What we all really want is a magic pill enabling us to ride as elegantly and effectively as Charlotte Dujardin, 2012 Olympic dressage individual and team gold medalist. Alas, she did not bring any of those pills along during her first U.S. symposium. She did cram the March 8-9 weekend with constructive, colorfully-delivered instruction and shared many of the training and horse-keeping routines used at the Gloucestershire County yard of Carl Hester, the fellow 2012 Olympic gold medalist for whom Charlotte rides professionally.
It was an extra treat to have Judy Harvey as Charlotte's co-instructor. Judy is a Grand Prix rider and trainer, international judge and served as selector for the British Olympic dressage team and TV commentator for the Games. Charlotte is famous for her natural feel for riding and there were several times when Judy helped to further illuminate points for us "regular" riders.
Kristina Narrison-Antell & Barnaby, an adorable 5-year-old Hanoverian. Judy and Charlotte said his free forward motion, naturally lovely, balanced gaits and trainability embodied their preferences in young horses.
Jaye Cherry & Santana.
Mette Rosencrantz & Cenna
Pam Lane, who organized the event with Glenda McElroy, Charlotte, Grand Prix rider, international judge and British team selector, Judy Harvey, and Ian Cast, one of the first to identify Charlotte's remarkable natural talent and now a "best friend."
Charlotte and Judy worked with eight horse/rider pairs over two days at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center's Equidome. (Actually, clinic riders got an extra day with Charlotte and Judy on Friday, but that was without an audience.) An attentive crowd of auditors enjoyed the Q&A sessions that followed each day's rides.
All but one clinic participant, Sheryl L. Ross, were professionals and the horses' experience varied from Kristina Harrison-Antell's 5-year-old Hanoverian, Barnaby, to Hilda Gurney's homebred, Wintersnow, the 1976 Olympic bronze medalist's Grand Prix partner for going on three years now. While each pair focused on suitably challenging dressage movements, there was plenty of widely applicable advice.
Charlotte helps Mette Rosencrantz locate her pirouette equally on both sides of the centerline.
Kristina Harrison-Antell and Arlo, a 9-year-old Dutch Warmblood by Royal Hit.
Vicki Rea & W.H. Roux. Aiming to compete in CDIs next year, Vicki made a lot of progress with Charlotte's simple suggestion to align her body in better balance with her horse.
"Let go!" was a frequent refrain in reference to both gripping on the horse's mouth with the hands and the horse's sides with the legs. "Let's go!" was another. Charlotte encouraged almost every rider to improve their horse's responsiveness to the leg and willingness to move forward freely without prodding and without relying on a whip. She collected whips from the majority of participants who rode into the arena with one.
"It's so easy to get stuck in the mentality of collection," said trainer Jaye Cherry after her session. She broke free of those habits at Charlotte's prodding to "go for a yee-haw!" by giving her horse Santana several good kicks to gallop freely down the long side. "Everything is so easy when my horse is going somewhere!"
It was surprising how riders at every level needed to be reminded to "Look up!" and to witness the corresponding improvement gained from such a relatively small change. This often showed up in straighter tracks, a more precisely-located transition, diagonal pass, pirouette or other movement. Wearing her judge's hat, Judy said that it was silly to lose points for a lopsided, too-big or too-small circle when it was often a simple matter of looking where you were going.
Charlotte very much enjoying the ride on Leslie Reid's Kobal, an 8-year-old Pura Raza Espanola. She was ready to fly Kobal home to her yard in England after the clinic.
Charlotte liked W.H Roux' energetic nature and channeled energy that might have gone toward a spook into elevated piaffe and passage. Regarding spooks, Charlotte said downplaying them was the best strategy, and, when possible, half-passing or shoulder-in past a scary spot to engage the horse's mind and energy on you while passing something scary. That doesn't work in every situation, she noted. Sometimes, it's best to let the horse slowly approach a scary object and, if they like, reach out and touch it.
1976 Olympic bronze medalist Hilda Gurney was encouraged to work in the rising trot, to free up Wintersnow's back and encourage more forward motion.
During the Q&A sessions after the riding, Charlotte explained that she typically rides nine horses a day, then goes to the gym for personal workouts that focus on cardio and core strength. Core-strengthening exercises have helped alleviate what the 28-year-old Olympian described as "terrible" back problems and enabled her to "hold my horse through my leg and seat, and with very little rein."
She pointed to Steffen Peters as typical of today's international riders in viewing their own fitness as equally important to their horse's.
When asked for book recommendations, Charlotte admitted that the few dressage books she's tried to read left her frustrated and confused. "I don't understand how they can make everything so complicated!" she laughed. She quickly conceded, though, that she had a big advantage in riding for Carl Hester and having him, a three-time British Olympian, to "shout at me and vice versa."
Thanks to Glenda McElroy and Pam Lane for organizing the symposium, and to sponsors Cornerstone Event Management, PL, California Dreaming Productions and the United States Dressage Federation. It was a real treat to see Charlotte up close and personal. Whether riding Leslie Reid's spectacular Pura Raza Española or recounting the "terrifying" experience of navigating the royal red carpet in high heels, to receive an Order of the British Empire award from Princess Anne, Charlotte was engaging, honest, charming and inspiring. She sets a very high bar for herself and her horses and encouraged all to do the same through everyday discipline and hard work.