Gymnasticize Your Dressage Horse: Tips from Alfredo Hernandez

Takeaways from a clinic at Motters Station Stables in Maryland.
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Best known for his work introducing and developing the piaffe and passage through in-hand techniques, Alfredo Hernandez has helped countless dressage riders improve their horses.

Alfredo points out a detailed aspect of student Ampara Visser’s position to improve upon the horse’s connection to the bridle. 

Alfredo points out a detailed aspect of student Ampara Visser’s position to improve upon the horse’s connection to the bridle. 

From establishing concepts to fine-tuning piaffe and passage for the competition ring, Alfredo’s careful timing, technique, and attention to detail have benefitted top FEI riders including Steffen Peters, Hilda Gurney, Heather Blitz, Betsy Steiner, Jan Ebeling, and more.

Classically trained at the Portuguese Riding School, Alfredo has blended technique and personality to create an enjoyable clinic experience for horses and riders.

In late March, Alfredo made his first of three clinic visits to Motters Station Stables in Rocky Ridge, Maryland, to work with the students and guests of Christine Betz Dressage, LLC.

Throughout the clinic, he worked with a variety of horse-and-rider combinations–some who have been lucky enough to ride with him in the past, and some brand-new to his teaching style. While horses varied in age and experience level, the underlying concepts of Alfredo’s methodology remained consistent: the riders were to be consistent in the questions they were asking and strive to make the horses adjustable.

1. “It’s training. Show me what’s difficult, and let’s make it better.”

At the start of each session, Alfredo instructed his riders to take five minutes to warm up as they would at home, or before a lesson with their daily instructor. “I’m not here to judge you, I’m here to help you.”

2. Your leg yields loosen the back.

Alfredo encouraged each of the riders, regardless of the horse’s experience level, to begin each ride with some walking leg yields to loosen the back.

He built upon this exercise by introducing half pass, or haunches-in across the diagonal.

To truly benefit from this exercise, the horse was encouraged to cover ground in a forward direction, not just sideways. “Dressage is all about ground cover, that’s the push we always talk about”.

For a horse who wants to be quick, with a propensity for running, Alfredo suggests leg yielding along the rail at the trot.

Keeping the horse’s nose aimed the wall, at about a forty-five degree angle, use your outside leg to push the horse down the long side of the arena, and connect him to your opposing aids. Straighten through the short sides using your legs, not by pulling on the reins.

This exercise helps to reinforce the connection and can help the rider compress the horse for more controlled movement by emphasizing the seat and leg aids.

Christine Betz and her own Coronado (2002 ISR Gelding) work on bending in the half-pass at the walk to improve upon their Grand Prix movements. 

Christine Betz and her own Coronado (2002 ISR Gelding) work on bending in the half-pass at the walk to improve upon their Grand Prix movements. 

3. Circles are everything in your riding.

Alfredo referred to the circle as a “happy place” for the horse and rider. If the rhythm gets interrupted, or irregular, “always go back to the circle.”

One exercise Alfredo had a few different horse and rider combinations do, in varying degrees, required adjustability and precision on a relatively small circle: Start at the walk on about a 12m circle. Keep the horse’s front legs on the circle line and push the haunches out, maintaining the rhythm of the walk, and the bending around your inside leg. Then slowly change to haunches-in, keeping those front legs on the same circle line.

Take this exercise up to the trot, but remember not to worry if the trot becomes a bit irregular as your horse struggles to think through the exercise and find his balance. Alfredo really emphasized the rider guiding the horse on a singular, consistent circle line. “If things get tricky; die first, then you may leave the circle,” he joked.

“This is one of my favorite gymnastics, it’s a great exercise for anyone from green to Grand Prix. It might seem boring, and it’s not easy, but it’s so worth it in how it helps the horses.”

4. Walk and reward.

Good training requires consistency, not drilling. The horses have to understand when they have achieved what the rider is queuing them to do.

Free walk on a long rein, even for just 5-6 strides, after your horse has given you a good effort at something difficult. Then you may pick up and continue to build on the exercise.

Be sure not to simply drop the contact. You can maintain your elastic connection even when giving your horse a quick mental break and recoup.

5. Elastic and gymnastic.

For quality work, a dressage horse must be adjustable and in good balance.

“Going fast does not mean that the horse is in front of your leg. People worry too much about having huge gaits, but what about brakes? Imagine driving a Ferrari with only a gas pedal and no way to slow down. You need to have a clear and elastic connection to have both.”

Based in California, Alfredo Hernandez travels the USA teaching clinics throughout the year. You can find a number of opportunities to learn from Alfredo at EventClinics.com

USDF bronze, silver, and gold medalist Christine Betz of Christine Betz Dressage, LLC also offers a number of clinics that supplement Alfredo’s thrice-yearly visits to Motters Station Stables in Maryland.

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