Germany’s Johann Hinnemann offered attendees of this year’s Adequan® USDF FEI Trainers Conference in Del Mar, California, a glimpse into his training philosophies. With Steffen Peters and Kathleen Raine among the demo riders, and Christine Traurig as Hinnemann’s assistant and translator, the event had a family feel. The rest of the demo riders and the mostly upper-level trainers watching and participating in post-ride discussions got a two-day immersion in Hinnemann’s methods. A former coach of the German, Dutch and Canadian teams, the German Reitmeister is a sought-after instructor and continues to ride, breed and develop young horses in Germany and California.
“Submission is the most important goal in every stage of training,” Hinnemann began at the Feb. 6–7 conference held at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. “A supple horse is not necessarily a submissive horse. But a submissive horse is for sure supple.” He defined a submissive horse as one who “does everything you ask from behind to front, front to behind, left to right and right to left.” He emphasized transitions because they are exercises that teach obedience while building suppleness.
Hinnemann described the horse’s intelligence and willingness to work as “inside suppleness,” and stressed that it was as critical as physical suppleness for success at every level. The opening halt on centerline and immediate trot that follows in most dressage tests showcase the rider’s ability to attain the highest degree of mental and physical suppleness. “First, the horse trusts us to stand there, then he goes immediately into the trot. That’s a point where we can show how good our training is. That is the art of all riding.”
Young Horses: Culture and Telling Tails
Hinnemann first learned to gauge young-horse suitability from his grandfather, who worked with the family’s horses at their home farm in Germany. “Every year, one or two youngsters were gone quickly after being brought in from the fields, and one year I asked him why they were sold so fast. ‘They had no culture,’ he told me. If they stepped on his feet in the barn aisle or something, they were gone.”
The conference began with two 4-year-olds, Raine’s Westfalian gelding Figaro and Emily Miles’ Rheinlander stallion Sole Mio. Both embodied the clinician’s most preferred young-horse traits: intelligence and culture. It’s a look in the eye and the face indicating “there’s something going on between the ears,” Hinnemann explained. He likes “an open eye with a trustful look. It’s a window to the horse’s character and temperament and to how he connects to people.”
The two 4-year-olds received strong praise. “They carry their riders happily, wait for their riders and listen to them. They have inside [mental] balance. They’re not against anything and they try to work for us.”
After culture and intelligence comes overall impression and rhythmic basic gaits. A working hind leg and suppleness through the body are among the desirable characteristics of a horse that’s “naturally closed up” in his body. At the same time, ground-covering strides are good, too. A short cannon bone in the hind leg is a preferred conformational trait because it enables the horse to bend more in the hock.
A longer body is appealing. “If there’s more distance between the ribs, it’s easier for them to bend through the rib cage.” That’s key to lateral suppleness, as was demonstrated later in the clinic as the older horses learned or refined zig-zag half passes. He prefers a shorter neck because that’s easier to control and collect, especially for an amateur rider, and a smooth, relatively flat back with a place to put the saddle.
The tail plays a role in Hinnemann’s analysis. “I never bought a horse without touching the tail to find out about its thickness,” he said. “I like a big, thick tail. The theory behind that is, that most of the time if there’s not much hair or bone going into the back, you cannot expect much in the middle of the spine, so there’s not much room for muscles. I want to see a strong enough bridge to carry me.”
Questions from attendees were a big part of the conference and an early example was, “If you had to choose between a good trot and a good canter, which would it be?” Hinnemann wanted “both,” of course, but chooses canter if needed. A good canter usually goes with a good walk.
Secondly, there’s that “second trot” that didn’t exist in the German master’s early days. “When Reiner Klimke’s Ahlerich won the 1984 Olympic Games, his normal working trot was like a carriage horse,” Hinnemann recalled. “Today, breeding has developed the ability of the trot, and as trainers we have learned to work more with it. Even with a young horse, at 5 or 6, we can develop the muscles and train the horse in a way that does not at all go against classical training. I had a horse who trotted for a 5, but once he learned the passage, he trotted quite nicely.” Much of that work to improve the trot is done at the canter, Hinnemann noted.
Another reason to prioritize canter quality in a young horse is that the gait makes up about 35 percent of upper-level tests, Hinnemann estimated. “And, especially at my age, I go more to the canter than the trot!”
The ideal starting process at his home stable, Krüsterhoff in Voerde, Germany, begins when homebreds come to the training stable at 2½ years of age to “play around with them.” They are saddled, longed, groomed and taught to lead and load in the trailer, everything except riding, and they spend their days outdoors. Intense training sessions at any age are limited to 20 to 30 minutes, coupled with as much active, light-contact walking as possible and maximum time spent freely moving in pastures or turn-out. Hinnemann shared several instances of horses greatly improving their fitness, relaxation and “inside suppleness” by more time spent walking and simply being out of their stalls.
The idea of brief intervals of intense training was applied to horses of all ages and experience during the conference. Whether introducing or refining a movement, riders were coached to maintain it for just a few strides before moving out in a relaxed, yet forward stride.
Among the thousands of transitions executed during the weekend, the canter depart received the lion’s share of attention. Peters shared his experience getting Hinnemann’s help with the passage–canter transition during his heyday with Ravel, who was “tricky” about that transition. “Jo said everything from the Grand Prix is working,” Peters relayed. “It’s the Training Level transitions we’ve got to work on.” And this was when Peters and Ravel were at their Aachen-winning peak.
With that in mind, Hinnemann demonstrated how he trains the canter depart in young horses, the first of several exercises that require the understep and power of the inside hind leg. “The canter depart is the most important aid we have to teach. When we do a double pirouette, every stride is a canter depart aid and this is where we start.”
Trotting on a circle, Raine and Miles were coached to cue the canter just as they reached the rail, then come back down to the trot and repeat the canter depart at the same spot on the next revolution. Precision is a big part of Hinnemann’s teaching, and cueing the canter depart at the same place repeatedly is a simple, clear way to teach and reinforce the aids to the horse. The next step was walk–canter transitions, requested with the same aids and at the same spot where the circle track hit the rail. Working in both directions, “I like to stay on that exercise until the horse learns it 100 percent,” Hinnemann said.
Walk–canter and canter–walk transitions were used in every session, often in the midst of flying-changes work and to calm the horse or build his confidence by returning to something he knows well. In the downward transition from canter or trot to walk, however, “don’t [give] the reins immediately,” Hinnemann stressed. “Too often, that happens and the horse thinks ‘Oh, now the walk.’ His back, belly and head go down.” He coached continuing 10 to 15 meters with contact and active walk aids to establish that as habit. “That way you don’t even have to think about it in the test.”
Push in Downward Transitions
Working with more experienced horses, Hinnemann emphasized that, “You push more in a downward transition than in a forward transition. I learned that from [German dressage legend] Georg Theodorescu and have always kept that sentence in mind.” A related idea is that “you have to passage into piaffe and piaffe into passage,” said Hinnemann, all toward producing the quick step needed for high-level work. “You have to have your horse in front of your leg so you can push.”
The goal is a feeling Hinnemann described as a basic principal of training. “It’s when you push from behind into the bit and there is a reaction because the impulsion is coming from behind,” he said. “The hand is quiet, the withers come high and the horse is sensitive to the bit.” Contact is maintained, the horse’s hindquarters are underneath him and his back and withers are high. When Hinnemann requested Traurig’s help articulating the idea, she described it as “difficult terminology.” Traurig defined the sensation in her December 2016 Dressage Today article titled “Pushing Away from the Bit.” At the conference, she said, “It’s when the horse is pushed from a driving aid to the restraint of contact. It’s that moment of reaction when the desire to go to the bit is there coupled with a high degree of respect for the contact.”
These ideas were put to practice as California-based dressage trainer David Wightman prepped for the pirouette with the 8-year-old Hanoverian gelding Silberpfeil, who has competed to Developing Horse Prix St. Georges. Seeking to take impulsion into collection and collection back into impulsion, Hinnemann first had Wightman do simple changes, canter–walk, on the diagonal to reinforce the canter aids, then progress to three flying changes on the diagonal, focusing on controlling the quality of canter strides between each change rather than the number of strides in between. After the third change, Hinnemann asked for extended canter to set a forward frame of mind, then to come back through the short side. The next step was a medium, then extended, canter on the diagonal with a simple change at the rail. The idea is to get the horse coming back by himself so the rider can push more because the horse knows he needs to come back on his own.
Wightman next did a few diagonals with three-tempis with walk breaks on the short end. “A lot of horses [hold] their breath during changes,” Hinnemann noted. “A walk break in between shows them they’ve done well and educates them how to breathe.”
They finished the first day’s work by cantering down centerline, collecting into a pirouette canter for a few strides without turning, resuming a working canter, then collecting again for another few strides of pirouette canter in the other half of the centerline, again without turning into an actual partial pirouette. They were working on getting Silberpfeil to sit and improve collection in canter to prep for pirouette.
The next day, Hinnemann observed that Silberpfeil’s canter was rounder and more through. They parlayed that in-front-the-leg work into the day’s trot focus, producing half-steps that begin piaffe and passage work. Hinnemann noted a common mistake with horses who have a naturally big trot. “People want to develop the big trot. Then it’s difficult to bring it back because they have this big, strong muscle and it’s hard to get it back. So we do half-steps: always piaffe before passage. It’s the idea that in the end you will put them together.”
Peters, who was 17 when he first started riding with Hinnemann, rode a 6-year-old Rheinlander stallion, Demetrios, during the conference. Hinnemann noted that the stallion had his sire’s (Diamond Hit) natural gift for piaffe and passage. He complimented the uphill impression and self-carriage and predicted that the young stallion’s slightly “high behind” frame would balance out as he aged and developed more muscle. To build Demetrios’ natural attributes, Hinnemann told Peters to focus on getting the horse’s nose out more, developing more reach in the front legs and a trot with more elevation and power. “Concentrating on that will develop the muscles and strength needed for passage later,” he said.
With Peters alternating between collected, working and extended trot, Hinnemann explained that the collected trot should have elevation and enough ground cover for the hind hoof to nearly reach the imprint of the front hoof. The working trot should have a bit of overstep and the extended trot “as much as possible.”
In one of several anecdotes from dressage’s history, Hinnemann said that ground coverage has always been an important element of gait quality, but measuring methods have evolved. Approximately 25 years ago, Germany’s Bundeschampionate for young horses required them to maintain certain ground coverage of the gaits: 350 meters at the walk, 750 meters trotting and 1,500 meters at canter, each in three minutes. Prior to that, Grand Prix tests had time limits, all to encourage horses to cover the ground nicely.
Peters and Demetrios moved on to exercises to build more leg crossing in half-pass. When introducing the movement, Hinnemann said horses are most comfortable starting at the centerline and moving toward the rail. In a confirmed half-pass, the horse is slightly flexed in the direction of travel. However, he told Peters to begin like a leg yield, keeping the horse straight in his body and weighting his outside seat bone to help the horse maintain balance and rhythm while crossing his legs over. It’s gymnastic work that needs to develop step by step as the shoulder frees up and creates more reach and freedom.
Hinnemann often talked about “playing” with the horse, and the idea was clearly demonstrated in groundwork with the mare D’Rosa, a 10-year-old Danish Warmblood that Raine trains and competes for client Four Roses Farm. Competing at Intermediaire I, the mare has become “much more through and obedient, and I think it’s a result of us playing with her collection and obedience with more difficult exercises.”
The in-hand equipment involved side reins and an extra rein secured near the pommel to counter the mare’s habit of dropping her head too low. Hinnemann’s secret weapon was having a helper (Raine) stand near D’Rosa’s head to reward with sugar at just the right moment. Too often, the reward, either a pat or treat, is too late, so “we reward them for stopping,” he said. Prompting piaffe steps with verbal cues and light taps of a longe whip, Hinnemann focused on two or three steps at a time, then rest and a sugar. At 10, the mare is strong enough to do a half-length of the court, but he emphasized keeping the work low pressure. Piaffe and passage steps were mixed with halts in which whip touches reminded her to stand square and stay there.
Having learned it from “[his] friends at the school in Vienna,” groundwork is a regular part of Hinnemann’s training routine and simpler than it is often portrayed. “People talk so much about the masters of hand work,” he said. “It’s just playing around with horses. It gives you a connection to the horse, you find out how he reacts and it’s a good, smooth step into the difficult exercises.” On Day 2, for example, he used a longe whip to lightly touch each leg while D’Rosa stood in place. The goal was to get her to lift and hold each leg while breathing without stepping forward, setting the stage for doing the same in piaffe.
In the End
“I hope we’ve given you a little view inside the kitchen of our inner circle,” said Hinnemann at the end. “It has to be fun for the horse, and we’ve tried to show you how much fun we have with our horses, teaching them and training them. We love the work and we do not do anything with cruelty. Where cruelty starts, intelligence finishes.”
Germany’s Johann Hinnemann was awarded the rare title of Reitmeister (master rider) in 1996 and he has served as coach for the German national team (with Klaus Balkenhol), the Dutch national team and the Canadian Olympic squad. Steffen Peters and Christine Traurig are among the American Olympians he has coached along with two-time alternate Kathleen Raine. He continues to breed and train horses at his farm in Germany and spends several months a year at Hinnemann Farm’s base in Southern California. There his son, Stephan, and daughter-in-law, Natalie Hamilton-Hinnemann, operate a training, sales and young-horse development program.