Masterclass: A Grand Prix Schoolmaster

Bill Noble gives another lucky winner of the Equitak Excel Masterclass a taste of all the Grand Prix moves when she takes a test ride on the wonderful stallion Airthrey Highlander

Nicki Klevering has the chance of a lifetime, with a lesson on Grand Prix schoolmaster Airthrey Highlander (Image: Ana Rattray)

As a bit of a twist on our regular Masterclass, dressage trainer Bill Noble thought it might be fun for Nicki Klevering, of Hamilton, to have her lesson on the Grand Prix stallion Airthrey Highlander. The gorgeous Clydie-cross ‘Bowie’ is owned by Linda Moughan and won the Dressage Horse of the Year in 2014 with Bill. He has since retired from competition but was in work with Bill at the time of our lesson, which was won by Nicki at the Horse of the Year Show.

Bowie is extraordinary good natured, but he is a much bigger horse than Nicki is used to riding and Bill is not sure how the lesson will go. “We will find out! Obviously, if we thought there was any risk, we wouldn’t do it, but I have no idea what’s going to happen with the work,” he says.

“It’s something I have done a few times in the past, putting riders on Advanced horses, and it’s always quite intriguing. It highlights a few issues – it’s not as simple as saying, these are the aids and away you go. If it was, any rider would be able to get on any Advanced horse and do wonderful things. The fact that we don’t always get the right results shows that there’s a huge amount more to our system of communicating and our relationship with the horse than a simple aid we can discuss. There’s a whole vast area of interconnection between the horse and rider that simple cues don’t cover. It is more than just mechanics.”

Bill has worked with Nicki a few times before with her own horses, and says she is a gentle rider, which is why he was happy for her to have a try on Bowie. “I think if anybody got on and tried to be a bit physical and rough, he would pack a sad. There is a different dynamic to working with a stallion as well, as they can get offended if they are ridden too aggressively, but I’m not expecting Nicki to do that at all.”

Bill feels there is a great deal of value in riders having a play on an Advanced horse – not only to get a feel for the ‘tricks’, but more importantly to become aware of the similarities between riding at Advanced and Novice level. “The horses need to go forward, they need to be loose, they need to be comfortable and free – to me the similarities vastly outweigh the differences.

“So it’s going to be interesting and I have no idea what’s going to happen to be honest, as he’s only ever been ridden by half a dozen people in his entire life.”

  1. Stretching every single day 

    (Image: Ana Rattray)

Developing a beautiful contact

The lesson starts with a bit of stretching, which Bill explains is of crucial importance. However, he says the stretching will be a big ask for Nicki, as Bill has his own ‘whacky’ way of working in, stretching the horse down to the ground a little more than most riders, while working in a slowish rhythm. He’s prepared with any horse to take quite a lot of time in the stretching, the main purpose being to persuade the horse to gently draw the rein forward.

“I like to give the horse a lot of freedom at the beginning. I think it’s really important to feel how the horse is every day before we start interfering,” he says. “This is particularly important with a stallion, because they have this charisma and attitude. If they feel like they’re being oppressed right at the beginning, a stallion is likely to put on the brakes and get a bit moody and resentful.

“We treat stallions in the same way that you girls treat all men – you want to persuade them to do it, with them thinking it’s their idea!”

Bill tells Nicki to concentrate on offering a smooth, light feeling with the rein, seeing if she can get Bowie to take the rein gently forwards and downwards (below). 

(Image: Ana Rattray)

He also says not to worry in the slightest if it takes Bowie a while to start stretching down.

“We have to re-establish this contact with the mouth every single day and that takes time – you just have to be a little bit patient about it,” explains Bill. “If the horse came out stretching perfectly forwards and downwards at the beginning, they’d be no point in doing this, so don’t worry that he’s not.

“It doesn’t matter if this is a baby horse or a Grand Prix horse – it’s one of the things that does not shorten as they get older and more trained. In fact, as they get older, physically it takes them a little bit longer to get out of bed and put their socks on.

“One thing I really dislike is the attitude that ‘My horse won’t stretch at the beginning, it will only stretch at the end’. I think that’s a really strange logic – saying it’s too stiff or tight or unhappy to stretch. The harder they find the stretching, the more we should do it.”

For such a big, powerful horse, Bowie looks lovely and soft in the contact. Bill says that he does most of the work in a snaffle, as he hates double bridles with a passion, finding them crude and cruel. Although he used to ride Bowie in a drop noseband, he’s found he is happier in this simple cavesson. “It is odd, when you have this feeling of a big strong stallion with his massive neck in front of you, that you have to be so incredibly delicate with the rein, but you do.”

After a little while of working in this way, Bill is happy with the picture Nicki and Bowie are making together. While it’s not quite the stretching down that Bill would really like to see, he says Bowie looks very comfortable with Nicki on board.

2. Faster and slower 

(Image: Ana Rattray)

Asking for collection

After a generous stretching phase, it’s time for Nicki to pick up the reins and ask Bowie to work a bit harder. Bill tells her to ride faster and slower in canter, to check the accelerator works: “You get a little bit basic now – I kick, you go forwards – making sure the contact is as good as you can manage.”

One of the big differences between working at Novice level and working Advanced is the way the horse responds to the accelerator and the brakes, says Bill. “In particular, when they slow down, we want them to slow and grow, and to come up a little bit more.”

There are three aspects of collection: it involves a lot of energy, a relatively slow speed and the horse being incredibly comfortable. Getting any two of these is pretty easy, but having all three at once is incredibly difficult, explains Bill. At the moment, Bowie’s comfort and speed is good, but he loses energy as he slows. Bill tells Nicki not to create urgency by niggling with her legs; her job is to sit physically still, while the intensity comes from between her ears.

“There has to be an intensity of attitude – it’s in your mind,” says Bill. “It’s not done with a snarl and a growl, but more with a, ‘We can do this together buddy.’ It’s a flamboyant kind of feeling, and horses pick up on that.

“We have to ride with immense care through the rein, but incredibly flamboyantly in our heads. And if you find that easy, you’re a flaming genius, because I think it’s immensely difficult!”

3. Playing with sideways

(Image: Ana Rattray)


Half-pass and shoulder-in

Every now and then, when Nicki’s outside leg gets a little too far back, Bowie offers lovely half-pass, and Bill encourages her to have a play with some lateral work.

At first Nicki’s half-passes are fairly steep, and Bill tells her to reduce the angle but keep a better quality of trot. “Because Nicki is not familiar with these exercises, she tightens up and loses the trot a little bit when she starts riding sideways,” he observes.

Bill also gets Nicki to ride some shoulder-in, which he says is immensely useful and far more than just a test exercise. “I think it’s far more difficult than any of the other lateral work, but it’s really important. Controlling the hind legs is pretty easy, but controlling the front legs is really quite difficult. We need to control the front legs in all the other things: pirouettes, half-pass, teaching the changes and piaffe.”

Then it’s time for a walk break, where Bill tells Nicki to have the reins on the buckle. “This is his time out,” he explains. We don’t need to ask Nicki how the lesson is going so far – her massive grin says it all!

(Image: Ana Rattray)

4. Unique aids

(Image: Ana Rattray)

Finding the flying changes

Bill explains that the canter aid, and aids for the flying change, is the most difficult thing for any rider to achieve on a new horse, as everybody’s aid is a little bit different. So considering Nicki has never ridden a flying change before, Bill is rather thrilled that she finds the button straight away, with Bowie performing beautiful smooth changes for her. “That was bloody brilliant!” he says.

Soon Nicki is playing with sequence changes and without being asked, manages five lovely three-time changes in a row. “Do you know what you’ve just done?” asks Bill. “They were beautiful changes – it’s exciting. Very good, walk him and pat him.”

Nicki finds the two-time changes a little trickier; unusually, she actually applies the aids too quickly and ends up getting one-times instead! Bill isn’t worried though, and tells Nicki not to worry either.

“I’ve got on plenty of Advanced horses and haven’t been able to sort out the changes,” he says. “The fact that he changes legs at all and that you did those lovely threes is wonderful. Everybody’s aids are different and half the time, even I don’t know exactly what I do. But it’s something I can guarantee in a day or two you would sort out.”

5. The biggest difference

(Image: Ana Rattray)

Canter pirouette

Bill explains that the biggest difference of all for a rider jumping from Novice work to Advanced in a single bound is the feeling of how the collected canter should be. It’s a much more significant difference in feel for the rider than the collected trot, he explains.

Bill tells Nicki to come back super slow and make a 10m circle with the hind legs a bit to the inside, which is a very large working pirouette – he says it may not work, but if it does, it will give her a feeling of pirouette canter.

Nicki manages the exercise very well. “That’s brilliant,” he says. “Yes, he has to be rounder in the neck, but the basic idea was great. That’s the sort of collected feel we’re looking for and we have to train the young horses to start creating – just odd bits where they begin to carry themselves upwards rather than just always going forwards.”

6. Feel the rhythm

(Image: Ana Rattray)

(main photo 5757)

The lesson ends with ‘a bit of jiggling just to impress’ – in other words, the most exciting movements for many riders, piaffe and passage.

From an active walk, Bill tells Nicki to keep an urgent intensity in mind, explaining that the piaffe is an excited sort of feel, but not physically strong. Nicki keeps the reins soft and Bill clicks; clever Bowie obliges with some lovely steps of piaffe (below),  demonstrating just how well trained he is.

(Image: Ana Rattray)

Of her own accord, Nicki rides out of the piaffe into passage, keeping the rhythm and Bill laughs. “I don’t know whether you asked for that, but nice transition! That’s brilliant.”

Bowie has been such a good boy that after a little more piaffe and passage, Bill tells Nicki to end with a pat and a rising trot stretch.

“One thing I wanted Nicki to feel was the difference between piaffe and passage,” he concludes. “When riders haven’t done piaffe before they expect it to feel big, but a good piaffe is delicate and refined. The limbs work, but the body does very little. The passage is the one you don’t do with a hangover, where the body gets lifted. That’s what makes the transitions between them so tricky: you’re going from raw power to total delicacy.”

(Image: Ana Rattray)
  • This article was first published in the November 2016 issue of NZ Horse & Pony