The chance to watch Charlotte Dujardin teach and ride in person was a once-in-a-lifetime event that more than 1,000 fans enjoyed during an action-packed weekend last October at the Caledon Equestrian Park in Palgrave, ON. The clinic offered a unique opportunity not only to learn from a master, but also to watch a number of talented Canadian riders ranging from national team veterans and former Olympians to an under-25 competitor.
The horses presented represented a range of ages and levels up to grand prix. Dujardin finished the weekend by riding Evi Strasser’s Renaissance Tyme – a talented but sometimes challenging gelding – while explaining in detail exactly what she was doing in the saddle and why. As a clinician Dujardin is engaging and funny, but demanding and tough. There were a number of recurring themes in her instructions that applied to each horse and rider team – and to most of us in the audience as well.
Dujardin has spoken many times about her preference for hotter, more sensitive horses. “I hate to have to kick a horse to make it go. I’m lazy and I just don’t want to work harder than the horse,” she said with a laugh. She emphasized getting the horse truly in front of the leg and responsive to the lightest of aids. She instructed several riders to “go for a yee-haw” and gallop around the ring to really get their horses moving forward. She reminded many of them to let go and not try to hold their horses in place, which only serves to block the energy and restrict the quality of the movement.
2 Bigger is better
“More, more, more! Bigger, bigger, bigger!” Those words were repeated often as Dujardin pushed riders to expect more from their horses and themselves. Extended gaits must continue right to the end of the line and she encouraged riders to rebalance and ask for even longer strides in the second half of the movement. In the half-pass, she would not allow riders to sacrifice energy and gait quality for sideways movement. She preferred a slightly larger but still correct pirouette that maintained energy to a smaller one in which horses lost impulsion and began nodding their heads. Flying changes became bigger and more expressive under Dujardin’s watchful eye as she demanded riders ask for more jump, pace, and energy with each change.
3 Take risks
With the pressure to demand more from their horses than they were used to, many riders made mistakes. Dujardin stressed the importance of errors in the training process – without mistakes and appropriate corrections, the horse can never learn. She urged riders to risk making mistakes in pursuit of a better performance. “So many riders are satisfied, happy even, with a 6.5 or 7,” she said. “Why? I don’t understand it. That should never be enough. Ten is always the goal. If you are aiming for a 6 or 7 you will never achieve 8, 9, or 10. Go for more. Take the risk. Aim for the 10 every time. If you make a mistake fix it, forget about it, and try again. But at least you tried. If you don’t try, you won’t get there.”
4 Demand perfection
On the other hand, Dujardin emphasized the importance of perfection, showing little tolerance for sloppy riding and reminding participants that they are training their horses – for better or for worse – with every transition. In her view, there is no excuse ever for a sloppy transition. Several riders were criticized for “collapsing in a heap” in transitions to walk, particularly after a strenuous exercise. While walk breaks are important, Dujardin reminded the audience they are still part of the schooling session. Transitions down to walk should be forward, light, and energetic, and the horse must still march forward during the break, stretching willingly into the contact. No poking or dawdling allowed!
5 Kick the rider, pat the horse
“Kick the rider, pat the horse!” one of Dujardin’s most popular catch phrases, was often her response to a flubbed movement or moment of miscommunication. She repeatedly emphasized the need for clear and lavish praise. Horses need to be rewarded for giving the right answer, and are never to blame for mistakes. Her advice is to pat often, praise loudly, and give frequent breaks.