Isabell Werth's Training System Unveiled

Riders learn the nuances of German Olympian Isabell Werth's training system at the U.S. Dressage Federation National Dressage Symposium.
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Isabell Werth rides Warum Nicht (Hannes) in competition. The pair won the 2007 World Cup. | Photo by Barbara Schnell

Isabell Werth rides Warum Nicht (Hannes) in competition. The pair won the 2007 World Cup. | Photo by Barbara Schnell

The riding arena at WestWorld buzzes with curiosity early Saturday morning. From every corner of the United States, 650 auditors have converged in Scottsdale, Ariz., to learn the secrets of German Olympian Isabell Werth's countless victories. The mystery behind her successes and the controversy surrounding her low-and-deep training methods are soon to be unveiled at the U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) National Symposium, March 30-April 1, 2001.

Little do attendees know how, at first, they will struggle to understand Werth's system. Nor do they know how the horses will evolve over two days as a result of her methods and techniques.

As the symposium gets underway, Werth's passion for each horse's improvement imprisons her, and nothing else matters. She directs her attention totally to the riders instead of to the audience. Schedule? "I need five more minutes," she tells the announcer when he calls for lunch. "Isabell, it's time to take a break," he says five minutes later. "Break? I don't need a break," she says, and her attention quickly returns to the rider: "Outside rein, outside rein," she says. Then she bellows: "I SAID OUTside rein!"

The morning ends with the audience feeling a tad neglected, the relationship between Werth and the announcer getting a little testy and the riders on lower-level horses feeling a bit confused about what Werth wants. But she presses on. She knows what she wants, and before long, the rest of the USDF contingency catches on. Patience. Patience.

Riding Deep and Chewing
"In the books, there's no advice on how you get to Grand Prix ... just on how it should look," Werth says before beginning the first riding session. She then asks Lenore Abbate of Scottsdale, Ariz., to take Tylord Farms 4-year-old Trakehner gelding, Icarus, rounder. It's a request she will repeat often to many of the riders over the two days. "Not every horse or rider needs to work deep," explains Werth. "But if the horse is in front of the vertical all the time, he may get blocked in the back with the hind legs behind, so it helps to make the horse rounder. The neck muscles become round because of the rider's low outside rein, but it is important that the head is not too close to the chest, which would lock him in the back," she warns. Werth has Abbate use her legs and back to engage Icarus so he can then swing over the back, through the neck and reach deliberately for the bit.

Specifically, Icarus and may of the other horses, are set up for success by riding walk-halt transitions on a 20-meter circle with the following conditions:

  • Bend to the inside in a shoulder-fore position--drive with the inside leg and seat and push into the outside rein.
  • Keep the horse straight with the outside rein.
  • Maintain a consistent, soft contact . never dropping it.
  • Allow hands that follow or "breathe" with the horse's mouth, keeping equal weight in each rein so the right hand always knows what the left hand is doing.

The purpose of this slow, deep riding, Werth explains, is not only to get the horse supple and loose, working trough the back and neck, but also to ask him to reach for the bit and chew. "Wait until he chews," is a frequent request of Werth's. Chewing the bit is the signal: it sets the stage for a good transition. "Chew and bend before each transition," she says to Ceinwen Rhys-Evans of Cave Creek, Ariz., riding Dale and Charyl Nieman's 5-year-old Hanoverian gelding, Merlin. "When he chews [meaning he comfortably is chewing on the bit, not playing with it nervously], you can be sure he comes from behind, swings and says 'yes' to his rider." (More on saying "yes" shortly).

Improve the Walk
"Mechanically, Isabell changed the way Julius walks," says Sue Halasz of Parker, Colo., on Janice Jaspers' 10-year-old Dutch gelding. "She wanted Julius to reach more, take more contact, walk with a longer stride and come over his back better. I was fascinated with the very specific process in the walk work. Julius can be sensitive in the double bridle, and I was happy she addressed the contact issue." Julius' tendency is the opposite form that of most horses at the symposium who are not coming through. Julius can be too deep so Werth wants him to push more against the bit. She advises Halasz to drive forward but use many rising "half stops"--or half halts that direct him upward--and she is very pleased with the results. "I think he is free and light, and the rider is not coming back with the hands in the half halts. It's very nice to see." Halasz is pleased, too. "The connection in the walk work carried through to the piaffe and passage work. Julius kept the connection and was able to maintain the energy in the piaffe and passage very easily because he was so accepting in the hand.

"Isabell uses low and deep work to develop a connection that enables the horse to come up and out. Going to a competition frame is never an issue with her method because you've trained your horse to be responsive to all of your aids so he reaches for the bit and will follow the contact wherever you put him."

Isabell Werth schools Warum Nicht. | Photo by Barbara Schnell

Isabell Werth schools Warum Nicht. | Photo by Barbara Schnell

Each rider spends between 10 and 30 minutes in slow and methodical walk work. Invariably, every horse shows more overstride, uses his back better and often is quieter and more trusting in the mouth. "The goal is to be as soft and light as possible, but as strong as is necessary," says Werth. "A lot of people forget the walk because it's boring," she says as if to apologize. "But it's one of the basics, and the walk gets the same number of marks as the piaffe. The rhythm must be equal, and he must go, step-by-step, calmly forward--not running. You can do this for one hour: walk with contact and do a thousand little stops. It is not hard on the horse, and you can achieve more than in one hour of trotting."

So Werth's principles are driven home in the walk work. The horses understand, so the subsequent, more advanced work is easy. But her reminders are constant: "Forward, forward, forward," she advises, asking each rider to rive with the inner leg and seat and push into the outside rein in shoulder-fore. She repeatedly reminds riders to use the outside rein. Later she acknowledges that she used the term "outside rein" thousands of times during the weekend. "I said it as often as I think it when riding," she adds. During a break she explains that when she says outside rein, she doesn't mean to pull on the outside rein or to take it back but to drive the horse into it and then hold it. Why the outside rein? "Because the outside rein keeps the horse straight," says Merrie Velden of Escondido, Calif., riding Davlyn Farms' 5-year-old Oldenburg gelding, Don Fiereto. "It brings the horse's back up and makes him round. It collects the horse back on his quarters so he doesn't fall on the shoulders or fall our on one shoulder."

More than a few horses "swim away" in the walk, which, to Werth, means they are not in a long, relaxed rhythm because they have developed tension. Such was the case for Elizabeth Britten Hendrix of Livermore, Calif., and Sue Connors' 18.1-hand Dutch gelding, Disney. Werth recommends the one-step rein-back. "When the horse is stiff and blocked, the traditional rein-back can be a punishment," she says. "But in the one-step rein-back, the rider waits until the horse chews, then one step backward is enough to get the horse supple. It is the transition forward and backward that makes the horse loose in then neck and poll. If you do only one step, he accepts the aids and does not perceive the rein-back as a punishment, which is ordinarily a risk."

In a 45-minute ride, Nancy Chesny of larkspur, Colo., on her and Kathy Layton's 8-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding, Lorenzo, does much of her lesson in walk and then does tempi changes, piaffe and passage by the end. "That tells us that once we have the horse's back prepared the correct way, he can go on and do the movements," she says. "Isabell always makes you wait until you settle down and get into the horse and feel the connection in the walk."

Let Him Say "Yes!"
"Let him say 'yes,'" says Werth to every rider in every downward transition. In German, it is Lass ihn ja sagen. When you half halt, your horse needs to come through his back more instead of coming above or behind the bit, and he says "Yes, of course I will do it." The downward transition or the half halt engages the hindquarters so the driving aids can then invite the horse to go forward to an elastic contact. Using her back and legs, the rider pushes the horse to reach toward the bit, then moves her hand forward--without losing contact--to allow bigger, not faster movement with freedom and lightness. "The horse can't say 'yes' if you work only with the hands and not with the forward-driving aids," Werth warns. "There is always more from behind than from the hand."

Riding deep is for the horse that does not say "yes." "If you have a horse who comes up during the half halts, he needs to be ridden deeper through the half halts so he learns not to hollow," says Werth. Such was the case with Windwalzer, a 14-year-old Trakehner stallion ridden by owner Flora Jean Weiss of La Tuna Canyon, Calif. "He's not satisfied in his mouth, because he's not through," Werth says. "I have the feeling that he is not breathing. So I'd prefer that he work deep and stretch himself. If he says 'yes,' then the rider can soften the rein so her horse can step through." With meticulous, quiet precision, Werth addresses the problem until the horse works through the back with a reaching neck and chews happily on the bit. "Now stand for a while and speak to him," she advises while the horse stands obediently on the bit in relaxation. "Pet him." Saying "yes" is mental, too. "The speech between the horse and rider must be on the same line," says Werth. "The horse knows what the rider wants, he enjoys doing it and says 'yes!'"

But not everyone was inclined to say "yes." Things didn't go smoothly on the first day for Anita Williams of Eagle, Colo, riding Morocco, her 6-year-old Oldenburg stallion. "I was totally crushed," Williams says. "It was the worst lesson of my life; it was the best lesson of my life. I just cried. On the first day I thought Isabell was giving me nowhere to go with my horse. He felt so trapped, but I finally understood that she wasn't going to let me finesse him and avoid the connection. The connection had to be on my terms. She told me to give him the parameters that he had to work within. Initially he resisted those parameters, but he learned to respect them and was much happier because of it. As soon as he was within the parameters, he was comfortable and could move freely. He was committed to the bit, and his entire body was involved in the work. He and I were both soft and flexible wherever I put him so he moved bigger and more forward."

"'Yes' in transitions makes the horses come more from behind, pay attention and work in the highest degree of lightness, freedom, charisma, elegance and cadence in the movements," says Werth. "All the top horses are good at extensions," she says. "The difference [in quality] is in the transitions."

Transitions Redefined
Transitions, transitions . many and slow transitions. "Not running," Werth says to nearly every rider. "Don't run in the first step [of the upward transition]." It is the first step in which riders lose the horse's hind legs when they escape behind instead of carrying. "It should feel easy--with a swinging back," Werth adds. "When you want to go out [in an upward transition], you should use your legs and back so that the horse is fluently forward, but do it slowly so you have control of the hind legs in the transition. Think piaffe when you go forward so you don't lose the hindquarters."

Halasz does as many as five transitions on each 20-meter circle. "I've never seen anyone spend so much time with step-by-step transitions," she says later. "But all we're really talking about is half halts as a means toward gaining the horse's understanding of the connection," she adds. "We were traveling only about 10 feet before doing a transition. In the piaffe and passage, we would go about five strides in each. One of my goals was to keep up with Isabell's requests to change. It's very difficult to think that fast and make your body react that quickly. I typically want to stay in the gait until it feels perfect, but she doesn't want that. The exercise isn't to have a perfect piaffe. The exercise is to develop the piaffe through the transitions."

Chesney agrees: "Every time I would start to collect she would say 'more forward.'" Then as soon as riders go more forward, Werth says "collect" or reminds them to swing--not to run.

The Payoff
When Werth is satisfied that the horses are round and through, she lets the riders in each session finally move on to trot-walk transitions. The riders prevent rushing into the trot with elastic half halts. The horses of Merrie Velden, Shannon Barnes of Boulder, Colo., on her 8-year-old Brandenburg gelding, Pandanus, and some of the others often offer piaffe and are praised for their efforts.

Then they go to trot-halt transitions. "He has to say 'yes' more," Werth says to Anya Bershad of Sante Fe, N.M., who is riding her 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare, Inzinga. "Sit, sit, sit into the halt," Werth says, and everyone sees the mare's hindquarters come under her body. "More leg and back from you so she becomes round and closer behind. Now, pet her so she knows she's right."

Next, the horses do transitions between trot, "almost walk" and back to trot with consistent contact until the rhythm is perfect. The horses are starting to dance. "A good way to teach the piaffe is from the trot because the rhythm and energy from the trot help," she says to Chesney as Lorenzo offers piaffe. Reminders come for every rider: Keep the contact . let him draw on the rein, keep the forward . not too forward, not running . chewing . more bend . and, of course, use the outside rein.

Werth's limited command of the English language frustrates her at times, but it turns in her favor, too. She frequently grasps at her head as she searches for an English word before finally asking the audience. She blurts out the German word, whereupon many in the audience provide the English equivalent. When she goes on her own into strange linguistic territory, she often comes up with a term that surpasses the meaning of a native's words. "I want you to have weak hands," she says to one rider.

Next, riders do trot-canter transitions--jumping freely, half halting, saying "yes." Werth moves on to shoulder-in at the canter and works on competition pirouettes from a straight line with Jeremy Steinberg of San Diego, Calif., and his 8-year-old Brandenburg gelding, Hallmark. "Collect, control every step, let him chew, outside leg and shoulder-in aids," says Werth. The work is progressing quickly but easily.

And now the riders are asked to do flying changes from the counter canter. "Jump, counter flex, change. Make the change a bigger jump than the normal canter," Werth advises Barnes. "And no losing the rhythm."

For Rhys-Evans and Merlin, perfect bend out of the corner to start trot shoulder-in is the order of the day. "Circle and start again," says Werth repeatedly to Rhys-Evans--and most of the riders who come later. "The introduction was not good enough." Next, they do trot-walk transitions in shoulder-in. "Think of piaffe steps in the transitions," Werth says, and Merlin's trot becomes loftier. When the rhythm is compromised in the shoulder-in, Werth directs Rhys-Evans to straighten and start again. She and Merlin achieve a good bend in shoulder-in and transition to half pass with little stops every second or third stride. When the rhythm is lost in half pass, Rhys-Evans is directed to return to shoulder-in. The work gets more difficult faster, but it is easy for them because the principles are the same.

The riders move on to piaffe: "Think if piaffing forward so he doesn't stop," Werth says. "Come back slowly. Bend to one side so he doesn't run against the hand. Then pet him so he knows that he does it by himself and enjoys it." The directions come constantly and the results are extraordinary.

By the end of the symposium Werth has developed the horses to the best of their abilities by encouraging the riders, yet demanding they work. "My goal is to find the best connection between me and my horse," she says, "and to find the key for each individual horse--find his special abilities and build on them. Like children, they learn the easiest way when they are playing games. It's not always a game, but the horse has to enjoy it and think it's his choice to do the work."

Two additional symposium riders were Beverly Rogers of Cave Creek, Ariz., riding Lois Arnold's 13-year-old Hanoverian mare, Captiva and Karin Cassidy Lencyk of Clint, Texas, on Patricia Slade Crow's 8-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding, Kanoa. USDF Executive Director Sarah Jane Martin thanks volunteers from the Arizona Dressage Association and the USDF staff for their work at the USDF National Dressage Symposium.

This article first appeared in the July 2001 issue of Dressage Today magazine.

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