Interview with Jonny Hilberath: Training with empathy
JONNY HILBERATH has been the co-national trainer of Germany for the last eight years. First with the late Holger Schmezer and currently with Monica Theodorescu. He is responsible for all the top riders in Germany and is presently focusing on preparations for the Olympics later this year in Rio. NATALIE HOBDAY shares some of his thoughts on what trainers look for in rider and horse.
- NH: What do you look for in a horse as well as a rider if they are to have any kind of star quality or future in the higher levels of sport?
JH: Firstly a horse must have three good paces, not necessarily all paces for a 9, but very regular, steady and correct, and of course the horse’s construction or conformation with an uphill tendency, which makes it easier for the rider. A strong back is important for collection and learning all the movements. A good mind plays a big role particularly in getting the horse and rider through the difficulties they are likely to encounter along the path to the higher levels.
If you look at all the top horses today, they have all these elements.
Regarding the riders, they also need a good mind. So much of riding is mental; to be able to concentrate and focus is essential. Along with total commitment and dedication. Also balance in the saddle is essential. The seat is fundamental as it is the means to communicate with the horse so the horse and rider can understand one another.
So, three good paces, good conformation and good mind for the horse and a balanced rider with a good seat, and a focused mind.
- NH: What would you expect a horse to learn in the first year of training? (Not all horses are 3 years old, as some start a little later)
JH: As you know we have the Scales of Training here in Germany (Europe) which is a very useful system for developing a horse to have confidence in its body. We start with the rhythm and the straightness (and development towards suppleness, contact, impulsion). In other words, all the basic things, and you will feel and see if the horse is able to carry itself in walk, trot and canter – education becomes fairly simple from that point on. But the basics are very important.
- NH: So it is important that the horse is able to carry itself forward, in a straight and natural way in all three paces?
JH: Absolutely. Because that is everything you need to be able to build a horse up to Grand Prix. You can’t spend enough time on these basics, because the horse will reward you, by giving everything back to you. You will be able to build the movements (tricks) on top of that.
You can’t spend enough time on these basics, because the horse will reward you, by giving everything back to you.
- NH: So, if I am understanding you correctly, the basics have to be solid before one can consider taking the next step (furthering the education)? There is no specific time frame?
JH: Yes, as I said, horses with a very good construction (conformation) and a good natural balance can possibly achieve these basics a little more quickly, whereas horses who develop more slowly may take a little longer to find their natural balance.
- NH: Once these basics have been established, what would be the next thing you would expect?
JH: I then start with the lateral work to get the horse to accept the leg. Also the crossing of the legs (which comes with two track) on the long side and the diagonal (leg yielding) in all three paces, dramatically improves the elasticity of the back.
But this stage is a natural process. You have to listen to your horse – and from that you can decide how easy of difficult this is for the horse, which will dictate how quickly you can move further its education.
After this basic lateral work I start with counter canter, and if that works well (this is key!!! It must work well) then I start to play with the changes. If the canter is balanced and showing enough collection, then I start to work with training pirouettes; all just in an easy non-pressured way. But this initial lateral work is a big help to start to get the horse more collected.
- NH: Having trained with you for so many years, I know that you are a great believer in leg-yield. I have noticed that most people like to go straight into the lateral movements with bend (travers; half pass) and tend not to use leg-yield. Please explain why you like to use leg-yield much more so.
JH: Leg–yield is a win-win situation for both the horse and the rider, because the horse becomes very balanced through the straightness of being in both reins, plus the rider gets a straight horse with good sensitivity to the rider’s legs; plus the top line and the contact of the horse becomes more easy and swinging.
- NH: The other thing I know you are a great believer in, is riding on the “second” track. Please can you explain the benefit if this.
JH: We like to have the horses straight and in front of the leg. You can fool yourself by riding around the arena on the outside track. If you leave the track and no longer have the support of the wall you will find out very quickly that it is a lot more difficult to have control of the straightness and forwardness. I like to teach the horses from the beginning to be straight and in front of the leg through “second” track riding.
- NH: You mentioned earlier about starting working pirouettes and flying changes once you feel the horse is willing and able to start taking this more strenuous work. How much do you expect of them?
JH: Nothing about educating a horse happens quickly! Depending on the horse, this can take months or even years. It is a long process. It is essential to listen to the horse, as they tell you what sort of tempo they can cope with, both physically and mentally, in terms of being able to learn the more advanced movements.
- NH: What I have found all around the world is that most people believe all horses can be trained to Grand Prix. I believe that many horses, if they have a capable rider, can manage up to Prix St Georg (PsG), but the step up to Inter 2 and Grand Prix is a very big and strenuous one. Please can you explain your thoughts on this.
JH: It has a lot to do with the conformation and the mind of the horse. Nowadays a lot of effort has gone into breeding horses who are more capable and these fundamental requirements. But to do the Grand Prix, which requires a lot of strength to be able to carry and lift weight, is not really something every horse can do. Like humans, some are athletic and some are not.
It is possible, with a good rider, to educate many horses to learn most of the movements, but this takes a long time and you have to be prepared to wait for your horse, who may not be that talented. Taking time is the only chance to get there.
But most horses are happy and able to do the Small Tour (PsG), and considering how difficult and strenuous the Grand Prix is, if they do not show the possibility to learn it and do it without too much stress (in other words fairly easily), it is not fair to ask them to.
- NH: I often see people practising and practising, especially the more advanced movements, clearly not considering how physically and mentally taxing it is for the horses, or what the horses may need or not need. I try to explain that this can break horses down very easily if these advanced movements are overdone. Please can you comment.
JH: I think we have to think logically. If anyone does any kind of physical exercise they will understand how stressful it can be and how much time it takes for your body to change and get strong and in condition. The same goes for horses. We shall not believe that, because a horse can run around a field all day, it has the strength and muscles for dressage. Dressage is a sport, and in the same way we, as people would take years to become good and strong at a different sport, so do the horses.
- NH: What sort of routine do you suggest a horse needs to keep it physically and mentally as good as possible. Obviously all horses are different, but what is your ideal?
JH: The mind is key, as it is fundamental to the training. So I like to try to keep the horses positive and happy. I try to have variety (depending on the age and the education). Perhaps 2 or 3 intensive days and then an easy day. This may include longing, hacking, cantering on a track in a light seat, cavaletties (depending on the facilities). But important is that the work is not a boring and stressful routine. It is also important that the horse demonstrates enjoyment in its work by being fresh and energetic in the work routine.
- NH: Could you tell us about the use of snaffle and the double bridles. I know you have all horses in very simple snaffles as well as the most simple double bit with short shanks and low ports. Please explain your thought on the routine of the snaffle and double, of course bearing in mind it varies from horse to horse.
JH: I do the entire education in the snaffle as it gives you the direct and honest information from the horse. The double can give you less genuine information as most horses are more sensitive and careful in the double. You will understand more genuinely how the back and the contact feels in the snaffle. As you pointed out I like very simple snaffles (mostly double jointed) and the double bit with the short shank. Very simple and very friendly for the horses. And very important, I do not use the double if I have difficulty with the rideability of the horse, because the double is not a means to make a horse behave or feel better (lighter) in the contact. That is not how to make a horse “through”.
In other words, if you feel you can’t get your horse through the neck in the snaffle, it is not the solution to simply put it in the double. If you can’t get the horse through the neck then you need to question whether or not you have the hindlegs sufficiently underneath the horse. And the double will not achieve that. Your basics are simply insufficient.
My advice is take your time with the basics, in the snaffle, and get your horse through. That is what it needs to be able to perform the movements well.
13.NH: You always said the problems in the “front” are coming from “behind”.
JH: Absolutely. There are few horses with “bad” mouths. The mouth is a mirror of the back or the hindlegs. So if you have difficulties with the mouth, you need to ask yourself or ask your horse if everything is okay behind. There is always a reason for a tricky contact. Aside from, of course a rider with unsteady hands or an unbalanced seat!!
In our next interview with Jonny Hilberath, we explore show riding and the warm-up.