Isabell Werth: Master Class at Haras Hacienda in Magnolia, Texas

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Editor’s Note: CARMEN “QUECA” FRANCO is a professional dressage trainer based in Wellington, Florida who often chronicles equestrian events. She traveled to Magnolia, Texas for a master class by Isabell Werth and provided coverage for

MAGNOLIA, Texas, Oct. 14, 2019–I’m grateful to life for another great opportunity this year to witness my favorite rider in one of the most beautiful equestrian facilities I have been to: Haras Hacienda which hosted a master class with Isabell Werth. She doesn’t need introductions, she is just the Queen. Haras Hacienda is a beautiful property owned by the Mexican Rafael Chavez and 45 minutes from Houston, Texas. The place stands out not only for a boutique hotel, restaurant and spa but also for being the home of Haras dos Cavaleiros where they breed and train Lusitanos. Facilities are first class and their organization and design make them ideal to host this kind of events.

The restaurant at Haras Hacienda. © 2019 Carmen Franco

A few hundred people attended the clinic to watch the No. 1 rider in the world work with seven riders and their horses. The weekend could not have been more interesting as each one of them presented new challenges and, obviously, Isabell showed her tremendous ability and experience to find a solution to every problem and get the best out of each combination.

There is no mystery to her line of work: keep the horse forward, with clear rhythm, supple, with correct and steady connection, through the back, cadenced, straight, engaged and collected, according to their age and level of training. Inside leg, outside rein were a constant heard during the whole weekend. But what makes her very special is the intensity of the instruction, the positive approach, the different tones of her voice, the body language, the eye so fine-tuned and the vision of what can be achieved with correct and systematic training. Isabell keeps up every stride with the riders. So inspiring!

Every horse that came into the arena (from young ones to Grand Prix) had a thorough evaluation in the first couple of minutes of their qualities and defects, and Isabell created a path for the rider to work on. Between one instruction and the other, it is worth mentioning terms and sounds that never fail (read with German accent):

Tick – tick
Kluck- kluck
Genau (or genauso)
Tap – tap
Zack (and even better… TZACK)

All accompanied by the most expressive body language to make the rider act and react in benefit of the exercises and movements of the horse.

Spectators at the Isabell Werth master class. © 2019 Carmen Franco

The first horse we saw with Isabell was a four-year-old bred by Kimberly Davies-Slous of Ariston Farm in Wrightstown, New Jersey with good gaits but green in the contact and not very convinced to move forward. Through both sessions we were able to appreciate how important it is to have good basics, creating respect to the leg so that the horse can be brought into connection. Isabell insisted a lot on the speed and timing the rider needed to work to influence it, maintaining a forward and honest rhythm. When it became too difficult for the rider to be successful, Isabell took a lunge line whip and helped. The Queen had a good work out until Dylan got the message. The good moments were really nice to watch.

Cynthia Hall and Dylan. © 2019 Carmen Franco

This five-year-old mare in the first year of competition with Bonnie Canter. The pair was the first level regional champion a week ago and plan to go to the US Dressage Finals in Kentucky next month. Franziska showed a dreamy regularity and cadence during the whole weekend. The work with Isabell centered on making the strides elastic, smaller and bigger, thinking of future piaffe-passage transitions. They also worked on lateral movements, showing how important it is to work on flexion and counter-flexion. During the second day they worked on the collection of the canter to prepare for flying changes. They did transitions canter-walk-canter, counter-canter, changes of flexion; all while insisting on keeping the hind legs very active. Isabell followed stride by stride from the ground to be able to make herself as clear as possible to the rider.

Bonnie Canter and Franziska. © 2019 Carmen Franco

A seven-year-old Danish Warmblood mare, bred and owned by Mary Nuttall of Magnolia, Texas. John and Savanna competed successfully at the 2017 and 2018 US Dressage Finals. The mare has quality gaits. Isabell worked on improving Savanna’s self-carriage and taking weight on the hind legs to show a better uphill frame and balance. There were frequent transitions between all the paces, where it was very important to keep the flexion or counter-flexion to give more freedom and elasticity to the shoulders. Important is not the number of transitions but the quality of their execution. Also with her, they worked on preparation for flying changes. Savanna had the tendency to get blocked at the approach of new moments or more pressure, to what Isabell maintained John working under pressure not to give up until she accepted the new demands.

John Mason and Savanna SWF. © 2019 Carmen Franco

Isabell reminded us how difficult it is for Junior riders like Emma, who is 15 years old, to move up to high levels Grand Prix. In these sessions we saw how the warmup has to be as long and patient as the horse needs, always trying to look for the best contact to maintain De Nouvella, an 11-year-old Dutch Warmblood, adjustable at any time. In every exercise the rider must keep improving the quality of the horse: the expression, the fluidity, the engagement, the cadence. During the first day the public got more and more engaged with the positive changes and started clapping during the work on tempi changes and pirouettes. The key to success with these movements was to keep the horse adjustable every stride. On the second day Isabell insisted on making the horse carry itself, while the rider had to focus on being more precise with geometry lines and steady connection. De Nouvelle stopped getting blocked when Isabell loosened the curb chain.

Emma Stephens and De Nouvelle Vie. © 2019 Carmen Franco

I think most of us who attended this event would love to take Duvall home, Isabell included. Despite being a bit tense at the beginning, normal for a sensitive horse in a new environment, the 11-year-old Dutch gelding showed great quality and ease to perform all the movements requested. The horse was competed up to Small Tour in Europe before Beth took over the ride a year ago. Isabell emphasized the importance for a shy horse to have the rider inspire confidence. She insisted, too, to keep improving the horse’s quality stride by stride, creating expression, fluidity and cadence to make the judges go up from 6 to 7, from 7 to 8 and, why not, to 9 and 10. It was exciting to watch Isabell supporting and helping to make the pirouettes better with her hand on the croup. At the end of the sessions on both days we saw how she helped the combination develop some really good steps of piaffe, using the whip from the ground.

Beth Colle and Duvall. © 2019 Carmen Franco

At 15, Royal was the schoolmaster of the group, the oldest horse from all presented. Isabell emphasized the need of keeping these horses active and elastic without drilling too much in movements they have practiced for many years. However, they must stay respectful and sensitive to the aids. Isabell´s voice changed from soft to loud, depending on how fast and how much she wanted Yvonne to influence Royal, a partnership for a decade. We saw how the pirouettes improved while asking more or less flexion and bending and working through the back. Passage started with rhythm breaks but slowly got more consistent with frequent trot-passage transitions. The second day there was more emphasis in piaffe-passage work. Isabell insisted in not allowing the horse to keep the neck too high as that could block his work over the back. She reminded us how important is to finish movements and exercises on a positive note. At the end of the second day the pair worked on pirouettes that considerably improved the more Royal accepted contact of the outside rein.

Yvonne Kusserow and Royal. © 2019 Carmen Franco

Appreciation of horses of all levels and styles was on display with the Lusitano Donatello, bred by Haras dos Cavaleiros and ridden by Tiago Ernesto who moved to Magnolia from Portugal 10 years ago. Isabell focused on giving the horse more amplitude in the gaits. The movements and exercises improved while Tiago and Donatello adapted. Tiago was asked to keep the inside leg steadier on the ribcage of the horse, with a more driving effect to create a larger and more cadenced stride. This significantly improved the half-passes and tempi changes. They had some stellar moments in piaffe and passage when Donatello’s shoulders started moving with more freedom.

Tiago Ernesto and Donatello DC. © 2019 Carmen Franco

Isabell left the master class with the clear understanding that success in dressage is based on training with classical principles, where being extremely meticulous and detailed will make the difference to stand out.