The woodlands and fields surrounding Pineland Farms Equestrian Center in New Gloucester Maine were shrouded in thick mist on Sunday morning. A young horse sculpture, Gwyneth McPherson fondly calls Rusty, watched as travelers drove through the entry gates and parked in the adjacent fields A select group of 14 horse and rider teams participated in a unique opportunity to advance their skills with one of the world’s best riders and trainers. The big red barn with two cupolas welcomed dressage riders, trainers and enthusiasts on October 14 – 15th for the New England Dressage Association’s (NEDA) Fall Symposium 2017 with Carl Hester MBE.
After checking in at the registration table, auditors entered into the large indoor arena fitted with stadium seating behind letter C, long side B and A. NEDA reported a total sale of 989 seats. The welcome packet included a glossy magazine with a biography for every team working with Hester. Everything was so carefully arranged, down to the announcer reminding the audience to be cautious about the chairs habit of flapping up when the sitter rose, “don’t let it slap the back and startle horses.” No photos, cameras or videotaping were allowed. The penalty would be the culprit finds themselves on the outside looking in.
Hester was dressed casually in a soft black sweater, jeans and barn boots. He was spare in his movement but his posture was tall and alert. He often commented on the most fundamental of movements and praised as much as cautioned riders. Whatever was presenting, Hester went with the block or tension that needed softening to bring out the best in horse and rider.
- Your right hand, oh your right hand is open and not connected on the rein to the horse. It’s a habit of having the hand open when you ride. But it’s confusing the horse. Work on that. It’s a habit, you don’t know you’re doing it, you try to change but go back to it without thinking about it.
- Breathing, you’ve got to breathe when you ride or it messes everything. Sit up straight, sit up when you ask for the transition, you are pitching forward and confusing the horse on what to do.
- Don’t move about like that when changing leads, it’s bouncing around upsetting the horse. It’s too much motion. Sit quiet.
- Your reins are too long, too long. They are long enough that you can scratch your belly already. After that, where are they going to go now.
- The horse is not so good in the corners. Well, let’s fix that now. Ride him straight into that corner and stop. Make him stop, turn around and trot back. Do this until he gets the idea, you are in charge. This horse wants to take over and tell you where to go.
- No we don’t want to see his trot, we saw that yesterday and his trot is fabulous. I want the canter today, that needs work.
- To feel what you are doing, ride the transitions with eyes closed.
“Yutt, Yuutt that’s it, Yahutt” Whenever Hester made that sound, the rider could smile inside, “Yutt, that’s fine.”
There’s a Zen expression that says, every time you meet someone, they are different. So true with teams that participated on Saturday and Sunday. Hester told Emily Smith he was speechless after she rode the asked for uphill canter, and was that the same horse? Apparently, the nerves got to Dublin the previous day. Hester often informed Sunday participants on what happened Saturday. It was this attentiveness to the audience that was appreciated most. He commented to the trainers in the crowd on what was important here.
Jessica O’Donnell and her five-year old, Don Dreamer, received high praise with Hester talking about looking at a young horse and thinking someday Grand Prix. Yes, this horse, even when tired, kept giving something back. He had the cadence and calmness to get there.
Karin Persson and her beautiful Swedish horse Giuliano B surprised us all with his enthusiastic kick during a gallop around the arena. Hester had encouraged Persson to let him out a bit with a romp to settle down. Hester commented that it was a positive sign in the six-year old gelding. He hasn’t forgotten how to have fun along the way up the levels.
The outstanding training moment in the day came when Hester became the center post for Molly Maloney and Fellissimo’s canter pirouettes. He was the anchor which they moved around in a lovely series of careful wide pirouettes. The cadence and impulsion were excellent. It was inventive and delightful all at once. Hester has a charming and grounding manner of teaching. When he asks, and how he asks enables the confidence to flow between trainer, horse and rider.
What a surprise it was for this auditor to hear the same words heard in lessons, repeated and reinforced in the riders on Sunday. I had at first said no to this event, what would an amateur, returned to riding after a 25-year absence learn from this? A lot! It was all about position, clarity of the aids, being one-sided (horse and rider), straightness, inside eye, blocks in the body, tension, breathing, hands, etc… The thought was at this level, horses and riders are more advanced and complete in the training. The horse is athletic and responsive. The riders have dedicated years to cultivating their dressage skills. It’s still the attention to the ever-changing details that makes a skillful ride.
Everything about the day was wonderful. The horses were spit spot in almost ready for the show ring turnout with brilliantly white NEDA saddle pads. Several of the riders presented a uniform appearance in white breeches and gloves with a fitted dark blue long-sleeved shirt. Even the boxed lunches were fresh and filling. The mist was just starting to lift when we sat down to eat on the hillside in back of the big red barn. The horses were out in their paddocks munching on hay. The warm gray Maine skies were quiet above us. This was a day to remember. Thank you NEDA staff for the two years of hard work organizing this event. Thank you Carl Hester for encouraging all with kindness and sincerity.