Vanessa Way: working without conflict

Top dressage rider and trainer Vanessa Way shares her secrets for producing happy athletes from baby level all the way through to Grand Prix

Vanessa keeps her horses sweet with plenty of hacking (Image: Libby Law)

I’ve always had really good trainers who’ve been very much for the welfare of the young horse. Most of the riding I do with my three-year-olds is hacking. They do a maximum of 10 minutes in the arena, because they are too young to go around in circles. Sometimes, when I was at Carl Hester’s, I felt like I only did two laps of the arena on a young horse and then Carl would say that’s enough, go over the fields!

The young horses don’t really start their dressage careers until they are five. Before that,  it’s just about getting the horse enjoying life and going forward. The sad thing is a lot of people maybe end up doing dressage because they are a bit fearful, so they don’t take their horse out and give it a life. It’s so important that you don’t keep the horse in the arena six days a week. This seems to be quite dressage-specific – my show jumping and eventing pupils naturally ride way more forward and educate their young horses in a much better way.

I also like to ride my young horses in a jump saddle, because they are not ready for you to be on their backs. I find it quite disturbing when I see people in heavy dressage saddles on the weakest part of a young horse’s back.

To be honest, I don’t care if the young horse isn’t ‘on the bit’ either – that’s not a big one, who cares! It’s all about them learning to balance underneath you, and conditioning. Slow hacking on the roads and up the hills is so much more beneficial for a horse long-term. With the young horse you have a couple of things going on – you have to make it mentally rideable, and physically you want to keep it sound by hardening it piece by piece, rather than putting it in a 20m x 60m arena and going around on a continuous turn. For the same reason, I’m not a big fan of lungeing – I think it wears the joints out.

Forward first

(Image: Libby Law)

“If in doubt, always go forward” is my motto. The one thing Charlotte Dujardin noticed when she came here was the lack of power – she said everybody was going nowhere and I laughed! Because when I went to Carl Hester’s I felt like I was going so fast my cheeks were out the back – they fire around the school. Remember, collection is compression of energy. So if you aren’t going forward, you’ve got nothing to compress. The horse must be overtracking in working trot. If your horse isn’t swinging through, you will have nothing to swing upwards, which is what creates the expression.


(Image: Libby Law)

All through my work I stretch the horses, especially ones like Arion, who is short-backed. He naturally wants to get short, so I have to keep making him longer. I want the horse to stay through in the stretch, not just make it long and flat.

Dressage is a game of balancing energy and softness; you’re always trying to make the horse expressive, but with exceptionally loose muscles. It’s a fine line, putting energy in without creating tension. I always do a lot of stretching and walk breaks into the work so I don’t fatigue the horse’s muscles. Some days all you want to do is make the horse loose, so you get on and just stretch it. Once the horse knows the tricks, those aren’t the issue – it’s getting the horse through and soft.

Happy hacking

(Image: Libby Law)

I’m puzzled by how much conflict people have with their horses, because I don’t have conflict with my horses. I see people everywhere and they’ve got a million excuses: my horse is this, or my horse is that. I’ve had loads of horses in my barn, going right back to my eventing days, all with different temperaments, and anyone has been able to ride them. They all love people and they are just normal horses, which I think is partly because of their lifestyle. They have a general all-round education, with lots of hacking.

I hack my horses on the road every day. I have a hill I walk up which takes 17 minutes, and it’s our warm-up and our warm-down; we do it before and after every schooling session. This was Arawn’s ‘rehab hill’, where he did a lot of his walking this winter when he came back into work after an injury. Carl Hester is a big believer in doing road work for hardening up the legs. He does an hour and a half’s walking once a week, but I do it every day.

You shouldn’t ever do more than four days of dressage in one week: my horses always get a day off and two days of hacking, with four days at the most in the school.

Kind hands

(Image: Libby Law)

Most people use too much hand. It’s human nature because we do everything all day with our hands, yet when you get on a horse nearly everything that goes wrong is because you use too much hand.

We want the horse to take the hand forward in a nice way, because it is trusting and likes your hand, not because it’s scared or pulling or strong. I have ridden Valegro, the best horse in the world, and he feels great – he does not feel hard. The only thing that should be hard is your core. It comes down to core strength, not arm strength.

It annoys me when some people are anti-flash nosebands, because at the end of the day it comes down to the hands, not the flash. I’ve seen amateurs with no nosebands and the worst hands; it’s not the device, it’s how it’s used. I like to use flashes more as prevention than cure, but you can feel any of my nosebands any time and they are not tight.


I ride a lot of horses and I’ve tried a lot of bits. I have noticed that most horses prefer a thicker bit. I generally like a thick KK, because it is milder than a nutcracker action. For this story I was riding my horses in double bridles so they can start getting used to the double for competitions, but I felt like they weren’t always comfortable, so my next couple of rides will be back in the snaffle. It’s a gradual transition. They won’t stay in the double all the time, and anything new is always taught in the snaffle. Even the Grand Prix horses go back in a snaffle for hacking and for stretch days.

Corners count

When I went to England, I was told I didn’t know how to ride a corner! There are two issues with corners: some horses don’t bend, and others don’t stay straight and upright through the turn. If your horse doesn’t bend through the corner, you can ride a volte (small circle) in every corner. But I find most of the time people don’t keep the horse upright on the outside rein through the corner – they collapse the hip and get a lean on like a Harley Davidson! Most importantly, don’t let the horse cheat the corner. If the horse starts turning around the corner on its own, walk the corner and make them go into it. You’ve got to train the horse to respect the corner.

Click and go

(Image; Libby Law)

I use the ‘click and go’ exercise a lot, to keep the horse really reactive off my leg and thinking forward because I don’t want to be kicking and pulling at Grand Prix. Everything is about rewarding the horse through the release of pressure. I click and take my leg off – the horse should react forward, and if it doesn’t react, I come with a strong aid. In the end, I don’t even need to use my leg: I just threaten with my leg by taking it away and the horse goes. I always try to use as little leg and rein as possible.

Perfect half-pass

When I ride a half-pass, I don’t just go into it straight away. I turn on to the diagonal line first and make sure the horse’s shoulders are straight and upright and that I’m looking at the marker before I begin the half-pass. It’s all about the perfection and straightness of the diagonal line – it doesn’t even matter if you don’t start your half-pass for 5m. In the old days, I used to turn up the centreline to start a canter half-pass and the horse would be crooked and curled around my inside leg. Now my horses turn and wait; they don’t take over because they never know when I’m going to start.

Training pirouettes

(Image: Libby Law)

I used to hate pirouettes, but that’s because nobody had taught me how to train them! One of my favourite exercises for training the pirouettes is to ride travers on the ¾-line, making a half turn in travers at the end. You can make the half circle bigger or smaller depending on the level of the horse – 10m, 8m or 6m. Then you go back to riding a perfectly straight line to control the shoulders, so the horse doesn’t learn to take over. It’s all about precision. You can ride the ¾ line in different tempos, faster or slower; I frequently change the speed of my canter within the travers.

Train ahead

You should always be training way above the level you compete at and it’s a very gradual progression to Grand Prix. We give the babies glimpses of the work early on – my five-year-old is playing with flying changes and piaffe. But I put less pressure on because it’s all about slowly building the strength. You can’t even really tell it’s piaffe yet – but it’s just the idea of coming in short and having a little reaction off a click.

People often ask me if I can write a programme for them, but I say not really, because everything is flexible. I have goals of where I want to be, but my horses tell me when they are ready and I don’t put my horses in a grade until I can ride that level very confidently at home. That is part of being a horseman; knowing what a horse is capable of.

My pet hate is when pupils compete out of their grade. I had one rider recently who was so determined to go out at Level 5 when she couldn’t do a single flying change, and I just can’t understand that. I tell my pupils not to go up until they can ride the D test from that grade. You don’t want the horse to go out and have a bad experience. I think my horses compete well because they’re always very confident in their work when I take them out, as I’m not asking them to do anything they can’t do.

Stable management

(Image: Libby Law)

My three-year-olds live out in the field, but the competition horses are out during the day and stabled at night. Of course, in a perfect world, they would be living in a paddock in a group. But my paddocks aren’t big enough to have the horses in pairs, so they are in their own paddocks and boxed at night, the reason being we have a small property and we need to maintain the grass. Also, if you are competing, your horses have to be prepared to be boxed whether you like it or not. You’ve got to condition your horse for what you are doing.

NRM feed is the best. Even before I was sponsored, I found it was my magic bullet. All my horses look pretty fancy – you won’t find a skinny horse at my place because I love to feed them! I generally feed Low GI, and the Equi Jewel is my secret for topline and coat. Some of my horses are on four feeds a day and the rest are on three; it’s better for their stomach than a couple of massive feeds. On their hacking days and rest days their feed is reduced. I am pretty pedantic when it comes to feeding and management of my horses.

  • This article was first published in the November 2016 issue of NZ Horse & Pony