I have been asked to expound on my experience this summer training with Carl Hester in Great Britain. If you are unfamiliar with Carl, he just got over 80% in the GP at the CDI5* in Hickstead with the lovely stallion Uthopia – and deserved it. His student Charlotte got over 77% with Valegro at the same show. These are remarkable scores that reflect the quality of training here.
With the encouragement and backing of Dressage Canada, I embarked for Jolly Olde England at the end of June with my mare Ayscha, and after a whopping 60 hours of travel time finally arrived at Carl’s gorgeous yard in Gloucestershire, quite close to the Welsh border. Robert Dover helped me get into Chez Hester at the last moment, and I now know how lucky I was to get a coveted spot here.
Along with the lovely big indoor and outdoor arenas (which both have fabulous footing), the walker and the lunge ring, there are huge stalls around a beautiful courtyard for the very pampered horses. These things can be found in most top dressage barns, but what really makes this training yard different is the many turnouts for the horses, all grass, all different sizes, from small to huge. These horses all get turned out on grass every day, they get to be horses and get dirty and run and play. Some even go out with buddies, something I have not seen in years! The horses are so happy it’s remarkable.
In a normal week, the horses get a day off, two hack days (yes, they all hack out on the English lanes in rain or shine, with the lorries, the tractors, the sheep and cows on every side) and 4 days of training. Even on the training days they hack around the big fields to warm up and cool down. We do lots of hills, which my vet will be thrilled to hear, and Ayscha’s passage and piaffe can get quite expressive when the neighbor’s cattle are near the fences!
Ayscha’s eyes are still huge every time we go along on a hack – she’s amazed at the big world out there! She has special shoes so she won’t slip on the asphalt. She’s very good, a little spooky but always brave, even past the killer lambs and gypsy caravans on the sides of the roads. Yes, there are real gypsy caravans – the (very healthy looking) gypsy horses are staked out on grass verges, and the wagons are set up to live in, and everyone gets along. The farmers and locals all slow down to a crawl to get past us on the very narrow lanes, it’s such a normal sight to see “plodders” on the roads that it seems everyone knows how to safely drive vehicles around horses.
While the hacking and turnout is quite unique, the nuts and bolts of Carl’s training system are familiar and classical. I immediately was comfortable with how he trains and rides, and it all makes perfect sense. It takes everything I have learned and ridden for so many years and makes it more fun for both the rider and the horse. First all the horses must stretch in trot and canter. It’s not a maybe, it’s a must. Then the horses get picked up and onto the bit. Powerful and forward and on the bit, not pulled back or behind the leg or vertical. Some hard work in this frame, and then an immediate reward and instant stretching for a break. There are lots of breaks, lots of rewards. Apparently I am not good enough at this yet!
Corrections are very clear and to the point, and the biggest thing I am getting (yes, I know I have taught this for years, but I am not good enough at it yet) is “in front of the leg”. If I want to ride really good Grand Prix, my horse has to go forward by herself. And if she doesn’t, I need to correct her – and when I kick her I am not allowed to pull on the bits. Oh I know this inside and out in theory, but it’s really hard to always do it right! Every correction is followed by a huge “Good Girl” and a pat.
Ayscha’s straightness is always an issue, and most of our mistakes are a result of crookedness. So we work a ton on the walls, the quarterlines, the centerlines, and then finally the diagonal lines. I think we are getting better, but we still have a ways to go. My straightness is also a work in progress, so I am going to a gym as often as I can and doing weights and a great “body combat” class.
Carl can make every critique funny, he doesn’t mince words at all so I know exactly what I do wrong or right – but it’s pretty amazing how his humor can make every criticism easy to take – I can laugh and try harder instead of get frustrated. I don’t know how he keeps his good humor ride after ride, but he does. I will come home from here with some really funny sayings and observations that I am sure will be heard by my students for years to come! (Although my British accent needs a bit of polishing).
The biggest compliment I can pay Carl and his staff is that I am leaving Ayscha there for a few months while I come back home. I will get my business and home life up and running again, and travel back to Britain a few times to train and compete before bringing Ayscha back to Florida in time for the big season here. It’s been FAB in Britain so far, and I believe that Ayscha and I are finding our mojo here! Ya Baby!