December 2018 - Werth’s Words of Wisdom
Written by by Nan Meek
Friday, 30 November 2018 02:22
PDF Print E-mail

dressage news

Clinic with many-time Olympic and recent WEG gold medalist Isabel Werth is a remarkable weekend of learning.

by Nan Meek

It was raining the night of October 12 when the reigning “queen of dressage” Isabell Werth landed in Southern California for a two-day symposium at Ad Astra Stables in Encinitas, masterfully planned and presented by SH Productions’ Scott Hayes and his team.

Barely a month after decisively winning two gold medals with Bella Rose, in the Team and Grand Prix Special competitions at the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Tryon, Isabell was back in the USA to share her training philosophy and techniques.

With the sun intermittently shining through the clouds, nothing could dampen the enthusiasm of auditors, riders or Isabell herself – not even an unexpected time-out during the first morning’s program when auditors had to temporarily abandon the dressage court to move their cars from a parking area that was rapidly flooding with runoff from the previous evening’s precipitation.

Something for Everyone

From the dressage court’s long sides lined with tented seating and tables, spectators had unobstructed close-up views of seven horse-and-rider combinations that ranged from young horses with the movement and magic presence of every dressage rider’s dream to spectacular upper level horses who demonstrated the movements we all aspire to ride, as well as horses working their way up the levels.

Riders were equally impressive, not least because they willingly exposed themselves and their horses to the scrutiny of hundreds of dressage enthusiasts who closely watched their every move. It was easy to see why Isabell has achieved her remarkable level of achievement – her eye for detailed execution of every movement was exceeded only by her willingness to push every rider up to her high level of expectation.

U25 rider Claire Manhard & Wilfonia. Photo: Kim F. Miller. Watch online as U25 Grand Prix competitors Claire Manhard and her Wilfonia show Isabell and all of us her passage/piaffe/passage transitions.

Shining through Isabell’s instructions to the riders was her clear and ever-present concern for the welfare of the horse. She often explained why and how her instructions to the rider would benefit the horse, not only on that day but also as the horse developed into the future. Her long-term perspective brought clarity to instructions we’ve all heard (sometimes again and again) and demonstrated the purpose that the dressage movements have in the training of the horse that goes far beyond their execution for a score in a dressage test.

The Multi-Purpose Shoulder-In

Take the shoulder-in, for example. When one of the horses who lives at Ad Astra entered the arena, the youngster needed a bit of settling down when she discovered big white tents filled with hundreds of people only an arm’s length away from the court and obviously up to no good. Isabell advised riding on the second or third track so she could focus on her rider, not so much on the audience, and to ride more forward, changing rein a few times, flexing and riding in shoulder-in with inside leg to outside rein. It’s a technique that can help any horse settle down in an unfamiliar, scary environment, no matter its age or stage of training.

Shoulder-in played a big role in teaching the half-steps as a precursor to developing the piaffe. To teach the horse what he has to do, Isabell asked the rider to walk, shoulder-in “really sideways,” ask for two or three half-steps and then go straight again. She explained that this teaches the horse to start the piaffe with the hind leg.

Similarly, shoulder-in was used to help develop the passage out of the trot: first trot; then shoulder-in; then ask for a few steps of the passage. The shoulder-in helps the horse understand to step under himself, and you can ride the passage in shoulder-in to reinforce that understanding.

“You have to prepare the pirouette in shoulder-in,” Isabell told one rider, explaining that it’s not a question of the pirouette itself but a question of the canter. You need a canter that’s active and through, not one that’s flat and blocked.

From young horses to upper level stars, Isabell made it clear that shoulder-in is a multi-purpose tool for bringing out the best in every horse.


Thank you to these talented riders and horses:
•    Rebecca Rigdon and Iquem
•    Christine Traurig and Libori
•    Niki Clarke and Coral Reef Scoobidooh
•    Matt Cunningham and Ribéry 27
•    David Blake and Heide Spirit
•    Claire Manhard and Wilfonia
•    Dawn White O’Connor and Four Winds Bailarino


Inside Leg to Outside Rein: #IL2OR

Time after time, auditors also heard “inside leg to outside rein” – one of the auditors was even heard to remark, “If I hear that one more time …!” The truth is, “inside leg to outside rein” is one of those absolute truths, like the law of gravity.

In fact, the “inside leg to outside rein” concept is so integral to successful communications with our horses, so ubiquitous and so useful, that in our social media mad world it ought to have its own hashtag: #IL2OR.

More than an element of the aids for shoulder-in, #IL2OR is a basic part of the rider’s vocabulary for communicating with the horse in literally every gait and every movement. At its most basic, it asks the horse to step just a bit more underneath itself with the inside hind leg and take a bit more contact with the outside rein. At its most refined, it can help the rider adjust the horse’s thoroughness by infinitely calibrated increments.

To help a young horse master the canter-walk transition, Isabell instructed, “with the inside leg bring her to the outside rein in the downward walk transition.” Not only did stepping under with the inside hind leg give the horse a more stable base for balance; the outside rein gave the horse a boundary that it understood.

To help a more experienced horse improve the canter half-pass, #IL2OR again came into play, when Isabell explained that “the half-pass is ridden by the inside leg.” She took the concept further into the double half-pass, in which the horse half-passes from the first letter of the long side to the center letter of the opposite side, changes the bend and half passes back to the last letter of the original long side.


Mark your calendars: CDS Annual Meeting and Health Fair, January 18-20, 2019. Sheraton Park Hotel Anaheim Resort. For the Health of the Horse, For the Health of the Rider
Keynote speaker Dr. Hilary Clayton: Biomechanics and its importance to performance and conditioning. More info at www.california-dressage.org.


“In the double half pass,” Isabell explained, “most of the riders are scared that they won’t have enough space to go with short, steep half passes.” You don’t want to run through the half-pass, then quickly change from one side to the other too abruptly, because then you would actually lose the first meters of the second half pass. It’s really important to take the time to be patient and do it right.

“In the first half pass, take the time to get a good introduction to the movement,” Isabell advised. “Take the time to bring the horse back, make it supple, for instance to come back as if for the piaffe or half steps, and bring him back slowly, before changing into the next half pass.” That’s where #IL2OR helps the rider change the bend to the new direction.

Isabell emphasized that taking your time and controlling the horse step by step is key to developing the double half-pass. She advised, “Maybe begin with a smaller little trot to come in and practice the correct bending and flexion from one side to the other, without being stressed about there not being enough space. When you have feeling and the right tempo for half pass, then you can start to improve the cadence and swing. First and most important, you both need to have the feeling that you have enough time and space to go through the half passes.”

Too Much Information? Never.

Usually too much information is not a good thing. Here, however, it’s the best of all worlds: two days of nothing but dressage, directly from Isabell Werth, reigning world champion. From my reams of paper that literally resemble a collection of medieval scrolls, notes from this clinic could fill this entire magazine. Since other stories deserve their space, I’ll just close with a couple of my favorite words of wisdom from Isabell:

“This is the same as with human athletes – we must stretch the horse’s muscles and tendons. Inside, outside – whatever makes the horse loose and flexible, helps the horse.”
“As much as necessary; as little as possible – that’s how much to use your aids.”

“Whatever happens, it’s always best to correct with forwardness.”

“When you miss a transition, it doesn’t matter, try again.”

“The best thing is, don’t discuss it (mistakes) with the horse.”

“Relax more, let him work more, trust him.”

“We forget that we can do so much in the walk.”

“No risk, no fun.”

Wishing you all the happiest of holiday seasons!