Lessons in Légèreté with Michel and Cather­ine Hen­ri­quet

My mag­i­cal visit to Les Écuries de la Panetière out­side of Paris

Dressage Today - - Content - By Louisa Zai-Ravaris

A mag­i­cal visit to Les ƒcuries de la Paneti•re out­side of Paris.

Michel Hen­ri­quet, leg­endary horse­man and dres­sage master, passed away a few short months af­ter my visit to his sta­bles in 2014. His de­par­ture was a pro­found loss for his loved ones and the world of dres­sage. Through this story, I am hon­ored to be able to share a pre­cious day with Michel and his wife, Cather­ine Du­rand Hen­ri­quet. I hope that it will touch and in­spire the horse­men and -women who would have sa­vored those mo­ments with him as I did.

Iam search­ing for Les Écuries de la Panetière— the train­ing sta­ble of Michel and Cather­ine Hen­ri­quet. At 90 years old, Michel has be­come one of the great clas­si­cal mas­ters of our time. His pas­sion for the horses and his quest to de­velop their friend­ship, har­mony and light­ness through dres­sage has in­spired my de­sire to meet him. An avid stu­dent and pro­po­nent of the writ­ings of François Ro­bi­chon de La Guérinière and An­toine de Plu­vinel, Michel has be­come a bril­liant trainer and writer him­self. He is renowned for his books and for his rap­port and 30 years of study with the late Por­tuguese master Nuno Oliveira. With his wife and pri­mary stu­dent, Cather­ine, Michel has also demon­strated that French clas­si­cal dres­sage can shine in the com­pet­i­tive arena. With Michel as her coach, Cather­ine rep­re­sented France as an Olympic com­peti­tor in 1992. She rode the Lusi­tano Or­phee, the first Ibe­rian ever to com­pete in an Olympic Games and ranked 26th in­di­vid­u­ally. In 2013, a year be­fore my visit, Cather­ine had won the French Na­tional Cham­pi­onship at Grand Prix.

Tucked in the quiet vil­lage of Autouil­let, out­side of Paris, one would think the il­lus­tri­ous sta­ble would be easy to find. Hav­ing suc­cess­fully nav­i­gated my rental car out of Paris, through the piècede-ré­sis­tance of con­fus­ing round­abouts, L’Arc de Tri­om­phe, I feel sure I can find the fa­mous sta­ble in this tiny vil­lage. Fi­nally, I have to con­cede to help from Google Earth, which di­rects me to a plain door­way in a long wall. It doesn’t make sense to me that a sta­ble could be hid­den be­hind a vil­lage wall, but I find courage to ring the bell be­cause Les Écuries de la Panetière (the Sta­bles of Panetière), is neatly printed near the door in small let­ters. A young Bri­tish work­ing stu­dent greets me promptly and ush­ers me be­hind the walls, where the realm ex­pands into a

beau­ti­ful old-world horse farm.

Aus­tere stone build­ings frame the happy en­ergy of the horses, dogs and eques­tri­ans as they are briskly start­ing their day. Cather­ine has been ex­pect­ing me and she greets me in English. She in­vites me to watch her teach her first les­son in an old stone-walled, cov­ered rid­ing arena. Dusty tro­phies line an en­tire long side of the nar­row arena. Cather­ine di­rects me to a view­ing room at one end so that I can watch her first les­son. Her large dog joins me, but when my at­ten­tion averts from pet­ting to watch­ing the les­son, he ef­fort­lessly departs by leap­ing out the view­ing win­dow.

My high-school French is rather dusty, too, but I have come to learn for the day, op­ti­mistic that dres­sage is a uni­ver­sal lan­guage. Cather­ine’s first stu­dent ap­pears to be new. She be­gins by ask­ing her stu­dent to lower the horse’s neck and ask for flex­ion to the in­side at the poll. She is not sat­is­fied, so she asks the stu­dent to dis­mount so that they can work with the horse from the ground. She passes the out­side rein over the horse’s with­ers. Cather­ine stands by the horse’s shoul­der, hold­ing the reins as if rid­ing. She asks the horse to soften his jaw and flex to the in­side so that his nose is in front of his in­side shoul­der. She then steps into the horse’s space, ask­ing him to go for­ward while yield­ing his shoul­ders and hindquar­ters in an ex­pand­ing volte so that he be­comes soft in his body and in his mind. She does this in both di­rec­tions. When the stu­dent gets back on, Cather­ine asks her to go im­me­di­ately into can­ter, keep­ing him round and push­ing for­ward through his body as they move down the long sides of the arena.

Af­ter the les­son, Cather­ine en­cour­ages me to go out to the out­door arena where Michel’s first les­son of the day is un­der way. The master him­self is sit­ting in a gazebo be­hind A, hold­ing court over a lovely dres­sage arena framed in ele­gant shrub­bery. Be­yond the arena, horses are graz­ing in pas­tures thick with grass.

I fal­ter, think carpe diem, and take a seat next to Michel. He is el­e­gantly dressed, spry and crack­ling with an en­ergy that makes my skin tin­gle. He hov­ers at the edge of his seat and hardly seems able to con­tain his ex­cite­ment about the horses. He only speaks French, but to my great plea­sure, I find my­self able to un­der­stand him quite well.

His next les­son is with Cather­ine. She ap­pears rid­ing a small­ish plain bay mare. Michel ex­plains to me that the mare is a Hol­steiner who came to them with some is­sues. As Cather­ine starts the mare in a stretch­ing trot, I can’t help feel­ing dis­ap­pointed that the lit­tle mare is rather or­di­nary. Cather­ine stops to ex­plain to me that they ride the mare two days per week in a snaf­fle and two days per week in the dou­ble bri­dle. To­day is a dou­ble­bri­dle day.

Cather­ine warms the mare up with can­ter–trot tran­si­tions. Af­ter this phase, they take a short free walk break and then the work be­gins in earnest.

They played with the mare us­ing all of the ex­er­cises from the Grand Prix, in­clud­ing the im­mo­bile halts. Cather­ine also rode many tran­si­tions between the col­lected and ex­tended gaits. This work trans­formed the lit­tle mare be­fore my eyes into an ex­pres­sive, riv­et­ing in­ter­na­tional-cal­iber-look­ing dres­sage horse.

Cather­ine rode with soft, flex­i­ble el­bows at her sides. She kept her hands low and quiet, just in front of the sad­dle. She had the deep, elas­tic fol­low­ing seat that dres­sage rid­ers ex­alt. She rode with long spurs, but her legs hung qui­etly at the horse’s sides. She oc­ca­sion­ally car­ried a whip, which made her mare very hot, so she picked it up only spar­ingly, mostly leav­ing it lean­ing against a let­ter.

Of­ten, tiny tweaks were all that Michel needed to give to help Cather­ine, such as “more an­gle” or “more en­ergy.” Some­times the feed­back was blunt: “bien,” good, or “mau­vais,” bad. Cather­ine in­cor­po­rated lots of tran­si­tions within the gaits and Michel chided her to make her tran­si­tions even more marked. The pas­sion they shared for their work some­times col­lided with a spark, but the mu­tual re­spect for each other and their horses al­ways pre­vailed.

At the end, Cather­ine and the mare marched right up to the edge of our booth and the mare peeked in, her eyes bright and ears pricked. She seemed quite pleased with her­self and ea­ger to get her sugar from Michel.

Next Cather­ine rode an 18-hand, huge-mov­ing but rather lum­ber­ing Hanove­rian geld­ing. He was im­pres­sive-

look­ing, but I did not think he looked handy enough to do much more than First Level work. They ad­dressed his slow-legged­ness with lots of tran­si­tions. Cather­ine also rode him quite fear­lessly in gi­ant can­ter ex­ten­sions. It was clear she had high expectations of him and ex­pected him to give his best ef­fort. They asked him lots of ques­tions in the form of dres­sage ex­er­cises and the de­mands of this work im­proved his agility tremen­dously. About half­way through, I was im­pressed to no­tice that he had be­come quite ac­tive with the hind legs in his can­ter, enough so that they were able to school can­ter pirou­ettes. They were then able to fin­ish his ses­sion with pi­affe steps and fly­ing changes of lead at ev­ery third stride.

Upon re­turn­ing from a light hack, a work­ing stu­dent rode into the arena with the last horse. I guessed him to be a school­mas­ter be­cause he was mus­cled like a horse who had done a fair amount of brac­ing in his life­time. They in­tro­duced him as a 12-year-old son of Ferro. Michel proudly ex­plained to me that the horse was an­other of their re­train­ing projects. In just four months, he had so im­proved with their sys­tem that the chef d’Žquipe of the French team had re­marked on his po­ten­tial to be­come a team horse.

The work­ing stu­dent con­tin­ued his warm-up in the arena while Michel dic­tated the ex­er­cises. They did deep leg yields, mak­ing turns up the cen­ter­line some­times bent to the in­side and some­times counter bent. They also per­formed shoul­der-in and counter shoul­der-in down the long sides.

When Cather­ine re­turned to take over the ride, they re­moved the snaf­fle and put on a dou­ble. They worked the geld­ing through sim­i­lar pat­terns as with the mare, in­cor­po­rat­ing all the dres­sage

move­ments up to Grand Prix. The pi­affe was the weak point for the horse, which Michel cor­rected sim­ply by re­mind­ing Cather­ine to push his hindquar­ters slightly out. Through­out the work, the horse de­vel­oped more and more self-car­riage un­til he, too, be­came bril­liant.

Cather­ine and Michel’s sys­tem was straight­for­ward. The clas­sic move­ments of dres­sage, when prop­erly rid­den, were used as a tool to im­prove a horse’s way of go­ing. Through­ness was ad­dressed dur­ing the work and not as a pre­req­ui­site to do­ing the ex­er­cises. The ex­er­cises were var­ied and sel­dom was any move­ment prac­ticed more than a few times in each di­rec­tion. Im­pul­sion was re­freshed with medi­ums and ex­ten­sions. Col­lec­tion was em­pha­sized with trot-to-halt tran­si­tions in both shoul­der-in and haunches-in. Through­out all the work, the dres­sage move­ments, par­tic­u­larly the shoul­der- in, were used as a means to im­prove each horse’s sup­ple­ness, power and light­ness.

The work was fair, but al­ways with a high stan­dard as the goal. Cather­ine rode with clear expectations and the horses were treated with the ut­most con­fi­dence that they could rise to the chal­lenge. Each horse blos­somed dur­ing his work, fin­ish­ing with in­creased pres­ence and ex­it­ing the arena with a loose swing­ing walk.

Michel wanted his rid­ers to al­ways keep the hands low and re­laxed. “Descen­dez vos mains” (lower the hands), he of­ten re­minded them. The in­side hand par­tic­u­larly was to stay quiet, ask­ing only for flex­ion. The reins were kept fairly short while the neck was kept long by ask­ing the horse to stretch over the arch of his neck. The out­side aids guided the horse in con­junc­tion with the rider’s seat. If a horse fell apart or tried to blast onto his fore­hand, he was halted (and in one in­stance with the 18hand horse, backed up), thus re­mind­ing the horse that it is his job to hold him­self to­gether. The horses learned to find their own bal­ance with longer necks that were not closed at the throat­latch. The light­ness came not from the rider let­ting the reins out, but from the horse gath­er­ing him­self to do the dres­sage ex­er­cises. There was no on­go­ing pres­sure with the reins, the horses were never pushed against the bit and none of the rid­ers leaned against the reins.

Michel turned to me at one mo­ment that morn­ing and ex­claimed, “our num­ber-one pri­or­ity here is lŽg•retŽ!” To­gether, Michel and Cather­ine demon­strated that lŽg•retŽ (light­ness) comes from the horse find­ing his own bal­ance, agility and joy through the work of dres­sage.

Spe­cial thanks to Amelia Irion for her help with trans­la­tion and to Cather­ine Hen­ri­quet for her per­mis­sion to tell this story. For more in­for­ma­tion, visit hen­ri­quet.fr.

Michel Hen­ri­quet wanted the work to be re­ward­ing for the JORSG *G OHěGN PRCKSGF ěJGKR GėORěS VKěJ C PCě OR C ěRGCě

Les Écuries de la Panetière was es­tab­lished in the 16th cen­tury, as a farm to serve the vil­lage.

The 2005 Hol­steiner mare Carola G, now a Grand Prix horse, cel­e­brated an­other great train­ing ses­sion with Michel.

The 2009 Hanove­rian geld­ing Lexus Gold, whom Cather­ine Hen­ri­quet has trained since age 3, is now com­pet­ing in CDIs at Prix St. Ge­orges and In­ter­me­di­aire I.

Work in hand was an im­por­tant part of the train­ing for Michel. The work was al­ways done re­spect­fully, in light­ness and re­lax­ation.

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