Carl Hester on the Joys and Challenges of Being a Popular Clinician

Thursday, January 26, 2023
Posted by Lynndee Kemmet



With a new year comes new opportunities to learn as riders gear up to compete for coveted spots in high-caliber clinics. And while riders might find such clinics to be a bit stressful, six-time Dressage Olympian and much-in-demand clinician Carl Hester says being the clinician is often no less stressful.

Photo: Denielle Gallagher-Legriffon, who rode in the Florida Masterclass with Ellen Lazarus’ Lusitano gelding Comeback de Massa (Galopin Font x Quixote).© Suzanne Carroll

"People are always surprised when they learn Carl has a case of the nerves before one of his always sold out sessions," said Mary Phelps, "Think about it. He is fully aware that many often travel far to attend. He takes great care to personally select the horse and rider combinations and understands there will be disappointment, and that matters to him.The expectations are high for auditors and riders alike, but they are never disappointed. They come away from one or two days with a treasure trove of knowledge, insight and a strong dose of his humor and charm. " 

World Travel No Understatement for The British Homebody

Carl Hester World Equestrian Games Normandy 2014
er World Equestrian Games Normandy 2014 © Mary Phelps

Hester did four clinics in 2022 – double his usual – including Australia. Two of those were in the U.S. – the New England Dressage Association Symposium in Massachusetts in October, then a Masterclass in Queensland Australia in November and his Masterclass at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, Florida in December. All clinics were extremely popular with riders and auditors but Hester admits it was a lot for him. “I don’t think my stress levels can go any higher after these,” he said with a laugh. “The amount of traveling I did to do them (NEDA, Australia and Florida) within three months and travelling from England each time was a lot. With horses in training and Charlotte left behind dealing with things while also pregnant, that was a lot to worry about.”

While he greatly enjoys doing clinics and teaching riders, Hester says it’s a bit challenging when one is also still actively training and competing, although he recognizes that is also part of his attraction as a clinician.

“At the moment, I get plenty of people because I’m still out there competing,” he said. “It’s quite unusual to find people to come and do clinics who are still competing themselves because at the end of the day, it’s hard. But that also gives me an advantage because I know what other people feel and I know what they are going through when they compete. And they know that I know that. I am on the side of the rider and the competitor and the horse. I think when I’m not riding so much or competing so much, people might have a different view on it.”

When it was noted that he might have more time for clinics when no longer competing, Hester laughed and said, “well, you know what happens, the older you get and the less you ride, the less people want you.”

Horse and Rider Selection Can Be a Minefield

That may or may not be the future, but right now, lack of demand is certainly not a problem Hester faces in filling clinics. His 2022 U.S. clinics attracted hundreds of riders battling for the opportunity to learn from him. Hester had the responsibility of choosing riders and horses for his Florida clinic and had to sift through nearly 200 videos.

Carl Hester

“One thing that’s important to say, is that when you are trying to pick videos, it creates a lot of emotion,” he said. “You get people trying to bribe you, in that they’ll send you a message and ask if they can pay to be in the clinic. You get people accusing you of being unfair. You get people accusing you of just picking easy people. It’s a minefield trying to do it. The answer to all those things is ‘no’. The fairest way to do this is not to know those people ahead of time. It’s better if I have people I don’t know because A, that’s fair and B, it gives the audience a really clear idea of what we are looking at because I can talk about that rather than having pre-seen the issue.”

There is a lot of stress in doing large clinics, Hester said, and choosing the riders is the first big stress because you face such questions as “why can’t you have my friend, why can’t you have my trainer, why can’t you have the wife? It’s like, ‘Oh my God, I love teaching, I’d love to help everybody.’ I just can’t. I just have to make a choice.”

The benefit of the NEDA clinic, for him, was that because it was meant to be an educational symposium, NEDA had its own panel of judges who sifted through videos and chose the riders based on what they were seeking for the clinic. “That was better for me because that kept me out of it,” Hester said. “That was absolutely fine because then you have what you are given and have to teach what you’ve got.”

“In Australia, they took away the stress of having to look at so many videos by having me just look at their choice of the top videos, something like 15 that I could then just go through. I’d watch them do like a pirouette and think, ‘now that’s a point there where I could really help them with some exercises’ or ‘that piaffe needs more technique to it’. Just what my eye sees and that’s how I would pick it. It certainly isn’t ‘that one looks absolutely amazing, that one looks like it has no problems whatsoever or, I’ll have that one.’ It’s exactly the opposite,” Hester said.

Finished Projects Need Not Apply

Blais Tetreault  KWPN mare Moreira (by Ironman x Krack C)
Blais Tetreault KWPN mare Moreira (by Ironman x Krack C) (c) Suzanne Carroll

As he sifted through videos for his Florida clinic, Hester said what he was not seeking were “people and horses who look like they have the finished article. There’s no point, that’s not part of learning. It’s about seeing something where I say, ‘that’s what I want to help that person with’.”

With that said, Canadian Mathilde Blais Tetreault, made a wise decision when she applied to ride with Hester at his Florida Masterclass. “I could have gone with my more trained, reliable horse but I decided to try with my five-year-mare, which was more of a stress but I’m very happy I did it. I’m glad she was selected because I think she is a super young horse.”

Blais Tetreault, who rode the KWPN mare Moreira (by Ironman x Krack C), said winning a spot in the clinic was like a dream come true “but also very stressful because I knew there would be a lot of people watching and I didn’t know if my young, inexperienced horse would be quiet enough. But I’m glad I did it because it was one of my greatest experiences ever.”

Part of Hester’s training as a professional is to see a horse and rider for the first time and “assess very quickly what I like, what I would like to work on, what areas of weakness need improving, and I think that’s a great approach for the audience as well. It’s believable to the audience. It’s what everybody goes through when they go for a lesson.”

The problems that Hester points out to riders at clinics are really the same problems riders have at home and in private lessons. “You saw that at NEDA,” he said. “I tried to start the day saying some of the things that I saw that could be improved with the first lot of riders. And as we saw, even when rider number seven came in, it was exactly the same thing. They are still crooked on this rein. They are still not straight on that rein. They still don’t have the horse uphill enough. They still don’t have the horse stretched forward. All of these problems are not reserved for riders in a clinic, they are reserved for everybody.”

Blais Tetreault said one thing that really stuck with her from her ride with Hester is “that nobody is perfect and what you have to do is try to be the better version of yourself, the better rider you can be every day that you ride.”

Every-day Horses with Common Problems Often Appeal Most to Clinicians


People mistakenly believe that what Hester wants in his clinics are top-level horses and riders but that’s far from the truth. “I’m well aware that clinics are training experiences for a lot of people,” he said. “You need your every-day riders with your common-day problems.”

And teaching those every-day riders is just fine with him because that is so much of what he does in his every-day life as a teacher. “I don’t teach just high-brow riders at home,” Hester said. “A lot of the riders I teach are just every-day riders that I’ve taught for years. Some of them don’t compete and some of them have no desire to be grand prix riders. They just want to be the best that they can.”

He also recognizes that for many of these riders it’s a big deal to have an opportunity to ride with a trainer of his caliber “but having said that I also must say, ‘do you really need to pay me to tell you what someone with good basics down the road can tell you?’ You’d be surprised how many people say yes (and he laughed).”

And one of those would be Denielle Gallagher-Legriffon, who rode in the Florida Masterclass with Ellen Lazarus’ Lusitano gelding Comeback de Massa (Galopin Font x Quixote). Gallagher-Legriffon was selected as a reserve rider and said was she was initially bummed not to have a riding spot. “But I totally understood there were so many amazing submissions. I was very happy to bring our horse to the World Equestrian Center and school him there for a few days. I took advantage of all of the bridle paths and hacked him everywhere.”

She became content to watch all the other riders and learn but then Hester came to her and asked if she’d like the option to ride. “HECK YEAH!,” Gallagher-Legriffon responded. “So, we were braided and ready to go as soon as our time came up.” And while it might seem that such an opportunity would be high stress, one important thing she learned from Hester was “just to keep everything slow and low pressure. My horse actually puts pressure on himself so it’s about teaching him to relax and find balance and sitting. I had a lot of fun and really enjoyed it. The crowd was lovely and kind and really made me feel like I had been there a thousand times.”

The Benefits of Clinics

Codi Harrison rode the Danish Warmblood gelding Katholt’s Bossco (by Blue Hors Don Schufro x Michellino)
Codi Harrison rode the Danish Warmblood gelding Katholt’s Bossco (by Blue Hors Don Schufro x Michellino) © Suzanne Carroll

What clinics can do, Hester said, is give riders “new ideas for different exercises or maybe different explanations with a different tone or with a different aspect to it. Sometimes it just clicks differently even if you do find that ultimately people are saying the same thing.”

That’s exactly the effect his teaching had on Codi Harrison, who rode the Danish Warmblood gelding Katholt’s Bossco (by Blue Hors Don Schufro x Michellino) in the Florida Masterclass and says Hester’s way of teaching and communicating ideas to riders has stuck with her. “He has such a wit and cheeky way about teaching while also being incredibly effective. What I took away most from the clinic is the reminder to give the reins. It’s so easy to forget that. Also, to sometimes let the gaits be small and really think about where you are positioning the horse and placing the legs. Since leaving the clinic I’ve had his voice in my head on every horse – ‘Hands towards the bit’.”

“Carl is such a master at communicating both with riders and horses,” said Andrea Woodard, who rode in the Masterclass with the KWPN gelding Kaliber L (by Franklin x Rubin Royal). “He gave me a couple of good pointers, such as point your outside toe towards the center letter A or C while doing you shoulder-in on the wall. It truly helps balance your horse. Also, counting so you know exactly how many strides you have in your circles so you can make your lines accurate and symmetrical without starting to ride backwards (in canter). He just is truly there to help you build up your horse the right way, not skipping any of the basics.”

Timing and Information - It's Not Just Chatting About Dressage

It’s clear that Hester takes being a clinician very seriously despite the fact that during his clinics he often comes across as very humorous and entertaining.

Mikala Munter,  rode the Westfalian gelding MSJ Charmer (by Charmeur x Rubinstein)
Mikala Munter, who rode the Westfalian gelding MSJ Charmer (by Charmeur x Rubinstein) © Suzanne Carroll

“Timing and information in a clinic are very important so that people feel they get what they pay for and that you put some humor in it so that riders can relax and the audience can enjoy it,” he said. “I’m like everybody, I’m constantly reading, reading, reading because the older you get, the more you want to know. So, I don’t do these things just off the back of my head. I write down a lot of what I do. I write down a lot of what I read. And then I have to remember all of that when I go out there. So, there is much more to it then, ‘Oh, he’s just out there having a fun time chatting about dressage.’ It’s not quite as simple as that. There is a lot too it and it is stressful.”

During the NEDA clinic in 2017 a top US judges were there to watch, learn and listen. Hester still finds it daunting when he spots them in the crowd. l-r in front row Kristi Wysocki, Lois Yukins and Jeanne McDonald ©Mary Phelps
During the NEDA clinic in 2017 top US judges were there to watch, learn and listen. Hester still finds it daunting when he spots them in the crowd. l-r in front row Kristi Wysocki, Lois Yukins and Jeanne McDonald ©Mary Phelps

Hester admits that he still finds doing large clinics a bit daunting and not just because of the size of the crowds. “It’s seeing so many people turn out but especially when there are some familiar faces in the audience of judges and other trainers. I’m like, ‘Oh my God, how did I end up here?’ Those are people I read about, not people I expect to come and watch me. But I can’t be daunted. I can only say what I do and hopefully, people come because they like what they see and they want to know what your formula is. That’s the nicest way of looking at it but it still doesn’t make it an easy thing to do.”

Mikala Munter, who rode the Westfalian gelding MSJ Charmer (by Charmeur x Rubinstein) said she applied to ride with Hester the moment she heard from a friend that he was coming to Florida, and she said it was precisely because she does like what she sees in Hester’s approach.

“I was super excited (to be selected) as I have always admired Carl’s riding as well as his way of teaching,” Munter said. “I love his approach about creating energy through transitions and keeping the legs off the horse in the process.”

Hester did admit his choice of "Charmer" was his only indulgence in his selection for the Master Class. As soon as he saw the tape he recognized his "old friend" a horse he had trained with much affection in spite of his then question ability. "I believed in him, and he was always a pleasure to ride."

Leave Them With a Clear Path

Hester knows he is not the only one who finds his clinics daunting. The lucky riders who have been chosen often feel the same way and hence, one of his tasks is to put them at ease.

Carl and ponies
HorsesDaily's Mary Phelps helped prepare and de-stress long time friend Carl for his sold out Master Class at the World Equestrian Center. Along with Catherine Bateson and Nicole Graf on a drive with ponies, and a boat ride in Silver Springs counting manatees to guarantee his return to Ocala.

“At NEDA, I met the riders the night before so they could all feel comfortable with me, and we could talk about things. There are several things to remember as a clinician,” he said. “Number one, your job is not to arrive and disrupt everything they’ve done. Your job is to give ideas and enhance what they are doing and not to leave any rider in a situation where they can’t sort out my exercises, my explanations, my reasons for doing things. My job is to leave them with a clear path to move to the next level. That’s important to point out. So, meeting them is really, really important so that they can feel relaxed with me, and I can explain what I am as a trainer.”

While he can’t say he knows what other clinicians seek when choosing riders, Hester does have some advice to offer riders aiming for an opportunity to ride with a clinician such as him.

“You don’t need a 10-minute video,” he said. “Show what you are good at and what you are not good at because you always need something to work on and you always need something easy for the horse to finish on. That’s a good point because I have that from the horse’s psyche point of view. It’s not just for the rider. Even when we do a difficult exercise at home, I always try to go to what the horse finds easy and finish up there.”