I can still remember the first time I saw Hubertus Schmidt ride a horse. About eight years ago, I was walking across the Winter Equestrian Festival show grounds in Wellington, Fla., on a Sunday evening. The shows were over for the weekend and the rings were deserted--almost. From far away, I spotted a rider working a black Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) horse in the warm up arena. There was something about this pair that arrested my attention. I couldn't stop watching, so I walked over to check them out. As if in their own world, the pair softly glided through a variety of canter pirouettes--big ones, small ones, interspersed with half passes and changes. The horse looked totally focused, yet his eyes and ears told me he was also relaxed. Over the next few minutes, the horse grew in power, stature and range of motion, and it looked so effortless. Who IS that rider and how does he develop a horse like that?
I learned the answer to the first question within days. The answer to the second question would take a lifetime. I began learning in pieces by reading interviews with Hubertus Schmidt and asking riders, who had trained with him in Germany, lots of questions. I was thrilled when the New England Dressage Association (NEDA) announced the fall symposium in 2009. I knew the format would help me put the pieces together and fill in some of the holes. Now, if I could only be a demo rider.
The weeks leading up to the clinic were full of excitement and careful planning. Alison Yama, our rider liaison, treated us like rock stars, making sure we knew what to expect and had everything we needed. I wanted to familiarize myself with Hubertus' teaching style and phrasing so I could be the best demo rider possible. I spent lunch breaks at Morgan Stanley watching his segments on DressageClinic.com and tried to put into practice ahead of time what I was learning, especially about stretching/looseness in the warm up, since this was to be a major focus of the symposium. It wasn't long before Fanale and I were headed to Hadley, Mass., accompanied by Ashley Daliessio, my volunteer groom for the weekend.
There were seven horses and rider pairs in the symposium, ranging from a talented 5-year-old to a confirmed Grand Prix horse. Each rider was a stepping stone to the next so that the auditors could see Hubertus' training continuum. No matter what the level, the warm up was the same. After 10-15 minutes of walking on a long rein, the horses were to be ridden forward, but not at full power. The warm up is just that--to warm up the muscles and stretch them for the greater effort that was to come later in the work session.
The horses needed to reliably stretch down to the bit with a relaxed jaw and poll. Relaxation and looseness in the body (starting with the head and neck) is key, as only then can the horse utilize his full range of motion, achieve a connection that is capable of handling additional carrying power and stay mentally fresh and focused. Tension later in the session can be dissipated by a moment of stretching, if both horse and rider are attuned to this basic level of work.
The stretching warm up is most effective on curved lines as the natural bend helps the horse soften his jaw on the inside and take the outside rein, while stepping under his body with his hind legs. The goal is an equal, soft feel on both reins so frequent changes of direction are a must, starting with the easy direction and then putting more focus on the stiffer side. Overbending to soften the jaw should only be done to the inside, with the leg backing up the request for the horse to yield to the rein. Be careful the horse does not cheat by stepping out with his hind legs. The hind legs need to stay on the same track as the front legs, so the energy flows directly over the back. Transitions between gaits and within them--in walk, trot and canter--help test and solidify the looseness of the warm up.
Hubertus believes in many short breaks to keep the horse fresh and happy in his work. Tired, sore muscles are prone to injury and lead to a sour lackluster partner.
Once the warm up is complete, it is time to add more power and increase the carrying capacity of the hind legs. The rider uses his seat and quick leg aids to activate the horse, while half halts keep the activity compressed and the horse "on the hind legs." The horse MUST respond to light aids (a challenge for us). No nagging leg aids allowed. Sometimes it is necessary for the horse to get temporarily short in the neck during the half halt, but once the balance is achieved, the horse must move up and out with reaching front legs and a long neck--always with the feeling the horse wants to go, on his own, with swing and cadence.
The tempo and elasticity must remain the same, through corners, in shoulder-in, in half pass and so on. In half pass for example, if the swing or energy fades, it's likely the horse has fallen onto his leading shoulder. The answer is to half halt the energy back over the hind legs, increase the cadence and then ride forward and sideways in the cadence to show the horse how to reach and keep "his front legs in front." If the horse gets tight in the back, take a moment for a slight stretch (if only for a stride), regain the looseness and then try again.
Once the horse does something well, or at least better, move on to the next task. If you and your horse normally perform a half pass for a five, fix the main issue and be happy when you get the quality of a 6 or a 7. Drilling the movement after a significant improvement is counter-productive and frustrates the horse, and often the rider! Big leaps forward in quality take time.
It's easy for horses to get stuck in the canter pirouettes. Approach them in shoulder in, never haunches in. The rider should be able to vary them by starting with a large working pirouette, then making it smaller after a few strides, then larger and vice versa. If the horse gets stuck, stretch him down so that he must use his back and ride forward in the pirouette, while maintaining a deep frame, keeping it large, as if aiming for the hours on a clock. This will encourage the horse to push independently with his hind legs.
It was a real treat to get so much feedback and explanation on the training of piaffe and passage. Hubertus always teaches piaffe before passage, to avoid a horse learning to hover on the spot in a passage-like piaffe. Fanale is still learning both movements and while she has the concept, there are issues we are working through. Hubertus quickly saw that in piaffe, she carries too much weight on her front legs, which avoids the sitting requirement and leaves her earthbound in front. In my efforts to keep her thinking forward in piaffe, I was asking her to cover too much ground and allowing her to escape the increased carrying power necessary for a good piaffe and transition out to passage.
Hubertus asked me to ride from a very collected walk on a 10-meter circle to piaffe and back again. He recommended I keep her thinking forward in piaffe but remain more on the spot so her weight was naturally more over her hind legs. He also suggested I think about a very slight turn in piaffe. This makes the piaffe easier for a green horse and helps me keep the hind legs active.
Whether is was passage, piaffe, one tempis, pirouettes or any other footfall, the underlying focus still remains relaxation and looseness, through which balance and power brings expression.
The ultimate thrill for me occurred on Sunday when Hubertus rode my horse while he gave a running commentary about what he was doing and why. I am a visual learner and to watch him work through the same issues we attacked over the previous two days was priceless. Fanale kicked into a higher gear over the session with an energy, reach and self-carriage I had never seen. She no longer looked like an Intermediaire I horse working Grand Prix movements. She looked like a Grand Prix horse! And she was happy about it!
I am extremely grateful to NEDA, the volunteers, the sponsors and the staff at UMass for giving me this opportunity of a lifetime. As one of NEDA's newest members, I knew next to no one when I arrived. However, the warmth and hospitality of everyone involved made me feel very much at home right from the beginning. I am also thankful for those who have given me the background and training over the years (most notably Jeanne MacDonald, Bob Orton and Lars Petersen) to be able to take full advantage of Hubertus' instruction, and for a little chestnut mare who strutted into my life as a 3-year-old and partnered with me on a journey beyond my wildest dreams, one that even included riding in the NEDA symposium with Hubertus Schmidt.
Susan Springsteen of Chester County, Pa,, is an adult amateur, with a 25-year long career as a financial advisor and a long history of providing daily stock market commentary on KYWNewsRadio in Philadelphia. Recently named Chester County (PA) Female Business Leader of the Year for 2010 by the Chamber of Business and Industry, Springsteen is currently a First Vice President at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney and a partner in nth Solutions LLC, an electronics firm that designs and builds products that save lives and preserve natural resources. She and Fanale, a U.S. Hanoverian mare bred by Janine Malone, currently train with Lars Petersen and have competed through Intermediaire I. Career highlights include Regional Championships at Fourth Level, Prix St. George and Intermediaire I. They also placed in several CDIs, ranked first in the 2008 USDF AA Horse of The Year standings at Intermediaire I and earned the first alternate slot for the 2009 USEF Intermediaire I Championships at Gladstone.