Another beautiful day in paradise, aka sunny Florida. It’s wonderful too that I was invited to an open training day at Catherine Haddad Staller’s lovely barn in Loxahatchee, where she presented her training program through a number of demonstrations by her and her team.
It was an early start for me as I’m close to a two hour drive door to door from Catherine’s, but I made it! (Not quite on time, I’m already slacking on my New Years Resolution – oops!) The riders and horses in the training day were quite varied, which is excellent to observe as it keeps the auditors perspective fresh, but still allows for Catherine to demonstrate the key points in her training program with each pair. We got to see everything from a lovely 5 year old to Catherine’s Grand Prix horse, and the riders ranged from a young rider to a PAG Gold Medalist – and Catherine herself.
Throughout the day, there were a number of points driven home by Catherine about her classically based dressage training program for the horses and especially for the riders. It was very refreshing to see such a clear, concise, correct and easy to understand system presented consistently throughout all levels of horses and riders.
The first thing Catherine discussed is how to make the job of the horse and the rider as easy as possible. Of course – this is saddle fit! For the horse and especially for the rider. All of her riders ride in a specifically made Stubben Genesis Special (sometimes referred to as the “Schultheis saddle” – the Genesis Saddle is the new generation of this saddle) that is fit to the horse by a saddle fitter using wool flocking. These saddles allow the rider complete freedom to move with the horse – should their seat be so educated! It was very interesting to hear her opinions on the saddles and you can read more on Catherine’s own blog. It was demonstrated very concisely how important saddle fit for the rider is by showing one of her students in her Schultheis and then switching her into an un-named big cantle, big thigh block, bouncy paneled saddle on the same horse and seeing how she struggled to ride a simple sitting trot, after riding the whole time in the Schultheis without stirrups!
I thought it was very cool that Catherine took some time to talk about effective riding versus pretty riding and I agree with her pretty strongly on this point. While equitation in riding holds great merit and is very important – it is equally important for the rider not to become so strictly focused on making still frame photos look “pretty” by posing their equitation at the expense of effective riding. This is only enforced by the use of saddles which force or pose the rider into a setposition, and not allowing them to move from it. She talked at length about how with her riders she lets their seat develop before worrying about thigh positioning or a longer leg, etc.. as having an effective seat is the most important tool for which to ride a horse!
What Catherine did not compromise on in the riders position is the hand and arm position. Again, the point was strongly emphasized and shown by all riders that the elbow should not come behind the body in any moment. As well the hands should stay together, just above the withers – not forced down or carried too high. I think this is huge and resonated largely with the auditors in attendance. Catherine was very clear in explaining (with demonstrations from the riders) that wide hands are pulling hands, and pulling is the wrong thing to do on a horse. She was very clear that the hand should not be busy flexing the neck and moving the horse around too much – that the horse should clearly accept and carry the bits as his or her responsibility. She also made on remark on the use of draw reins and made an excellent argument against their use on a dressage horse, saying that they pull the horse down and teach him to be down when in dressage we want the poll to be the highest point and for the horse to lift himself from the neck and the wither. I agree very strongly with Catherine and her views on correct hand position and contact and I was very happy to see so much emphasis placed on this point during the training day, and with the lovely contact it produced on all of the horses.
Then of course Catherine got to the meat, the training of the horse! I think by this point it is evident that the training of the horse is based very largely on the education of the rider. If the rider is not centered and correct that the horse cannot be straight, have a rhythm, or carry a correct contact – all of which are precursors to a correctly balanced and schooled horse. And without any of this then true collection is not possible! The training of all of the horses and what was shown in the training day all centered completely around correct basics, and as Catherine explained to the auditors – dressage is basics. It was exciting to see her use the same exercises used with the young horses while riding her Grand Prix horse Mane Stream Hotmail. This really demonstrated that without establishing correct basics and understanding that the Grand Prix is not possible. Catherine was very good at breaking the most basic aids down – left leg means yield right, right leg means yield left, both legs mean go, restriction from the seat means stop, and putting her weight either way meant to turn. And she was very clear in describing that the rider should ask only one thing of the horse at a time or else he will become confused! She broke down the training of the horse into simple basics that were easy to understand for the auditors, riders and horses. In closing, Catherine touched on reward versus punishment for the horse. She stated it very simply that as riders we want the horses to be willing to try and guess, and then to guess correctly. And that to punish simply makes the horse unwilling to offer things, and then they will never guess correctly to our aids. And in her training program the ultimate goal is to have a horse who guesses correctly to the aids of any rider.
Overall the training day featured riders with lovely, educated seats, very good hands and showed that the product of this training is very happy, willing to work partners! It was wonderful to see a large variety of horses and riders in all shapes demonstrate all the principles described here and more! Of course I can’t write about absolutely everything that was discussed as the day was filled with questions and answers and lots of riding. However Dressage Training Online was on site to film the whole thing. They will be releasing the videos over the next few months, and Catherine already has a large selection of videos available on the site.
I’m very much looking forward to riding with Catherine again this Sunday and would like to extend my thanks to her for hosting this open training day and allowing us normal people into her barn for a morning! Please visit Catherine’s website for more information on her and her program at http://www.internationaldressage.com