Charlotte Bredahl was a member of the 1992 bronze medal U.S. Olympic dressage team in Barcelona riding Monsieur. In 1997, she was part of the silver–winning team at the North American Championship on Lugano. She trained both horses from the start. Charlotte is a USEF (S) judge and FEI 4* judge who has judged all over the world. Three years ago, she was appointed USEF Assistant Youth Coach and now dedicates most of her time to coaching. She recently purchased a home in Wellington, Florida, where she plans to spend winters. Do you have a question you want Charlotte to answer? Send questions to email@example.com.
How do you normally start a young horse for dressage?
Earlier in my career as a professional, I started countless young horses. My goal was and still is to educate a horse in a very step-by-step, systematic manner that makes sense to the horse and avoids confrontations. I call it setting the horse up for success. If a horse has already been handled well on the ground and is used to wearing tack, I start with lunging work. I think having a round pen is a must for starting young horses. I never get on a horse before he can walk, trot and canter in decent balance with side reins. The horse should be able to do transitions between the gaits and halt without resistance. I also teach them to long line in the round pen so they have good steering. I don’t long line outside of the round pen, unless I have a helper. Things can go wrong very quickly. You would be amazed how quickly a horse can wrap itself up in long lines if you’re not experienced, especially outside a round pen. Another time when it’s critical to have a helper is for mounting a young horse. This is the most dangerous moment, because you may not have gotten your reins or your stirrups before the horse takes off or bucks. I know several very good riders who have gotten hurt that way. I will use a helper for several months or longer for mounting.
How do you proceed after all the ground work is done?
If you have done a good job with lunging and long lining, the horse will most likely happily accept the contact from the first time you sit on them. Your goal should be to have a very elastic connection to your horse’s mouth. Your reins should feel like a rubber band and not be floppy or too strong. When you’re working with a very green horse, you should start out on a lot of curved lines, circles, figure-eights and serpentines; this way, you’re working on the lateral suppleness at the same time you are working on getting the horse to stretch nicely over the back. It’s also much easier to keep a horse’s attention on a circle rather than going straight down the wall. While working on mostly curved lines, you’re working on all parts of the training scale except collection. You should be working on rhythm, suppleness, relaxation, connection, impulsion and straightness all at the same time. The straightness refers to the hind legs following in the track of the front legs. While you are working on bending the horse on curved lines, you are also working on getting the horse nicely connected from inside leg to outside rein. You do need to mix up your patterns and not stay in the same direction for too long. Serpentines are very good for that and of course you also need to mix it up with some straight lines.
How do you teach a young horse fluid transitions?
To get non-resistant transitions from the beginning, you also want to use the curved lines. As an example, when you want to go from walk to trot, you start on a circle and then push the horse away from the inside leg until he is nicely connected to the outside rein. Be careful not to put your inside leg back and cause the haunches to fall out. Make sure the horse is moving with good energy and then ask for the trot with both legs, but stronger with the inside leg. For trot to canter, you should also start on a circle: On the open part of the circle, you push the horse away from the inside leg until the horse is very soft inside and nicely connected to the outside rein. He also needs to be moving very energetically forward. When that is accomplished, you add the outside leg back and you should get a very nice, balanced canter depart. Make sure not to tip forward in that moment; really think about sitting deep in the saddle.
For downward transitions, you also push the horse from inside leg to outside rein, while also keeping him from speeding up. You then tactfully ask him to come back to you while maintaining bend from inside leg to outside rein. Keep in mind, if you’re too strong with the outside rein you block the horse and he can’t easily keep the bend. The connection to the outside rein should happen because the horse is moving from the inside leg, not because you’re pulling on the outside rein. I very often see riders having trouble with small circles because they’re too strong on the outside rein. It should be firm enough to keep the shoulder from falling out, but elastic enough to allow bend and turning. Also, make sure not to look too much to the inside of the circle. This would typically cause your inside hip to come back and push the horse’s haunches out of the circle.
What’s the next step after the horse is doing well with bending lines and transitions between gaits?
Once the horse is moving nicely forward from the inside leg and beginning to understand the aids for moving sideways, it’s time to work more on straight lines and on leg-yielding. I usually start leg-yielding by going down the quarter line and then leg yield gradually to the wall. I start out with nice flexion to the inside, referring to the poll, but no neck bend. Then I press with inside leg and push the horse toward the wall. You have to pay very close attention to the alignment of the horse, so he stays almost straight and doesn’t pop the shoulder to the outside. He will tell you where your inside leg should be: If the haunches are leading, you need your leg closer to the girth and if haunches are trailing, further back. Keep your outside rein firm enough to control the shoulder. Make sure to keep the forward flow.
Once the leg yield from the quarter line is working well, you can try from the center line. Use the same process as before, but go straight several strides when you get to the quarter line to make sure you have proper alignment. At this stage of training, you are only doing this in walk and trot. Keeping a young horse straight in the canter is often not so easy. Most horses will naturally want to carry haunches a bit to the inside. The rider needs to help the horse by riding in a slight shoulder-fore in the canter. You have to have enough control of the outside rein to prevent the horse the horse from popping the shoulder to the outside and enough inside leg to keep him from falling in. You have to keep your inside leg at the girth, because if you put your leg back, you’re asking for a flying change. In the beginning, it’s better to only go straight about 20 meters at a time, before doing a circle. Most young horses have trouble staying in balance at the canter on straight lines and will need a circle to get balance back.