An Advanced Masterclass – with Bill Noble

Leading dressage trainer Bill Noble helps a fellow coach and her Advanced horse work on a problem with their flying changes. Images by Christine Cornege

Waikato-based Bill Noble is one of New Zealand’s most respected riders, having trained many horses through to Grand Prix level, and winning the Dressage Horse of the Year title five times on three different horses.

In this Masterclass, he works with Janet Shaw, a fellow full-time dressage coach, and her 13-year-old gelding Jitterbug (by Jive Magic), who at the time of this lesson was competing at Level 7. 

A different type of relationship: two professionals

Bill explains this is a bit different from a normal lesson situation, because Janet is not his pupil as such – she’s a fellow professional and they help each other occasionally. “This interchange is something I think is really good for the sport and it’s very healthy,” says Bill. 

“Although 90% of the things Janet and I do are similar, there are a few things we do differently and we just have to accept that. This horse is heading towards Grand Prix and it’s a matter of seeing whether I can give some help nudging them in the right direction.

“It’s a little bit tricky in these situations as to how much I interfere. You can’t go right back to square one and start again with the canter aids; you have to take it from where it is now. But it is always fun working with people as experienced as Janet.”

In particular, Bill has been helping Janet with Bug’s flying changes. “They have been a little bit troublesome for the horse, both physically and emotionally. This is not unusual and it’s always soluble, but the solution can take quite a lot of time. Horses vary so much in their ease and mental approach to doing changes – some slide through them easily, while others find the concept quite difficult. I had a horse in the UK who had been changing late behind one way for about five years. When we got the horse, it was a year before I got a correct change on the difficult rein, and that was a year of frustration and a lot of stress. But in the end they came and they ended up being 99% correct. 

“It’s about plodding on and figuring out the problem. What tends to happen when the horse isn’t changing is that we start to get a little bit physical with them and then they can get worried. We have to stimulate them and change the canter and go on asking in slightly different ways to see what works for the horse. We have to adjust it, without blowing the horse’s brains and getting it too worried.”

Bill says Bug is quite sensitive and hot, which are good attributes for a dressage horse, but this has contributed to the problem with the changes. However, Bill is certain this is can be overcome. “The canter itself is beautiful and there is no reason for the changes not to be easy. It’s a surprise that the changes have been such a difficulty, but that’s life. The beginnings of piaffe and passage are there. Janet’s object is to work towards Grand Prix with him and I think she will achieve it.”

Working on the changes: a more animated canter

Once Janet has warmed up a little bit, she begins to play with the canter and flying changes. At first, she rides across the diagonal in medium canter, before collecting and asking for a flying change. Bug changes late behind, and Bill warns this isn’t the best place to ask for a change. “Even established Advanced horses will sometimes change late there, because it’s quite difficult to collect them.” 

Similarly, Bill doesn’t want Janet to ask for the collection after going sideways or doing counter-canter, because both those things cause the horse to lose engagement. Instead, he wants Janet to play with the changes in places where the horse is encouraged to take a big step – not so close into the corners.

Bug’s flying change from right to left is actually pretty solid and correct every time. However, from left to right is much harder for him. It’s quite normal for horses and riders to find changes easier in one direction, says Bill. “No rider is symmetric, no horse is symmetric. I personally prefer asking horses right to left. Riders have an easier way, the horses have an easier way – if we’re lucky, the two are opposite!”

Bill wants Janet to get the left canter a bit ‘hotter’ off her left leg. “Usually problems with the changes are to do with the engagement. It’s about this relationship between the rider’s asking leg and the horse’s hind legs,” he explains. 

Bill finds it very encouraging that Bug is staying completely calm about the changes today, even when they are not correct – that is a big plus, he says. He tells Janet to focus on getting the canter more active, even if she loses a little bit of softness in the canter temporarily. “Don’t worry if the canter is not so nice, just see if you can get the canter one stage more activated,” he says.

On the easier side, Janet can ask from pretty much any type of canter and get the change, but going from left to right the canter has to be a bit special and hot, says Bill. “Here you’ve got a hot horse that needs to be revved up, and that’s a difficult mixture.”

Overall, Bill is pleased that Bug is not a full stride late behind in the changes – most of the time he is only a little bit short behind, or short and slightly late. “When that happens, it is not a big drama – they are on their way. It shows the horse is making an effort to come through; they are just not quite finishing the stride.” Bill tells Janet to make sure her new inside (right) rein is loose, which will give Bug the freedom to bring the right hind leg through. 

“The main thing I like is that he allows you to ask for these and experiment and he doesn’t get too fazed by it. Having got to this point, I am absolutely convinced they will come and they will be good.”

Janet agrees that the horse is much improved. “Other people had helped me with the changes before, but nothing had been working very well. Bill has got me in a different way of thinking. I was making the horse a bit neurotic about the change, but I’ve tried to keep it more relaxed and now he’s a lot calmer about the whole thing.”

Coaching versus riding

As a coach, Janet says she has learned a lot from riding Bug. She feels she was quite tough on her pupils in the past, but getting out competing again after a 30-year break has given her a lot more empathy!

“That’s exactly right,” agrees Bill. “I’d hate to try to coach without riding. It would be a real struggle for me, because all the time you’re experimenting with horses and concepts. You have your basic skeleton of work, but we fill it out in different ways and that comes from riding.”

Freedom in the trot: Extended paces

Bug obviously finds lateral work very easy, in both trot (above) and canter However, as Janet starts to work towards Grand Prix, she should be thinking about developing more power and cadence, says Bill. 

In extended trot, Bill feels Janet would be better to go rising. “As we get older, we don’t sit as well, which is a real difficulty. When we come to the test we have to sit, but I think it’s really good practise to do your bigger trots rising, so you can get in the habit of doing it comfortably and give your horse freedom.”

Building a platform: piaffe and passage

Bill tells Janet to have a play with piaffe and passage before Bug gets too tired. At first Bug is a little uncertain in piaffe, but once he gets going he produces some really smart steps (below).

“This horse has got a lot of ability. I don’t particularly want to see a bigger piaffe at this stage, but I want to see that it is very easy and on a soft rein, with no leg. If you’re having to work hard to get this, there will be nothing left to get more,” says Bill.

“The hind steps are very good; the front steps have got to get more springy and that comes from softness, a light rein and a forward hand. I want you to go into a few steps and then out again, lots of times, so it is reliable and easy. Then you’ve got a platform, so in six-12 months you can start to ask for more energy.”

Interestingly, Bill says how to ask for the piaffe is one topic he and Janet disagree on: Janet likes to use the leg, while Bill expects the horse to go from ‘the feel’ and the voice. “It’s one of those things we’ll argue about over a bottle of wine!”

Next Bill has a look at Bug’s passage, which he feels is a bit underpowered. He tells Janet to start with a really lively trot, and then ask for the collection from that. 

“At this stage we keep the piaffe and passage well separated, because the requirements for the two are quite different. The passage needs sheer raw power, while the piaffe is incredibly delicate. The two feel totally different: in the piaffe you get almost no feeling from the body, while the passage is the one that you don’t do with a hangover, because the body is huge.

“You want the horse to offer the piaffe lightly and peacefully and then once the piaffe is established we can put the two together. But it’s quite difficult for the horse to alter its power levels and balance from passage to piaffe back to passage again, which is why they have marks for the transitions in the Grand Prix.”

Asking for collection: Extended canter and back again

Bill has noticed that Bug tends to lift his neck and hollow slightly as he goes into medium and extended (below). “When he goes into his mediums, I would love him to feel that he goes forehead first, not with his throat up,” says Bill. 

Bill also feels that the transition from medium canter back to collected canter is too novice – it takes too many strides and Bug is slowing down, rather than truly collecting. 

“For the horse to adjust their balance back to collected is hard going, so the brakes have to work peacefully but quickly. I want you to get the return happening quicker, but using less hand if possible, so he’s got a chance to sit up as he slows. We want to use less and less hand, because the more rein you use to come back, the more you stiffen and tighten everything up.”

Bill gets Janet to ride some transitions in and out of medium canter down the long side, but he understands this is not something she will be able to change in one day. Bug isn’t disobedient, but he doesn’t retain enough energy as he slows down. Bill feels if Janet can improve this, it will also help her flying changes. “When a horse has learnt like this to slow instead of collect, you’re going to have to inspire and activate the horse to keep energy as you slow down and it may be a bit confusing for him at first. It is difficult to get the difference in their little minds and it’s particularly difficult with a hot horse, because we spend so much time just calming them down. That’s something you could play with and I don’t think it will take you more than a few days to start sorting that out,” he says. 

It’s up to the rider to figure out how to ask the horse to slow down without using too much hand, so the horse stays round and soft and maintains the energy, says Bill. “We talk about using hands and legs, but really the aids we talk about are the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much communication going on that we can’t describe. We use our body, our mind, our feel.”

Bill likes to teach the horse the concept of collection in trot: he rides a trot that is somewhere between working and medium, and then asks the horse to come back and go forwards again. He gets Janet to play with this. “When you come back, you want to collect with the idea that you’re going to ping into passage at any time. You don’t want him to dwell; you want the rhythm to stay the same.” This exercise helps improve the collected canter.

When the horse will sit like that and collect, setting him up for the changes is going to become easier. The changes will happen – they are already half-way there,” concludes Bill. 

“Compared with how this was a few months ago, the horse is a lot freer and more forwards. I think in another six months it will be freer still. This horse is going to end up really quite impressive.”

Top tip: 

Collection is collecting energy. If you don’t keep energy, you’re not collecting, you’re just slowing down.

Bill on… keeping the horse comfortable

Keeping the horse comfortable in the body and mind is the single most important principle. The contact with the rein is the biggest thing affecting the comfort. If the rider has no desire to ride softly, then I think they should not be on a horse. We do have to compromise because we want softness on the one hand, control on the other. That’s a very difficult mixture which stays difficult forever and ever. Janet’s ideas about contact and comfort are very good.