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Developing The Self-Made Horse: Johann Hinnemann Leads USDF Trainers Conference

February 21, 2018

Johann Hinnemann is arguably one of the most respected names in dressage, so when an opportunity to attend the 2018 USDF Trainer's Conference presented itself, I didn't hesitate to sign up. Johann's diverse and decorated background includes acting as coach for several national teams, earning the title of Reitmeister (Master Rider), and being the guiding force behind many of today's top competitive riders including Steffen Peters, Christine Traurig, and Kathleen Raine. Over the course of two days, Johann utilized his experience as an instructor to demonstrate how to bring a horse up through the levels as he educated demo riders on horses at various stages of training. Each day he stressed the importance of aiming not just to ride well, but to train well, touting that the future of American dressage lie not in purchasing made horses and riding them well, but creating them ourselves. 

 

Though it's difficult to consolidate all of Johann's gems of information into just one story, below are five takeaways that he emphasized throughout the conference.

 

 (Photos weren't permitted while the conference was in session, but I did manage to catch a pic of the beautiful arena in Del Mar, California)

 

1. Submission is key.

 

"A supple horse isn't necessarily submissive, but a submissive horse is always supple." Johann touted this sentiment again, and again.  A horse needs to be supple in their mind, he told us. To inspire a mentally engaged horse Johann had riders work through variety of exercises that encouraged attentiveness from the horse.

 

For example, for the horse that likes to take over and anticipate upcoming movements Johann suggested doing simple changes on the diagonal to develop submission and promote listening from the horse. Also, one of his most interesting suggestions was to have riders doing a canter extension on the diagonal to not make a flying change when they reached the wall, but rather regularly school a simple change to teach the horse to prepare to collect and come back to the rider.

 

2. All hail the canter aid.

 

Johann is a major believer in the importance of teaching a solid canter aid, arguing that it is used as a tool to develop many of the upper level movements throughout a horse's dressage career including pirouettes, and flying changes. As a result, Johann encouraged everyone to embrace the value of simple changes in daily schooling. More often than not Johann had riders perform simple changes in exercises prior to doing the exercise with a flying change, first solidifying the foundation of the aid.

 

3. Think outside the Box.

 

Utilize exercises and approaches that are a gateway to where you want to go. Johann employed a number of exercises that seemed on the surface relatively disconnected from the end result but in turn helped the horse to develop the tools to be successful at the given movement.

 

For example, Johann explained that to practice crossing when teaching a horse to half pass, one can do a leg yield and sit in the direction of the movement like you would in the half pass. According to Johann this helps to maintain the rhythm and to familiarize the horse idea of stretching laterally in the direction of the movement.

 

4. Remember the Fundamentals

 

For everyone who has ever attended a clinic only to be reminded of the habits that you should already be practicing, this conference was definitely déjà vu.  Johann encapsulates that parental figure leaning over your shoulder telling you to make your bed and floss your teeth. We all know better, but that doesn't mean we don't need to hear it. So thank you to Johann for the following poignant observations:

 

"When giving the horse a long rein, keep the horse together for 10 -15 strides. Don't throw the horse away. Ride it like you would in a test."

 

"We have to push more in a downward transition than in an upward." It's no secret that you need leg in the downward transitions, but Johannn stressed just how much it is necessary. Take this as gospel.

 

Half-halt like your life depends on it. According to Johann one should never darken a corner without several rebalancing half halts, and for God's Sake don't turn onto centerline into a half pass without a serious half-halt to prevent leaning into the movement and falling on the forehand. 

 

I for one knew all of the above, but appreciated the reminder as I am often guilty, guilty, and guilty.

 

5. When do you start what?

 

As each day progressed with a series of demo rides featuring younger, less trained horses (starting at 4 years old), up to Grand Prix competitors, one of the most popular questions that the audience asked Johann was when do we start different aspects of training?

 

With the young horses Johann recommended very limited actual "work", recommending just

20-30 minutes of focused training time under saddle. However, he heavily stressed the importance of getting these horses out of the stable and moving around. At his own barn he referenced staff that helped warm his horses up at an active walk for 30-60 minutes prior to the ride and then again to cool them down. He believes this helps with their mental state as well as physical conditioning. And in what was perhaps one of his more frank explanations he argued "I don't like to spend 22 hours a day on my own toilet." One can easily surmise that neither would a horse.

 

When your horse can walk - canter - walk - counter canter, that's when you're ready to start teaching flying changes Johann told the audience. And when one does begin teaching changes Johann encouraged riders to think about the method used and how it could affect the quality of the change later down the road. Johann said the only way a horse can change leads is when all four legs are in the air. At times he warned to be cautious about changes taught over poles as they can teach horse to be late behind because they land with their front legs first.

 

Of course one of the big questions on the tip of many people's tongues was - when do you start teaching the piaffe? Johann's response was remarkably straightforward. "When they offer it - why not?" Even with young horses, Johann said, if a horse shows an inclination towards demonstrating piaffe, then you ought to welcome it.

 

Final Thoughts

 

Perhaps the greatest insight that I gleaned from Johann was that there are many roads to Rome, or in a rider's case, various paths that lead to true harmony. Though others in the audience may have their own interpretations of his message, I felt that Johann didn't expound hard and fast rules, rather he demonstrated tools for achieving results and prompting understanding from the horses. He challenged riders to think about how to access their horses' bodies through critical thinking. Riders, he seemed to believe, should be problem solvers, open to discovering "solutions" in a variety of methods. Don't force a square peg into a round hole, Johann warned. "Where pressure starts, intelligence ends."

 

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