What went wrong?
I swore the 2010 Melbourne Equitana was going to be my last, my very last Equitana, but the temptation of a masterclass with Edward Gal and Hans Peter Minderhoud was too hard to resist. Wrong. There are lots of ways a master class can go sideways. Like you pick a really shy rider who is not used to doing lessons (Nadine Capellmann) and you have the recipe for disaster… or you pick the wrong horses and/or riders, and I guess there was a bit of that at Sydney, or you run the event in an arena so spooky that all the horses freak out, or, or… but it is really hard to put a finger on what went wrong in Sydney.
Okay, according to those who were behind the scenes, the level of organization was the usual Equitana mix – amateur and hopeless – and the horse selection was seriously whacky and I hear that by the end of the process the normally excessively cheerful Dutch duo were fairly cheesed off, but it occurs to me that maybe the master class as an art form has had its day, at least in the format we are used to.
Once just seeing real live overseas stars in the flesh was enough, and if they made a joke, no matter how weak, we’d roar with laughter, hey they are human too – and go away happy. Times have changed, more and more Aussies have traveled OS and seen the real thing themselves, and if you want to watch the top trainers in action just trawl the web and there a lots of excellent training sessions on-line. I suspect that to compete with all that you’d need to be way more professional and presentation savvy than the hapless crew behind Equitana…
Imagine if the show had opened with a video of Hans Peter’s ride on his mare Nadine at the Euro Champs in Rotterdam, then cut to the footage of him bringing her into the ring for her retirement ceremony, with Hans Peter on the mike talking through his reactions, cut to Lexington and Edward and Totilas winning the Kür and the World Title, again with Edward giving us a live running commentary. Now that might have got the emotions pulsing…
Instead poor Hans Peter was battling to get into the arena at all on a freaked out four-year-old horse. He made it in, thanks to Denise Rogan giving him a lead on her five-year-old, Virtuel I. Hans Peter tried desperately to get the horse working for a few minutes while Edward encouraged him on the mike. Finally after offering Edward the ride (declined), Hans Peter decided to call it quits. T’was not an auspicious opening.
So Edward turned his attention to Denise and Virtuel I, at least they were still in the arena, which despite talk of a sell-out, was about two thirds full, and amazingly, even when they have shelled out one hundred and thirty bucks for the privilege of being there, the Equitana-ites still wander in and out at seemingly random intervals.
What followed was proof yet again that the basics are the same the world over, and that while Edward might have a Dutch accent, there is nothing particularly Netherlandish about his training methods…
“Try to get his neck a little longer, and when he gives, relax your hand. Go forward and then bring him back. That’s the first thing we do with young horses, lots of tempo changes, and vary the tempo changes so sometimes longer forward, and sometime longer back, it is important that the horse keeps listening to you, keep changing what you do. It is better he waits for you before he goes forward. In the canter we do the same. Make him round and relaxed, don’t let him come back in the corner by himself, go forward and then go more forward. It doesn’t matter if his head comes up, what is important is to get the reaction from your leg. He goes to canter, but he is not really thinking forward, it is important that young horses really think forward. Every time you have a good reaction in your hand, relax it.”
“Don’t just ride on the outside rein, the contact on both reins should be equal. In the canter let him stretch, but feel that he stays in the same tempo. Pick up, go long, pick up, go long – and with no change in the tempo. Collect a couple of strides, then out. They need to learn when they collect, still think forward, otherwise they lose the jump in the collected canter.’
“Now ride him a little more in a competition frame. You need to practice this with a young horse – competition frame, then longer, then competition frame. Bring back the horse, go forward again, get even a bit more active when you collect…”
“This is a very nice horse to work with, very easy, thank you.”
Well I guess that is the good news folks, there are lots Australian instructors who can give a lesson like that – in fact, I sat in on a lesson Roger Fitzhardinge gave Denise the next morning that was a whole lot more layered and interesting. That is only to be expected, since Roger and Denise have been working together for a long time now.
Back to what the master class might have looked like… Surely it would not be too hard to have shown edited highlights on the big screen of a test that Denise and Virtuel I had recently ridden, with Edward zeroing in on one movement he thought he could improve; this would have given a specificity and freshness to the session that was lacking. Especially as what the Dutch duo told the next horse, and the one after that and the one after that, was more or less the same thing. Good horsemanship yes, great theatre? No.
The next pair in the ring are really two of the emerging superstars of the Australian dressage scene, Dave McKinnon and Bradgate Park Jatzz. This time it was Hans Peter on the mike, but the message was familiar:
“If we want our horses to go Grand Prix, we want it to look like they are doing it on their own, and that means we have to have an immediate reaction to our aids. First one very soft, second, a little strong.”
“Lots of riders keep riding riding, it is better to do nothing and really feel what the horse is doing, then you can react. Lots just ride and ride, and don’t feel what the horse does.”
“If you only go forward and backwards, the horse is thinking I go backwards after I go forward, on his own, and it is important that they don’t start thinking that way. They have to be listening to the rider. Don’t make it too difficult for him, just back a few strides and then relax and forward, but not so you go collect, collect, relax the hands and he goes forward on his own, you want him to go forward on your leg.”
“You don’t get that fancy collected trot from riding and riding it, you get it from transitions. Go forward, I think there are some extra gears.” Jatzz canters. “That’s okay, but don’t canter too long if he breaks, don’t give the reins away, give the reins if it is good.”
“If it’s good, just do nothing and react to what he does.”
“Now go shoulder-in.”
“That is a shoulder-in for a 7, but for more, you need more expression. Go a little forward in the exercise, go for a 9, but don’t go forward until you lose it, a few steps, then back again.”
Once again, sound advice, but I suspect that poor Malcolm Barns was saying much the same thing over and over as he tried to help me master the mysteries of the equestrian art all those years ago.
It was time to see the other part of the duo in action, and this time the exercise was rather more of a success. Edward was riding the delightful Daisy in Paris (by Don Frederico). It looks as if the visitor enjoyed the experience, and so he might, the black mare was Elementary Horse of the Year, and looks fun to ride.
“We start with the basic, it is the same with all horses, always something to go back to. In trot, small tempi changes, if she starts running, bring her back, bring back, relax the hand, she has to wait…”
Hans Peter is on the ground commenting, “black really suits you, but we want a big working pirouette, not only easy and beautiful, we want you to work a bit. Don’t go on and on, just a few strides then forward again.”
Edward made a transition to walk, but explained that when you ride a horse, you never stop working: “You keep working as long as you are on them, make sure they are attentive to you.”
Hans Peter emphasized the point: “You don’t chat in walk, you should have the horse thinking about extended walk, thinking about you.”
I guess that’s why the lads each have an indoor arena at their training complex, sort of his and his.
Edward was about to work on the flying changes but he started by riding counter canter around the arena and flexing Daisy in and out: “First I do this in counter canter so she knows I can change the rein but she doesn’t change the canter, it is important that I can balance her and touch the outside (new inside) rein without her making a flying change. Now…” It’s late. “Almost… 50%.”
Hans Peter was quick with the advice: “Collect her more on the hind legs, make her sit a little more. Lots of riders hang to the inside and pull the inside rein, but then they are always late. I prefer early behind to early in front.”
“You need control,” Edward stressed. “That’s why we do counter canter first. When you lose control, they are not straight, and they are changing by themselves.”
“Sometimes in the beginning of teaching the changes, the short diagonal is best,” says Hans Peter, “Ride them almost to the wall, they come back a bit, and it makes it easier for them to change. Make it easy for them, always do it at the same spot, get a nice change, then get them back on the aids again.”
Time for the extended trot, and of course the mare looks wonderful. “Aah, says Hans Peter, “You can make an extended trot.” But when Edward gets on the diagonal, she starts to run, so he takes her back and starts again.
“Good.” Then the remark that every visitor feels obliged to make. “I take her home.”
The next combination Edward worked with was the young Queenslander, Victoria Welch and her imported Hanoverian, Brentanus.
“He’s big but he’s a little slow,” came the critique, “make him faster in the walk. We need a big walk, but active through the whole body and quick. Now halt, because he is pushing (into the rein), we need him better connected and not pushing so much. Now trot, and make him rounder because when he goes forward, he comes up. We want his neck down and his back up.”
With Brentanus, Edward was able to work on the changes but he wanted more than just a change: “The changes must be more expressive, really ride every stride. First make a circle so he gives in a little more, then ask for some three times changes.”
As with all the horses, Edward wanted the rider to be completely in control of the tempo. “Ask yourself, is he going by himself, or am I doing it. He needs to be thinking forward, but not running away. Think forward, bigger, more expressive…”
And so it went, horse after horse. Always the same message, go forward, come back, get them soft, get them on the aids, allow them to be expressive.
The duo were doing their best to keep the crowd entertained, “Mate, mate,” they were singing out to Brett Parbery who looked somewhat less than comfortable on QEB (not quite) Good As Gold. Brett suggested that the lads take a few questions from the crowd while he tried to settle the horse that had been freaked by a whip cracking display out the back.
The horse is still not really all that calm when they decided to jump off the deep end and try a bit of piaffe. “It’s just playing piaffe,” Edward comments and suggests that the piaffe comes better out of the walk than the trot. “Try to teach piaffe out of walk and passage out of trot, then they learn the difference and you can make the transition piaffe to passage.
Gary Wilkinson on the mike asks for ‘no applause please’ as Hans Peter enters the arena on Gymstar One, the taller of the twosome seems to have drawn the short straw when it comes to horseflesh. “We would have loved to have brought one of our horses here,” Hans Peter says with feeling, “but it was not possible. I am riding him in a snaffle because it is easier. He is a hot Aussie, but I think it will be okay.”
Well, sort of okay if demonstrations of barely controlled tension are your thing. But wait, there’s worse to come. Edward Gal is riding Mayfield Pzazz who does not look comfortable. It is not a happy note on which to finish the clinic.
This time I promise I will not be tempted back to Equitana again, even if they bring out Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin… better to go watch them riding their own horses at the KWPN stallion show in Den Bosch next February. Now that should be serious fun, especially as Steffen Peters and Ravel are also starring, oh yes, and a couple of local lads, Hans Peter and Edward on their own horses.