Live from Omaha!

Live from Omaha!
On the scene at the 2017 FEI World Cup Dressage Final

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Isabell Werth's Power Hour

Mini-clinic put the show in the World Cup Finals' Dressage Showcase
Isabell Werth coaches Endel Ots on Lucky Strike during the Dressage Showcase. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

As inspiring and enjoyable as yesterday’s Dressage Showcase entertainment was, I for one came for what followed: an opportunity to learn from the master.

The living legend Isabell Werth of Germany—the most decorated Olympic equestrian in history and the leader going into today’s World Cup Dressage Final freestyle—followed the preliminaries with an hour-long “through the levels” demonstration. Using three demonstration horses and riders, Werth gave a condensed (I wish it had lasted for hours longer!) master class in what she looks for in a young dressage horse and how she starts her prospects on the road to Grand Prix.

The demo pairs themselves were a treat—every bit the quality we’re fortunate to see at the USDF FEI-Level Trainers Conferences. First up was the Canadian international competitor Karen Pavicic (who actually was a demo rider at this year’s Trainers Conference), riding the five-year-old stallion Totem (Totilas x Donnerhall).
Karen Pavicic on the five-year-old stallion Totem. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
As Pavicic warmed up, Werth explained: “We look for three very good gaits without weaknesses” in a dressage prospect.

Werth had Pavicic show the basics: 20-meter circles, changes of direction, transitions, leg-yield, shoulder-in. “It might look boring, but this is basic work,” Werth said. “This makes a horse supple.”

The developing horse must go freely forward, Werth emphasized. “Let the swing come out of the horse; don’t interrupt the swing. Let the horse find the good contact into both reins.”

How many times has your instructor chanted that dressage mantra, “Inside leg to outside rein”? That phrase is a favorite of Werth’s, as well, and judging by the number of times she used it with Pavicic, it’s a tenet that bears repeating even to accomplished riders. Werth noticed right away that Pavicic tended to overuse the inside rein a bit to position the horse (something we’ve all been guilty of!). The problem, she explained, is that doing so blocks the horse’s inside hind leg and therefore interrupts the inside leg-outside rein connection and blocks the all-important swing.

Instead, Werth counseled Pavicic  to “always think a bit shoulder-in. Let go the inside rein. Inside leg. More inside leg. Outside rein. Free swing. Let him go.”

Then, taking Totem from trot to canter: No slow, flat canter! “Jump, jump, jump first. Really clear, big jump for a young horse.” Once Pavicic had established sufficiently bounding canter strides, “Try to collect him a little bit: sit, sit, sit a little without losing the jump.” Typical for a young horse that needs to develop strength, as Pavicic brought Totem’s strides shorter and more active the stallion broke to a trot. “Doesn’t matter,” said Werth, who pointed out that timing is critical: “That was one second too long [collecting the canter] before going out.”

As the 2017 World Cup Dressage Final judge Katrina Wuest noted after Thursday’s Grand Prix, Werth’s Omaha mount, Weihegold OLD, shows exemplary straightness. The highest level of dressage work cannot excel without straightness, and Werth is a stickler for this critical basic—which again goes back to the horse’s correct acceptance of being ridden from the rider’s inside leg into the outside rein.

“He’s always discussing on the inside rein—‘Give me, give me,’” Werth said of Totem. As Pavicic worked on the right rein, Werth instructed her to “flex him to the left a little bit. Tak-tak-tak,” she chanted in the desired rhythm of the gait. “Uphill. Outside rein to get him straight and keep him in front of you.”

The training progression continued with the next horse, this time a seven-year-old. The talented Hanoverian gelding Lucky Strike (Lord Laurie x His Highness), ridden by Endel Ots of Wellington, Florida, represented the USA at the 2015 FEI World Breeding Championships for Young Dressage Horses in Verden, Germany. Clearly stronger and able to work in a greater degree of collection than the five-year-old Totem, Lucky Strike has three extravagant gaits—but Werth still found room for improvement.

“I would start with much more flexion and bending,” she told Ots, “to try to make him a little quicker and smaller. Less trot. Little, quick steps. Sit, sit. Flex him so he’s not running against your reins in a straight way. Keep the [inside] leg. Long with your [inside] leg.”

Translation: Werth was not instructing Ots to flex Lucky Strike laterally or to shorten or restrict the gelding’s neck in any way. Rather, she saw that the horse likes to move with huge, ground-covering strides and with fairly even contact into both reins. But to develop greater collection, the horse must “give” through his rib cage (that inside leg again!) and become a bit more connected into the outside rein so that he can bring his shoulders slightly to the inside of his haunches (straightness, aka alignment) while moving with that all-important unobstructed swing from the inside hind leg.

“You have to make the inside hind leg more active, more jumping, but you will only get it when you have him in a little bit of shoulder-in,” Werth said.

In the half-pass work, Werth told Ots to keep his outside rein low, where it can better stay connected and influence the positioning of the horse’s shoulders. “Free shoulder in the half-pass. Give the inside rein.”

“Lightness” in dressage is a frequently misunderstood concept. Some lightness is a good thing, but Werth succinctly explained that insufficient contact indicates a lack of connection. It was subtle in Lucky Strike, but “there is not enough weight in the reins,” she said. “The horse needs the confidence to come into the reins; then you will get more forward and a freer back.” She emphasized that her instructions to the demo riders were not intended as “quick fixes”: “This is months and years [of training], not ten minutes.”

Werth wants the horse always to want to stretch into the contact. Let’s rephrase that in a way you’ve probably heard in your dressage lessons: The horse takes the rein forward; the rider does not produce contact by pulling backward with the rein.
"He should look for the reins; don't throw away the reins." Endel Ots on Lucky Strike. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
“When he asks for a bit more stretching, you give him,” Werth told Ots during a walk break. “He should look for the reins; don’t throw away the reins!” she said when Ots made a too-quick transition from contact to “on the buckle.”

Werth wrapped up Ots’s session with some canter work and flying changes. “You only go in the canter when the horse walks,” she said, meaning a quality marching walk into the contact.

It’s always basics first for Werth before any “tricks.” As Ots prepared to ride some flying changes: “Before you change, first straight canter and a good canter. Only a good canter can bring a good change.” When Lucky Strike became overflexed to the inside: “He’s crooked. Forget the inside flexion, and come with the leg and outside rein. Flex a little bit to the outside, and come with the inside leg.” With the horse straightened, the canter quality improved and the changes were easy.
Direct, enthusiastic, funny: Isabell Werth of Germany during her clinic at the Dressage Showcase. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Werth’s love of training was evident: She got so involved in working with Ots and Lucky Strike that she nearly shortchanged her final demo pair, US Pan American Games team gold medalist Sabine Schut-Kery of California aboard the eight-year-old Hanoverian mare Hellohalli. (Announcer Nicho Meredith prompted Werth to wrap it up, which the Olympian either didn’t hear or ignored. With the jump crew undoubtedly anxious to set the ring for the evening’s competition, Meredith called time again, this time in German. Werth shot back, “I don’t understand German,” which got a big laugh from the audience.)

“Here we have to try to bring the croup lower and lower,” Werth said to Schut-Kery, noting that Hellohalli likes to go with her croup a bit higher than would be ideal for the upper-level work. But “We see here a lot more self-carriage already” as compared to the seven-year-old Lucky Strike. “We have to improve the mouth and that the horse stays a little bit lower behind.”
Werth coaches Sabine Schut-Kery on Hellohalli in canter half-pass right. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
In preparing for tempi changes, “Sit heavy so she comes a bit lower behind with a free swing. Ride contact to both reins in between the changes.” Hellohalli demonstrated easy lines of three- and two-tempi changes; then Werth asked Schut-Kery to try a one-tempi change. Even though Hellohalli hasn’t practiced them, Schut-Kery’s correct riding and excellent timing produced two separate “one-one” tempi changes.

Ending with a bit of developing passage/piaffe work, Werth told Schut-Kery to position the mare “in a little bit shoulder-in so she is not jumping in the passage, so you can ask a little bit more for the diagonal. Slowly, slowly. In shoulder-in and half-pass positioning, “Think slowly. Find the rhythm.” Similarly, a tactfully ridden passage-piaffe transition while allowing Hellohalli to find her balance resulted in a quality transition and the maintenance of clear rhythms in the gaits.

Werth’s master class was over far too soon, but she packed a remarkable amount of education into the short time. If you’re ever fortunate enough to have the opportunity to see her teach and train, do it!

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