Bits of Wisdom from Lisa Wilcox and Ernst Hoyos

Before becoming a high performance coach, Ernst Hoyos rode and trained Lipizzaners at the Spanish Riding School for 29 years.   At the demonstration, Lisa and Ernst explained that they trained their competition horses using the exact same classical system he had learned at SRS. American Lisa Wilcox had gained fame in Germany as the show rider for the prestigious Vorwerk stud farm.   She was best known for riding the popular Oldenburg stallion Rohdiamont in international competitions.   One year after the symposium, Lisa represented the United States riding the stallion Relevant at the 2004 Olympic Games, with Ernst coaching.  In this article I will share some of their timeless advice.  

Ernst coached Lisa in German, real-time, as she rode the horses provided by Stargate. The horses were unfamiliar to both of them. The audience was huge. Lisa wore a headset, and translated Ernst’s instructions for us while she rode.   The pressure on Lisa struck me as immense, but she demonstrated the steely nerves of an international competitor.   We especially held our breaths when she rode the talented Stargate stallion Bergamon, who bubbled at the edge of explosion.

Because her concentration was often fully on her horse, Lisa did not translate everything.   Fortunately I was sitting next to a friend who speaks fluent German. It was often interesting to hear what Lisa told us versus what Ernst instructed her to do in German. I know a bit of German and was able to pick up Ernst’s favorite phrases. For example, he often said “Laszt du zeit,” which means take your time, and “Langsamer der handt,” which means slower with the hands. When Lisa rode a lengthening or medium, Hoyos often reminded her “Bauch vor,” which translates as belly forward.

During one of the breaks,  I asked Lisa to explain “bauch vor.” She said, “Open the thigh and find the deepest part of the saddle, so you sit deeply.   Stretch tall so that the belly button leads and the rest of your body relaxes and follows.”


Their Philosophy

The rider’s position is of utmost importance. The rider must be quiet and correct as possible at all times. This requires repeated self-assessment and a high degree of self-discipline.   Keep your stomach in front, your shoulders back and ride every stride into the hand.  To create proper alignment in bending, the rider should step into the inside stirrup.

Always correct yourself, and then correct your horse – if a correction is still needed!

On the other hand, don’t wait to make corrections in your training. If you do not make timely corrections, the horse will not learn the right way, and your mistakes will follow you to Grand Prix.  Even with a young horse, you must go back and correct the mistakes. We don’t want perfect; we want a correct reaction.   We want an improvement. Don’t pressure a worried horse.   When the horse has difficulties, it is time to be self-critical.

Lighter aids will ease the horse whereas strong aids will pressure or block him.

The less you do, the more sensitive you make the horse. Technique is more important than strength; it is better to ask twice, than once too strongly.

Always take time in your training. Shortcuts are costly. If you introduce collection too early the horse will go out behind and become slow with his legs. Expression comes after the horse builds the carrying muscles. Ernst prefers shoulder in and shoulder fore as tools for collection, because they teach the horse to narrow his hindlegs.   He doesn’t like to do a lot of haunches in, which he says can make the horse go wide behind.


Lisa’s key points for a correct position

  • The rider must sit as quietly as possible in order for the horse to find his balance.
  • There should be a straight line from the bit-hand-wrist-elbow.
  • There should also be a straight line from the shoulder-hip-heel.
  • The legs should hang quietly. Active legs will either dull the horse or make him wiggle.   Clamped legs annoy the horse and squeeze the rider out of the saddle. Too much leg tension can also cause the horse to go croup high.
  • Ride with a loosened upper thigh. Open the thighs off the saddle to release.
  • To find the proper leg alignment, move your thigh back. When your legs come forward, your center of balance shifts up in your shoulders.   Ideally your center of balance should be 2 inches above your belly button.
  • Ride with your heels down. A weighted heel will quiet a noisy lower leg.   Keep your toes in.
  • Chin and eyes are carried up to help the horse to stay up. When your eyes are up, you automatically carry your head over your core and hips.
  • Keeping the eyes up also helps the rider feel more.
  • Engage your stomach muscles and relax your shoulders.
  • Lisa never collapsed or softened her core.   She maintained it to the extent that if the horse stopped swinging and stiffened his back, she would just bounce higher.   She did not attempt to absorb the roughness.   She explained, “When the horses loses his balance, he braces his back and bounces me higher. I don’t grip to fit in… I just wait for the horse to take me again.   If I grab him in that moment he will only get tighter. It is more important to stay loose and long with the legs.”


Use of the Hands

  • The horse should come to the hand and seek the connection.   Lisa told us, “To develop a constant connection, wait for solid contact with quiet hands. At the most, use your ring finger, but wait for a solid contact. Push with your seat, keep your hands in front, and push him to the connection. “
  • Carry your hands in one place – about one fist above the withers.
  • When you pick up the reins, pick up the connection slowly.
  • Drive the horse onto a quiet hand that stays in one position, without pulling back.
  • Ride bending lines and drive the horse to the hand.
  • It is okay to ride with wide hands on a young horse to help channel his hips toward the bridle.
  • The quicker you find tension building on the inside rein, the quicker you must release it. If your horse is using your inside rein for balance, let go of it. Use shoulder in and small voltes to teach him to carry himself.
  • When you desire a softening of the connection, think of squeeze-releasing the reins in millimeters. The smaller the softening and the quicker you release it, the better your result will be.
  • The hands are NOT ALLOWED to make big movements. If you half halt too strongly the poll will fall down.
  • Do not pull the contact toward your body; drive the horse out to your hand.
  • Every disruption you make with your hands is amplified x10 in the horse.
  • Use only your ring finger to ask for inside flexion, to just see the inside eye.
  • High hands indicate a loss of balance; repeatedly think “low hands.” If you hands come up, take it as a sign you are starting to balance on your horse’s mouth. Horses will lean on a high hand. High hands can cause the horse go behind the vertical with his head.
  • When your horse fusses with his head, it can mean the following – 1) He does not accept the leg.   2) Your leg is too weak, or 3) Your hands are too strong.


The Rider’s Aids

  • You must ride with an active seat. Control and steer your horse with your seat as much as possible. Do not be passive.
  • Step into the inside stirrup to support the bend. The inside of the horse should be soft, so that it feels as if the saddle can go into the horse.   Your seatbones should stay fairly even, with just slightly more weight on the inside.   Think of having a deeper heel on the inside leg. When you put your outside leg back, bring it back from the thigh, not the knee.
  • Ask the horse for flexion quietly so the horse does not tilt. You only want to see the inside eye.   Before you flex with the rein, weight your inside stirrup.
  • In order to create trust in your horse, do not push him past his balance. You may have to begin riding a bit under tempo.
  • There are certain movements that require the rider to make a track, or a chute, with the legs, such as extended trot, passage and piaffe.
  • Get used to riding without a whip and spurs. Teach your horse to go from your leg. Be careful when you do ride with spurs, as they can cause the horse to swing, or brace in the ribs.
  • Young horses should not be ridden with spurs. Teach the horse to go forward from your leg. Spurs should not be introduced until the horse begins learning lateral work.


*Shown in the photo are Lisa Wilcox and the Grand Prix stallion Rohdiamant

These notes were taken many years ago when the USDF Convention came to Dallas in 2003.   Lisa Wilcox and Ernst Hoyos gave a symposium to a packed audience at Stargate, a dazzling dressage facility in the area, which is sadly now defunct.    Ernst and Wilcox are returning to the US in March 2018 for two clinics at Lyndon Rife Dressage.


One thought on “Bits of Wisdom from Lisa Wilcox and Ernst Hoyos

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s