Isabell Werth Wellington Clinic–Lauren Sprieser/Guernsey Elvis, Yvonne Losos de Muñiz/Felicia, Benjamin Albright/Falstaff, Jacqueline Brooks/Westwood, Austin Webster/Abacrombie, Anne Marie Hosbond/Flashdance
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Editor’s note: Ilse Schwarz is a trainer based in Wellington, Florida and a contributor to dressage-news.com. Along with about 1,500 others, she attended the recent clinic by Isabell Werth, currently world No. 1 with Weihegold OLD, No. 3 with Bella Rose and No. 4 with Emilio. Isabell has won 10 Olympic medals, more than any other equestrian.
Feb. 14, 2018
By ILSE SCHWARZ
Those waiting for intricate exercises, catchy phrases and cute mental imagery were going to be disappointed. Isabell is a trainer and rider who produces top horses time and time again. She doesn’t have a specific “type” of horse. She has had repeated and continued success with more different horses than one could imagine. There are no tricks. There are no magic buttons. She has a repeatable system. It is forwards, she demands flexion from inside leg to outside rein (never heard that before, have we?) and shoulder-in, shoulder-in and more shoulder-in. I am pretty sure that every single spectator realizes they do not do enough shoulder-in.
Sadly, due to the demands of my own equines, I missed the first horse and rider, the five-year-old by Feedback. I heard they were excellent to teach and watch.
The rides all started in a similar way. Isabell hadn’t seen any of these combinations live. They were selected from video footage. So, the first few minutes were spent assessing the gaits and mechanics of the horses and then, without exception the rides moved to addressing suppleness and reaction to the leg.
I apologize in advance to the riders, I know that when you put yourself in the public eye, open for criticism, you are taking tremendous risk. I will try not to take any of her comments or directives out of context, but Isabell really doesn’t care who you are. She ONLY cares that you RIDE. Over-controlling reins, disruption of the gaits, sharp, unplanned turns are likely to to be followed by a significant increase in the volume of her voice and more demands. She wants every combination to get it. To succeed. To feel the difference. To challenge them and create change.
The first rider I saw was Lauren Sprieser on Guernsey Elvis, owned by the Elvis Syndicate. Lauren is well known for her entertaining and down to earth blogs. She says it like it is and is not shy about admitting when she meets challenges. She writes what we all experience in this world and I was excited to see her ride.
The session started with a quick analysis of the walk, the footfalls and the relaxation out to the bit. Lauren started her trot work and Isabell was immediately addressing suppleness, bending through the rib cage.
“Shoulder in, rib cage bend, inside leg, then flexion.”
Lauren was quick to achieve this so the next step was to add little transitions within the shoulder-in, but to keep cadence.
After each corner, there was a clear demand for inside flexion, inside leg, get the jaw/jowels supple and really bending through the ribcage. This became the theme throughout all the rides. Lauren did a great job. Her horse has extravagant front legs and it would be easy to just focus on their beauty. Obviously Isabell sees the whole horse and was quick to notice if the hind legs did less.
When he would start to run, Isabell is adding the “bbbbbbrrrrrr” calming noise (that classic sound we have learned from the Europeans, the one that sounds like you are blowing a raspberry. It works best when you can roll your “rRr’s”), and then loud “click” when she wants a more active hind leg.
She reminds us and Lauren again that the rhythm is always the same, you don’t sacrifice quality of gaits, with every adjustment you keep the cadence, keep flexion, keep rhythm and quiet hands.
In the half pass… flexion, flexion, flexion, keep the cadence and trot al little smaller at the beginning, then when the balance is established add swing and ground cover so you build and build.
It is important to start slowly, maintaining flexion. Start with the INSIDE leg and outside rein. The inside hind leg of the horse needs to come up and under to start the half pass, the shoulders lead and the hind legs follow, not the other way. She had all the riders ride their half passes in this way.
Once the horse has his balance and cadence in the half pass then you can add and add the swing and “CELEBRATE” the half pass.
She then let Elvis have a walk break and moved onto the walk pirouettes… which she confessed she doesn’t really enjoy showing in competition. She assumed most riders were the same. There was a bit of a chuckle from the 1,500-strong audience.
Essentially she wants to keep them uncomplicated and active. Don’t let them fall into the inside shoulder. If this happens imagine you pick up the inside shoulder. You can tap the inside shoulder with the whip if the inside leg isn’t enough.
The transition to canter also needs to be uncomplicated
This horse has a slightly stilted canter. It is no surprise that Isabell immediately wants to improve the jump and ground cover. The directive is simple: “keep the contact on the outside rein and make him longer on the outside of his body, give the inside rein so the inside leg has room to have a ‘long” jump’.
“Outside rein, inside leg, uphill, keep the cadence, keep him collected.” But she really means it.
Always back to the jump. Forwards to the outside rein from the outside leg and then flexion in the ribs from the inside leg
Then easy, sit and let him work
Then it was onto the pirouettes. Like the half pass, this is one of the movements that Isabell gets HUGE scores on. With every horse. No exceptions. I was eager to see how she addressed them.
“Go first on the circle and test how he collects. Test how much you have to ride for this and how little you can do. The rider CANNOT get busy. Again keep the outside rein, even keep the outside rein a little to the outside.
Lauren showed a good pirouette but the canter in and out were less in jump and quality than the jump during the pirouette. Isabell decides this needs to be a focus of the training.
Set up the pirouette and when in it and set up, give the inside rein and flex from the inside leg.
As you leave the pirouette she wants the rider to ride forward and create jump in the canter.
In the moment, she gets rather excited and you can sense that she WISHES she could speak German as she searches for the words in English. She wants her directions to flow more quickly so she then demonstrates with her body where she wants the positioning of the inside hind leg when the pirouette can start. That the inside leg is reaching under and forwards, not reaching sideways. This way the pirouette can start small and finish small.
The secret is not the pirouette, it is the preparation before. That you can collect the horse on your seat, that you can feel the jump under your seat. That you can control the jump all the time in any size of pirouette.
In the changes, Isabell clicks the rhythm she wants for the canter, so we can all hear how her brain is thinking. She wants more jump as long as he is uphill. Cover more ground, keep the jump big but keep it easy, uncomplicated. Don’t over-manage the canter and sacrifice the canter. The changes are good, but the jump in between is being sacrificed. This also becomes a continual theme over the evening. Isabell wants the horses to travel in an easy way between the changes. Not micro managed or stilted.
As Lauren leaves the arena she gets a very healthy round of applause. Isabell comments, “this is for you.” Lauren has to be smiling all the way back to the barn.
Continual reminder to keep the line… on the diagonal, in the shoulder-in, after the changes… always you must know what line you started on and stay on it!
Don’t sacrifice the gaits through over-management of the next movement
Next is Yvonne Losos de Muñiz on Felicia, her nine-year-old mare by Vivaldi.
The mare is rather tense in this atmosphere… stands packed, lights, a lady with a microphone in the middle of the arena and the VIP section, eating and drinking with enthusiasm, creating the associated noises.
“So as a trainer we now look at this horse, which is completely different to Lauren’s horse and figure out the best way to train this horse. The tension is creating uneven steps behind and a ‘passagey’ trot lacking any relaxation.”
Isabell starts simply by asking for bigger circles. Then she asks Yvonne to add flexion.
“Keep flexion and add bend and keep riding over the ground. Don’t ride from front to hind legs, ride the opposite. Give small aids but enough to transfer the attention from the surrounds to the rider. Add flexion and ride the hind legs. Always keep the flexion, and use the inside leg. Shoulder in, keep the flexion, use your outside leg to control her outside leg, that it travels under the horse especially on the 10-meter circle”
Isabell quickly establishes a mantra for the trot for Yvonne and Felicia—“flexion, inside leg, flexion, inside leg, Don’t flex just the head and then use your outside leg to control her outside leg.”
This session was especially interesting to me as I also have a mare that would be much more tense than this one in this situation. I struggle to manage her when she gets so tense, so I was eager to hear any advice about the direction to take in this situation.
In the walk, the mare offers half steps out of tension and Isabell is quite clear that they can only happen from the aids, not from tension. So, when the walk is clear, she decides to touch the training of the half steps and work on that a little as the mare wants to pull downhill in the steps. She plays with uphill walk to uphill trot steps in piaffe… only two steps and then walk again, repeat, repeat until the mare listens for the walk aids and then she listens for the half step aids. That she starts to develop confidence from the use of leg aids. When this happens, it is back to trot.
The mare offers huge fancy trot. Again this is a situation I am familiar with. This trot must feel amazing… until it becomes unrideable.
Isabell has her staying in shoulder-in, with good flexion to keep her focused and then explore trotting smaller. This sounds easy but for sure, it isn’t. Also she uses many easy changes of direction, to keep the attention coming back to the rider so the mare continues to develop confidence in the aids from the leg and maintain the focus on the rider. Never straight, always in shoulder-in, then shoulder-in, then half-pass, then change rein, new flexion. Keep doing this… not in a quick way but in a continual way.
Then it is back to walk, more attention on the quality, more use of shoulder-in and then absolute pickiness into canter. Walk must come from true walk, not piaffe. The canter must be uphill and then you add jump.
Moving into pirouettes. The mare wants to slow down, Isabell wants to keep easy jump. She asks for some easy single changes again to refresh the idea of uphill forwards jump. Back to the pirouette. Felicia wants to get long through her body and pull down. This causes her to lose the jump through the pirouettes and also take over the size of the pirouette. After some less than perfect half pirouettes, Isabell changes tack and takes her onto a circle, Yvonne makes the circle smaller and Isabell has her using the outside leg to keep the jump and tempo as the canter collects. “She needs to maintain ‘light jump,’ instead of heavy, slow downhill jump. Also be very clear that the inside rein doesn’t block.”
The whole time you have the feeling that Isabell is trying to enunciate what she would be doing with her body in that moment. She is ADAMANT about the quality of the jump in the collected canter. The moment the mare goes wide behind (and slow) it is “ride forwards.” After getting the tempo quicker with the outside leg it is back to shoulder-in and inside leg and then forwards in canter.
The quality of the pirouettes and collected canter are transformed… totally transformed. To watch this change was worth the price of admission. It was brilliant work from trainer, rider and horse.
After the pirouettes it is on to the changes, and we are reminded again that Isabell can’t abide tiny over-managed changes… not that Yvonne was doing them, Isabell wouldn’t have given her the option. She would prefer a mistake from a good big canter than canter losing jump to a change.
Then back to trot and allowing her to swing in front of the rider. Isabell left with these parting words for Yvonne and her talented young mare: “Keep her connected as she develops, always hind legs to the bridle so she moves as one horse.”
The mare is swinging and loose as she finishes her session. Quite different from the horse that came into the arena. This was not an easy ride, but familiar to many of us with horses that really get hot under pressure. Personally, I am thrilled that someone was brave enough to put themselves in this situation so the rest of could learn.
Benjamin Albright starts his work on Falstaff and it is straight to improving the quality of the trot. Inside leg and Outside rein. She wants cadence, swing and more “fire.” This horse is a bit dull, the environment hasn’t sparked him up at all, (help!), but Isabell doesn’t care. He must swing forwards from the leg, the rider must stay sitting, his hands are not allowed to come up, no sharp turns as this interrupts the forwards swing.
I understand the pressure of the situation of volunteering to be “educated” in front of your peers but the feeling I have is almost that Isabell is working harder than the horse with more desire to get it done! She is relentless. ”Inside leg, outside rein,” and swing forwards with elasticity. I think poor Benjamin is overwhelmed and frozen a little. He starts the half-pass and the horse kind of directs the line himself. Not allowed. His hands must stay low, the horse must trot to the reins and then add swing in the half pass when he is going. Always the hind legs to the reins. Again the feeling is that Isabell is perhaps “riding” the movement more than Benjamin. She WILL NOT GIVE UP. Falstaff MUST go forwards, the rider needs to keep the reins down, needs to sit, get the flexion to the right, use the inside leg, no interruptions with the reins. As Isabell starts making a difference in the quality and the enthusiasm, her voice gets louder, more enthusiastic and Falstaff finally starts to trot through his body. Long lines, flexion until he is through the bridle.
The theme remains consistent through the walk work and then the canter
Isabel knows what she wants and she will not give up or accept less, no matter how much either Benjamin or Falstaff want to. However, it has to be said, the horse is really swinging by the end. I DO think they both slept really well the next day, maybe the day after, too.
Jacqueline Brooks and Westwood is quite a new partnership. Jacquie is a favorite with just about everyone in the industry, so we are eager to watch.
Again Isabell is immediately testing the suppleness of this Grand Prix horse. She wants Jacquie to ask for flexion and show his normal working trot. The riders are generally coming in showing tight, over-prepared “fancy passagey” trot, sometimes from tension in the horse, sometimes from rider tension (!), but Isabell just wants normal swinging trot in shoulder-in. She keeps asking for flexion from the inside leg to the outside rein. Clearly and repeatedly she wants legs then rein asking for flexion. It seems that perhaps Westwood isn’t overly enamored with left flexion. Isabell kinda suggests that Jacqui should perhaps use more inside leg, then more inside rein, lowering the outside rein and demand more flexion. The result: adequate left flexion.
Westwood keeps offering passagey, over-cadenced, not swinging trot. Isabell is determined that normal trot is the only acceptable one. ”Trot is trot, collected trot is collected trot and passage is passage.” Not everything can be done in passage. Isabell says it as she sees it, no worry that she may be considered a demanding German and no question of her pandering to the rider’s sensitivities. It is what it is, and that is how it is.
She also has no qualms to correct a rider’s position. She wants them straight in the saddle, no high shoulders, NO high hands and always in the most pure form of the gaits.
Right hand is on the right, left is left and the rider is in in the center.
Isabell is also adamant that the half pass comes out of the correct swinging shoulder-in. And who is to argue. Her half passes are extraordinary.
With all the riders, Isabell has also been after those who use the curb to attain flexion. Snaffle only.
She wants it all uncomplicated, the rider to sit easy. Again no micro-management. Look for a constant feel. Not dropping the contact, “Can you touch them with the leg and keep the connection. Shortening the reins CANNOT interrupt the rhythm. Keep the horse round into the canter but let them jump. Sit and keep the horse in front.”
There are no snazzy exercises, no secret weapons, it is all forwards and uphill, then allowing them to relax in the gaits and chew. The rider must sit, but like a jumping rider, not heavy.
We continue to see themes of how Isabell rides her flying changes and half passes. It is fun to watch the canter develop with Westwood as Jacqui plays with the adjustability.
In the half pass she wants the rider to sit to the inside—no argument—but use inside leg and outside rein. All the time test adjustability, collect and forwards, straight and forwards before the change and then a transition within the canter but keep the rhythm.
Again with the changes. ”Let him canter in between the changes. Let him go. Sit quiet.”
And then in the walk again absolute attention to a relaxed uphill walk, show him that you can use the leg in the walk and that he can gain confidence from the use of it. Uncomplicated walk, simple clear transition to canter.
Isabell definitely focused on the things she is known for. Pirouettes with tremendous jump, half-pass with tremendous reach, pure quality of natural gaits. No warm fuzzy moments and building up the rider. You should do it her way and she is relentless until you do.
Again we have another mini-master class on the pirouette. In the preparation for the pirouette sit still, outside rein, find collection. The canter quality says uphill with jump. Be able to use the inside leg, the outside leg and give the inside rein. Keep the jump but use your aids slowly, no hurried whirling pirouettes. When you are in the pirouette, remember to ride within the pirouette, make him rounder, keep the jump, turn the shoulder. We are starting to understand what Isabell is thinking as she rides her pirouettes. No stride is accidental, but no stride is hurried or tight.
“Make him understand the inside leg coming into the pirouette so he isn’t in a half-pass into the pirouette. She remains as focused on the way into the pirouette as during the pirouette. Jacqui does what is perhaps the best pirouette Westwood has ever done, she gets a round of applause and then Isabell exclaims: “Jaaaaa, now he comes towards a pirouette.” Those Germans have HIGH standards.
First you must have a normal real trot. Forwards from the leg and uphill. Then as you go into passage, leave him alone, let him relax and chew. Just sit and only use the snaffle, pat him on the neck. Westwood passages a little tight through his body and snapping tight legs. Isabell wants something more loose and believes Westwood can do it. She is making soothing noises and then wants Jackie to find again a normal trot. In the normal trot, sit independent from the reins that he just trots. When he is swinging in normal trot, independent of the reins then just softly into passage. She adds a little lateral movement, tiny half-pass, a little shoulder-in, brings the hind leg under and then into piaffe. All one rhythm and keep the occasional pat with one hand. She keeps asking Jackie to let him chew, so a slight relaxation of the rein and mental breath. Then back to normal trot with easy inside flexion.
She wants Westwood to make clear differences between normal trot then passage. When he can make normal trot, into easy passage then he can go into a beautiful in-the-place relaxed piaffe with transitions in and out for easily 9s. Jacqui had to be thrilled.
She needs to take time in the passage that he finds out how to swing. Then the transitions are easy, not hurried.
Jacqui leaves to tremendous applause. I know she would not have been offended by any of Isabell’s corrections and I can only assume she is deeply satisfied leaving. It was an absolute delight to watch an established international rider let herself be directed by Isabell. I talked with Jacqui after her ride and how impressed I was that she did everything that was asked, without question, and to the best of Westwood’s ability and Jacqui said, “If you can’t trust what Isabell says then who?” Succinctly said, Jaqueline Brooks!
The truth is that I have had to think quite a bit about how to write about this combination of Austin Webster and Abacrombie.
They seemed to have a hard time truly following Isabell’s directives and Isabell got quite animated because of it. In the end, I figured that I would do exactly as I had for the other riders. Take nothing out of context and report as I saw it. It was actually a truly interesting lesson and the end result was worth the struggle.
Abacrombie is just a little tense and tight through his entire body, so it will be no surprise to anyone that the session starts with shoulder-in, with Isabell looking for fluidity. Flexion and swing, flexion and swing and—guess what?—a little more flexion and inside leg. As lovely as Abacrombie is, he isn’t really taking the contact forwards. Isabell is aware of this. “Keep the connection that you have not so much flappy and unsteady reins.”
“Let him move with fluidity, not so much passagey, longer reins, let him go. Longer reins, he is not running away, I promise you. Let him fly and move to his potential. Don’t stop him, and steady reins. More, more, more. Jaaaaaa, keep on going and don’t interrupt him and turn into the half pass, just on your seat and fluently sweep. Sit on your seat and let him go. LET HIM GO—click, click click—that he can swing. Don’t hold him, flexion, reins lower, down with your hands and fluently.”
It is getting late and by the sixth rider, with no breaks and the intensity that Isabell offers, it is the truly interested and dedicated that are still watching. Still a good number, but reduced from the initial crowd. We ALL want Austin to succeed. I swear we were all thinking (for sure I was), “If she says more sideways, Austin, she really means USE YOUR LEG, go more sideways!”
Sit and outside rein and then in front of you. Give the inside rein, let him go forwards, but slowly; ground cover, not running. Keep the hands still, really concentrate on your hands. More inside leg and let him go forwards that he can really start to canter.
Abacrombie is pretty sure that he can go up and down rather than cover ground (I am familiar with that feeling). He is sure that ground cover is not in his wheelhouse. Isabell points out that we can hear him hit the ground as he canters. She doesn’t want to hear him. As she asks Austin to keep going forwards he also gives his reins, loses the connection. The horse can’t canter through the rein then. Again, Isabell will not be deterred. She knows what she wants, and that is a canter with ground cover, and she will not give up. “Forwards to the outside rein and back into trot.” And she starts to get a little happy. “This is the minimum. You need to let him go. Sit and just let him go. Don’t keep interrupting with your reins.”
This master class is not a riding lesson. You had better have a clue how to achieve what she asks, as she isn’t going to break it down, but she will want you to get it done. And she won’t give up until you achieve her goal. She wants her horses and riders to ride from the hind legs to the bridle, no half measures. And she is right. The quality of the gaits over everything else. Swing, ground cover, forwards intent, uncomplicated transitions. Austin and Abacrombie do a ton of canter trot, trot canter transitions until they become swinging, into big uphill ground covering gaits, flowing from one to the other. No backwards reins or false tension from shortened reins. The legs stay on to give confidence.
In the schooling of the half pass, Isabell wants a long half pass with ground cover. When riders make the same mistake repeatedly you can hear a “tch” of irritation creep into her voice. Abacrombie makes three one-tempis after the half pass left three times. She is not impressed and asks (rhetorically) why Austin doesn’t do something about it after three times—”keep him flexed right after the change.” Of course, he then does only the one required change.
Pirouettes are a highlight, only refining little details. Finally a “GOOD,” although Abacrombie steals some one-tempis again after the flying change to the right.
Back to the walk again, and again the horse is not so rideable in the walk. Immediately into shoulder-in and the ability to keep the leg on until the horse takes a breath and the walk becomes uphill and uncomplicated.
This is where we saw Isabell get both creative and very determined. The horse has an amazing piaffe/passage, but again it is overly micro-managed and lacking relaxation.
First she wants shoulder-in and then into passage. He goes into a very tight passage, which frankly most of us would be pretty ecstatic with, but Isabell wants adjustability. “Can you make it a little bigger, a little less tense, Let him swing more, let go of the reins, take the reins in one hand, keep on passaging and pat him. Keep going, sit upright, don’t lean back, put the reins in one hand. Please, ONE HAND Keep the reins in ONE HAND. He is not running away, keep it, trust him, and then into piaffe.”
Austin picks up both reins again. Abacrombie stops. Isabell demands, “Why did you take the reins? Let him trust you instead of being scared of the reins.” And back to piaffe, and Austin has to grab that rein (sorry Austin, we all feel for you but desperately want to see how he does with just the one hand). The passage is beautiful.
“Now slowly trot; yes, TROT, not passage. He needs to breathe, and now passage…slowly. And now slowly back to piaffe and now back to passage. He needs to relax. Let him chew, pat him, let him go to trot, it is a very thin line between passage and trot, but you have to feel the moment to go out and in. Steady reins and SIT ON YOUR SEAT. Don’t disturb him, don’t interrupt him the whole time with your reins. OK, lets give that one hand thing a go again and now one or two steps piaffe with one rein; yes, it is gorgeous. Now out to relaxed natural trot. Educate your hands with your reins. You can’t hold him with your reins. He has to trot alone.”
Abacrombie and Austin finish. We are all thrilled with the change in the horse, I hope Austin is, too. Isabell’s final words essentially describe how she rides.
“Everything has to happen going away from your hands. Transitions, trotting, balance, forwards. Everything without the reins.”
We all have a tiny glimpse into how she achieves such high scores, such freedom with her horses, how she can ride any type of horse. I can’t wait to start riding with more shoulder-in.