I can still remember the first time I saw Hubertus Schmidt ride a horse. About eight years ago, I was walking across the Winter Equestrian Festival show grounds in Wellington, Fla., on a Sunday evening. The shows were over for the weekend and the rings were deserted--almost. From far away, I spotted a rider working a black Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) horse in the warm up arena. There was something about this pair that arrested my attention. I couldn't stop watching, so I walked over to check them out. As if in their own world, the pair softly glided through a variety of canter pirouettes--big ones, small ones, interspersed with half passes and changes. The horse looked totally focused, yet his eyes and ears told me he was also relaxed. Over the next few minutes, the horse grew in power, stature and range of motion, and it looked so effortless. Who IS that rider and how does he develop a horse like that?
I learned the answer to the first question within days. The answer to the second question would take a lifetime. I began learning in pieces by reading interviews with Hubertus Schmidt and asking riders, who had trained with him in Germany, lots of questions. I was thrilled when the New England Dressage Association (NEDA) announced the fall symposium in 2009. I knew the format would help me put the pieces together and fill in some of the holes. Now, if I could only be a demo rider.
The weeks leading up to the clinic were full of excitement and careful planning. Alison Yama, our rider liaison, treated us like rock stars, making sure we knew what to expect and had everything we needed. I wanted to familiarize myself with Hubertus' teaching style and phrasing so I could be the best demo rider possible. I spent lunch breaks at Morgan Stanley watching his segments on DressageClinic.com and tried to put into practice ahead of time what I was learning, especially about stretching/looseness in the warm up, since this was to be a major focus of the symposium. It wasn't long before Fanale and I were headed to Hadley, Mass., accompanied by Ashley Daliessio, my volunteer groom for the weekend.
There were seven horses and rider pairs in the symposium, ranging from a talented 5-year-old to a confirmed Grand Prix horse. Each rider was a stepping stone to the next so that the auditors could see Hubertus' training continuum. No matter what the level, the warm up was the same. After 10-15 minutes of walking on a long rein, the horses were to be ridden forward, but not at full power. The warm up is just that--to warm up the muscles and stretch them for the greater effort that was to come later in the work session.
The horses needed to reliably stretch down to the bit with a relaxed jaw and poll. Relaxation and looseness in the body (starting with the head and neck) is key, as only then can the horse utilize his full range of motion, achieve a connection that is capable of handling additional carrying power and stay mentally fresh and focused. Tension later in the session can be dissipated by a moment of stretching, if both horse and rider are attuned to this basic level of work.
The stretching warm up is most effective on curved lines as the natural bend helps the horse soften his jaw on the inside and take the outside rein, while stepping under his body with his hind legs. The goal is an equal, soft feel on both reins so frequent changes of direction are a must, starting with the easy direction and then putting more focus on the stiffer side. Overbending to soften the jaw should only be done to the inside, with the leg backing up the request for the horse to yield to the rein. Be careful the horse does not cheat by stepping out with his hind legs. The hind legs need to stay on the same track as the front legs, so the energy flows directly over the back. Transitions between gaits and within them--in walk, trot and canter--help test and solidify the looseness of the warm up.
Hubertus believes in many short breaks to keep the horse fresh and happy in his work. Tired, sore muscles are prone to injury and lead to a sour lackluster partner.
Once the warm up is complete, it is time to add more power and increase the carrying capacity of the hind legs. The rider uses his seat and quick leg aids to activate the horse, while half halts keep the activity compressed and the horse "on the hind legs." The horse MUST respond to light aids (a challenge for us). No nagging leg aids allowed. Sometimes it is necessary for the horse to get temporarily short in the neck during the half halt, but once the balance is achieved, the horse must move up and out with reaching front legs and a long neck--always with the feeling the horse wants to go, on his own, with swing and cadence.