Blueberry and that even having to show Dean how to ask for a canter, Blueberry was a saint. “He’s a real pleasure, an honor to ride. A once in a lifetime horse.” You could here the awww’s around the arena.

It was a great clinic – very inspiring! We weren’t allowed to take photos during the clinic, so here are a few images from Lexington. Photos of the clinic can be found with the Chronicle of the Horse articles.

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