Getting to Grand Prix: 10 top tips from Bill Noble

If you’ve ever thought climbing the dressage grades was a daunting prospect, think again. Leading dressage trainer Bill Noble shares his training reflections and explains why more people should be aiming at the higher levels (Images: Trish Dunell)

5957 bill riding feb13hpBill Noble is one of our leading dressage riders and columnist for NZ Horse & Pony. A strong advocate for soft and compassionate training methods, he has trained numerous horses to Grand Prix, and has won both the top national dressage titles, the Burkner Medal and Horse of the Year.

For our story, Bill rides his own up-and-coming Advanced horse, nine-year-old Rosari Royal Gem, who is fondly known as ‘Jason’ at home. Jason has ‘wobbled his way around’ a couple of Prix St Georges, and is working at baby Grand Prix level. “We’re between levels,” says Bill. “He does the Grand Prix tricks, but he’s not in an established enough balance for Grand Prix yet. He’s an interesting character in that like a lot of warmbloods he’s sensitive, but he’s also quite lazy. He’s a terribly kind horse – a very gentle soul.”

1. Warming up5823 bill riding feb13hp

I’m very passive in the working-in. At the beginning, I want the horse to take the contact forward and down. So I’ll start off in walk, wanting the horse to march forward, offering a light, soft contact. I do most of the work in a snaffle, because I think you get better quality work in a snaffle. I’d like to think I put the double on a couple of days a week, but it is usually not that often.

This acceptance of the contact is crucial; if the horse is not comfortable in the mouth, then it’s not going to be comfortable through the rest of its body. It’s absolutely essential that the Advanced horse goes more and more on the hind legs, but it can’t be on the hind legs if the back is bad, and the back will always be bad if the rein is strong. With the Advanced horses, I don’t care what shape they are in to start with.

When you get to piaffe/passage, the most difficult thing is persuading the horse to stay comfortable through the body and take the rein forwards, but this is what gives the expression and cadence. If the horse does not take the contact forwards at the warming-up stage of the ride when it’s being asked nothing, it’s certainly not going to later on.

With Jason, because he’s quite a loose kind of horse, I don’t do this stretching for as long as I would with a sharper type. He’s a nice horse, a nice person, but I think a lot of that comes down to the physical comfort. The idea that these warmbloods have to be ridden strongly is not right. When you get a really top quality horse and ride it with a beautiful contact, then you have a horse like Valegro.

I think there are plenty of horses with the potential of Valegro. The difference with Valegro and Totilas is that they’ve been ridden beautifully. We have world-class horses in this country, but they have to be ridden softly. The one thing that I hope came out of the London Olympics is the realisation that it is possible to be both successful and soft.

2. Getting energised5934 bill riding feb13hp

After the initial stretching phase, I gradually change to a more working mode, where we say to the horse now it’s time to go forwards. At this stage if there weren’t any witnesses, I might jump a fence or two. I like to jump them over little jumps, because it’s good for their brains. Most days Jason will pop over something, but it’s so long since I evented, I don’t really have a clue what I’m doing – we crash through a few and we stagger over a few! At this stage of the work, it’s just play. I want the accelerator to work, and then I want the brakes to work.

3. Improving the seat5965 bill riding feb13hp

Jason is such a big-moving horse that he’s quite difficult to sit on, so I like to do five minutes or so without stirrups. I don’t like to wear spurs at the beginning of the ride. Possibly because I’m such an untidy rider, I find the horses get a bit disturbed if I start off with spurs on. I’m perfectly happy to say it’s just my problem. When the horse is a bit lazy, I find it’s better to give them a clout with the whip and a bit of a pony club kick in the ribs and then once they are going forward I put the spur on to make the whole thing a bit more refined. I have found that if I put the spurs on just to get them going forward, there is nothing left for later and they also go a bit sulky.

4. Developing collection6176 bill riding feb13hp

Once the horse is comfortable and forward, then you can start collecting him. Jason finds the forward steps quite easy, but to come back and sit is the difficult one. Because he’s been such a big-moving, immature and gangly horse, I possibly haven’t asked for enough collection early enough. He gets the odd strides where he begins to sit, but like any horse, he would prefer to be on his front legs!

The collected feel is the feel that the horse is slow and active and comfortable, and getting all of those three things together is immensely difficult, a process that goes on for their entire life.

5. Creating responsiveness

I think it’s really important for any horse, but particularly this horse, that if I ask a question, I get an answer. I don’t care if it’s the right answer or the wrong answer, as long as something happens. We want the horse to be responsive, reactive. If you want to ask a crazy question, ask it.

6. Developing piaffe/passage6643 bill riding feb13hp

We’ve been working on the piaffe for a while, but we’re starting to take it to the next level – although he doesn’t understand there is a next level yet! I’ve just felt he’s a bit like a teenager, with gangly legs all over the place, and have possibly stayed in this baby piaffe and passage stage for too long. You want them to be comfortable and confident in it, but you don’t want them to think that’s all there is to it, so it’s a tricky one.

The piaffe has got to become bigger and the hind legs have got to be more under in everything we do. I have felt some bits of passage on him by accident that were staggering, absolutely amazing. This type of horse is a little unusual for me. I’m used to sharper ones, but I think he will become as sharp as the others, and hopefully in a more rhythmic and sensible way.

7. Stretching6692 bill riding feb13hp

I find bits of stretching in the middle of the work useful for most horses. It’s more of a mental break than any physical thing – it takes the pressure off.

8. The pirouettes6286 bill riding feb13hp

The pirouettes themselves are easy. What’s difficult is getting the horse comfortable in pirouette canter, and they don’t need to be turning to practise that. When you do make turns, you can make them big or small, slow or quick – pirouettes have got to be variable.

The horse has to learn very early on in life how to organise his body when he slows down. It’s normal for them to hold their breath and tighten, so you just do a few steps and then come out of it. Most horses are capable of doing pirouettes comfortably. The problems come when they are pressured too much, too soon. If the pirouettes are ridden strongly, the horse is going to be stiff and tense.

9. Being a little daring6597 bill riding feb13hp

Riding flamboyantly is important. If you have a flamboyant attitude, then you can rouse the horse up in anything you do. You want the horse to be a bit busy-headed. All the way through the training there needs to be those little periods of flamboyance. Flamboyance should be a friendly thing, not aggressive – ‘let’s have fun together’.

It’s difficult because when you start riding flamboyantly you create mistakes and the mistakes are very easy for judges to mark down. You get to this state where people feel obliged to ride safely if they want to be competitive. It’s not the fault of the judges, but the problems come because people want to be competitive at the lower levels. If you say, ‘Right, I’m going to be slightly manic in Medium or Prix St Georges and I don’t care if I lose a few marks’, then I think we’ll all be a little bit happier. Really, to me, all that matters is that you start to get good scores at Grand Prix.

10. Training to Grand Prix6843 bill riding feb13hp

Most people have the ability to ride at Grand Prix, but the culture here has developed so that the lower levels are considered to be more important than they really are. The eventers are better in their approach: a lot of them will give their horses easy rides at the lower levels, with the knowledge they are preparing them to be good Advanced horses – they are not out to win every single event. I think dressage people should do the same. What matters if you go to a low-level competition is that you come out thinking the horse and rider have learned something, rather than being obsessed about getting good scores.

The methods are really extraordinarily simple – there’s nothing complicated about it. Get the horse comfortable, work it, collect it. So why don’t people do this? They get very caught up in the details. I think part of the problem is we started with quite a few people teaching who haven’t ridden at Advanced themselves, and don’t realise the realities of the game. It’s easy to see imperfections in everything we do, but you have to be realistic, and if it’s good enough to progress, then take a punt.

I don’t see any reason why we can’t get large numbers at the high levels. The better the judges, the more they tolerate people having a go and will not be so hard on little mistakes – they realise this is a hard game and you’re doing a good job, so keep going and try to do it even better. I think that’s the culture and attitude we want to evolve.

How long it takes to get to Grand Prix depends on the horse’s brain and body, particularly the brain. I had a tremendous advantage with Airthrey Highlander (‘Bowie’), because he’d been show jumped so well and was used to being asked questions. If you kicked him, he went forward, and if you pulled the reins, he stopped – it sounds so basic, but how many horses do that? I think the dressage people could learn so much from the top jumpers in terms of simply getting their horses rideable and responsive.

6797 bill riding feb13hp– This article was first published in the February 2013 issue of NZ Horse & Pony