Image by Sarah Bray Photographics 2017
On a beautiful winter’s day at the spectacular QLD State Equestrian Centre, and with thanks to sponsors, Riders xoxo and The Saddlefitter, we were treated to an educational day with triple Olympic gold medallist, world record holder and champion, Charlotte Dujardin.
Her no hold back approach and honest feedback was refreshing in its realness.
Her messages were simple and some of my favourite ‘Charlotteism’s’ include;
‘slap the rider, pat the horse’
‘learn to love your right rein, like you love your left’
‘pat your horse like you love him’
‘make them wait, don’t let them guess’
‘short reins win gold medals’
Throughout the day, she dropped insights to her own horse preferences, her training routines, her personal training sessions, and shared her strengths and weaknesses. It was also refreshing to hear that even she has a BAD day on a horse, and that having that bad day on a horse, has the power to ruin her whole day – just like us!
One of the many things she loves about the sport is the many different shapes and types dressage horses can be, and that each horse you train, teaches you something.
She says dressage is ALL about the training, the discipline and attention to detail. She says “Dressage is all about repetition. Riders have to be focussed in their riding and have a plan for every session.”
At one point in a session, Charlotte digressed and explained the importance of rider fitness and alignment. Vince Corvi used to say – “Crooked riders create crooked horses” and this was Charlotte’s point when she said – riders create the same problems in their horses. She stressed the importance of rider physiotherapy, sports remedial massage and alignment. She intimated that we owe to our horses to be “even in our riding”. She shared that she has a personal trainer and does resistance training on her weak side, and a little bit of cardio.
Session 1 was all about training young horses...
Charlotte is a big advocate of not buying huge paces, for the long term strain this can place on the joints. Instead she looks for 3 correct paces with a good walk and canter. She stresses that having a horse that wants to work with you is more important than having the biggest talent. She is not a fan of Young Horse classes for the reason that they are all about rewarding the big, flashy paces, and less about the training of horses for FEI.
Charlotte said - With young horses, it is very important that the rider is the leader, and it’s about giving the horse a good feeling. She says – it’s not about forcing them around in an outline, but more about getting the horse to work in a supple relaxed way. She stressed the importance of transitions, and says a session should be made of hundreds of transitions. She likened transitions to ‘building foundations’, and she said, ”do them as good as you can, every time you do them”.
The horses have to GO when rider says go, and come back when asked. The riders should be asking constant questions, and correcting when wrong answers are given.
At the young horse stage, the transitions should be progressive for example, trotting smaller and smaller until they walk. She says, never ride the young horse backward, always forward and light in hand.
Don’t practise forcing them to work in a position where they are tense, and don’t stay riding in your comfort zone. You’ve got to be able to GO forward and let them be horses. One of the most important things to teach the young horse is that they must carry their own head and neck.
Session 2 was about the next stage of training. Charlotte again stresses the importance of hundreds of transitions. She says don’t get stuck in one rhythm. Ride transitions within the paces… hundreds of them every session. In shoulder-in, ride smaller trot and bigger trot and smaller again – literally hundreds of transitions.
And when you ride bigger, they must not get stronger… they must not pull. Correct with a re-balancing aid and repeat the movement again, until they don’t get stronger. Say to the horse – do not pull, then the rider must let go and say to the horse – stay there by yourself.
If you ride a bad corner, you ARE going to ride a bad movement. Turn away and ride the corner again.
Never avoid exercises on the weak side. The side that is more difficult is the side that needs more work.
First establish one rhythm and one angle – then you can change the gears.
Charlotte shared her thoughts on BIG marks… you only get really big marks if you are brave. Really big marks require risk. And yes, taking the risks means a chance of mistakes, but she would rather take the risk and ride for big marks, than the alternative.
She says that all horses have either, a natural talent for sitting OR pushing, but the rider has to train both. and one of my favourite Charlottism’s – “you have to learn to love your right rein, like you love your left”.
Charlotte said, ideally the 7 year old dressage horse should be able to canter as small as a person walking beside it… so keep practising!
Session 3 was about training at Medium/advanced level, and for this session, it was all about the rider needing to be the one in charge and not hang on the rein, holding the horse in position. Charlotte says this is backward riding. Don’t just sit in one trot… challenge the horse, mistakes don’t matter. If they make a mistake, just turn away and repeat it.
Charlotte stressed again – the importance of never getting into the habit of doing bad transitions. She had some great exercises such as shoulder in/travers/shoulder in, as a good exercise in control;
Another good exercise was, Canter half pass to X, followed by a half 10 metre circle in travers and straight into another half pass, as an exercise to develop the canter pirouette.
Charlotte suggested that the rider should try to use the horse’s power instead of trying to contain it. And she stressed again, the importance of the horse being able to carry its own head and neck.
Onto session 4 with the small tour work. Here Charlotte had her hands full with, what she called, an exceptionally talented horse, who often answered ‘no’ to the riders questions. Charlotte was excellent in not shying away from the problem areas, but instead, repeating the exercise, by breaking it down to be a bit easier and building the horses confidence back, to try the actual exercise again. The mare often objected when life got hard, but Charlotte insisted, on never giving up and never allowing the horse to quit. She said that often the rider gets very frustrated when the horses have days like these, and she was so refreshingly honest about the fact that we, as riders, all have training sessions that ruin our day!
Charlotte had some great exercises with the canter pirouette, all based on making the horse wait, and not letting them take over and guess. Make the canter in travers on a circle, make the steps smaller and bigger… when they try and take over, shoulder in or leg yield out, and then travers again. Make the size of the circle smaller and bigger… again - make them wait.
Make the exercise easier for the horse to comply, then build it backup again. You must never let them quit.
Charlotte said this horse had “unbelievable talent and expression but she has to be mentally able to cope with what her legs and body are able to do.” She suggested that the horse is actually behind the leg and cheats in the downward transitions, by not thinking forward and dropping her back up in the transitions.
And in the extended work - she’s got to go bigger without getting heavy and taking over. Her last advice was to take the horse back a bit in order to go forward.
The last session was about training at Grand Prix level, which she says takes 6 years of training to get to, and then 2-3 years to get good at it. Of this horse, Charlotte congratulated the rider in having trained the horse to this level, and commented how amazingly amenable the horse is. She noted that the horse is naturally croup high with a slow hind leg and a way of going that likes to ‘flick and hover’. ‘Don’t let the trot dwell.’ She said the rider has to lift the forehand to compensate and think quicker with the hind legs. The horse tends to drop his back and push away with the hind leg slow. Charlotte said - Push his bum down, and don’t let him push you up. And the advice to the rider – again, no bad transitions and never accept no reaction.
Charlotte really worked on the difficult canter zig zag movement, and again came a favourite charlottetism – ‘slap the rider, pat the horse’. She wanted the canter more uphill and collected, the shoulders leading, and more control of the straightness in the changes – and wow, what an improvement.
Wow – what a day; and made even better with the fabulous Riders xoxo Fashion Show in the lunch break!
Charlotte’s no hold back approach is refreshing. Her attention to the meticulous practise of this sport and her passion for dressage is real.
She has shown the world that a girl with a dream, who has someone who believes in them, and who is not afraid of hard work – that dreams can be realised.
Thankyou Charlotte for a truly inspiring day!
And thankyou to Leesa Murray for the courage to think BIG and for bringing World Champion, Charlotte Dujardin, to QLD!