Carl Hester Clinic Insights

dressage training Nov 28, 2022

Here it is, our master list of Carl Hester insights from his recent 'Through The Levels' Australian masterclass in Queensland. Carl Hester is a six-time Olympian, Olympic Gold medallist in London, Silver medallist in Rio, and Bronze medallist in Tokyo. What an incredible experience it was to learn from one the world's leading riders and trainers. 

If you weren't able to attend the masterclass don't stress, we've got your back. You'll feel like you were there after reading all of the fantastic insights from our Gold Program riders and broader community members. Enjoy!


Carl Hester clinic insights 

A summary by Gold Member Joanne Hughes


4 and 5 year old horses

The young horse classes do not necessarily produce great Grand Prix horses.

What to look for in young horses – willingness to work, good walk and canter. The walk should have rhythm, energy and over-track.

To improve the walk, ‘row’ your hands to get the horse to use their whole back and use your hips to get them to better use their head and neck. This should be done not just in a frame but on a loose rein as well. Also, always walk like you want to walk in a test, with purpose and energy.

Carl works his horses 4 days a week in the arena and for young horses that is generally only 20-25 min sessions. The other days they focus on fitness by hacking out, lunging or using the treadmill.

Rising trot is preferred for young horses, and you need to know whether your horse is hollow left or right. Most people (and horses) bend more to the left and less to the right. So on the left rein, ride the horse from the outside leg to get him straight.

If your horse doesn’t accept the bit, ride with knuckles together to get the bit into the corners of the mouth – thumbs up, fingers closed on the rein. Don’t make the mistake of taking your hands low and wide as this lowers the bit in the mouth and you actually want to raise it slightly.

“Lightness is not emptiness”

To create contact, use half transitions in trot…come back, go forward, come back, go forward……to build a forward contact then give the rein and stretch trot.


6 Year Old Horse 

Do you know how many strides your horse takes on a 20m circle in walk, trot and canter? You should. You can use the number of strides on the short side to get the horse more forward. If he does 10, train for only 8 etc.

Aids for half pass - inside shoulder down, outside shoulder forward, and weight aid on inside stirrup.

You don’t want to shorten your horse's neck, think about opening the underneath of the neck so that it can come up and push into your hand.

Every horse has a ‘swing speed’ that you need to find to improve the trot. When the horse's back is swinging and you ride more forward, the trot will get bigger, not faster.

Give and take the reins regularly, not just to test self carriage but to show your horse he has self carriage.

Aids to lengthen stride – upper body goes forward with hands and to come back, upper body lifts and lower body stretches deeper into the saddle.


Small Tour Horse

The small tour mare was pretty hot and tense and was stepping back into the halt transition so Carl spent quite a bit of time on walk/halt transitions. He also coached the rider to start shoulder-in with the inside leg, not the inside rein, and lift the outside rein.

Each circle has four parts/quarters and you need to ride each one, not just the beginning and the end.

Don’t push with your leg and hold / pull with your hands – if you are, you are riding front to back instead of back to front.

Always finish a session with a few centrelines (like you do in a test) to get used to being straight and halting square.

Extended walk – row the hands forward away from the body and the horse must be in contact.

To train pirouettes you must be able to canter on the spot and turn on the spot. Use large walk pirouettes in travers, transition to canter (stay in travers) and turn shoulders for a few strides then transition back to walk. “Find an exercise that makes her think it’s easy”

Be very disciplined in how you train the fundamentals, and loads of transitions means loads more than you think.


Big Tour Horse

Most of the points in the Grand Prix are in canter, so train it. Also to be successful at Grand Prix (GP) you need to be able to not just sit and look pretty, you need to be able to ride with risk. Do you take the safe option in each movement or the one that has more risk but also potentially more reward? You want harmonious riding that looks good and is powerful.

To be successful in big competitions, where you have to (hopefully) do the GP, GPS and freestyle tests, you need a horse that is hot enough to be expressive, relaxed enough to cope with the noise and distraction, and with enough energy to get through the three days! 

Carl’s advice for when horses get hot is to walk one step at a time, then forward into medium walk, then back to one step at a time, then forward into medium walk until you are driving and not just steering.

He also suggested using short walk, then halt, then short walk, then halt if your half halts are not going through.

Shark’s teeth in walk: Ride diagonal for four steps then change diagonal and ride four steps, continue until horse is relaxed and using their back (he said this exercise gives them something to concentrate on and the continual changes of direction helped to supply and release tension.

If they want to jog in the walk, he recommended sitting heavy in the saddle (even feet out of stirrups) until the horse slows and starts to use their whole back. Ride with hands forward (even on loose reins if you can) to allow the horse to use their head and neck so they don’t get jammed up and tense in the back.

Valuable Gold Program Member Insights 

Joanne: You want harmonious riding that looks good and is powerful, but to be successful at Grand Prix you also need to be able to not just sit and look pretty, you need to be able to ride with risk. 


Judy: ‘Knuckles together’ lifts the bit in the corners of the mouth


Anna: Train the halt! Even at a high level.


Claudia: Thinking "lighter, lighter, lighter" when riding downward transitions, to remind the rider that they should be light and like a snowflake, not plonking down into the slower gait.


Victoria: Knuckles together and thumbs on top to stop your horse from getting too low and heavy. Practice halts.


Laura: The only way to improve your riding is to ride. 


Trish: They must be 'free wheeling' and going forward by themselves. I loved that expression. Also if you carry your hands together the bit is in a different shape in the horse's mouth.


Ann: Keep the knuckles together to ensure the contract stays up in the corner of the horse's mouth. Especially for the horses that want to tuck behind the contact.


Sheree: In the half pass, keep the marker you’re going to between the ears of the horse, that way you know you have the correct bend. Don’t let the headpiece of the bridle disappear, that way you know the poll is at its highest point.


Rebecca: ​​Short reins win gold medals.


Marissa: 'Don't mistake emptiness for lightness'!


Heather: Whatever level, go back to basics. If you have problems, re establish the basics again before returning the higher movements


Tracey: Start early teaching your horse to turn from the outside rein. Riders ride a long rein walk for a 6 in the test then after the last halt ride out of the ring on a loose rein for an 8.


Jess: Use inside leg to outside rein AND outside leg to inside rein. Key to creating balance and straightness.


Lucas: When your horse collects and you give both reins to prove the collection, but also to say to your horse that you did that well and used your body the way I was hoping you would.


Emma: When riding horses that are heavier in the contact, don’t get stuck holding the half halt, give and realise slightly within the stride to continue the flow of energy through and not allowing them to fight the contact back.


Rachel: The suspension gives the wow in the trot. This can be developed as the horse gains strength and engagement.


Gemma: My lightbulb moment was when Carl Hester spoke about using the zig zag at walk to help with reducing lateral walk. My horse struggles with tension in the walk which often turns into lateral walk. I have struggled with what to do as any rein aids lead to more tension. Using the zig zag gets him thinking about my legs rather than what he thinks I am coming. It has already made a huge difference after only one ride!


Chloe: I have previously heard Carl talking about training the young horse to go forward and he said something to the effect of "By asking him to go forward when he stops, you're not punishing your horse, you're giving them the opportunity to learn that it is better to move forward and be unhindered than to be still and hassled". This was a breakthrough for me who was so scared I was being horrible to my horse by asking, asking, asking, asking through his tantrums until he stopped having them. It's not being mean to keep asking!!


Kristy: Realising high level dressage riders experience the same basic problems as I do. This gives me hope and motivation to grow


Julianne: The relationship with my horse begins with perfect timing and a strong clear focus on what I am asking for!


Jess: When Carl explained his processes with young horses and particularly how he sources them, that was my biggest lightbulb moment. As an ambitious rider who has massive goals of improving and competing up the levels and works hard to support my passion, I have often felt that sourcing a quality young horse is out of my budget. Carl made me realise that quality does not come from how much your horse was worth, but rather how much correct training you have put into him. To learn what he purchased Valegro for and what became of that horse is truly the proof in that statement and Carl’s training. To me, he has let down the barrier between professional and amateur rider, and proven hard work and correct training always wins.



Not entirely sure what to work on, especially when you're by yourself?

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It's all in our free guide... 'Beyond the 20 Metre Circle'

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