Notes from a Withages/Schmidt Clinic

Here are additional observations from the fall 2006 New Jersey clinic with FEI 'O' judge Mariette Withages and Olympic dressage rider Hubertus Schmidt.

Hubertus Schmidt and Mariette Withages teach a clinic at Dr. Cesar Parra’s Performance Farm in Whitehouse Station, N.J. | Photo by David Collins

Learn to Stretch

Riders at the clinic learned how to use effective aids to get their horses to stretch. Schmidt says that the signals are really little more than bending aids. In one technique a rider momentarily increases the amount of bend on a circle–just for a few steps–then offers the horse a chance to stretch. The aids for this exercise are simple (a little more inside leg at the girth–which means the inside of the calf, not a lifting heel; a small amount of increased flexion from the inside rein, a steady outside rein with an elastic contact and the outside leg behind the girth), but the key is to promote relaxation and suppleness. Through rhythm and suppleness, the rider achieves a correct connection, which is a form of contact from which a horse will stretch easily. However, even though these aids are relatively simple, a true understanding of the underlying concepts takes a lifetime to learn.

Find the Correct Frame

When discussing the proper frame of a dressage horse, Schmidt noted that a bad result is inevitable if the rider raises the poll without the correct use of half halts and forward-driving aids. “The rider must experiment here until the optimum position is found for each horse,” he said. “A rider must recognize the capabilities of a horse; otherwise he risks asking for more than the horse can offer.”

Judging the Young Horse

Withages and Schmidt discussed the controversial judging of the extended trot, referring to spectacular front leg action combined with little movement behind. Withages pointed out that the position of the neck is relative to the function of the back. Schmidt responded, “Exactly, so if you see this spectacular front leg and nothing behind then you know there is a problem.”

From left: Dr. Cesar Parra, Mariette Withages and Hubertus Schmidt | Photo by David Collins

Withages said, “Yes, but it is not always so easy. You have young horses that can be tense and afraid [at shows]. Then you have a different form of tension that is caused by the rider pressuring the horse too much. It’s the judge’s job to figure out where the tension comes from. The judge has to make the right decision. But this year at the World Championships for Young Horses, the judging was very, very good in my opinion (Withages was there as technical delegate) with one exception. One horse that called out in the arena. A police horse on the hill answered him. After that, every time the horse came to that end of the arena, he was distracted and called out. The judges were too lenient, in my opinion. The horse should have been forgiven for the first spook or distraction. After that, the horse should have been penalized. But judges are human, and we make mistakes.”

Masters of the Sport

Dressage masters ride from a place of inner quiet that borders on tranquility–a type of relaxation that many elite athletes achieve. To do this, riders must keep a clear focus on realistic daily goals, the little pieces that together form the big picture. They should endeavor to avoid distractions like anger and excessive use of power. Instead, they must be clever. What is often perceived as direct disobedience of the horse is usually a lack of understanding due to lack of preparation. Riders must unearth their own mistakes to find how these errors can be prevented; prevention always trumps fixing. Riders must learn to encourage their horses to be happy in the moment. A horse doesn’t care about a show next week or next year. The journey along the way, with all of its ups and downs, must be pleasing to the horse.

David Collins completed the advanced instructor’s course at the Swedish National Riding School where he worked with Maj. Hans Wickni, coach of the 1972 Swedish Olympic bronze medal team, and Eicke von Veltheim, German master trainer. Collins is the author of the book Dressage Masters as well as a popular clinician. His website is

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