Jane Hannigan reviews the 2022 Absorbine/NEDA Carl Hester Symposium

Hey everyone! As I was scrolling through Facebook, I kept seeing Jane’s post on the Absorbine/NEDA Carl Hester Symposium. It was held on Oct 15-16, 2022, at the Mount Holyoke College Equestrian Center in South Hadley Massachusetts. Close to 800 dressage enthusiasts audited the symposium. I contacted Jane and asked her if she would do a write up for H4YC. All of her post, I read and reread, as I am a super dressage geek…. they were fun, well written, and engaging! So read below what she took away from the clinic. If you want to ask her any questions or contact her for lessons/training, her Bio and Contact information is below:

“On and Back” Is that it? Yes, it is!! ????

Carl Hester came to Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts to do the NEDA fall clinic and was as engaging and entertaining as we had hoped. Carl has a wonderful sense of humor with that special British delivery (sarcasm) that can deliver important information to the audience and the riders with everyone leaving proud to try harder to do their best. You feel as an auditor that you are actually a part of the process and you hope the next canter walk is successful, so you don’t hear Carl say nothing but a dead space while he waits for the rider to make a good decision or “I don’t like that, do it again!” He said in his lessons with Bert Rutten, that he had to halt square to ask a question and that every transition was the most important because “On and Back” is the most important thing to train in dressage. Carl explained that Bert Rutten would give him the directions “on” meaning go forward and “back” meaning smaller steps with energy constantly and that he stopped one day (square halt of course) and asked if there was anything more to dressage, and Bert Rutten simply replied “No” just be sure it is done correctly, or Carl will make you repeat it until it brings the horse onto the hind legs with better balance, energy and relaxation.

Let’s dive into the clinic! First, we had a 4-year-old and a 5-year-old, Carl commented that during the warmup he almost couldn’t tell which was the younger one. They both started with “surprise surprise” transitions!!!! Carl said, “Transitions is really where we start with young horses.”

He explained the introduction of transitions in the trot, bringing the horse back to shorten the trot 3 or 4 strides and then allow it to trot out. He cautioned to bring the horse to the hand not behind it. This is where he spoke of short-coupled horses need to be made longer and longer horses need to be made shorter and you achieve this with the same exercise, 3-4 shorter steps in trot to longer ones until the hind leg is not pushing away from the horse. Carl stated it’s 3 ingredients he’s looking for “Lovely Paces, Trainability, and Sensitivity!” With his horses he trains upper body forward with hands forward allowing the horse to find the stretch because upper body back means come back. Carl also stated in his lovely British accent that “straightness” is a lifelong daily journey that is not simply done, and you get to move on. Each level has a refinement of straightness that you need to work towards, and it will be your daily journey for the rest of your lives.

Next were transitions from trot to canter to trot. Carl explained the purpose of trot canter is to teach the horse to push up in the upward transition and the canter trot downward transition teaches the horse to let go and come more over the back to swing. Carl taught the two on the young horses to give on the inside rein in the upward transition and not to hold the head down on the inside rein, this carries through to the flying changes later. The contact he wanted was not empty reins but a living feeling between you and the horse. Give and retake the reins and teach them to stretch. Carl said some people don’t stretch their horses because they don’t want them running on the forehand, he cautioned that if you hold muscles in the same place all the time you can’t get supple muscles. Teach them to stretch, work on controlling the speed while stretching and of course if the horse is heavy and pulling bring them back up and try again until they do self balance in the stretching. One rider had high hands that faced downward, Carl quipped that it’s thumbs up like hitching not hand like you are holding a hand bag or begging like a dog, follow the contact downward but don’t ride in that position as it breaks the connection. Day twos young horses repeated these same exercises “on and back”. One horse needed an improvement in his front legs in the walk, his hind were well placed under his body and the front needed to lengthen. Carl counseled that he does walk work out on a hack zig zagging up and down small hills like in the British countryside. He felt the horse needs time to develop a bigger front leg. The same horse had a marvelous canter that Carl stated “Kevin I would like to canter yours for 1/2 hour!” He’s got Carl’s type of canter with an active well placed hind leg and an uphill balance with an equal front leg.

Carl emphasized that transition work is not just between the gaits but smaller frequent ones within the gait.

The six-year-old was a lovely mare that did everything asked of her. “I’d like to have her out to dinner, she has a lovely temperament, very polite and agreeable!” She was a pleasure to watch start developing a second trot from the smaller trot steps to the big fancy ones.

Third level is the beginning of us as an audience willing good canter walk transitions and halt’s because that’s what this session focused on entirely. Carl strongly encouraged the riders to make every transition a good one so the horse learns to balance themselves. Preparing for the canter walk took many attempts at collecting the horse, first active on the hind leg and slowing the front legs. Carl asked the rider to both go on the snaffle rein because both horses were behind the vertical and not collecting the sit with active steps. One of the horses was huge and the other was small and tidy, both had to do the same thing. Carl would instruct “collect, and lighter, lighter, lighter now walk in the up beat of the canter then give” The riders had to find the correct timing otherwise the horse would fall on the forehand, break to the trot, go behind the vertical or land in a heap with a walk you couldn’t do much with. We all felt the difference when it came together “lighter” each stride and walked at the top of the stride when the mane and ears were coming up, quite magical for such a simple transition. Carl explained that the half halt should lighten not slow the horse otherwise you will have difficulty in your pirouette and flying changes later. The giant horse was coming behind the vertical so Carl said imagine I glued a glass of water on your horses head, you don’t want all the water to dribble out down the front of his face, visualize the glass staying full, it worked!!

Halts, oh my this went on for some time before the good ones but what a difference of the hind legs under the horse after. The smaller horse achieved this quickly but still needed to raise the frame, Carl said it’s a small half circle upward and away from the body with thumbs on top and most importantly HANDS TOUCHING to fix this drop. The magic of the hands together or hands apart, it was everything for every session forward. When you bring your hands together you bring the horse up to the contact, hands apart and downwards brings the horse like a stretch down to the contact. LET GO OF THE CURB and keep your hands together in front of you and use seat and leg to bring the horse back up to the contact. Halts, trot small ACTIVE steps on the hind leg, two small ACTIVE walk steps and halt. The small walk steps get the horse square and under, if the horse goes out behind ride forward and start again. The smaller horse got this quick, the bigger one would not stand still and under so Carl had her do the smallest “circle turn” away from the rail to a turn on the forehand back to the rail and the horse stood still. Carl did the exercise on the rail to help with keeping the horses straight and keeping the riders focused. It was wonderful to see the improvements in both horses, day two was fantastic and Carl commented on how everyone got the message day one to GET OFF THE CURB, day two we watched good snaffle rein training. The last thing about the Jr/3rd level to bring up is in the Jr test you have flying changes and a simple change through the walk and a trot stretch. This encourages good training for the future riders, we have to keep training this at 3rd level to achieve well trained horses for the next levels. Skipping ahead without good halts or canter walks will not help you down the road in the Grand Prix level of straightness and collect-ability. Do not skip these basic exercises, do your homework.

The seven year olds were both very interesting horses whose power and talent needed to be brought to a balance, so Carl brought them back to the basics first. You ask what were those basics? Exactly like the 4-year-old it was smaller trot steps to bigger ones, and again like the others, canter walk canters, and halts that were square and remained still.

Here we also got to hear repeated constantly that if you do shoulder in on 3 tracks it brings the horse “on” the outside rein and riding 4 tracks brings the horse “off” the outside rein. Starting on a diagonal straight to shoulder in up the quarter line to another diagonal line straight to the center line where you ride another shoulder in. This was tough at first for the rider to get the control of the outside of the horse but when it came together the outside rein was truly connected.

One of the horses was blessed with a very natural hind leg and an incredible canter, this one needed to decrease the amazing trot to work on the balance of the gait and a better positive contact because the horse was going over flexed at the poll from the incredible power it has naturally. It was remarkable to watch the horse come up and out to the contact with Carl repeatedly saying to many riders “Bring your hands together like touching and keep them in front of the saddle. Now do a 1/2 circle away from your body from low to up and forward with your hands together.” Like magic up the head and out the neck would come.

The other horse in the canter work needed to be ridden a bit deeper to keep her middle section up, if her head was too high her back would drop. Carl cautioned on always riding up, you need to know your horse and where the frame needs to be for different conformations. Always try to have a good ground person that can give you honest feedback so that you don’t rely on feel alone.

The next part was working on the changes, without good collection and forward with the horse able to do the work themselves you won’t get the best results in the changes. Legs are like scissors in the changes, left leg forward release-right leg back on, timed at the same moment like scissors. Right leg forward release-left leg on, use the heel of the new outside leg to cue the change. One horse was late behind because she was ahead of the aid, when the rider was switching her legs she was moving the inside forward before asking with the outside heel. Carl counted 1-2-3-release and the changes became clean because the rider was moving both legs on the release stride to ask for the change. It was a wonderful result and a great way to count.

After they did a few canter/trot transitions to get to release their body in the downward transitions. Carl reminds us that canter trot is in the beginning test and in the Grand Prix, keep practicing your basic training.

In the developing PSG level, we followed the journey of the basics and got to see more “on and back” go forward and for a few steps shorter strides. In the trot work this built into beautifully lofty trots and in the canter, it developed into canter pirouettes and tempi changes. Carl always started by adjusting the curb rein to achieve getting the horses more on the snaffle rein. Day 1 one of the horses was even thoughtfully presented in a snaffle bridle (day two she was in a double) and she achieved self-carriage very easily. Carl said they train in the snaffle bridle at home quite often, they are shown in a double bridle but can go in both. One of the riders was encouraged to be brave and bring her horse above the bit to help with her hiding her neck and not making a correct contact. The canter walk was repeated here with a horse that was learning her pirouette in self carriage. Carl explained to the rider to take the leg away and stop doing the work for the horse. She needed to release her legs so the horse would react more quickly when needed. Day one there were some moments of dropping to the trot because the horse needed to learn to do it herself. Day two was a magical day as the horse was straighter in her canter right, always in shoulder fore and was able to do the canter walks with confidence in the collection. Carl joked that horses have 23 hours a day to relax but when it work time if you let them fall in a heap in transitions that is what they will do in the show ring too.

Canter pirouette were started with 2 exercises. The first was haunches in on a 10m circle then continuing into the canter with the same. The horses needed to keep a quicker collected canter not be allowed to slow down, then back to walk. One horse did a variation where it was shoulder in and haunches in alternating on the circle. The second example was half pass to the center line shoulder in on the center line and as you approached the corner think haunches in through the turn, this eventually got smaller to a half schooling canter pirouette in 5-6 strides.

In trot work it was half pass advice of look down the inside rein to see the nose and get the outside eye to look in the direction of your travel. In a right half pass get the left eye to look right, clever advice that helped the riders. Carl would then say check your haunches by looking back for a stride now look through the ears to where you are going.  If the haunches lead focus on the shoulder if the haunches trail focus on the haunches. Getting a start to passage or the second trot (fancy trot without passaging) Carl had the rider bring the horse back into the smaller steps on the hind leg and then with the riders leg forward bring the horse forward in a slower tempo clucking and tapping with the whip as needed, if the horse lost the rhythm, ride forward like to medium trot then come back again with shorter steps on the hind leg and repeat the forward but slower tempo. The horses stepped into beautifully started beginning of passage and then some real passage. This was magical for us and very normal for Carl who trusted in his basic work in the beginning of each session. Riders were then asked to stretch the horses and they all needed to swing in the backs afterwards.

My favorite session day two was the Prix St George horse Angelik ridden by Shannon Dueck from Canada. Angel won the small tour at Dressage at Devon a few weeks ago and is only 7 and is very happy and capable at this level and more. Shannon has ridden with Carl in England and works with him still when he’s in Wellington Florida. They had worked with the mother who was a Grand Prix horse. Carl said that Shannon’s horse is a good example of what patient training can do to develop a trot. Warming up Angel looks average, and Carl cautioned that as a young horse you would probably overlook her because of this but we can develop a lot through collection. Wait until you see what good training can develop through collection and how her gaits change. Carl said he likes to do the canter work to help develop the trot, and he joked at his age it’s easier, 20 minutes of canter 10 minutes at trot and he’s done. Putting the horses towards pirouette work or passage they learn where the hind legs need to be placed, he added piaffe does as well. Shannon’s horse has an average trot, a neat and tidy canter and a good walk so she has been able to happily learn up the levels without any difficulty. Carl wanted to work on the flying changes since one was bigger than the other. He watched a few changes and asked her to take to the track going left putting the smaller left change to the outside, take right lead canter and when you ask for the change left tap her with the whip on the new inside hind (left) as she’s changing. Carl said there now we made the smaller one bigger than the other one! They moved onto starting the one tempis- with the flick-flack or the 1-1, taking the rail change out and then in, do it a few times then add another still with the space between, when you can do the flick flack 3 times both ways you can add more ones. Shannon did 8 perfectly ridden one, it was a very satisfying thing to watch for us in the crowd.

Can we say wow, look at that trot after the canter it’s huge. Now the mare looks way above average in her trot, through “on and back” in canter work her trot has grown. Shannon was able to show us passage that Angel is developing, Carl said it’s like throwing a ball not pulling back to passage. “Bring them forward to passage like this one. The difficult movements should be fun and with this one it is!!!” Congratulations Shannon, well ridden and trained!

The 21-year-old horse and rider were wonderful to watch. Numberto or Bert as he is known, Carl had ridden as a younger horse and known through the years. He was given to Liz Austin when she was in training with Carl a few years ago. Carl explained that his own first international team experience on the British team was extremely exciting and then he came home and another rider in the yard said, “Well now that you’ve learned how to steer now you need to learn how to ride!” Carl was mounted on a well-trained horse like this lucky young lady. The rider got her Gold Medal on Bert and now knows what a 70% Grand Prix feels like to ride. They worked on the same pirouette exercise the PSG horses did and Carl stated again that the canter pirouette is a continuation of good walk pirouette’s where the horse collects and stays active while turning off the outside leg. Carl uses inside rein and outside leg for pirouettes in canter, he does not turn with the outside rein. He asked the rider to stay focused on her 10m circle line because “This is a shocking line!” Was his remark as the horse and rider could not stay on the track of the circle. They got it together and it was fun to see. They worked on the one tempis after doing the others count’s successfully (4’s, 3’s, 2’s) this horses canter is a 10 and his changes are huge. In the ones, the rider was following the horse instead of leading, so they focused on the 1-1 out and in change on the long side to help keep the straight line. After doing the 1-1 a few times both directions they succeeded in getting all the one tempis they needed. Again, super fun to watch.

The Grand Prix horse came in day 1 a bit overwhelmed due to the crowd so Carl gave us general advice while he settled down. Carl feels horses get better at 13-14-15-16-17-18 and can keep teaching people into their 20’s. Young horse classes do not tell you if your horse has Grand Prix potential, the YH classes are great if your horse can win them, Valegro did, but some horses are behind in their age and need more time. The goal of his training is to train Grand Prix horses. The walk you need is a 7 to 8 walk to win medals, trot and canter need to have clear rhythm and a 10 canter means huge flying changes, which is great for winning medals, but you don’t have to have that to do Grand Prix. When you pick up a hot horse, walk one step at a time. Keep your ankles on a hot horse and your legs away from a dull one. Ok onto the GP horse……

In the Grand Prix trot half pass use the right outside rein half halt to move the horse left. In the one where the shoulder comes down to the right use your inside leg to pick up the shoulder, now do passage half pass to really pick up the inside front leg.

They did the same big schooling canter pirouette work as in the other levels and then proceeded to the Grand Prix pirouettes. The GP pirouettes are at L (left pirouette) and I (right pirouette) on the center line with a flying change of lead at X. Starting left stay in shoulder fore on center line, collect over L shoulder fore out, change to shoulder fore right then flying change, again collect over I and shoulder fore out to C where you turn right. The first few attempts after the flying change the horse went crooked and looked “drunk” as Carl put it trying to do the second half of the center line. After a few repetitions the straightness improved to Carl asking for the pirouettes as well. The left pirouette was on the left side of the center line, the right was on the right side. Carl simply stated its 6-8 strides in a pirouette, make the first few small and the second half bigger to get to both sides of the center line for a correctly ridden pirouette. After some negotiations the pirouette’s improved where Carl said keep working on the first exercise daily and your pirouette’s will come.

Walk passage, think trot then whoa, you are saying whoa then trot so he’s not forward into it. Your reins should bounce in passage, not be tightly held. LET GOT OF THE CURB! Passage to passage on the spot and out to train passage piaffe transitions. Carl adjusted the riders aids in passage to piaffe, where it is leg forward for passage bring the leg back and active for the piaffe – then legs forward up into the passage again, wait for the transition and let it grow. This horse and rider are very good at piaffe and passage, it was a pleasure to watch! Carl in his usual cheeky style said, “You can do a very good pirouette……someday!” Lots of stretching and praise after to let the horses back swing and stretch again.

I wish my writing could capture Carls cheeky British humorous style that makes any correction sound fun and interesting, never putting riders or horses in a place they could not shine and always doing the basics “On and Back with straightness, for a lifetime!”

Thank you, Jane…. for writing such an informative article for horses4yc.com! Janes bio and contact information can be seen below:

Jane Hannigan Photo: Sharon Packer

Jane Hannigan represented the USA at the 2008 World Cup in the Netherlands with her own horse Maksymilian. She is an FEI dressage rider and coach based at Riverfront Farm in Concord MA in the summer and Summer Breeze Stables in Wellington FL during the winter months. Jane teaches biomechanics, stride counting, and strong rider position training from her experiences working with top professionals. As Carl Hester put it, “Hand me downs is how we all learn, we learn from others.”

Jane Can be reached at: teamhannigan@gmail.com or phone number 978-270-0919

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