Why the Prix St Georges is essential viewing!
You will always see some very interesting dressage at a Premier League competition. I usually gravitate to the arena where the Prix St Georges class is taking place. This is always the most interesting class to me because it is where the equine stars of the future are to be seen; horses that have been on my radar for a few years in some cases, and sometimes horses who have been more or less kept under wraps. PSG reveals a lot about the future potential of a horse. All of the building blocks for the future are shown at this level.
I was looking out for the horses with the balance, the suppleness, the strength to go higher through the FEI levels and to do it well.
Aside from Young Horse classes, there are two key competitive levels for me – Elementary and PSG. Each is an important milestone in the training and I have a personal theory that you can see the PSG horse in the Elementary horse and you can see the future Grand Prix horse in the horse at PSG.
Premier league competitions are an inherently interesting mix because of the riders that they are designed to appeal to. There are many motives for riders to attend these prestigious shows, but some of the main reasons to be there are
- To showcase horses with international potential
- To help horses with that international potential gain exposure and experience
- To gain direct qualification to the National Championships
I saw a lot of lovely horses and some very nice riding yesterday but there were those who stood out from the crowd. Deliberately setting aside the matter of fame or prior accomplishment, I will say this:
The best work was, in every case, produced by the riders with the best seats, the riders who’s aiding was both subtle and precisely controlled.
They had the most engagement, the most suppleness, the power in balance; they produced the best dressage.
What you need to be looking for in a dressage horse at Prix St Georges.
- Strength combined with suppleness – a flexible but well-developed physique.
- Power in balance – more power and slower tempo. More lifting, less pushing.
- Confident connections – a calm, prompt response to the leg. Happy with the hand and settled in the mouth. If there are any persistent contact issues at this level they absolutely must be resolved otherwise they will return to haunt you later!
- Lightness – all of the above combine to produce the marked cadence and brilliance that tells me I’m looking at a potentially good future Grand Prix horse. Put simply we are looking for airtime!
One indicator that a horse is developing along the right lines is the ability to flex the hock joint and bend the knee more. Engagement that comes almost entirely from articulating the stifle, where the hock is not bending so much, is often seen when a horse is travelling too quickly and is offering a the type of movement that one of my coaches used to call swan paddling! To succeed through from PSG to GP the horse will need to flex the hock and sit.
If you look at the front of the hock joint you will see that these horses are closing the joint well and if you look at the degree of knee bend you will see that it gives a soft, suspended impression. Horses that are pushing from behind and not lifting enough through the shoulder will rarely if ever show this quality.
In extended gaits this quality of suspension can give the (false) impression that there is a lack of power. Good power, that is to say balanced power often looks quite different to how it feels! The wrong kind of power, rapid motion and excessive pushing from the hind legs will feel tiring and produce tension in the horse and in you. Soft, balanced power is a wonderful feeling, exciting for the rider and soothing to the spectator! The skilled eye will always know which horse is travelling powerfully in slow tempo and which horse simply lacks impulsion.
There is nothing so necessary at higher levels as this balanced power; it is the foundation of all of your work in higher collection. The lack of it is why many combinations get to PSG and hit a ceiling. As we develop higher collection and greater extension in the gaits there is more airtime at every step so one thing to keep in mind is this:
Air time takes time!
Several horses showed strong indications of future talent for the higher levels. River Rise Escarla is confident, strong and admirably supple. Her work was consistently lovely. This mare has an expressive face and she looked utterly happy and positive about her work, very enthusiastic and focused. A horse like that in the hands of Charlotte Dujardin is bound to be quite something! Quentano 2 ridden by Emile Faurie, was my favourite though. This horse had moments of insecurity and in less tactful hands I think things could have gone wrong. Emile provided the horse with mental space and the lightest hands at just the right moments and together they produced a stunning test to take second place. This horse showed a more developed ability than any other in the class to sit and elevate the forehand. The balance was consistent and the cadence breathtaking. If he progresses in training, as I imagine he will, then he will really shine at Grand Prix.
A strong Grand Prix class & why I have yet another reason to admire Carl Hester!
The stand out combinations in the Grand Prix class reflected the same principle I mentioned earlier, that a good riding style leads to a superior way of going in the horse. It was a competitive class with some superb riding. I am often rather disinterested in the results of a competition, watching it more for the key skills and general impressions rather than for the sake of the competitive outcome, but in this class the placings reflected very clearly the quality of the skills in question. Matt Frost, Isobel Wessels and Michael Eilberg all rode superbly but it was Carl Hester that really surprised me. I have seen him develop as a rider over a couple of decades but it has been almost two years since I have seen Carl ride in person. Many riders rest on their laurels well before they reach his level of excellence but Carl Hester just keeps on improving.
There was a memorable moment during his test when Hawtins Delicato surged out of the canter pirouette to the right with more power than he had gone into the movement with. That in itself is impressive. The movement was beautifully executed and as the horse lifted out of it and cantered straight forward Carl reached down and rubbed the horse’s neck in a gesture of reward and thanks. It was a private moment between horse and rider, blink and you’d have missed it, but it is indicative of the kindness and the intelligence which Carl brings to the training of his horses.
Dressage as a sport can accidentally encourage the mindset that we measure success by what a rider wins. Another measure of success is how we sit and how we communicate with the horse. There are dressage riders who sit well enough to do the job, then there are riders with very good seats and then there is Carl Hester! He had the basis of this seat at nineteen years old and it has just got better with time. That was what struck me as he rode into the arena, before the test even began. It is not only that he produces one fabulous horse after another, he has continuously improved as a rider as well. If I had to choose two factors which set Carl Hester apart I would say that
- He has a seat that is the equal of any great rider, past or present.
- His horses work forward, but in the slower tempo than enables superior balance.
FEI Pony Tests
Before I went over to watch the Prix St Georges tests I made some time to watch the FEI Pony Team Test. For those who are not familiar with this test it is a moderately challenging one, with elements from Elementary and Medium levels in it. For riders between twelve and sixteen years old, many of them on ponies they have trained themselves, this is a challenging prospect.
The arena in which the ponies were competing was closest to the trade stands and at one corner of it there were several flag poles, complete with flags whipping in the wind. Some of the ponies were more disturbed by this than others but I noticed how calmly and kindly their young riders dealt with the situation. One rider in particular impressed me because, when the tension became too much and the work deteriorated as a result she simply patted her pony on the shoulder and withdrew from the test. She did the best thing to conserve the trust and confidence of her pony and handled what was no doubt a disappointing situation with professionalism that a rider of any age would be proud of!
There was one pony rider whose test I knew I simply couldn’t miss and that was Mollie Whitham! Mollie has a massive following on social media and I have seen her progression as a rider over the last few years through her Twitter account @poniemadmollie. She is a very dedicated young rider and has owned and brought on her young pony DZL Royal Sunrise from backing.
I understand that last year Mollie watched this event at Somerford Park and declared the intention to ride there the following year. I am delighted to have watched her do just that!
Seeing riders who are right at the start of their dressage careers is a positive thing and also thought-provoking. I saw some beautiful ponies and some very promising young riders. If those riders are to fulfill their considerable promise and make their dreams come true I would advise all of them to look very carefully at the best available role models. On a day like yesterday they need to look at Emile Faurie, at Matt Frost, at Carl and Charlotte, at the Eilbergs and decide clearly what kind of rider they want to become. Look at how those riders sit, look at how they aid, and at the quality of the connection they develop with their horses. There is nothing more important than that and it is never too early in a rider’s career to begin honing those key skills.
That thought has brought us full circle, back to the idea that how we sit and how we use our legs, seat and hands, will ultimately come to define the quality of work we create with our horses and ponies. Excellence in those areas will often lead us to success in competition but it will always earn us the respect and affection of our horses.
All of the above images are my own and are subject to copyright.