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Haute Ecole
Who are we?

It’s impossible to live with Shetland ponies and not be mentally influenced by it. Maybe it’s because you can’t ride them that makes you search in different directions. Maybe it’s simply because Shetlands out of principle are against everything they didn’t come up with themselves. And as the Shetland ponies Blacky and Sjors have been my teachers for over a decade, it won’t be a surprise that one day we seemed to be doing Natural Dressage.

When we first got Blacky, I was fourteen years old and he was an aggressive Shetland stallion who worked adult men to the ground and kicked me into hospital. That creates a bond. I had just read the books of Hempfling and couldn’t wait to try his method of working naturally with horses in practice. It turned out that theory described by humans was nice, but that the horse who’s standing in front of you is the practice that you have to deal with. In my case, it was Blacky.
Blacky as mountaineer
Blacky’s first lesson to me was that motivating him through pressure-release only caused him to dislike humans even more. We needed rewards, treats! After that discovery, we clickertrained from driving and tricktraining to long lining classical dressage – and there we came to a halt. Even though Blacky was always interested in doing tricks at liberty, he became slow and dull if I even just thought about long lining dressage. As I was an editor and journalist for a Dutch glossy horse magazine and was always searching for interesting people to interview, I soon came in touch with Alexander Nevzorov, a Russian trainer who teaches his horses Haute Ecole with nothing but a cordeo around the neck. Very inspiring, but when his forum became more and more extreme, I realized that again I was looking for answers in humans, while the real teacher was still standing in the garden: Blacky. From that moment on I decided to just ask my questions straight to him: How can we make dressage movements more fun for you? What causes collection at liberty? How can we go from pesade to levade? Since then our training has changed completely. I ask a question and Blacky answers by experimenting with his movements: collection at liberty, from piaffe and canter lead changes to levade and courbette. According to Blacky, this is only the start!
Blacky in collected trot The beginnings of piaffe Levade Lifting a leg in jambette
Sjors entered our garden a year after Blacky. Two centimeters smaller, cute right up to slimy and very chaotic in his mind. Blacky learned fast, Sjors didn’t learn at all. After trying everything for half a year, Sjors still couldn’t lift his hooves, halt on cue or move sideways when I asked for it. He just didn’t seem to understand what I meant – right up to the day that we tried clicker training. Within fifteen minutes Sjors lifted four feet on cue, targeted a cone and backed up when I asked him to. Suddenly my rewards came with an exact timing and that enabled Sjors to understand exactly what the reward was for. Sjors didn’t just turned out to be a real capitalist monster now he could work for food, but he also turned out to be extremely intelligent. Right up to hyperactive. Especially when training dressage it was hard to keep Sjors calm and focused. He disliked tack around his head and the cues with my reins only seemed to distract him from his movements. Looking back, I’ve ignored all these hints for years right up to the day that I decided to try dressage without tack for once.
Sjors sitting down A beautiful collected trot Spanish walk Just being a handsome lad
Suddenly Sjors not only had the freedom to collect himself as suited him best, but now we also had the wild games like Chase the Tiger to play when Sjors was feeling overactive. Since that day Sjors loves nothing more than collection. He bends himself like a fluffy little snake around me in shoulder in and travers and hops from the beginnings of piaffe to passage and back again. But his favorite exercise will always be Chase the Tiger. Tie a bag to a stick, and Sjors turns into a predator!
... and me
I still remember the photo shoot we did for our first book on tricktraining with the clicker called Vrijheidsdressuur in Dutch. Even though we always did our trick training at liberty, I still decided to use a halter and a bridle for the photo shoot, as we would be working outside the paddock. Working at liberty was nice for tricks, but for the real stuff you needed reins. At least that’s what I thought.

Now, only three years later, we’re even doing classical dressage at liberty! When I look back at Vrijheidsdressuur, it’s not with a feeling of shame but rather of wonder. I’ve always thought that Haute Ecole dressage, real collection, was something that the ponies and I would never achieve, simply because I would never have the knowledge and experience to teach them to do this. What I didn’t realize though was that the ponies themselves had that knowledge and experience by buckets! Every day again they play in mock fights, jump, race and move at their most collected in the battle for supreme power of the paddock. I didn’t have to teach them how to collect – the only thing I had to do was to simply give them the chance to show that collection in our training sessions as well. I didn’t have to do more, I just had to do less. I had to stop pushing the ponies into the desired shape, and instead start giving them the freedom to collect themselves in their own way. And I’m learning to become better in that every day.

One day during a walk we were suddenly attacked by two dogs: Sjors, who has always been quite scared of everything, suddenly remembered the Chase the Tiger game, ran towards the dogs and chased them both away from us. On the right you see the last dog fleeing in the distance while Sjors is cantering back to us. Pony power!
Read, write and ask more about Natural Dressage at the Art of Natural Dressage forum.
For info (in Dutch) on clickertraining and the book Vrijheidsdressuur: www.vrijheidsdressuur.info
© of this site, pictures and texts: Miriam Nieuwe Weme