I should have known something was up, when the long line at the Cappuccino cart suddenly evaporated, and I was finally able to order myself a hot Italian cocoa plus an expresso for my friend. My astute friend* was already on the exhibitors’ deck located about ten feet from the letter C. She was intently watching the guest rider as she rode a four-year-old Swedish Warmblood, while discussing his merits over a microphone. That rider was none other than Charlotte Dujardin, 3-time Olympic-gold medalist and record holder for the highest Grand Prix scores in international dressage.
Charlotte is about medium height, trim and fit like a gymnast. Her British voice is upbeat and reminiscent of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. She mounted each 4-year-old lightly and easily with a leg up from a young man [on a count of one, not three, nor three-and]. After riding each horse she returned to C, dismounted, and gave her summary opinion and scores for the horse.
She opened every horse up almost immediately. The gaits got bigger, more ground covering and more uphill. Tucked noses came out. The horses all came in with their own riders, good riders, but with Charlotte they suddenly looked aired out. She rode them in the big open gaits. On the lucky occasion that I am able create those kind of gaits, I call it the strolling-rolling feeling, because the energy rolls over the horse’s back and his shoulders roll and reach with the forelegs.
If she was the least bit intimidated by riding unfamiliar 4-year-olds in an area packed with spectators, she did not show it. One of the stallions became aroused by the mare who shared the arena with him. The entire time Charlotte rode him he was dropped and ready, if you get my meaning, but she pressed on. Apparently she was not even the tiniest bit intimidated by this big horny young stallion.
She was miked as she rode, so that she could talk about the horse and some of her training philosophies at the same time. Here are some of her comments, which are assembled in a random order, as I wrote them down in circles around the edges of my start sheet.
- The horse must be positive to the contact.
- Not all horses can start out great in the contact. Valegro was actually quite strong in the bridle as a young horse, because he had so much thrust from behind.
- I like to be able to give and have self-carriage.
- I like to canter first to improve the trot. Some horses find it easier to start with canter.
- I like this horse because he is self-motivated; he wants to work with you.
- I want this one to work through her body more.
- I want to loosen her up when she gets tight in the neck.
- This horse moves like oil, smooth and easy. The front and back mechanics match.
- I want a horse to be even in the reins.
- I prefer geldings because I like to make things easy on myself.
- I think it’s more important to invest in correct training and riding than to buy the most expensive horse. I think most any horse can make it to Grand Prix with correct training and riding.
- I want this one to take a deep breath.
- I leg yield on an expanding circle to get the neck down.
- He needs to be straight in his body.
- I don’t look for the horse that walks for a “10.” It’s too hard to collect. Big walks are hard to shorten and get quick. Big walks are hard to collect.
- Look for a good walk with good rhythm and enough over track.
- The trot is the pace I don’t worry about.
- I like this horse because he does everything with relaxation.
- This one is a pocket rocket. It’s not about how big, it’s about getting the right feeling. Look at Uthopia [He is just 16-1]. Small horses are easier to train because they are stronger by nature in their bodies. Great rhythm, great transitions, great balance; it’s easier with smaller horses.
- Bigger horses are weaker and tend to struggle with balance.
- This one puts a smile on your face. He feels super easy. Beautifully balanced.
- This one is very correct. He may not have the wow factor but he is easy to put together. Very trainable. Super energy. All what I look for in a horse.
- I like to work on the weak side first. Most riders start with the good side because its more fun, but then the weak side is saved for last, when the horse is tired.
- Ooh I’ll just give that a go and he’ll say, “okay!” He does super!
- A Grand Prix horse has to sit – think piaffe and pirouette, and to push – think passage and extensions.
- I can sit the trot on this one already [he feels so mature]. The others would be ruined if I sat already.
In the saddle, Charlotte sat perpendicular to the horses with her hands a little bit higher than is the fashion. She posted the trot on all of the horses, moving in a light, energetic way. She posted all the way forward, fully opening her hips in order to allow the horses to maximize their strides. I could not see her do much with her hands, except in the corners she sometimes opened the inside rein away from the horse’s neck. It was a momentary guidance, as she would move her hand back in promptly. She rode transitions within the gaits going from a forward working gait to a medium gait, which sometimes resembled a lark in the countryside. When she brought the horses back before the corners, she sometimes used her voice in a singsong of Ho-ho’s. She also clucked to encourage them. She had remarkable control of the horses, none of which she had ever ridden or probably even seen before. She did crash into the wall with one, but she was unfazed, remarking, “that wasn’t pretty!”
She rode all of the horses very forward with less passageyness than their regular riders. Even though the horses were moving quite forward, none of them looked rushed. In fact their gaits seemed to open up and rhythms became steadier. She put all of their heads a bit out in front of the vertical.
The announcer gave her a two-minute warning to signify when her time was running out. Some of the horses I think she might have been relieved to give back to their riders, but others I think she could have ridden home to England. She finished the work with each horse with a true stretchy trot on a circle and then an energetic free walk on a long rein.
Respectfully submitted by Louisa Zai-Ravaris, your dressagemuse reporter
*My friend at the Swedish Young Horse Finals was Molly Gengenbach, Swedish Warmblood importer, agent and stallion representative. She can be reached at Tailwinds Farm https://www.facebook.com/pages/Tailwinds-Farm/347721205287362