Yard Visit to Carl Hester 6th October 2016


You are greeted coming through the gate by a shimmering full size silver mesh horse – a taste of the magic to come! Guinea fowl and chickens wander around the outdoor school and grounds, a parrot raucously chats to you at the entrance to the school, and a variety of dogs wander in and out of the school throughout the morning, vying for Carl’s attention, or yours, and weighing up whether yours is a handy lap to sit on. The school is light and airy, with one long side completely open above the kicking boards, where Carl can keep an eye on what is going on in the long outdoor arena that runs parallel. Behind the short side are stalls for tacking up and washing off and the heat lamps, and built into the kicking boards are benches that fold down for spectators.

The first horse to come in is a 4-year-old bay by Negro, bred by the late Jane Gregory, and ridden by Carl’s newest member of staff, Sadie Smith. Carl says he likes to look at youngsters at about two and a half years old – see their shape and movement and attitude – for him the breeding is last in his list of priorities. He feels the walk is difficult to improve, but that you can really change the trot.    His youngsters live out, come in at 7.00am and have a really nice life. He thinks that often if they are kept in, shut up, and fed too much, that they can turn into monsters!    This horse has a very good temperament – has been well handled and shown as a two-year-old- he has a very good walk and trot, with good articulation of his joints behind, but at present suspension is missing. That will come with training and as collection is developed.       He feels some horses are born with mouths like silk, or like a brick, but that you can change the mouth.  If it is soft or over bent and dropping the contact – these can be more difficult!

The young horses usually start the day’s work on the bit and under control. He has a very big walk, and Carl discusses how huge walks and massive over track can lead to problems later with keeping the clear 4-time rhythm and asks are they going to be quick enough for piaffe. The canter is also very big, and Carl considers will he be able to sit for the pirouettes and have enough jump for the changes.      This horse likes to work ‘up’, and Carl wants him to take the neck out more – you have to teach stretching and in walk think of ‘rowing’ with the arms, give him a long rein to help him stretch. The stretching will help to get him stronger over his back and behind the saddle where he is as yet a little weak.   Charlotte had ridden him the day before, working on getting him really reactive to the aids –  touch him and he must go – if need be, gallop forwards!  The youngsters may only need to do about 20 minutes’ work.

Carl talks briefly about Valegro as a young horse – how his short front legs are very strong, he has a short back, and very powerful behind! He says when he was young he had a short choppy walk that they needed to work on, that with his huge canter, Stephen Clarke questioned whether he would be able to sit and collect enough – so they went home and trained him to collect! When he learned to piaffe he just wanted to keep doing it. He says he didn’t fully learn to stretch until he was seven!    Carl feels Valegro will continue to be a great ambassador for British dressage!!

The next horse is the 5-year-old mare Mount St John VIP, with Charlotte riding, that won this year’s Novice Championship.   Carl talks about how Charlotte can transform horses, changing their balance and their movement, and this horse is beginning to understand suspension, and how to work with expression. He felt some people create it through tension, and then it can easily get jerky and unbalanced.       This mare is starting work in collection. She does some leg-yielding (not too much neck bend!) and shoulder-in on a shallow angle, all in rising trot. He finds travers helps to get horses straight.  He stressed that horses should be both back movers and leg movers.  This horse slightly tips her head in right shoulder-in, and Carl explains if a horse is stronger on one side or stiff, don’t keep pulling them off the stiff side – you should get them to take the ’empty’ side, and work on getting a steady, even contact on both sides.

Having worked ‘up’ for a while, then stretch the horse – if they are kept in the same position all the time they get stiff and tired and can’t be supple – you need to stretch them and bend them. He then discussed what was missing in this horse. He felt her back end works better than her front end, and she could use her shoulders still more.  Her trot deserved a very high mark, but her canter, because it doesn’t have huge reach, makes her look like a pony, but being smaller, it’s more balanced.

He discussed the importance of doing countless transitions within and between the paces, with the rider being very consistent with the aids. He thought the elementary test was difficult, and reminded us that when teaching canter to walk transitions they can lose the canter- trot transition, and how these must be constantly worked on, working forwards through them.     When giving, and retaking the rein you must GIVE the hand, and the contact generally should look like it can be moving but not floppy and intermittent.

He drew our attention to Charlotte’s position, how when she is sitting, she is stretched up in her upper body. He recalled the Spanish Riding School advice – “Lift the top and drop the bottom!”   He discussed how Charlotte takes a risk, and teaches ‘maximum’, and is not cautious and over careful.    He feels that this is a very exciting horse and there is nothing she won’t do!

Like most of the horses, she works 4 days in the school interspersed with 2 days hacking, and has Sunday off in the field.

Next forward was the 6-year-old mare Brioso II, by Benetton Dream, out of a Dimaggio mare, and ridden here by Amy Woodhead. Carl tells the story of how she was seen very locally, and without revealing who was the buyer, she was bought for £4,000. The previous owner said she was ‘a bitch to break’ and very backy with the girth. She lives out in the field.  Carl comments she had no real trot, but the hind legs always worked like pistons. David Pincus helps Carl with work in-hand, and they found she had a natural piaffe, and if the rider picks up a whip she just piaffes. Carl adds she is a bit short necked but very strong behind. Charlotte mainly rides and competes her, and she won this year’s Elementary Championship. Carl says she is going to be his old man’s grand prix horse!

Carl then illustrates with this mare ‘how do you create suspension?’ First teach them to push – open the door with your hand, create the push, and then catch the energy, so she doesn’t go more forwards, but goes with suspension.  He said she was a bit difficult in her mouth, and he wants her to learn to take the contact forwards. He uses lots of ‘on and back’, and warns us against just going round and round in the same gear, boring them and not teaching them much. The forward riding teaches her to open up and take her frame forwards, and she must learn to slow without pressure and without tightening her neck and drawing back. He reminds us of how often you get ups and downs in training, and that if things are not going well, give them a break or stretch them – they often learn more from this!

He feels you can find horses like this -it’s all about the system you train with, not the money you have!   But you need eyes on the ground daily, and the huge difference it makes with Carl and Charlotte working together all the time, with great attention to detail, where nothing is ignored or left to chance.

This horse has a big walk, and Carl draws attention to how she uses her shoulders better than the previous horse. During the work he sometimes uses a whip to help with the rhythm, or to teach them to pick a leg up, and they must respect the whip, but the whip is not carried throughout, just picked up for a specific purpose and then put down again, so you never become reliant on it, or lost without it!

Carl discusses how to get good canter work, with well-prepared transitions, showing the preparation for collection, teaching her to begin to sit, but not over sitting, keeping enough impulsion, and reminding Amy to open the underneath of her neck and ‘shift your hips towards your hands.’ She did some work in canter travers and Carl commented on how counter canter can be good for obedience, but doesn’t really improve the canter – it can make the canter dull and puts them a bit on the forehand. This mare can be feisty and hot, which Carl likes and makes him think she can get to the top – but it will probably take another 4 years before she is established at Grand Prix.

Carl talks about preparing horses for championships – about how there is so much going on that it can be really hard as the atmosphere can create great tension. He feels it is a big ask, especially as he usually only does about 4 big championships a year, whereas show jumpers can be jumping at Grand Prix level much more often.

When asked does he always wear spurs, he said that they often don’t wear spurs on the young horses -‘you can’t give a real kick forwards with spurs on!’   If a horse was too light in a snaffle, then don’t put a double bridle on. He would like to train all horses to Grand Prix in a snaffle, whilst using a double bridle as and when necessary.  He thought this horse was one he hoped to ride at Grand Prix. The Mount St John stud will do embryo transfer with her, as Carl is not so interested in breeding horses himself.

Next to come in was Charlotte on the 8 year old gelding Hawtins  Delicato, by Diamond Hit – this year’s PSG Champion. He was bred at Hawtins Stud and Carl saw him at the Nationals when he came 3rd in the 5-year-old Championship, and bought him then. He hopes he will be his next Grand Prix horse.

He is very uphill, and very active in the hind leg, with really good articulation of the joints. Carl discusses how he teaches changes on the wall, not using diagonals regularly until they are 100% straight.     Working on the canter pirouettes, the horse has to be able to go sideways and sit.  Pirouettes are ridden out of shoulder in and people struggle when they are trying to push the quarters in.  You must be able to bring the shoulders round and be able to ride them big as well as small.  The large half pirouettes make it easier for them, and with a very collected canter, you should be able to ride them at different speeds – at the higher tempo the horse has to really use his body well. He also uses different speeds in the half pass work. She rode some lovely canter to walk transitions with Carl stressing how ‘everything must be correct – do the correct thing all the time!’ He also has a huge walk and Carl discusses how much care needs to be taken when collecting the walk. At this stage he keeps him marching while only collecting the frame of the horse – so as yet not a true collected walk, but helping him to maintain the correct rhythm.

He said he wasn’t good at piaffe to start with, but is really beginning to be good now. They taught him in hand – to lift the leg and not launch forwards – not teaching him on the spot, but at this  stage moving a little forward and in a horizontal balance, not yet asking for too much sitting. He feels this horse has so many talents and such elasticity. In the half pass he has great reach and is both supple and elastic, and through the passage work is learning to really use his knees.

Regarding half halts, he stresses how you just give one rein aid, and hold in the tummy for one stride only – not holding over 3 or 4 strides. Going into medium trot your upper body should come forward a little and allow the back to move, and the body comes back a fraction when collecting. When the horse is using its back well the tail comes up higher, you can see the muscles behind the saddle flickering and moving, and the back, as a bridge, stays up.   A top horse both sits and pushes.   He found that when you’ve got really good horses at the top, the younger horses seem to come up quicker.

BUT – it is not simple – doing it well!!      Charlotte then discusses her regime. In addition to the riding, she is in the gym 4 days a week. She says sitting trot was really difficult at the start, and how she has had to do loads of core work and how having a weaker and a stronger side can really affect the horses. She has a lot of physio – very necessary if you are crooked or one sided. At times she uses acupuncture and with physio every day it makes an amazing difference as she starts feeling really loose and supple. She also uses sports psychology and feels it can really change your attitude. Carl says he can see the next day if Charlotte has had sports psychology the day before! Carl finds he can’t have physio like Charlotte does, but just needs to tweak things or you can cause damage. Also they have incredibly experienced staff backing everything up – (the wonderful Alan Davies is now as famous as Carl and Charlotte!), and then there is the whole team of vets, physios, farriers et al to ensure the very best possible care for the horses – nothing is left to chance!

Next we have two horses – Barolo, the 10 year old gelding by Breitling W, ridden here by Amy Woodhead, and Nip Tuck, ridden by Catherine, one of Carl’s pupils from the USA. Carl says when Barolo first came to them he was emotionally untalented, had no desire to do anything and had had enough of life! He hated other horses and had dropped a few riders. They keep him in the field as much as possible, and it has taken him 3 years to come round and learn to do everything. This year he won the Under 25’s Championship at Sheepgate with Amy, and came 2nd in the Grand Prix at the Nationals with Charlotte (when Carl came first with Wanadoo!)

Carl says Nip Tuck has really taught him a lesson. He thought he would never make a Grand Prix horse. He is very long in the back and the hind legs are out behind him, and he was very nervous and would bolt!   BUT – what makes all the difference is he WANTS to do it, so Carl works to make the very best of his abilities.

Watching the two horses doing flying changes, Carl shows how Barolo really bounces off his legs in the changes, so there is a lot of suspension and expression – he says it is like sitting on a trampoline. They get him nearly eventing fit to help with his energy. Amy is urged doing the one time changes to ‘keep the ears up, and keep him straight!’ Nip Tuck has less of the exuberance and has to be super correct and very straight.      Working with Nip Tuck on the canter pirouettes, he did some canter work on a circle, changing frequently from quarters in to shoulder in. He reminded us – use shoulder fore in the approach, he mustn’t slow down into the pirouette, and should finish the pirouette in shoulder in. Put the inside hind leg between the front legs, the hips are wider than the front, and don’t turn the quarters in!

Carl brought up the question that with so many PSG and Inter 1 horses now, why do so few make it to Grand Prix? The answer is – piaffe! To learn this horses must have a desire to go, which Nip Tuck has in abundance, and he learned to piaffe. He demonstrated how a whip can be used to help – for more sitting use the whip below the hocks, for more height, on top of the quarters. You must not scare them with the whip! They need relaxation, to be able to walk into piaffe and walk out – letting the piaffe keep moving forwards a little bit. As the passage work develops, first get a forward passage, and then bring it back, and build up the transitions doing a lot of passage to piaffe to passage. With Np Tuck in passage Carl has to keep him short, as the more forwards he rides him, the more out he is behind. Carl says ‘ you have to accept what are their limitations, and do the best THEY can! And, you have to have the belief that each horse will make it! ‘

It was the most magical morning, watching all these fabulous horses at every age and stage, beautifully ridden, developing their abilities, dealing with their problems, working so often with breath taking power, yet with such balance, suppleness, precision and harmony!  Carl asked at the start not to film or photograph the work in the school, and we need to keep fresh and sharp in our minds these images of the manner in which these horses worked, the quality of their work and how they were ridden – a huge inspiration to all who were there!      I was reminded of when writing for Stephen Clarke, when he had just judged Carl, saying to me ‘Carl is one of the world’s greatest riders and trainer of horses and riders, and what he does affects riders and trainers throughout this country and the rest of the world, and will do so for years to come!’

How privileged we were to be there! Nicky Herbert said to me during the morning “This is like being in heaven!”  I think she had everyone’s most heart-felt agreement!

Afterwards, Carl showed us around the yard, with its lovely large airy boxes built in a square, meeting these equine royalty – Valegro, Nip Tuck and Uthopia, who Carl hopes will be out competing again, after telling us about the terrible time when he had to come up for auction, and how they finally managed to keep him. Carl is a great story teller and communicator – friendly, funny, down to earth, with such a wealth of knowledge and experience that he is prepared to share, and a passion for what he is doing, and for the horses and people who share this with him!

We owe huge thanks to Carl, Charlotte, Amy, Sadie and Catherine, and all his staff, and especially to Andrew Fletcher who organised this wonderful day!

Report by Cherry Elvin