eople often refer to dressage riders as ‘queens’ (or ‘kings’) for good reason: sparkling bling, shiny patent leather, and vibrant dancing in the ring with their equally flashy mount. But the Adequan® Global Dressage Festival was graced with true royalty (sorry, Prince Harry) when German dressage superstar, world number one, and Olympic gold medalist, Isabell Werth, graced her presence upon Wellington, Fla., not to perform, but to teach.
Six riders and their horses lessoned with the current world champion in front of a jam-packed house, beginning with the youngest, least experienced horse and ending with the most experienced horse who has competed up to the grand prix level. Even though she announced, “It’s not work, it’s [a] holiday”, Isabell didn’t waste any time getting down to business with her pupils.
"Use the reins, use the contact."
I felt as though I should write down every single word that came out of Isabell’s mouth – and trust me, I tried – but I was also enraptured in how she has the power to see everything at once, from when a rider’s hands get too high or when a horse isn’t active enough through his right hind leg. But the clinic wasn’t just about the words and wisdom she spoke – Isabell taught with her entire body. Whether she was jumping in the air to get her point across to Benjamin Albright to be quicker with his seat or using her hands to demonstrate the correct way to ride the inside shoulder, Isabell rode every step with her students (albeit from the ground).
Though it’s sometimes the case that great riders don’t make great teachers, Isabell proved that her worth (no pun intended) doesn’t solely lie in her illustrious show record. She frequently clucked into the microphone, and when she saw something she liked, she let out the classic German, “Yaaaaa”. It was delicious.
"A top mind is [worth more] than maybe a 10 at the canter."
Anne-Marie Hosbond and her five-year-old mount, Flashdance, were the first brave souls to enter the sandbox. “We look for a top walk, top trot, top canter,” Isabell said about her requirements when searching for a young horse to produce. “Not just one movement for a 10. A top mind is [worth more] than maybe a 10 at the canter.” In addition to finding a good mind, Isabell also reiterated how important it is for a young horse to have the right rider – but that, of course, applies to all horses.
Each lesson began at the trot, working on establishing a solid rhythm and moving the horse from side to side. At the trot, Isabell asked the riders to find the swing and the cadence in their horse’s movement – two words she repeated over and over throughout the evening. “Use the reins, use the contact,” Isabell urged. When the riders appeared to get in a hurry, she reminded them to keep things as uncomplicated as possible.
Once the horses were warmed up, Isabell asked the riders to begin to work laterally. “It’s important to start slowly [with lateral work], and when you feel a little swing, start with the inside leg to outside rein. They need to come up and forward. The hind legs have to follow the front legs, not the opposite,” she said.
For all movements, Isabell’s advice was simple: “Keep the rhythm and uncomplicate it.” At the walk, trot, or canter, she was quick to remind riders to be aware of their horse’s shoulders, collect from back to front, and never settle for just 'looking good'.
“Sit light and breathe and enjoy,” was perhaps the best bit her royal highness gifted to her subjects, and even though I wasn’t riding, I felt myself lighten my seat and exhale.
Photos by Kate Kosnoff.