Masterclass: on the right track

Brett Davey helps one rider and her lovely four-year-old with some dressage basics to keep them on the right track

Stephanie Baker rides her four-year-old gelding Daku, by Doringcourt, for this lesson (Image: Ana Rattray)

The NZ Horse & Pony Training Masterclass is in association with Equitak Excell

1. Keep it simple: forwardness is the key

After Stephanie and Daku have had a good loose rein walk around the arena to settle in, Brett tells Stephanie to pick up the reins and trot. He wants Stephanie to let Daku stretch and even encourages her to give him a pat while he’s down there. “Try and trust him a bit. I don’t care how long he stretches; see how much contact you can give. Trust him and let your reins out another notch – he’s not going to do anything,” he says.

(Image: Ana Rattray)

The first thing Brett wants is for Daku to be more forward and in front of the leg. “He needs to be heaps more active than that,” he says. “That’s the most important thing with any horse, whether it’s a breaker that’s had a couple of rides or a Grand Prix horse. If you can’t put your leg on and get that forward reaction straight away you will run into problems, without a doubt.”

Even though Stephanie is warming up, Brett encourages her to play with the tempo and change direction, all the time encouraging her to have more activity. “It’s like a runner who has to stretch and warm up first. He can’t always go in the same frame and same tempo.” Once Daku starts to travel forward he begins to swing and relax more. Brett tells Stephanie to pop up into canter, stand in the stirrups and let her horse travel.

Standing in her stirrups so Daku can travel (Image: Ana Rattray)

“It’s great for the horse to start and finish like this, forward and relaxed. I think that is the key – keep it really simple, forward and straight to start and then we can put everything else together. We do let him on a long rein and encourage him to be free and happy. If the horse is happy and enjoying his work then he’ll want to please you and will fight for you later on.”

2. Expect a little more: ride every transition

Even though Daku is a young horse, Brett reminds Stephanie that she can start to expect a little bit more from him now. Although she should still be sympathetic, it’s not good enough to just trot around the arena and get from A to B. He has to be straight on the track and go forward.

“It’s the same with transitions – as a rider it is easy to let them just fall out of trot into walk, particularly at the end of your lesson, but that is teaching them a bad habit,” he explains.

It’s not unreasonable to expect a good transition every time (Image: Ana Rattray)

“It’s not good enough to canter on and be happy that you just got a canter transition, even though it was six strides later than you asked. It’s not unreasonable or unrealistic to expect them to do a good transition every time.”

3. Don’t forget the outside rein; developing the canter

Brett gets Stephanie to ride a 20m circle in canter, playing with the tempo a little  bit – riding Daku forward and bringing him back again. Of course at this stage the change in the canter is small, but this concept of playing with the speed is something that the young horse should be introduced to early on and continues to develop throughout the training, says Brett. “He’s a young horse, so we don’t want him to collect too much because he can’t physically, but we have to start this process.”

Brett explains that the key is to get a really good, active forward canter first, so there is something to bring back. He tells Stephanie not to hassle with her leg, but just to give one good kick to make Daku go forward and then back off. If he spits the dummy and kicks out her leg, Brett doesn’t care – when you’re training a young horse you’re going to have those little moments. “It’s not always about being 100% pretty in training,” he reminds. “If he’s a little behind you, I would rather see you confront it and deal with it than do six circles with him not really changing much.”

Daku has a lovely balanced canter for a young horse and Stephanie has him nicely round and flexed to the inside, but she doesn’t have him quite enough on the outside rein, observes Brett. 

“Remember we want the bend and flexion to the inside, but not too much,” he says. “You have all this momentum and the outside rein captures that. If you have too much bend to the inside, he falls out through his outside shoulder and loses the energy.”

When Brett reminds Stephanie to half-halt with her outside rein, it’s one of those moments that really clicks – as Daku becomes straighter, he gets a lot more jump in his canter and looks more uphill.

After a half-halt on the outside rein, Daku gets more jump in his canter (Image: Ana Rattray)

“Stephanie had all the forwardness and a good enough canter, but the energy was going in the wrong place as he was running out through the shoulder,” explains Brett. “Using the outside rein to help makes a huge difference.”

4. Quality over quantity, and don’t forget the walk breaks

With Daku being such a young horse, Brett is conscious of him becoming tired and is careful to stop for regular walk breaks. He still has to be forward and active in the walk, but it’s his reward for good work.

“People know that it’s easy to reinforce bad behaviour this way: for instance, if you have a horse that jacks up after 20 minutes and you get off it, the next day it will jack up after 15 minutes. It escalates so quickly.

Taking some time out (Image: Ana Rattray)

“It’s the same with good behaviour. If I’m working with a young horse and I’ve had a problem or stepped it up, if I get on the next day and it does what I want after five minutes, I get off. The horse learns that life is happy and easy and it’s not worth a discussion.”

5. Bending for straightness – introducing leg-yield

Stephanie has told Brett that her biggest issue with Daku at home is straightness – he tends to over-bend to the inside, especially on the left rein. Brett says that introducing some early lateral work will actually help Steph with straightness, as she’ll be more able to control the front and back end in order to make the adjustments she needs.

Brett has a simple exercise to introduce Daku to the concept of leg-yield, or moving away from the rider’s leg. He gets Steph to ride down the long side and push Daku’s hindquarters away from her outside leg (below).

(Image: Ana Rattray)

He feels this is a better stepping-stone for the young horse than coming down the centreline straight into leg-yield.

Brett says the first point to remember is that Daku must remain marching forward in the walk. When he gets a little stuck, Stephanie can take her outside rein towards her hip, which really bends Daku to the outside and helps his quarters swing in (below).

(Image: Ana Rattray)

Then, when he has the idea, Stephanie can straighten his neck. Eventually, she will actually have him bent to the inside, in a quarters-in position, but that is still a few steps off, explains Brett.

“Daku is now at the point where he has to progress and start some lateral work. That’s not to say we want him to go out next month doing Level 3, but there’s no point waiting until he’s a five-year-old. If he begins this now he will get stronger and it will help him in all his work,” explains Brett.

6. A more grown-up trot: building bigger steps 

Asking for longer strides on the long side (Image: Ana Rattray)

Next, Brett has an exercise to help Stephanie get Daku really motoring in the trot. “Although we don’t ask this a lot of a young horse, he does have to pick his frame up and trot like a dressage horse for a short period of time.”

Brett gets Stephanie to ride a 10m circle in the corner of the arena, to get an active, balanced trot with a good rhythm on the circle. Then she rides out of the circle down the long side, asking for longer strides and a bigger trot as she does so.

“The small circle is just to put him together and help Stephanie to get him into the contact a little better,” explains Brett.

Using the small circle to put him together (Image: Ana Rattray)

“Then she can push out of it, kick and go.”

The first time Stephanie asks for the bigger trot, Daku misunderstands and pops into canter. Brett says not to make a big deal of it, but just to make him go more forward in the canter to reinforce the forward aid before coming back to trot again. Overall, it’s very important not to squash or punish an over-reaction like that, he says.

“It’s not what she wanted, but it was the right reaction in the sense that she put her leg on and he went forward, so you have to manage it and utilise that energy to your advantage.”

The lesson then ends as it begins, with a lovely trot stretch.

A stretch to finish (Image: Ana Rattray)

Daku is much looser than he was at the start and looks really happy. Brett encourages Stephanie to give him a pat as he stretches, which he says this horse really loves and responds to: “You can see him prick his ears, relax and drop his head more.”



Stephanie has done a lot of showing in the past and she’s got a good position with that showing background. I think she needs to work a little bit on being more effective with her lower leg and, like most of us, sitting up a little more. Particularly on a young horse it’s so easy to focus on everything else and let your position slip.

Stephanie likes to make everything pretty which is great, but it doesn’t always have to be pretty in training. We don’t want arguments or a big fight, but you have to push the boundaries a little bit sometimes to progress.

I think this is a really talented horse. He’s got such a good mind on him and people underestimate the trainability – it’s everything. Steph is doing an amazing job. It’s a young horse and her first hack and sometimes those situations are never going to work, but this is a great combination.

I started this horse under saddle and he is a cool character. It’s nice to see him in such a good home and going like this – he is going in the right direction for the future.


I love how calm and confident Brett is with the horses – they really like him and are always relaxed around him. He gave me a lot of confidence too! He pushes you out of your comfort zone and asks you to move forward and improve a lot.

I learned that I definitely need to get Daku more forward and reacting off my leg as soon as I ask. I’ll also be working on getting him more on my outside rein.

(Image: Ana Rattray)

About our trainer:

Australian Brett Davey (32) has ridden to Grand Prix level in dressage and produced his own horse to two-star eventing. He is also talented at starting young horses and has worked for Olympic show jumper Chris Chugg and dressage star Matthew Dowsley.

Brett is originally from the Hunter Valley and was a member of the Australian Young Rider Dressage Squad for eight consecutive years. His main link to New Zealand is through his Kiwi partner, dressage rider Andrea Bank. Andrea and Brett have been based together in Germany for the past three years, as they further their training and dressage careers. Brett loves the breeding side of operations too and has several young home-bed horses in Australia. He makes regular coaching trips to New Zealand.

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