Systematic Thinking and Riding with Johann Hinnemann

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A MASTER AT WORK: Clinician Johann Hinnemann helps NEDA Fall Symposium demonstration pair Espumante and Roberta Carleton with piaffe

At the New England Dressage Association’s Fall Symposium, the renowned German trainer shared his wealth of knowledge

By Beth Baumert
Photographs by Carole MacDonald

Reprinted from the January/February 2022 issue of USDF Connection magazine

Johann “Jo” Hinnemann is known for his kind training that consistently retains the basics throughout, from young horses to Grand Prix. As a rider, he rose to the top in 1986 with his horse Ideaal at the World Championships in Canada, winning team gold and individual bronze. However, he is best known as the trainer of such top international riders as Christine Traurig, Coby and Marlies van Baalen, Steffen Peters, and Kathleen Raine.

It was a clear, chilly October morning at Jane Karol’s Bear Spot Farm in Acton, Massachusetts, and Jo Hinnemann opened the two-day New England Dressage Association (NEDA) Fall Symposium by saying appreciatively, “There are horse people, and there are people with horses. Horse people always want to learn, so I think you are horse people.”
If you’re reading this, then you’re horse people, too. So let’s get started.

Elementary School: The Four- and Five-Year-Old Young Horse

Rhythm, Activity, and Ground Cover
Hinnemann asks the riders of young horses to keep the reins as long as possible while still retaining contact with the mouth. He says:

  • To maximize ground cover, keep the contact and push the nose slightly in front of the vertical with the mouth not lower than the shoulder. I know that it is difficult, but when you ask the horse to reach, you will immediately find that you’re using a driving leg and seat, which gets the horse supple, swinging, and reacting from back to front. Then you get a better contact and more ground cover.
  • When you ask the stride to be a little longer with the nose in front, take care that your horse’s rhythm stays the same and he doesn’t run. Rhythm is number one, activity is number two, and ground cover is number three.

Hinnemann reminisces about when horses were bred for the army and the young-horse classes included technical tests for ground cover. There was a minimum amount of ground cover needed to achieve the required distance with soldiers and their equipment: at a walk, 350 meters in three minutes; in trot, 750 meters in three minutes; and in canter, 1,500 meters. Although the technical tests are no longer included, the horse’s ability to cover ground is as important as it ever was.

Importance of the Canter Depart
Trot-canter-trot transitions, Hinnemann believes, are the best exercises for developing suppleness. In the transition to canter, the withers must come up—which is the reason for wanting a round neck that is reaching as much as possible. When dressage trainers say “uphill,” it means that the horse’s withers and shoulders come up. The neck comes up, too, but only because the shoulders rise. Correct trot-canter-trot transitions—with the shoulders coming up—make the horse very ridable.
If you think about the end result that you want at Grand Prix, the canter-depart aid is the most important aid we ever teach our horses. Here’s why:

  • Every flying change is a canter depart.
  • Every stride in a canter half-pass is a renewal of the gait with a canter depart.
  • Every stride in a pirouette is a canter depart.
  • When you do your first canter depart from walk, it is the beginning of collection.

Hinnemann has a precise plan for teaching these transitions: On an accurate 20-meter circle in trot, the rider sits as she crosses the center line; then, as she approaches the track, she does a little leg-yield, rides a visible half-halt, and asks for the canter depart. The horse must not lose his frame or change his relationship to the bit. The poll remains the highest point, with the nose slightly in front of the vertical.

The key is always to make the transition at the same spot. Then the horse becomes more and more sensitive, and the aids can become increasingly refined because the horse understands. He will start to do the transition by himself, but of course he must wait for the rider’s aids. Teaching the horse to wait takes patience. Hinnemann expects quiet, patient persistence within the system.

Both of the demonstration riders of the young horses at the NEDA symposium are flexible and quiet in their seats. Their quiet hands keep a discreet, steady connection to the mouth, and the balance is good. The work looks easy.

The next step, after doing the canter depart at the same place many times, is to ride it from walk at the same place. The horse expects this, so it looks very easy.

HORSE PEOPLE: Hinnemann commended the large audience for its commitment to dressage education on a chilly fall weekend. NEDA members watch demo rider Kathleen Fuller on her San Silvio.

The Visible Half-Halt
Don’t just half-halt; do a visible half-halt. A visible half-halt is one with an obvious result. Hinnemann wants all of the riders to make a visible half-halt before every corner and before every canter depart. For this, the horse must have consistent contact with a relaxed neck that is round and reaching; he must have an uphill inclination; and he must be obedient to the aids.

“It might take a long time to get that reaching frame,” Hinnemann says, “but when I ask for it, the rider automatically uses a driving seat.”
The five-year-old demonstration horse is nervous, so Hinnemann incorporates halts into her session. They are practicing canter-walk-canter transitions on a 10-meter circle, with the transitions located approaching the track in the same system. The work is not too hard, but the mare is anxious by nature. They repeat: walk, canter, walk, halt. And they stay in the halt until the horse breathes.

“If you do this ten times, she will understand,” Hinnemann says. “Walk, canter, walk, halt.”

Hinnemann is very aware of the horse’s breathing, and he asks his riders to concentrate on that. They stay in halt until the horse visibly relaxes, and then they repeat. Next, they canter in a long, low frame on the same small circle, and the horse looks fabulous and relaxed. Hinnemann talks about the horse that is not only supple in the body, but also supple in the mind.

“A supple horse is not necessarily submissive, but a submissive horse is definitely supple. This is why, in a correct way, we teach exercises that are systematic. When you always want what’s best for the horse, he learns to listen to your aids and do what you want in a relaxed, confident way.”

He delineates specific ways that the rider makes contact with the horse, explaining:
“There are three types of contact: from the rider’s seat to the horse’s back; from the rider’s leg to the horse’s ribcage; and from the rider’s hand to the horse’s mouth. With the aids of those points of contact, we must ride very precise lines, very correct corners, very exact diagonals and precise circles. When you lengthen the stride, stretch, or do any movement, you must retain the same three-point contact that you have in the working gaits.”

CANTER FUNDAMENTAL: The canter depart is key to many movements. Ashley Madison rides Bella Mondo.

The Middle Years: Third and Fourth Levels

The basics, as always, come first. Rhythm is still number one. Activity is number two. Ground cover and reach are still number three.

“When the horse is behind the vertical,” Hinnemann says, “he gets behind the bit. Then you either have not enough in your hand or too much in your hand. With both problems, you lose control of the hind legs and you’re done. When the horse reaches and stretches the neck, you get the best-quality connection, maximum overstride, and expression. There are too many pictures in publications of the the front legs too high and the lengthening of the neck missing.”

Concentration on the horse’s breathing remains paramount. “When the horse stops breathing in the movements, it’s the most difficult problem we can have. They must be supple in the body and the brain.” To that end, Hinnemann has the riders do many transitions to walk or halt—even if only for a short time—until their mounts relax.

Canter departs still must step under the rider’s weight and lift the horse’s shoulders. Each horse does trot-canter transitions to prove that he can carry himself throughout and swing in the back.

Transitions must be clean. In the dressage tests, judges look to see “how you prepare, how you develop the movement, how you do it, and how you get out of it.”

One of Hinnemann’s exercises was a test of the riders’ ability to show clear, smooth, accurate transitions:

  • In trot or canter, come out of the corner in shoulder-in
  • Ride medium trot or medium canter to X
  • At X, collect momentarily, then return to the medium gait on the diagonal line
  • Walk before the corner while still on the diagonal.

The transitions must be absolutely correct and straight on the diagonal. When the horse expects to walk in the corner, Hinnemann explains, then you can really risk going forward because he will expect to come back. In canter, you can go very forward, and because the horse expects to walk you can push in the downward transition and get a good flying change on the line. This exercise is not about power, but about the development of control at the beginning, the middle, and the end.

Shoulder-in and Half-Pass
According to Hinnemann, the most common shoulder-in problem occurs when the rider tries to get bend in the horse’s ribcage with the inside leg, and the horse’s haunches swing out.

“It’s true that you want bend,” he says, “but the horse must bend from balance.” His tips for achieving a better shoulder-in:

  • Remember that every corner is a quarter of a circle. Don’t let the shoulder go too deep into the corner.
  • Bring the shoulder out of the corner, keeping the rhythm.
  • Do shoulder-in with a straight horse, thinking about balance instead of about bend.
  • Then ask for that little bit of flexion and bend.
  • Try riding trot-walk-trot and trot-halt-trot transitions within the shoulder-in.
  • The result will be a supple, expressive, and swinging shoulder-in.

Hinnemann has an equally simple system for teaching half-pass:

“The first thing you decide is where you want to end up, and you must stay on that line!” he says.

  • Come out of the corner straight, and align your horse so that he’s looking at the end point. The horse has to look in the direction he’s going, with his forehead (use the bridle browband as an easy reference) perpendicular to the diagonal line of travel.
  • Make sure his shoulders stay on that line.
  • Then ask for haunches-in (travers) on that line, getting the bend behind you with your seat. Keep in mind that half-pass is the same as travers on the diagonal.
  • Develop the half-pass first from the rhythm, then from the activity; then half-halt to add volume.

Likewise, if you’re doing travers on the long side, the horse’s forehead should be perpendicular to the long side and parallel to the short side. This system works, no matter the level of the horse or the degree of the half-pass angle.

Simple Changes
Walk-canter-walk transitions, known in the dressage tests as simple changes, are important as the basis for flying changes. Hinnemann asks the demo riders to do simple changes on a three-loop serpentine, on the diagonal, and then on the center line. He insists that they “correct the reins” during the walk steps by shortening the new inside rein to change the flexion and indicate the new direction.

“Instructors have to be sure their students understand this,” he says. “Correcting the reins minimizes the danger of getting the wrong lead, it gives the horse correct flexion, and it assures that they do enough walk strides.”

Walk Pirouettes
The basis for a good walk pirouette is a good collected walk—one that is active, with the horse’s poll the highest point.
First, establish flexion in the direction of the turn.

SUPPLE AND BALANCED: Shengli, owned and ridden by David Collins, demonstrates trot half-pass
  • Ride a visible half-halt.
  • Manage the collected-walk strides in the turn.
  • Make sure you sit on both seat bones.
  • Finish your walk pirouette with a visible half-halt.

Be patient. With this control, you make the horse submissive because you have control of the balance.

The FEI Horse

Back to the basics we go!

  • Rhythm is still number one, but the FEI horse must also have cadence.
  • The canter departs must still be uphill. “Higher” means higher in the shoulders—in absolutely every exercise.
  • The horse must reach. For example, in the extended walk, the horse must look as if he wants to get to the end of the diagonal—reaching out with a long neck.
  • When using a double bridle, riders must rely on the snaffle rather than the curb rein.
  • Most riders can do the exercises, but the question is, how expressive can they make them without creating tension in the horse? You want to get to the stage when the horse can do the exercises with more expression.

When your FEI horse wants to go, he understands the work, and you have control, you’re in a very luxurious situation.

  • Piaffe and Passage Hints
  • Piaffe starts with half-steps forward. Transitions between collected trot and half-steps help the horse to learn that piaffe is just a trot, and it retains the desire to go forward. Hinnemann has the demo horses do these transitions in a three-loop serpentine, with half-steps on the center line. Then they do them on diagonals and the center line.
  • The horse must remain uphill.
  • If the rider lightens her weight in the saddle, the horse sometimes can swing in his back more easily.
  • Beware of the situation in which the horse goes too much forward and drops his back. Learn how you can move him forward without him dropping behind you. If the strides are too big, then he can’t carry the weight behind. Bit by bit, the strides can get bigger.
  • Don’t swing your hips left and right; swing toward the pommel.
  • Sometimes it helps to think of rein back.
  • Go to halt often, and be sure that the horse relaxes and breathes.

Canter-Pirouette Hints
Hinnemann has the FEI-level demo horses execute many canter-walk-canter transitions on a small circle. Then they do transitions between “on the spot” canter and walk. On the long side, they do transitions between collected canter and canter on the spot.

“It’s necessary that you have control over the canter on the spot and control of the turn,” Hinnemann says. “If you can’t canter on the spot, then you can’t turn with control.”

The demo riders then do the same thing on the center line. Hinnemann notes that it’s not possible to get a good score in the Grand Prix without excelling at the canter center line with its pirouettes and flying changes.

THANK YOU! Clinician Johann Hinnemann poses with Jane Karol, owner of NEDA symposium venue Bear Spot Farm in Massachusetts

As the work gets harder…
For example, when the rider asks for a steep half-pass that separates the horse’s hind legs, Hinnemann warns not to do it too often: “When the muscles get tired, then the tendons need to start working, and then we get into medical problems.” To that end, they take many long breaks.

The same advice holds true for pirouettes, piaffe, and passage. A rider might passage four strides and then walk, do a walk pirouette, and repeat in the other direction. Hinnemann points out that the transition from walk to passage is very difficult because the walk has no impulsion, while the passage has maximum impulsion. Riders need to be aware of this.

The work is quiet. The horses must be correct and relaxed, and those qualities take precedence over expressiveness.

Beth Baumert is a USDF-certified instructor through Fourth Level and a USDF L program graduate with distinction. She is the author of When Two Spines Align: Dressage Dynamics and of How Two Minds Meet: The Mental Dynamics of Dressage. She currently serves as president and CEO of The Dressage Foundation. For many years she owned and operated Cloverlea Dressage in Connecticut and served as the technical editor of Dressage Today magazine.

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