From youngster to Grand Prix, a Masterclass by Laura Graves

Laura Graves is an Olympic Medalist. In this Masterclass she provides tips and exercises which she uses when she is developing horses towards Grand Prix.

First rider to enter the arena was Jeanna Högberg with 5 year old gelding Just on Time (e. Jazz – Negro). He is quite green horse, sensitive and hot in his temperament.


– On the hotter horses I want to make transitions. That is important with the hot horses, the energy forward it is a gift that you want to take with you to the Grand Prix. So you have to be careful so you never tell a horse like that “no don’t go”. And it is a certain way to put more tension in a horse by holding back.

Laura encourage everyone who rides a hot horse to focus on the ears. If the ears are pricked and forward all the time the horse is not focused on you. They should flex the ears back and forth, so if the ears does not move at all, you need to make the horse focus on you again.

– When training a five year old horse it is all about transitions in different gates and starting to collect the gates. In the collection work you has too accept more contact in the hand in the beginning. But it should be very clear with a dressage horse, that the lightness we seek is not the total absence of contact in the hand. We need a good connection to communicate, so the lightness is rather a good feeling in the hand.

Circles and leg yield

In order to see what the young horse needs to work with Laura usually starts with ten meter circles in trot after the warmup. After a few circles in both directions it is easier to see where the strengths and weaknesses lies. Often the horses are stiffer in their left side and the circles is a good way to soften and relax the horses.

– From the ten meter circle you go into a leg yield in a straight line, then do another ten meter circle and from that push the horse forward. Already with the five year old you start to work with the qualities you need for Grand Prix; that the horse can go back and forward in a good way. Otherwise you will have troubles in the future in the piaffe and pirouettes. The ten meter circles is also a good way to check the hot horse without having to use the hands so much.

Train the horse on the leg

– Give the young horse space, try to ride them a bit inside the fence in the exercises. When you find tension in the hand we need to solve it with the legs. We have to train the horse on the leg to get a good reaction so it does not tense up when you add the leg.

Jeanna start with canter on a 20 meter circle. Laura tells her to bend the horse with the inside leg, every time she touch the horse he has to breath and soften around the leg.

– You have to train to find the relaxation, which is a key in order to later train for competition. If the horse tense, touch him again until you get the right reaction and he relaxes. Anytime the horse starts to look out from the circle, make him look in again.

Second rider to enter the arena was Carl Hedin with 6 year old gelding Van der Veen (e. Vitalis- Fidermark). They scored 79 percentage in FEI Program for 6 year olds in their last competition before the Masterclass. Van der Veen was a bit more comfortable in the environment. This horse is very expressive with a lot of energy.

Ride like you were a DJ

– Dressage is a lot like being a DJ. When you have a young horse, we only have the volume. But with a six year old we can use the whole mixing table. As you develop the horse you can turn up the speaker, volume, base and more. With age and training the horses becomes more comfortable with accepting pressure and you can add more components. So sometimes you ride for expression and sometimes for softness.

Play with frame and pressure

Van der Veen already has a lot of expression. Hence, Laura wants Carl to focus more on softness. -You need to start with relaxation and then carefully add more pressure and expression as you go. Especially with a horse that is very ambitious.

Carl starts with half halts and half passes on the diagonal lines, to get the horse to relax and bend. Laura asks Carl to play down the expressiveness a bit but keep the same frame. – You also get a better crossing in the half pass if you slow the horse down a little. In this exercise we train the collection. It is up to the rider of a young horse to show the horse what we need and what feeling we want.

Photo: Rosita Dahlberg

Half pass and flying change

Carl does a half pass on the diagonal in canter, continues in counter canter through the short side and then makes a flying change on the long side. -Take your time before you make the change and prepare well. Do not forget to continue to ride after the change. Everyone often becomes so excited that they made a clean change that they forget to ride after. In a few years that change will be the start of one time changes.

– Be steady in hand before the change and keep the legs on after the change. The legs is not for speed, but to keep the connection between legs and hand in order to get the horse to relax. Be careful of the frame, if the horse comes up too much you lose some of the connection in the hand.

Collective canter

Carl gets to end his session with collective canter on a 20 meter circle. Laura asks him to use either shoulder in or shoulder out to collect, whatever is the easiest way for his horse. Be careful of how much tension you bring to the horse in the exercise.

Last rider was Johanna Due Boje with the 11 year old mare Mazy Klövenhöj (e. Bocelli – National Zenith xx). Mazy Klövenhöj was the most experienced horse in this Masterclass with several starts in FEI Grand Prix in 2019. She is a sensitive mare and became tense in the changes in the Grand Prix the day before.

Free your legs to score points

– You only have two hands and two legs to use. I sit back and go away, if the horse makes a mistake I show them what they should do, then you are available for something else and can score that 8 or 9 in the test. The horse should be able to do the movement without you. If you use your legs the whole movement, then your legs are occupied and you cannot get that extra in order to get higher points.

How to avoid tension in the pirouettes

– Take away your legs in the pirouette and do not use the spurs. Then use your voice and cluck to see if you get a better result without tension. The result we want is better collection and that the horse lifts the legs higher. The challenge in pirouettes is that your legs is foremost for positioning and that if you use them too much you will create tension and lose your centerline and probably go forward too much. You cannot check that forward reaction through your hands, because then you will lose action in the hind legs.

Cluck in piaffe and passage

– Use a cluck to play with collection and suppleness in the piaffe and passage training. The cluck should function as a clicker does in dog training. You want the legs to go higher when you cluck. You can expect two outcomes when you start to add the cluck. One is perfection and the second is mistake. Be prepared for a mistake and in that moment do not stop the horse with the hand, just try again until you get the right result.

Laura instructs Jeanna to go away with her legs in the piaffe. Then she should only help the horse a little bit for rhythm or collection with a cluck or adding legs when the horse needs it. -Perfection sometimes feels like the horse can do it without you.

Text: Diana Dunbar

Photo: Rosita Dahlberg

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